11 minute read · Published May 30, 2024

Stanford, SF, FAANG job - The only way to get into YC?

Latest Update May 30, 2024

For a long time, Y Combinator was known as a place that sniffs out the oddball hackers nobody else would fund, but would build billion-dollar companies later.

Nowadays, online discussions of Y Combinator paint it as an ivory tower: Read some detractors and you’ll believe the only way to get in is to have a team of technical founders living in the Bay Area. An Ivy League/Stanford coat of arms should sparkle on your resume, which is where you met the 8 YC founders referring you. And if you don’t have FAANG on your resume, we’ll settle for McKinsey or Goldman Sachs.

Reddit Y Combinator criticism

One Reddit user even came up with a satirical rubric for getting into YC: 

Reddit Y Combinator rubric

From that viewpoint, Y Combinator looks like a “boys club” structure: If you already have all the advantages, join us and we’ll give you even more.

YC certainly admits many Ivy League grads and (ex-) FAANG workers. But characterizing it as an ivory tower serves nobody—it discourages underrepresented founders and makes it sound like there’s no point in applying anyway. 

I think we need more of the opposite: Encouraging the founders who think there’s no point in applying. Because Y Combinator has changed plenty of lives all over the world and across all types of backgrounds. 

That’s why we spoke with YC founders with non-Ivy League, non-FAANG backgrounds. In this article, you’ll discover founders with backgrounds some Redditors would say make it not even worth applying.

Alexandra Zatarain

The woman who built a bedroom in YC’s hallway: Alexandra Zatarain 👋

If Y Combinator issued yearbooks, Eight Sleep (YC S15) would’ve been voted “most dramatic interview.” 

Alexandra Zatarain, Massimo Andreasi Bassi, and Matteo Franceschetti had previously been rejected. The subsequent Indiegogo campaign 10x’d its $100k goal, but the team still felt like Silicon Valley outsiders (they hailed from Mexico and Italy). Acceptance into YC, The Information reported, seemed like a stamp of approval. 

Whether it was the traction of raising $1M or the founders’ persistence, their second application resulted in an interview. And when your identity hinges on an interview, you pull out all the stops. When the YC partner attempted to conclude the interview after 10 minutes, Eight Sleep’s founders said no, insisting Y Combinator see the product in a bedroom the team had built in the hallway. This time, their application was successful. 

Alexandra Zatarain doesn’t fit the founder mold: She’s no Bay Area native, having grown up in Tijuana, Mexico. She studied international communication (not computer science) and dreamed of working in politics, not sleep. 

Being a hispanic woman with an unconventional background imbued her with a heightened awareness to the underlying structures of the tech industry. An Inc founder profile quotes her: “Almost no one in this boy’s club is trying to keep us out in a premeditated way. It just happened and keeps happening because that was natural and convenient for the existing participants: They sought investment from successful entrepreneurs they already knew, all of whom just happened to be white and male.”

She views having “gotten in” (not just to YC but to the Silicon Valley tech scene) as an opportunity to help more people like her succeed:

“My feeling is I have been given an opportunity to get inside,” she says. “Now it's my chance to bring other people into these circles—to do that job of diversifying. Because it won't happen on its own.” 

There’s a lot to be learned from Zatarain: There’s the tenacity of reapplying and the resilience of building the business anyway after YC’s initial rejection. There’s the non-consensus bet on sleep (2015 is way before Huberman made you turn off screens at 8pm so you can stare into the sun by 6am). 

But equally impressive is that Zatarain isn’t ignorant to the fact that few people with her background get these opportunities. She seems aware that more people deserve the opportunities she’s had—and intent on providing them via Eight Sleep.

Localyze founders

From development aid to YC grad—Localyze’s Hanna Marie Asmussen

Localyze (YC S19) helps companies with immigration, visas, work permits and other relocation services for their employees. It’s the only YC company in Germany’s port city of Hamburg.

Co-founder and CEO Hanna Marie Asmussen has spent much of her life abroad, but none of that was spent at an Ivy League school or a Google campus. Here’s how she describes her background and getting into YC:

A little about your background, how you got into startups, and where YC fit into that timeline (as in, did you have a lot of experience before applying etc)?

I initially studied something very different, worked in development aid, and moved abroad a lot. This is how I came across the problem - but I didn't have connection to the startup world. I heard about scholarships through friends and applied, and then we heard about YC by chance. We didn't get in the first time but were encouraged to reapply, which we did.

This is something we’ll keep seeing here. Being rejected from YC doesn’t mean being blacklisted from YC.

What were the things you think helped you get into YC, despite not fitting what most folks think the "ideal founder profile" is?

I think it really was the fact that we knew a lot about our customers and showed good traction on the revenue side. We had unique insights and I think they saw that there was a market.

The traction part here is important. YC is a (very) early stage investor who backs founders who have nothing but an idea. In those cases, previous employers and education matter a lot. But if you can show you’re already succeeding, YC is more likely to give you a chance.

Combine this with the previous (failed) application and imagine the picture that paints of Hanna Marie and her team: They were rejected from YC and built the business anyway. This says a lot about her tenacity as a founder.

Advice for those discouraged to apply because they don't fit that profile?

I think it's not about a profile, but rather unique insights and really knowing your customers - so I would encourage everyone to apply.

When we applied to YC, we realized something similar. While we didn’t have as much revenue traction as Localyze.

My main takeaway is that there are few things as seductive to investors like YC as seeing a business with real traction—a business that’s already “working”. That’s a trend that has continued: Localyze recently raised $35m to bolster its start in the US.

Abstra landing page

A born entrepreneur: How Bruno Vieira Costa got into YC

Bruno Vieira Costa is a Brazilian entrepreneur—which isn’t just his job description, but also his personality. His company Abstra (YC S21) helps companies build AI-powered Python workflows.

A little about your background, how you got into startups, and where YC fit into that timeline (as in, did you have a lot of experience before applying etc)

I've been an entrepreneur since I was a kid. I started coding at 7, mostly coding games for fun, then tried to sell software to my school (which wasn't successful haha).

At 17 years old, straight out high school, I co-founded my first company: A game studio called sinextra. We made a few advertisement games for major brands in Brazil.

During college I co-founded another company called PaperX (Duolingo-like prep for entrance exams) and it was acquired before I graduated.

I knew a bit about YC from Hacker News and Startup School videos. So when I dropped the company to start Abstra, I had a few angels encouraging me to apply to YC and I did. Twice.

Bruno is clearly a born founder. It’d be easy to say “Of course he got into YC, he already built and sold a company.” But it’s important to note that he wasn’t born with an acquired startup. It’s something he did! YC partners often say that they invest in people, not ideas.

If you see someone who’s found product market fit before, persevered through failure and lives and breathes entrepreneurship—you almost have to invest.

What were the things you think helped you get into YC, despite not fitting what most folks think the "ideal founder profile" is

I fit some traits of "hacker entrepreneur". But besides not studying in a US Ivy League school or working in Big Tech, I think my past entrepreneurial experiences + early traction were key to my acceptance.

The “hacker entrepreneur” thing here is important. Y Combinator was born out of the insight that it’s easier to teach programmers how to build a business than to teach executives how to code.

Advice for those discouraged to apply because they don't fit that profile

1. Leverage whatever you have. Being unique is much more valuable than fitting into any stereotype.

2. Learn english. This was a problem to me. I have -20 IQ points when I speak English.

3. YC is just a tool. It is definitely useful for your company’s success, but not essential. If you don’t get in, that's ok, your company should work with or without YC. And not being afraid to lose actually helps you in any pitch.

My favorite takeaway here is Bruno’s statement “Your company should work with or without YC.” YC won’t make your company a success. Only you will.

Archbee founder Dragos Bulugean

How Archbee’s Dragoș Bulugean made it into YC

Before founding Archbee, an AI-powered documentation startup, Dragoș was a self-employed software developer and consultant. Archbee made it into YC’s S21 batch. Here’s what he had to say:

“I applied 4-5 times before getting accepted. When I got into YC it was because I had tons of traction. After getting #1 on Product Hunt, having reviews on G2, and being mentioned in newsletters, we had a lot of inbound. That gave me much more confidence with the YC interview.

I’ve said it before, but it’s so important that Archbee already had traction: They had built something people had started to want, which made it way easier to prove that Y Combinator should invest in this.

”Plus the fact that it was already our third interview, I knew what to expect and how to be prepared. I don’t think it’s as much about background as it is about having traction and being able to quickly and clearly answer their questions / being sharp.”

Applying multiple times appears to be a theme: It was the third time he was interviewing with YC. He didn’t give up after being rejected—twice. That’s a trait YC loves to see.

Listle founding team

Odin’s Cristina Bunea on graduating from YC months after graduating from college

Cristina now works at another cool YC startup, but got into YC’s S19 batch while still in university with her bookmarking/note-taking company Odin (previously Listle).

A little about your background, how you got into startups, and where YC fit into that timeline (as in, did you have a lot of experience before applying etc)

I studied Computer Science but had zero experience before getting into YC. My co-founders and I applied while we were in our last semester and interviewed three days after our final university exam. In retrospect, I knew virtually nothing about building companies or even how companies work, given I had never worked at one.

YC is known for backing young founders. One reason for this is the type of abandon she displays here: Instead of being intimidated by a world she’s never been a part of, her and her co-founders just applied.

Good founders often neglect what should/could be possible—like starting a business without ever having worked at one.

What were the things you think helped you get into YC, despite not fitting what most folks think the "ideal founder profile" is

We definitely didn’t have the traditional founder profile, except for the fact that we were all technical. We had no product except for a broken landing page. No customers, not even feedback that anyone would need our product (we were building it because we wanted to use it ourselves). No Ivy Leagues and no connections to the Bay Area (we hadn’t been to the US before). There were a few things that helped us get in:

  • Very strong team. Had worked together on stuff before and knew eachother very well (and how we worked together).
  • Had nothing to lose. We showed we were willing to drop everything, move across the world and start a company. We all had jobs lined up for after graduation but we were clear that we didn’t care about that and that we’d do anything we had to do to succeed.
  • Even though we didn’t speak to many potential users, we thought a lot about the product and how it would work / how we’d plan to get users.

The less traction, the more important the team. If you were an early stage investor, you’d also try to see who has potential based on their level of ambition and conviction. Cristina also shares an important part James highlighted in our YC application breakdown: She and her co-founders had thought extremely deeply about the problem space and the product they were building—something CommandBar also benefitted from.

Advice for those discouraged to apply because they don't fit that profile

The upside of applying to YC is so high compared to the effort that goes into it. Don’t base your company’s success on whether you get into YC or not. As for advice:

  • Show your competitive advantage that doesn’t fit the criteria. It could be that you know something about the space you’re building in that many don’t.
  • Learn to build or find a strong co-founder who can. Have a plan for how you’re going to get your idea out in the world. Don’t just say “eh, I’ll just hire an engineer.”
  • Have clarity in thoughts and writing. Show you know more than most people about what you’re building.
  • Build a product people want (d’oh). If you manage to get traction outside of YC, they won’t give a shit about your background.

Nothing to add—crystal-clear lessons for (aspiring) founders here.

Conclusion: YC needs you. 

None of the criticism falls on deaf ears. Garry Tan has publicly advocated for diversity and expressed his desire to admit more female founders in an interview with Emily Chang. Could the next evolution of Y Combinator feature more founders from underrepresented groups?

Perhaps the best case for this is that It's true that Y Combinator has missed founders with unconventional backgrounds.

it’s easy to forget that Y Combinator isn't a university, but an early-stage venture capital investor. VCs are in the business of finding underpriced assets to maximize returns. And if most VCs miss a billion-dollar company because the founder doesn't have the resume, diploma or passport other founders do, YC can beat other accelerators.

Until then, we've seen that it's far from impossible to get admitted to Y Combinator if you're no Ivy League Bay Area native with FAANG on their resume.

As we’ve seen with many of these YC “underdogs,” their companies already had paying customers. Whether it’s Eight Sleep’s $1m on Indiegogo or Localyze’s existing customers, these signals are great indicators for further success.

There are other clear patterns: Most of the founders we featured were rejected and built the company anyway. Most of them didn’t wait for Y Combinator as the starting gun to entrepreneurship. 

Being an entrepreneur means facing obstacles bigger than a YC rejection email. Showing this perseverance and ambition in the face of setbacks is what investors like to see—and that’s why reapplying, getting traction and doing it anyway seem to be such good indicators of future acceptance into Y Combinator. 

Y Combinator wants to back great founders. And the best way to show them you are is to be a great founder.

You know what great founders do? 👀

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