Here’s a fresh resource for you if you’re interviewing with YC. The value of going through Y Combinator’s accelerator is big regardless of your views of how YC has undergone big changes since 2020 with startup batches expanding to well over 400+ startups per batch, and everything being all remote.
Below are the details of our interview and interview prep, and above all some useful resources to help you prepare for your YC interview. We had just 3 days to prep for it (we took the last interview slot available in that round it seems), I hope this article will be helpful.
Our summer 2021 batch Y Combinator interview experience 🚀
- Our chat with 3 interviewers on YC’s panel side was super fast (it lasted only 10 minutes) and it’s like a firing squad session, we barely got started and it was all over. Feels like the interview is designed for interviewers to act on their gut feelings, and we got that feeling as well from most YC alumni.
- The key is the opening pitch “what do you do” and getting their attention. Be direct, clear, concise, so what you say will make you remembered by them.
- Being on point ie. giving 10-15 seconds answers per question.
- Show passion and enthusiasm.
- You have to display a firm grasp of everything about your product, target users, go-to-market, technical challenges and risks.
- For us, doing this in 10 mins for a labor marketplace with significant R&D risk was challenging – there’s no way to explain to the judges the nuances of what we’re creating in such a short time span, though with hindsight I’m glad to share that I feel we should have “storified” what we’re doing to get the point across. Leverage storytelling if you’re building something complex.
- The judges evaluate team dynamics ie. if you’re in sync, or there’s conflict brewing (the #1 risk for startup teams).
- The main feedback we got was to show traction – we interviewed in May 2021, before we had any traction on the company customer side.
- We have a co-founder who’s a full-time faculty at Stanford – questions were posed around his full-time engagement.
How we prepared for the interview 📚 🎙 🗣
- We went through the entire list of questions and prepared answers for each single one (approx. 4-5 hrs)
- We did mock interviews with YC alumni and asked for suggestions/recommendations from them (this was extremely helpful)
- We participated in startup school earlier on, met some great founders there, but the way ‘matching’ is done in SS is still suboptimal (geographies/target markets misaligned too often, stage of startups varies, the commitment of others’ for meetings as well) but the tools and resources are great – look at it if you haven’t before the interview
- We overviewed and prepared our data
- We made a list of YC questions and things we wanted to mention in a nutshell
The list of tips and questions to help you prepare for YC interview
Here’s a long summary of tips and questions to help you prep, based on messages and chats with 12+ YC founders and past interviewees 👀
- Know the 5 key points you want to make. They will interrupt you pretty quickly in your pitch, so make sure you know the selling points you want to hit and hit them before your time runs out.
- Talk about how your product is already showing the tell-tale signs of break out success
- Stand our personally – they are going to see something like 60 pitches/120 people that day, so be human and make an impression
- Tell a really good, moving story about “how you are going to change the world”
- Speed matters: provide 10-15 second answers
- Do not elaborate (you lose the panelists then!)
- Are your incentives aligned w/ users/customers
- What’s your biggest threat?
- focusing on the wrong thing
- heavy ops cost
- Be prepared to demo
- Talk about the problem and users, not the solution -> “Make something people want”
- What convinced you to apply to Y Combinator?
- Why can’t others copy this?
- CEO can direct the questions to other founders (that way you control the flow)
- Why are you the right team for this? “Founder-Product fit”
- What can you show by YC Demo Day?
- Vertebrae: make 3-5 points on what are your strongest achievements/abilities (do not be humble!)
- Practice (mock interviews)
- You’re a tech company but you’re 2 non-technical founders – how will you do it? How will you handle CTO hiring?
- The #1 worst mistake is to elaborate (you lose them that way!).
- What do you do? MAKE THIS SUPER CRISP + PRESENT THE FOUNDERS.
- Talk about something you’re passionate about outside the company
- BE CONCISE!
- Don’t let them throw you off-track – they often try to do that
- Defend your idea
- Focus on milestones eg. when we raise seed we need to test X, Y, Z to get to the next milestone (ie. series A for expansion)
- Put emphasis on the team + skill complementarity!
- Say “I can elaborate on X, Y, or Z if you want” when needed
- Write down your top 5 things about your company, and make sure you mention them no matter what they ask
- Be concise and confident, focus on your strengths only
- The most important is to practice for the interview so you don’t stumble and feel confident
- When one is talking the others should listen to that person and like to look at them.
- The point is to make it clear that there is a leader, but that the relationships are great and the team is strong on all sides.
- Keep it conversational.
- Do not jump in while others on your team are talking
- Traction: users/user interviews/pilots/paying customers/MRR/etc (data and #’s matter)
- Know hard cold your metrics/data
- We’re talking to users and getting signals they need X, Y, Z
- Understand the customer/user very well (metrics, user interviews, etc.)
- What is troubling your customers?
Here’s anonymized feedback and advice on what some YC founders told us 👩🏼💻
We interviewed recently. Here are some tips:
- It goes by really fast – it’s over before you felt you’ve started
- Some of the judges have actually read your whole application and some have just read summary
- They really care about your ability to grow fast and/or make money fast. So spend all your time highlighting that. YC judges are like your users – they don’t care so much about your product, but about what it will do for them. So don’t talk about all your great product features, talk about how your product is already showing the tell-tale signs of breakout success.
- Stand out personally – they are going to see something like 60 pitches/120 people that day, so be human and make an impression.
- Honestly, it’s a total crapshoot – unless you’ve already done $1M in revenue or have some mind-blowing growth numbers – they, like most investors, are shooting in the dark, making a decision based on comparatively little information.
- Given that, follow the adage of “you should raise money on either hopes and dreams or metrics, but nowhere in the middle” – if you’ve got the metrics then sell with that. If you don’t, then tell a damn good, moving story about how you are going to change the world.
- Don’t demo if you don’t have to. It takes up too much time. So unless you are doing some next-gen VR that has to be seen to be understood, keep your computer closed and focus on the story.
- Lastly, practice, practice, practice. Know the 5 key points you want to make. They will interrupt you pretty quickly in your pitch, so make sure you know the selling points you want to hit and hit them before your time runs out.
- Keep things SUPER SIMPLE (!)
- What can you show by YC Demo Day: they care about this and our ability to raise
- Going over the application during
- Answers are ONE-LINERS — do it as one-liners (seriously 🙂 )
“Unionizing founders against investors” – that’s what YC is about
Congrats on the interview. A few tips I’d give is:
- Focus on the stepping stones; when we raise seed we need to test X, Y, Z to get to the next milestone (ie raising a series A for expansion). Anchor on the things an investor want to hear.
- Put emphasis on the team. How are you the one who is capable to build this and how is your skill complementary to your co-founders?
- Be punchy and leave some answers to important questions with an open-end or with a question back such as “I can elaborate on X, Y, or Z if you want”.
And above all, don’t sweat it too much.
Yes, so the key things are:
- Practice by running simulated interviews (using the questions you find online)
- Write down your top 5 things about your company and make sure you mention them no matter what they ask
- Be concise and confident, focus on your strengths instead of worrying about your weaknesses
- The most important is to practice, does not need much, just with your team a practice session of an hour today and one tomorrow, where you run through it.
- I would follow the 15-second rule, to try to keep answers less than 15 secs without exception when you practice.
- Oh one more thing, among yourself, when one is talking the others should listen to that person and like to look at them (a mistake people make is to not pay attention because they heard it before and it makes it seems like the team doesn’t like each other).
- One person should be the main go-to, but it’s good if the others answer at least one question each. The point is to make it clear that there is a leader, but that the relationships are great and the team is strong on all sides.
- be prepared to product demo
- “hair on fire problem”: talk about the problem and users, not just the solution.
- Be prepared to have multiple founders answering questions at the same time
- Your business has a “why YC?” Question to it – know why.
- And need to answer why others can’t / won’t copy this.
Check out these resources ℹ️
- The best training tool out there built by James Cunningham and Colin Hayhurst for StackBlaze’s YC S12 Interview https://jamescun.github.io/iPG/?ref=gyfted
- Gyfted’s revamped list of YC Questions to help you prepare
- Chandan Lodha’s guide “How to ace your Y Combinator interview”
- HackerNoon article “The Ultimate Guide to Y combinator interview preparation
- Hershy Bateea’ s coverage “My YC Interview experience”
- YC Interview Questions: collection on GitHub by Wojtek Koszek
- Techcrunch resources from 2012
- A useful guide on YC’s website
Some general takeaways
- We’ve heard all over 2021 that the main value YC brings is enabling you to raise your seed round and growing among startups/enterprises that are part of the community. We’ve read and heard that the community is growing fast, becoming harder to navigate (but bigger!) and we’re very happy YC is bringing on the world’s tech founders and not just SV/West. This decade will be exciting 😊
- The best startups in each batch will continue to leverage YC’s community well and amazing companies and unicorns will continue to come out of each batch. 🚀
- Some people told us not to do it given we can raise seed given we had the privilege of Stanford. Thinking of it this way and taking into account that my 2016 class of 400+ students and 60+ founders among whom some have created pretty much 5 unicorns by 2022, this might make sense. Who knows. 🧐
- Don’t worry about the results. We know teams that have barely got together for the YC application and got in. We know teams who came in with no functional product and no traction. And we know startups with $70k monthly revenues and great teams that got rejected. We know founders who went into YC, got into fights and broke the startups, or didn’t raise any seed. Everything is possible. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
- What matters a lot is going through the interview process, it was solid learning for us, and the interview itself is a signal that you’re up to something valuable. 💡
- Check out Y Combinator Demo Day company pages and applicant + Demo Day videos if you’re interested in learning more about each batch and how to get pitching done right. 🤓
Hope this helps! We’re extremely thankful to many many people along the way who’ve helped us prepare and navigate this path.
If you’re in need of doing your recruiting more easily and saving time and money just write to me on Twitter and check out what Gyfted does for organizations, we’d love to help you hire some amazing people.
Robert, Adam & Michal