Clearly State What You Do In 2 Sentences, Says Y Combinator CEO On How He Picks The Batch

Written by Dana Sanchez

The ability to clearly state what your startup is about.

That’s the first thing Michael Seibel looks for when he looks at applicants trying to get into Y Combinator — maybe the world’s most powerful startup accelerator program.

A startup can have the best product in Silicon Valley, but to be successful it needs writers who can take complex tech concepts and translate them into simple and engaging language for the average user, Kristen Felicetti wrote in a Monster.com report.

“You don’t have to be a developer to get a foothold in IT,” she wrote in her report entitled, “Writers of sentences, not code, could be a hot prospect in tech.”

Seibel is partner and CEO at the Silicon Valley-based seed accelerator Y Combinator. Fast Company described Y Combinator as “the world’s most powerful start-up incubator.” Fortune called it “a spawning ground for emerging tech giants.” Alumnae include Airbnb, Dropbox, and Stripe.

Before Y Combinator, Seibel co-founded Justin.tv, which became Twitch Interactive and eventually sold to Amazon for $970 million. He also co-founded Socialcam, which participated in Y Combinator, raised angel financing, and ultimately sold to Autodesk Inc. for $60 million.

Y Combinator funds startups twice a year in batches. Qualifying founders move to Silicon Valley from January through March or June through August to participate in the accelerator. Experts speak, including startup founders, venture capitalists, journalists and executives from well-known tech companies. Speakers often end up advising or investing in startups they meet at the dinners. About 10 weeks in, there’s a Demo Day where all the startups can present their products and services to a selected audience. Ten weeks turns out to be enough for most groups to create a convincing prototype. In fact, many launch in less than 10 weeks, according to Y Combinator.

Seibel personally looks at the Y Combinator applications, and there are thousands of them.

“The first thing I look for is what does this company do,” Seibel said during a Startup Grind video interview with Charles Hudson. Hudson is managing partner at Precursor Ventures, a seed stage investment firm in San Francisco.

Here are some excerpts from that interview:

No. 1: Clearly state what you do in 2 sentences

“Your ability to clearly say what you do makes you stand out against literally 50 percent of people,” Seibel said. “It’s this cliche that’s totally correct. If you can’t explain to your mom what you do in two sentences then you probably need to rethink those two sentences.”

No. 2:  “I want to know how technical your team is,” Seibel said.
No. 3: “The next thing I look at is your progress. How long have you been working on this startup and how much have you done?”
No. 4: “The last thing is simple: What do you know that no one else knows? What is the conviction you’re holding — the non-obvious way you look at this market? What can you teach me about this market that I don’t know?”

The boxes left unchecked

“If you check those boxes, you have about a 50 percent chance of getting in (to the next stage at Y Combinator),” Seibel said. “So as intimidating as it is to apply with 7500 other people, I will tell you, as a reader of applications, these are the boxes people are not checking that are applying. You shouldn’t be intimidated by this number because anyone can apply.”

How hard is it to get into Y Combinator?

“For Harvard, you have to have SAT scores to apply. For YC you have to have nothing,” Seibel said. “I really hate when people say it’s harder to get into YC than yadayadayada. Most other things you apply for have entry requirements. We have none. If you check these boxes, you have a one-in-two chance of getting an interview. If you get an interview you have a one-in-four chance of getting in. That’s how we pick the batch.”