Getting into Y Combinator as a single, non-technical founder

By Hamilton Chan , written on October 29, 2012

From The News Desk

Yep, it can be done. Y Combinator, that bastion of uber-hacker teams, does accept single non-technical founders, and I am living proof. I was admitted into YC as part of the Summer 2011 batch.

But getting in as a single non-technical founder required a higher burden of proof than normal. In a world of bets, you’re going to have to be more of a sure thing than “two Stanford roommates who have been pair programming since first grade and left their jobs at Google/Facebook to do this startup.”

Enough preface.  Here’s how I did it…

Before the application

What you have done before you apply to Y Combinator is more important than the application itself.

Here is a quick rundown of my own background: I graduated from Harvard College (Phi Beta Kappa, Magna Cum Laude), worked at JP Morgan in Hong Kong as an investment banker, graduated from Harvard Law School, worked at a major law firm, then ran and grew my family’s commercial printing business for 10 years, before starting PayDragon.

What really helped was this article in Los Angeles Magazine about my decision to leave the cozy confines of the corporate world for the challenge of being an entrepreneur.

But every person’s background is unique, and your success in getting accepted into YC will ultimately depend on what special thing you bring to the table. Investing in startups is still ultimately a decision about people. If you can show that you have the fortitude and passion to be an entrepreneur, and that you have excelled in a particular area, I believe you would be every bit as worthy for consideration as a hacker with an idea.  (Now, if you don’t have an idea and you are not a hacker, this is going to be extremely difficult…)

Show that you can get stuff built.

If you are not going to be the builder of your product, because you are not a programmer by training, then you must at least show that you can get your product built. You must demonstrate that you are persuasive, and have the vision, leadership and resourcefulness to grow your product.

In our case, we had a quality product that was launched, covered in the media, and had paying customers before we applied to YC.

I suspect that the main reason why Y Combinator favors hackers is because, as Paul Graham posits, ideas are generally worthless without the ability to execute them. If you can show that your ideas can be produced well, who cares how the proverbial sausage is made?

During my 10-minute interview at YC, the entire conversation revolved around the product, the market, and how we would win. I demoed the product and fielded a non-stop barrage of questions, but was never asked about being a single non-technical founder. Being able to see past my “non-technical” status is a testament to the open-mindedness and judgment of Y Combinator’s partners. Tap into that by having the focus be on your product and your vision, not the credentials that got you to the interviewing stage.

The most important question

In my opinion, the most important question on the Y Combinator application, is this one: “Please tell us about the time you most successfully hacked some (non-computer) system to your advantage."

Part of why this question is the most important is that it leads to the greatest variation in responses. After reviewing hundreds of applications, the YC application evaluators can become inured to the typical litany of accomplishments spouted by most twenty-something hackers. But this question really gives you a chance to inject some personality and life into your application. Choose your answer wisely.

YC is ultimately looking for hackers, and not just in the technical, computer programming sense. YC wants problem-solvers who are flexible enough to find solutions where others see immovable obstacles. In business, problem-solving is the oxygen upon which a startup’s livelihood depends. Proving that you have this skill will make you a stronger bet than a candidate who is less resourceful and persistent, however technologically talented.

The team still matters.

It should be emphasized that I am by no means a one man band. I work side by side with incredible engineers, designers, marketing minds, and project managers, who have all contributed significantly our startup. As a single, non-technical founder, I am even more beholden to them than if I had co-founders. We are a tight-knit bunch and have worked together for years.

Being a single non-technical founder does have its advantages. For one, there is no chance of co-founder dispute, a reason for failure for many startups. While our process is collaborative and consensus-driven, at the top there is still a singular voice, and that helps with decisiveness and clarity of vision.

Also, not being a coder is greatly liberating. I can focus on product and business development, while we build the product in parallel. Every job has a certain amount of tedium built in, and by being freed from some of the tedium of coding, I can spend time on the countless other areas that need tending. Even though I do not code, I do the lion’s share of the beta-testing and will frequently work through our coding logic with the developers. I know our product inside-out, and am aware of the slightest changes in the product. This is mandatory for non-technical founders.

There is no formula.

Ask any investor, and they will tell you that a formula for startup success is hard to come by. So it stands to reason that successful startups come in many shapes and sizes. Some focus on big data, others on micro-payments. Some have six co-founders, some have one.

If there is a unifying characteristic of successful entrepreneurs, it’s that they will stop at nothing. So you don’t know the difference between Django and Jenga, and everything you know about Javascript you learned in five minutes on Codecademy. If you are determined to succeed and can get your product built, being a single non-technical founder should only be your latest obstacle to overcome.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]