When we first wrote this guide in 2012, I was on my third application to Y Combinator. Our team made applying for each batch something of a ritual, using it as motivation to grind on our metrics and nail our story. A good application still takes a few hours to get just right, but the hardest thing for most founders -- definitely for us -- was always the video. You'll find dozens of YC pitches on YouTube, but the ones that actually made it to the interview or have actually been accepted are much fewer and further between.
We've look across the web for the best videos from founders who have made it into the program -- or have secured interviews -- and collected some of the best advice on crafting your own winning YC video.
Y Combinator itself gives very simple, if not slightly vague, instructions for founders putting in a YC application. Namely:
In the video please introduce yourselves, explain what you’re doing and why, and tell us anything else you want to about the founders or the project.
YC Says: Key points to filming your YC Application Video
1 Minute Video
The video should be one minute long... [Though Zenefits famously went on for 2 minutes and 37 seconds].
Upload to YouTube
...and should be uploaded to YouTube. If you don’t want other people to find it, mark it as unlisted.
Don’t mark it as private or disallow embedding, or we won’t be able to see it.
Only Founders Talking
The video should contain nothing except the founders talking.
No screenshots or postproduction wizardry please; we don’t want this to turn into a video making contest. If you’re going to spend time making something cool, put it into your demo/product.
Please do not recite a script written beforehand. Just talk spontaneously as you would to a friend. People delivering memorized speeches (or worse still, text read off the screen) usually come off as stupid. Unless you’re a good enough actor to fake spontaneity, you lose more in the stilted delivery than you gain from a more polished message.
Please do not add any background music to your video. We regularly give up 10 seconds into a video because we can’t stand the random background music.
Before submitting the video, you should try playing it yourself, and check that you can hear what you’re saying. A significant fraction of the videos we get are inaudible. If you’re going to apply at all, you may as well apply with a video we can hear.
The goal of a successful application video is two fold:
First, Sell Yourselves: why are you worthy, qualified, and smarter than 99.9% of applicants?
Also, Founder Chemistry: you can't read a script, but you have to show that you and your cofounders can live and work together for the the next five years. Good luck with that.
Get Inspired: The Best Y Combinator Application Videos
Our last recording, which I'm still not yet prepared to post, took the team about an hour to nail down. We finally decided on one after we were too tired to continue to record. Take a look at some of the successes below to get an idea for how to do it right.
The example pitch used for years by YC stemmed from the one below by the founders of Directed Edge.
Directed Edge: YC 2009
PagerDuty: YC 2010
AeroFS: YC 2011
Lanyrd: YC 2011
Zenefits: YC 2013 Winter
Teespring: YC 2013 Winter
Campus Job: YC 2015 Winter
Flip: YC 2015 Winter
YC Video Advice, from Y Combinator Companies
Read up from some of the best advice from YC company founders below, collected across interviews, blog posts, and published ebooks.
People now often ask me what they should do on their YC application to increase their chances of getting in. There are the usual things like concision, clarity of thought, quality of idea — those all help certainly. But I’m convinced that the single most important thing that you can do to increase your chances of getting into Y-Combinator is to do what you should be doing anyway: going full-speed ahead on your startup. That’s what teaches you about your company, your market, the real composition of your team.
What's Ahead: How to Nail Your Y Combinator Interview
If your video goes well, you'll be headed towards an interview with Y Combinator team, potentially led by Paul Graham or Jessica Livingston - so, uh... no pressure. Scott Wheeler adds this about getting ready for the interview. Scott Wheeler of DirectedEdge adds:
“Interview” is really the wrong word for what happens. You might expect something that’s in the genre of a job interview or an investor pitch, but it’s nothing like that. It’s more like a brainstorming session with the volume turned up to 11.
I don’t know if we hit any of the points we wanted to be sure to talk about. Certainly not most of them, and I remember that there were some notable ones missing — like that we already had pilot customers.
There were no questions about the business model, or size of the market, or distribution strategies or any of that jazz. That said, sometimes it does go that way. I’ve talked to a few teams about their interviews, and heard mixed things.
The hard thing about this rapid-fire sort of setup is that it’s really hard to give advice on what to do to prepare for a YC interview, but here are a few general things:
- Have a demo and know your way around it. From what I’ve heard, demo-centric interviews are the ones that go the best.
- Talk to as many people as possible about your startup and try to get them to ask as many questions as possible. Show them the demo and see what they think.
- Make your demo look nice. Paul especially digs that and the first impressions help.
So don’t expect to go in and present. That doesn’t happen as far as I can tell. I think all of the preparation we did though, including talking both online and in person with YC alums helped us be mentally prepared.
Want to practice your interview with a few questions from Sam Altman himself? Try this weird app.
Y Combinator is a Startup, Too
So you've watched the winners, but how about the hundreds and thousands of founders that haven't made it each semester? Well YouTube is a wealth of good when it comes to useless stuff. Here are just a few of the ones we found. There are some real gems so check them out.
Want more inspiration? Watch our interview with Sam Altman, lead on Y Combinator's Accelerator Program: