You applied or interviewed for Y Combinator's current batch but you didn't make the cut. What now, how do you take this, and where do you go from here?
As many of my fellow YC alumni would say, keep going forward with your ambitions of building a great company, and try again next time.
For those that did get into YC and have just started in the current batch, see "So you got into Y Combinator, now what?".
The short - TL;DR:
There are countless stories of YC founders that didn't get into YC the first time they applied, including the infamous story of Drew Houston from Dropbox who got rejected on his first application, but then successfully applied with a better application and a better idea that eventually became Dropbox. If you’re determined to build a great company, then you’ll do so whether you got into Y Combinator or not, so don’t give up, and keep going.
Having met and advised founders that have been rejected and accepted into YC, and having reviewed thousands of YC applications as an alumni reviewer, I'd like to share some personal pointers that’ll hopefully help you through this process and guide you towards making a successful future application for the next YC batch.
Firstly.. Don’t give up:
Do not get discouraged or quit. Learn to handle rejections, this is probably one of the best skills every successful entrepreneur will have to deal with especially early in their entrepreneurial endeavors. Don’t give up, get stronger, get wiser and get better in whatever it is you are doing, then try again. Determination is by far the strongest attribute of successful entrepreneurs, so stay focused, and keep going.
What YC looks for:
The biggest thing YC looks for is a founder or founding team that will pursue success relentlessly, with or without YC. Your mission should not be to get into YC. It should be to build an amazing company. Take this as an opportunity to prove yourself even more next time. Define objectives, milestones and progress. Apply for YC again knowing that your startups is better than what it was last time. Reflect on why you may not have made the cut. Turn this self reflection into ways to make your startup stronger.
Don’t take it personal:
Many people have a hard time dealing with rejection, they take it personal, and therefore get emotional about it. How could you not, right? Well that depends on how you define yourself. Are you a growing person, looking to learn, adapt, and get better over time, or are you the best you can ever be right now? If you're the latter, then you probably would take it personal and get emotional about it since your best wasn’t good enough - but if you’re the former, then you’ll probably treat this as another step in the journey of growing and becoming better at what you do. Most of the successful people I know do just that, they look at every setback as a lesson, then keep driving forward with a determination to succeed.
Don’t get hung up on it:
YC applications are examined by humans, and whenever humans are involved, things are never completely straight forward. The decision is often an educated guess based on patterns and experiences from past applications, successful or otherwise. Sometimes there are anomalies and great founders and startups can slip through the cracks. It’s only natural that this is going to happen. What separates these startups from the rest though are the fact that these startups are determined to keep going forward, and focus on executing their startups vs imploding because they didn’t make it into YC.
Question your motives:
Understand why you are applying and is it the right time? Don’t view getting into YC as your success or a reason to keep building your startup. Many founders determine their fate based on getting into YC. If this is the case for you, then chances are your startup will not stand the test of time. You need to apply and want to participate for the right reasons. YC is good at filtering out founders that are applying for the wrong reasons, so question your motives and make sure your intent is to build a great company, not to get into YC.
You will be remembered:
The startups that don’t get accepted the first time, but keep executing, will be remembered and make for a compelling YC applicant the next time around. How do I know this? Well, I speak from first hand experience. We didn’t get into YC the first time we applied, but we didn’t let that stop us. We kept executing and focused on building something compelling. It just so happened that by the time we were about to get our new product off the ground that we applied for YC again and this time we did get in. YC was right not to take us in the first time. We were not ready for it. We had little experience working together as a founding team (we only just met a couple of months before we applied) and we had little to show in terms of things we've built together as a team. So even though my co-founder and I separately both had past startup successes, we just weren't ready for YC the first time we applied.
The best time to apply:
So when is the best time to apply? In my opinion, the best time to apply is when you are in the best possible position to leverage YC to help you launch your startup into high earth orbit. Having a solid founding team with a history working together does make a difference; as the most common reason startups fail is due to founders breaking up, or not working well together. Give yourself the time to also flesh out your ideas so that when you do apply you’ll already have validated these ideas to some extent and are firmly in the process of executing your startup whether you get into YC or not.
If you already have a product out in the market, then work on getting traction, traction is king. Ideas are cheap and can change quite frequently, so it’s unreliable to base one's potential purely on ideas or technical intellect alone. The hardest part for any startup is getting traction with real users, real growth, and real potential. Getting early traction towards a massive market opportunity is a strong signal that you are a startup founder determined to make things happen with the vision to do something big. Traction is the best validation of both you and your vision and will give you the biggest boost for your next YC application.
Lastly.. reach out and get help:
There’s nothing stopping you from reaching out to others, including YC alums, to help you fine tune your startup and ideas. There’s lots of materials online, and PG has lots of great essays to read that’ll help you on your journey. There’s great events such as YC’s Startup School that could be super valuable and a great way for you to meet other founders and learn what it takes to build great startups from the guest speakers that attend.
I hope some of this was useful, it’s not meant to be a complete how-to-guide on handling rejection. All startup founders have their own unique journeys to take - but as a whole I hope that some would-be future YC founder that didn’t make the cut this time around can find this article useful and sees that there is light at the end of the tunnel if you’re determined to keep going forward on your pursuit of creating an amazing company, with or without YC.