A simple method to prepare for an interview at YCombinator

My startup was accepted to YC in April 2014, on our third application and third interview in two years. We followed a simple-but-rigorous method to prepare each time we had an interview, and I think it is a good one. I’ve talked about this with interviewees for every batch since ours, but maybe it will help more people if I write it down, so here goes.

The goal here is to be able to efficiently communicate about your startup. To get into YC you need to have a good startup, but that’s out of scope for now so we’ll take it as a given. You also need to be able to talk about your startup well, convince people that it is good, and do so in a high-pressure situation. This is difficult but preparation can help a lot in a short amount of time.

Going into the interview, you should have two things prepared and highly available to your conscious mind:

  1. Answers to the questions they will probably ask you
  2. A short list of the best reasons to fund your startup

This isn’t everything you need, but it’s a good framework to start from.

The first component is pretty straightforward. While preparing for an interview, my cofounders and I would start a document that listed all the questions we thought we might be asked. With a little curation, we’d end up with a list of 50–100 questions. Then we would come up with answers for each of these questions, expressible in 1–3 short bullet points. We’d refine these answers by having conversations with people about our startup, especially YC alumni. Once we were happy with the answers, we’d memorize them and quiz each other. Sometimes we’d do hours of practice over several days.

You can know ahead of time the subjects that are likely to come up in an interview and prepare for them. Preparing answers helps you be concise and understandable, which goes straight to our goal of efficient communication. A prepared 10-second answer is better than an improvised 30 second answer with the same information content, because the 10 second answer leaves more time for the partners to think, or for you to tell them other good things about your startup. This doesn’t mean you literally memorize a script, but that you have the key ideas in the front of your mind so you can phrase them easily day-of.

We populated our document from a lot of sources. Simple brainstorming will get you far — what would you ask if you were evaluating your own startup as an investor? When you hit the bottom of that well, there are lists of questions other people have curated, and apps that will quiz you with a timer. There are videos of real interviews on stage. There are also lots of other blogposts like this one out there.

We’d have lots of conversations with peers and mentors while working on this document. They might ask questions that never occurred to you. It can also be difficult to tell whether an answer is “good” without getting an outside or more experienced opinion. This is especially true if you’re a new founder. You can also ask people to mock-interview you, where you set a timer for ten minutes and ask them to pepper you with questions as quick as they can.

It’s particularly important at this stage to think hard about what questions you hope they *don’t* ask, the subject areas you most want to avoid, and may have even been avoiding asking yourself. YC is very smart and there is a good chance they’ll quickly find the weakest part of your story and dive right into that. Having rough edges doesn’t disqualify you — every startup has them — and it’s ok to say “I don’t know”. The point is to show that you’re aware of your weaknesses and are thinking about how to address them.

This might feel like over-preparing, and it can be depending on your style. I know some people who are perfectly happy winging aggressive 10-minute interrogations about their startup. There will be questions in the interview you didn’t expect, so you still have to be able to think on your feet. But I’ve always felt more comfortable walking into an interview knowing much of it will be muscle memory. I think that feeling also helps me answer unexpected questions better.

The second thing you need is a short list, 3–5 points long, of the best things about your startup. I’m going to call these “Sparklers”. It’s hard to define a sparkler because they are different for every team and project. The nearest I could come up with is “things that are really important for a smart investor to know, that might make a big difference in their decision making, especially those that might not come up naturally in conversation”.

A good way to come up with your sparklers is to talk to experienced people about your startup and ask what stands out for them. Sometimes you’ll have a good idea about what your most attractive qualities are, but I find a lot of the time founders don’t have an intuition about what pieces of information sound good to the investor’s ear. I’ve done mock-interviews with founders and only afterwards learned a critical piece of information like “I co-founded a successful company in the same space” or “half our users are daily actives”.

To help you start out, here’s a short list of things that might be a sparkler: traction numbers, growth rates, conversion rates, patents, founder track record, unique expertise, Ph.Ds, personal connections, hidden insights, unfair advantages.

Your sparklers are important because if all you do is go in there and answer questions reactively for ten minutes, the conversation might simply miss the information that would get YC excited about you. A better way of approaching the interview is: you have ten minutes to convince them to fund you. Take an active stance and tell them the things about you that are really good.

Once you have your sparklers, make sure you say them in the interview. That sounds trivial, but the pace of YC interviews can be so rapid that you forget. The good news is: if you have the list strongly in mind, you can probably make your own opportunities to say them, like during a brief lull in the conversation, or if you aren’t cut off after answering a different question. You may also be able to answer some questions in your prep document with a sparkler.

So that’s it. Figure out what they’ll probably ask in the interview, how you’re going to respond, and practice. Figure out your sparklers and make sure you say them.

This isn’t a universal method. I’ve only used it when applying with software companies, so it might need to be modified for other types of startups. Your startup needs to be good to get into YC, preparation only helps with the small part of the process where presentation matters. But in general, I’ve brought this up with lots of alumni and they seem to agree it is a good approach. Maybe it will work for you or you can adapt it to your own style.

The great thing about interviewing at YC is that it can be a positive experience whether or not you get in. It’s a moment to think hard about your startup through someone else’s eyes. What is working? What are you worried about? What do you want this project to become? You might find you learn things in this process that stick with you a long time.

Good luck, and enjoy it!

Thanks to Alexey Komissarouk, Meghan MacMillan, and Trevor Creech for reading drafts of this post.

CEO at Tinker, Blockchain, Waterloo & SF