4 lessons I learned about getting into Y Combinator (after 13 applications) | TechCrunch (2024)

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For many founders, Y Combinator is a coveted milestone on the entrepreneurial road. As of January 2021, the accelerator has helped create 60,000 jobs, has 125 companies valued over $150 million, and has facilitated top exits totaling more than $300 billion. Past alumni include Airbnb, DoorDash and Coinbase — all of which are now publicly traded.

Unsurprisingly, the program has a strict selection process — with rumors claiming that less than 5% of startups are accepted, making Y Combinator one of the most prestigious accelerators out there. Competition may be fierce, but it’s not impossible, and jumping through some hoops is not only worth the potential payoff but is ultimately a valuable learning curve for any startup.

The entrepreneurs trying to get into Y Combinator are often at an early point in their journeys and haven’t yet built up the experience to know exactly what kind of business can hit the ground running. This is where a harsh journey of trial and error helps entrepreneurs face the reality of their business model. Going through the Y Combinator program’s rigorous vetting gives founders a sense-check of what they’re missing, and who they’re missing. Take it from someone who applied to the program 13 times before getting in.

Of course, 13 applications require a degree of time and money that startups don’t always have, so I’ve condensed my four biggest takeaways from the experience. Here’s how to work toward landing in the small percentage of startups successfully accepted to the Y Combinator program:

Put your business value before your personal vanity

In a sea of applications, it’s easy to feel like you have to distinguish yourself and your startup in a striking way. For me, I made my mark through an encounter with Paul Graham, one of the founders of Y Combinator — although not in the way I had hoped for.

Graham had written a lot of online essays and resources for startups. In 2012, I thought it would be great to download Graham’s essays, browse by most-used words and publish my findings on Hacker News. However, Hacker News is the social news website run by Y Combinator, and the morning after I shared my work I woke up to an email from Graham asking me to swiftly take it down.

I then spent weeks worrying that the events would prevent me from ever getting accepted into the program. I had hardly made a good first impression on one of the most influential figures in the organization.

Looking back on things now, though, I realize that that experience with Graham was never held against me at Y Combinator because it didn’t rise to the level of being truly problematic. Y Combinator isn’t bluffing when it says it wants founders to make “something people want.” My application always came back to how much value my business could bring the world.

Bring a co-founder on board to diversify your perspective

I first applied to Y Combinator back in 2010, but it wasn’t until 2016 that I stumbled upon the idea that would carve a whole new path for me. As I was advising a startup, I came across Github graphs as a straightforward way to understand engineer output. The visualized data inspired me to build a type of Google Analytics for software development, which ultimately became the foundation for my current company. And while I was sure I’d found my niche — and, more importantly, something people want — the vision alone wasn’t enough. I needed a technical co-founder to bring it to life.

I made it my priority to find a co-founder who could easily navigate the logistics of my idea. I already knew that a co-founder could increase my chances of success in terms of the product, but it also turned out to be a boost for our subsequent Y Combinator applications. Why? Because it demonstrated a longer path of entrepreneurship — it showed that I could connect with other founders and that I was able to collaborate and harness others’ skill sets.

Being an entrepreneur often comes with a degree of ego — we want to do everything ourselves, to be the only ones responsible for moving things forward. But this mentality is counterproductive and keeps us in our silos, leading us to make the same mistakes over and over. There’s a reason 54% of the most successful startups listed on Crunchbase have two or more founders. They give you another pair of hands to fix things and another set of eyes to broaden your lens.

Finding a co-founder isn’t the end of the story. After I found Valentin Buzea, our amazing technical co-founder, we decided to take Y Combinator’s free online Startup School course. We both wanted to be on the same page when it came to the application, and the course allowed us to be better aligned, as well as informed. I would also recommend Startup School as a way to stay productive while preparing or pending an application answer from Y Combinator.

Engage with other alumni and make them your advisers and ambassadors

The Y Combinator community is fantastic — even if you haven’t been accepted into the program yet, there are plenty of ways to leverage alumni and Y Combinator resources.

Before and in between waiting for responses from Y Combinator about my various applications, I would log on to LinkedIn, search “Y Combinator,” and compile a list of companies who were associated with the program or had taken the program. I would then reach out to them, asking for their stories and advice. This always proved fruitful because people were flattered that I was asking for their opinions, and because they could empathize with my position — they knew how grueling the process could be.

At the same time, I signed up to Stripe Atlas, a platform that helps companies launch in the United States. The membership gave me access to a WhatsApp channel where I could discuss Y Combinator tips with entrepreneurs, investors and thought leaders. I would also share drafts of my applications on the forum and receive detailed feedback from a number of Stripe professionals. What’s more, many of these people vouched for us on Bookface, Y Combinator’s private platform where members recommend startups they think fit the program mold.

The more connections we made between applications, the stronger the next application became.

Demonstrate the right traction with growth metrics

By January 2019, eight Y Combinator applications later, my co-founder and I decided to fully launch. We were confident we had our target market down, a polished product, and we were even able to collect a decent amount of traction — including purchase intent. Surely at this point Y Combinator would welcome us.

Nope. The traction we had didn’t sufficiently prove that our product was something people wanted. Our metrics were too low to be representative or signal longevity. Naturally, it’s hard for startups to earn large volumes of customers from the get-go, but what we should have focused on was growth: user growth, revenue growth, retention growth and so on. We also needed to highlight quality (not quantity) metrics like big-name customers, positive reviews and publication features.

Finally, after 20 months of perfecting metrics, the product and pitching, lucky number 13 came and we were invited to join Y Combinator.

Of course, my Y Combinator journey spans well beyond these four hard-earned lessons. Yet, truthfully, I’m happy I didn’t get accepted earlier, because I now know that those startups wouldn’t have been successful. Hopefully, with these insights, fellow founders can follow suit — albeit in a much shorter time frame!

Our favorite companies from Y Combinator’s W21 Demo Day: Part 1

4 lessons I learned about getting into Y Combinator (after 13 applications) | TechCrunch (2024)

FAQs

What is the 90 10 solution? ›

Many successful early-stage startups follow the 90/10 Rule: do what gets you 90% of the solution with 10% of the effort. This rule emphasizes the need for efficiency and prioritization in your business operations.

Why is the Y Combinator a waste of time? ›

Drawbacks of Y Combinator

First, you're up against Intense competition for funding and resources. If you're having a hard time clarifying your offer, you don't have something innovative to present, or you're just hoping to get a quick $500K, Y Combinator probably isn't for you.

What are the benefits of Y Combinator? ›

Every YC company gets free credits or significant discounts on hosting, banking, cap table management, back office, and much more. Companies report these deals to be worth in excess of $500,000. YC founders get to benefit from our collective experience funding 5000 companies across almost 20 years.

What percent of YC companies succeed? ›

Roughly 90% of startups end in failure. (YC is an exception; more than 50% of YC companies are still alive 5 years later.) Here are some other reasons why you might want to reconsider working at a startup.

What is the 90 10 rule? ›

The 90–10 rule refers to a U.S. regulation that governs for-profit higher education. It caps the percentage of revenue that a proprietary school can receive from federal financial aid sources at 90%; the other 10% of revenue must come from alternative sources.

What is the 10 90 reaction? ›

10% of life is made up of what happens to you. 90% of life is decided by how you react.

How hard is it to get backed by Y Combinator? ›

Depending on your source, the Y Combinator acceptance rate is between 1.5% to 3%. There is no formula for getting into YC. Every founding team's story is different to ours, which makes for a diverse group of companies.

What percentage of people get a YC interview? ›

We want to believe you're great.” Back in 2011, Paul also said that the acceptance rate to Y Combinator is around 3%. The percentage of applicants who get interviews is around 7%, according to YC partner, Kathrina Manalac.

How much equity does Y Combinator take? ›

YC's Standard Deal

We have a standard deal for every company that is accepted to Y Combinator. We invest $500,000, and our investment gives YC 7% of your company plus an incremental equity amount that will be fixed when you raise money from other investors.

Is getting into Y Combinator a big deal? ›

Entry to Y Combinator is highly sought after, with startups around the world looking not just for the $500,000 investment but also one of the most prestigious networks in tech. Other companies seeded by Y Combinator include Airbnb, Coinbase, Dropbox, Instacart and Reddit.

What is the average founder age for Y Combinator? ›

This is yet another example of YC getting back to its roots, as the prototypical YC founder has historically been young and technical. Assuming most YC founders started working around 22 years old, this means the average founder age has decreased from ~32 to ~30 years.

Who is the youngest person to get into Y Combinator? ›

When 14-year-old app developer Saroush Ghodsi cold-called famed Silicon Valley entrepreneur Sam Altman on a Friday night in January, he had no idea that he and his friend Stefan Stokic, then 16, would go on to become the youngest founders in Y Combinator history.

What is the survival rate of Y Combinator? ›

However, YC companies have a significantly higher survival rate compared to general startups, with around 18% valued at over $100 million and 4% becoming unicorns—valued at over $1 billion.

How much does a founder at YC make? ›

Get feedback on your pay or offer

The estimated total pay range for a CEO Founder at Y Combinator is $123K–$230K per year, which includes base salary and additional pay. The average CEO Founder base salary at Y Combinator is $164K per year.

How much do YC partners get paid? ›

$24,000 a year (legal minimum). most YC partners don't take a salary beyond this but we get a lot of equity.

What is the 90 10 formula? ›

90/10 Rule Formula

To calculate the result or outcome based on the 90/10 rule, multiply the activity or effort by 0.9. This suggests that 90% of the results or outcomes are determined by this portion of activities or efforts.

What is the 90 10 role? ›

Without good project management, crossing the finish line might seem impossible. So, what is the 90/10 rule? In simple terms, it's the concept that 90% of the work needed to finish your project will take a mere 10% of the time.

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