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Tell HN: Rejected from Y Combinator? Don't be upset or quit
143 points by mrburton on Apr 18, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 80 comments
I've spoken to a few people who got rejected by YC and they take it too personally.

In this business, you're going to be rejected a lot! If you received the famous YC rejection email, keep pressing forward.

Honestly, if this slows you down, then you're most likely doing something wrong anyhow.

Would love to see the anti portfolio list of YC.[1]

FWIW - We have been rejected 3 times from YC over the last 3 years. We did not take it personally as OP said, put our heads down and got working on our startup.

After lot of hard work, setbacks and near death experiences, we are now currently growing ~10% MoM and generating millions in ARR. YC or any other investor/accelerator should never be the make or break thing for a startup - it should be your own judgement call on whether you want to continue or not based on market feedback.

[1] - https://www.bvp.com/portfolio/anti-portfolio

> Would love to see the anti portfolio list of YC.

That would be interesting! I'd also love to see the list of both rejected and accepted applications that failed. BVP's "anti-portfolio" is a list of massive successes they happened to pass on. It wouldn't be as fun to look at the list of actual failures they passed on, or the failures they funded, but that might be even more instructive, right?

> YC or any other investor/accelerator should never be the make or break thing for a startup - it should be your own judgement call on whether you want to continue or not based on market feedback.


Personally, early on, I made the mistake of thinking that an investor rejection somehow reflected on the viability of my ideas or my business, that they knew something I didn't.

Growing past that and realizing that investors mostly don't care about the ideas, nor do they usually even know what's viable before the market responds, was important.

It also helped me to realize that looking for money just to survive was bad for me, looking for money to accelerate before I was moving at all was bad for me, and most investors are not the right partners for me, no matter how much money they have.

*Edit: BTW, I did once apply and was rejected from YC. With hindsight, I know their call was correct. Not because YC isn't the right partner for me, but because I wasn't ready.

>Personally, early on, I made the mistake of thinking that an investor rejection somehow reflected on the viability of my ideas or my business, that they knew something I didn't.

Spot on. An idea stage company is a theory. Validation occurs through real users. To become despondent because an investor didn't believe in your theory is not allowing yourself to really test the viability of your project. If users don't buy into your idea then you have a problem, but you have to play the experiment out.

BVP's anti-portfolio is absolutely beautiful. It's so difficult to tell a success from a failure.

Sequoia, on the other hand . . .

Man, BVP’s anti-portfolio is much more impressive than their portfolio. Shows how hard it is to pick a winner early on.

Can't believe Jeremey Levine passed on the dream investments time and again.

What do you mean? Those companies were all successes

That's the point.

An anti-portfolio is the companies they rejected but went on to be successful.

Exactly! They failed to see the value in any of them.

To be fair it's almost like gambling.

Interesting that Tesla is on that list: I think it's yet to be sen if they can make it through their current crises.

They IPO'd.

Going through the exercise alone, regularly - say twice per year - is extremely valuable, without needing to actually submit or save the answers in the application form they provide. The questions are nicely structured and hit on important points.

I hate ycombinator comments like this. Now I need to go procrastinate by writing a tool where I can go through the YC application every quarter.

Every quarter is a perhaps a bit excessive unless things are changing quickly. If you use a calendar, it takes a few minutes to just add a reminder at certain dates. Or I always just get reminded when I see YC posting about it.

Well said because the inverse is true as well. So many of the startups YC has funded either died a relatively short death, stagnated towards a long-death or eventually were acqui-hired in some shape or form. Just because you got into YC simply does not mean that the business you're starting is somehow more or less likely to succeed than one that didn't. At best, you might be able to increase your chances of success but that in no way happens without you pressing your foot on on the gas so hard it almost breaks.

There's something that was in the original rejection letter from the Summer Founders Program that should ring true in the mind of everyone rejected:

'It's quite likely, in fact, practically certain, that groups we rejected will go on to create successful startups. If you do, we'd appreciate it if you'd send us an email making fun of us; we want to learn from our mistakes.'

Granted, this year it's been replaced with the less fun/personal:

'It's practically certain that groups we rejected will go on to create successful startups. If you do, we'd sincerely appreciate it if you'd send us an email telling us about it; we very much want to learn from our mistakes.'

Don't take your rejection letter as "You aren't good enough," take it as a challenge to get to the point where you can make fun of them honestly and with a grin.

It's worth noting that both 500Startups and Techstars exist, and are probably the closest things to YC that aren't YC, if you're looking for something like it.

angelpad [0] too!

[0] https://angelpad.org/

Is TechStars still doing 20k + a convertible note? That is a fundamentally unserious offer

I'd think that anyone that's bitter about being rejected won't send them an email so they can make more money.

Of course, but you want to get to the point where you can - if you don't really want to help them out, making fun won't necessarily be constructive for them, and will get you a bit of joy. It's something to look forward to.


Some introspection from someone who did take it personally at first:

We applied to YC last winter and got an interview, but ultimately we weren't accepted.

As a founder you're obviously incredibly enthusiastic about your idea and think it's brilliant, and YC is usually an early stop in a company's life. So, to hear a 'no' from a well-respected source before you even really get started is definitely an ego blow.

What mostly sucks about getting rejected is that YC says repeatedly that they accept teams, not products. So when we were rejected, I immediately took it as a personal affront: Clearly they didn't like me, my co-founder, or our dynamic, all of which inspired that (admittedly immature) defense mechanism of "We're great people, so you're dumb and wrong!"


Once we had gotten over it and gone through the ringer of raising funding, you start taking it significantly less personally. Some VCs don't believe in entire sectors of businesses, so it's an automatic 'no' if you're in one of them. People can and will say 'no' because they're having a bad day, or you remind them of someone they don't like, or they had a bad experience with a similar company. Not that there aren't nuggets of wisdom to be gained from the 'no's, because obviously there are, but not every failure is a lesson necessarily.

All that to say, I think it's ok to take it a little personally. Maybe you should, even. But then you have to get back on the horse and get back to it.

We applied to YC once and were rejected. Didn't take it personally but since we were in a very early stage, we dropped the idea.

I've personally found the YC application extremely gratifying to write. It does help you answer those key difficult questions that you'd have otherwise glossed over because of complacency or over confidence. What I've thought of doing is to fill the YC application for the next idea that I get and keep refining it as I build upon the idea. Kinda use the application as a good idea refining template. If at any stage you feel that you are confident in all the questions, you can either apply - literally no cost or just keep building. Having solid answers to all the questions - means that your idea has some potential of turning into something big. Of course, your idea could turn out to be a better business even without having all the answers. What I've experienced is that as you write the answers, you'll feel really confident if you are doing the right thing.

Another aspect in the application that I had a conflict with my co-founder at the time was the amount of time to spend on the application. He was anal about getting every aspect of the application right. We shot the video like a 100 times. I contented that was unnecessary but eventually agreed to disagree. I feel that if you are on the right track, you shouldn't spend more than a couple of hours on the final application, regardless of the stage you are applying at.

It takes some practice to get the video right. This again depends on the co-founder dynamics. I would use the video prep as a proxy to estimate the efficacy of the co-founder dynamics. If you took really long to nail the video - I'd spend some time introspecting. All said and done, if you take a really long time just to nail a video, how would you fare in dealing with more complicated company decisions.

So IMHO there is a lot of value in writing the YC app, regardless of whether you make it or not.

I was initially quite frustrated with the amount of time that my cofounder spent on honing pitches.

I came to really appreciate it, having someone who can maintain that obsessive focus on pitch decks usually translates quite well into an obsessive focus on product. If a person is obsessive and has had a lot of past success, they're probably obsessive about the right things.

Yep, I agree but such an obsessive focus comes at a cost of execution speed. In the early stages I'd rather be fast and a bit sloppy than be slow and perfect.

This cycle's app I did in 3 hours. I opened the apply site at 8am, filled it out in order, did not go back and revise, turned on my iphone and talked for 60 seconds, and then submitted. It was the best app I've ever done. (Rejected) The lesson is that if it takes a month to write a pitch, that means I don't understand my business at all and have a long way to go.

Is there a link to the application?

Sadly no, I tried finding it everywhere but no luck, should have taken a backup of our emails before deleting our domain mail boxes.

Don't be upset or quit, but I think it's also good to wonder why. Perhaps it's just not a VC opportunity; are you okay with growing a more organic company with smaller revenue? Maybe you're not a clear communicator; do you need to work at it or is your idea hard to communicate? Is that indicative of a problem?

We got a rejection letter this morning. Definitely not going to quit. We hit a quarter million in our first year, cracked a tough technical problem, and are significantly growing end-user usage every week. We got one video view, so it's prompted to me to dial back the confidence and write a list of all the reasons our application was thrown out and that process has been very helpful.

Also, remember YC has open sourced a ton of its knowledge (Startup School, Stanford Course, PG essays, Sam Altman Playbook), so if you read a bit every week you have their guidance for free. And maybe you'll be better prepared for a Series A 9 months from now after getting into the next batch. Life's about good timing.

Or maybe quit and re seed the DNA of your founding team. People get into YC all the time without an idea. It's about the people.

I know someone who literally spent a year finding roommates and living with them in advance in order to cultivate a better YC application.

It's competitive, and 99.9% of the rejected will end up failing.

It's hard to listen and put in the effort but it's worthwhile, having a chip on your shoulder doesn't really make you more productive often it slows you down because you're working in circles to address your emotional needs rather than really listening to the business feedback.

OK, just some ranting from someone who has been rejected by YC for over 10 years now (not really something I want to brag about) but has been fortunate enough to receive investment and grooming from other fine people in the business community.

Keep at it (I kept at it and I'm honestly loving the results) but maybe really change and listen.

It's now overrated anyway. You can hear it from many people unaffiliated with YC, but even some recent YC founders.

It's now mostly "YC stamp of approval" that increases your brand and access to good investors on demo day.

Everything else (e.g. educational value, sense of community) gets degraded due to huge batch sizes (294 founders in S17) and most of the things YC teaches becoming public knowledge.

> It's now mostly "YC stamp of approval" that increases your brand and access to good investors on demo day.

I have experience with small business, although not with YC. Those benefits are MASSIVE and should not be underestimated.

> Good investors on demo day

IMO investors ability to invest in startups have improved. If top investors are not able to find you on your own, you are not likely to get the check from them anyway. I speak it from position of not going to YC, but doing in-person pitches with half of "top 10" VCs, and some of those with partners.

The only exception may be if you are not outside of current investment trends, but you are making lots of revenue. In such case you probably shouldn't get VC money anyway.

> YC stamp of approval

That would indeed have helped in some situations. It's case by case call whether it's worth the equity. Just be sure you don't do it for vanity to show off your friends that you got into YC.

Isn’t that a goal though?

We applied I think in 2010, got rejected. This was when YC was still fairly young. so arguably competition was even less than it is today.

Our company now does over $100M ARR and still growing. We learned a lot along the way, to be fair, I don't think I would have accepted us either at the time. Just take it as a learning experience and get better, don't let rejection stop you. I couldn't tell you how many "NOs" we've gotten in our company's lifespan.

This is a bit of a tangent, but if you don't get in, don't read into it too much. The rejection could be due to many factors. It could very well be that you were rejected by the stage of your company. You may not have built out enough, or haven't had enough validation yet. I know a solo founder who didn't get in, but went on to raise 20m plus for his company (tuition.io). The fact that he was a solo founder and that he was still developing the product could have been the issue of why he was rejected. He went along to create a company that has 50+ employees. This is all to say you really have to develop the idea and see where your traction is to validate your idea. YC is a great organization to have backing you, but it's not always perfect in selecting great companies. Learn from the rejection, and apply those lessons, but commit to building a company.

I've been rejected from YC at every stage, but I still think there is a lot of value in building relationships with the community. There are tons of people from all sides of the spectrum that you can learn from and apply again. Also YC gives away so many of their secrets if you just pay attention and know where to look.

I feel the same way. I'm moving to Mountain View and wouldn't have an issue helping companies that need it.

It's emotionally hard even with YC Family supporting you.

Pieter Levels(pieterhg) is the creator of: - https://nomadlist.com/ - https://remoteok.io/ - https://hoodmaps.com/ Was apparently YC reject too and posted this on his twitter today for some inspiration; https://mobile.twitter.com/levelsio/status/98653081431266099... He is super nice guy too.!!!

I've always felt more people should spend some time in sales to harden their skin a little bit. Anything, including running a startup and being successful is a numbers game.

If you change your mindset from, "Oh we got rejected, we must be doing something wrong." to "Oh we got rejected, it just means we're now closer to getting accepted by some other incubator, VC, angle investor, etc."

The guys I worked with in several startups took rejection as a badge of honor. It just meant you were getting closer, not further away from your goal.

This is how I view the rejection. I was mildly disappointed and I mean _super_ mild. I look forward to getting my product better and reapplying.

My plan is to print and frame the rejection and use it as a motivator. For me it was an accomplishment to reach a point where I felt I had a solid submission. I know a few things (at least) I can improve for the next time I submit. So, time to get to work.

I have a related question. I had an idea many years ago and I've poked at it irregularly since. I have kids and I've already had one startup fail, so I just kind of slow-rolled this one.

I still believe the idea has merit, so I keep poking at it here and there. I spent money on design work and it's incorporated, but I don't have a partner or support mechanism.

I had a BizSpark account, but I "graduated" in February, so I can't host the API for free anymore. I was considering redeveloping the API in serverless AWS, but that will take time. I have a working API in .NET Web API.

So I'm I'm missing a place to deploy my API (and an Identity Server implementation for OAuth2) and an iOS developer to implement the designs.

Looking for advice...and sure, it may sound like I don't care enough and that's the death of many a startup, but I do care. I want to see the app completed and get a chance to work on the business model (and since it's a social networking app, that's no small thing).


All the good and bad advice is welcome.

How does this beat the results you would get from Google search?

If you use Google to search "I need clothes for college", what do you get? Is it actually helpful? Google doesn't know what school you go to, who you like to hang out with, what you do for fun, if you're male or female (well it does, but it's not used in search results that I can tell).

It's all about context. A system of advice and recommendations curated from a social network, heavily moderated and limited to short Twitter-sized pieces of text could help people solve problems in under a minute.

As it is now, you often have to "manage" your search process because you have to wade through all of the subjective material or you really don't know the right question to ask or what your root need is.

How about this? "I need SSL on my stage website."

Good luck finding the answer on google if you can't get SSL to work and you didn't know there was a load balancer stripping it out.

Quora and Yahoo Answers are a bastion of redirected content, incoherent answers, and they're really just entertainment. They provide a largely hit or miss solution.

With Wizely, for each Topic, the network gets to continually add context they see relevant.

The proposed business model is that there could be ads found contextually. "I need to replace a patio door" could lead to ads from Home Depot, Lowe's, and Menard's. There would be an opt-in click-through to advertisers websites with hard warnings about being tracked. All ads would be heavily moderated (no 100% self-serve advertising).

Also, your external searches will have no impact on what you do within the Wizely network and vice versa. So if you look "I need to buy a car" and traverse the Q&A tree, you won't later see car ads all over your browser (for those not using adblock). One of the core ideas is to flip the ad model so it disproportionally benefits the user, not the advertisers.

It is also worth noting that the difference between bootstrapping and getting into an incubator is about speed of execution, not long-term success. YC is an option, not a requirement, to start your own thing.

There are many stages for a nascent startup to fail. Getting into the incubator is only the first step, and perhaps the easiest to give up at. I would encourage all people who got rejected to fail-fast and keep trying.

I have a friend who got into an incubator with a crypto idea and very positive feedback on the idea. Six months after funding, the whole thing imploded due to personal conflict. At the time, my friend had recently up with his girlfriend of five years and the venture ran out of steam. They ended up returning the money to investors. When the crypto bubble hit he was kicking himself having just missed out.

After that, he took a break to go overseas and recuperate. As I write this, my friend has just closed a $1m seed round for his next project and is well on the way to rolling it out. Last night he popped the question to his now fiance. It's important to remember that startups are a marathon, not a sprint. Roll with the punches, learn from your mistakes and keep on hustling :).

I have a few friends who fought to grow their company out over years and ended up doing very well.

Funding just means more resources to execute the idea, but doesn't ensure success at all.

> Funding just means more resources to execute the idea, but doesn't ensure success at all.

‘Nuff said.

On the flip side, the toughest thing sometimes with startups is to decide when to draw that line in the sand where you can say "okay, this isn't working, time to move on." You tend to bias yourself and your success. The YC partners are smart and have generally been right every single time when something I was working on wasn't going to work.

Your comment echos a conversation I was having with my wife the other day as she was reading me bits from Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance Book by Angela Duckworth.

As you might infer from the title the thesis is that Grit is a very powerful force. My comment in our discussion was that this whole body of social science research and life/career advice comes into conflict with other bodies of advice about cutting one's losses, the value of killing 'failing' projects early, avoiding the trap of sunk costs.

How do we personally know or offer advice to others about whether current difficulties are likely to be overcome by renewed effort and persistence and when do we say it isn't working, try something very different?

There are some examples of people plugging away on a 'failed' project for decades and eventually striking it rich.

Indeed, and that is the lure. And, when we read stories like that we get motivated to press on and never give up. But who writes the stories of someone who worked on a failed project for 20 years and never got anywhere? If we persist what are the odds that we will be the one for whom it works out?

The question of when to persist, how long to persist and how to pay the bills while you persist are very personal to me.

In 2000 I and a friend did research and the very beginnings of development on a semantic analysis technique that was notably better than anything we could find at the time including from Google and other search engines. But we couldn't find money fast enough and we both had families to support so we went our separate ways and did other things that were more commercial.

About 7 years later VCs started funding similar technologies. And, somewhere around 2010 to 2013 technology seemed to have caught up to where we were at in 2000.

So should we have persisted? It kind of seems like we should have. But, I have seen enough of life to know that sometimes a group of people have a lot going for them, winning awards, raising funding, rolling out product and still end up running into a roadblock on the way to commercial success that sinks them.

Timing sometimes matters a whole lot.

That's because the vast majority of the start-ups won't work and all YC has to do is to pick the best from a batch, not viable start-ups in a vacuum. The more background data they have the better their decisions. Classes and the alumni network are the reason YC scales the way it does.

Participate in the Startup School is something that any rejected startup should do, imho. It is true many rejected people will do great companies, so invest time in knowledge is better that be down for a simple rejection.


Nice, thanks for this!

Been rejected twice, now on pace to do 5 million+ in revenue for 2018 without giving up any equity. My business was never really a fit for VC anyway.

Rejection is part of life. You lick your wounds and move on.

My cofounder and I don't regret applying. We did it mostly for publicity. We already have pretty good traction and funding so the rejection doesn't really slow us down. I never thought we had much of a shot getting accepted anyway just because our team and product are really out of the norm.

Let your haters be your motivators.

Rejected twice, now. I second this. It's annoying to be rejected, but it's important not to be dispirited.

Keep pushing on and don't let a YC rejection bother you too much. As mrburton said, if it slows you down, you're probably doing something wrong.

Honestly, bootstrapping can be very advantageous to your startup because it keeps you on your toes.

We were rejected this past winter. It was a little disappointing, but not surprising. A lot of amazing companies apply to YC and we weren't really ready. We learned a lot by getting rejected and might try again later, especially since we got a "you were in the top 10%, try again" email.

If YC is good at what it does, and I think it is, then being rejected by YC should cause you to lower your estimated probability that your start-up will succeed, at least a little. The question is how much.

"Attrition is a group statistic. It doesn't apply to me"


I'm very interested to see statistics on "% of people from the US who were accepted" vs. "% of people from other countries who were accepted", divided by country. YC's general statement "29% of the companies were from outside the US" is not equal to my question. I feel the bias somewhere here. Non-native speakers have much harder times because of different basic things like the language barrier, but something tells me that the US-based people are in priority.

That's much more upsetting than rejection itself. You can make some garbage like Juicero, and, being located in the US, still get investments and some knowledge. And for outsider countries, as there are no adequate investors, YC can provide much more impact.

I highly recommend anyone doubting themselves to watch the g-eazy episode from Netflix's documentary series Rapture.

If you quit, you'll never make it ( and that's ok ) but if you keep working, keep honing your craft, you might just make it big. Take every failure as a lesson that something needs tweaking. When you play a game, you only get better by dying lots and lots and lots of times.

There are tons of incubators and VC around the country. Surely these people didn't apply to just one? or does YC have exclusivity requirements?

Because the distance between YC and the next best incubator is measured in light years (imo)

I suspect YC has become similar to the Ivy League schools, in that its primary value is in signaling and networking, rather than the education itself.

Ironically this makes the whole thing very un-entrepreneurial. People ‘studying for the test’ to compete to get in. Almost employee/herd like. You cannot be upset about not getting in, or at least minimise the time you’re upset, give it 5 minutes and get back to work.

Absolutely, I'm pretty sure YC companies have a way easier time raising money.

I can't speak for others, but there's certain elements of YC that are very different than other incubators.

They have a very strong community that will help you post graduation.

I do suspect a lot of people who apply to YC believe it's a golden ticket, due to all the hype around some of their more successful companies.

This is ridiculous. Rejection sucks, and it will likely slow you down a little bit for some time. That’s okay, and it is okay to feel bad. Over time, however, you will get over it and become better because of it. But if you are slowed down you aren’t doing anything wrong, you are human.

I agree. They're so swamped with applications they don't even look at demos sometimes - they didn't look at mine, which hurt, but I understand why they rejected us (no growth even though we have a LOT of positive feedback, but we really need money to make it grow).

Do we have to refill founder info section while reapplying to YC or just startup info and progress ? Didn't keep backup of founder info.

My recollection is that some of the founder info fields got blanked. Save it if you think you'll want it.

YC is legacy, don't apply. ICOs are technically better and you don't have to uproot your life to go to SF. Additionally it doesn't have to gate out 99% of the public with the accredited investor scam.

The connections seem nice and everyone is talented obviously.

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