- Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s oldest startup accelerator, is known for its exclusivity.
- Only about 1% to 2% of startups over 20,000 applications per year are accepted for each cohort.
- YC Head of Admissions Stephanie Simon shares the qualities she looks for in applications.
For early-stage founders looking to grow their startup into an accelerator, few names generate as much excitement as Y Combinator.
The startup accelerator is known for its exclusivity, accepting only 1.5-2% of the 20,000+ applications for its summer and winter cohorts.
Stephanie Simon, Head of Y Combinator’s Admissions Team, looks at all those requests. She joined the team in 2016 and assumed leadership in November 2020. Simon has read thousands of applications during her tenure and offers her best advice to budding startup founders seeking acceptance into the exclusive program. Of the accelerator.
A Y Combinator spokesperson told Insider that while the deadline for the summer 2022 program has passed, the admissions team will still review all late-submitted applications until the cohort begins in June.
The process for applying to Y Combinator is pretty straightforward, Simon said. Once a founding team submits an application, the admissions team and even some executives will review it.
If the committee decides they want to interview founders, they schedule a 10-minute video interview and then make a decision on a founder’s application soon after.
“I would say 99% of the time you get a 10-minute interview and we get back to you within a day,” Simon said.
He also emphasized that no startup, no matter how modern, will automatically be selected over others.
There are times when Y Combinator sees app surges 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, awesome teams working on?'” Simon said.
Having a technical founder on the team is key
Simon says that one way for startups to stand out is to have a co-founder and team member with technical expertise.
“Basically, we’re looking for founding teams where they can develop the product, or at least the initial versions of the product on the team itself,” he said.
By having a technical founder, a startup will be able to solve problems more quickly and creatively because of their prior knowledge of the technology, Simon explained. A technical founder will also make it easier to hire engineers, which can be one of the hardest things new companies have to do, he said. And technical founders often have networks they can hire from.
The startup should be solving a real problem.
The other key quality that the most successful YC launches have is the 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 feels more grounded in reality and feels much more likely to succeed,” Simon said.
She says she can tell from the speech if there is honesty and authenticity to the problem the founders are trying to solve rather than just a good startup idea.
Domain experience is also important in some cases, Simon said. For startups in certain industries like insurance and biotech, being an expert will be much more important to the admissions team when they review your application.
Just a few qualities would completely disqualify a company.
The biggest turn-off for YC admissions managers is “lack of authenticity,” Simon said. In every batch of apps, they receive some with startup ideas that don’t seem genuine.
“It’s pretty obvious when the idea feels invented and [the founders] I haven’t personally experienced it or I don’t know anyone who has experienced the problem they’re trying to solve,” he said.
However, Simon points out that there is only one criterion that would completely disqualify a startup: “I think the only absolute not for us is if, when we imagined the company to be successful, it was a net negative to the world.”