One Startup’s Journey Through Y Combinator or There and Back Again.
I get asked about Y Combinator a lot. People are curious whether the program was worth it, what’s so special about it and, most importantly, how to get in. YC has a mystical aura surrounding it, a phenomenon quite unintentional by its founders. My startup (Scentbird) was part of the 2015 summer batch and just days before the new round of applications is due, I wanted to share our story. I have broken it down into a few key stages — this way you can skip ahead to what’s relevant and interesting to you.
Depending on what kind of personality you have, the application process might feel a bit tedious, but it is a necessary evil and a great exercise whether you get in or not. Most early stage companies struggle with describing their idea in one short sentence. Filling out the YC application is brainstorming on steroids — you need to tell a convincing yet concise story of how you go big. Personality matters — YC is looking for hackers, hustlers and for people who know how to be scrappy. We edited our application as a team and then begged a couple of YC alumni to take a look and point out the weak/wordy spots. Some questions took serious rewriting to start making sense, but having other founders look at it was the most helpful thing we did.
Prepping for an interview is an exciting time. There are a ton of sample interview questions online, so I can hardly add to the topic. It is important to keep the answers brief — you will only have a couple of minutes with the partners and you want to make sure they are able ask as many questions as possible. Don’t leave any of the co-founders behind — YC will be judging your team’s dynamics. The most convincing thing we ever did at a YC interview was bring along a growth graph, so if you have traction, make sure you let the partners know during the interview. Fun fact: we went through the YC interview process 3 times with the same company before being accepted, so if you got to the interview phase once and gave up, chances are you should try again.
If you don’t get in after the interview, you get a thoughtful email from one of the partners explaining why your company wasn’t picked. The feedback is always helpful — it points out either the weaknesses in your business or the weaknesses in how you communicate it. The latter is easier to fix. And yet, getting a rejection email is not the best feeling in the world. Ultimately, if you believe in your business, one email shouldn’t steer you away from working on the company. Some of the best ideas might sound horrible at first, so just keep pounding away.
If you do get into the program, you actually receive a call — and ours came from Michael Seibel. Getting that call makes all the prior rejection emails seem worth it. After all, the world is finally starting to see what you have been seeing as a founder all along.
Moving to Silicon Valley
Our company is based in NYC, so the move was an undertaking in itself. Three of the four co-founders relocated to the Valley, while the fourth stayed in New York and made sure things didn’t fall apart in our NYC office. God bless IKEA, otherwise we’d never have been able to stock our completely empty apartment on a startup budget. We bought a beat up car for $1000 from a friend and picked a quiet neighborhood in Santa Clara as our homebase for the next 4 months (a pond with baby ducklings was a nice bonus). The move itself is discombobulating, but you are moving in with your co-founders, which ends up being the reason your next 3–4 months will be the most productive time of your entire life.
YC starts off with a huge introductory dinner. The batches are big, so you cannot aspire to get to know everyone, but on day one you don’t know that yet, so you try really hard. Every company’s experience is different — it is only as great as you make it to be.
Our first Tuesday dinner speakers were Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia — the founders of Airbnb. What we heard from them was far from a staged “speech”, rather it was a detailed and vulnerable “share” coming from the startup trenches followed by the Q&A — the most valuable part of the evening. Every Tuesday the whole batch got together for food and conversations. Peter Thiel, David Sacks and Anne Wojcicki were among the featured speakers.
Group Office Hours
Every two weeks you have a KPI meeting with 6–8 other companies in the batch. The companies are always the same and they will be your true allies throughout the program. Every company goes over their specific achievements and challenges. The partners are there to give you tough love if you are underperforming, which happens a lot with an aggressive 7% week over week growth target — the absolute minimum everyone needs to hit. Some of the best group brainstorming happens here — all the founders put their brains and connections together to help the rest of the group out. KPI meetings are also a huge kick in the butt, because you inevitably compare yourself to everyone else: one startup got a huge contract, another one has grown 30% in a week, yet another one has collected some insane amount of preorders on Kickstarter — this is the big “show and tell” time, so everyone leaves pumped up to keep working and show off something impressive next time.
This is your one-on-one time with the YC partners. Office hours range from 15 to 30 minutes and they are meant to address one very specific issue you are dealing with. You learn to get to the point fast and ask the right questions, you also have to do your homework to make sure you are asking the right questions. If you get very lucky, office hours can last much longer — our record was 4 hours, but I don’t think that happens frequently.
Day to Day
Above everything else, YC is about focus. You have your eyes on the prize — building something that people love — everything else (including investor conversations) is secondary. Time at YC flies really fast — it is some sort of creative bliss when you are working every moment that you are not sleeping, yet it doesn’t feel like a grind. YC allows for flexibility outside of a couple of mandatory meetings — you get to plug away all day if you’d like or fill your day with office hours. YC doesn’t provide office space and most people who have gone through other accelerator programs are surprised by this. However, you generally live with your co-founders which is much more important for getting things done than just sharing an office. Yes, this means that you are still working at 11pm, but if you are excited about your company, it doesn’t feel like work.
To be fair, there are two Demo Days at YC — the Alumni Demo Day and, well, the Demo Day. The Alumni Demo Day is meant as prep for the higher stakes big investor Demo Day, but you can get some of your most supportive early investors that way — YC founders from the previous batches. Both are super nerve-racking. Garry Tan says fundraising is either a feast or a famine. Given how many investors both events attract, the feast feels too good to be true — with a few investors trying to talk to you at the same time, a few commitments right on the spot and many follow-up meetings. But as Sam Altman likes to say — being good at fundraising doesn’t mean you are successful. So once the necessary funds are secure, you go back to what’s important — your product and your customers.
Life after YC
We are now back in NYC, but you are never really the same after YC. This May, all of the prior batches will be getting together in California for a two-day camping trip. With YC you never fully graduate, just because you want to stay involved so much. You can still have office hours with your favorite partners and staying in touch with your batchmates is a given. YC is a transformative experience and I would highly recommend it to any tech entrepreneur.