Practical Handbook for Applying to Y Combinator

Chapter 4: YC Partner Interviews

October 2020
YC Partners showing off at YC HQs.

👉 If you have an upcoming interview for YC, I'm happy to help you by running a mock interview, just shoot me a DM on Twitter.

The second and final stage of the YC Admissions process is the Partner Interview -  an intense 10-minute conversation between the founders and a panel of around four YC partners. Just like in the Application stage, what sets apart great founders in this stage is communication skills. As such, the most important advice I can give you is be sharp; prepare to give direct, clear, and concise answers to each question.

📐 General Strategy

Exceed expectations

After you apply, don’t take the foot off the gas, keep moving forward. The best way to prove to YC that you’re an A-level team capable of moving fast is by making a lot of progress between your application and your interview.

Team dynamic

Pay special care to how you behave as a team during the interview — remember that above all YC is evaluating your team, and making a bet on it. What you do says a lot more than what you say, so don’t let the nerves get in the way of you being good teammates when the pressure gets high.

Bet on 3 key points

There will be a lot of things that you’ll want to convey at the interview, but with only 10 minutes, you won’t get most of them in, and you’ll be lucky if they remember 3 of the ones you do. As such, you need to identify the 3 most important points, and make a conscious effort of nailing them during the interview — even if partners don’t directly ask about them. Ideally, these will be aligned with the three things YC looks for in Startups: great team, idea, and progress. Examples of this can be “we’ve know each other for 10 years hand have previously built X thing together” or “we began working on this 3 months ago, launched 2 months ago, and have been growing 35% every week since”.

🏋️‍♀️ Preparation

We already covered how the key to the interview is clear communication. The only way to achieve this in a rapid-fire 10-minute conversation is to do the work of distilling your answers days before the questions are asked in the first place. How you go about this is very subjective, this is what worked for us:

Step 1: Create a Question Bank

Create a Google Doc, and toss in all the questions you think YC might ask about your team, idea, and progress. Google /YC sample interview questions/ and bring in all the ones you find. Make sure to especially include questions about your weak points. whenever you come across a new question in the subsequent steps, add them here.

Step 2: Categorize and Split up

Color code and group the questions into categories; team, finances, technical, product, idea, traction, legal, etc. Assign one founder per category, who will be not only responsible for the prepared questions, but any question that comes up in the interview related to that category. This doesn’t necessarily have to be an equal split, if you feel the CEO needs to take 80%, and the CTO only 20%, that’s fine. This is especially true for international companies, it’s ok to rely on the founders that speak English fluently.

Step 3: Prepare your answers

Each founder should now write answers for their assigned questions on the document. Most of them (except /what does your company do?/) should ideally be under 15 seconds, and definitely under 25. For your answers, avoid jargon and buzzwords. Keep in mind what YC looks for in startups. Use a lot of numbers and figures, especially when talking about the problem, market, and traction. Don’t round these numbers, exact figures always inspire more credibility.

Step 4: Internalize the answers

The goal of the document is not to memorize and recite back the exact wording of each answer, but to do the difficult job of distilling each idea before you're asked about it. Each founder should /internalize/ internalize their answers, and be able to respond naturally and conversationally when prompted.

Step 5: Practice a lot as a team

To practice individual answers on our downtime, we used to pair up with another founder, and go down the list of each other’s questions. Most of our prep work, however, was with the entire team of four using the PG Simulator (link to this and other resources in the Appendix), which I consider the most valuable tool when preparing for YC interviews. Ramp up your practice in the week leading up to the interview, especially in the 3 days before. During this process, don’t just test if you know the answers, practice their sub-15 second timing, give each other feedback on wording, and iterate the answers on your Google Doc.

Step 6: Mock interviews with alums

YC alums love doing mock interviews. Reach out to a few (try to do at least 3, ideally 5) to schedule these in advance for the week leading up to the interview. This will help you not just for the feedback, but to give you confidence. I'm also happy to help with this, just shoot me a DM on Twitter.

🌅 The day of the interview

Like an athlete before a big game, the day of the interview is all about the mindset you put yourself in. If you think it will help, run through the PG Simulator once or twice as a team. Other than that, focus on relaxing, bonding, and building up confidence as a team (when we interviewed, we showed up early to YC’s building, and danced to music on our laptop in the lawn outside). To avoid unnecessary stress and a bad impression, be on time, and if it’s online, plan in advance to have reliable internet and a quiet place.

🤾‍♂️ During the Interview

Introduce yourselves clearly

Even more important than your names is to have simple descriptions of what each person does. Partners need to build the mental model of who does what (CEO, CEO + engineer, sales, engineer + legal, etc) to effectively conduct the interview.

Nail the first question

The first question is going to be /What do you do?/. It sets the tone for the entire interview, so make sure you have an incredibly simple and clear 30-second answer that any random person in the street could understand.

Remember your preparation

Stick to the simple and sharp questions you’ve been practicing, a 1-minute rant equals 10% of your interview wasted. Particularly, remember to use specific figures to back up your claims. 

Be confident and resilient

The interview will be rapid-fire and messy, don’t let it rattle you. You already know more about your business than the partners do, all that’s left is communicating that effectively.  

Work in your 3 key points

Make sure you work in each of your three key points at least twice each, and nail their delivery. Even if they don’t ask you directly, find a way to talk about them.

Behave like a team

Don’t talk over each other or contradict each other (I’m looking at you, CEOs 👀). If a teammate is struggling, help them without being aggressive. If you forget something, punt to your teammates “/Carlos can actually tell you about…/”.  It makes sense to have an SOS signal/keyword for this. Mainly just give off the vibe you’d expect from people that actually like each other (you’d be surprised how many founding teams clearly hate their peers).

Get out of jail cards

For the most part, you won’t be able to control the flow of the interview. If at some point a partner is going down a rabbit hole that you feel is going nowhere, and is taking up valuable minutes, you can use one of your 3 points as a /Get out of jail free/ card. Politely, but confidently say /“What you need to understand, is that we’re going to win because [most relevant key point]”/. If you do this right, you won’t just get the interview back on track, you’ll also let partners see that you have guts and resiliency.

Have a demo ready

Odds are partners won’t ask for a demo of your product, but come prepared to do a 1-minute one if they do.

🍃After the interview

Getting a decision

YC is pretty good about making quick decisions. Usually, you’ll hear back at the end of the day you interview. Rejections are sent by email, which gives partners an opportunity to provide feedback. Acceptance is typically communicated through a phone call to the founders. Make sure you have both on hand throughout the day.

Brace a long day

While it’s only a few hours, the truth is it’s going to be a long day waiting for a decision. Startups usually have a lot riding on getting into YC, and it’s really hard to know how you did in the interview, so it’s normal to be anxious. As such, I’d avoid scheduling commitments that require you to be mentally present that day. Try to relax and take the opportunity to bond with your co-founders - after our interview, we walked around town for hours, went to the movies, and ate out together as we waited

If YC requests a follow-up interview…

Sometimes YC will contact you throughout the day to schedule a follow-up interview with a different set of partners. This might be frustrating or nerve-wracking at first, but it’s actually a good thing; you’re still in the race. Re-focus, get your head in the game, and prepare to interview again.

If you don’t get in…

Be gracious, and don’t get discouraged. Remember, almost half of YC startups were rejected at some point. Only 1 in 10 startups that apply get to the interview, so you’re likely in a good direction. Decompress as a team that night, and get back to work tomorrow, paying special attention to the feedback YC partners give you.

If you do get in...

Congratulations! You’ve earned a celebration tonight, but don’t forget to get back to work tomorrow. Remember, you won’t succeed just because you get into YC, that is still up to you. Take advantage of YC, and pay it forward to future founders who want to apply.

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