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How to Ace Your YC Interview

Getting accepted into the prestigious Y Combinator program is no easy feat. Even if you think you nailed the YC application, there are lots of other startups with promising ideas and deliverables that are vying for your spot; acing the all important interview with YC partners is key. As a YC alum twice over, with Cube in Winter 2012 and BlockScore now Cognito in Summer 2014, I have some advice on clinching that YC interview for those of you about to begin the process.

Preparing for Your Y Combinator Interview

Walking in cold is not an option. Prepare like you would for a crucial exam and study and practice ahead of time. Rehearse interviews with critical people such as other founders, especially those who have sat for YC interviews. Make sure you have consensus with your cofounders. Prepare questions and have bulleted answers to have ready on screen during the interview. With interviews being virtual, there is no excuse not to have your answers available if you need to refer to them at any point, so you don’t forget anything critical.

Prepare a plan for your business that looks like a map with various options you have thought through. You don’t want to be caught not having thought of something obvious.

Other topics to research and prepare ahead of time:

  • Understand your metrics inside and out and be prepared to discuss them. Understand your faults.
  • Were there aspects of your application that were abnormal?
  • What is the timing of your business in a market?
  • Does the market currently exist or will it eventually exist?
  • Focus on framing your existing market being big, not a market that will eventually materialize.
  • Do not prepare a presentation. Expect that the interview will be exclusively interactive; do not expect to have a demo ready unless it is exceptional.
  • A YC interview is the fastest ten minutes of your life. Set a timer so you can see how much time you are spending on different points and how much time you have left.
  • Know which founder on your team will speak about what. Once that has been decided, do not interrupt the person speaking unless he or she asks for your help.

Interview Sequence

Expect all your of your founding team to join, but do not expect everyone will need to speak for similar amounts of time.

Start from the beginning - set up the context upfront and assume they understand zero about your startup. Remember the YC partners are interviewing a lot of startup companies back-to-back, so get across what you do in the first few sentences just like the first question in the YC app: describe the system in plain English. Take charge and manage the interview flow, with the goal of leading them to “yes.”

Aside from that, there is no common interview process. It will depend on your business and what you say. The best finesse is to have a natural, confident conversation as you lead them through the important parts of your business and show how well you have thought through various things.

YC Interview Style and Demeanor

These may seem more obvious, but style and demeanor matter, even online, when it can be even harder to convey your personality. Some basic rules to follow:

  • Don’t be defensive; it makes you look insecure. If they question your ideas or your technology, welcome this as an opportunity to reiterate what you do and practice answers for the skeptics (like press or other investors) that may have similar concerns.
  • Be yourself. YC is investing in you as well as your company. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not or it will quickly come off as insincere.
  • Be aggressive but humble. YC wants someone to plow through obstacles but who isn’t arrogant.
  • Don’t be grandiose, especially with silly language.
  • No tech jargon.
  • Be direct because these interviewers have so many additional interviews and cannot waste their time for you to get around to your central point. Be concise but not trite.
  • Look into the camera. You know those Zoom meetings where someone appears to be staring off into space? It is likely their camera is not where their screen is located. Focus on looking into the camera and keeping the Zoom screen as close to the camera as possible.
  • Come in regular clothes and act normally. Common attire is t-shirts.
  • Avoid stunts. When interviews were in person, there was usually a stunt a team would perform and it would be remembered poorly. Do not be remembered as the team that does that virtually.
  • Read the room to take the cues; are they seeming interesting and engaged? If not then reset.

How to Stand Out on Y Combinator Interview Day

Teach them something they do not know. This is a tall order because they have seen a lot of patterns, but they have not seen your business so there is room for you to educate. You know a lot more about your business than they do so it’s on you to convey your excitement and expertise, and demonstrate the market need for your product in this short amount of time.

Remember that Y Combinator is an accelerator -- a community, a venture capital firm, and a startup school rolled in one. It won’t make you successful. They won’t want to invest in something that will only be viable if they invest. They want you to be fully committed so think through if you still have a job or are in school, what it would take to quit. If it is just this funding, that won’t be attractive to YC.

Expect to be fully transparent. If you refuse to answer something, this process isn’t for you. Companies fail because of execution, not because of secrets exposed.

What has changed with Y Combinator Interviews

Remember, YC is fully distributed, so you do not need to show up in person in Silicon Valley to either interview day or participate in the program. On the plus side, you get to have notes handy on your screen. When interviews were in-person you could not use notes. The downside is the challenge of making sure you make that personal connection and can convey your passion and excitement for your company through the screen. That takes practice which you can continue to do with dry runs of the interview with trusted colleagues ideally someone that’s been through the YC interview process before.

Getting the interview is a huge accomplishment for any startup founder. Getting accepted requires serious preparation and practice, and a stellar Y Combinator application. Tapping into your network for help getting ready is key: consider conducting a mock interview with another founder, reaching out to YC alumni, and doing some research on Hacker News. Regardless, hopefully following some of this interview advice will give you the edge that you need in the final round to land that coveted spot in the YC batch.

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