Y Combinator: Looking Beyond the Application

Y combi

In the minds of many entrepreneurs, a startup graduating from Y Combinator walks away with a crown. Indeed, this increasingly influential incubator is more than a “financial aid office,” using a college example. It helps admitted startups pave the trails not only to doors of mentors and VCs, but also to the possibilities of becoming precious unicorns in the market.

People fight for admission to the coveted program twice a year. Y Combinator is seen as more attractive because of the close relationships the partners had intentionally nurtured in the past few years. A CEO of an YC-baked startup once compared it to the mafia. If you are poorly treated, the partners will treat them poorly in return. Conversely, YC alumni are always enthusiastic and eager to give advice to prospective and accepted candidates alike.

Thus scrappy amateur entrepreneurs boldly throw in all they have. And established startups seek an authoritative badge and yearn for the resources, such as the network in Mountain View. The possibility of receiving an offer is intimidatingly low. Yet entrepreneurs invest hours of their time filling in the application meticulously. Why?

That is because the application process in itself is one of the best methods to examine the battlefield, read the competitors, reflect on their own strategies and rally around their common ambitions. From my own experience, providing accounts of the most impressive achievement of each founder or talking about your successful hack to your own system is not just about showcasing your capabilities to the judges. It is about reasserting your confidence as well.

During the winter 2014 application season, some of the YC alumni posted their perspectives and tips for the application process. YC graduate Zachary Townsend, the cofounder of Standard Treasury, offered the following advice:

“Be yourself.

Be concise.

Be demonstrably committed.

Don’t lie. Don’t bullshit. Don’t exaggerate. Avoid adjectives and pronouncements.

Prove that you and your co-founder likely won’t get divorced. This is how most companies die early.”

My personal favorite advice piece was offered by Zain Shah, the cofounder of mobile analytics company Watchsend, who graduated from YC in the summer of 2013. In addition to his philosophical musings, he went through the questions one by one, analyzing the issue addressed in each.
For example:

Question: What’s new about what you’re making? What substitutes do people resort to because it doesn’t exist yet (or they don’t know about it)?

His opinion: Present your problem as a hair on fire problem, one that people would use immediately if they knew existed because the switching costs are negligible compared to their existing suffering.

Answer: On demand, quick and convenient, appliance repair simply doesn’t exist. The industry is old and resistant to change, but the customer base is not. Most customers resort to calling their friends who are less than experts despite the risk they pose to their equipment just because of the hassle of scheduling a repair. They gladly pay their friends just as much if not more than they pay us just for that convenience.

A common mistake that applicants make is that they use the response from YC as a definitive guide to decide whether to keep working on their ideas. The CEO of Hipmob, who got into YC in winter 2012, gave his perspective in this issue.

“It’s important to actually believe in what you’re doing. This is true for doing a startup in general, and it’s also true for YC. If you don’t believe in what you’re doing, it will be hard to convince co-founders, prospective employees, partners and investors to work with you. Because if you don’t believe in what you’re doing, why should they? If you don’t believe in what you’re doing, you’ll probably quit. If your cofounder doesn’t, she or he will probably quit. Even if you only kind of believe in what you’re doing, investors and customers will smell it. Why? Because there’s a dozen startups in your space pitching them every day who are hungrier and more aggressive and believe in what they are doing.”

Applying to YC or other incubators is just another ordinary, everyday task. It aligns with the company’s short-term and long-term goals. If you get the offer, you will continue. If you don’t get the offer, you will continue too. For my team, we had only begun working on our project less than three weeks before we filed the form. Thus the rejection letter was not a sign of failure or our blind optimism in the past few weeks. Our idea was validated by the ample research we did for the application.

Thus what I would like to share is: make sure your business would do well with/without YC, and that it shows on your application.

by Tianjiao Saihan-tal Yu, Ph.D student in East Asian Languages & Cultures department (from 2008 to 2013), co-founder of Aktively, an online marketplace for people to list and book hands-on experiences all over the world.