The "Interview" with Y Combinator That's Not

So, in ourĀ last installment of the Y Combinator saga, we talked about applying. Since a handful of folks will be gearing up for their interviews shortly, it seems a fine time to move on to the next step in our journey.

We’d managed to stay mostly poker faced about getting an interview this go around up until decision day, when there was a little optimism that crept in, evidenced by the fact that I thought it opportune to pick up a bottle of startup-priced champagne during the day’s shopping.

I’d been up most of the night working when the mail came at 7:00 a.m. Berlin time. We were naturally pretty excited.

If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair:

We made some quick decisions: it was to be our first trip as a company to the valley. Accepted or otherwise, we wanted to get as plugged in as possible. We booked a week long trip and wanted to get our schedule as full as possible.

Connected to that we also took one of the first interview slots — 10:00 a.m., first day. YC interviews span three days (in our case Friday to Sunday) and you get an answer at the end of the day of interviews. Picking one on the first day meant we’d know 24 hours after landing if our primary objective was building our network or finding a place to live for the summer. We also wanted to get our pitch in before pitch-fatigue set in. If you’ve ever been to an event where you’ve heard startup after startup pitch, you know what I’m talking about. Strangely, to us, anyway, most of the initial sign-ups were clustered at the end of the third day. I can only presume that this was so that teams would have an extra bit of time to prepare.

For our week there, Valentin started making a list of companies to cold-call and try to set up meetings with and we got a handful — some with former YC companies and some not. They weren’t actively sales meetings — we just wanted to try to get a better handle on how recommendations could fit into the startup landscape. We figured meeting some YC companies would also give us an in to the YC mafia even if we weren’t accepted and we’d arranged to crash on the couches of various startups over the week.

Preparing for the interview, or “So you think you’re pretty smart, eh?”

We’d talked to investors in the past, so we thought we knew what was going to be important. I just found the stack of printouts that we prepared for the interview:

  • Mails from prominent pilot customers (with praiseful sections highlighted)
  • Feedback that we’d gotten on social media (Twitter, mostly)
  • Profiling information showing the speed of our engine
  • Full-color printouts of our demo-applications
  • Dashboard showing total number of qualified leads we’d generated

We brainstormed a big list of questions that I can’t find anymore that we thought might come up and talked through answers to all of them. We came up with a list of points that we wanted to be sure to mention and even practiced transitions from other topics to those.

All of that, however, turned out to be useless.

About 14 hours after landing we were at the YC office waiting to get started. On the whole we were pretty relaxed, since we felt like we had our pitch pretty together.

The interview that’s not an interview:

The setup is the team on one side of a table, the YC partners on the other side. We walked in, I opened up my laptop and set it on the table and put the folder of printouts next to it. I figured we’d start off introducing ourselves and saying something about our backgrounds, you know, the usual.

Paul started, “So, you guys are making a recommendations engine. Do you have a demo?

30 seconds in Paul, Trevor and Robert were standing behind us while I cycled through the various demos. It played out well, they’d ask if we could do X, and I’d pull out an example of us doing X. They asked a little about our algorithms, I remember Robert’s (only?) question being, “So where’s the rocket science here?” Questions were being asked more quickly than we could answer them and I remember at one point Trevor and Paul standing behind us asking each other questions and Jessica having to reel them in to point out that I was trying to show them something.

“Interview” is really the wrong word for what happens. You might expect something that’s in the genre of a job interview or an investor pitch, but it’s nothing like that. It’s more like a brainstorming session with the volume turned up to 11.

I don’t know if we hit any of the points we wanted to be sure to talk about. Certainly not most of them, and I remember that there were some notable ones missing — like that we already had pilot customers.

There were no questions about the business model, or size of the market, or distribution strategies or any of that jazz. That said, sometimes it does go that way. I’ve talked to a few teams about their interviews, and heard mixed things.

The hard thing about this rapid-fire sort of setup is that it’s really hard to give advice on what to do to prepare for a YC interview, but here are a few general things:

  • Have a demo and know your way around it. From what I’ve heard, demo-centric interviews are the ones that go the best.
  • Talk to as many people as possible about your startup and try to get them to ask as many questions as possible. Show them the demo and see what they think.
  • Make your demo look nice. Paul especially digs that and the first impressions help.

So don’t expect to go in and present. That doesn’t happen as far as I can tell. I think all of the preparation we did though, including talking both online and in person with YC alums helped us be mentally prepared.

Post interview:

One quirky note: if you put in your home phone number in the YC application, that’s the number that you’ll get a call on if you’re accepted. We’d given Jessica cards with our cell-phone numbers on them during the interview, but that didn’t seem to have registered. We waited, and waited and waited. Finally around 11:00 p.m. I sent a mail to Paul and Jessica asking if decisions had come down. No answer.

The next morning we had a mail saying yes, they’d tried to call us. Valentin fumbled around with figuring out how to get a message off of our answering machine in Germany and once we’d sorted it out, we basically heard, “Yes, please call us back.” So we did. Of course, they were interviewing people then, so a while until the next break for them to call us back, we accepted the offer and that was that.

We found an apartment in the next couple of days via an apartment-wanted post on Craigslist and spent the rest of the week doing meetings, which turns out to have been a really good idea — and that’s the thought I’ll leave you with for this installment — optimize so that whatever you hear from YC that you’re on a positive trajectory. We’ll be back with the next chapter soon at the same bat-time and same bat-place.

11 Comments

  1. Brian Armstrong:

    Great write up guys! I’m still waiting to hear back with my site, BuyersVote.com, but I appreciate the tips. That’s one thing that seems really great about this YC group…everyone is out to help each other. Good luck!
    Brian

  2. Sav:

    Didn’t Sleep all night, its now noon and have not receive a call or email. Very Nervracking, How late in the day can they still contact you, do they even contact you to say No.Anybody Know.

  3. s nadav:

    hey thanks for all this great information. we applied and are currently playing the waiting game.If we go get an interview we plan to follow all of your advice. just wondering, did YC let you know that they wanted to interview via email?

  4. Scott Wheeler:

    Answers go out by mail at almost exactly the same time as rejections. I’ve never heard of YC finishing them up before relatively late at night.

  5. Joseph Turian:

    Thank you for sharing your stories about YC.

  6. Ned:

    Congratulations guys!

  7. Johan Rhodin:

    Great story, great post!
    I stumbled upon this from HN, definitely going to have a look at your enginge:)

    I’ve been wondering for a while if it is possible to get YC-funded as a EU-citizien (Sweden)

    Good luck over at YC!

  8. Scott Wheeler:

    Hi Johan – yes, there have been a number of EU citizens that have gone through YC. There were German, British and Irish folks in our batch — and for the record, we were in the last batch (last summer) of YC. Interviews for the next batch still haven’t happened yet.

  9. Priit:

    A team who was interviewed (and turned down) in Spring 2012: How to prepare for Y Combinator interview

  10. Anubhav:

    Getting a Y Combinator boost is not must for a startup but yes, it can change few things.

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