Reflections on startup life: Week 76 (Y Combinator Interview)

YC Interview

Sorry I missed yesterdays regular post, but Alex and I were in the air travelling to San Francisco. I’ve been a little obscure on what we are planning to do here, now is the time for the big reveal. Rather than bash out a post yesterday I wanted to wait for today so I could have something more substantial to share.

We’re here to interview with Y Combinator. For those that don’t know, Y Combinator is a startup incubator based in the Valley. For a small amount of equity, they provide access to a three month mentoring and development program that helps you build your startup, launch it at demo day, secure investment and a range of other great things.

Today was our interview. What I want to do is write about this in two parts — post interview reflection (written before I know if we are in or not) and then the outcome.

Post interview reflection

There’s been a lot written on what happens at YC interviews, so I don’t really want to make this in to a post about YC interviews — in reality I think it will just add more noise. Suffice to say it’s both everything, and nothing like what everyone else has written.

It’s fast, it’s furious, it’s a lot of fun and it’s stressful. Ultimately though, it’s more a conversation than an interview. If you think of it like a conversation with a group of intelligent people, you’ll do fine. Like any conversation at times it goes off track, at times it’s fast, sometimes you disagree, sometimes they know a lot about your topic, while at times it’s new to them. Occasionally they’ll hang on your every word (but that won’t last, or at least it didn’t for us!). Your best preparation is knowing everything about your conversation topic (your startup) inside and out.

So here we are, sitting at the Mountain View Caltrain depot waiting to ride back to San Francisco, there is another (roughly) 6–8 hours before we find out if we were successful or not. We’ve walked back from YC to the station and that gave us plenty of time to debrief. How do I think it went?

The conversation analogy is a good one — I think like any fast and furious debate, there are things we said well, there are things that I wish I could have been asked again. But I don’t think we could have been much more prepared without a list of actual questions, which given it’s a conversation would never really happen. Experience trumps all — if I walked back in there now, I think I could do better, but still, like any conversation, it wouldn’t replay the same way either.

When we walked into the room, we were feeling ready for anything and generally speaking that was true. I’m not succinct enough at times, we got sidetracked on some issues; but I think we stayed reasonably cool (we got flustered, but we didn’t lose it), we worked well together and backed each other up.

That said, I’m not sure the interview was a massive success — if I had to guess, I’d go “better than even” chance of getting accepted, but certainly not at this stage a clear yes. The hardest thing is judging their interest — I think there was interest at times, the demo went OK (despite a small hitch with wireless access), but we felt we never quite nailed in thier minds why we aren’t just “another delicious”.

Did we do enough? I don’t know — in a few hours time we’ll know the answer to that question.

By writing how I feel now about the process, it’s a more “pure” way of reflecting on the event without the euphoria or disappointment that will come later today. If we get in, I still feel we could improve; if we don’t, I can at least recognise what we did well and what I think worked.

Post result reflection

We waited for a while, no phone call, so eventually went shopping for dinner. When we got back the dreaded email had arrived. We didn’t get in.

In summary it said they liked us as a team, they were impressed with what we’ve achieved, but they couldn’t see how to make money from it, at least not at the levels that a startup requires.

On reflection I think the questioning about Delicious that we failed to articulate was not “how are we different” in a feature sense, but “what will we do differently that makes money where they didn’t.” With the comments from Paul, in hindsight the thrust of their questioning is a little clearer.

This is an interesting area — most of the advice we’ve read said to not worry about this business model part of it too much. I think however because we are more mature (in the sense at least that we’ve launched), this becomes a more critical thing to articulate and we *should* have had better answers prepared. In all the excitement I think we forgot one fundamental thing — they’re doing this to invest, not for fun.

So there is lots more to reflect on. Plenty of successful companies didn’t get into YC and if we nail the business model, there’s a lot of positives from the experience that suggest we can continue to grow and be one too.

Knowing what we know about what we’re building, I would shoot much bigger next time in this sort of interview. We simplified it back to try keep clarity, but I think we went to the point that we lost the pie-in-the-sky, 1-in-100-million, swing-for-the-fences sense that we could be huge.

We still know that chance is there and believe that we can do it. It’s always been up to us to prove it, being accepted into YC, or not, doesn’t actually change that fundamental requirement. We’ve got great supporters and more ammunition in the bag still — so it’s back to the grind stone again and let’s move forward (another thing that wouldn’t change whether we were in YC or not).