Everything to know for your Y Combinator interview
I've interviewed with YC 4 times. 3 rejections and 1 acceptance. I'm asked a few times a week how to best prepare for an interview so I thought I'd package the most important points into a single blog post.November 20th 2023
If you're reading this you are probably expecting an interview or have one coming up. Exciting!
What to expect
The interview is 10 minutes. You'll join a zoom waiting room 15 minutes before your interview time. They've always been a few minutes late in my experience (they're conducting hundreds of interviews that day, can't blame them).
Once you're let in, you'll most likely be staring back at 3+ interviewers. The most unique aspect of the interview is that there are no pleasantries, no introductions or small talk. They start off with their questions immediately.
One main interviewer will lead the call and start asking questions. Other interviewers will chime in more as the call progresses. The 10 quickest minutes of your year will fly by. They'll thank you and hang up. That's it.
When to expect an answer
This is the worst part. Waiting for an answer can feel like an eternity. An email or phone call within the next 24 hours is standard. An email if you didn't get in or a phone call from your interviewing partner if you did.
Googling "what time does YC send out answers after interviewing" will return tons of forum posts from stressed out applicants. If you find yourself googling that, or ended up here because of that search, try and do something else. It's completely random. In my cases:
- Interview 1: Rejection email at 11:30 PM PST
- Interview 2: Rejection email at 9:21 PM PST
- Interview 3: Rejection email the next morning at 8:55 AM PST
- Interview 4: Phone call at 8:05 PM PST
Their rejection emails are extremely thoughtful and full of actionable advice. It is normally a few paragraphs detailing exactly why they are passing on you and what they'd want to see in the future. Even though it's disappointing to read at the time, this email makes the entire stressful interview process worth it.
If you get accepted, the phone call comes from the primary interviewer. They are the person who decided to admit you. There is no consensus necessary between interviewers, all you need is one partner to give you the go-ahead.
My 5 pieces of advice.
"Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it's worth." - Mary Schmich
This advice is based on my personal experience and is jam packed with assumptions. Take what I say with a grain of salt!
1. Get the first question right.
"What are you working on?"
This will be the first question almost every time. This is a very genuine question from your interviewer as they probably don't know. Even though you packed all the info into your application it's unlikely they had more than a few minutes to read through it before hopping on the call.
Your answer here lays the foundation for the rest of the interview. Their intention is to explore every aspect of your startup with you, but if they don't know what the startup does it's impossible to have a fruitful conversation. If they need to use the extremely limited interview time to have you elaborate your answer here you're losing out on a chance to truly discuss the startup.
Your goal is to paint a very clear and simple mental image for your interviewer. Give them that 'ah, got it' moment they're hoping for with a clear and concise answer. The single best tip I can give here is to anchor your answer to a concept they're familiar with.
"AgentHub is a no-code platform to automate complex workflows with AI. It's like Zapier, but if they are a simple calculator, we would be Wolfram Alpha"
We start with a one liner about our product and follow up with a comparison to a product they're undoubtedly familiar with (Zapier is a YC company) to give them an immediate reference point.
Using this approach of "Like X for Y" or "Like X, but with Y" is the thing that set my successful interview apart from my previous ones. I highly recommend it.
2. Practice makes possible
The interview is short and (can be) intense. You can't afford to waste time deciding which co-founder will answer or thinking about anything for the first time. Other than building your product, running through practice interviews is the best thing you can do to prepare.
I'd recommend finding a handful of friends who are willing to hop on a 15 minute call, grill you for 10 and tell you why they doubt you'll succeed for 5. The goal here is not to have rehearsed answers, but to feel comfortable answering any and all questions.
I've found that when I'm really confident in an idea, I am not only happy to answer any question about it, but literally excited to address it. Practicing helps make you more confident in this way and helps pinpoint the questions you are uncomfortable answering.
3. Focus on what makes you uncomfortable
The YC partners are not joining a call to talk about how great you are or how much they love the concept. They have 10 minutes to really get to the bottom of things. In my experience they tend to focus on the weakest part of your startup. Focus on these uncomfortable questions while you prepare. I think this is a great exercise for evaluating your startup in general, but especially important because you will be asked these + followups in the interview.
The important part here is not that you have a perfect answer for everything, but that you're able to show you've thoroughly thought through every aspect of the startup. Being able to inspect your own ideas through a critical lens is an important skill.
Many parts of the initial AgentHub strategy on interview day were bad in hindsight. These very ideas were the ones the partners challenged us on. Even though we weren't right, we had really thought through the problem and came up with an informed hypothesis we were eager to test/disprove.
4. Prove you will succeed regardless
The company YC is most eager to admit is the one that needs YC the least (completely unfounded opinion :) ). If you're able to prove in the interview that you will succeed without YC, you're a perfect fit.
My co-founder Rahul and I were chatting about this recently. We would see a flurry of twitter posts from YC-affiliated founders encouraging everyone to apply to before the deadline. We were both thinking, 'why would they need to advertise this?'
We realized these posts are aimed at the people who don't want to do YC. These are the founders who know they're going to succeed regardless and are already taking steps towards success. This founder will go far independently, but with YC's help, they can go even further and faster.
5. Try to have fun
This point sounds cliche, but I think it's important to add. Your interviewers want to see if they can work with you. Having their one interaction with you be a rigid/uncomfortable conversation is not memorable or enjoyable.
This is somewhat tied to practicing and being confident, but approaching the interview with excitement is important. It's hard to get someone excited about your vision if even you don't look excited to talk about it.
I've spoken throughout this post as if I know exactly what YC wants. I do not . I've failed the YC interview 75% of the time but this is what I would have told you if you messaged me for advice!
Feel free to email me at email@example.com if you need help. Take a deep breath and build something awesome.
Here is some more content related to AgentHub, LLMs and automation. Enjoy!
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