- Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s most storied startup accelerator, is known for its exclusivity.
- Only about 1% to 2% of startups of over 20,000 applications a year are accepted for each cohort.
- YC’s head of admissions, Stephanie Simon, shares the qualities she looks for in applications.
For early-stage founders looking to grow their startup in an accelerator, few names spark as much excitement as Y Combinator.
The startup accelerator is well-known for its exclusivity, accepting only between 1.5% and 2% of the over 20,000 applications for its summer and winter cohorts.
Stephanie Simon, head of Y Combinator’s admissions team, sifts through all of those applications. She joined the team in 2016 and took over leading it in November 2020. Simon has read through thousands of applications during her tenure de ella and offers up her best tips to budding startup founders looking to gain acceptance to the accelerator’s exclusive program.
A Y Combinator spokesperson told Insider that while the deadline for the summer 2022 program has passed, the admissions team will still review all applications submitted late until the cohort starts in June.
The process to apply to Y Combinator is pretty straightforward, said Simon. Once a founding team submits an application, the admissions team and even a few executives will review it.
If the committee decides they want to interview the founders, they schedule a 10-minute video interview, and then make a decision about a founder’s application shortly thereafter.
“I would say 99% of the time, you’re getting a 10 minute interview, and we’re giving you an answer within a day,” Simon said.
She also emphasized that no startup — no matter how trendy — will automatically get selected over others.
There are times when Y Combinator sees surges of applications in certain categories, like crypto in recent years or “chat bots” in 2016. But what’s more important is the strength of the team. “The lens is ‘what are the smart, impressive teams working on?'” said Simon.
Having a technical founder on the team is key
Simon says that one way for startups to stand out is to have a cofounder and one team member come from a technical background.
“Basically, we’re looking for founding teams where they can build the product, or at least the beginning versions of the product on the team itself,” she said.
By having a technical founder, a startup will be able to solve problems more quickly and creatively because of their preexisting knowledge of the tech, Simon explained. A technical founder will also make hiring engineers easier, which can be one of the hardest things that startups have to do, she said. And technical founders usually have networks that they can hire from.
The startup should be solving a real problem
The other key quality most successful YC pitches have is a sense that the problem the startup is trying to solve feels real.
“When it’s a problem that the founders themselves have felt or someone they know closely has felt, it just feels more grounded in reality, and feels way more likely to succeed,” Simon said.
She says she can tell from the pitch whether there’s honesty and authenticity to the problem the founders are trying to solve rather than just a good startup idea.
Domain expertise is also important in some cases, Simon said. For startups in certain sectors like insurance and biotechnology, being an expert will matter a lot more to the admissions team when they’re reviewing the application.
Only a few qualities would completely disqualify a company
The biggest turn off for YC admissions managers is “inauthenticity,” said Simon. In every batch applications, they do receive some with startup ideas that don’t seem genuine.
“It’s pretty obvious when the idea feels made up and they [the founders] haven’t experienced it personally or don’t know anyone who has experienced the problem that they’re trying to solve,” she said.
However, Simon does point out that there’s only one criterion that would completely disqualify a startup: “I think the only absolute no for us is if, when we imagine that company being successful, it was net negative for the world.”