How to get into Y Combinator – An African YC alumni perspective

Over the years, countless YC founders, partners, and applicants have written about the YC application process. However, as an African founder who has gone through YC, I thought it would be nice to share a relatable perspective for other fledging African founders.

Twice a year, Silicon Valley based Y Combinator –  the most prestigious global VC seed accelerator that has been used to launch some of the top startups including Stripe, Airbnb, Flutterwave, PayStack, Quora and Dropbox – invests $125-150k in a large number of startups.

Considering that over 20,000 startups apply to YC every year, and only around 200 get accepted per batch, it is safe to say that the chances of getting into Havard are higher than those of getting accepted into the prestigious Y Combinator Accelerator. Less than 2% of startups that apply get in!

Why we applied:

For us, it boiled down to 4 things:

  • The YC brand is super powerful, no other accelerator can compete. Having the Y Combinator badge of approval is a magnet for both investors and talent all over the world – instant street cred!
  • YC forces you to be at 100% intensity for 3 months straight. In hindsight, this pressure leading up to Demo Day is invaluable for your startup because it enables you to accomplish loads of important work in such a short amount of time.
  • The network! Just being able to email any other YC founder, and get advice or help, or just having someone who is willing to listen to the problems you are facing and give advise on potential solutions. The access to partners is great, but that’s actually secondary to the founder community which is by far the most important part.
  • The initial $150k in seed funding is nice, especially if you are at pre-seed/seed stage (in Africa where their is an angel funding gap – I’m sure you know that it’s more than nice). It allows you to focus 100% of your time on “Making something people want.” – This is Y Combinator’s motto for a reason.

Is my startup too early-stage to apply? 

Your startup stage and location does’nt matter much – there are a wide variety of startups that get accepted into YC, some that are at idea stage(have zero traction), others that have $1,000 monthly recurring revenue(MRR), and others that are already making millions of dollars in revenue.

In our case, we were the only startup (MarketForce 360) in our batch (Summer 2020) selected from Sub-Saharan Africa, so I was baffled and decided to do some research. I realised that some form of early traction(customers/revenue) is preferred for startups in emerging markets – I guess because this is the only accurate way of them getting a sense on whether you are really “Making something people want.” If you are based out of the US or Europe, the YC partners can generally tell whether you are building something potential useful or not because they understand the context better.

The Application Process:

Step 1: The initial application form: This is available here all year round. However, applying early helps a lot!

Remember that the partners have to review 10,000+ applications so you need to be very concise and efficient in your communication. Get to the point quickly. I would recommend that you copy-paste the questions from the application form into Google Docs, write out very concise clear answers to the questions, and then then try to summarise the answers you have with less than half of the words (2-3 sentences). Impress YC partners with quality, not quantity.

Then find one person who has gotten into YC and ask them if they’re willing to read through your application. Don’t ask 10 people. Find one or two people that are really good, get them to read your application for you, and then iterate on their feedback and send it in.

Step 2: The interview: If you manage to be among the top 10% or so of applicants, you will get invited for an interview.

Again, being concise is king! You have only ten minutes to convince a bunch of very smart YC partners on why you. This interview is more about why you – than it is about the idea. In many instances, ideas and business models are flipped upside down once you join YC.  Don’t get me wrong, it is important to illustrate a big problem that you are solving, coupled with a massive total addressable market(TAM). However, it starts with having a great founding team, preferably with a technical co-founder as part of it. The general idea around having a technical co-founder is that you would still be able to build, maintain and sell your minimum viable product (MVP) even if you run out of money.

Second, we really prepared for the interview. We drilled ourselves around potential questions and this strategy worked. Many of the questions we had anticipated were asked, which allowed us to answer with ease and confidence

If you don’t get in the first time, just apply again! There’s actually some crazy statistic on the percentage of startups that get in after being rejected the first time and it’s really high. We also got rejected the first time and then got in after applying the second time. #SecondTimeLucky

In summary: 

  • Have a great story where you explain concisely and convincingly why you will have an impact in the market, what problem you solve, how you are going to solve it and how big your business can get.
  • Make sure you have a stellar team of at least two. Running a startup is hard enough even as two or three founders. It’s much harder to get in as a solo founder.
  • Understand your market, your competition, your business model and your key metrics.
  • Make as much progress on your business as possible – revenue and traction are key.
  • Talk to YC alum to get feedback on your application. If any YC alums think highly of you, ask them to put in a recommendation.

As a founder and YC alum, I know how nerve wrecking the application process can be. Hopefully, these tips will help you make a successful application. If you’re feeling nervous, imagine that over 2,000 startups and 5,000 founders have made it through, why not you? May the odds be ever in your favor!

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