The No BS Approach to Getting into Y Combinator
Lessons and the application that got Strikingly in
We applied to YC twice, and got in the second time. If you’re interested in the full story of our startup journey, you can check out this Forbes article.
Since Strikingly graduated from Y Combinator in 2013, I’ve frequently been asked by our users and friends on how to get into Y Combinator. And I’ve been fortunate enough to have helped a few amazing teams with their successful applications.
So as YC opens up applications for the Summer 2016 funding cycle, I’ve summarized my recommendations and included excerpts from our application to help other great teams get in as well.
Before you apply
Answer this first: If YC rejects you, will you continue to work on your startup full time?
We didn’t have a clear answer to this question the first time we applied, and I believe that’s why we were rejected. Back then, since all three of us had high paying jobs at investment banks, the perceived opportunity cost of running a startup was very high. We were afraid to quit our jobs and work on Strikingly full time, and we were counting on getting into YC first before going all in. We lacked the necessary determination to make this startup work, and we were rejected because of it.
Paul Graham, the founder of YC, wrote an article on what YC looks for in founders. The first quality is determination. At YC, he talked about story of Airbnb a lot: the founders of Airbnb completely ran out of money, so they created and sold cereal boxes to continue working on Airbnb. They wouldn’t let anything stop them from making it happen. Only founders with this level of determination can make a startup work, and those are the people YC or any investors want to fund.
So ask yourself that question. If your answer is a no, don’t apply. If your answer is a firm yes, then working on the application should be straightforward — you just need to convince YC the same way you convinced yourself.
The YC Application
YC receives thousands of applications every year, and they review all of them in 10 days. This means each partner reviews 100+ applications a day. To win their attention and stand out, here’s what you need to do:
1. Write with clarity
Basically, cut the bullshit. YC values direct communication. Paul Graham has compared two ways applicants describe their products. Here’s the one he doesn’t like:
We are going to transform the relationship between individuals and information.
He says “this sounds impressive, but conveys nothing”. Instead, he suggests this:
A database with a wiki-like interface, combined with a graphical UI for controlling who can see and edit what.
It doesn’t sound sexy, but it achieves something more important — clarity. Only after you have a clear introduction, can you expand on your unique value and market potential. Here’s an excerpt from our application:
Striking.ly is a DIY, code-free website builder that allows anyone to set up a modern, mobile optimized web presence in under 30 minutes. Speed and mobile are Striking.ly’s two central focuses. We built an intuitive, one-page WYSIWYG editor and several templates.
We are solving a huge problem. Mobile browsing is increasing dramatically and will overtake desktop browsing worldwide in 2015. Only 21% of business websites are mobile optimized, and over 70% of SMEs still don’t have any web presence at all. Both new and existing businesses will increasingly need mobile-friendly websites, and solutions now either take too long to learn/design, or are not customizable.
We launched on August 15th, 2012 and have 5500+ users, our paid users are well above 1%.
2. Show what you have done, more than what you want to do
Most YC applicants will make big promises on market or product potential. But anyone can make promises. YC needs to see what you’ve already done to know that you can do it again. Again, cut through the BS and focus on two things:
- The traction your product has already gotten
- The achievements of the founding team
Here’s what we wrote about our achievements in our application:
We launched our most recent private beta on August 15th and opened it to the public on September 5th. We have 5500+ users and our paid users are well about 1% (40% selecting annual subscription) We had about 600 users by the end of August, 2200 (277% increase) users by the end of September and 4500 (104% increase) by end of October. Our revenue was $26 in August, $1998 in September, and $4550 in October (127% increase).
Note that revenue isn’t the only thing that shows progress. It can be any of the following:
- Number of signups for a consumer software
- Number of trial runs for an enterprise solution
- Successful crowdfunding or a working prototype for a hardware startup
If you don’t have any concrete progress for your startup, get it before applying. And hacking together some initial progress is not that hard.
One hack I recommend is to create a landing page to collect signups even before the product release. You can attract signups by promising beta access or exclusive deals. Then share the page around social media. If what you’re working on is actually valuable, you shouldn’t have any problem getting some signups. That’s exactly what we did with Strikingly. We got 800 signups in 1.5 weeks before writing our first line of code on the actual website builder.
Early signups show that you’re solving a real problem, and you can also collect user feedback and build the exact product users need. It’s an easy hack to get momentum going and show traction. You should do this regardless of whether you apply to YC or not!
You also need to show your founding team’s track record. Prove your capability and potential. YC fundamentally invests in the team’s founders. If you’ve already achieved something, it’s easier for investors to believe that you can do it again. This is why successful entrepreneurs have a much easier time raising money.
Here’s what we wrote:
Dafeng Guo: created one of the most viral Facebook apps that garnered more than 20 millions of views in 2010.
Teng Bao: Hacked together a portfolio of Flash games (Domino Knight 2, Spinblaster, Block Knocker) totaling over 10 million plays.
Haisha Chen: co-founded Moneythink (Moneythink.org), a non-profit financial literacy education organization that was funded by Blackstone Charitable Foundation. It also won both the White House Campus Champion of Change award and Davis Project for Peace Grant.
Together: We made it to YC interview in April, 2012. Although we weren’t accepted, we always thought of it as an achievement.
YC has a strong hacker culture. If you’ve built something before, no matter how small (e.g. an app, plugin, lifestyle business, student organization, etc.) then you’re a natural fit, so add it to your application
3. Show strong friendship and teamwork between founders
The number one reason startups fail is founder disputes. Startups rarely work if you just met your cofounder at a networking event. You guys simply haven’t been through enough to know if you can stick together during difficult times. If you’re great friends with your cofounders, and you’ve worked with them through the good and bad, you’ll be much harder to pull apart.
If you don’t have a cofounder, you should find one. Historically, a founding team has a much higher success rate than a sole founder. YC recommends all sole founders to find a co-founder right after they get in. This person could be a colleague you’ve always admired, or a friend you’ve always wanted to work with.
In our application, we wanted to show that we have a proven record of working together effectively. Here’s our answer for how the Strikingly team came together.
I met Haisha when we were interning at Goldman Sachs in 2010. We became friends after I helped him jailbreak his iPhone. After the internship, we both decided to say no to banking, since we weren’t creating anything. We used the money we had made to create JoinStart, our first startup.
Teng and Haisha lived in the same dorm in their first year of college. Teng was the developer/designer for Haisha’s non-profit, Moneythink, and he was Haisha’s campaign manager when Haisha was elected Student Government Vice President.
Haisha introduced Teng to me when we were working on JoinStart together, and we met in person in May 2011 after Skyping for more than 8 months.
When answering the question of “tell us an interesting project you created together,” we showed that we got through hard times together:
JoinStart was selected as one of the finalists for the Social New Venture Challenge hosted by the Chicago Booth. We even hired two friends, who we eventually had to let go because their vision did not align with ours. We also stopped the project after realizing that the demand was neither urgent nor sizeable enough to support it. The three of us decided to stay as a team, and we soon began working on Striking.ly.
We really showed that we were more than just colleagues, we were great friends. Here’s how we answered the question “Please tell us something surprising or amusing that one of you has discovered”:
I’ve found that it’s not too awkward sleeping in the same bed with Haisha for 3 months. We stayed in a small apartment during summer 2011 to work on first JoinStart, then Strikingly full time. We didn’t have enough mattresses, so we had to share some bedding.
Teng was pretty jealous, and it is his turn sharing the bed with Haisha now.
Bromance is a beautiful thing.
Again, YC invests in people and teams. You need to demonstrate you have a solid team with people you trust, and find every chance to brag about this in your application.
The YC Interview
The YC interview is only 10 minutes, and they have a timer to put a hard stop. You need to get to the key points fast, and keep every answer to under 15 seconds. Here are a few tips:
1. Demo your work
Find a chance to demo your product during the interview. The partners are hackers and they’ve all built startups themselves (that’s why YC is great). They love playing with new products. So show them what you’ve built.
2. Assign your different speaking roles
A few of my friends failed the interview because everyone was fighting to answer the same question, or saying different things. This shows YC that either there’s a power struggle between founders, or you haven’t agreed on the fundamentals yet. Either way, it means that the team is ineffective.
You should assign who’s responsible for answering what type of questions, and one person should do most of the talking. When a question is asked, the person responsible should answer it, and no one else. The spokesperson should take up all the unexpected questions. This shows that your team is effective and aligned on the message.
Self-explanatory. We used this app to practice. It’ll cover most of the questions you’ll get. If you know what you’ll say before walking into the interview, you’ll naturally be more confident. So do the groundwork.
4. Wear a team T-Shirt
I can’t say for sure that this helps, but I believe it did.
To quote Captain America, “If you’re gonna fight a war, you got to wear a uniform.”
Again, first ask yourself: If YC rejects you, will you continue to work on your startup full time? If the answer is no, don’t apply. If the answer is yes, a rejection won’t stop you anyway. That’s the best mentality for starting this application process.
A successful YC application should show that:
- You’re totally committed to your startup
- You’ve built something people want
- You have a strong team with a proven track record
Please ask me any questions you have, or let me know if these tips help. Good luck and let me know if you get in!
If you found this useful (and in the spirit of entrepreneurship), please click “Recommend” below to share with your friends. I really appreciate it! :)
Originally published at www.strikingly.com on March 17, 2016.