What we learned from YC Summer 2014
(even though we weren’t accepted)
Update/Spoiler: We got into YC Winter 2015!
tl;dr: Your startup can replicate the majority of what happens in YC — work on the startup! — whether or not you get in.
A part of our company’s short history that we don’t like to dwell on is that we applied to the last cycle of Y Combinator Summer 2014. We weren’t accepted, but looking back it was still the best thing we could have done at the time. The process accelerated some hard lessons and forced us to get serious.
As we apply to YC again, we’ve been thinking about what we learned the first time and what we should do differently this time around.
Just fill out the fucking app
If you’re wondering if you should or shouldn’t apply, at the very least spend a couple hours answering the key questions. It’s the perfect way to test your startup idea and to practice explaining it clearly. All early-stage founders would benefit from answering these questions together on a regular basis. It forces internal alignment and focus.
For us, filling out the YC app was smooth sailing at first. Answers were overflowing and our acceptance — fuck the odds — felt inevitable. How much revenue we could make? Thank you so much for asking, pg!
Editing is difficult but crucial because it forces you to reduce and to clarify, reduce and clarify. What emerges is the best version of your company (at least on paper).
Your final application is your business plan and a blueprint for the next few months of execution… which is why it’s that much harder to learn that you aren’t accepted.
Learn to cope with rejection
For a young startup, rejection is constant. Every lean venture is a numbers game. You get your product/company/selves in front of a volume of users/investors/partners. You evaluate how well things stick and iterate based on the results. No matter how much you are crushing it, you’re getting a volume of rejections all of the time.
Rejection sucks, but you need to be able to cope with it. For our part, Open Listings is learning to be zen, to perform honest post mortems and to improve wherever we can. Most importantly, our team is learning to move forward together. This first big no from YC was the only thing that could have prepared us for the unending barrage of no’s that is being a startup. Rejection was tough news at the time but looking back it just feels like an inevitable part of our journey.
Before we submitted, Trey Swann of YC W14 company TrueVault generously took the time to discuss his thoughts on our application and his recent YC experience. He had some solid tactical feedback, but his main concern was that we appeared similar to his company the first time they applied and were rejected — when their startup was a side project as well. Like TrueVault, we had a fully formed idea and had built an MVP, but we were still at our full-time jobs.
Trey’s main advice was that we commit to Open Listings. It’s impossible to promise dedication in an application, you can only show it.
Sam Altman recently said “Starting a startup takes 100% of your time.” But for good reason: we accomplished more in our first few weeks of full-time dedication than in the months we operated as a side project. You can always change course but you’ll never get anywhere unless you commit.
“You don’t have to get accepted to YC to do YC”
Post rejection, our friend Galen Wolfe-Pauly consoled us with this insightful thought: since most of your time in YC is spent working, anyone can perfectly replicate most of the experience — just work for three months. “You don’t have to get accepted to YC to do YC,” Galen reasoned.
So even though we weren’t technically accepted, we decided to maximize the summer of 2014. We “joined YC” by simply dedicating ourselves full-time to Open Listings and making progress against what we described in our application. We launched, iterated our product, pivoted our model/market, raised a bit of seed funding and met some amazing people along the way. We’ve found a mission far beyond where we began. Trey and Galen were both right: we didn’t need YC acceptance, we just needed to start up.
Our last YC application feels like it was written years ago by totally different founders. Our business today is easier to understand, our product is real, our user base is growing and our vision is clearer. In the last few months, we discovered a problem users really want solved and we are tightening all of our feedback loops around solving it.
But we’re still at the beginning and need additional support to achieve our mission. So we’re applying again and doing a few things differently this time. We completed a draft of our application sooner to give us more time for editing and peer review. We are writing less to ensure that what we do include gets read. We’re spending less total time on the application out of necessity, but also because it’s easier this time: the “story” is just more real.
And we’re prepared for any outcome. We’re confident that Winter 2015 is going to be an incredible, rewarding experience for our young company — no matter what happens with YC.
- The Open Listings Team
PS: Are you a YC alum? We’d love for you to read our application and provide feedback. Contact us for a link.