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Dreaming of a Spot in Y Combinator? The 8 Things This YC Alum Says Your Application Must Deliver

Mathilde Collin CEO and co-Founder of Front at the startup's San Francisco HQ. Collin went through Y Combinator in 2014.Mathilde Collin applied to accelerator Y Combinator in San Francisco six months after launching Front, a shared inbox and work communications company she co-founded in her native France. The geographic split doesn’t make immediate sense, until Collin explains that while the company was French, her earliest customers were based in the U.S.

Like any curious startup CEO, Collin flew out to meet with her users and became convinced that building Front in the United States closer to her customers was the best path forward for her brand-new startup. But how could she, a French entrepreneur, quickly tap more deeply into the U.S. market, recruit talent, and find investors?

“I figured YC was my best option,” Collin says. “I applied, because I thought it would be easier for the company (to grow). That’s the truth.”

The other truth is that Collin was accepted to the YC summer batch of 2014.

Today, Collin and her growing team of 65-plus are split between their San Francisco HQ, and a new European office in Paris.  The number of Front customers is pushing beyond 2,500, and the startup recently closed a $66 million Series B round of funding led by Sequoia Capital.

You can credit much of that success to Collin and her team’s ability to make the right calls for the company along the way. From defining a problem to solve; describing a product that people enthusiastically use; and finding that “easier” path and applying to YC.

Every founder or founding team has to come to the answers to those first two questions themselves. But when it comes to having the best shot at being accepted into YC, here are eight things that Collin—she also reviews applications—says separate the people who get in, and those who don’t.

(Listen to an extended interview with Collin here.)

1.     Show that it’s working

If you’ve launched, it’s very important to show some traction, Collin says. “It can be people that subscribe to your product, it can be revenue, it can be really anything,” she says. “But you have to show YC that it’s the moment for them to invest in you, and not six months from now—it’s now.

“We were able to show the number of users that were using the product. We had no revenue at that time, but more and more people were requesting access to our product and then using it. We could show that.”

2.     Rather than trying to sell a massive idea, demonstrate you are making something that people want

“A lot of people think who apply to YC think you have to have this big idea because YC funds billion-dollar companies, but I don’t think it matters that much,” Collin says. “You’ll have many years to figure out what the biggest idea is—what matters is just making something people want. That’s what YC tells you, and that’s actually the most valuable piece of advice that they give.”

You will need to show that the market for what you are making is big. “For example, we’re building an email product,” Collin says. “The market is huge, but the pain-point that we’re solving is a narrow pain-point. I think if you can show a combination of a narrow pain-point, and at the same time a market that is either huge or growing, then you are showing the right things.”

3.     Be curious

There are a lot of questions in the application that will get at the projects you’ve been working on in the past. Why you think your idea is a good idea, and why you are the person to bring it to life. “But there is so much that you don’t know about your business and that you’ll have to figure out along the way, and that is where curiosity comes in,” Collin says. “You have to show this intellectual curiosity.”

You can cite projects you’ve done in the past, or things you’re interested in that aren’t necessarily related to what you’re doing at all, Collin says. The point is to demonstrate that as a founder you have the curiosity to face–even recognize–all the problems and opportunities that will be coming your way.

4.     Facts matter more than sales pitches—get to the point

On how to actually wordsmith your application Collin is blunt. “The only thing that matters is facts,” she says, “You should write as few words as possible with the most impact.” As a reviewer of applications herself, she loves a nice list. “Bulleted lists are amazing,” Collin says. “Just get straight to the point, and include numbers when you can give numbers, but don’t repeat the same thing over and over.”

5.     Have a secret (in the Peter Thiel sense of the word)

The question will be, why you? Why are you the person and the team to pull this off? So, have an answer, know something that no one else does.

“It can be your experience, it can be your own interests, it can be anything,” Collin says. “For me, there were two things. The first was the pain-point that we’re solving is a pain-point that I had in my previous company.  Back then I was annoyed, and I was also pretty surprised to see that every single software service we use had evolved during the past 10 years, except for the one that people use the most: email.

“It was a combination of a pain-point that I could see, and the second part was being curious about the space of email. I was sure that if email was invented today for businesses, it would behave differently.”

6.     Before your interview, rehearse!

Your application made it past the first YC hurdle, and now you have a 10-minute live interview. Collin advises that you find the questions you will likely be asked (they are out there to be found), and take the few weeks you will have to prepare. “Again, be super, super straight to the point,” Collin says. “You don’t want to realize after ten minutes of the interview that you’ve not said 70% of what you wanted to say.”

And you need to rehearse. Find the questions, go through the list, and make sure that you know who will reply to these questions, and what will be said.

7.     When you are asked a direct question, answer it directly and honestly.

“You have to be honest, it’s a quality as a founder that you’ll be required to have,” Collin says. “A lot of founders will try to ignore some of the hard things because building a company is already so hard, so they try to focus on what’s going well. The truth is, you should really look at your business in the most honest way. Look at what’s going well, and look at what’s not going well.

“If a metric is not growing, then you need to be very honest and say the metric is not growing. You can explain that you are facing this reality, and you’ll try to understand why. The worst thing you can do during the interview is not answer the question because you don’t want to.”

8.     If you don’t get accepted, know that it’s not the end

Not everyone gets into YC like Collin on their first try. About half the companies YC funds have founders who applied to the accelerator more than once. In other words, plenty of people try again and again to land their spot in YC. Most importantly, they don’t stop developing their idea and building their company. “You should always feel like your company has a chance to be successful whether you get into YC or not,” Collin says. “YC in many ways is just an accelerator. It will not change whether your company will work or not. It will just accelerate your success if you’re successful, and your failure if you are failing.

“If you don’t get into YC, it’s fine. You’ll still be able to work on your product, you’ll still be able to meet with great people, and six months from now you’ll be able to apply to again So, there’s always hope, and there’s always a next chance. You just need to keep working.”

Here’s where to apply to to the Summer 2018 Batch at YC. Applications must be received by  8 pm PT on March 24. So get on it!