What’s it like being a nonprofit in Y Combinator?

Now the obligatory Tech Crunch article is out, I’m thrilled to announce we’ve been in Y Combinator (YC) since June. YC is widely regarded as the world’s best startup accelerator, and has supported companies such as AirBnB, Reddit and Dropbox. It provides investment and intensive coaching over three months.

I’ve had a lot of questions about YC over the last couple of days. Here’s answers to the most common questions, plus an update on our progress since we were admitted.


What do you get as a nonprofit in YC, and why did you join?

Instead of $120,000 of investment, you get a $100,000 donation. Otherwise, you’re treated almost exactly the same as a for-profit. This means:

  • There are two partners who look after you. You meet them once every 1-2 weeks. We’re looked after by Dalton Caldwell and Paul Bucheit, the founder of Gmail.
  • Kate Courteau, head of the nonprofit program also looks out for us.
  • You can also request office hours with any of the other 20 or so partners. We’ve had great office hours with Kevin Hale, the founder of Wufoo, on web design, and Sam Altman, the President of YC, on strategy. We’ve also had some very useful legal help from YC’s lawyers.
  • Paul Graham is retired, but you get to meet him once. Unfortunately, we didn’t yet.
  • There’s a dinner each Tuesday where they bring in a tech leader to talk off-the-record, and you get to chat to your batchmates and the partners.
  • There’s also group sessions and workshops.
  • At the end, you do a 2:30min minute pitch at Demo Day to the biggest investors in the Valley. There’s a lot of training on how to pitch in the lead up, and YC introduces you to leads. We’ll be asking for donations rather than investment.

Why is YC letting in nonprofits?

I think it’s because they want to make the world a better place, and they spot an opportunity to build a new nonprofit ecosystem that’s much more like the startup world, a vision we share.

YC has also been admitting many more ‘for good’ for-profit startups e.g. working on biotech, clean energy and education.

What have you got out of the program so far?

  1. The atmosphere. Being around so many people who want to grow billion dollar businesses as fast as possible is pretty exciting. Whenever you say “we want to grow 2x,” there’s always someone to ask “how about 10x?” We’re working hard.
  2. Internalising the YC approach to startups. We think YC are the world’s experts in how to run a startup, and there’s a clear YC philosophy. We’d learned about this philosophy before, but going through the program lets you really internalise it. It has felt like gaining a whole set of new tools for getting stuff done in the world. And I think it’s especially mind-blowing if you have a nonprofit background.
  3. The network. Being in YC gives you credibility and membership of a community of over 1,000 of the most proactive, positive and productive people I’ve ever met.
  4. Specific advice. We expected to get more specific advice than we have, but we’ve received a lot of great tips on how to improve the product, as well as interesting big picture feedback. Overall, I think the advice for for-profits is better (as you’d expect), but YC can still help you with many key issues such as product design, pitching, hiring, thinking of a big vision, and marketing.

What are you trying to grow / how are you scaling?

We’re focusing on our online career guide, so we’re scaling in the same way many tech companies do.

Ultimately, we’re aiming to grow the rate of significant plan changes per month. Unfortunately, this metric is very lagging, so week-to-week we’re focusing on growing active user reading time 10%+ per week.

What do they look for in a nonprofits, and why did they let you in?

YC is still figuring out the details of their nonprofit program, but basically what they look for is similar to for-profits:

  • A productive, gritty, passionate team.
  • An important problem
  • Evidence you can solve this problem: traction and growth

For nonprofits, they also look for a sustainable funding model.

And they’re mainly looking for startups that use technology, and having a technical co-founder is a significant bonus (which we had), though they’re letting in more and more non-tech companies.

The selection rate is similar to for-profits at about 1%. There’s no fixed quota of companies, rather they aim to let in anyone who meets their criteria.

We think they let us in because they agree that career advice is bad, no-one else is working on the problem, and we could show that former users were having way more impact due to us. We also showed we could scale by partially automating our coaching, then hiring more coaches (or perhaps faster via online content). And we could show that we’d raised $200,000 of donations from former users, and that users were paying for coaching, so our funding model is scalable.

What other nonprofits are there?

We’re the fourth batch of nonprofits, and there’s been about 20 nonprofits in total. Some of the other cool nonprofits in previous batches include Watsi, DemocracyOS and Bayes Impact. See some more examples.

What progress have we made since the start of June?

  • We moved to Mountain View in California, which has been great (we’ll be going back to Oxford at the end of Sept).
  • We decided to focus on online content rather than coaching. The online content has changed plans in the past, can be scaled without hiring, improves our knowledge and is in-demand by our users, so makes sense to focus on first. We can always do more coaching later, and will likely do a round Sept-Oct. Based on this decision, we sorted out our metrics and targets.
  • We’ve taken the career guide through several iterations, including adding a career quiz (something many at YC suggested).
  • Rob Wiblin joined the team as a researcher and co-founder – he’s been working closely with us for three years and was the perfect fit for this role. Before this role, he was Executive Director of our umbrella organisation, the Centre for Effective Altruism, and Research Director at Giving What We Can.
  • We’ve released 3-4 pieces of new content per week, driving traffic and getting a lot of positive feedback from users.
  • We’ve met lots of awesome people, and gave eight talks at Effective Altruism Global.
  • Will’s book was released and has had some great media.

Total reading time on the site was 170h per day in the last week of July, up from 50h per day at the start of YC. That’s over 14% weekly growth.

We had 300 newsletter sign ups in the last week of July, up from 50 per week in May.

What’s the plan for the rest of the program?

In the lead up to Demo Day and immediately after, we’ll be focused on fundraising. If you’d like to donate to us, please drop me an email.

Otherwise, we’ll keep improving the career guide and releasing new content with the aim of getting at least another 2x growth in our leading metrics by the end of the year.

We also plan to do outreach and coaching at the start of the academic year with our student groups in top universities.

Update April 2017: here’s a guide to how to apply, written by our co-founder, Will MacAskill