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YC W13 application guide - what is "impressive achievement"

This is my second post in the YC application series. You can find the first post here. If you haven't read it yet you should check it out first.

Let's talk about what makes for an impresive achievement for the purposes of Y Combinator application. As in the "most impressive thing that each founder has built or achieved."

This may be the most important question in the application. My post last week tried to cover it briefly. But as PG pointed out that section was more misleading than helpful. Here's my second take, now in more detail.

Achievements that correlate well with startup success, yet have low prior probability given what I know about the founder are impressive

Executive summary

  • avoid trivial answers
  • stepping off the default/easy path in life is impressive
  • things that correlate with startup success are impressive
  • things that are rare are impressive
  • if you founded a company before, that may work best
  • may need to explain why your achievement is impressive

I send out more advice on YC application on my email list. If you are applying to YC you should subscribe here. Subscribe now and I will catch you up on the emails you missed last week today, before YC application deadline.

Trivial answers are bad

Most answers that I see to this question are bad. And most of these bad answers have the same problem. They are trivial. "I ate 20 hot dogs in one sitting." You can do better than that. It's an important question that deserves a serious answer.

A good test is to use your answer as part of the statement - "Y Combinator should fund me because [your answer]." Remember this is the point of this question. The only point.

We were obscuring the problem we were trying to solve in favor of "sounding like a legitimate business." After the first email, my cofounders and I went back to that specific section and cut out quite a bit. -- Chris

Now let's talk about hamsters.

Stepping off the easy path in life is impressive


You have two hamsters. Both run in their little hamster wheels. One makes 750 watts of electricity. The other just 1 watt. Which hamster is more impressive?

Now, what if the second hamster made his own hamster wheel? Does this change things?

The answer is that both hamsters are impressive in their own way. The 1 HORSEPOWER hamster is outrageously productive. He is one in a million. He is the kind of hamster who gets to work at Google.

The puny 1 watt hamster has proven something else though. He is an entrepreneur with a track record. He does not need Google to make light.

If you are looking to fund an electric company, 1 watt isn't impressive. But the track record of building something from scratch is. Because, as an investor, one thing you don't have the luxury of doing is building wheels for your hamsters. That would be too much like work.

The biggest help we got from your posts was the need to be concise! -- Rafat

Unified theory of impressiveness

So wheel-building hamsters are very impressive. Now let's generalize this. Achievements that correlate well with startup success, yet have low prior probability given what I know about the founder are impressive.

And conversely these things are not impressive:

  • if everybody does it, it's not impressive
  • if it's trivial, it's not impressive

Let's look at some examples

Alex is the maintainer for KDE project's IDE - KDevelop.

That's a quote from Acunote's YC application. Obviously maintaining a popular and complex open-source software project involves many of same skills as developing commercial software. And OSS contributions at this level are a rare thing.

More examples:

  • Prior success founding businesses. Even tiny ones. What else could correlate more directly with success?

  • Strong achievements in any functional area needed in a startup like engineering, marketing or sales at a prior job. The best ones are the 750 watt hamsters who build their own wheels.

  • Things that correlate with this functional success. E.g. anecdotally I know that some of the best enterprise sales teams in the world are made up of ex-college athletes.

  • Getting into Stanford. That's a 1 in 1,000 type of thing. But you know what's more impressive? A poor kid from a small town getting into Stanford. That's a 1 in 100,000 type of thing.

Thank you for your tips. One in particular was your suggestion to remove the first sentence. Going back through my answers, I was able to leverage this to make them feel much more concise and to the point. -- Gerald

We are not psychics

Some accomplishments may need more detailed explanation. Unless you are absolutely sure that everybody with a pulse knows - tell me WHAT this thing is, WHY is impressive and HOW it correlates with startup success. Tell me why your background made it extra hard.

Keep it short. You get 2 sentences to answer this question. That easily leaves you one whole sentence for this explanation. That's more space than you need.

An example. I happen to know that MIPT in Russia is more selective than MIT is US. But do you think I know anything about top universities in Turkey or Nigeria?

Our description was originally more of a sales pitch, but after simplifying it for a ten year old, I realized it sells itself. -- Ian

Another example. The only reason I ever heard about Putnam is that Colin Percival from Tarsnap got one. And I still don't know the details. Do you think everybody in YC is a tarsnap fan? That may well be true. But just to be on the safe side do mention that it's a math competition, how selective it is, and give an example of a famous person who won it.

So there you have it. Now go and impress YC.

Thanks to Jud Gardner and Brother In Arms for reading drafts of this.

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