Where Einstein Meets Edison

An Insider View of Y Combinator’s Boot Camp for Startups

An Insider View of Y Combinator’s Boot Camp for Startups

Aug 22, 2012

Y Combinator (YC) is a boot camp for startups. Entrepreneur and venture capitalist Paul Graham founded the program in 2005 to provide seed money, advice and connections to “hackers” like himself. With alumni including the founders of DropBox, Reddit, Scribd, and Posterous, it’s become unquestionably one of the most prestigious and competitive programs for digital startups. Selection to the camp guarantees seed funding from YC and an opportunity to showcase your product to hundreds of investors at the camp’s grand finale. Y Combinator runs 3-month sessions twice a year in Silicon Valley. With this summer’s session finishing soon, MITER spoke with current YC participant Brett van Zuiden about his experience.

The Application. YC selection is a huge break for a startup, so the application process is intensely competitive. The first step is a writing assignment about the team and idea. Questions include: What is the most impressive thing you have ever done? What is your team like? How do they know each other? How did you get your idea? How do you know people want this idea? Etc. Brett’s team submitted their application in late March, the day before it was due. At the time, Brett said their team was just coming together. “We didn’t know who would be on or off, but we coalesced just in time for us to get the application off.” The average YC company starts shortly before their YC session, but some are one or two years old and reasonably mature by digital standards. It’s not unusual for some change their idea and start over midway through their YC session. 

The Interview. Teams that pass the written application are flown to California for an intense, ten-minute interview, after which judges make the final selections. Brett got a heads up about the interview from YC alumni friends. He and his co-founders, Liyan David Chang, Anand Dass, and Thomas Georgiou, flew to California on Friday and prepped for the interview by asking each other countless questions and answering them as concisely as possible. Time is precious during the interview. “You walk into the room, the two of you and like five YC partners, people you highly respect and are highly intelligent. You sit down and then they start grilling you. It’s not like they ask one question and wait for you to respond and then the next one. There are multiple conversations going on at the same time. Everyone is asking questions of each other. They’re basically trying to find out as much as they can about you in ten minutes.” After the interview, Brett’s team hung around YC to talk with other applicants. “It’s an exciting place to be,” Brett said. He got their acceptance call shortly afterward and headed straight to a celebratory dinner with Brett’s family.  

The Program, Day by Day. The YC teams move to Silicon Valley for the program. “We work where we live, or live where we work, depending on how you look at it,” Brett said. Every Tuesday night they meet with the other teams for dinner with guest speakers. This summer the founders of Instagram and Pintrest, among others, talked about the early days of their companies. Each YC team also schedules office hours with the YC partners, including Paul Graham. “One of the things we were really looking forward to, and I think it’s held true, is that they [YC] push you to move very, very fast. That’s why we wanted to be at Y Combinator, because we realized above and beyond anything we might do they would push us to grow the company at a very, very fast rate. And that’s what they’ve done.” Brett called the environment cooperative, but also competitive. “Everyone helps each other out, but everyone wants to do even better than the other companies involved. Even though we’re not competing for the same space at all, it’s more who can do more in a week. You see these people every week, ask ‘hey how’s it going? how are things? what did you do last week? what do the numbers look like?’ It’s this natural process of getting everyone really excited and energized.” At this point in their company’s development, Brett splits his time between coding for the project and spreading the word about the company, “guerilla market type things”, he says. I’m writing code and going to hackathons or developer meetings to get the word out and to get people to try it out.” They engage with customers constantly throughout the day. “So a large part of what we do now is listen to feedback and respond to that.”  

The Grand Finale, Demo Day. The session ends with “Demo Day”, when each team presents it’s product to about 300 top investors in about two and a half minutes. “The advice they give you is: out of the twelve weeks, spend eleven weeks not thinking about Demo Day.” The focus is on developing a superb product. But this week Brett’s team is starting to think about their presentation. They met with Paul Graham last Wednesday to talk about the presentation format and are ready to impress. Stay tuned for a post-Demo Day update next week.

Brett founded Filepicker.io with three other recent MIT graduates, Liyan David Chang, Anand Dass, and Thomas Georgiou. Their company helps developers make apps that connect to Dropbox, Facebook, and other cloud storage providers.

Grace Young


Grace Young is an undergraduate at MIT majoring in ocean engineering, with interests in robotics, physics, computer science, and architecture. Last summer she worked at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution building autonomous aircraft for ocean surveying. The summer before she worked at CERN, the large hadron collider, developing software for particle physicists, and at the Harvard-MIT Biomedical Cybernetics Lab in Boston applying statistical methods for bioinformatics. Her other work experience includes quantum computing research at The Joint Quantum Institute and analysis of electrical properties of carbon nanotubes at Johns Hopkins. She is a member of MIT’s varsity sailing team, Gordon Engineering Leadership Program, and Arts Scholar Program. She is also the 2012-2013 recipient of MIT’s Robert Bruce Wallace Academic Prize in Ocean Engineering.