How to write a successful YC application

January 3, 2023

Max Musing
Founder
💡 This post is the first part of a series talking about my experience applying to and taking part in the Sumer 2020 batch of Y Combinator with my company, Basedash. Other posts in the series dive deeper into the YC interview, whether YC is worth it, how to take advantage of the batch, and the post-batch experience.

Applying to Y Combinator is intimidating. The application is long, the interview is intense, and there’s a long list of great startups to compare yourself against.

That being said, the YC application is one of my favorite exercises to orient myself and my company. I went through Y Combinator in 2020, and I still occasionally fill out the application as an exercise for myself.

Like most YC founders, I applied multiple times—4 to be exact—with multiple ideas. I interviewed twice (with two different ideas), and was accepted to the Summer 2020 batch with my company, Basedash.

This post is a collection of all the knowledge I wish I had when I was applying. It covers specific advice on all the questions that I think are important, as well as some general advice to follow across your application.

I’ll start with some general advice, which you can find below. I’ve also included the application that got Basedash into the Summer 2020 batch so you can see what a successful application looks like.

You’ll notice that my application doesn’t follow all of my own advice—I’ve learned a lot since applying back in 2019. Do as I say, not as I did.

Notably, I don’t know anything about the inner workings of how YC reviews an application—this guide simply outlines my personal approach that led to Basedash being accepted. There are probably other approaches that work too!

General advice

  • Be as concise as possible. 1–2 sentences is best.
  • For any answers that require more than a couple sentences, the first sentence should act as a TL;DR.
  • Heavily optimize for clarity. Reviewers shouldn’t need to read a sentence twice, or look anything up to understand your answers.
  • Avoid marketing-speak and jargon.
  • Assume the reviewers have little-to-no domain knowledge.
  • Each answer should make sense on its own. Reviewers may not read every answer, and they may not read them in order.
  • Be honest. No need to exaggerate you answers, YC accepts companies of all stages and backgrounds.
  • Improving your company is a better use of your time than improving your YC application. Write your application, then get back to work.

Basedash’s application

Company

Company name:

Basedash

Company url, if any:

https://www.basedash.com

If you have a demo, what's the url? Demo can be anything that shows us how the product works. Usually that's a video or screen recording.

https://www.basedash.com

Describe what your company does in 50 characters or less.

Collaborative database interface for teams.

What is your company going to make? Please describe your product and what it does or will do.

Basedash is a collaborative database interface that lets team members view and edit data directly from their production database. It's like Airtable but for your existing database.

💡 This is the most important question in the application (and also the first question in the YC interview). Your answer will form the basis for the reviewer’s understanding of the rest of your application. After reading your answer, you want the reviewer to have a clear picture in their mind of what your product is, and why it’s valuable. I’d recommend testing your answer with people who are not familiar with your product to see if they understand what you do. Feel free to DM me on Twitter if you want my thoughts. If you’re making an “X but Y” comparison (like I did here with Airtable), make sure that “X” is very well known.

Where do you live now, and where would the company be based after YC?

(List as City A, Country A / City B, Country B.)

Montreal, Canada / Unknown

💡 YC accepts companies from all around the world, and doesn’t require you to move to the Bay Area.

Founder

Please tell us about the time you most successfully hacked some (non-computer) system to your advantage.

I managed to continue working on my company as my capstone project for school until I graduate. I also recruited a technical student as a partner working full-time hours for free (don't worry, they signed an NDA & IP agreement).

💡 One of my personal favorite questions. You can get creative here.

Please tell us in one or two sentences about the most impressive thing other than this startup that you have built or achieved.

I cofounded Scholarly (now ScholarMe), which was part of YC S19.

If accepted to YC, will you commit to working exclusively on this project for the next year?* (Required) (No school, no other jobs)

Yes

Please enter the url of a 1 minute unlisted (not private) YouTube video introducing the founder(s). This video is an important part of the application. (Follow the Video Guidelines.)

https://youtu.be/5MKJxhQeZuQ

💡 This video is the best place to show your relationship with your co-founder(s) if you have any. Also, not essential, but try to have a good video setup (lighting, audio, background). Check out YC’s official video guidelines here.

Who writes code, or does other technical work on your product? Was any of it done by a non-founder? Please explain.

99% by myself

I have a friend doing some technical work for free under an NDA and IP agreement

💡 Best if it has all been done by founders.

How many founders are on the team?

1

💡 Yes, YC does accept solo founders.

Progress

How far along are you?

MVP fully developed, launched on Product Hunt a couple months ago

💡 YC accepts companies of all stages, from idea to post-Series A.

How long have each of you been working on this? How much of that has been full-time? Please explain.

6 months dabbling with the idea, 3 months full-time

Are people using your product?

Yes

How many active users or customers do you have? How many are paying? Who is paying you the most, and how much do they pay you?

300 signups

Got a couple YC companies trying it out (ReadyEducation, ScholarMe)

Strong interest from companies using the product (Adalo)

Do you have revenue?

Yes

How much revenue?

$30/month

💡 Clearly, revenue is not that important.

We're interested in your revenue over the last six months. (Not cumulative and not GMV). What was your revenue in July?(Please use USD. If none, enter '0')

$30

The month before (June)?

$30

May?

$0

April?

$0

March?

$0

February?

$0

Anything else you would like us to know regarding your revenue or growth rate?

Just got a small grant to start focusing more on marketing over the next few months.

If you are applying with the same idea as a previous batch, did anything change? If you applied with a different idea, why did you pivot and what did you learn from the last idea?

N/A

If you have already participated or committed to participate in an incubator, "accelerator" or "pre-accelerator" program, please tell us about it.

N/A

Idea

Why did you pick this idea to work on? Do you have domain expertise in this area? How do you know people need what you're making?

I discovered the need for this product after working on another startup. We found there were no good tools for managing data with teams. We really wanted to use Airtable's interface for our own database.

💡 Easiest if you have a personal need for the product you’re building. If not, give proof that others have a strong need/desire.

What's new about what you're making? What substitutes do people resort to because it doesn't exist yet (or they don't know about it)?

Combines traditional database interfaces with analytics dashboards while adding collaboration. People resort to passing raw data between teams which is inefficient and unsafe.

💡 The alternatives should sound painful.

Who are your competitors, and who might become competitors? Who do you fear most?

Forest Admin, Mode, Prisma

Internal is the most similar but Basedash has a superior set-up process and interface which are key for this product.

💡 Don’t be afraid to list big companies, but give clear reasoning for why you think you can win.

Who are your competitors? What do you understand about your business that they don't?

Software is built by teams, not individuals.

💡 You want to show a unique insight that gives you a strong moat over your competitors. Best if you have validation around your insight through users.

How do or will you make money? How much could you make?(We realize you can't know precisely, but give your best estimate.)

Selling a subscription to companies for complete access to the product. Potentially as much as Tableau (~$1.2B).

💡 You should mention one of the nine main business models: SaaS, transactional, marketplace, hard-tech, usage-based, enterprise, advertising, e-commerce, bio. You should also include a bottoms-up market analysis with a resulting valuation between $1–10B. For example: There are 1M software engineers in the US. We plan to charge $2500/year. This gives us a market size of $2.5B.

How will you get users? If your idea is the type that faces a chicken-and-egg problem in the sense that it won't be attractive to users till it has a lot of users (e.g. a marketplace, a dating site, an ad network), how will you overcome that?

Typical marketing to tech companies (SEO, SEM, content marketing, etc.). I'm planning to test various methods over the next few months to find the best technique. No chicken-egg problem.

💡 Best if you have traction with a GTM strategy already. Also worth mentioning if there’s a specific place (on the internet) where your users hang out (e.g. Discord servers, subreddits, niche web communities).

Which category best applies to your company?

Developer Tools

Equity

Have you formed ANY legal entity yet? This may be in the US, in your home country or in another country.

Yes

Please list all legal entities you have and in what state or country each was formed (e.g. Delaware C Corp, Mexican SAPI, Singapore Pvt Ltd, etc.). This might include subsidiary companies, legal entities you formed in other markets to do business, entities you created before a pivot, or legal entities you set up to employ developers or other service providers.

Corporation in Canada (registered in Quebec)

Please describe the breakdown of the equity ownership in percentages among the founders, employees and any other stockholders. If there are multiple founders, be sure to give the equity ownership of each founder and founder title (e.g. CEO).

Fully owned by me

Others

If you had any other ideas you considered applying with, please list them. One may be something we've been waiting for. Often when we fund people it's to do something they list here and not in the main application.

Included managed database hosting

💡 I like the idea of including an adjacent product or major feature addition to your product here. Also, check out YC’s requests for startups here to see what types of companies they’re interested in: https://www.ycombinator.com/rfs

Please tell us something surprising or amusing that one of you has discovered. (The answer need not be related to your project.)

My last name is Musing which is slightly amusing

💡 Another fun question, seems to be mostly a personality test.

What is Basedash?

Ship your product faster.
Worry about internal tools less.

No credit card required.