This is the (successful) application we sent to Y Combinator back at the end of 2013. We were part of the Winter 2014 batch, and found it to be a valuable and transformative experience. Over the last six years we've helped countless Y Combinator companies and it's our pleasure to share this to help future ones.
We've included a bit of commentary around each question, highlighting what Y Combinator is most interested in seeing.
It's interesting to reflect on how drastically our company has changed since this application: We've pivoted from a computer-vision driven iPad app to offering agency quality design on-demand.
Note: The questions in the latest application form are a little different, however the core assessment is still the same
What is your company going to make?
Some of the highest paid people in the world spend more than 20 hours a week making PowerPoint slides. Chris used to be one of them. There are many inefficiencies in this process. We tackle the two most important:
1. Creating slides in powerpoint takes a lot of time and people loathe doing it 2. Creating good looking powerpoint slides is important, but hard to do
SketchDeck is an iPad app that turns sketches into slides: this saves time and delivers better slides.
Our long term vision is to become the de-facto platform for presentation creation on touch devices.
This is a really important question, and often the first thing you'll be asked in interview. In many ways it's more important how you can communicate the idea than the idea itself, because your idea may very well change drastically, but your ability to communicate a vision is a core skill that needs to be strong. In the same vein, your idea is a demonstration of your ability to understand and solve important problems in the world.
If this application is a response to a YC RFS, which one?
If you are responding to a request-for-startups it's good to state that, as it might help your chances.
Please tell us in one or two sentences about the most impressive thing other than this startup that each founder has built or achieved.
Chris Finneral - Led the design team for a 1,500 person Cambridge Ball. Themed Wizard of Oz, it contained a 500m long yellow brick road and a dilapidated Dorothee's house that people entered through and a giant 6 meter fireplace, amidst fairground rides, music stages, bars and food.
David Mack - Parallel to work I am a theatre designer ‐ I've been Technical Director of England's oldest University playhouse, designed and worked internationally (America, Europe and Japan) and in some of England's most prestigious venues (Divinity Schools Oxford, V&A museum, Christie's Auction house, Windsor Castle, Great St Mary's Cambridge)
Y Combinator is looking for founders capable of achieving hard things. Your track record is a good predictor of this, so be sure to succinctly explain things you achieved that are objectively hard. It's good to include statistics, revenues, brand names and anything else to measure your success. Personal and family matters (whilst definitely hard work and challenging) are not as relevant here, as the skill being tested is delivering business sucess.
Please tell us about the time you, edmack, most successfully hacked some (non computer) system to your advantage.
I've been on holiday most weeks this summer, thanks to micro‐adventures. A micro‐adventure is an adventure between 6pm and 9am. Head out of work, grab friends and jump on a train, in one hour reach wilderness. Hike, make a fire, cook, watch the stars in your bivi as you fall asleep beside the glowing embers. Arrive at work on time next morning. You're a tiny bit disheveled, but are relaxed, triumphant and feel you've just had a whole weekend.
It's a blast from the past to read this! In retrospect, I don't think it's the greatest answer as it involves no reverse engineering, or financial tricks, but at least this answer is in the right spirit. This question is about demonstrating your ability to use creativity and resilience to achieve unusual and impressive things. Great answers include things like having a year of flights for free, getting the help of a famous person or finding a way to massively grow your audience and influence.
Please tell us about an interesting project, preferably outside of class or work, that two or more of you created together.
We spent the last year building a tech startup together ‐ Datoral (rapid data visualization with natural search)
We secured pilots with 5 blue‐chip companies, raised a £150k round at a valuation of £1.5m and built a tech platform that wowed many clients and investors. We sadly had to close the company due to the hostile actions of a third co‐founder.
We hugely enjoyed working together and found ourselves a great pairing
This question is a very simple way to gauge your team's ability to perform at a world class level
How long have the founders known one another and how did you meet? Have any of the founders not met in person?
Chris and I have known each‐other since undergraduate at Cambridge. We met (unglamorously) in the college bar.
Founder breakups are one of the biggest killers of early stage startups. Y Combinator is trying to filter out teams with red flags (e.g. they don't know each-other very well, or display obvious conflict) to help their investment's chance of success
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?
We've both worked in strategy consultancies, and created around two thousand slides for big corporates. Chris (whilst at McKinsey) has used their internal human powered service that converts sketched slides into powerpoint files. David has turned many people's sketches into powerpoint files whilst at a strategy consultancy and at Barclays Investment Bank.
We picked the problem because we know it well and the current solution is very slow and expensive ‐ many of the highest paid members of society spend 20+ hours a week doing it!
Another big killer of startups is solving a problem that doesn't exist / is not important. This question helps address that by checking how much real-world experience you have of the problem. Secondly, for a company to succeed against the existing competition it needs some strong tailwinds: your personal expertise might be one of those winds.
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)?
What is new: Our solution combines modern computer vision techniques with the proliferation of touchscreen devices. Substitutes: People either build the slides themselves manually, or pay someone else to
This question is assessing a few things:
Is your solution enough of an improvement over the existing for it to have a chance of succeeding?
How well do you understand the status quo?
Is this problem big enough that people go to long measures to solve it currently? (e.g. it's a big red flag if people don't currently have a workaround, this shows the problem isn't that important to your target customers and you may struggle greatly to sell them)
Who are your competitors, and who might become competitors? Who do you fear most?
Microsoft powerpoint, Google docs, Apple Keynote, Slide design outsourcers, OCR companies might become competitors, Tablet note taking companies might become competitors, Startups of the future.
We'd say our closest current competitor is the low cost slide design outsourcers. We most fear other startups due to their speed and innovation. Overall though, we focus on our clients rather than our competitors.
A basic venture capital question. This both checks that you understand the space and also helps the evaluator place you in the landscape and assess your potential
What do you understand about your business that other companies in it just don't get?
We combine real‐world experience of the problem with a deep knowledge of computer science, cutting edge technologies and interaction design. All of competitors have just one of these.
Often successful companies have some sort of insight or belief that nobody else does. This sets them onto a different path in the world, one that might lead to success. This question is very hard to fake an answer to because you may simple not have a novel understanding/belief. In that light, our answer was weak as we dodged the question and just tried to sell our own abilities.
How do or will you make money? How much could you make? (We realize you can't know precisely, but give your best estimate.)
Revenue stream: For low volume clients we charge on a per slide basis. For higher volume clients we have per user subscriptions.
Company size: £100m revenue in five years. We are testing a price point of £5 per slide or £100 per user per month. If we look just at the management consultancy segment, there are estimated to be more than 0.5m consultants worldwide. There are many adjacencies to expand to from here.
This question is another venture capital classic: What's the business model? Is the market big? For YC's investment to make sense, there needs to be a large potential upside.
If you've already started working on it, how long have you been working and how many lines of code (if applicable) have you written?
We have paying clients, for whom Chris manually converts sketches to slides. David is coding an iPad interface to automate this ‐ it's currently a small codebase (< 1,000 lines) David has previously worked on a number computer vision projects before with applicable technologies. David also wrote 15,000 lines of code last year for our previous startup, Datoral.
This is to see how far along you are. We knew that we were fairly early stage, so tried to show that we'd be quick to build our technology.
How far along are you? Do you have a beta yet? If not, when will you? Are you launched? If so, how many users do you have? Do you have revenue? If so, how much? If you're launched, what is your monthly growth rate (in users or revenue or both)?
We're in week two of our business, but we already have our first paying client. They are paying £5 per slide we create for them and we are learning a lot about there needs. We've also had meetings with some larger consultancy firms to measure there interest for rolling out SketchDeck across their business. Feedback has been good so far. We are working towards letters of intent with them.
Currently, Chris is the product. We will have a rounded tech beta in March. We make all our technology demonstrable from the start, so we can test and grow lean ‐ ensuring we are building something people want.
Traction is the litmus test of a startup. At some point, you either have growing users/revenues, or you don't. Until that stage, there is a lot of belief and good-will, after it, you live or die by your numbers. It's important to demonstrate as best as you can your traction, being succinct and objective, providing clear metrics. If you squirm on this question and try to fudge an answer, it'll be very obvious - be honest.
You can see from our answer that we were very early stage when applying. We had probably the least traction and progress of our batch.
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?
1) Our extended networks are revealing a large a number of people working in consultancies, banks and other corporates who want our service
2) From this, we are getting introductions to relevant decision makers in big consultancies and MDs at small consultancies to set up pilots which will convert to subscriptions
3) Our delighted clients will provide good references for our service which will help us to extend from our network.
4) From here we will grow further in two ways:
5.a) For large clients: Prove the value proposition at a company level and then sell into consultancies, banks and large corporates at a senior level.
5.b) For small clients: We will have a low friction sign up process and free trials to encourage smaller companies to sign up directly through our site.
It's important to demonstrate you understand the fundamentals of acquiring users - this is a core skill for any founder
If we fund you, which of the founders will commit to working exclusively (no school, no other jobs) on this project for the next year?
We have both committed exclusively to this for the foreseeable future
It's a good sign when founders are committed to their idea (conversely, if they'll only work on it if they get funding/into an accelerator, they may lack the persistence required to get through the first few hard years)
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.
Pulse: A lightweight employee engagement/happiness gauge that measures and advises managers how to improve their workplace SnapBet: Take a photo, choose a bet (e.g. "I'm better looking", wager £5) and be pitted against a random stranger. Third person judges, and one photo taker wins the bet (e.g. £10) Nobox: An inbox that tracks what is unread / what items are flagged as 'being worked on' and rejects further mail until you've had time to deal with the current load. This forces senders to take responsibility rather than overload their colleagues Work for Change: Connecting up homeless people with Amazon Turk and Virtual PA work, to empower them to generate an income and change their lives for the better A platform that radically evolves an entire website's design, through A/B testing for core business metrics Shazam for calories ‐ Snap the menu, get the nutritional info Automated corporate communication advice ‐ it gives an effectiveness measure against target demographics and suggestions for improvement An easy way to short bitcoins in the UK/Europe Automated personal finance advisor ‐ pulls your current account and savings account information, then provides cashflow suggestions throughout the month
It's been known for founders to get into YC based on one of these side ideas. The ideas list also demonstrates your ability to spot problems in the world.
Re-reading these ideas is interesting - some are now companies/apps, some are pretty terrible :P
Please tell us something surprising or amusing that one of you has discovered. (The answer need not be related to your project.)
It turns out that if you vaporize alcohol into fog, it becomes a lot more fun. From inhaling just milliliters of the fog, one becomes light headed and tipsy. Furthermore, you can create flavored aromatic cocktails by crushing herbs into a glass, then passing the vapor over them and inhaling. I plan to incorporate this into a piece of immersive theatre.
This is a tie-breaker question: if a reviewer is on the fence about inviting you for interview, this might tilt them over to your side. Try to be original, and try to demonstrate curiosity and creativity. Looking back, our answer seems a bit immature.
That's the whole application, we hope our original answers and commentary helps you. Y Combinator is a great experience and we wish you good luck with the process.
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David is co-founder of SketchDeck and enjoys writing about design, brand strategy and marketing.