The YC Interview and a trip to 10 Downing Street

Previously, on Game of YC: we applied last-minute with a compelling idea, two of us had never met in person before we submitted the application four minutes before the deadline, and yet, miraculously, we were invited out to Mountain View.

For those of you who read my last post and are desperate to know whether we were accepted onto the YCombinator Summer ‘14 batch, I’ll put you out of your misery now: we weren’t.

However, that definitely doesn’t mean the trip was a waste of time.

The last thing I want to do is to try and elicit sympathy from you, and I’m not going to rant and rave about how the decision was wrong. This isn’t a sob story; we flew back with our heads held high (well, Neil’s was mostly slumped against a flight pillow) and we totally understand why weren’t successful. As I said before, we applied for the learning experience, and we’ve learned a huge amount in a very short time frame, which I hope I can share with you fully today.

Enough philosophy for now, though. It’s story time!


My last post finished about midway through the flight over to SF, and I’ll be honest, very little of note happened for the rest of the flight. I discovered the joys of Parks and Recreation, didn’t sleep enough, and enjoyed yet more free food and drink. Riveting, right? The excitement came when we started our descent over the Bay Area, and it was at this point that everything started to feel very real. The sun was shining, the clouds were sparse, and the aerial views we were treated to were a sight to behold. The Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and the Giants Stadium all look pretty wonderful from above, and I must have resembled an excitable child as I gleefully pointed out all of the landmarks that, up until now, I’d only seen in films and TV shows.

My first true experience of the American culture came in the form of a chatty man at the security desk, who was fascinated by my story and told me with a smile on his face that

“We Americans love the whole Cambridge thing over here.”

, which is funny given that most of Britain seem to hate it. He was so chatty, in fact, that he completely forgot to scan my fingerprints or take my photo until it was almost too late, and after doing so, exclaimed “You go get that job!”. His optimism was infectious, and he personified my first taste of the American Dream.

After a quick coffee, we hopped on the BART, and then the CalTrain from Millbrae to Mountain View, and it was at this point that I finally learned the geography of the area. San Francisco is a city in the state of California, Mountain View is a city south of SF, and when people talk about the Valley, they’re referring to the stretch of land between SF and MV (Just in case anyone else was unsure!). This was the first double decker train I’d ever been on, which was exciting in a mundane sort of way, and after an hour of travelling followed by a short journey in a Lyft car (a really neat taxi app), we arrived at Casa del Sketchdeck. SketchDeck (YC W14) is a web company run by two awesome guys, David and Chris, which allows users to pay designers to beautify their PowerPoint slides. David and Chris had moved over to Mountain View at the start of 2014 for the YC Winter batch, and are now living out there permanently to develop the business further. We spent an hour or so hearing their story and learning from their experiences, ordered Thai food from DoorDash (another YC startup), and then laughed as David said:

“Right, mock interview time. Let’s go the jacuzzi!”

The laughter went on a bit, and then he repeated himself, wholly serious:

“I’m not joking. Let’s go.”

Trying to describe the experience of answering rapid-fire questions amid the fierce bubbling of a jacuzzi is naturally difficult, but it makes for a great story, and it’s something I’d recommend to anyone who ever gets the chance. All joking aside, this was a very sobering experience as Neil and I gradually realised we had nothing in the way of hard data to back up our idea, made only more gruelling when you consider we’d been awake for over 24 hours. Tired, stressed, and slightly defeated (but paradoxically, relaxed as a result of the jacuzzi), we retired to bed.

David and Chris left pretty early the next day, so we capitalised on the free time we had by researching as many useful and relevant statistics for our interview as we could (many articles, including one by YC itself, rightly recommend that you become an expert in your domain), and continued to fire practice questions back and forth at each other. Again, we ordered food from DoorDash, and I enjoyed one of the best burgers of my life that day. I don’t know what the Americans do – it might be the sweeter buns – but whatever it is, they do it right. In fact, here’s a picture:

After a strong coffee and some motivational dancing to pump ourselves up (well, I danced), we walked to the YC offices on Pioneer Way, which must be one of the most apt company-street couplings ever. Once signed in, we booted up Skype and brought Amar – our third co-founder who was presenting to a conference in Iceland – into the picture, chatted with some other teams, and then twiddled our thumbs before being ushered into the interview room.

The first question was surprising:

“Neil, why do you have a Microsoft Surface?”

The answer? Microsoft can’t sell them, so they literally give them away to interns (Neil’s going to hate me for writing that). After some preliminaries, the interview began.

I read a post this morning which likened the YC interview to a boxing match, and it’s an analogy I really like. However, I’d extend the analogy to say it’s like boxing against four adversaries at once: you have to be on your toes and ready to handle anything thrown at you, the pace is lightning-fast, and the punches are flying in from all directions, often with no delay between them.

The first few questions were intended to get a clear idea of what we had envisioned, and it wasn’t long before the skepticism of the panel began to make itself known. I’m not sure whether detailing our idea here is the right thing to do, as there’s nothing stopping anyone reading this from stealing it, but essentially, we had no hard data to prove that people were willing to pay for what we were offering. One of the golden rules in startups is that you have to build something people want, and though we strongly believed that people did want it, and had spoken to people who had explicitly said they did, we had no numbers to back up our claims, and no evidence to suggest that we hadn’t just been unfortunate in finding a number of outliers.

This isn’t to say the interview went badly, though. We rolled with the punches, and I personally think we handled the majority of questions as best as we could. There were no awkward silences, very little in the way of hesitation, and Neil and I handled the questions in a fairly balanced manner, which is a dynamic that YC look for in co-founders. Suddenly, we heard a knock on the door, signalling the final 30 seconds of our interview, and I actually asked at the end whether we’d been in the room for 10 minutes. We’d been entirely focused on the task at hand and there hadn’t been a spare second for us to relax in, so the time had just flown by.

Relieved that it was over, we headed back into the main waiting room and slumped onto the benches. Amar, who had been on Skype but hadn’t actually said anything during the interview, had been able to listen intently, and thought it had gone well. Neil, however, was more cynical. The panel’s skepticism was palpable, and we had a tough time convincing them people wanted, and even needed, our idea. That said, the interview went as well as it could have given our strict time constraints; it definitely could have been a whole lot worse.

After this, we spent an hour or so chatting to some of the other teams there, including an awesome 16-year old straight out of high school and already two years into an undergraduate degree who was working on (already successful) code clubs for high schoolers. The general impression I got was that most teams were much further ahead than us, which was particularly embodied in one line uttered by another applicant:

“We don’t have that many users right now, only 10,000 or so.”

However, this made it all the more incredible that we’d been invited out in the first place, and it was most humbling to think that we’d been reached the same stage as people already seeing success in their business.

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After taking the obligatory YC Fanboy shots, we got back on the CalTrain and made our way to San Francisco to meet a friend living out there at the moment (the Node.js wizard on my EF hackathon team!) and were given a tour of the stunning Bay Area. I quickly fell in love with the city, and even just 40 hours out in California has made me hungry for more.

We received our rejection email from Sam Altman, President of YC, around 8pm that day, which read like this:

I’m sorry to say we decided not to fund you guys. It was a tough call, because you guys are clearly smart and ambitious.

What stopped us is that we’re not convinced users want this. We talked to a few startups and asked if they’d use such a product; [detailed feedback on idea]

Best,

Sam

I completely understood their point of view, and if I put myself in the panel’s shoes, I too would find it difficult to take such a massive risk on an idea with no proven potential.

Like I did with the EF application process, I’m going to summarise the three main lessons we took from the weekend:

  • Get the first minute right. When reading over the feedback in Sam’s email, we couldn’t help but feel like we hadn’t quite communicated our target market properly, and this is something we might have been able to solve if we’d really nailed the opening of the interview. Naturally, the first question is always along the lines of “So, what are you working on?”, and it’s absolutely crucial that you get this right. If you don’t, you’ll waste time later on clearing up misunderstandings; you only get ten minutes, so this isn’t something you want to be doing.
  • Data, data, data. I strongly believe that, had we brought along some compelling figures from some extensive market research, we would have had stood a fighting chance. As I mentioned earlier, we realised in the jacuzzi that we didn’t have the numbers needed to prove our idea, and by that point, it was far too late to do anything about it. For anyone at the stage we were at (an idea with no demo or prototype), make sure you contact potential customers to gauge whether they want what you’re offering, and if so, how much they’d be willing to spend on it.
  • Practice, practice, practice. A lot of the questions that come up are fairly standard, and it’s important that you can answer them quickly and succinctly. I’m not advocating that you churn out rehearsed lines on the day, but the process of practicing these questions over and over will refine your answers a lot, and you want to be at the stage where you can answer most questions in roughly 15 seconds or less. Don’t ramble. Naturally, we were disappointed, but as Neil and I were discussing today, the application process got us asking ourselves a lot of really useful questions about our idea and its potential, and taught us some valuable lessons to learn from in the future. I’m confident that we’ll apply again, though not necessarily with the same idea, or even the same team, and next time, we’ll know exactly what to do in order to maximise our chances of success.

After getting back to the UK at 7am on Monday, we managed to shower and change into our suits before heading to 10 Downing Street, where we had a roundtable meeting with the Prime Minister’s Tech Advisor and the EF2015 cohort. This proved to be extremely interesting; Daniel Korski was engaging, passionate, and sincere about everything we discussed. There was no jargon or pretence, and he had a fantastic understanding of the current and upcoming tech trends, which was refreshing.


I’d like to finish this post just by thanking everyone who made our weekend so worthwhile and enjoyable. Firstly, thanks to Neil for proposing we apply in the first place, and to Amar for being such a great team member. It was a crazy idea that turned into a crazy weekend, and it wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for them. I’d like to thank YC for inviting us out for an interview; those ten minutes were invaluable for us, and we really gained a lot from the experience. Thanks to David and Chris for being such great hosts and such good interviewers with access to such a great jacuzzi. And finally, thanks to Sam Aaron, Jack Lang, and James Brady, who all contributed to really useful discussions and brainstorming sessions in the days running up to the interview.

I’m still reeling from what has been the most intense weekend of my life so far, which I hope these words have done justice to.

P.S. Thanks to you for reading to the end!

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