Summary: YC wants to fund great startups. Great startups come from great teams. Great teams are smart, technical, get stuff done, resourceful and tight-knit.
Once I know what type of group I have, I try to figure out how good an instance of that type it is. The most important question for deciding that is
Please tell us in one or two sentences about something impressive that each founder has built or achieved.
To me this is the most important question on the application. It’s deliberately open-ended; there’s no one type of answer we’re looking for. It could be that you did really well in school, or that you wrote a highly-regarded piece of software, or that you paid your own way through college after leaving home at 16. It’s not the type of achievement that matters so much as the magnitude. Succeeding in a startup is, in the most literal sense, extraordinary, so we’re looking for people able to do extraordinary things.
From PG (http://ycombinator.com/howtoapply.html)
PG says hey look for 5 things in founders that they look for in 5 things in founders: Determination, Flexibility, Imagination, Naughtiness, Friendship. But what does this really mean? And how can you showcase these traits on your Y Combinator application?
One more quote:
For most startups at this stage, the best predictor of success is the founders. So, the most important parts of the application for me are the questions about the founders’ backgrounds and the most impressive things they’ve done. We’re looking for evidence that the founders are smart, effective, and determined.
From Sam Altman (How to Get Into Y Combinator)
From what I understand, most companies that apply Y Combinator historically are pretty early stage. They haven’t raised much capital, they may or may not have a lot of users/revenue and they are probably under a year old. There are exceptions to this rule now that there’s the Start Fund / SV Angel $150k in funding. These days, more later stage startups are applying to, and getting accepted into YC.
My point being though, that the primary factor that determines the success of an early stage startup is the team. Your product can change, your market can change, but your team is not really going to change (unless someone leaves, which is usually bad or at least disruptive). So YC really spends a lot of time evaluating the team when reading applications.
From going through YC, talking to partners/founders and reading YC material, here’s how I think that breaks down:
Great teams are smart. So show YC your team is smart – meaning you are knowledgeable in the relevant fields of your industry and of starting a startup, can learn new things quickly, can process information and make smart decisions. Sam Altman calls the application’s questions about the business as “largely an intelligence test“.
I do think pedigrees matter – I’ve noticed a noticeably higher number of top 15 schools, as well as people who have worked at well known technology companies, or done Math Olympiad/won Putnams/finished college at 16 etc so don’t be afraid to flaunt those things.
But at the same time, they have also demonstrated willingness to fund younger, “unproven” folks, folks without pedigrees etc – they just have some other way of demonstrating how smart they are (ie: past projects or other notable accomplishments)
In our case, two of us went to Stanford, the other Cal and all three of us had worked at VC-backed startups.
Relevant questions on app: Background, most impressive thing you’ve done, real world hacks, what do you understand about the market that others don’t
You are presumably starting a company that leverages (and most likely produces) technology in some way. Teams that are knowledgeable about how technology works are “technical”.
The assumption is that there is at least one person on your team who is pretty technical (can code / build most of the core product). As time has gone on, more people without much technical backgrounds have been applying. I think it’s much harder to get in without a strong technical background but it’s not impossible. Do whatever you can to emphasize how you’re addressing this area – preferably by showing a barebones demo that you yourself built. Don’t make it seem like you are waiting for a “technical cofounder” to save the day.
It does seem like that if you’re building a “regular” web / mobile app (ie not something that requires crazy new tech), they will not really dive into your technical chops if you have a cofounder with a CS degree or real engineering experience. But if you are shaky in this area, that is not a good sign.
On a personal note, I truly understand how difficult it is to do a startup without programming experience. I have done a fair amount of “cofounder dating” and have struggled through learning bits of Ruby on Rails without much success.
I can only say that I was really really lucky to find myself with two friends and roommates who were excellent programmers and had the startup itch. It can happen, but it’s not easy. Then again, no one said starting a startup was a walk in the park.
Relevant questions on app: Background, most impressive thing, hack, projects worked on together
3) Gets stuff done
Great startup teams have high output. They create things from nothing, and overcome hurdles to achieve their objectives. You need to show the YC partners that you guys will get stuff done, and ideally have experience getting stuff done together in the past.
PG has said that a really bad sign for a startup would be they meet him at office hours, discuss a bunch of issues / questions etc, and 10 days later meet again and PG had the feeling they were discussing the same things as if basically nothing really had happened in between that time. It means the founders were not getting stuff done. Very bad.
Personal story: my cofounder Kalvin and I had started and built a nonprofit together in college way before deciding to team up for Ridejoy which was the basis for his “most impressive thing”. We also discussed our rather ridiculous startup roommate finding project that all three of us worked on.
Relevant questions on app: Most impressive thing, hack, projects worked on together,
Kind of like being smart and get things done, but also something else. Clever comes to mind. As does “naughty”. Willing to break the rules, find loopholes / tricks. You can’t always power through stuff, so YC founders want to see that you can find the back door and you’re wiling to maybe get in a little trouble to do something.
I’ve written a lot more about being relentlessly resourceful elsewhere on the blog.
Relevant quotes from PG:
“In any interesting domain, the difficulties will be novel. Which means you can’t simply plow through them, because you don’t know initially how hard they are; you don’t know whether you’re about to plow through a block of foam or granite. So you have to be resourceful. You have to keep trying new things.” – Relentlessly Resourceful
“Though the most successful founders are usually good people, they tend to have a piratical gleam in their eye. They’re not Goody Two-Shoes type good. Morally, they care about getting the big questions right, but not about observing proprieties. That’s why I’d use the word naughty rather than evil. They delight in breaking rules, but not rules that matter.” — What We Look for in Founders
People say that having cofounders is like being married with kids minus the sex. Your cofounders and you have this intimate connection, your baby, the startup, and you are pretty much willing to share your entire lives and your efforts are devoted to raising that kid/company.
YC really wants to see founding teams who have known each other for a long time, worked together and have a good fit. One thing that hurts startups is when cofounders bicker constantly. This is highly unproductive. Even worse is when they split entirely. And this happens not infrequently, both to YC and non YC companies. This can tank the company completely.
PG lists “Fights Between Founders” as number 17 in Mistakes that Kill Startups and says that 20% of the startups YC funds has a founder leave. 1 in 5!
Do your best to show why you and your cofounders are going to make it. Why are you a match made in heaven? Will you stick it through thick and thin even when the going gets rough and you’re pissed at your cofounder and you don’t have enough sleep etc.
“Startups do to the relationship between the founders what a dog does to a sock: if it can be pulled apart, it will be.” – PG
Relevant questions: How long have you know each other, projects worked on
Personal story – I lived with my cofounders for a year before we decided to do YC. We already knew each others personality quirks. We had argued about stuff, dealt with money things, and coordinated parties / hunted for new roommates etc together. And we said all those things are in our app.
We knew what we were getting into, and we liked each other a lot. Now not every team has the good fortune of so much history and connection / synergy, but the more you can convey how tight your team is and how your tendencies complement one another, the better.