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Ask PG: How would you fill out a YC application with YC as your idea?
171 points by trysomething on Jan 18, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 29 comments
For the sake of argument, suppose this is right after the 1st summer founders program or right after the talk you gave at Harvard, whichever is more interesting.

Dear founders of Y Combinator,

We regret to inform you that we are unable to offer you a spot in this year's Y Combinator class. Do not take it personally. It does not reflect poorly on the quality of your company, "Y Combinator," or its founding idea. We received a huge number of compelling applications this year. Unfortunately, there just weren't enough spots to go around, so we had to make some difficult choices. As a result, we were unable to admit "Y Combinator" to this year's Y Combinator batch. Please do not be discouraged. Many fantastic ideas like 'Y Combinator' were also not admitted. In fact, we strongly encourage 'Y Combinator' to apply again next year!


Paul Graham

Y Combinator

"We could not accept Y Combinator due to the obvious name and branding conflict. We strongly encourage you to apply again next year with a new name."

There's a more personalized version :)

Yes. I also should have placed my response in reply to mlchild's application.

This reminds me of the Jeff Bezos philosophy of writing a press release as the project proposal.

How would you fill out a "Ask HN" submission asking HN how pg would fill out a YC application with YC as his idea?

Lisp? Is it Lisp? I bet it's Lisp.

Nope. Scheme.

Excellent troll. I'm surprised this went 16 minutes without a correction.

Clearly it's Arc.

How would you comment on a "Ask HN" submission asking HN how pg would fill out a YC application with YC as his idea?

How would you reply to a comment on a "Ask HN" submission asking HN how pg would fill out a YC application with YC as his idea?

If pg actually answers this for any other reason than to see me eat my shorts, I'll eat my shorts.

I think it would be even better if it was for Viaweb.


Apologies in advance to Sam Altman—I know writing HN comments is not work. But I had fun answering! Back to the code. _____________________________________________________________

Tell us in one or two sentences something about each founder that shows he or she is an "animal," in the sense described in How to Start a Startup.

Paul and Robert built the first SaaS company, Viaweb, which allowed users to build their own stores on the web. It became Yahoo Stores after its acquisition.

Jessica is an excellent writer, marketing whiz and is already working on the idea for our second major product—a one-day version of our summer program in which a number of successful founders give talks to prospective hacker-founders. We think this will inspire even more of the kind of companies we like to invest in.

Trevor built a robot that duplicated the Segway’s functionality in a weekend using off-the-shelf parts.

Tell us in one or two sentences something about each founder that shows a high level of ability.

Trevor is working on the first self-balancing bipedal robot. It’s almost ready.

Robert discovered buffer overflow, which helped bring the internet into the mainstream press.

Jessica managed a highly successful rebranding of the investment bank Adams Harkness as VP of marketing.

Paul is the author of On Lisp (1993) and ANSI Common Lisp (1995). (Have you ever tried programming in Lisp?)

For founders who are hackers: what cool things have you built? (Extra points for urls of demos or screenshots.)

Trevor—http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eunicycle Robert and Paul—http://ycombinator.com/viaweb/ Paul—http://www.paulgraham.com/arc.html

How long have you known one another and how did you meet?

Several years, mostly at school. [Ed. note: ???]

What is your company going to make?

A “summer school” for young, inexperienced hackers that are interested in starting a company but lack early-stage funding.

The founders will meet with us once a week for dinner, during which a speaker from the technology industry will answer questions and speak from hard-won experience.

If your project is software, what OS(es) and language(s) will you use, and why?


If you've already started working on it, how long have you been working and how many lines of code (if applicable) have you written?

A few months—most of the work has been planning the program, the code for the site is fairly simple.

If you have an online demo, what's the url? (Big extra points for this.)


How long will it take before you have a prototype? A beta? A version 1 you can charge for?

Once this application process concludes, the beta should be ready for launch.

How will you partition the work this summer; who will work on what?

All partners will help select companies and advise from past experience. Paul and Robert have more experience with investors and shepherding small companies through the necessary phases towards becoming big ones. Jessica has experience with marketing, branding, and working with large companies. Trevor is a hardware/software savant and is running a growing company of his own.

If you already have a business plan, what's the url? (Don't send us your business plan. Put it on a server and tell us the url. Ascii text preferred. Don't password protect it.)


How will you make money? Who will your customers be, how many are there, and how will they hear about you?

Our basic assumption is that young founders can succeed in building startups with good advising and seed capital. Given our average investment is $18k for 6% of 8 companies, just once company has to be worth $2.4 million for us to break even.

We’ll advertise in the computer science departments of prominent universities (e.g. Harvard, MIT) to recruit hackers who are looking for an alternative summer job to working at a big company.

Will you do price discrimination?

We’ll give slightly more money to larger groups, although we suppose that’s “investment discrimination.”

Who are your competitors, and who might become competitors? Who do you fear most?

Obvious investment-side competitors are early-stage VC firms, who have more money and the trappings of success. We’re banking on them ignoring our target group of early founders.

The competitors we’re really afraid of are competitors for these hackers’ time and attention. Fast-growing tech companies, graduate school, and even cushy jobs at big companies might have more superficial appeal. We need to make sure the most promising companies follow through on their potential.

Who will lose most if you succeed? (This need not be a competitor; TV networks have been hurt by email.)

Likely those very same competitors for our founders’ attention. Google and graduate CS programs might lose some great hackers, although we think in the long run they’ll do better if younger programmers see the potential to start companies. The big losers will be the R&D/quant trading/IT/etc. departments at ossified giant companies—they’ll lose the kind of brilliant people they use to bury in back offices.

Which companies, in order, are most likely to buy you?

KPCB/Sequoia Google Microsoft

What do you know about your business that other companies in it just don't get?

Young, inexperienced founders can start massively successful companies. They don’t need much money or training—just seed capital and a push in the right direction.

What's new about what you're doing?

Our focus on such early-stage companies and our plan to invest and work with these companies in batches are both quite novel. Most funds operate asynchronously and make much larger investments in much later-stage companies.

Why would it be hard for someone else to duplicate?

We have experience in starting companies from the ground up and insight into what matters (people, making something people want, thriftiness) and what doesn’t (“market size,” the initial idea, “professionalism,” having an office, etc.)

Have you made any discoveries you consider patentable?

We think we move fast enough to not need patents.

What might go wrong? (This is a test of imagination, not confidence.)

Perhaps all of the startups will fail. Perhaps the founders will go back to school and the companies stagnate. Perhaps founders do actually need experience at a “real job” to succeed in business. Perhaps Bill Gates and Larry and Sergey are true needles in the haystack and we won’t be able to find hackers who could be huge successes.

But we don’t think so.

If you're already incorporated, when were you? Who are the shareholders and what percent of the company do each own? If you’ve had funding, how much, at what valuation(s)?


If you're not incorporated yet, please list the percent of the company you plan to give each founder, and anyone else you plan to give stock to. (This question is more for you than us.)

[Ed. note: ???]

If you'll have expenses beyond the living costs of your founders, Internet access, server rental, etc., what will they be?

Space to hold our dinners, the food, and the investment money, of course.

Describe, in one sentence each, any companies any of you have started before. If they failed, why? (We consider failed companies valuable experience too.)

Paul and Robert founded Artix, which let art galleries go online. This failed (reason below) but became Viaweb, which allowed people to build their own web stores.

Trevor started Anybots, which has developed several wheel-based self-balancing robots and is closing on a bipedal robot.

If you could trade a 100% chance of $1 million for a 10% chance of a larger amount, how large would it have to be? Answer for each founder. (There is no right answer.)

Let’s go with the cold mathematical answer and say $10 million.

If your startup seems at the end of the summer to have a good chance of making you rich, which of the founders would be likely to commit to continue working on it full time over the next couple years?

All of us.

Which of the founders would still want to be working for this company in 10 years, if it were successful, and which would rather sell out earlier and do something else? (Again, no right answer.)

All of us [Ed. note: just one year left!].

Are any of the founders covered by noncompetes or intellectual property agreements that overlap with your project? Will any be under consulting contracts this summer?


Was any of your code written by someone who is not one of your founders? If so, how can you safely use it? (Open source is ok of course.)


Will any of the founders have other jobs, responsibilities, or consulting work this summer?


Tell us something surprising or amusing that one of you has discovered, and who discovered it. (The answer need not be remotely related to your project.)

Paul and Robert discovered that art galleries didn’t want to go online in 1995. This may not seem surprising now, but it was to us then!

What else would you have asked if you were us?

There’s a joke here somewhere.

This is definitely not work. However, it's a great example of nerd sniping[1].

[1]: http://xkcd.com/356/

> Robert discovered buffer overflow, which helped bring the internet into the mainstream press.

That might be a bit of an understatement :)

I knew before I looked in comments you'd be here.

Now the big question is...

Are they accepted? :)

He wouldn't tell you. However, he would connect with the right people and sneak his way in.

To be clear, I didn't mean to sneak in illegally. I meant that smart startups who really want to get in YC don't just write an application. They find people in (other startups in YC, mentors, investors) and network their way in. Obviously, if the startup is dumb or the application is really bad, it won't work.

Lots of current startups in YC are founded by first-employee of previous YC startups. Most YC founders I talked too knew people there before sending the application.

PG said that some startups joined YC with only the application. I trust him! But that doesn't mean that lots of others didn't networked hard. If you have a) A good application b) A good application + a previous positve experience talking with the team, who would you pick?

Be careful, though. For every legitimately good startup that gets to know the YC partners through other channels, there are 1,000 founders who just look desperate.

You only have so much time. Building a great company is the most effective way to get into YC.

I know that PG himself has said himself that people they know have an advantage. In fact, that was a major reason to start Hacker News - so they'd be able to recognise people who often leave great comments.

I've heard it can take as many as 7 tries!

If this is your aim, you should have a disposable sum of money amounting to around 10 million US Dollars available to devote this project that you don't mind losing entirely. The potential of losing all of your money is a mind game you must deal with.

You don't need to fill out any damn application, nor do you need a badge to go ahead and do this right now.

Paul Graham reluctantly came to the conclusion that he could afford to go ahead and finance this idea and did. He didn't know he could do this until went ahead and did it. You could look it up. Here.

Do you have what it takes? OK then, get going.

Filling in an application to a VC wanting to be a VC? Doesn't make any sense.

I don't see why it doesn't. If someone had an awesome idea for finding highly valuable companies in a previously underserved market, you don't think YC would invest in them? If you don't then you're missing the point of for-profit companies in general.

It's like every time we see an argument that some company would never do X, because obviously they are in the business of Y and Y is so far removed from X. Well that's just missing the point altogether. Companies are in the business of making money, and if X is an opportunity they can capitalize on, of course they're going to pursue it! Drawing lines in the sand is only limiting your own vision, others will not be so constrained.


This is just silly considering that YC grew out of a sustained and developed system, not some silly one-off idea.

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