User Onboarding in MVPs: Strategies for an Exceptional First Impression For YC Startups

While applying with just an idea is not a bad idea, you will stand out from over 100,000+ applicants when you show up with a validated MVP or some form of traction.


Oct 16, 2023


The big question on every first-time founder's mind when applying to YC is whether should they apply pre-product or pre-revenue. The short answer is YES! According to YCombinator, 'On average, 40% of the companies we fund in each batch are just an idea. Most don’t have any revenue.' This means there are other qualities they look for in founders and in each application before accepting you into YC. So while applying with just an idea is not a bad idea, you will stand out from over 100,000+ applicants when you show up with a validated MVP or some form of traction.

That's why we want to help technical and non-technical founders navigate this journey successfully by discussing the significance of user onboarding in building MVPs. User onboarding can be the difference between a successful product launch and a flop. It's what sets the tone for the user's entire experience with your product.

To achieve a remarkable initial user experience, it's important to have a clear understanding of your target audience and their needs. This way, you can tailor your product to meet their specific pain points and create a seamless user journey. A well-researched Ideal Customer Profile (ICP) helps you achieve this.

Read more on how to research and craft one here:

One strategy to ensure a successful user onboarding experience is to keep it simple and intuitive. Avoid overwhelming your users with too many features or complicated instructions. Instead, focus on the core features that will provide the most value to your users. Another strategy is to provide clear and concise instructions at every step of the onboarding process. This will help users understand how to use your product effectively and reduce frustration. By implementing these strategies, you'll be well on your way to creating a winning MVP and making a remarkable first impression on YC. So, let's dive in and start building!

Why User Onboarding Matters for YC MVPs

Before we dive into the strategies, let's understand why user onboarding is a critical element for YC startups building MVPs:

1. Demo Day Readiness: Y Combinator's Demo Day is a pivotal event in the life of a startup, especially for those who are part of YC's accelerator program. It's a day when startup founders have the unique opportunity to present their company and their progress to a room full of potential investors. Demo Day is essentially a pitch event where entrepreneurs aim to secure funding and gain the support they need to propel their startups forward. When potential investors evaluate a startup's MVP during Demo Day, they not only look at the product's features and potential but also at how well it engages users right from the start. A seamless onboarding process is crucial because it ensures that users can quickly and effortlessly understand how to use the product and experience its value. This, in turn, can lead to higher user retention, which is a metric investors closely monitor.

  • Investors understand that an MVP's onboarding process is a reflection of the startup's understanding of its target audience and its ability to create a user-friendly product. If the onboarding process is cumbersome or confusing, it can raise concerns about the startup's user-centered approach and its ability to scale and retain users.

  • On the other hand, when investors see an MVP with a smooth, intuitive, and engaging onboarding process, it sends a positive signal. It suggests that the startup is not only building a product but also carefully considering how users will interact with it. This can create confidence in the startup's ability to attract and retain users.

  • Investors are more likely to be impressed by a startup that has a well-thought-out onboarding process because it demonstrates that the startup is not just in the early stages of development but is ready to create a user-friendly and market-ready product.

YC Demo Day S23

2. User Retention: A smooth onboarding experience is essential for YC startups aiming to grow and gain traction. When users have a positive onboarding experience, they're more likely to stick around and become loyal customers. It's all about creating a seamless transition from the first interaction with your product to becoming a regular user.

Think of onboarding as a first impression. You want to make sure that your users feel welcomed and valued, and that they understand the value proposition of your product. A well-designed onboarding process can help users learn how to use your product quickly and efficiently, which can lead to higher engagement and retention rates.

User retention not only ensures consistent growth but also encourages organic word-of-mouth marketing, which is invaluable in the startup world. In a YC startup's journey, a smooth onboarding process is an essential catalyst for growth, gaining traction, and achieving milestones that catch the eye of investors and users alike.

Read more on user retention based on industries here:

3. User-Centric Approach: YC's motto is "Build Something People Want." User onboarding aligns with this principle by focusing on delivering value to users from the start. In the world of startup entrepreneurship, Y Combinator (YC) is renowned for its unwavering commitment to one fundamental principle: "Build Something People Want." This principle places users at the core of the startup journey, emphasizing that a successful product is one that resonates with and fulfills the needs of its target audience. User onboarding becomes a pivotal element in realizing this principle. It's the moment when the rubber meets the road, and the initial interaction with your product defines the user's perception of its value. YC startups, driven by the ethos of building what users truly want, recognize that the onboarding experience is where this value delivery begins.

A user-centric approach manifested through onboarding, is not just about making a positive first impression; it's about initiating a long-term relationship. YC startups understand that by focusing on the user from the outset, they're not only building a product but also a loyal user base. This approach aligns perfectly with the essence of YC's philosophy, where success is measured not just by the technology created but by the value delivered to the people it serves. In the end, YC startups understand that the path to building something people want begins with onboarding, ensuring that users recognize, appreciate, and continue to find value in what they've built.

Strategies for Exceptional User Onboarding

1. Prioritize Clarity and Simplicity

YC startups understand that when users first engage with their product, they should feel a sense of ease and clarity, not confusion or frustration.

The first step in this direction is to ensure that the onboarding process is straightforward. This means stripping away any unnecessary complexity that could overwhelm users. Startups must recognize that user attention is a valuable and finite resource and as such, you want to reduce your users' time-to-result metric - getting them results in no time. A convoluted onboarding process can lead to user drop-off and, potentially, lost opportunities. As a startup in its early stages, you cannot afford such setbacks, especially when the growth trajectory is tightly linked to user acquisition.

Previous designs tried to tailor their sign-up process to cater to both coaches and players. And also tried to gather data (location) that was not going to shape the user's experience after onboarding.

From user research, we concluded that it made more sense business-wise for the platform to have more players than coaches so we designed the experience to reflect that. Also, an email-only form to sign up greatly reduces churn and gets the users' results faster.

If your product or app requires users to go through 6 - 10 form fields, which doesn't necessarily personalize the experience for the user i.e default language or user type, you might consider

2. Use Progressive Disclosures and Design for Everyday Users

There's a popular saying in the startup world that your first 1,000 users are the hardest to get because it takes more effort as you tend to do things that don't scale in the early days and a great product to convert them to true power users who will help you spread the gospel when you solve their problem effectively. Understanding and recognizing that not all users are created equal. Some are tech-savvy power users who can navigate complexity with ease, while others are everyday users seeking simplicity and clarity is key to structuring and designing your product for your users. When it comes to onboarding and product design, striking a balance between accommodating these diverse user groups is paramount.

Progressive disclosures involve presenting information and features to users gradually, based on their level of engagement and familiarity with the product. YC startups realize that designing for normal users, who may be encountering their product for the first time, is not just a choice but a strategic approach. The onboarding process should gently introduce users to the product's core features and functionalities, preventing information overload and ensuring a smooth and accessible user experience. By focusing on normal users, startups enhance accessibility and broaden their user base, catering to a more extensive audience.

To illustrate this, here's an example of a web3 product

Full Thread & TLDR

3. Gamify the User Experience to Activate User Engagement:

The concept of gamification has emerged as a powerful strategy, especially for Y Combinator (YC) startups. Gamification involves incorporating elements typically found in games, such as challenges, rewards, and competition, into non-game contexts. When applied to the onboarding process, it can transform what might otherwise be a routine or tedious experience into something captivating and interactive.

YC startups recognize that activating user engagement from the very beginning is not just about providing information but also creating an emotional connection. By infusing elements of gamification into onboarding, startups can achieve several essential objectives. First, it makes the process more enjoyable for users, reducing the chances of abandonment during onboarding. Second, it provides a sense of achievement as users complete tasks, which can boost their confidence and motivation to explore the product further. Lastly, gamification can help educate users about the product's core features by encouraging them to interact with the platform actively.

One practical example of gamification in onboarding is the use of progress bars or achievement badges. As users complete specific onboarding tasks, they receive visual indicators of their progress, like filling in a progress bar or earning a digital badge. These elements tap into users' intrinsic motivation and the desire for recognition. By making users feel like they're accomplishing something, startups can create a sense of ownership and enthusiasm about the product. YC startups understand that gamifying the onboarding experience is a strategic approach to ignite user engagement, laying a solid foundation for long-term success by building something people genuinely want to use.


In conclusion, the art of user onboarding is a critical aspect of the journey for Y Combinator (YC) startups and all entrepreneurs alike. YC's foundational motto, "Build Something People Want," underscores the profound importance of delivering value to users from the very start. It's not just about crafting an impressive product; it's about creating a product that resonates with and serves its audience. The strategies we've explored, such as prioritizing clarity and simplicity, progressive disclosure, user-centric approaches, and gamification, all align with this principle. They underscore the significance of the initial user experience, which sets the stage for sustained user engagement, growth, and user retention.

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