My co-founder and I entered a small room in an unassuming building in Mountain View, California. Inside the room, four people sat behind a long table covered with hundreds of pages of notes. We sat down in uncomfortable silence until Paul Graham broke the ice: “Why do you think people want video clips,” kicking off our interview for Y Combinator (YC).
A pitch session at Y Combinator.We were then bombarded with questions for the next 10 minutes, most of the time answering a new question before we finished the first. As Mike Tyson said, everyone has a plan until they are punched in the face. That’s what the YC interview is. Just as quickly as it started, we left. Later while driving to San Francisco, we received the call: “Congratulations, we would like to fund you.” We were in!
I’ve been building startups since graduating from Stanford 10 years ago. In that time, I’ve built products used by millions of users, met the heads of movie studios, raised money from some of the most well-known investors in Silicon Valley, battled with Mark Cuban on Shark Tank, and participated in the prestigious Y Combinator incubator. I have had successes, failures, and everything in between.
When I joined BrowserStack as VP of Product in 2015, I began splitting my time between Silicon Valley and India. For the last two years, I have done my best to help as many Indian founders and executives as I can, as a way to pay it forward the same way others have done for me.
Thankfully, the team at YourStory has offered me this platform to answer questions from readers all over India! To submit a question please send an email to email@example.com with your name, your question, and where you live in India. Every few weeks, I’ll pick a few and answer them.
To kick this off, I’ll start with the #1 question I am asked: How do you get into YC. Let’s get down to business:
How do you get into Y Combinator?
Submitted by: Most founders I meet
First, for those that have not heard of Y Combinator, here is a quick background: YC is a startup incubator in Silicon Valley that provides capital and guidance to help early teams accelerate growth. It has produced billion dollar companies like Dropbox, AirBnB, and Stripe. This is a bit of an old article, but probably my favorite describing it. The three percent acceptance rate is lower than even the most selective universities.
My high-level advice is simple: nobody likes making subjective decisions, so your job is to make it as easy as possible for the YC partners to accept you. Let me break this down into four major points:
- Define the problem you are solving
I’ve done enough mock interviews with potential applicants to know that a lot of founders struggle with being able to clearly articulate what they are doing. If it takes more than 30 seconds to describe what your company does, you won’t have much time left in the 10-minute interview to show why your company is special.
A concise explanation of the problem also demonstrates that you are the expert in the room. If you aren’t sure you are doing this well, a good test is to explain your problem to someone with no background in it and have them say it back to you.
- Explain why this problem is worth solving
This is a combination of market and vision. The famous YC slogan is “making something people want.” Your job here is to make sure it’s very clear that there are A LOT of people that need your problem to be solved. The first step here is to justify why this market is worth attacking. Either there is a gap in a large market that already exists and there is some technology or behavior change that opens space for a new solution, or this is a smaller market that is growing extremely quickly. If you don’t have either of these – you have a bigger problem than the YC interview.
- Demonstrate you are THE team to solve this problem
Almost every idea has been tried. I have seen at least 15 iterations of ReelSurfer, the company I founded in college, over the past five years. There are two ways to show that you are the best team to solve the problem. Either you have a problem you have faced personally or you have spent an extensive amount of time understanding user needs (though this is much more difficult to prove). Great products require amazing empathy with the end user. Most successful startups that I know started with a problem that the founders felt so acutely that they HAD to build a solution.
- Prove your assumptions with traction
The goal here is to remove as much subjectivity from the evaluation of your company as possible. You don’t want to be in a situation where you think your product will work, and the YC partners think it may work but are not sure. Don’t let it get that far. Get some traction before you apply. It’s almost impossible to argue that something is not going to work when it already does. For example, when we interviewed for YC, we had thousands of users, a well known University customer base, and we were already profitable.
That’s it. Follow these four steps and you will have greatly improved your chances to get in. And, even if you don’t get in or don’t want to apply to YC at all – that is okay.
I hope these tips will help you build your business anyways. If you need more help, feel free to reach out to me on twitter! (@njcar) Good luck!
Have a question you did not know who to ask? Here’s your chance. Write to Neil Joglekar at firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, your question, and where you live in India. Every few weeks, he will pick a few and answer them.