Getting into Y Combinator is a huge deal. As the startup accelerator responsible for launching companies like Airbnb, DoorDash, Dropbox, Instacart, and many others, Y Combinator (YC) is widely respected by the top tech investors. Getting into the accelerator lets the world know that your startup is worthy of investment.
2019 was the year that Cuboh was accepted into YC, one of only 11 Canadian companies to make the cut (with 197 startups total participating). We spent our summer in San Francisco at YC, culminating with a showcase of our restaurant platform, which consolidates food delivery services into a unified, user-friendly dashboard.
YC was an eye-opening experience that taught us a lot. Check out our top 10 takeaways from Y Combinator.
1. Don't Go in Married to Your Business Plan
Business plans are always fluid for any startup. That's probably why YC doesn't even consider business plans as part of its application process. That means all that time you might spend prepping that eight-page business plan before you head to YC just isn't worth it.
As Cuboh CEO and co-founder Juan Orrego points out, "I like the Lean Canvas model, where you outline your hypotheses and then prove each, one by one. When one doesn't work, then you change it." That approach pairs well with the agile approach recommended by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, who encourages startups to embrace the "Launch Now" philosophy, saying "If you're not mortally embarrassed by the quality of your first release, you released too late."
2. You Can't Get in If You Don't Apply
Getting into YC is tough. That rumored acceptance rate of 1.5% for both the winter and summer programs means competition is tough. But you know what acceptance rate is even lower than 1.5? Zero percent — which is what you'll experience if you don't apply. Juan admits that many companies don't apply because they assume they won't be accepted, saying, "I wish more companies from Canada applied. They might be surprised."
3. Know Your Talking Points
You may not have to provide a business plan to be accepted into YC, but you do have to do an interview. Prepping for that interview is crucial, as is striking that careful balance between being ready and sounding overly rehearsed. Juan prepared by going through random Q&As with the head of operations and going through the questions at ipaulgraham.herokuapp.com.
4. Set Your Goals at the Start
You can't hit your goals if you don't know where you're headed. At Cuboh, the goal for YC was clear: The company wanted to see growth in its existing customer base and revenue after the three months. The focus was single-minded. As Juan always says, "We wrote that on the wall and thought about that metric every single day."
5. Make It Simple
Again, this takeaway is about focus. When you stay focused on the essentials of your goal, all the extras come about naturally. At Cuboh, the essentials were growing our customer base and revenue. That's what we did at YC. And all the extra features and services? We got those as well, in part because we maintained our focus instead of getting distracted.
6. You Must Have Experience Working Within Startups.
YC works with companies that are at very different growth stages. Because of this, you can't expect anyone to take your hand and walk you through the process. Yes, you'll get to learn from talks on specific topics that are relevant to your company but don't expect a structured program that leads you down a lesson-by-lesson pathway.
What does that mean for your approach to and time at YC? It means your team should consist of people who don't struggle in unstructured environments. Anyone who's ever had to work without guidance may find the process confusing or even demoralizing. Your team needs to be creative and ready to work with a startup mindset.
7. Get to Work
While YC's process may feel unstructured at times, you have to stay focused on the endpoint of the program: Demo Day. What are you trying to prepare for Demo Day? Maybe it's numbers, maybe it's new product features. Whatever your Demo Day goal is, you should spend 100% of your time working toward that end. That means getting rid of all distractions. (Maybe that's why YC encourages its participants to work from home.)
8. Network, Network, Network
Yes, you should spend 100% of your time working. Except when you're networking.
The opportunities to network are one of the key components of YC. Set aside time for the weekly dinners, where you can learn from influential speakers and share your week's progress. As you see how other startups are solving their problems, your path will take shape. Also, you'll have the opportunity to build relationships through coffees and drinks, as well as through conferences.
But don't let this networking, valuable as it is, take priority over your work. Build what you have to build with one eye always focused on Demo Day.
9. Stay Open to the Unknown and the Unexpected
You might be surprised at how many "silly" ideas come up at YC — ideas about product features, development strategy, you name it. We realized that if we heard on the street some of the ideas that came up during our weekly YC sessions, we might discount them and never take them seriously. By valuing some of these more out-there ideas, we were able to stay open to the process and find expected moments of epiphany.
Because of our YC experience, we now value the silly ideas we have, no matter where they come from or how crazy they sound. Because some of those ideas, it turns out, are also valued by our customers.
And then hustle some more. Showing up on time is great, taking good notes is essential, making sure you don't miss anything is also laudatory. But hustling is the key to getting the most out of YC.
Don't be shy. If you lean that way, take this as your permission to ask for more. More introductions. More feedback. More follow-ups. More help. Don't play it safe. The whole point of YC is to get what you need and make the most of your opportunity, not to "graduate." If you're timid, you'll miss out.
The bottom line: YC is worth it. At Cuboh, we made the most of our opportunity to be part of Y Combinator. We hope this list of what will be learned will help you as well.