September 9th, 2010

I’m a Female Y Combinator Founder and You Can Be Too

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.

5. Research

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.

6. Attend startup school.

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.

Share This Post:


  • Brittany Laughlin

    Thanks for the great insight! If you're ever in New York I'd love to take you out for coffee to talk Tech!

    Co-founder gtrot

  • Ruben Berenguel

    When you start the process of loving rejection, it feels like preaching love for your enemy. But once you realise you are doing is risky as hell, you may realise rejection is part of the equation, just like butter comes from milk.


  • John Lacson

    Hi Amanda, nice post! Very insightful! And very inspiring! I just recently started a blog, and I personally found your #3 rule very very reassuring. Thank you! :)

  • nihaarg

    Hey Amanda!

    Remember me from ContextWeb? Congrats on joining YC! Looking forward to hearing more about your start up and good luck! Enjoy YC – its a great experience. By the way I moved to the Bay Area as well recently =)


  • Cindy Gallop

    Love this to death.

  • jonathanjaeger

    Great post! I definitely like the comments on Hacker News and writing the blogs on other companies. Enjoyed your interview on This Week in Social Media and good luck with the project.

  • Jon Pincus

    Wow, great post! Very valuable perspectives for anybody looking at YCombinator or other incubators. Thanks for taking the time to do this!

  • Rory Walker

    Hello Amanda,

    I must confess. When I saw this article in my twitter stream I just assumed it was about Jessica Mah. It was a pleasant surprise that they are other female Y Combinator founders.

    I loved your post, I notice its harder to get into YCom than it once was. A couple years it was my understanding that all you needed was a good team and a great idea. Now it seems like you need so much more. (Already have customers and some amount of traction).

    On your #7, I finally found a yCom alum to chat with, and in his little 3 sentence email it helped me to really understand that I was getting into. So I highly recommend to try and find a yCom alum to bounce your thoughts off of.

    Lastly, I'm a 22 male from Jamaica and im applying to Y Combinator.


  • Takara Bullock

    Thanks for the insight Amanda! I love reading about other founders, especially women like me. (Checking out Entrepreneurial Though Leaders Podcast now!)

    I'm curious to know how many start-ups does YC fund from outside of the US? I'm a start-up founder based in Tokyo and am considering applying.

    Thanks again for sharing!

  • Deena

    Thanks so much for taking the time to share this, Amanda! It is incredibly real, super insightful, and extremely motivating! I'd love to re-post this on my ugly website (, if you're willing to share with my readers! :)


  • amanda peyton

    Hi Deena – Sure feel free to post it wherever. Thanks for the kind words!

  • amanda peyton

    While I don't know the numbers for outside the U.S. I do know that you need to re-locate to Silicon Valley during your time at YC.

  • amanda peyton

    Thanks Rory and good luck with your application!

  • amanda peyton

    Thanks – really appreciate it!

  • amanda peyton

    Hey Nihaar! Of course I do. Hope you're doing well!

  • amanda peyton

    Cool – good luck with the blog, it will be hard at first but worth it.

  • amanda peyton

    Thanks! Sure, always up for chatting.

  • Rod Scott

    Thank you very much Amanda. This was very insightful for young nobody like myself. Of course gotta plug the prosumer tech news site,

  • Monica Upchurch84

    Amanda, you have a another new fan. I agree wit everyone and also want to say thank you. Reading this made me happy and excited. I luv reading and learning new information that leads to me obtaining more skills and tools; that allows professional growth and development for my future.

  • Nancy Garcia

    Brilliant. Thanks for taking the time to write this and being so gracious.

  • Andrew

    Finally! I've been waiting for a female founder to write a post like this. Great article Amanda!

  • ryanbrown

    Me too.

  • Deena

    Awesome! Thanks again, Amanda!

  • Christina Cacioppo

    Agree 1000x. Danke, danke.

  • Violet Mae

    Hi Amanda,

    One question for ya. When you say, “Once you figure out the basics you just move on to the harder stuff.”… where would you suggest one start? Books? Googling stuff? Bribing a programmer to teach you everything they know? I think this in itself might be a problem. Lots of people don't even know where to begin. And when they do begin, they get overwhelmed with too much info. Any tips?


  • amanda peyton

    I think the best place to start is to have someone you know build a site with you, and you watch each step. They should start with literally buying the domain name, setting up hosting, and putting up a site. Take copious notes and ask lots of stupid questions, that way you can see how all the pieces fit together. Another exercise that I think is particularly helpful is trying to install Wordpress on a custom domain (like this blog): Once you actually install wordpress, playing around with the themes are trying to get it to look how you want it to look will give a good overview of html and css.

  • RecruitingDiva

    Amanda, who are the other 13 YC female founders?

  • amanda peyton

    There's an evolving list here:

    I only know 4 total – the ones from Summer 2010 (Jessica Mah, Adora Cheung, Jen McCabe and me)

  • Brentis Cooper

    Thanks for sharing Amanda. I'm a 17 year old male from Australia and found still found this information useful. I hope to do YC in the next 1 – 3 years. Thanks! :)

  • Madeline Veenstra

    Thanks for the advice, this is really quite helpful. I'll be applying to YC for their summer program. As I am based in Australia it's quite difficult for me to speak with any alumni prior to the application deadline.

    I read this post quite a while ago and had read all of PG's essays, listened to all of the ETL podcasts and even though my co-founder is the “techie” I'm teaching myself basic html and css. I also know wiki syntax in order to run my site Wikfashion.

    Would you mind if I sent you a few quick questions or even get some feedback about my application? Any help would be really appreciated :)

    Also I really like messageparty, I've been checking back on it and noticed that it's still in NY beta. Hopefully when I'm there in April (I'll be in the US to hold meetups for my site) I'll check it out :)

    We're sponsoring a fashion event during SXSW and I thought that the bloggers there would probably really enjoy your app if you're attending? Just thought I'd mention it. Sorry for the epic comment!

  • amanda peyton

    Sure, email me ap [at]

  • Susan Wilson

    Thanks!  Appreciate the HN tip!

  • Adda

    I am a female developer and startup founder (also in NYC!) and I have been reading HN/following YC for a while. I wasn't planning to apply but got talked into it by Rachel Sklar's awesome post urging women founders to try.

    I can't BELIEVE that there have only been 15?! That said, I love love love your comments about learning to love rejection. I think its the single most important thing for all entrepreneurs to hear. I need to write it in big letters all over my desk/bedroom/bathroom and say it to myself every morning.

    Getting up every morning and trying to squeeze water out of this rock is damn hard. Its so good to hear the encouragement.

    Thank you!

  • Lola Finley

    Wow!  Great article. Very motivating! I was going to start this comment, by say, I am not a computer person, just female  and by accident I happen to come across this article. I and so inspired by the help and info you shared. Good luck with your venture and keep up the good work.

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  • Robin Huang

    the customer exposure tip is excellent!

  • Robin Huang

    the customer exposure tip is excellent!