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

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Alex Circei is the CEO and co-founder of Waydev, a development analytics tool that measures engineering teams’ performance.

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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!

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