How to Increase Your Chances of Getting into YC

A person applying to YC asked me to help them prepare for the application and interview. I thought through my last 3 months at YC and thought about the best way I could help this person. I decided to role play. I put on my YC partner hat and acted as one of the partners in the interview.

Before I get into the role-play, however, let me share a few key insights about some themes/ways of thinking that I believe are shared across partners. In no order of importance, here they are:

  • BS – do not BS. (This is it. No expounding necessary. Just don’t try it. They probably dislike this more than anything)

  • Weakness – your company or idea has weaknesses. Do not try to hide your weaknesses or act like they do not exist. They will sniff them out and bring them to your attention. They do not expect you to be perfect or to be able to have an immediate answer for everything. Instead, they want to know that:
    • You have the ability to own your weaknes
    • You can generate a solution to address the weakness
    • You can ask for feedback on your solution
    • You can execute the agreed upon solution. 
  •  Flexibility – Running a startup is like a series of mini-experiments. You have a set of hypotheses. You test them. You learn. You change things. You keep doing this over and over again. You want to be able to illustrate this flexibility in the interview by sharing examples of things that you have figured out.

  • Grit – you have to be the type of person who is never going to give up. This does not mean you are not flexible. You have to be flexible AND never give up. You just absolutely cannot quit. They are going to measure you. They need to be convinced on an emotional level that you are not going to quit. It has to be in your bones. I don’t think you can fake this.

So…how did the role-play go?

It went pretty good. The person got stuck in the game of trying to convince me of the market or the product or whatever. To YC partners, none of those words really seem to matter. They see right past all of that stuff and they focus – deeply focus – on the critical problems in your startup. I challenged the person on a number of fronts and then discovered what I thought to be the critical weakness in his startup. I brought this up to him. He didn’t seem to like it. (Note: This is an absolutely normal response. Nobody wants to have their fantasy pierced and have a finger firmly pointed at the main weakness. It isn’t fun. However, it is absolutely essential to growth). At first, he kind of joked about it and minimized it. I brought his attention back to it. I wasn’t kind or gentle about this. Kind and gentle are not the first words that come to mind when describing YC partners. He started to think more about it. I then challenged him on how he would solve the problem. He didn’t have a good answer. I pushed further. It was clear that he hadn’t really thought through how to solve the problem.

It was at this point that I stepped out of the role-play and took off the YC hat. If he had been in the interview with them and that problem came up, they would have found it within minutes. They wouldn’t have been happy with his responses. I then tried to help him see how he could respond in a better way. The particular challenge he was facing is that he assumed that a certain set of people would refer to his business, but he was unsure if they actually would refer. My specific suggestions were to:

  1. Fully own the problem and recognize that he hadn’t yet done his research in this area and that he needed to do it.

  2. Get to know these people really well and ask them what he should specifically do to have them refer to him.  

  3. Do what they tell him to do to get referrals.

  4. See if it works. Did they actually refer? If not, circle back and figure out why they didn’t refer.

The above scenario was actually the norm for me at YC. I’d go into office hours on Tuesday. At first, I’d share whatever the positives were. They’d zero in on the critical problems. I’d hesitate or try to frame them in the best way. They’d smash the frame. I’d own the problem. We’d figure out a best guess at the solution. I’d implement the solution and collect data. I’d do this over and over and over again. The thing that changed over the course of the summer was that I was able to do more of this process on my own. I still struggle with this. We all do. The key is to know the struggle and surround yourself with people who will keep you honest.

YC was one of the hardest things that I’ve done in life. It was incredibly challenging. I’d go to bed completely exhausted. I often felt like a bag of bones lying on the mattress. My dreams were full of whatever problems I was focused on. I made more progress in those 3 months and learned more than I would have in years outside of YC. Do whatever you can to get in and then make sure you glean everything you can from the experience.

Finally, a plug for my YC company www.7cups.com. As indicated, YC is hard – very hard. If you need support when going through it feel free to hit us up. I’d be honored to support you on what is likely going to be one of the most challenging and meaningful experiences of your life. 

10 responses
Wow, thank you for posting this. My co-founders and I are currently applying to YC and could use all the advice you gave. To our team, this application means everything. We are 100% committed to building our product and joining YC - unless a disaster hits, there is really no stopping this little engine. I understand you may be extremely busy, but please let me know if you happen to have a few minutes to chat with us and provide personal feedback to our team! Thank you!
The description of your office hours visit hit a note with me. Although the idea and commitment are important to YC, you make it clear that they want non sugar coated critical thinking and problem solving. That seems to be the point of being part of YC. Glad I read this. If an interview happens, we'll be sure to remember the importance of recognizing the weakness... and then how to solve them.
Would love to talk about my YC application... hit me up on dimfisch at gmail And btw, on your homepage it says "Free and anonymous conservations with someone who really listens." I think it should be "conversations" instead... ;)
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