Y Combinator, a kind of mini-venture capital firm, invests tens of thousands of dollars ($$$) into very early seed stage start-up companies run by smart technology hackers. They wanted to fund me in Summer 2008.
I applied to Y Combinator two times. The first time, when I applied with my friend Mason for the Summer 2007 round, I arrogantly presumed that Paul would lavish on us praise and beg us to fly to California to work with him. I spent no more than an hour on the application. We had no passion in the idea we presented. Our projects list hinted at nothing particularly remarkable or unique. Our analysis of the idea and our competitors delved only into the shallowest parts of a deep lagoon.
The second time, when I applied alone in Summer 2008, in an inspired moment I sat down in Starbucks for a solid few hours to work on the application. I strived for excellence, not perfection. A few months prior, I had briefly glimpsed the semi-successful application of Liz Jobson and Danielle Fong. I recalled their deep detail and thoughtful writing, so I imitated that kind of deep analysis which shows off one’s mastery of logic and breadth of experience.
I wish I had known how to write a good application the first time. So, taking my cue from Brian Lash’s recent question on Hacker News, I helped him out. I write here a slightly expanded version to help out anybody else who wants Paul Graham & co. to fund his or her startup.
If I were to advise myself in 2007, I would recommend that I write briefly but write a lot. This advice seems contradictory, but I mean it in a very specific way. My first application, I kept brief. I did not want to swamp YC with a tome of text. I saved many of my accomplishments for the interview. Do not do this. Write, write, and write some more. Write everything interesting and unique about yourself. If you have doubts about a statement you made about a competitor, qualify it. Don’t vacillate, but at the same time don’t seem shallow, ignorant, and inexperienced.
Of course, once you’ve written all that, you have a very long application. Now, take out filler words. Compress ideas that take up two sentences when you can use just one. If you waste two words in a sentence, delete the whole sentence and write it again from scratch. If you see a phrase that you think an investment banker might use on his resume, nuke it. Achieve a high density. In my experience, the YC crew truly pores over these applications to understand all of the meat of it. They do not skim your application when it has rich content. Cut, cut, and cut some more.
Now, step back and look at your application. If you have very little writing left, real content, then you may not be the best fit for Y Combinator this year. That’s okay. It’s good you know now. Take this year off and work on some interesting, hard projects that nobody has done before. Bounce your idea off of the smartest person you know. Hell, micro-test the idea. Then, repeat this process.
Step back, look at your tight list of accomplishments. If it’s long, that’s great, since reading something long but rich in content everyone loves to do. The length indicates strength. In my limited experience, I think this is how I made my application successful.
Here’s some of my application below (I elided some less relevant parts). I was accepted for Summer ‘08 2008 but decided to pass this time for a variety of reasons.
What is your company going to make?
I’m open to anything. Here’s one idea:
Have you ever scanned a document before? How was that experience?
It was terrible for me, too. Everyone I have ever asked has agreed that it is physically painful. But, there is a solution, one based on understanding actual human needs. What is wrong with the scanners of today?:
* slow (takes time to heat up)
* slow (scanning at a high dpi takes a long time)
* complicated (please select the dpi, now select bla, now bal[sic]…)
* cumbersome (files generated at high dpi are huge, slow down system)
* cumbersome (OCR’ing a document is a whole other rigamarole)
What do people really need? Simply a decent, readable scan of the document. This should be as easy as holding the paper up to face the monitor.
I propose that I sell a device which is basically just a decent-resolution CCD chip with a special lens which connects to a computer (wired at first, but v2 wireless). Scanning a document is as simple as holding the camera up to a document and clicking. In my tests, scanning a whole text books takes 5-10 minutes. This is a game-changer. I’ve worked with an ip lawyer to file the provisional patent on this and a few other aspects of the designs.
[BY THE WAY, IF ONE OF YOU WANTS TO HELP ME BUILD THIS, I'M ALL EARS. I'M AN AI HACKER NOT A HARDWARE HACKER. OH, BY THE WAY, I USED A DIFFERENT IDEA IN THE INTERVIEW ROUND, NOT THIS ONE SINCE I'M SKEPTICAL OF THE MARKET FOR THIS PRODUCT AT THIS POINT. NEVERTHELESS, IT'S VERY COOL. I WANT TO BUILD THIS FOR MYSELF!]
For each founder, please list: name, age, YC username, email address, personal url (if any), and current employer and title or school and major. List the main contact first. Separate founders with blank lines. Put an asterisk before the name of anyone not able to move to Boston June through August.
….. [Be sure to put your blog here. Don't have a blog? Make one. Blog about whatever is on your mind. Blog about your hacking.
To be honest, an Ivy League pedigree probably helped. Also, my computer science degree (as opposed to Economics or Business one) probably encouraged YC's faith in me.]
Please tell us in one or two sentences about something impressive that each founder has built or achieved.
Looking at some things in ~/projects folder: ……..
[Here I mention a few of my projects, with links to open source code, web pages, anything I can publicly show. I didn't spend more than one or two sentences describing any one project, but I listed many of my most interesting projects and why I worked on them. YC likes to see you working on real problems, so I talked about problems I solved for myself and for others directly
They want to see that you think creatively and that you actually finish things.
It goes without saying that you should list projects which uniquely describe you. Building a toy language in Programming Languages class many people probably do. Yes, it may have taken you a long time, and you may have learned a lot, but you do not necessarily stand out. Writing a CAPTCHA solver to hack Digg few people do or can do.]
Please tell us about the time you, ljlolel, most successfully hacked some (non-computer) system to your advantage.
…… [I talked about my shotgun email to dozens of startups here in Silicon Valley which gave me the opportunity to meet a lot of cool entrepreneurs. I'll probably blog about this at some point in the future.]
Please tell us about an interesting project, preferably outside of class or work, that two or more of you created together. Include urls if possible.
(see above) [I applied alone, so group projects inapplicable.]
How long have the founders known one another and how did you meet? Have any of the founders not met in person?
n/a [Again, I was a sole founder.]
What’s new about what you’re doing? What are people forced to do now because what you plan to make doesn’t exist yet?
(see above) Basically, nobody ever scans anything because it takes forever, doesn’t really do what you want (you just want a readable, small image and for the document to be searchable),
What do you understand about your business that other companies in it just don’t get?
Scanner manufacturers try to pack in the highest dpi they possibly can. They focus on resolution, when they should be focusing on the user experience. Speed is what they should optimize, but I see no scanner manufacturer doing that.
Who are your competitors, and who might become competitors? Who do you fear most?
HP, Xerox, etc, also ScanR, Qipit, Evernote …… [I go on to be brutally honest about the difficulty and vulnerability of my position as a hardware startup in a crowded field. Remember, you are writing for some very, very smart people. They want to see your analytical thinking skills here. They want to see you be realistic, not delusional.]
……. more questions, answer analytically deeply, answer honestly to the best of your ability ……
If you had any other ideas you considered applying with, feel free to list them. One may be something we’ve been waiting for.
…….. [I always think of new ideas and discuss them with friends. I chose 4 and listed them here. I crisply described each in no more than 2 brief sentences.]