Getting accepted into YCombinator is a dream of many CEE founders. As an entrepreneur and a lawyer, I have seen many founders succeed and also fail with their YC application. There is no magic formula or shortcut into getting into YC but there are some basic patterns that are typical for successful YC applications from CEE founders.
YC is for everyone, no matter the region
YC is not only for founders from the Bay Area but also for ambitious ones from CEE. There is no wrong time to apply. You can apply pretty much anytime, however, you should at minimum have some form of product-market-fit (PMF) or founder-market-fit (FMF). More about both below. You should not apply to YC if your business is a lifestyle business (hobby) or you are not open to bringing outside partners into your business. It is also alright to apply multiple times and pivot based on feedback from YC.
You can also apply if you have already received investment from a VC fund or angel investors. Most local and regional CEE investors compete with YC for deal flow so prudent founders should keep that in mind. A term sheet from a solid regional or local CEE investor is the equivalent of a YC acceptance.
The key to the application is being concise and data-driven. The best YC applications avoid long and convoluted answers to questions but stick to the facts and data including such on the product and the founders. Answers should be short and straightforward. The application should avoid sales and marketing language (fluff). Your mental outline of the application should focus on verifiable data around the problem, the solution, and the founders. Being data-driven does not mean being boring and not sexy and Actually, you should demonstrate that both you and the product are interesting. The data around the application should tell the story of the founders and the company. The story of the founders should be why we are the “best team” to tackle this problem and to demonstrate the facts behind this. The data story around the product should be focused on what facts and what you learned from your customer experiments.
A large part of the YC online application focus on product-market fit. Getting not enough feedback is the main killer of startups and YC is looking out for this. Nonetheless, most CEE YC applications fail because the founders have not demonstrated in the application solid product-market fit. Product-market fit means that you have reached out to a significant number of customers asking for feedback on your product. Significant means more than single digits or low double-digit numbers. Getting customer feedback also means getting quality feedback on why your product solves a pain point (ask them the right questions). The data in the customer discovery should show you and YC your ideal customer profile and also the moment you should reach out to them (demonstrate the sales funnel).
In your YC application, you should demonstrate customer feedback. Feedback cannot be limited only to customers from the CEE region (or your home country) but also customer feedback from US customers. There is nothing more impressive for YC than a CEE founder that is able to reach out and close a customer in the US. In your US customer outreach focus on the Bay Area as this is the easiest place to get customers for CEE startups. If you are able to pilot your product with a US customer maybe you can have them sign the client as paying the client. If you have a recognizable client then show off the client in the application. If the client is from CEE explain that ABC Co is the largest bank in Poland (don’t assume YC knows the local clients).
Don’t be surprised that YC will look into your customer reviews in the app store, Reddit, ProductHunt, or Google reviews. You should make the effort to solicit customer comments. If you received negative feedback it is best to take the time to respond.
Getting data from your client should lead you to demonstrate to YC that the problem you are solving has a monetary value and your customer is willing to pay for this. Getting product-market fit also helps you answer better your next YC questions about your go-to-market roadmap aka how will you distribute your product. In your YC application be specific about your unit economics (CAC, LTV, GMU). If you don’t have this be honest and say we are working on it.
Another correlated question of the product-market-fit bucket is virality. While focusing on the customer discovery phase and product-market fit look into how you can increase the virality of your product through your customer. Ask your customers how they would share your product with other customers or use growth hacks to achieve this.
Finally, demonstrate in the application who is responsible for reaching out to customers.
The second set of questions that YC application contains is the founder market fit (FMF) portion. These questions focus on the founder characteristics that make the team exceptional. Many CEE YC applications do not demonstrate properly FMF. Again, you have to sell yourself without selling and focus on facts. In a few words describe why YC should follow up with a phone interview. Think about exciting things you have done or make you stick out of the pack for YC. In your YC application avoid the generalization “we are the best” but back it up with facts that make you the best.
In the FMF you need to show your mission (why you make the world better with your product), vision (why is the current solution broken or inadequate), and possibility for wealth creation (how you will make big money for yourself and YC). This has to be unique only for you. Therefore, no boilerplate statements, but authentic information about you that would make someone in Silicon Valley want to meet with you.
The key here is to show your competitive advantage and or secret sauce in comparison to a team of Stanford graduates who are in the Bay Area and have easy access to capital and advisors. Your competitive advantage should translate into how you and YC together, for example, can reach a billion-dollar valuation. I always suggest to CEE founders that they show their competitive advantage as company builders with technical capabilities. Also, CEE founders can focus on the fact that they are outside of Silicon Valley and they see things differently. Being in CEE can be an advantage and you can actually see something that no one else sees in Silicon Valley. However, founder-market-fit does not mean you can build a cheaper product. It means you are the only people YC and Silicon Valley should talk to solve this problem.
If you have worked for local companies explain what the company does and why your job was important. If you led teams, explain. If you have exited in your local market explain why this exit is important even if the exit had low dollar values. YC needs to understand what you have achieved in CEE and why you undertake this adventure. Is it because of passion for the problem or something else?