Hack your Y Combinator interview & get accepted!

by Steli Efti
closeiofounders

Here's a post we originally published back in 2012 on our ElasticSales blog. We're republishing it because many people are still asking us how we got into YC.

Today Y Combinator is announcing who's going to be invited to Mountain View to interview for a chance to get accepted in what many call the "Harvard of Entrepreneurship". Startups around the globe will soon travel to Silicon Valley for their chance of "startup fame". Here are seven simple hacks that will increase your chances of a successful interview with YC if you've been chosen from the thousands of applicants.

1. Hack your product development

The core focus here is speed. Build things—and build them fast. Take a look at what the state of your product (mockup, landing page, prototype, etc) was when you applied for YC and ask yourself what the most impressive things are that you could build in the short time between now and your interview. Don't work on a scalable backend infrastructure that needs 12 months to complete (without having any users, you know, preemptively ;)).

Prioritize your list on anything that could bring you a few more users/customer now vs. potentially millions of people later. It's all about showing progress between the time you applied for YC and the time you're standing in front of PG & co. Visible product progress will communicate that you're are moving fast—exactly what you want to do in your interview.

2. Hack your customer development

Focus your efforts on talking to real potential customers and doing real-world user testing. Go out and meet real people—don't demo your product, let them play with it and observe their behavior. See how they use your product and what they struggle with rather than what their intellectual reaction is to your pitch/demo.

A common question you get in the YC interview is "What is the most surprising thing you've learned since you launched/talked to users?" You won't have a good answer if you haven't interacted with real people. The more, the merrier. No excuses. If you don't have a launched product, just show people mockups and have them point at things. :) Again, every single interaction with real potential users and customers is putting you in a better position to impress the partners in your interview.

3. Hack your user growth

Growth is one of the best signals to communicate that you are on to something that people want. As PG wrote in a recent essay, growth is what makes a startup a startup in the first place. The good news is that in the early stages, it's not too hard to create growth. Although this doesn't mean that it's easy. In those early days, nobody knows about you and people will be less likely to trust your product and invest time in it.

What should be your goal for growth? Well, at least 20% week over week user growth from application deadline to interview day. Think about it, if you just got started and you have 10 users, all you need to do is get another 2 people to become users/customers of your product in one week.

One of the best things PG did when we got accepted to YC was to have us promise 10% weekly customer growth during the entire 3 month of our batch. It kept us super focused. Our first reaction after shaking hands with PG was to sign him up immediately. The next one was Paul Buchheit who was also part of our first office hour. It got us in the right mindset and focused us on one key metric to measure success: growth. 

4. Hack "the alumni network"

There are hundreds of founders that are part of the YC network; the alumni network has arguably become one of the most valuable things of getting into Y Combinator in the first place. Here is what you should do: look up a bunch of founders that are YC alumni and reach out to them asking for a meeting to get feedback/support before your interview.

Most founders were in the same position as you, and are willing to help out and meet you to give advice to prepare you for your interview (you can always get in touch with me at steli at close dot io if you don't find anyone else :)). Show them your product, talk about your traction, and listen carefully to what they have to say. Many YC founders are channeling their inner PG in those meetings and can give pretty sound advice.

Also, if a YC Alumni really likes your startup, they could reach out to the YC partners and give you a recommendation. There is no better positive signal to YC than getting endorsed by another YC Alumni. 

5. Hack your pitch

The interview is super short. This means that you won't have time to talk about everything you have done and cover all areas you'd like to. Many founders make the mistake of going in with fairly little preparation, or even worse, they prepare as if they are going to be able to do a presentation with no interruptions. Find out the top three things you want to communicate. Write them down in one sentence each. Practice communicating these things no matter what.

The partners will throw curveballs, interrupt you, ask questions, and change direction in the middle of your sentences—they have a limited amount of time to figure out if they believe in your team and your startup. You need to be able to address all questions and still make sure you communicate the most important things about your startup before you leave the room.

6. Hack your confidence

Let's face it, no matter how much you believe in your startup, chances are you're going to be really nervous at your interview. At the same time, you know that confidence is a quality that YC is looking for in founders they invest in. One good way to project confidence is to be able to answer questions in a concise way (one or two sentences) without losing eye contact.

No matter how well you know your subject matter, you won't be able to do that if you are computing your answers in real time. Create a FAQ document with all possible questions and write down simple and short answers to them. It doesn't matter all that much how awesome the answers are. What matters is that you are not surprised by the questions and you have a simple and concise answer for most of them. This will make you seem confident, while also having the secondary benefit of making you feel comfortable.

7. Hack  seriousness 

YC is a big deal. At the same time, it's not the end of the world if you don't get accepted. Make sure you realize how blessed you were to pitch these guys and enjoy the experience. Back when I interviewed for the W11 batch of YC, my two co-founders and I promised that we would enjoy the experience.

To make sure we were not forgetting to have fun, we decided the night before the interview to buy t-shirts and paint "I heart YC" on them in the morning. Doing that at a random Starbucks in Mountain View got us the attention of an investor who was curious about what we were doing and then pitched us on his new fund and why we should take his money over YC's (only in Silicon Valley ;)).

Oh, we also decided to jump up and down like crazy in front of the YC headquarters screaming "Wu! Hu! Wu! Hu! Woooooooo! Huuuuuuuuu!" It was our way to have fun, be a little weird and not take the thing too seriously. It wasn't the reason we got accepted (although PG's first line when he called us was "The t-shirts worked.") but it made a difference in how we experienced that day, and influenced the kind of an energy we brought to the interview. Make sure to have fun!


Further reading:

One surprising hack to get into YC!
A 2015 post by Sam Altman in which he reveals one way that makes getting accepted at Y combinator easier: having worked at a Y Combinator startup and having references.