17 Mar 2011

Applying to YCombinator: Tips for Standing Out


This year, along with a number of other YC alumni, I've had the opportunity to "pre-screen" quite a few YCombinator applications. I took part in the summer 2008 class of YCombinator, founding TicketStumbler—comparison shopping for secondary market tickets—with an old friend. If you'd like to know more, there's a page that talks about me (but I don't recommend it).

Just to be clear: I am not personally affecting the chances an application will be accepted. We're told to give only a couple minutes to each application and I'm sure our impact on them is commiserate with that level of effort. I did no research to find out how other alumni approach the voting process, and I have no idea what the YC team's procedure is.

Looking over the applications, I quickly evolved a sort of fitness function—a formula for predicting how likely an application is to succeed. The function is pretty unforgiving; if the first attribute I look at is insufficient, I just move onto the next application.

That said, here we go...

1. Number of Founders

I look at this to gauge how much I need to be impressed by the rest of the application. Being a solo founder is really hard. With a team comes a handicap score; there are many ways a team can make up for individual deficiencies and boost morale.

2. Most Impressive Thing Built / Achieved

This is probably the hardest question on the application (or, at least, it was for me) which is why it's where I start. Being impressive isn't that hard, either‚ It’s more about finding out what you find impressive than what you actually did.

For instance, if your "most impressive" accomplishment in life is your senior undergraduate project, that's probably bad. All you've proven to me is that you can follow instructions—which is nice—but it's hardly impressive in this context. It may indicate that you'd make an awesome mechanical engineer, but it says nothing about your promise as an entrepreneur.

Most successful entrepreneurs don't wake up at 23 and think, "I want to build companies!" The level of passion required for most successful entrepreneurs has a history. So you may be more impressed by your senior project than, say, some piece of software you wrote at 15 and tried to license, but I'm not; the latter shows you've created something just because you wanted to—and liked it enough to keep doing it.

Another pet peeve of mine: "I created X in Y hours," where X is probably a Facebook app or something in Rails and Y is some small integer. Companies don't live or die based on a weekend, so tell me you worked hard on something with barely any positive reinforcement for an appreciable length of time, and I'll respect you so much more.

3. How Long Have the Founders Known Each Other?

So many companies go under because the founders just can't work together. When YC says they choose "mostly on the founders," I'd bet anything that this—how well they’re likely to get along—is half of what they mean. If the founders appear competent individually (see above) and have known each other for a decade, that's all I need to know.

4. Life Hack

"Life hack" is usually the most interesting or the most banal of the sections I read. First, follow the instructions. There's a reason it excludes computer-related stuff: your second best technical hack isn't as interesting as your first best life hack—trust me.

Make it a narrative: something I can get into that makes me remember you're human. Just try to make it interesting. Tons of people get out of paying for college‚ and that's called a "scholarship." You probably haven't travelled Europe or started a Fight Club, so just tell me the story you're most proud to tell. Those come through brightest.

5. What is Your Company Going to Make?

I started out reading this section first, but I quickly found that most ideas were too difficult to judge from a single paragraph. Many appeared to be copies of something that already exists 1,000 times over, or just came off as nonsensical. (And I still don't know what "Quora for Foursquare" even means.) That kind of confusing jargon, along with my tendency to pre-judge submissions, convinced me to stop reading.

Wrapping Up

This may have sounded a bit harsh at times, but the truth is that I read many applications from folks I'd love to see make it into YC. Not everybody is cut out for it or entrepreneurship, and it's impossible to know who is beforehand. But, if you've got the passion and skill to make your own way and have the determination to persevere in the face of countless challenges, apply with that. And if you don't get in, it won't matter. You’ll have the determination to soldier on anyway.

Thanks to...

  • Garry Tan for reading a draft of this and helping to improve its message.
  • Kim Gaskins for editing this, making it appear I have a grasp of the English language.
Tagged: startups ycombinator