How We Got Into Y Combinator (Part 1)
18 Jun 2021
If you're a founder or employee at a startup you may have heard of Y Combinator. It’s one of the most sought-after Silicon Valley accelerators that’s harder to get into than Harvard and a complete game-changer for startups. Depending on your source, the Y Combinator acceptance rate is between 1.5% to 3%.
There is no formula for getting into YC. Every founding team's story is different to ours, which makes for a diverse group of companies. Each year batches have more international founders, P.O.C and underrepresented minorities too. This is our YC application journey. I hope reading this encourages you to apply.
What happens before applying to YC?
Rebank's first git commit was back in Jan 2018. At the time Simon, my co-founder, had decided to leave his role at a fledgling tech incubator in London and I was halfway through my MBA. We started working on our FCA Sandbox tests whilst developing the MVP for rebank - we had no money and a launch date felt like an eternity away.
As weeks passed we learned about the sway external validation had with pilot customers. We started wondering whether fundraising or getting into a startup incubator would be a useful external validator. I started doing some research and we decided to apply to a few accelerators as we were too early to fundraise.
Facing (a lot of) rejection
We had heard that accelerators were something that startups go through. We never thought we'd get into one though as we were too early-stage to be accepted (or so we thought). The companies that accelerators talked about seemed so impressive to us but we did our best not to compare ourselves to them.
We applied to EVERY possible accelerator and faced rejection after rejection. With each interview and failed application the way we described rebank evolved. We always asked for feedback, and would actually receive it sometimes. Every rejection taught us something.
The only accelerator program left was Y Combinator. We felt we were too early but had nothing to lose at this stage.
On applying to YC
By now I had applied to about a dozen accelerators so I had a workflow. I started by devouring hours of partner interviews on YouTube, memorizing the YC website, and reading articles from Y Combinator alum. We were still working on our MVP and almost had our payment licenses (As a Fintech, you can't operate until you have this), everything would come together in the 11th hour if we worked hard enough, or so we thought. We submitted the Y Combinator application and waited. One morning in April 2018 - three months after we started working on rebank - we received an email from YC.
We were ecstatic (I may have screamed into a pillow) about going to Mountain View and meeting the partners. We contacted the only YC founder we knew to learn about the Y Combinator interview process and practised every day with friends. Recording each session allowed us to play it back and examine our answers.
We were feeling confident when we landed and spent time planning our pitch and getting to know Mountain View (it's tiny). We timed our walk down to 335 Pioneer Way - I wanted to leave nothing to chance.
There's not much to think about the morning of your interview. Waiting in the main hall with other founders was daunting. Tired and worried founders lined the halls, some of them wanted to be left alone whilst others were extremely chatty - everyone dealing with nerves in their own way. We worked out who the partners would be in our interview and waited.
The YC interview
When we were called we made our way to the interview room and then greeted each partner, before we could sit down the questions started. You spend ten minutes in a room with 3 - 5 partners who ask a lot of questions very quickly. Your job is to answer questions concisely and get at least one partner to say yes.
After seven minutes, the door is opened to signal that it's time to wrap up. A few moments later, the partners thank you for your time and that's it. Weeks of preparation for a 10-minute interrogation.
We let time pass (very slowly) with a few Icelandic founders and just waited for YC to contact us. About 8hrs after the interview, we receive an email
We didn't get in 😢. The rejection email explained why, which is something partners do for all companies they interview. It was difficult to admit to ourselves that we had been rejected yet again and a lot of feelings happened on the journey back home; we were so close to changing the trajectory of our company but we failed.
YC applications are hard... but it wasn't the end of the road.
That's all for part 1. In part 2, I'll go into how we bounced back from our rejection and got a second YC interview!