My journey to joining Y Combinator:
Here is the full story of how it unfolded and three lessons I learned along the way:
I first applied to YC during my Junior year of college for the startup that my best friend and I were working on.
We didn't have much traction, so it wasn't a surprise when we didn't get in on our first attempt.
Between the next time we applied, YC unveiled their very first cohort of "Startup School." YC's idea for Startup School was to shares its curriculum and resources with a broader audience for free.
We used SUS as a way to learn about startups and get closer to the community.
The next time we applied, we had raised a little bit of venture capital and moved to LA to work on the startup full-time.
Before interview invites were sent out, my co-founder and I had a falling out, and I left the company.
A few weeks later, while I was packing up and getting ready to move to Seattle, I got an email from YC.
We got an interview.
At first, I was stunned. Excited. But quickly, that faded and was replaced with a sinking feeling when I realized I wouldn't get to go. I was no longer part of the company.
Fast-forward to the Spring of 2018, and I'm now working full-time as a software engineer at Facebook. My buddy had just quit his job to start his own company and wanted some help at the YC Spring Hackathon.
I didn't have anything better going on that weekend, so I agreed.
We worked on a fascinating application of crypto that allowed anyone living abroad to trade US stock in the form of a crypto asset.
To my surprise, we won first place and with it an offer to interview. To do this day, it's still one of the most exciting moments of my life.
I got to shake hands with my idols, including Sam Altman, Michael Seibel, and Adora Cheung.
My bubble burst when I figured out that I wouldn't go to this interview either.
I was less than a year into my job at Facebook, and I would have had to pay back a considerable chunk of my signing bonus to quit now.
Another YC interview that I couldn't make attend.
Looking back, this was a turning point for my career. Now that I had gotten the taste of startups again, I couldn't go back.
I made a conscious decision to save up whatever money I could to quit and work on a startup.
Attempt #4 came a few weeks after leaving Facebook the following Spring. I had started working on an online education company called "Virtually" and decided that I had enough early traction that it was worth applying.
A few weeks later, I got the interview and flew down to the Mountain View office.
This trip was the first time I would get to interview at Y Combinator. I knew the interview would be intense, so I spent hours studying and memorizing responses to hundreds of possible questions that they could ask.
It didn't go well. We got torn apart during the interview and got the rejection email later that evening.
Attempt #5 came when I applied for the same idea six months later. Having made a little bit more traction, I thought I would undoubtedly get an interview.
At this point, I was ready to give up on the process. I had just raised some pre-seed capital, so getting into Y Combinator no longer had anything to do with the capital and everything to do with the mentorship and prestige.
Attempt #6 took place in March 2020, the start of the global pandemic. Nearly a year after I had started working on my online education company, things were finally coming together.
Learning was online wasn't just an option anymore; it was the only option.
We were generating revenue, and customers were coming to us rather than us having to chase them down.
Given the state of the pandemic, this interview was entirely virtual. Having been through it before- I knew not to make the same mistake as last time.
This time I didn't memorize answers to hundreds of questions. I memorized the answer to five. Everything else I knew, I would have to reason through at the moment.
The evening of the interview, I waited and waited for the rejection email to arrive, but it never did.
Instead- around 10:32 PM, I got a call from Adora. I was in.
Now, having been through the process so many times, I thought I'd share my big takeaways.
The three lessons I learned along the way:
1) The companies that get into YC are the companies that don't need YC.
The best way to get into YC is by showing that you're well on your way to success.
Don't try to "hack" the application or the interview. That time is much better spent working on your business.
2) Become an expert on your customers, not startups
It's easy to become obsessed with startups and the process of company building.
This habit is another trap YC warns founders to avoid. Your goal should be to solve a problem, not build a company.
The best founders have deep insight into the psychology of their customers.
3) Keep building
So many founders I meet give up on their company when they don't get into YC.
YC shouldn't have any bearing on whether or not you decide to keep going. It's one signal, but it's not the only.
There are hundreds of VC funds dedicated to supplying talented founders with capital. You can even bootstrap or crowdfund.
For so many years, it was my dream to get into Y Combinator.
But like all dreams, when they come true, the satisfaction only lasts for a minute. Then you move onto the next one.
Ish is the Founder & CEO of Virtually (YC S20).