Sometimes when talking to people about YC I get this reaction: “hey, I’d love to apply but I am sorely unqualified and don’t even know where to begin.” As the summer has officially ended and I’m back in NYC I just wanted to put it out there that every single YC founder, at some point in time, was totally unqualified for YC. So if you want to be YC female founder #15 but don’t know where to start, here’s a handy list. Or if you are a 21 year old white male hacker, you might find this useful too. But anyway.
These are simply some of the observations I’ve gathered about qualities I saw among my fellow founders. I have no insight into the application process other than this useful document that is publicly posted.
So, the tips:
1. Build some shit. Make something people want. Start today.
It’s not a secret that the YC Mantra is “make something people want”. So, umm, you should start. Don’t know what people want? Guess. Or ask. What you’ll find is that people want A LOT of things, and the majority of people are way too lazy/busy to make these things themselves. The first website I made was an ecommerce website that was ugly but functional. I did the entire thing myself and became an SEO expert. Getting people to click on my ugly site, and then buy stuff from it was this totally surreal experience. People wanted what I was selling.
I find many of the YC founders in my batch have similar stories.
You do not need to have a computer science background to build a website. It is figure-out-able. Once you figure out the basics you just move on to the harder stuff. And then you realize that you probably should have just sucked it up and majored in CS to begin with. But whatever. Seems to me the most accomplished entrepreneurs start out making ugly, barely-functional stuff. And then they get better. That seems to be the pattern.
2. Learn to *love* rejection.
You’re a nobody. If you think you’re a somebody, you’re probably wrong. One of the most useful things I heard (I believe it was on an episode of “This Week in Startups”) was one guy who said his return rate for cold emails he sent was around 10%. Yep, that’s about average. If you ask 100 people out for coffee and even ONE agrees to go with you, that’s one more coffee than you’d get by doing nothing. Net win. And once you get past people not returning your emails, there are all the other types of rejection – people who think your business sucks, doubters, griefers, haters, etc. Personal and professional rejection should be thought of as part of the cost of doing business.
3. Master the “Give then Ask” Mantra.
This piece of wisdom comes from Gary Vaynerchuk. See above – you are still a nobody. And being a startup founder requires asking people for shit. So how can you ask people for stuff when you have nothing to offer? Saying you have nothing to offer is crap. Remember the story about the dude who traded a red paperclip for a house? The favor economy, like craigslist, is inefficient. This presents an attractive arbitrage opportunity for you, Ms. Nobody.
Here is what you can offer: talent sourcing and customers/exposure. The two hardest things for any tech startup are finding good engineers and getting traction. So if you can help on either of those, the founder will be eternally grateful. Don’t try to become a recruiter, but start getting to know a bunch of engineers/CS students, keep track of who has what skills, and who’s unhappy at his/her job. While many tech people do this naturally, those who are outside the industry don’t know that keeping a list like this (whether in your head or actually on paper) is one of the most valuable things you can have because it takes a long time to compile and most people are too lazy to do it. You might never make a match, but if you ever get the opportunity to it is awesome.
The second thing is customers/exposure. Startups are not getting written about in major publications all the time. Remember: “no one cares about your startup.” So if no one cares about your startup, no one cares about anyone else’s either. So be the first. Pick some recently-launched startup that you find interesting and write a lengthy blog post about why you think it’s changing the world. Not like some 300-word reblog of a TechCrunch article. Sit there and think about it and do some research. Then write 1000-1500 words and make sure it’s insightful. Send it to the founders of the startup and post on Hacker News and Reddit. Post it on your Twitter and Facebook, even if you have 1 follower (your mom) and 1 friend (also your mom). Here’s the thing about quality content: there’s surprisingly little of it on the web and if you write good stuff people will find it.
Do these two things and DO NOT ask for anything in return from anyone. Just start doing it. I promise it will be worth it.
4. Stalk Hacker News like a mofo, make insightful comments.
PG says in the YC Application Tips that they look at your comments on Hacker News. This is not a lie. I would recommend spending 30-45 minutes a day for a one month period studying Hacker News. Read every article on the home page, read every comment. Then, start making comments. If you’d prefer to just lurk that’s fine, but there’s nothing like the first time some asshole tells you how incompetent you are on HN. It’s a rite of passage. And if it doesn’t help your YC application, it will give you an excellent background on the tech industry as a whole.
Remember that Hacker News is a system, which means it’s game-able. I don’t mean in all of the lame ways – PG has protected it pretty well against spam and sketchy behavior. Instead, I mean there are certain patterns that, if you stick around long enough, you’ll start to notice and can potentially exploit for points. Here’s a freebie: the HN audience is uber-highbrow and likes longer articles on weekends. When new stuff gets posted on the Atlantic website, submit an article that you think would be interesting to the HN audience. Slam-dunk front-page candidate. Also, anything rant-ish from Jason Calacanis is another good bet.
There is insane amounts of data on the internets about startups and building great technology businesses – Quora especially has become a good source of data for startup-related research. I would also recommend Delicious searches, AVC, and all of PG’s essays.
The most useful for me has been listening to the Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders podcasts. I would listen to at least 20 of them. That is 20 hours of your time, a non-trivial commitment, but listening to those stories was the single biggest reason I decided to apply to YC.
Pretty self-explanatory, no?
7. Meet other YC Founders.
By far the most valuable thing you can do for your application is talk to other YC founders. There are over 400 alums at this point, if you cannot track down one to chat with you, you should probably reconsider doing a startup. YC founders are among the most accessible group out there – you just have to ask. Crunchbase can be really useful here.
Anyway, I hope this is helpful to those of you applying this cycle or whenever in the future (like all anecdotal advice, no guarantees on whether any of it actually works).
Even if you’re not ready to apply now, that doesn’t mean you won’t be ever.
That is just silly.