We landed a Y Combinator interview. This is what happened.

Image via Paul Miller/Flickr.

Toward the end of March, a friend connected us to another entrepreneur who happened to be visiting Beijing. Given that she had a lot of experience raising money -- something that Saent is in the process of doing -- the mutual friend thought she might be able to offer us valuable advice. So Saent co-founder Tim Metz met her for coffee.

It turns out she wasn’t just in China for a vacation. She was recruiting companies to apply to Y Combinator. And she thought Saent might be a good fit.

The Cadillac of startup accelerators

Incubators and accelerators are programs meant to help guide early stage startups from idea to product, funding, and launch. By now there are about as many flavors of accelerators as there are coffee choices at Starbucks. Hardware, mobile apps, biotech, agriculture, media, nanobots, you name it, there is an accelerator for that. We've been approached by quite a few of them, especially just after our crowdfunding campaign, but mostly they seemed like a bad idea. (Or at least, not worth the distraction that applying would bring.)

Y Combinator is different. They basically invented the model of the modern accelerator and have backed huge companies like Airbnb, Dropbox, Zenefits, Stripe, and Twitch; over 1,000 startups have gone through their program since 2005 and have a combined valuation of ~$65 billion. If YC comes calling, it’s worth listening.

To apply or not

The benefits of applying to YC were obvious: we’d get a $120k investment right away, three months of world-class mentorship, access to YC’s extensive alumni network, and a chance to pitch Saent to a room full of the world’s most powerful angel investors and venture capitalists.

The case against applying was obvious, too. We had recently announced a major delay in the production timeline of the Saent hardware and we were working furiously to make up lost ground. Applying to YC would take time away from building Saent that we didn’t really have. Doubly so because the application was due less than a week after our unexpected recruitment.

After speaking with a few friends who had been through YC and debating the benefits of getting into the program vs. the drawback of lost time, we decided the potential long-term reward was worth the short-term risk. We spent the next few days putting together our application.

Our YC application video.

The interview

Getting into Y Combinator was always a long shot. Of the thousands of startups who apply for each cohort, only about 300 are invited for an interview. Of those, only about 100 are selected for the program.

Saent was chosen for an interview and Y Combinator flew our founding team out to Mountain View, California at the end of April.

The YC interview is legendary in Silicon Valley. It’s a very fast, relatively high pressure, 10 minute meeting that’s really unlike a traditional pitch to investors. There’s no formal presentation, no slide deck, sometimes not even a product demo. It’s just a fast -- very fast -- conversation with a small group of YC partners about your product, the market, and why you’re the right people to address it.

Saent co-founder Russell Haines collecting his thoughts before the interview.

Going in, we tried to adopt the mindset that because we couldn’t control the outcome, it wasn’t worth worrying about. We tried not to fret about missing out, nor get excited about getting in.

We left the interview feeling like we’d done okay. The partners asked a lot of questions, they seemed engaged and interested in Saent, and generally liked the idea, but challenged us on a number of points: did we really need a physical device? Will privacy concerns make this a hard sell? How big is the potential market, really? On the other hand, the 10 minutes went by even faster than we’d anticipated. We never got a chance to actually demo the app or button, and because of a common theme we read in online advice about how to pitch YC partners, we made the (perhaps terrible) decision not to talk about the larger vision of Saent. So we weren’t sure what to expect.

A few very stressful hours of waiting later we had our answer: Saent did not make the cut.

What we learned

It would be easy to conclude that our Y Combinator experience was a waste of time. We lost a few days of development time preparing our application, a few more preparing for the interview, and yet another handful to travel. But we don’t view it that way. On the contrary, we think YC was a very valuable and helpful experience for Saent.

Russell and Tim at YC.

The process of applying, though it took a lot of time, forced us to reevaluate our broader goals and mission. It made us take some of the hazier ideas we had for Saent’s future and clarify them. That exercise has already been helpful for us in mapping out where we want Saent to go over the next few years and how we intend to get there.

The interview -- and subsequent rejection email from Y Combinator -- exposed issues in how we’re telling the story of Saent. YC didn’t really grasp that broader vision, which was in large part our fault. They thought Saent was a good idea and possibly a substantial business, but not the big, world-changing type of idea they look for. We know Saent can have that kind of impact. We think Saent eventually has the potential to aid and help you in more aspects of your life than just work (learning goals, habits, digital technology compulsions, and addictions). But they didn’t see it that way. That’s not their fault -- it’s ours. We now have a clearer picture of how we need to talk about Saent than we did before we applied for YC.

Before and after the interview we got a chance to hang out with many of the other startups that were invited for Y Combinator interviews, as well as a handful of YC alumni. We learned a lot in our discussions with them -- both about what makes the concept of Saent “click” for people and to what types of people Saent immediately appeals. Anecdotally, our week in California connecting with other entrepreneurs confirmed something we long suspected: people working on startups really want a product like Saent!

What’s next

Not getting into YC isn’t a death knell for a startup. Drew Houston, the founder of Dropbox, was rejected the first time he applied for Y Combinator. So were Buffer and Sendgrid (who each eventually went through other accelerator programs), and Sniply (who got in on a second try only to say no). The majority of startups, of course, never go through an accelerator program at all.

For Saent, we think we’re making good progress by ourselves -- we thought that even before we applied for YC. The Y Combinator opportunity came along at a perfect time -- we’re about to launch our product, and we were already in the process of raising some more money. It isn’t something we probably would have considered without the urging of that entrepreneur we met for coffee in Beijing, and so for us it really would have been icing on the cake.

Maybe in the future we’ll come to another crossroads where applying for an accelerator program makes sense, but for now, we’ll press forward on our own.

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Head of Marketing @skyverge Formerly: @getsaent @feedly @mashable, @rww, @sitepointdotcom. Co-founder @deeplyai, @thefluffpo. Goonies never say die.

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