How Elucify got into Y Combinator (Part 1)
Elucify is a free and crowdsourced database of business contact information. Our product is currently in alpha right now, but we’ve got over 50 companies and hundreds of users using our free platform. We’re a YC-backed company with 3 co-founders that have previously worked at Dropbox, Stripe, Twitter, and Amazon.
I’ve often been asked by friends, family, and colleagues to share what our experience was like in Y Combinator. YC (as it is commonly called) was an amazing experience, and there are not enough words I can write that do it justice, but I’ll give it a shot. Here is Part 1 of a 3 part series about our YC journey.
About 7 months ago, I was standing in a messy and dark apartment in Berkeley, huddled next to my two co-founders near a phone on speaker. We were chatting on the phone with Geoff Ralston (creator of Yahoo Mail), a partner at Y Combinator and Silicon Valley stalwart.
“Congratulations, we’d like to offer you a spot to join the Y Combinator Winter ’16 class”, said Geoff.
I was numb. How did we end up here?
About Y Combinator
To those of you who don’t know much about Y Combinator, it’s considered the most prestigious incubator in the Silicon Valley and around the world.
Unfortunately, with prestige comes exclusivity: it’s incredibly hard to get into.
“[In 2015] 7,000 startups applied for approximately 106 spots, with a 1.5% acceptance rate. For comparison, Stanford had a 5.1% student acceptance rate in 2014; Harvard’s 2014 acceptance rate was 5.9%.” (Fortune)
For myself, Y Combinator was always steeped in mysterious lore. Being in the Bay Area for most of my life, I was always around stories of brilliant founders who got their start from YC, some of whom were my friends. In addition, I was working at Dropbox, a former YC company, where the lore and mythicism of YC was only larger given the fact that it had given the Dropbox founders their start on the way to creating a multi-billion dollar company.
The application process to YC was probably one of the most unique application processes I’ve ever been through. There are two parts to getting into YC: First, a written application with a short video. Then, if you’re lucky, you get a 1o minute in-person interview with YC partners. Finally, if you’re REALLY lucky, you get in.
The written application was one of the more difficult applications that I’ve ever had to fill out. It’s incredibly hard to take all of your dreams, hopes, and lack of financial security and put it on one piece of paper.
For example, one of the very first questions was: “Describe your company in 50 characters or less.” Yes, you read that right, characters, not words!
The YC written application teaches you to try and digest your company into small pieces so even a 3rd grader can understand your company. Even if we had not gotten in, the exercise of writing down who we were, what our goals were, and what we wanted to accomplish was extremely beneficial to our company. I highly recommend this application process (whether you apply or not) if you are thinking about founding a company.
We spent about 3–4 days on working on our application and then we sent it to some friends that had gotten into Y Combinator in the past to ask for edits/help. This was incredibly useful. Getting feedback from those who had already gotten into the program elevated our application from just raw thoughts to a pristine and concise application. We submitted the YC application on the day that it was due and waited.
Preparing for the Interview
A week later, our CEO Gerald Fong got an email from YC. We had gotten an interview from YC and it was coming up in 2 weeks!
There are many articles that talk about about how much preparation some companies did to prepare for their YC interview. The truth is, we barely spent any of the 2 weeks preparing for the interview. The reason was simple: we were working on progressing our company forward; which, in turn, would help our chances with YC anyways. Our goal was to show real progress from the time we submitted our application to when we met with the YC partners in person. As we later learned throughout YC, this was probably the right call.
In addition, preparing for 2 weeks for a 10 minute interview just seemed like overkill. It seems like prepping questions over and over again for 2 straight weeks would leave your brain fried. Most importantly, we knew our company was going to exist whether YC wanted to accept us or not, so we were fast at work.
However, that doesn’t mean that we didn’t prepare at all. We took a day and a half before the interview to prepare. We met with former YC founders and asked them to grill us with questions and test our resolve. We spent about 4–5 hours on the IPaulGraham app (neat little app which just throws YC interview questions at you and you have 20 seconds to respond) and peppered each other with questions.
A pro tip that we learned from past YC founders: Know who is going to answer which questions so you don’t talk over each other. We divided the questions among us 3 so we knew which person was going to answer which questions. Gerald would answer questions about our tech and backgrounds, I would answer questions about the market and the problem we wanted to solve, and Naveen would answer questions about our data. This helped us tremendously in balancing our interview and staying on message.
The YC Offices
Our interview was slated towards the end of the day on a Sunday. Given the nervousness that we had leading up to the interview, we barely got any work done. Looking back, I honestly don’t know what I would have preferred: getting the interview done early in the day and waiting for a result all day or doing the interview in the afternoon but steeped in nervous anticipation throughout the day leading up to the interview. Either way, the day was pure torture.
At 3PM, we took our Zipcar (a dinky little Fiat) and drove 1.5 hours from Berkeley over to Mountain View. I had never seen the YC offices before, so I didn’t know what to expect. YC is a bit hidden away in Mountain View, and there’s a small Y Combinator sign outside the building. Nothing too flashy or over the top. However, it was hard not to notice the array of very expensive Teslas and convertibles parked around the office :)
We walked in to check in. The building was dead silent even though there were dozens of people there. There were long tables of founders whispering to each other in hushed voices, tense over the upcoming interviews that they had. You could feel the tension. Being the extrovert that I am, at some point I had the urge to get on top of a table and tell everyone to calm down since I can’t deal with tense silence. I’m glad I didn’t follow through with that…
One other thing that I had noticed: despite the stereotype that YC has extremely young founders in their batches, the people at the tables seemed to be from all walks of life. In fact, it seemed like we were among the youngest people there.
The interviews were held in small rooms scattered around the YC office. Each room had names on a small whiteboard with each of the interviewers names on the front. One in particular caught my eye: Sam Altman (YC President) and Geoff Ralston were listed in one room. “Man,” I thought. “Good luck to whoever goes in there; that’s going to be a tough interview.”
Suddenly, we were called by one of the YC employees to wait in front of a room. Anxiousness crept up. A door opened and an anxious looking founder came out. He was asked to wait for 5 minutes. Suddenly he was called back in. “Sorry…that happens sometimes”, said the YC employee. More waiting.
Suddenly, we were called into the room. I didn’t realize it walking in, but was suddenly faced with the reality: we were in the room with Geoff Ralston and Sam Altman as 2 of our interviewers. Man, this was going to be a ride.
I really wish I could go into extreme detail about the interview, but the truth is that it was a complete blur. The 10 minute interview seemed like the fastest interview that I’ve ever been through. By the time it was over, I thought the interview was just getting started.
We thought the interview went pretty well. We confidently answered each and every question succinctly and it seemed that they were impressed at how close us 3 founders were. Well, it was either that or they were smiling and nodding and thinking “these guys are complete idiots.”
Some of the questions we got were:
- “What does your company do?”
- “How are you going to get users and customers?”
- “What’s your background and experience?”
These are pretty simple questions when you look at them, but the intensity of the situation only magnifies how difficult they are to answer. You have to answer these questions within 20 seconds or less. You also can’t B.S the answers, especially not in the face of the most successful people in the Valley.
We shook hands with the partners and went out the door. We waited for 5 minutes to see whether we’d be called back in, then were told that we were free to go. We were in and out of the YC offices for a mere 30 minutes, though it felt like hours since we had been outside and seen daylight.
We had heard from other founders that if you have been rejected from YC then you receive an email in your inbox. If you’re one of the lucky few that gets in then you receive a call letting you know that same day that you have made it.
Quick note: It’s a strange feeling refreshing your inbox and hoping that there isn’t an email there.
We got back to Berkeley at 6PM and didn’t know what to do. We had a sales meeting the next day with a company so we had some work, and we tried focusing on getting that done. Oddly enough, we were pretty at peace with the interview. We were confident that we had put our best foot forward; and if we didn’t get in then we could accept it and move on.
Then, at 7PM, just 3 hours after our interview, the phone rang. At 8PM, we cracked open some beers :)
If you’ve made it this far into the article, then you’ve finished Part 1! In Part 2, I’ll be going over our experience during Y Combinator and the crazy stories that happened there.
Thanks for reading, don’t forget to subscribe and check out Elucify if you’re in need of free leads. In addition, to pay it forward to the founders who helped us, I’m offering free mock interviews with any startup that is applying to YC! Email me at email@example.com if you want help at any point.
Originally published on The Elucify Blog.