Discover more from Hard Pivot
Open-Sourcing My Y Combinator Winter 2021 Application
And Why You Should or Should Not Join
TL;DR: Apply to YC if you are doing a startup. You will not regret it.
Table of Contents
Company url, if any:
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. (Please don't password protect it; just use an obscure url.)
Describe what your company does in 50 characters or less.
Open-Source Networked Thought
What is your company going to make? Please describe your product and what it does or will do.
Notetaking app with bi-directional links and block references, which improves users' ability to create and retrieve associations.
Particular focus on individuals and enterprises that desire security, privacy, and greater power over their data.
Where do you live now, and where would the company be based after YC? (List as City A, Country A / City B, Country B.)
SF / SF or remote
Schools, Degrees (including field of study), and Years of Graduation (Use a separate line for each school) Should you be selected for interview, we may ask for academic transcripts
Rice University, 2015-17 Computer Science (incomplete)
Employers, Position / Titles and Dates (Use a separate line for each job, most recent first.) Should you be selected for interview, we may ask for references
Microsft, SWE Intern, May-Aug 2019
Strata Labs, Cloud Engineer, Jan-May 2019
LiftIgniter, SWE Intern, Mar-Jun 2019
GroupRaise, Growth Intern, Jan-Aug 2019
Tesla, Part-Time Product Specialist, Oct 2019-May 2020
Please tell us in one or two sentences about the most impressive thing other than this startup that you have built or achieved.
Not impressive but fun, the first Lightning Network App: https://www.coindesk.com/bitcoin-lightning-risky-maybe-ice-cream-will-tempt
If no, why not? What level of commitment are you willing to make? Do you have any other commitments between January through March 2021 inclusive? If you're applying to Early Decision, do you have any other commitments between June through August 2021 inclusive?
Do you have any commitments in the future and if so what? (e.g. finishing college, going to grad school)
Please enter the url of a 1 minute unlisted (not private) YouTube or Youku video introducing the founder(s). This video is an important part of the application. (Follow the Video Guidelines.)
How many founders are on the team? (Fill out this number of founder profiles)
Which category best applies to your company?
How far along are you?
1800 stars on GitHub
1800 followers on Twitter
$10k/year in OpenCollective sponsorships
Inception: March 31st, 2020.
How long have each of you been working on this? How much of that has been full-time? Please explain.
7 months, entirely full-time
Are people using your product?
How many active users or customers do you have? If you have some particularly valuable customers, who are they? If you're building hardware, how many units have you shipped?
Do you have revenue?
We're interested in your revenue over the last six months. (Not cumulative and not GMV). What was your revenue last month (September)? (Please use USD. If none, enter '0')
The month before (August)?
Anything else you would like us to know regarding your revenue or growth rate?
Increased when I wrote a post saying how Sponsors would be the first beta testers and get the newest updates first.
If you are applying with the same idea as last batch, did anything change? If you applied with a different idea, why did you pivot and what did you learn from the last idea?
If you have already participated or committed to participate in an incubator, "accelerator" or "pre-accelerator" program, please tell us about it.
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?
1. Interviewed at Roam, built Athens POC in a week. Open-source makes more sense for this product, and see huge opportunity for individuals and enterprises.
2. Product expertise: developer and advocate
3. COSS expertise: Commercial OSS developer and speaker
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)?
Athens delivers the same primitives as Roam, but gives users more security, privacy, and power over their application and data.
Long-term will out innovate Roam as well via open-source.
Who are your competitors, and who might become competitors? Who do you fear most?
Roam and Notion.
Fear an open-source competitor more.
What do you understand about your business that other companies in it just don't get?
Just how critical open-source will be for innovation and value creation.
How do or will you make money? How much could you make? (We realize you can't know precisely, but give your best estimate.)
We currently support the project based on sponsorships of $10k/year.
We will provide a cloud-hosted SaaS.
The office software space is $80B market, and grows at a rate of ~$1B per year.
Notetaking is the first killer app. After dominating this niche, will create a suite of products that replace CRM, CMS, internal wiki, etc. to capture a large percentage of this market.
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?
Serve C-Suite, consultants, investors insanely well. Rest of the organization will follow.
Have you incorporated, or formed any legal entity (like an LLC) yet?
If you have not formed the company yet, describe the planned equity ownership breakdown among the founders, employees and any other proposed stockholders. If there are multiple founders, be sure to give the proposed equity ownership of each founder.
(This question is as much for you as us.)
Please provide any other relevant information about the structure or formation of the company.
Are any of the founders covered by noncompetes or intellectual property agreements that overlap with your project? If so, please explain.
Who writes code, or does other technical work on your product? Was any of it done by a non-founder? Please explain.
I do technical work on the product. We've had ~30 code contributors and ~5 design design contributors.
Is there anything else we should know about your company? (Pending lawsuits, cofounders who have left, etc.)
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.
Please tell us something surprising or amusing that one of you has discovered. (The answer need not be related to your project.)
I learn 100x more from founders than anyone else.
That was the end of my original application. My thoughts below.
Why You Should Join
By far, the strongest value prop of YC is the network and brand (which stems from the network). Won’t pontificate too long on this because it’s pretty well-established.
I have made many close friends in YC, mainly through self-organized events around sports.
While pivoting Athens and learning about different industries (vertical SaaS, healthcare, hard-tech), I would cold email YC founders questions or ask for a call, and very often get a response. I even talked to a few founders just about how they pivoted.
Unless you have a better network than YC, this will almost certainly be worth it. You might have a better network if you are a serial founder, a Harvard/Stanford grad, or you’ve already raised from a tier 1 VC, in which case why are you reading my newsletter?!
Network access is especially important for first-time founders and Silicon Valley outsiders like immigrants, non-Americans, or Ohioans like me!
Bookface, the private forum where most information flows, is unparalleled.
Handbooks for recruiting, fundraising, go-to-market, legal, tax, etc.
Databases on founders, companies, and investors.
Early access and discounts to shiny, new products and services.
Ability to continue booking office hours with group partners, for as long as you are still running your YC company.
Fundraising, Demo Day, and Investors
Demo Day itself didn’t actually generate that many investor leads for us. But the looming pressure of Demo Day very likely helped me in the conversations leading up to Demo Day. There is no better forcing function in the world than Demo Day.
YC will also give you advice on how to manage investors in your fundraising pitches, conversations, and negotiations. This is a place where YC advice shines and can help with the nerve-wracking process that is fundraising.
Why You Should Not Join
There are many things you can criticize YC for. These are the critiques that I had.
Do not expect great advice, especially for companies that are not B2B SaaS startups. Athens was headed down the B2B SaaS route, but I did not think YC understood open-source or tools for thought particularly well, which would’ve been more relevant for us. That said, the OSS community within YC is quite strong now, and tools for thought is arguably not a real market category yet or ever will be. Also, all advice for startups is kinda bad or wrong, and it’s the founders’ job to discern it. YC has the least bad generic advice.
Too Big of Batches (changed slightly)
At 350 startups, my batch was one of the biggest. The two batches after mine went up to about 400, but the two most recent batches are closer to 250. I felt like I had to work very hard to get time with my partners, which ended up being 15 or 30-minute calls. It’s just impossible to get enough context on a business in the amount of time. That is purely a pattern recognition game. Sort of an extension of the previous point. They’ve downsized now, which is good, but I’m still not sure the “student-to-faculty” ratio is great. To be honest, I think the partners are quite overworked. But, hey, their jobs are a lot easier than when they were startup founders.
The remote nature of my batch also made it kinda awful, given that the primary value prop is the network. There were no weekly meals, “Camp YC”, or in-person lectures with Silicon Valley legends, which is a deep part of the lore and myth of YC. That said, they are in-person again.
Our batch had the old $125k for 7% equity deal. A few batches after, YC raised their investment to $500k, which is really awesome for founders, in my opinion. That said, I know startups in the earliest batches like reddit, Airbnb, etc. had something crazy like $50k for 5% equity, which makes our deal look great by comparison. Can’t complain.
I’ve heard many other critiques about YC from YC founders. I didn’t put them down because I did not personally experience them. But there are many. At the end of the day, though, complaining about YC as a YC founder is a good problem to have. There are far worse problems you can have.
If you are thinking about applying, 100% apply. I almost didn’t. It took multiple founders urging me multiple times to apply to eventually do it.
Ultimately, there is no downside. The YC application and interview are so terse that you should be able to do it all in like 5 hours, including prep. You read my short application above. After getting invited to interview, I did one 10-minute mock interview with a YC founder. That’s it.
It is far more time efficient and less distracting than doing a standard fundraising process, where you have to invest tens or hundreds of hours refining your pitch, making a deck, scheduling calls, sourcing leads, etc.
Besides, you can always turn down YC if you get in.
The upside, however, is pretty enormous. It is essentially a week of work for access to one of the strongest networks, in my humble opinion.
I’m begging you, just apply! You have nothing to lose, and a good amount to gain — a network and brand that will probably be useful for the rest of your career, particularly if you are in tech or startups.
Remember, though, the point is not to get into YC. The point is to build an amazing product and company that does something outstanding for your customers. You do not want to peak by getting into YC.
And if you get an interview, do let me know. I’ll run a mock interview with you :)
Below are the resources I found in my notes for my original application. There are probably more up-to-date ones since then.