Do’s and Don’ts at the Y Combinator interview?

Twice every year, I get bombarded by emails, LinkedIn messages or far out acquaintances asking for Y Combinator interview recommendations. These requests are from young hopeful startups who have made it through the application process and been invited to Mountain View for an interview with the Silicon Valley superheroes of Y Combinator. 10 minutes decides if their startup will be one of the 100+ startups, out of 10.000+ applicants, that get accepted into the program. Now, they want to know what to do, or more importantly, not to do?

As a YC alum, I’ve had the pleasure of going through the application, interview and accelerator program with my startup, AirHelp. Back when I prepared for the interview, I also reached out to my network and received great advice from a YC alum. That advice might have been the difference between Yes or No, so now it’s time to pay it back to the YC startups to come.

The following recommendations are my own recommendations based on my experiences and have nothing to do with Y Combinator’s recommendations on how to prepare for the interview. My recommendations might be wrong for your startup, but I’ll let you be the judge of that…

·      Book early: Once you can choose a time for your interview, choose one of the first interview days. Why? YC is interviewing 500+ startups in a week. After each day, they inform the startups from that day, if they got in (phone call) or out (email). So you get an answer the same day! If YC want to invest, they will invest. They don’t have a daily maximum they can accept. This theoretically means, that the entire batch can be full after the first day[1]. Even though there is no limit to the batch sizes of YC, they likely won’t accept 500+ startups in one batch (…yet). So you don’t want to be on the last day after 99 startups already been accepted and all the YC partners are tired, hard to impress and thinking of the few remaining spots, so this better be good…

·      Arrive early: Don’t interview too early in the day. You want to spend a couple of hours in the waiting room familiarizing yourself with the atmosphere and talking to YC alumni (we are encouraged to hang around at interview days for advice and support). You should also be talking to the people coming out from the interview or just getting some pitch rehearsal and feedback from some of the other startups there. Remember that making it to the interview is very impressive in itself and chances are, there are some very smart people in the room that can help you.

·      Be clear and direct: We didn’t do a demo. We could have, but the risk of spending 1-2 minutes opening the laptop, getting Internet connection etc. is too high when you only have 10 min (Windows users, forget about it!). Instead, explain what it is you do in less than 20 seconds. It doesn’t matter if you’re making muffins or real-time analytics DBs. If you can’t explain what it is you do, so your grandmother understands it, then no investor, reporter or partner at demo day will understand it and YC would have wasted their time and money on you. So be clear, direct and to the point. No bullshit. No endless stream of adjectives that doesn’t tell anything about your product. No one cares about your unique, revolutionary, proprietary, disruptive, big data algorithms. From listening to a lot of pitches, it still amazes me how difficult it is for entrepreneurs to understand this.

·      Prepare to answer: Get ready for A LOT of questions[2]. The 10- minute interview feels like a 10 second interview because you and your co-founders are being bombarded with questions. The type of questions are similar to any smart angel investor, so if you already had couple of investor meetings or maybe even raised some capital, then you are better equipped for the YC interview. However, what’s different is that you only have 10 min instead of your usual 30 or 60 minutes. This means, you don’t have time for 5-10 min answers where the actual answer is delivered in the middle or end of your talk. You need to start your sentence with the answer. Because if you don’t, another question will cut you off, and you’ll find yourself not having answered one single question throughout the entire interview. What is the most important you want to communicate? Start with that – every time.

·      Be aligned: The number one threat for any startup is founder disputes. YC knows this because they’ve seen hundreds of their investments gone down the drain because if it. They want to know where you met, if you’ve worked together before and if you’re aligned on this project. That’s why they want all founders to be present at the interview, so they can ask them. At our interview, they started asking the same questions to each of us separately to make sure we hadn’t just met 30 min before the interview. Be aligned and ready to tell the same story – and don’t let potential disagreements influence the interview. You will always disagree on something, but the YC interview is not the place to discuss it.

·      Don’t be fooled: One thing I’ve noticed by talking to a lot of fellow YC companies is that they all felt the interview went bad. Either they didn’t get to say what they wanted or didn’t have enough time or just didn’t feel like it went well. The same happened for us. After our interview we felt they knew all our weaknesses, and uncertainties and we were pretty sure that we just wasted $3000 flying across the world. But later that day, after the 10th tequila, I found myself on the phone screaming Paul Buchheit’s ear off after he told me Y Combinator would invest. I am pretty sure he immediately regretted that decision, but I didn’t care… AirHelp was in!


[1] Not really, since they arrange certain days for certain types of startups

[2] You’ll find question examples here