Why I applied to YCombinator and you should too

Background

First, a little bit of background to set the scene...

I've been Indie Hacking for a bit over 2 years now. I spent about 18 months living off my savings, building and launching a marketing email builder Milliner.

That didn't work out for various reasons which I won't go over here, but once we'd shuttered that I spent a bit of time contracting and restoring my savings, thinking about my next project.

In January this year I eventually landed on the idea to build a no-code app builder that produces real Ruby on Rails apps.

I got started with that, doing some experimentation with code to assess the possibility and difficulty of what I was attempting.

The plan was to attempt to bootstrap the product, but as the idea grew (and admittedly after some difficulty defining the MVP!) I started thinking about how it could benefit from outside funding.

I then realised that the YC Summer '21 programme application deadline was in fact 19th March and of course it's now running remotely.

By then it was 15th of Feb and I basically had nothing other than some proof-of-concept code.

Why apply?

Firstly I should say that I've wanted to apply to YC for a long time, but haven't had the idea or readiness level yet. Also I have a son in London so moving to Silicon Valley for 3 months was always going to be difficult. Now that the programme is remote it's a lot more doable. I'm saying this to point out that I do have some bias here!

The benefits of being accepted to YC are many and well recognised:

  • Initial funding of $125k (£90k) - As a solo founder with limited savings this is a big deal
  • Advice - Having access to high-quality advice throughout the programme is amazing
  • Alumni Network - a huge expansion in your personal network and access to loads of potential customers
  • Publicity - The tech press watches YC closely, plus the benefits of HN launch and support
  • Validation - Not something I immediately recognised, but now I realise that having some external validation is a real psychological boost that I admit to wanting
  • Social capital - I hate to say this but your social status will improve after being accepted. It's why twitter bios always have the YC21 legend. Even employees do it.
  • Positive peer pressure - Another social point, being in a YC batch would create enormous peer pressure to succeed. Everyone's different but I think this would work well for me.
  • Camaraderie - I think this is an interesting one for bootstrappers/indie hackers. Especially with Covid and enforced WFH for long periods there is a certain loneliness to spending your days at home building your product. With YC you're in a batch with several other founders, which should help to alleviate that.
  • Dramatically increase access to further funding - the tail end of the programme is about getting you ready for demo day, where you get to pitch to 100 of the worlds top startup investors.
  • Valuation - Some founders suggest YC companies get a 3x boost to their valuations

Of course there are some disadvantages:

  • Commitment - the programme is a commitment in terms of time and attention
  • Focus on funding - while product and customers are a big part of it, there's no doubt that there is a big focus on demo day and getting you ready for receiving larger funding rounds. This is not for everyone.
  • Hubris - getting accepted can go to your head and possibly lead to bad decisions

Overall it's fairly clear that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages and it's hard to argue that getting accepted would not massively increase chances of success for your company.

For bootstrappers there is a case for arguing it could decrease the chances of your company being a moderate success, and therefore achieving financial freedom.

While that's definitely a goal for me I really felt that this no-code app builder idea could really be huge and would definitely benefit from YC.

So I wanted in, but as we know, YC only accept about 1% of applicants. As a solo founder without a product or any traction the odds are against me. Is it worth the time spent on the application?

Accepted or not I still win

I realised that whether or not I get accepted, having that deadline was going to force me to get much more done on the project than I would have otherwise. For that reason alone I felt it was worth it, and with that psychological backstop in place, I decided to give it a shot!

What you need to apply

Part of the attraction is how simple the application requirements are.

  • A URL of your website - I didn't have a site yet, so this pushed me to create one.
  • A video of your product - I also didn't have a product, so I created a clickable prototype in Figma, and did a screen recording of me going through it
  • A 1 minute video of you giving an elevator pitch of yourself and your idea.
  • The personal details section - something like a resume.
  • The application itself - several questions about you, your idea, the product and the market. All stuff you should know, or if not you'll benefit massively from figuring out.

For me the bulk of the work was creating the product demo and the website, both of which I needed, so it never felt like a waste of time.

Getting help

Once I got the bones of the application together I realised that I could use some help reviewing it all. I vaguely remembered seeing an offer to help on a blog post somewhere. Sure enough Stripe Atlas tweeted that they offer a free review service and I came across a great blog post from YC alum Rob Hunter where he offered to review YC applications.

I have a few friends in the startup space who also gave me feedback, combining it all made the application loads better, and I'd highly recommend asking for help. You'd be surprised how many people are more than happy to, it can only improve your chances of success, and it's something you'll need to get used to doing!

I also hired a designer to spend a couple of days on the website and product prototype video. This made the whole thing look a lot better and more professional. Hopefully that would improve the applications chances but if not it's still valuable to me and moved the product forwards.

Psychology

I'll admit to feeling a little deflated immediately after sending the application. I guess it's worth pointing out there is no immediate reward for completing it, and while you might realise that logically, your psychology doesn't always play along.

That said, after taking a proper break over the weekend I felt really good about the whole process and what I had achieved in such a short space of time. I really felt as if the process delivered on the initial premise. It had motivated me and I had achieved more than I would have otherwise.

In summary

  • Getting in to YC will be great for your company in most cases
  • Applying to YC will be good for you and you company whether you get in or not
  • It's not a lot of work to apply and almost all of that work will be beneficial for you and your company
  • There's help available for reviewing your application.

On that note I'd be happy to help anyone reading this with their application. Just send a google doc with edit access to paul (at) tinderfields.com.

What's next

Because of advice I received during the application I radically revised the time I need to get an MVP up, from 6 months down to 11 weeks. This is so that I will have an MVP and some initial customers for the start of the YC programme.

So the forcing function of the application has now led to another forcing function for the MVP. Great, but I now need to get busy building!

Once I get results from the application I'll be sure to post here with more details. and the application materials in case it helps anyone.

If I'm not accepted this round I will be looking to reapply in September. Your application is a snapshot of where you are. Two snapshots over six months is a clear indicator of how much progress you've made.

I'll also be looking for a co-founder as I think this will further increase my chances.

Finally I'll also do YC Startup School as that can help with finding a co-founder and will be generally useful to a second application.

Resources

There's a lot out there on YC applications but in general I found the YC resources the most useful:

Apply to Y Combinator | Y Combinator
To apply for the Y Combinator program, submit an application form. We accept companies twice a year in two batches. The program includes dinners every Tuesday, office hours with YC partners and access to the network of other YC founders. The program culminates in Demo Day, where startups pitch to a …
How to Apply to Y Combinator | Y Combinator
Your chances of getting into Y Combinator are not 1 in 100
I met a startup founder yesterday, and we had a great discussion about her business. I suggested she apply for YC. She had a great story, knew her business well, and seemed like a great candidate…

The YC Youtube Channel is also a great source of information.

Some important stats about getting in from YC16, bear in mind this will have changed a lot since they started running the programme remotely:

  • 8.5% of successful applications had a solo founder, 61.3% had 2 founders
  • 29% were from outside the US
  • 50% were not making money when they applied.
  • 45% were rejected at least once before. Of those previously rejected, the average number of rejections before being accepted was 2
  • The average age of applicants was 28.8

Thanks

A big thanks to: