How to Ace Your YC Interview
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As many founders know, obtaining acceptance into Y Combinator is challenging. This accelerator is the Harvard of startup accelerators. Due to the program's competitive nature, it's no wonder that the application process is rigorous and intensive. After filling out the online application form and submitting an application video, the interview is the last hurdle founders must overcome to join one of YC's coveted biannual programs.
To help you better understand how the YC interview process works and what to expect, we sat down and spoke with YC alum Gillian O'Brien–Founder of Cherry (YC W19) and now Startup Evangelist at Pilot.
Whether you're in the process of filling out your YC application or just found out that you landed an interview (congrats!), here are some of Gillian's top tips on how to ace the YC interview.
What is the format of the interview?
The interview used to be in person at Y Combinator's HQ in Mountain View. But in recent years, it's been held over Zoom. Typically, founders meet with 3 YC partners, who will rapid-fire questions about the business at the founders for 10 minutes.
This is a unique interview process. YC doesn't give you the questions they will ask beforehand, and while there are sample questions you can find online or from chatting with alums, those may or may not be the questions you receive on interview day. In addition, each business is unique, so the types of questions they ask will be equally unique from one applicant to the next.
How do I prepare for a YC interview?
While the interview can be intimidating, it's important to remember that the YC partners are on your side. They want you to get into the program and for your business to succeed. Here are several things you can do to ensure that your interview experience is good.
1. Know your business inside and out.
The YC partners love founders who know everything about their business (as a founder should!). So any time you can utilize specific data, numbers, or information, do it.
Q: How many users do you have?
This is a better answer than: "Oh, somewhere between 100-150."
Avoid being vague or general. The more specific you are, the better. This shows that you're on top of things and have a firm grasp of your business.
Sample questions they may ask that should get clear, succinct answers:
- Where do your users come from?
- What's the churn rate?
- How much does customer acquisition cost?
- What is your user growth rate?
- What's the conversion rate?
2. Get to the point.
As we discussed, the entire interview is only 10 minutes long. It takes a very short period of time for the panel to get to know you, your co-founder, and your business. Because they're utilizing these interviews to further filter you against hundreds of other applicants in a competitive program, 10 minutes is all they can allocate to get through the process.
So the best way to use your time to shine is to speak coherently and get straight to the point. For every question they ask, try to answer in one sentence or less.
Q: How do you and your co-founder know each other?
A: We met in grad school at MIT.
Q: How long have you been working on this?
A: 6 months.
Don't ramble or go on tangents to make your answers sound "better." (Example: we've been working on this for six months full-time, but we worked on it for a year part-time before that – we couldn't dedicate full-time until recently because I was at Company X and my co-founder was finishing college and…") Just own your answers. The last thing you want to do is get off-topic and waste limited time.
Keep in mind that the more precise and concise your answers, the more time they'll have to ask more questions. The more questions they ask, the better they get to know you and your business. The more they get to know you and your business, the better your chance of being accepted into the program.
3. Stick to 3-4 core pillars of your business.
Since the interview is so short but super condensed, you want the Y Combinator partners to remember 3-4 key points about your business that you feel are the most important takeaways. An effective way to do this is through repetition. Make a list of the top things you believe to be most important and tie them back into your responses where they make sense. Make them the foundation that your answers continuously come back to.
4. Practice, practice, practice.
Although you won't know the exact questions the panel will ask you, you can still prepare in advance by answering as many sample questions as possible (some are provided at the end of this blog) and by following the suggested tips above. A helpful way to practice is through mock interviews with your co-founder and a YC alum. Many YC alums give back to the community by offering their time for mock interviews with applicants.
What do the YC partners evaluate during the interview?
Here are a couple of things they want to assess during the interview.
Relationship between you and your co-founder.
50% of startups fail because of co-founder conflict. The partners want to learn more about each person's stake in the company and whether or not the relationship is built on a solid foundation. After all, an essential part of a startup's success is how its founders work together to help it survive and thrive.
To show that you work well with one another, divvy up the types of questions each person will answer as they come up in the interview. For example, you can have your co-founder answer all the technical questions while you answer all the go-to-market strategy ones. Or if the interviewers begin leaning more toward technical questions, your co-founder should let you jump in occasionally so that you have an equal opportunity to speak. You want to ensure you both are answering and representing your company in a balanced way; one person should not be dominating the other.
Lastly, don't interrupt each other as you're speaking. Show them that your partnership is solid and stable. Set these expectations with one another beforehand so you're both on the same page.
The state of your business as it stands today.
As you answer the interview questions, make sure you're speaking about your startup in its current state. Refrain from obfuscating by being too future-focused. This accelerator program is meant to get your startup off the ground and running, so it's essential, to be honest about how things are going in the present time. The YC partners already know that your business could be better, and there's a lot of work to get it where you want it to go. So giving them the most accurate lay of the land is necessary and appreciated in the long run.
How should I set up my interview space?
As with any interview, ensure that your space is quiet and not distracting. I don't think founders have to worry about having a tidy space or perfect setup, but you probably want a good internet connection and decent lighting.
What should I wear for the interview?
Truthfully, it doesn't matter what you wear. Like, at all. Where some interviewers would like you to dress "professionally," this is the startup world. The founders aren't being evaluated on their fashion; it's all about your business. So the advice here would be - "Don't worry about it." When I interviewed for YC, a few investors gave me specific advice about "what to wear." Come interview day, I realized it didn't matter.
Anything else you'd like to share about YC interviews?
Y Combinator is a highly competitive program. As a result, very few people are invited to interview, so if you're one of those few – congratulations! This is an accomplishment in and of itself.
Best of luck to you and your startup!
Sample YC Interview Questions
To help you better prepare for your interview, here are some sample questions you can utilize to practice with your co-founder. Remember to use all the tips provided above!
- Why do you want to be part of YC?
- Why is your product priced the way it is?
- If your startup succeeds, what additional areas could you expand into?
- What's the biggest mistake you have made?
- What will be your biggest challenge two years from now?
- Who are your competitors?
- What makes your product different from existing options?
- Who would you hire, or how would you add to your team?
- How are you working to expand geographically?
- What do you understand about your users?
Get more tips and insights about the YC application process.
Top 9 YC Application and Interview Tips You Need to Know: Get in-depth advice about YC application and interview best practices.
How to Prepare for Your YC Application Video: See what YC partners are looking for in your application video and how you can deliver.
Learn more about how Pilot has helped YC companies on their journey.
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