Learnings from our Y Combinator journey
There are plenty of great blog posts out there about why a startup should apply to Y Combinator (YC) and how to get in. We wanted to focus this one on our learnings, our startup having had a pretty unique journey through YC: we got in at our first shot, went through unexpected legal events, pivoted twice and then made it successfully to Demo Day. We are sharing here the main mistakes we made with our startup during YC and how the program helped us figure things out.
THE STORY IN SHORT
The initial project Hamza Ouazzani Chahdi, Thomas Cottin and I got into YC with was Sweetch, a peer-to-peer marketplace for drivers to exchange on-street parking spots for $5. Usage was barely starting to pick up after the first month at YC when San Francisco’s City Attorney threatened to shut us down saying the business was illegal. We open sourced our code to show our good will to solve the parking crisis and fought for a week before realizing that a pivot was necessary. We were determined to continue hacking in the parking space.
We then launched 2 apps at the same time, SpotAngels and Vatler. We built SpotAngels in a week while doing some testing around the idea of Vatler. We saw better engagement metrics with Vatler and decided to go for it. We went from the idea to a product with a first user paying for it in a week’s time. 4 weeks later we were pitching at YC Demo Day and managed to secure funding! The Demo Day constraint is really powerful to force you to get shit done ☺.
Below are the 6 main mistakes we made with our startup and the learnings we managed to figure out thanks to the startup education we got at YC.
We had the idea of Vatler long before Sweetch, but we went for the latter because the concept was purer.
Learning: Don’t try to go for the purest model, go for the one people are ready to pay for.
We were determined to fight the City because we considered their decision was unfair. We didn’t have a huge user base to support us so we lost. The YC partners told us that but we didn’t listen because we were emotionally attached to our project.
Learning: Don’t fight for the sake of fighting, focus on making something people want.
We wasted hours and hours trying to convince journalists that they were wrong about us and that we were more driven by solving the problem than by making money.
Learning: Make a good effort to build relationships with journalists, but don’t expect them to always understand or even write about you. Just be so good at making something people want they can’t ignore you.
Our competitors had really scandalous marketing and we tried to differentiate ourselves by being the good guys.
Learning: The first mover gives the impression about the business. If you are lumped in, then you are f*****.
We were constantly looking for support instead of advice that we had at our reach.
Learning: Don’t ask for support, ask for advice.
Last but not least, we launched directly without having a beta. We relied on Apple for the distribution of the app from day 1 and it took them more than a week every time they reviewed our app.
Learning: If you launch an iPhone app, GO FOR A BETA. The App Store is a monopoly, don’t rely on them, they kill your iteration process. With Vatler, we used the Apple Enterprise Program to distribute our app to users. We pushed a new version every day which was great to learn and get the version users wanted, also users felt that we cared about them every time we improved the product.
YC was a unique and exceptional journey in terms of learning for our startup. We continue to learn with Vatler every day and we can’t encourage you enough to apply to YC. You can still apply late here https://apply.ycombinator.com/.
Thank you Alexis Ohanian and my co-founders for reading drafts of this.