Why I Didn’t Apply to Y Combinator

The October 21st deadline for Y Combinator’s Winter 2014 class came and went, and no, I didn’t apply. Don’t get me wrong—Y Combinator is a world class program. Every single graduate I’ve met has nothing but praise for the mentorship and network it offers.

The simple reason I chose not to apply for the winter class is that my company is far from ready. I need to solidify the team and release a significantly different second iteration of our product. Without making major progress on those two issues, I didn’t think we would be accepted. But why not just apply anyway? Surely I could sacrifice an hour even for a very slim chance of acceptance.

The real reason I didn’t apply is that you give up far more than just that one hour to an application. I was fortunate to learn this lesson early from a drawn out and painful college admissions experience. My acceptance email from Columbia (off the wait list) came June 29, 2011, a full three months after everyone else opened their fat envelopes and bought their sweatshirts. It was not so much the feeling of helplessness that was so crushing, but the feeling of hopefulness.

Still the most exciting email I've ever received

You start to think, “If only this stranger will validate my worth, everything will work out from there.” Deriving your definition of success from a committee of strangers has no possible good outcome. You start to take time away from the work that really matters to do things that look good on paper. You set yourself up for irrecoverable failure if the external validation doesn’t come. But more importantly, you probably set yourself up for failure even if it does.

Dig down for the real reasons you think admission to Y Combinator, to college, or to any other competitive program will vault you to the front of the pack. Will it really make you a better company/person, or does it just add a veneer of prestige than can help mask your weaknesses? In my case, I need to build a team and a better product. An accelerator can help a company make the leap to rapid and sustainable growth, but it needs high quality ingredients—team and product—to make that happen. Manufacturing those ingredients is hard, slow-moving, and often thankless work. An improbable acceptance to Y Combinator would burden me with higher expectations and distractions, but do little to address the core challenges I’m facing right now.

It’s sorely tempting to lust after that unlikely possibility of acceptance as a light at the end of a dark tunnel of hard work and little recognition. The work I do day in and day out is taxing, and a lot of it isn’t something I can open up in a web browser and show off to customers. I’m in a rough stretch, but I have to admit that—to friends, to advisors, to customers, and most importantly to myself. Telling everyone I’m “crushing it” and acting like I run a company on the brink of untold success not only won’t make those things true—it will make it harder for me to ever make them true. An application process rewards those who can best hide their flaws. Real life rewards those who expose their vulnerabilities so that they can recruit the right peers to convert them into strengths.

If you truly feel that the resources that YC or any other program offers you are truly what you’re missing in life or work, I won’t dissuade you from filling out that application. But if there’s even a hint of doubt, take a moment to think about whether you might actually be desperate for something to be hopeful for. If so, close that browser tab, and go back to work. If you’re conscious enough of your fears and challenges to walk away from even the most tantalizing distraction, there won’t be any doubts once the time is right to click “submit.”