I’ve decided to do a mini-series of sorts on our Y Combinator experience. Originally I was going to fold everything into one ginormus post, but I think it better to break it up and focus on different aspects.
So, let’s start at the beginning: Applying to YC.
This story starts a year earlier than one would assume. Summer of 2009 wasn’t the first time that we’d applied to Y Combinator.
Valentin and I decided to start a startup together and gave notice at our jobs in March of 2008. I’d been tinkering in the area of graph-based information organization for about 4 years already and had built a quick proof-of-concept of a recommender system based on some of those ideas.
Since I’d been reading Paul Graham’s essays since before the dawn of Y Combinator, applying seemed a natural step. We labored over the application — finishing it a full month before the deadline; we had friends proof-read it; we went through several iterations.
I mean, we had to get accepted. I’d previously been a fairly well-known open source developer, had been an invited speaker all over the world, had spent several years in R&D at Europe’s largest software company, I knew the problem space well and we were convinced that we’d just seen the tip of the iceberg in the shape of things to come in content discovery. Valentin had studied business and communications and worked in the web world for over 10 years and been the webmaster for some huge German sites. What could possibly go wrong?
We didn’t even get invited for an interview.
The really interesting part is what happened next. I started coding furiously. Paul Graham could go to hell. I’d show him.
That was our first taste of rejection. It’s a taste you get used to when starting a startup. You have to learn to thrive on it. We were starting a startup, dammit, and nobody telling us “no” was going to change that.
We’d already been going to some of the local founders meetups which were a great chance to get a taste for the scene. About a month after getting rejected from YC we got invited to the mini-Seedcamp in Berlin and met some of the people that continue to advise us to this day. We found our first pilot customer the next month after that — who subsequently died before they could go live — but it was the validation that “somebody wants our stuff” that was really important. By three months after YC we’d had an investor approach us for the first time. We pulled in more pilot customers, kept building out our demos, got our first press.
Even though I was certain that we were going to get into YC, I’d set aside enough money to live for a year on to get Directed Edge up and going. That was essential.
There are thousands of details that could be dropped in there — I mean, it was a year in the life of an early-phase startup. It was grueling.
We learned enormous amounts. The money that I’d set aside was the best spent money on education in my life. About midway through the year, Oliver Beste, one of the local startup luminaries, said something to us that’s stuck with me:
“It’s unclear in your first startup what the worth of your company will be, but the worth of your person is guaranteed to increase.”
The year flew by. We’d thought we wouldn’t apply to Y Combinator again, but at that point we knew a number of Y Combinator alumni that encouraged us to give it another swing. Like every point in that year, we were crazy busy.
Unlike the first time around, we did our application in a couple of hours, scarcely proof-read it, did a quick video and sent it off. I mean, we already knew they didn’t like our idea, so it was just something we knocked out and moved on.
And of course, that time around, we got an interview, and were eventually accepted to Y Combinator.
What was the difference? Team was the same. Idea was basically the same. I’m sure the application was better — I mean, we’d pitched 1000 times at that point, so it was a lot easier to just ad lib in talking about our company. Plus we had a better demo and pilot customers.
Paul later told me that the big difference was that he recognized me from Hacker News and that I said smart things there. So if that was the critical difference, the question is, “Why was I saying smart things?”
When we started with Directed Edge we were as ignorant about what starting a startup was about as the next set of fresh-off-the-employed-world-boat founders. Maybe worse.
It’d be flattering to think that maybe it was sheer intelligence that got us over the hump, but, uhh, no. It was that we kept going. You’d have to try really hard to run your first startup full-time for a year and not learn a huge amount.
So, now I’ll finally get around to the point of this entry: People now often ask me what they should do on their YC application to increase their chances of getting in. There are the usual things like concision, clarity of thought, quality of idea — those all help certainly. But I’m convinced that the single most important thing that you can do to increase your chances of getting into Y-Combinator is to do what you should be doing anyway: going full-speed ahead on your startup. That’s what teaches you about your company, your market, the real composition of your team.
It’s easy to look at some of the teams coming out of Y Combinator and assume that Y Combinator has been some great leveler making quality startups out of the raw founders, but the truth is that the teams that were moving the fastest at the end were the ones that were moving the fastest at the beginning (with a couple exceptions).
The term “accelerator” has been applied to the swath of Y Combinator-esque programs out there. I never really liked that term, but now I realize that it is in fact descriptive: Y Combinator operates on the first derivative of your speed — it doesn’t carry everyone a uniform distance; it speeds teams up.
In that sense, we’re lucky that we didn’t get into YC when we first applied. We’d not have gotten nearly as much out of it.
And contrary to a bit of the mythology that surrounds YC, a pretty big chunk of the teams had working products developed on day one. They weren’t teams that had decided to apply to YC — they had decided to start startups, and YC was a step along that path.
And that’s the second big point: Decide you want to start a startup, not that you want to be in Y Combinator.
The single biggest fear that Y-Combinator has for the teams it accepts is that they’ll give up. So if there’s something that you can have on your application that shows that you won’t I think that’s probably a lot more important than how you frame your idea.
So go build your company.
One final note: Most of the people reading this and planning on applying to YC will get rejected. Even if you’ve got a great company, they’re evaluating several hundred teams in a tiny span of time, so just bad luck might be enough for you to not get an interview. I’d advise you to take on the “To hell with Paul Graham” attitude I mentioned. He won’t hold it against you. I told him about it and he said he’d probably have reacted the same way. Rejection is part of starting a startup. Just in the last two weeks I’ve seen companies on TechCrunch that interviewed with our batch and were rejected.
Good luck, and stay tuned for the next installment.