How To Apply and Get Into Y Combinator

This guide is about how to apply and get into Y Combinator. Fondo was a part of YC's W18 batch and it has been an an incredibly valuable experience. I highly recommend all founders to apply to YC and if you are accepted, I highly recommend you consider doing the program. Fondo would not be where we are today without YC. The value of YC goes beyond the advice and 3 month program, it's a life long network and community of amazing founders who help each other. Below we've aggregated the best resources from directly from YC that will help founders navigate the application and interview process. Best of luck!

David J. Phillips
CEO & Founder
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Dalton Caldwell

Dalton Caldwell is the Managing Director of Admissions and Group Partner at Y Combinator. He gives insight into how YC admissions works and what makes for a successful YC experience. See below for a partial transcript and video from Dalton's talk. The full transcript can be found here.

Why apply to YC?

So why is it even worth applying to YC? People ask this question a fair amount of time, and I would argue that the very act of completing the application forces you to think about stuff that you should definitely think about, for instance, you know, what are we building? What is different about what we're doing than other options on the market? Who are your competitors? That's a good one to ask. Here's one that, sometimes, people don't talk about before filling out the application, "What is your equity split?" You'd be surprised, people often have never had that conversation.

And so the very act of going through and doing an application and working with your co-founder to answer all of these things, I would argue, is an extremely good idea. And regardless of whether you do YC again, you should ask yourself all of these questions. And if you find a bunch of murkiness where you can't answer them, that's usually a sign that you should be discussing this more. And so right off the bat, I recommend going and answering the questions, I think it's a good idea.

Another thing is, if you are watching this very presentation, there is a good chance that YC is a great fit for you, right? There's lots of people that apply and they don't really know what YC is, and they googled like, "How to get free money on the internet," or something. Trust me, I read these applications. And it's clear that they don't exactly understand what YC is and what it's all about, they just want money, right? That is not you. You are here, you have been participating in this, there's lots of contexts that you have about YC, and so that out of the gate means you're going to be much better prepared to fill out this application and that you're a great fit for the sort of company that we would want to fund, okay?

Another thing is, I think a lot about what you should be doing as a founder in terms of cost-benefit analysis on time. There's a lot of things that seem like a good use of time that are not a good use of time, and there's a lot of things that may not seem like a good use of time that are an excellent use of time. And so, I'd argue, filling out an application should really only take you, I don't know, two or three hours, and the potential upside is quite huge versus other ways you can spend two or three hours where the upside is not much at all.

Creating luck

So let's talk a little bit about how you create luck, and this is, sort of, like a meta point outside of the application thing. But great founders create luck, and there's ways that you can create luck in your life that increase the chances that you will get lucky. And the way you get lucky is you set yourself up to be lucky as often as possible. And so, if you can set yourself up so that every single day of your life you have a shot at something really fortunate happening to you, the odds that something really fortunate will happen to you is, like, super-high.

And I would argue applying to YC is definitely one of those things, right? I answer questions and invariably people will probably ask me questions at the end of this that are some kind of complicated way of being like...of you talking yourself out of why you should do it for some reason. That is not a great way to create luck, and the fact is, you're going to set yourself up to be rejected all the time as a founder, right? You get customers, your customers unsubscribe from your service. Your customers are not happy. You're going to try to recruit people that may not work. You know, you're going to be told no all the time.

And so, if you set yourself up so that you never hear a no and that you never get negative feedback, it's just like, you're not going to set yourself up to actually be successful. So this is an example of like when I talk to people when I'm on the road, a lot of the questions or concerns that people have are all stemmed from this, which is they're afraid of what happens if they don't get in, and so they don't even bother to take the chance. And, again, regardless of YC in this particular topic, I really think this is a good trait for you to develop as a founder. We work on this in the program with people of really encouraging people to not be so afraid of getting told no and systematically trying to set yourself up for good things to happen to you as much as possible, right? And so, this is just another of those situations.

How to apply

Okay, this is really straight forward. There's a website, you go to the website and you follow the instructions. It's okay to apply early or late depending on your circumstances as Jeff said. It's slightly harder to get in early or late, and that's just because that's not our primary time to be cycling through things. But if those are the circumstances you're in, you should definitely apply. This is a very common email question we get, is, "Hey, it's two weeks after the deadline, can I still apply?" Guess what the answer to that question is. It's a very quick, "Yes." But people want to ask, they want permission.

And, again, this is a recurring thing about founders. You need to learn, you don't have to ask permission for everything. You don't need our approval to do anything. You know, there's a website, if there's a button where you can apply, you should totally apply, right? You don't need to email us, have us say, "Yes," and then do it. That is an unnecessary step, right? So just keep that in mind. And you can just email us. And, again, most of these questions are just people asking, "Should I apply?" And our answer is almost invariably, "Yes." But if you want to ask us, you can. There's the email address.

Properties of a good application

So let's talk about what makes a good application. The first one, I promise this is not redundant. This matters. And it's because I read so many applications, I have a very good idea of what they actually look like. And I realized that this talk will go on the internet, and many of the things that I say will be reflected back. Like, I'm creating a feedback loop for the things that I read, and so things that I'm putting in here are actually meant... Like, I want these ideas to get dispersed and people knowing what makes a good application, because I think that will make my job easier, right? So this is very intentional.

The first thing is that you would be shocked how many people don't actually fill out the dang thing properly, like, sloppy, sloppy, sloppy, right? There's like whole areas where they don't answer the question whatsoever, they don't put in URLs, they don't fill out their bio. I don't know. Again, it's not a very long application, you'll see yourself, but it is shocking to me what a high percentage of the time people just don't fill the dang thing out or put in lots of errors and it's just not great. Think about it, about, you know, applying for a job or any other kind of professional thing, lack of professionalism here, not equated with success. So just fill it out, it's that simple. And that's why I'm leading with this, is you'd be shocked how few people follow this direction. Maybe they think it's like a lottery ticket where, if they put it in an application, even it's a bad one, they might get in. No. Humans read these things, I read these things, and I appreciate it if you fill out the application.

The Founder Video

The second thing is the founder video. You would be shocked how many people don't follow the dang directions. There's directions on how to do the founder video, i.e., it should be a minute long, all the founders should be in the video, and people don't do that. We get the 20-minute, like, spirit-journey video where I don't even know what they're talk... You know, it's just like, it goes... Yeah. Or like sometimes, I've seen like an hour, 20... I've seen some weird stuff. But, like, the 20-minute spirit-journey video, not super helpful, and it's really hard to sit there and watch them or 20 minutes. One minute is the perfect amount of time. We give you examples.

Those examples are great videos, be like that video. It's also really good to have the entire founding team in the video. People are always like, "Hey, I'm here, and I'm in the airport, and my co-founder is in here, so here is my video." And, like, I think that's fine if that's what you have to do, but, maybe, just waiting a couple of days till you can be with your co-founder to do the video would be a good idea. Because my theory is, a lot of times when people don't follow the directions, and maybe because their co-founder doesn't know they're applying to YC, like, there's all these things under the hood where the lack of the co-founder in the video speaks volumes.

And so, maybe you have a great reason why your co-founder isn't in the video, but I would suggest it, right? And it's in the directions so I'm not telling you anything that's not in the directions. I'm just letting you know, yes, we watch these things, and, yes, it's valuable. And if you just follow the directions, then we're going to be super happy. And when it's, like, either there's no video or the video is weird... Another thing that people do a lot is they put in, like, an unrelated video of a product demo that they made with one of those free tools where there's no humans in it, and it's like...I can't even describe it. But, anyway, there's a whole genre of things that people put in there that are not remotely following directions. So please follow the directions. I swear it matters.

The importance of clarity

Clarity of thought. This is, a good application is easy to understand what they're talking about, and it doesn't mean you write tons, and tons, and tons of words. Tons of words definitely has a diminishing return where we don't know what you're talking about and I just can't understand what the application is saying.

Also, clarity on who is building the product. It's remarkably obfuscated to even figure out what's going on and who is even building the thing. Like, you'll see who the founders are and you'll, kind of, see what they're working on, but it's really hard to tell who's building it. And so, just having it be very crisp of who's building it. Again, this would put you way better than average if you just do these things. It's so simple, right? So good applications do these.

Let's talk about clarity because this is definitely something that is worth talking about. Great applications that I read...when I read an application and I know when I read it they're going to get in, they're super easy for me to read. It does not require a lot of work, it doesn't feel boring or painful, it just reads, like, with no effort whatsoever. And it's because I understand there's no jargon, and everything just adds up, and it's a great narrative. And it's, like, "Wow, what a great application." And you move on, it's very quick.

Weak applications obfuscate. They obfuscate everything. "What is your idea?" obfuscated. "Who is on the team, who's writing the code?" obfuscated. "How does it work?" I have no idea. "What is the state of the company? Are you launched? Do you have users? You have revenue but you're not launched, what is that like?" Like, basically, it's like a puzzle. When I'm reading one of these applications, it's like a brain teaser where I'm trying to figure out what's going on. And, I promise this doesn't help. I think a lot of the times that people obfuscate is they either think that that's what we want to read, or we like buzzwords, or we like this stuff, or they're trying to hide something where the revenue is actually their personal salary but it's not revenue for the company, but they're putting it in there because they think they should have revenue, like, stuff like that.

And so, we'll ask questions sometimes to figure this out. But there's such a clear delineation for me as an application reader about someone that is clearly communicating in a very crisp way versus where it's this brain teaser and I'm trying to pull out, or it's just like tons of work for me to pull out the key facts from the application, okay? And I think this is broadly applicable if you're trying to convince someone to buy your product, or you're trying to convince someone to work with you, or you're trying to convince an investor to invest in your startup, and they don't even understand what you're talking about, you have already lost, right? Simply going for coherent understanding should always be the first thing you do before you're trying to sell someone, right?

So if I don't understand what the heck is going on in your application, it doesn't even get to the point where it's like, "Hey, should we fund this company or not?" We just don't know what's going on. And you will notice that other people will check out. Like, if you're trying to pitch your thing to someone and they can't follow you, there's no way you're getting them to, "Yes." And so I just think this is such a broadly applicable skill and something that we work on a lot in the batch, is simply being clear and making sure the other party knows what you're doing first, and then selling them comes second once they actually understand what you're doing.

So I put in a few examples here. So here are some examples of really great descriptions from real YC applications, from real YC companies that got in. And so here's a company called Remix, and this is the entirety of their answer to this question. There's not more, this is it. I don't know. I'm not going to read it out loud, but, like, it's, what, three sentences? And I read that and I know exactly what they do, and I know who runs it. And that's it, great, seems valuable, right? This requires so little mental effort to pull out what Remix is, and what they're doing, and who it's for that I'm like, "Great," like, takes two seconds to read, okay?

Here's another one for a company called TetraScience, also excellent. "We're a software platform that connects scientific tools to the cloud and allows scientists to access their lab device from anywhere, blah, blah, blah. And we make a small hardware module which connects those labs to the web." That's it. That's great. That's what we want to read. See? Super crisp, understandable, no jargon, answers all the key questions. Notice, they're not trying to sell us on any of this, they're just explaining what it is, and that's why this is so great, is it's super coherent, super clear.

Here's another example from GitLab when they applied to YC. And they explained exactly what it is, the history of the company, and they also add in really impressive facts right at the top, "Over 100,000 organizations use it including thousands of programmers at Apple." All right, that's good. Glad they put that in there, right? And it's right at the top, super crisp, right? So this is, when we read these applications, it's very clear what they do and we're like, "Wow, tell me more. Like, I understand what you're doing."

Here's an example of a bad one, and I didn't pull this from a real application. I wrote this myself, and I wrote this based on many of the applications I read, you know what I'm saying? Like, I didn't have to think too hard to write what a bad description is. And it keeps going, I couldn't fit it on the slide. It keeps going for pages. And this isn't even an exaggeration, this is what a lot of applications look like. And I understand, like, I have empathy for the people that apply with stuff like this because I think that they think that this is what we want, or they think that if they use enough jargon or buzzwords, that we will get confused and fund them or something.

You know, it's like stunning us, like, "Oh, I don't know, blockchain, okay, yes." Instead, this is arduous work that makes me, like, want to go take a break. I'm like, "Okay, well, I'm done." Like, I read one of these and I need to go, like, get a breath of fresh air. This is a really hard to read, it's really hard to understand what's going on. I read this and I've learned nothing. I still don't know what this company does even after reading the application. And so, please don't apply with stuff like this. It's not helping. Makes sense? Yeah. And do you see the crisp difference between this and the good examples? Yeah. Okay.

Read the full transcript here.

Stephanie Simon

Stephanie Simon is the head of admissions at Y Combinator. Prior to YC, she was a software engineer at Earnest and co-founded Murmur, a venture-backed local search startup. You can learn more about the admissions team here. Below you will find a collection of videos where Stephanie answers the most frequently asked questions and describes what Y Combinator is looking for in a startup's application for funding.

Y Combinator's head of admissions reviews over 20,000 startups for its accelerator a year. Here's what she looks for in a successful application.

Having a technical founder on the team is key

One way for startups to stand out is to have a cofounder and one team member who come from a technical background, Simon said.

"Basically, we're looking for founding teams where they can build the product, or at least the beginning versions of the product on the team itself," she said.

By having a technical founder, a startup will be able to solve problems more quickly and creatively because of their knowledge of the tech, Simon said. A technical founder will also make hiring engineers easier — which can be one of the hardest things that startups have to do, she said — since they usually have networks that they can hire from.

The startup should be solving a real problem, especially now

The other key quality most successful YC pitches have is a sense that the problem the startup is trying to solve feels real.

"When it's a problem that the founders themselves have felt or someone they know closely has felt, it just feels more grounded in reality and feels way more likely to succeed," Simon said.

Simon can tell from a pitch whether honesty and authenticity are tied to the problem, she said.

This part of a pitch is more important than ever in less frothy market conditions, according to Simon.

"It may be that a couple years ago, you saw your friends raising tons of money with ideas that seemed maybe not as tethered to a concrete problem. I think that's going to change," Simon said.

One of the best ways to confirm that you're solving a real problem is "talking to your users," Simon said, and taking in their feedback before you apply.

Plus, if your service comes at a cost to users, it's good to test that before applying to Y Combinator to confirm you're fulfilling a significant need.

"It's a good test for whether you're building something people want and tends to create more honest conversations with users," Simon said. "They'll tell you that the product is great until you ask them to pay."

Domain expertise is also important in some cases, she said. For startups in certain sectors, like insurance and biotechnology, being an expert will matter a lot more to the admissions team when it's reviewing the application.

Only one quality would completely disqualify a company

The biggest turnoff for YC admissions managers is "inauthenticity," Simon said, especially in a downturn. In every application batch, they see some startup ideas that seem inauthentic.

"It feels it's pretty obvious when the idea feels made up and they haven't experienced it personally or don't know anyone who has experienced the problem that they're trying to solve," she said.  

But Simon said there's only one criterion that would completely disqualify a startup: "I think the only absolute no for us is if when we imagine that company being successful, it was net negative for the world."

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Immad, Qasar, & Justin

Immad Akhund is the Founder & CEO of Mercury, Qasar Younis is the Founder & CEO of Applied Intuition, and Justin Kan was previously co-founder of Twitch and they all were previously Group Partners at Y Combinator. Below is advice from them on how to apply to Y Combinator and how to ace your interview.

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Garry Tan

Garry Tan is currently the President of Y Combinator and also a former Y Combinator partner, Forbes Midas List top venture capitalist, and cofounder at Initialized Capital. Initialized Capital were earliest investors in billion dollar startups like Coinbase and Instacart. Here are some of his tips on getting into Y Combinator.

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Michael Seibel

Michael Seibel is the Managing Director of Early Stage and Group Partner at Y Combinator. He joined YC in 2013 as a Part-time Partner and in 2014 as a full-time Group Partner. He moved to the bay area in 2006, and was a co-founder and CEO of two Y Combinator startups (2007 - 2011) and Socialcam (2011 - 2012). In 2012 Socialcam sold to Autodesk Inc. for $60m and in 2014, under the leadership of Emmett Shear (CEO) and Kevin Lin (COO) Twitch sold to Amazon for $970m.Below is his advice on applying and doing YC.

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Jessica Livingston

Jessica Livingston is the co-founder of Y Combinator. Below is her advice on applying and interviewing at YC.

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Paul Graham

Paul Graham is the co-founder of Y Combinator. Below is his advice on how to apply and succeed at YC.

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Dalton provides some great take aways for YC applicants:

"Applying to YC is actually really straightforward and well-documented, and intentionally so. So there are not a lot of secrets, and we're not looking for people to do too much tricky stuff. The more you can just, like, stay, make it super clear, tell a super-clear story like I talked about earlier, then you're going to do great. And I would also argue, the skills that you need to successfully apply are broadly applicable to what it takes to be a great founder, right? If you're going to talk to reporters, if you're going to be talking to other investors, if you're going to be talking to employees, you're going to talk to customers, having all the skills that we mentioned earlier that you would want to see in an interview or an application, I think, are extremely useful, okay?

And then, final point, if you have questions and the question is of the form, "Should I apply dot, dot, dot?" Most likely the answer is, "Yes." And just always think about it and reflect on it if you're being the barrier to setting yourself up to being lucky or having unfortunate things happen to you and optimize towards saying yes to things like this. I think it'll help you, in general, as a founder. Great. Thanks so much."

More advice on applying to Y Combinator

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This guide for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal or tax advice or create an attorney-client relationship. Companies should consult their own attorneys or tax accountants for advice on these issues. Because of the generality of the issues discussed in this piece, the information provided may not apply in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal or tax advice based on particular situations.