Demo day just wrapped up for Beacon. We feel pretty good about what we've done since starting YC in January.
But it's been a long and winding road to get here. One of my cofounders (@dmitric) and I have applied to YC six times, getting in for the first time for Beacon. I dropped a note about it on HN last month and said I would be happy to help anyone applying and hopefully avoid all the stupid mistakes we made the first five times.
Since then I've looked over about 30 applications and here's some global advice that I gave based on what I saw and my own experience.
The goal of your startup is not to get into YC
So many people think that YC is an arrival destination. It's not. It is a teeny tiny stepping stone that may or may not help you get to where you want to go. Don't get me wrong, getting into YC is useful for any company, but at least for us, the timing was right because we already had signs of growth, and used the time there to really blow things up big.
The real goal is to build a company that grows, generates value, and captures value. That means making something people want, making money off of it, and exploring how big it can get from there. A company is just a vessel to explore an experience or product that you think is valuable, and to reveal just how valuable it really is. If your ultimate goal is just to get to YC, you'll find that you've wasted a lot of time getting there, because once you're there, you basically just spend all your time working on your company.
It is very obvious when people applying have the "if we just get into YC then we'll get money and then it's all easy" attitude. This is a recipe for disaster - whether you get into YC or not! If you're not excited about all of steps it takes to make a company, even the little (shitty) challenges of your company, there's literally nothing anyone can do to help you make things happen.
For us, YC was just something we applied to every 6 months. We knew we were going to keep working and building stuff no matter what. And funny enough, the more we focused on building, the closer we got to getting in with every step.
Growth > everything
There is really only one thing that matters in startups and that is growth. Everyone says it, nobody listens. But it is the only thing. Every other bit of advice is more or less bullshit without growth. All good founders will tell you this.
So when you're filling out your application - quickly and explicitly state what your product does, and then get to the damn growth!
YC partners are reading thousands of applications. But growth really stands out. Even the most banal or tired ideas can seem like real gems if growth is there. There is an outside chance that you have an idea so novel that it stands on its own, but the chances are slim, and even then, you could still probably find a way to show growth in interest (like a sign up form) for what you're doing.
Be committed to the cause
Founders that can't commit to being at YC or work on the startup over the months that YC happens are a huge red flag. YC is like a bootcamp - you just work, eat, work out, work, sleep - and the only people you really have for support are your cofounders. It's a huge signaling problem if part of your team can't commit, and means that most likely, this startup isn't the core passion for that person. Jessica Livingston talks a lot about how founder breakups are the number one reason startups die.
Starting a startup is like going to war with hundreds of millions of people except instead of attacking you, they just do not give a shit about what you're doing and ignore you all the time. It's incredibly disheartening. The only people who really care are you, your cofounders, and maybe like the 10 people using your service. And in reality, when the chips are down, the only people who really care are the cofounders. So you want to make sure you're all on the same page before diving in, and YC definitely wants to figure that out before bringing your team in.
Seriously, Growth > everything (or, why don't you already have sign ups?).
Everyone has beautiful unique snowflake ideas that, when dreamed up in the ephemera of the mind's eye, are perfectly working business entities that print money and change the world. Your ideas are beautiful, and it's great that they're exciting. But they're also not real (hélas). The good news is that you can make them real. And you make them real by building something and increasing the number of people who use it over time.
Do not tell me how your idea is going to work, show me that it is working. That is far more convincing. Every idea out there has been dreamed up (save money on loans! deliver fresh food instantly! monetize journalism!), but very few actually grow. No YC partner (or person alive) is able to predict 100% of the time which ideas are going to be massive. But if you have a graph showing rampant growth of users or revenue, that's a pretty good indicator that there's something there. I may think delivering flowers is the lamest idea for a startup ever, but if you're growing your revenue and sales by 10% every week for 8 weeks, then you could change my mind and pique my interest pretty quickly.
Lastly - because growth is nearly the only thing that really matters, if you can't get growth, then you should probably hang up your boots and retire from founder life. Founders that stand out are zealously devoted to making their products grow. If you believe in what you're building and are truly passionate about trying to turn nothing into something, you will find a way to keep it growing. Growing focuses your efforts and helps define crucial decisions.
Pick a key metric, define the interval (weekly, monthly, etc.) and then just push yourself. Don't look back, and don't worry about all this other nonsense. The rest will take care of itself.
thanks to dmitri for the edits