Super last minute advice for startups applying for Y Combinator

Y Combinator applications are due on March 18th (EDIT, was pushed back to 25th) for the latest funding class, and I figure better late then never to post some advice. It's been an incredible journey for us at Posterous. YC gave us an incredible push, and we're always looking for ways to give back to the community.

I thought I'd pull together six specific thoughts that would be helpful to startup teams applying for this or any future round of Y Combinator. Keep in mind I'm not affiliated with YC (just an alum) and the ideas below are merely my own suggestions. Here they are.

1) You are raising money.

YC teams span the gamut. Some people are just out of college, and others have a lot of experience. If you have less experience, take some time to really realize what you're doing when you're applying to YC. You are raising money for your startup. This isn't like applying for a summer program, or getting an internship. You're commiting yourself to building a serious business.

Part of raising money is realizing you're committing your life (or at least foreseeable future) to returning investors their money, plus a healthy return. That's the entire point -- it's not a grant. We do startups because we want to create massive value, reward ourselves and reward the people who help us create that value.

2) Solve a hair on fire problem, or do it better than someone else.

Great hackers get caught up in technology, but technology doesn't create value in and of itself. Technology is only useful for solving people's problems.

This is the basis for why Paul Buchheit's oft-quoted line is true: Startups can often just add "done right" to any other business and have it work out fine. "Done right" means you're making something better/cheaper/faster than something else out there that already creates value.

The best startups don't just make something right -- they solve a hair-on-fire problem. Avid Technologies, founded by Bill Warner (one of our investors), is an example of a hair-on-fire problem. Prior to nonlinear editing software, editing videos was such an error prone and difficult process that when Avid was released, a billion dollar industry was born.

If your startup doesn't quite fall under the "hair on fire" or "done right" categories, then you're going to have that much harder a time explaining to investors and customers why you're important, or even surviving. Yes, the idea matters.

3) Have a capable team
The ideal startup team (regardless of YC) requires the following trinity of skills:
  • Great Coders. You just need to be able to create it on your own.
  • Great Designers. You have to be able to make it solve user problems, and make it look damn good too.
  • Great Hustlers. You have to be able to get the product out there and in front of people.

Throughout your team, you should have each of these important aspects locked up. Be realistic with yourself about what you and your teammates are good at. You are getting married to your cofounders -- you're literally getting out onto a life raft in the ocean with them, and you're going to need to work with them (and well) to survive.

Doing a startup without a kickass team who can really clean up on each of the three skills is going to war without guns, ammo, training, or all of the above. 

4) Write well.

This should be obvious, but PG's essays are an indication of what you should be striving to do in your application. It should be crisp and articulate, and to the point.

One way to do this is to actually write every last idea down -- write copiously. Then edit. Edit mercilessly until there is not a single word you could remove without losing significant meaning.

5) A little help from friends.
You've got mentors, right? Get as many trustworthy and intelligent eyeballs on your written application as you can. This goes for any application for anything, really. More eyeballs will always help you flesh out your concepts, spot weak links and strengthen your case.

Email founders of YC companies, or founders of any company, to get feedback. We're here to help -- someone helped us.

6) What are you going to do if you don't get in?
You've got to keep working on the startup no matter what. Realize that you don't need anyone to give you a permission slip to create your own startup.

Good luck to all the applicants, and I can't wait to see/hear about your future successes.


20 responses
Thanks Garry,

We'll be applying with soon. Editing the application (mercilessly) right now actually. Last minute, as you say.

All good points, but I especially always keep the sixth in mind. With the right amount of work, iteration, and perseverance we'll make it one way or another.

Appreciate your writing - and of course, your service!

I didn't *literally* get on any life raft in the ocean with Dan. Hard to write code out there ;)
great analysis... all startup and business should inspire
Really great advise. For this specific purpose and just in general. Thanks, Gary.
Your help when we applied last round was fantastic, and this is a must read for anyone applying.
Excellent post. As a soon to be college grad myself, I would love to apply but I have a job waiting for me elsewhere at the moment. For now I think i'll have to build on the side and wait for the right timing.
This is a great post! Definitely a lot of high level points that is good to keep in mind at all times. #5 is a good one too, not just for proofreading, but for sanity checking your idea and direction.

I always found it useful to have a "board" made up of a group of trusted, and most importantly, diverse people. They need to be your mom, your sister, your friends in big corporations, your hacker friends, non-technical friends, web developers, business development, marketing, all sorts of people. See their reactions, and take notes of their questions, because those are the questions everyone will ask. If you can nail all of those, then it's a good indication you have your product going in the right direction, and that you have a good handle on what exactly it is and will become.

I found that I got a lot of interesting feedback that definitely got me out of the mindset of "that sounds good to me, so of course everyone else will understand."

Good stuff.

Thanks for the feedback, friends!
Thanks for the post, Garry! The application extension was a welcomed surprise, we could use a day to recover from SXSW. Great meeting you and Sachin, BTW. We'll be in touch soon. Cheers!
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