Advice on the YC interview from a late-stage YC alum
Hello! My name is Nick and I went through Y Combinator (YC) in Winter 2018 with my cofounder Finbarr for our software startup, Shogun. Shogun is currently at Series C stage, with 35,000+ customers and $115M in capital raised from Y Combinator, initialized, VMG, Accel, and Insight Partners.
As a YC alum, I get a decent amount of questions about the application and interview process, and often review applications and conduct mock interviews for folks in my network. A lot of the advice I give is redundant, so this is me “open sourcing” it for everyone.
Please note that I do not represent Y Combinator, nor do my opinions reflect the opinions of YC or the YC partners. This is just my advice on how to think about the interview.
High Level Guidance
Unlike my Y Combinator Application Guide, I can’t “break down” the interview question by question because: (1) There is no standard set of questions that the partners and YC staff ask, and (2) There is no set formula for what YC looks for in an admitted interviewee. Don’t worry yourself trying to anticipate the details, because the interview is simply questions on your favorite topic: your startup. Here is some high level guidance to consider:
Have confidence. At least one of the YC partners found something intriguing about your application. If you’re being interviewed it likely means you’re in the top 10% of overall applicants (a guess). Don’t take it to a level of arrogance, but have confidence in your startup, and in yourself as a founder.
If you find that you’re going into a pitch/sell/compel mode, turn it off and switch back to interview mode. YC teaches founders how to pitch to VC, so they’re not really looking for a pitch. What they’re looking for is to gather more data about you and your company. Stick to relaying quantitative and qualitative data about your startup, target market, and founding team.
Let your passion come through.
While you don’t want to pitch or sell, you also don’t want to come across as being low energy or low conviction for what you’re working on. Bring energy to the interview, and demonstrate passion for the problem you’re solving.
Keep it concise.
I went on about this quite a bit in the YC application guide: brevity is key. Similar to the application; do your best to keep your responses to 1–3 sentences, and focused on data and facts. The YC partners and staff will often ask follow up questions. If you are giving a lengthy response, don’t be surprised or put-off if they interrupt you; they’re just being mindful of time and working to get at the data they need to make an informed decision.
Feel free to say ‘I don’t know’.
It’s okay if you don’t know the answer to a question, or even many questions. Saying “I don’t know the answer to that off the top of my head” (even repeatedly) is not necessarily a sign that the interview is going poorly. In fact it could just as easily mean the opposite; perhaps the partners have piqued curiosity and are just eager to get into the fine details. You can always offer to follow up with the data over email. Saying “I don’t know.” is always better than giving a “fluff” response or redirecting the question.
Probably a given for most, but you shouldn’t lie in your interview (this advice also applies to life in general). When I went through the YC interview process the first time, I REALLY wanted to get in (I didn’t). I can see how some people might cross an ethics line in situations that they perceive to be high pressure and high stakes. That said, knowingly making a false statement in the interview isn’t tolerated, and can absolutely get you kicked out and blacklisted post acceptance. YC takes note of most things, and there’s a very strong likelihood they’ll catch the incongruent data at a later point. If you later realize you unintentionally made a false statement in the interview or application: don’t panic, and email YC with the correction as soon as you realize the error.
Don’t worry if the interview feels rough.
Common YC interview experience: “I thought the interview went poorly, but we got in!”. If you’re in the interview and the questions are getting harder, or you’re finding that you don’t know the answer to many questions; don’t lose confidence. As I mentioned earlier, it could just as easily be that partners have piqued curiosity and are going deep. In that sense, you can think of it like one of those grad school tests that recalibrates. But conversely don’t read that as; if the interview seemed easy, it means it went poorly! (See.. it’s easy to get in your head haha.) There are no indicators during the interview that reveal the likelihood of acceptance, so just take a deep breath and focus on answering the questions to the best of your ability.
Relax. You’re already prepared.
The YC partners are highly intelligent and accomplished folks, but you are the expert on the specific problem you’re working to solve with your startup. Regardless of outcome, the YC interview is yet one more thing you’ll do on your long startup journey- nothing more, nothing less. Don’t lose sleep spending a bunch of time “preparing” because this interview is just about relaying facts on your favorite topic: your startup.
A final word
I have a ton of love for Y Combinator. I really value the partnership we’ve had on Shogun for the past 5+ years, as well as the opportunity to stay involved as an alum. I’ve invested in close to a dozen YC companies to date, and I do my best to refer a lot of startups and founders their way. That said, getting into YC is not the end all be all: it’s a means to an end.
I’ve seen the level of pressure and emotional attachment people put on acceptance to YC, and I think it’s unwarranted. The success of your startup does not hinge on YC acceptance and, as with all venture capitalists, YC probably has a long missed list.
So if you’re about to have an interview with YC — congratulations and good luck! And if you don’t get accepted; take a deep breath, and return your focus to speaking to your customers, building product, and growing revenue.
I hope this helps!
If you found this content useful; consider subscribing. It's free!