I was talking to PG the other day, and he told me that the quality of the startup founders in YC are getting better and better every batch. Founders are more savvy now, and no longer ask questions like, “So when we get money from investors, when do we have to pay them back?” In the same way that you should hire people better than you, I’d want the next YC batch to be magnitudes better than our batch. So to that end, I’ll try to channel my inner PG, and share what I think YC is looking for in their applicants.
Between mid 2005 through end of 2010, I applied to YC a total of six times (as I recall). After four rejections, I went to work for a YC company (Frogmetrics S08) as an early employee right before they started YC in 2008. I left in early 2010 and moved to Silicon Valley and found a cofounder after 4 months. We applied late the fifth time for S10 batch, and was rejected. We finally got in on my sixth try for the W11 batch.
Contrary to what one might think, like in the title, it wasn’t filling out the application all those times that gave me an idea of what YC is looking for, but rather, it really clicked for me after meeting the YC founders in the dinners of summer 2008
. However, I wasn’t able to articulate it in my own words until meeting those in the S10
and the current W11 batch
Individually, the YC founders might be like any number of people you might meet at a cocktail party, through friends, or at work: smart, friendly, and interesting to talk to. But after talking to a lot of them every week in a short span of time, you start to get this really weird sensation that there’s something collectively different about these people when compared to a random sampling of everyone you know.
What is it? Well, whatever it is, it should be what YC is looking for in founders. And if they’re doing their job right, what they’re looking for should be traits of founders of successful companies.
However, I don’t think PG or YC itself knew exactly what that something was at first. Since PG writes to think, I first noticed him trying to put a finger on it in his essays, but mostly as an aside or tangent in this other essays, like in The Hacker’s Guide to Investors.
Apparently the most likely animals to be left alive after a nuclear war are cockroaches, because they’re so hard to kill. That’s what you want to be as a startup, initially. Instead of a beautiful but fragile flower that needs to have its stem in a plastic tube to support itself, better to be small, ugly, and indestructible.
- PG in The hacker’s guide to investors, Apr 2007
And subsequently, “How not to die” (as a startup).
When we first knew the Octoparts they were lighthearted, cheery guys. Now when we talk to them they seem grimly determined.
- PG in How not to die, Aug 2007
And my favorite:
Sam Altman has it. You could parachute him into an island full of cannibals and come back in 5 years and he’d be the king.
- PG in A fundraising survival guide, Aug 2008
Apparently, telling people you’re looking for founders that are ‘grimly determined’, ‘like cockroaches’, or ‘the king of cannibals’ wasn’t going to fly, so he explicitly started exploring it in his essay about how you weren’t meant to have a boss
. This subsequently brought all the trolls out
, misinterpreting what I believe was his intention on answering this question. Just like how Rebecca Black
set back teen pop music 10 years, the trolls set back PG from the question enough that he wrote cliff notes for the boss essay
, and then another essay about how to disagree
, before getting back to the question a couple essays later.
It wasn’t until he was writing about how to be an angel investor did he (seemingly by accident) happened upon the phrase he was looking for to describe that thing YC founders have in common, which is “relentlessly resourceful”.
What makes a good founder? If there were a word that meant the opposite of hapless, that would be the one. Bad founders seem hapless. They may be smart, or not, but somehow events overwhelm them and they get discouraged and give up. Good founders make things happen the way they want. Which is not to say they force things to happen in a predefined way. Good founders have a healthy respect for reality. But they are relentlessly resourceful. That’s the closest I can get to the opposite of hapless. You want to fund people who are relentlessly resourceful.
- PG in How to be an angel investor, Mar 2009
I don’t know when PG realized he had it, but I can imagine him jumping out of the shower in a towel to bang out the essay on being Relentlessly Resourceful
, after trying for a year. After that, he got ‘scrappy’ from Kate under #4
, and went on to explicitly spell out what he’s looking for in determination
and a founder
I took you on a whirlwind tour of PG’s essays because when you look at what he looks for in founders
and the advice
he gives to startups
, and compare them to the questions that are asked in the application, you start to see that all the questions have the same underlying themes that cut across them. And all the questions try to suss out these themes.
To me, there are about three of them: you can build, you understand the shape of the problem, and you’re going to stick it through. As always, take my advice with a grain of salt, as advice is only useful when you know what context they were forged. I’m not able to talk about all the instances from which it spawns, but I’ll do what I can.
You and your cofounders can build
YC wants to know that you can actually build something. They expect that you have at least one technical person on the team, or you’ve learned how to code. When your founding team can’t build, you can’t move fast, because it’s not your core competency. You have to spend time and money hiring, to validate your hypothesis about what people want. If none of you can build, you will also have a difficult time being able to tell the difference between good builders and bad builders.
It’s not impossible to do. In fact, there’s a team in our batch that consist of three MBAs McKinseys that learned how to code. Of course, there are exceptions, I know a non-YC non-technical single founder kicking ass that hired good devs through her investors. Still, she learned enough programming to be dangerous and not hapless.
Beyond technical ability and being able to build, they want to know that you can ship. There are many people that can build, but can never finish. The first dinner usually has YC alumni coming back to talk about what they’d do differently if they had to do it again, and the most common piece of advice is do less and launch early.
Not launching is one of the most common kisses of death: building too much of something people don’t want and never launching it. As an engineer/developer, there is a significant mental hurdle to get over to ship a minimum product. Unless you’re building a space shuttle, it’s often best to do the smallest useful quantum and get users to start kicking the tires. It’s a hard, hard lesson to learn. I’ve often heard the mantra often and knew it in the abstract, and yet I made the same mistake two or three cycles when iterating my own products.
The questions that try to figure this theme out is what degree you got. and whether there was something impressive that your team built and achieved, and an interesting project that two or more of you created. If you can demonstrate that you’re able to build in your answers to those questions, you’re good on this point.
You and your cofounders understand the shape of the problem.
Every startup solves a problem for someone on the planet, and every problem is nuanced in some way. I call this, the ‘shape’ of the problem. When you start out exploring a problem space, you have some general sense of the topic, but it’s vague, blobby, and simplistic. You have to feel it out to give the problem shape into all the nooks and crannies of its reality. These nooks and crannies are insights into the problem space and insights to your users that you understand, but outsiders wouldn’t or current incumbents don’t yet know about. These would be things that surprised you when you first discovered it, and you were able to change your idea based on this discovery.
Often times, this is why it’s encouraged you build things you want to use, or that you dog food your own stuff. Being a user really gives you insight as to how useful it is, and its strengths and weaknesses. If you’re not a user, you’d better be pounding the pavement, talking to lots and lots of users and potential users and learning about their pain. Their pain becomes your pain.
To give an example, in the very early version of Noteleaf, you actually took notes about the people you were going to meet (we don’t do this anymore). We had an iphone app that synced offline, as well as a web interface, and a bookmarklet. It worked well, and we had people that love us and sent us fan mail about how easy it was to use. However, we discovered that by the nature of note-taking, the barriers to entry were too high. Essentially, we were asking new users to do work to sign up, and then do more work by writing notes, for delayed gratification, as notes are only useful when you forget after some time. That makes adoption hard.
At Frogmetrics, we made handheld touchscreen devices to make it easy to take surveys on. The initial hypothesis and selling point was that you can aggregate survey data in real time across many different chain stores so you know what’s going on at the top. However, unlike web analytics data, survey data doesn’t actually change very much over time, so there’s actually no need for it to be real time. In addition, when rating things from a scale of 0 to 10, most people rate things between a 5 and 10, further compressing the graph to be a flat line over time.
In both cases, we ended up doing something about it and pivoted. However, these were the kind of insights to the shape of the problem that you get from actually building it and listening to what users said, or because you used it yourself. Sometimes, you can see far enough ahead the problems before you get to use it. But many times, you can’t until you run an experiment.
By now, you should be able to tell that the questions about “what is your company going to make”, “why you picked this idea to work on”, and especially “what do you understand that other companies don’t get” are questions that try to tell if you understand the shape of the problem. PG in his essay on Startups in 13 Sentences
calls this understanding your users.
When you really understand the shape of the problem, these questions become really easy to answer. If you find these questions hard to answer, then you don’t yet really understand the shape of the problem. You don’t yet understand your users.
You and your cofounders are going to stick it through.
It’s an understatement that startups are hard. Not only are there lots to do, but you won’t necessarily know what to do first. As everyone wants what’s best for the startup, the lot of you are going to have strong opinions about it. As a result, you and your cofounders are going to disagree a lot. Do you and your cofounders know how work and communicate with each through conflicts and disagreements?
Is the whole team committed to doing a startup? Startups are not for everyone. Many people like the idea of doing a startup, but much fewer actually want to put in the time, effort, and sacrifices to do it. If not, that’s great, because there are many worthy things to do in life besides a startup. But if you’re going to do it, you need to be committed. Beyond applying for YC, this is something you have really to be honest with yourself and your cofounders about. Life is short. Spend your time on this earth in a way that’s suited for you. Don’t let the dreams of others be a substitute for your own.
There will be times when you screw up big time. You and your cofounders have to be able to say, “we messed up, so how are we going to fix it?” The worst attitude to have is “We messed up, we’re fucked and we don’t know how to deal with it, and we don’t know how to ask for help.” When someone on your team messes up, do you start blaming each other, or do you figure out how to fix the problem first, and then learn from it?
It’s a bad sign when you can’t air your grievances with your co-founders in a way that makes everyone better as a result. Every startup has stories of how the co-founders disagree and about what, but you’ll find the successful ones are able to learn from the conflict, rather than come away angry with nothing learned and nothing solved. If you ever get to interview successful founders, this is usually an interesting question to ask.
But more than anything, YC wants to know that you’re ‘relentlessly resourceful’. If I had to put it in my own words, I’d say most YC founders (and successful people in general) I’ve met share a common belief that they’re not a victim of their circumstance. I think they’d actually find it silly to believe you can’t do something to change yourself or your life for the better in some way. They may not know right away how to make the change, but they know how to find out and they know how to ask for help.
The other day, I was sitting at a coffee shop working, and I overheard these two women complaining about how the service was bad. “But what can I do? I’m not going to raise a commotion over that”, while the other woman nodded in agreement in rapport. I thought about what Sam Altman would do in the same situation, and I think he would have asked why the other person is doing what they’re doing, and use that to figure out how they can both win.
A majority of the questions on the application are about you and your cofounder’s relationship with each other. That’s because having the right co-founder for you is so important. Startups don’t die because of competition. They tend to die because of founder disputes. As much as YC tries to mitigate it by filtering them out with the application and interview, there are cases of YC founders that break up during the program. And it’s a pity really. It’s far better to find the right co-founder, than go in there with the wrong cofounder for you and not getting everything out of YC that you could have.
On whether you should apply
To be honest, I am amazed by my batch mates. We have a core creator of Django, a maintainer of the python client of a popular oss software, a contributor to the OAuth spec, drummers of a band, a 18 year old that had already sold his first company, someone that leads and sings in a choir, and a pair that owns a chain of Beard Papa’s, amongst others. In the previous batch, if I recall correctly, they had two Rhode scholars. By comparison, I can only cut a deck of cards with one hand.
In our own convore group, one of us remarked that looking at everyone else in the batch, they’re still in disbelief that they got in at all, and a bunch of us starred the comment in agreement, even those batch mate that I think are amazing.
But in reality, a Rhodes scholar does not a successful founder make. My point is not to belittle their awesome achievements, but rather, point out that it’s not sufficient for being a founder. It’s easy to forget, even amongst ourselves, that what’s important to being a good founder are the things PG harps upon in his essays (advice tested every six months by a new batch of founders), which I summarized into three themes, based on my own perspective and experience. You’ll notice that none of them mention previous achievements. That’s good news for you as an applicant because even if you haven’t won the Nobel prize, you should still apply if you feel like you and your cofounders have all three themes above in some capacity.
Also notice it’s not age, gender, school, marital status or background specific. People seem to perpetually think YC founders are all kids straight out of college, with just an idea. That might have been the case in the first batch. But it’s certainly not now.
In the current batch of 40+ companies, there’s teams from Spain, Netherlands, England, Canada, India, or teams with mixed nationalities. We all went to different schools, both Ivy Leagues and State schools. We’re also all different ages, as our batch ranges from 17 to 35ish. I’m 32 myself, and there’s a good number of 30 somethings in our batch, as well as the teams that are fresh out of college or those that have been working for a while. There are teams who have profitable companies that they’ve been working on for 3 years already, and others of us that just changed their idea two weeks ago. We have an all female founder team, as well as all male founder teams, or a mix of both genders. We have two teams that were YC founders from previous batches. And we have two other teams (that I know of) who were employees of previous YC companies. We have some people in our batch who are married, and there’s even a team who’s married to each other. And in three YC companies I know of in previous batches, one of the founders had kids.
As you can see, these are the traits of founders that YC doesn’t care about. If they did, you wouldn’t see such a variety, as they’re essentially random samplings from the application pool. There’s no mold to being a great founders other than what PG talks about in his essays. If you had doubts about applying because you don’t think you fit the mold of two twenty-something kids straight out of college living on ramen, you should cast it aside, because it’s simply not true, both for being in YC, and being an entreprenuer.
If you’re a single founder, It’s definitely harder to get in. I applied as a single founder before, and knowing what I know now, there’s no way I would have been able to do it as a single founder.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t be a single founder. We have two single founders in our current batch, and there were two three in the previous batch. For single founders, if you can demonstrate traction, it’s much easier to get in. Traction solves everything. This is true even for non-single founder teams.
I don’t think being a good founder is just innate. It can be learned, though it will take a while. I never thought I was going to be doing this when I was in college, as I had no interest at the time. So if you aren’t sure if you have what it takes, the only way to find out is to try. You might surprise yourself. And if anything, you’ll learn a lot, both about yourself and the world. The world is a bigger place than you can imagine with more opportunities than you might think. All you have to do is get out there and do something notable.
And if I’ve regretted anything in the past five to six years is that I could have accelerated my learning by working at someone else’s startup earlier and moving to Silicon Valley earlier. Now, before you give me grief about moving to Silicon Valley, that was just how I managed to learn faster about being a good founder. Whatever you do, accelerate your learning first by doing, and second by getting advice from people who know what they’re talking about. It’s been said that “Mistakes - It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.” Take heed.
And if you don’t get in, don’t despair. you can always try again later. YC does make mistakes in its judgement
, and it’s not personal. Just keep learning, and keep getting better.
I’ll leave you with two choice quotes whenever I have set backs:
“Be so good they can’t ignore you” – Steve Martin
“I’ve learned that you can’t ever make anyone love you. All you can do is stalk them until they give up and give in.”
Good luck in all your applications to YC.
 I’ve only met Sam Altman twice.