As a YC alum (Creative Market, W10), I get asked all the time if I have any advice to help make a YC application stand out. So here are my top recommendations to help you communicate your startup as clearly and effectively as possible in your application:
Focus on the team.
This is the single most important criteria that YC will be looking for as they read your application. Ideas change. All. The. Time. But the team doesn’t. Do you have the passion and drive to persevere even when things are going south? Do you and your co-founder(s) have a strong enough relationship to push each other to do better and never give up, every single day? It’s a long, hard journey starting a company with nothing and turning it into something special, and it’s your job to prove to YC that you’re up to the challenge.
Know your audience.
Picture this scenario: a YC alum has just finished reading their 50th application in a row, and then yours pops up on their screen. How will yours stand out?
As you write your application, imagine that you are writing for a very tired YC alum who has just read through a billion of these things. Keep it short. Get to the point. No one wants to read an essay when a sentence or two will do the job.
I understand that YC is technically an investor, and you are technically pitching them to invest in you, but leave the formal marketing speak off the application. The YC partners and any other YC alums that read your application are real people. Real, normal, nice people. So talk to them (and write your application) as if you’re talking to a friend, not a stereotypical investor. YC is looking to invest in real people, not robots spewing buzzwords and jargon, so just be a human.
This is especially true of your application video. Don’t worry about adding fancy editing effects, or trying to make it seem professional. In fact, the more professional you make your video, the more it’s probably going to make them think that you’re a little too slick, and maybe you’re hiding something. Just be yourself.
What I recommend is this: turn the camera on, smile and wave as if you just saw an old friend on the street, and have a short conversation with the camera about who you are, what you’re working on, and why you have it in your bones to start a startup. One take, no editing. If you stumble over a word you were trying to get out? Who cares, you’re human. Make sure that who you are comes through.
Ultimately, the point of these videos is not for you to sell them on your idea. It’s another opportunity for YC to get to know you and your team as people, in a way that words on an application form can’t convey. So focus on the team, rather than spending the entire video trying to explain your idea.
This isn’t something you can fake. You either have it in your soul, or you don’t. And if there’s one thing that YC partners are really good at, it’s that they can smell lack of passion and commitment a mile away. How bad do you want this? What are you willing to give up? Anything and everything?
That’s why before you submit your application, it’s important to make sure that this is something you really want to do. There are always questions from people asking if they “really have to move all the way out to Silicon Valley” or if they “have to stay out there the whole 3 months, or can they go out for a month and then go somewhere else for a month…”. The truth is that if you are even thinking about this then you should think long and hard about how committed you are to making your startup succeed, and if YC is right for you.
Yes, it’s really hard relocating across the country. I know because I did it myself. When we applied to YC in Nov of ’09, I was living in the DC area with my wife and puppy. At the same time we got accepted to YC, my wife got a job up in NYC. The week after Christmas, we drove our entire lives up to our new apartment in NYC, got my wife settled in the city, and then I flew out to San Francisco to live on the other side of the country from her for 3 months.
And it was, without a doubt, one of the best experiences of my life. If you’re passionate about building a startup, there is no better opportunity than to live with your co-founders out in Silicon Valley, free from the distractions of your usual everyday life, and just work and create, every single day.
There is no concept of Monday morning, or Friday night, or Saturday night when you’re out there cranking away. All of the days just bleed together. The only day that matters is Tuesday, because that is when you head to YC to catch up with all of the other founders in your batch, see what they’ve been up to over the last week, and hear off-the-record stories from inspiring entrepreneurs, investors, and leaders.
I tell people all the time that in hindsight I would’ve done YC for zero dollars and still given them the equity percentage. You will leave YC on the “inside” of the SV bubble. You will have personal relationships with founders and investors that you read about on TechCrunch. How can you put a price on that?
If you have any other questions about the application process or the YC experience, I’d be more than happy to help, so please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me. And good luck!
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