How We Got Into Y Combinator (with only an MVP and a handful of users)

by Jason Cui, Co-founder & Co-CEO at Jemi
We've learned so much from the journeys of great companies that we've decided it's time to share more of ours. We're building Jemi — the go-to website builder for creatives and entrepreneurs. Easy, quick, no-code. We empower self-starters to build beautiful link-in-bio sites, portfolios, landing pages, and online stores.

YC

What is Y Combinator (YC)? Think of them as the startup accelerator that changed the game in terms of startup funding. YC writes a lot of small checks in batches to cohorts of companies, including some now household names like Stripe, Doordash, Airbnb, and Coinbase.
During the batches, startups are placed into small groups and paired with partners. The batch itself is an intensive sprint where YC will do everything possible to help your company grow.
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YC has been an integral part of our founding journey. We had a fantastic experience and believed the experience and network changed the course of our company.
For this specific post, we'll focus on our YC application process.
If there's more interest, we can share more posts about our actual YC cohort experience (S20), how we raised almost $2M in seed fundraising, and more... but that's all to come later.
Without further ado, let's begin!

Why we applied to YC

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As first-time founders that were both still employed full-time, there was certainly a lot of activation energy required to leave a cushy, stable job and dive into the unknown.
Even though you hear about all the startup success stories, about the Mark Zuckerberg's and Bill Gates' of the world dropping out of college, it's still really scary.
At the time, we did have YC in the back of our minds. We grew up reading the lore of Paul Graham (one of YC's founders) and his essays on startups. We also had friends from college go through YC successfully. So we undoubtedly viewed YC as the "springboard for startups" and knew we wanted in.
We also had nothing to lose at the time. We had been working on Jemi on the side and figured that worst case we'd get rejected, ride out our jobs for a couple more months, and then quit that summer to work on Jemi full-time.
We didn't hesitate and started our YC application.

Writing our application

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The YC application process itself was pretty straightforward and still is the same today:
  1. Complete an online application form
  1. Film a one-minute founders video describing the company
  1. (If selected) Participate in a 10-minute live interview with the YC team
A snapshot of our actual YC application.
Many say the application on its own is a great exercise to go through with your cofounders to achieve clarity on one's startup pitch, and I strongly agree.
There are a lot of resources out there walking through YC application tips, so I'll do my best to summarize some personal tips we've collected from our own application and things we've learned from helping friends get into YC.
Tip #1: Be concise and clear – no BS.
YC in particular hates fluffy sales language, so keep all sentences short and to the point. Avoid using too much technical jargon. It may seem like a good idea to flex (💪) that domain expertise, but the last thing you want is someone not even understanding what your company does.
This is especially important in describing the one-liner of your company. Instead of saying:
"Jemi is a multi-faceted platform designed and tailored to provide eCommerce and web design studio features to the broader population of online individuals.
Say:
"Jemi is a modern website builder for creative people.
Being concise in this way is powerful and harder than it seems at first glance.
One hack is actually to scan the YC company list here and see how other companies pitch themselves.
Airbnb is a great example. They could pitch themselves like:
We're a marketplace in which individuals rent out their homes as a great way to make additional income, and other individuals can then book these places as a better alternative to hotels.
Instead, they say:
Book accommodations around the world.
The value prop is communicated without confusion, and there's always room to share more details.
We took this tip to heart in our application and tried to keep all responses tight and with this level of concision.
Tip #2: Convince YC you're the right team to bet on. Know your vertebrae.
YC, like many early-stage investors, cares a lot (if not the most) about your team.
With startups that are just getting off the ground, everything is still so early in the grand scheme of things that it's often difficult to make the right startup bets. Just check out Bessemer Venture Partners' anti-portfolio as an example.
The team is often one of the only things that remains constant in the early days and can provide strong signal to the YC team.
Then how do you convince YC you're the right team to bet on? There are some general tenets you can follow.
The first is convincing YC that you're formidable. Formidability is something that Paul Graham has talked about in one of his essays. It generally means that you need to convince YC that you're a "winner". This is also arguably a skill that would be helpful well beyond YC — in hiring, additional fundraising, etc.
You can do this in many ways. The easiest way would be to become a serial entrepreneur, and describe in your application how your previous company successfully exited and what great returns you made your previous investors :)
But that's much easier said than done!
There are also other ways in which you can communicate formidability. You can stress your previous roles and experiences – working at a large company for instance can demonstrate rigor in operations and building product. You can also utilize the section asking about past projects to showcase things you've launched or built.
Then, you'll also want to convince YC that you are the right team to be solving this particular problem. This is commonly referred to as founder-market fit (see James Currier of NFX's breakdown here).
There needs to exist a compelling, personal story on why your team is destined to address the problem at hand – that draws on a combination of obsession, your personal founding story, personality, and experience.
For Jemi, our primary narrative was built around why we were destined to solve problems in the creator space. Annie was a product manager on Facebook's creator monetization team at the time. She was not only burningly passionate about the space – she had direct and relevant domain expertise that gave her a lot of unique insights. As for me, I come from a music production background (a big passion of mine!) and felt personally compelled to build for creators.
This personal narrative can exist in many forms, but it needs to be there and be compelling. For instance, it may make less sense for Annie and me to be building a dev tool company. Not completely impossible, but the narrative would need to be modified if so.
The final thing is to demonstrate cofounder compatibility. This sounds obvious but is worth stressing since it's important.
This is where you can really leverage the question around shared projects to show past effective work together. Annie and I talked about how we built "Yelp for macro-conscious users" together – it leveraged AI to recommend users nutrient-friendly food options. We also considered talking about a visualization project we did for Steph Curry's NBA career. We did a lot of computer science class projects together :)
It's okay if you don't have a lot of shared bodies of work – but do think about how you can demonstrate cofounder compatibility.
To communicate all of the above effectively, it can be helpful to integrate your "vertebrae" – the core points you want YC to leave with. Ours were:
  • Strong team, with background in space
  • Big market (creator economy was hot at the time)
  • Strong progress in short amount of time (see next tip)
Tip #3: Show fast and disciplined progress.
I personally think this is one of the most important points that can shine through a YC application. What separates the good from the great.
This is related to being formidable above, but YC loves companies that execute quickly and intensely. Airbnb's story is a great example.
Startups beat larger companies by being fast, and that needs to be apparent from the application.
For our application, we were worried about our traction and numbers since we'd only been working on Jemi for ~3 weeks at the time part-time. However, we did get a lot done in that time period. Here's a sample of our response:
We’ve started to see some early traction with our MVP (You can find our landing page at [old link] and working prototype at [old link]). We’ve cold-emailed 150 creators, out of which 5 emailed back with interest, and 3 have already agreed to onboard once our product is ready for public testing in the next couple of weeks.
Was it a lot of traction? Not really, but I do think we showed hustle and the ability to get sh*t done. We had a hypothesis, and instead of waiting around we set out to validate that hypothesis as quickly as possible.
A final caveat on all these tips is that this is what worked for us, our team, and our product.
We did learn through our YC experience that companies that get admitted tend to fall into certain buckets. We certainly were on the earlier end of the company lifecycle and found that we were grouped with other similar companies. On the other hand, there were companies in our batch that have $XM+ in ARR that were able to craft strong narratives on why YC made sense.
But that was the application!
As for the founder video, we recorded a quick 1-minute video talking about our backgrounds and product. Nothing too special here. Keep things simple, just like YC recommends – no fancy editing or sound equipment required. Communicate clearly and crisply. There are good examples on YouTube if that's helpful.
A screenshot of our application video.
We submitted everything and crossed our fingers for good news.

Getting referrals

YC does allow current and past founders to submit referrals for new applicants. We're generally very happy to refer, and have referred a lot of our founder friends.
It's a bit difficult to determine how helpful referrals actually are – they're kind of a black box. However, they certainly don't hurt. And from the referrer's perspective, they're very quick to fill out (~1-2 min).
So, if you have any friends in-network that have participated in YC, worth reaching out to them and asking for a quick referral.

The 10-minute interview

YC reads applications on a rolling basis, so I think it's generally advantageous to submit the application as soon as you've completed it.
Response times will vary, but I believe we heard back from YC within a couple ofweeks requesting a live interview:
The nerves when we got this...
Unfortunately, we applied to YC March 2020 – right around when the global COVID-19 pandemic was escalating. Previously YC interviews were conducted in-person at their Mountain View office, but given everything happening things had to go virtual.
In all honesty, when we got the email we were a bit confused — we weren't sure if this was our actual interview or if they just wanted to chat with our team for whatever reason. Regardless, we scheduled our meeting quickly.
As soon as we kicked off the call it was apparently clear that this was our live interview. We dialed into Zoom and were met with a single attendee – a conference room from YC's office with Stephanie Simon (YC head of admissions), Geoff Ralston (YC president), and Gustaf Alströmer (YC partner who also became our group partner!) in attendance.
Then began the quick 10-minute interview that we had read so much about online. The general gist of it:
  • Only 10 minutes long
  • Intense
  • Rapid fire questions from all YC team members in attendance
  • Questions can jump around, interviewers may cut you off mid-response
We were pretty nervous about the interview since we had read about how intense it could be. However, the 10 minutes flew by and we left actually feeling pretty good about it. Here are some things that worked well for us:
Tip #1: Be confident and clear.
Just to reiterate, YC is looking for formidable founders. They're looking for individuals who can will their ideas into existence – who can convince people to join their teams and rally folks around a mission. Therefore, your communication must be to-the-point and confident.
Similar to the tip for the application, don't use circuitous language. Be direct. Convince the YC team that you're the right person to lead this company.
You're also the expert on your own business, so don't be afraid to act like it.
Tip #2: Have a good team dynamic.
This is mainly relevant for teams with multiple cofounders, but is something YC has specifically mentioned they look for. Even though 10-minutes is a short period of time, it's often enough to detect potential red flags.
For instance, don't talk over one another. Give each other the opportunity and space to speak and convey an air of cohesiveness.
Don't also have one cofounder answer all of the questions. Spread responses out.
Don't argue or contradict one another! This one seems obvious, but you'd be surprised. Impress the YC team with how much unity exists within your team. Those are things that can be felt.
Tip #3: practice, practice, practice.
Answering questions rapid fire YC-style isn't the most intuitive way to converse. Therefore, practicing a lot and running drills can have a very tangible impact on performance.
Annie and I started a doc where we collected potential questions we thought YC would ask us. We then outlined responses we were happy with and ran through drills together.
Here's a fun drill app someone built where you can run through practice questions :)
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And that's it! The 10-minutes truly does fly by. It's accompanied by an anxious waiting period to hear back from the team.

Acceptance!

We read online that YC typically gets back to teams really quickly – either that same day or in the next day or so.
Rejections are usually given through email, usually accompanied with a reason why the company wasn't accepted.
If YC is on the fence, we've heard that there are a couple more edge cases. They may email asking for additional information, or may request an additional interview.
For acceptances, someone from the YC team usually will give a quick phone call.
We got home after our virtual interview and nervously waited to hear back...
Just as our nerves were reaching unbearable levels Annie received a call. It was from YC and we were accepted!!
We were ecstatic. As first time founders, we were excited to embark on this new journey into the unknown with the support of the YC network.
Shortly after we left our full-time roles to continue cranking on Jemi.
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Conclusion

And that was our experience applying to YC. It was a nerve-wracking endeavor where everything felt like it happened so quickly.
We hope that sharing our journey helps and inspires others, and we look forward to sharing more to the world.
In the meantime, if you ever need a website for yourself or your business, we'd love to have your back :) Give us a try: