Before diving into the admissions process, it’s important to understand what YC considers to be a great company in the first place. The nice thing is that by striving for these qualities, you’ll put your startup in a better position to succeed, regardless of whether you are even interested in going through YC.
👯 The Team
Startups ultimately come down to their people, so more than anything else, YC will take a close look at your team, and make a bet on it. While there are no formulas for the perfect team, there are definetly trends among successful ones:
An Actual Team
Ideally, you’ll be a team of 2-4 co-founders with a somewhat equal split of equity. Solo founders can succeed and go through YC every batch, but they tend to have a harder time seeing startups through. This is in part due to the broad skillset required, but mostly due to the lack of partners to share the emotional burden of being a founder. If you’re a solo founder, be prepared to explain how you’re covering your shortcomings through key hires.
One of the main reasons startups die is because of co-founder conflict. As such, ideally you’ve worked together on something in the past, and know each other well during bad times. In other words, it’s probably not a great idea to immediately start a company with the random person you met at a hackathon last weekend.
Building a VC-backed tech company is incredibly difficult on its own, and it’s even more so when the founders can’t take care of the early versions of the product themselves. In short, this is because it’s vastly more expensive, and it’s significantly harder to iterate quickly. YC's Michael Siebel does a great job disecting the topic in this video.
Startups tend to be more successful when the founders have a personal connection with the problem, either because they have personally experienced it, or because they have relevant expertise to tackle it. This works not only because you have more knowledge and intuition about the issue, but because you know it's a real issue in the first place, and you have more passion to keep going when things get tough.
🌈 The Idea
Many companies in each batch either completely pivot their idea, and most somewhat adjust it — in fact some of YC’s most successful alums like Brex came from pivots. Why is it then that YC places any value on your idea? On a basic level, it’s clearly important in case you don’t pivot. More importantly, it says a lot about how you think through problems and communicate your vision.
At its core, your idea shouldn’t be a neat opportunity to fill "a hole in a market", but a direct response to a real and painful problem. Successful founders are capable of clearly articulating the problem they are looking to solve, who they are solving it for, and how they think they will solve it.
Something founders tend to forget, is that just because a problem exists and you’re equipped to solve it, it doesn’t mean it’s worth solving. The magnitude of the opportunity matters. This basically boils down to: if everything goes right, how big will this company be? If the answer is not measured in Billions, raising VC funding is not the way to go.
Beyond knowing the problem and its surroundings like the palm of their hand, founders should ideally understand something about it that no one else does. A way to think about this is to ask yourself why no one has been able to solve it yet, and what you’re doing differently to make sure you do.
It always helps when startups have some sort of unfair advantage over current and potential competitors. This can include regulatory licenses, a head start, key customers, proprietary technology, or rare expertise.
There is no specific milestone you need to hit in order to get into YC. Batches are as diverse in stages as they are in ideas; some companies get in with $100K MRR, and others with just an idea. Instead, YC looks at what you have accomplished in the context of your story. You want partners to go "holy shit, how did they get this done in this timeframe" not "meh, I could have probably done that too".
The simplest way to estimate your future progress is by understanding your current speed. This is not a specific milestone, but rather, the ratio of what you have accomplished by the amount of time you’ve been working on it. If you built an MVP and got 500 users in two months, that’s pretty impressive. If the same took you two years, not so much.
Good companies are not those that get it right the first time, but the ones that learn and adapt quickly. You should be able to articulate the mistakes you’ve made so far and the changes you made as a consequence. Even if you have speed, partners will pay close attention to whether you are actually making progress, or just running in circles.
Launching & Customers
The best way to learn is from your current and potential customers. YC knows this, so they love companies that aren’t afraid of shipping imperfect products, and spend inordinate amounts of time with users to learn as much as posible.