Making it through Y Combinator: How to meet the challenges

Make it happen concept with businessman hand holding against blackboard background.

If you’re an entrepreneur trying to get attention from VCs, you know how hard it is these days. Money is drying up and the IPO window is firmly shut.

But for those just founding a company, Y Combinator remains a proven avenue to success. It vets entrepreneurs, provides them with capital, and helps them launch and scale. Wondering how to maximize your chances of getting your startup noticed by YC?

David Semerad, founder and CEO, STRV
David Semerad, founder and CEO, STRV

Kemar Newell and Robyn Exton can tell you. They each got into YC and each weathered its many challenges as an individual founder, which is a different experience than facing it with a team of co-founders.

Newell founded FLIP, where people can find and sell rare, limited-edition sneakers. Exton founded HER, a dating app for lesbians.

They’d both heard commonly held beliefs about YC before going to Demo Day. Some were true; some weren’t. Here they affirm and refute a few suppositions they had going into the process.

Assumption #1: My company has to be `MVP Ready’

True. You need to show up to Y Combinator with at least a minimally viable product. That’s because even if you do get in without a ready MVP, you’ll spend half your time building your product instead of focusing on growth. “Accelerated growth is where YC brings the most value to your business, not in helping you start from scratch,” says Exton. For those applying as sole founders, that means a lot of bootstrapping up front before you should consider yourself ready for YC.

Assumption  #2:  Non-tech founders have no chance

Untrue — although non-tech folks might have a harder time getting funded. “If a founder isn’t coming in with the technical knowledge of how to make their product, they’ll need absolute domain knowledge and need to prove resourcefulness,” says Newell. Exton adds: “It’s definitely better to have engineers in the founding team to minimize your burn rate.”

Assumption #3: One person can’t do this alone

True. You can’t. But that doesn’t mean you need to do it by bringing all your talent in-house. In fact, outsourcing can help you build a better prototype or MVP. Both Newell and Exton outsourced their app development at various stages. “I’ve seen startups that had no engineers or startups with engineers but whose founders themselves are not technical,” says Exton. “These cases have already built something and have shown high levels of commitment.”

Assumption #4: You have only one shot

False. You should definitely do your best to kill the interview. Practice and reach out to YC alumni or attend YC office hours to prepare for it. But if at first you don’t get in, apply again. Many companies apply at least twice before they get accepted. Going through the application process itself is extremely valuable because you are required to answer questions that you’ll need to answer correctly if you’re going to succeed long term. Going through it once prepares you for the next time.

Assumption #5: After my company graduates from YC, it’s guaranteed to get investment offers

Wrong. “There is no guarantee,” says Newell. “Raising money is a challenge for all companies but [the odds increase] if you have the right ingredients. This is more about doing whatever it takes to survive and focusing on building what people want.” YC is a badge of honor and gives you bragging rights, but funding is never a sure thing. “YC is a great way to start,” says Exton. “But it bestows no guarantees.”

David Semerad is founder and CEO of mobile and digital agency STRV, a mobile-app-development shop that has built apps for startups like Caviar and Eaze. STRV is applying to Y Combinator with its own startup, Surge.

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