Lessons Learned from our YC Interview (with Tips!)

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I’m back from Cambridge with some unfortunate news: Y Combinator decided not to fund us. Dan and I are disappointed but we’re glad that we got the opportunity to pitch our idea. Thank you Paul, Jessica, Trevor, and Robert (whom I’ll collectively refer to as ‘YC’ for brevity’s sake) for meeting with us and for giving us feedback on Seekler. We really appreciate it.
Obviously, we’re disappointed with their decision but we’re optimistic – clearly they thought Seekler was interesting enough to warrant flying us out and they said that we should continue working in this space. They also gave us some great feedback that will help us improve.
The whole process was great, but I want to mention one thing I found particularly awesome – the way in which YC gives you their decision. Given that they are very busy calling all the teams in one night, I expected the decision to be a quick ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Instead, Paul called me up and we talked for over five minutes about Seekler. He gave me specific reasons why they chose not to invest, listened to my ideas for the future, and gave me great feedback. I know that his time is valuable (especially on decision night) and I really appreciate the way he gave everyone (even those who didn’t get investments) great advice and ideas to improve.
So we left the weekend with a good idea of why YC chose not to invest in us. Their main reason was that Seekler doesn’t have a huge innovation that would let us really compete with existing review sites like Yelp. The frustrating thing is that I feel like this criticism is based on a misconception of what Seekler is all about. I feel like they rejected a concept that was close to Seekler, but not quite Seekler.
A few keys points I want to make absolutely clear before continuing:
1. I’m not a mind reader – I can’t say for certain if the YC folks truly understand Seekler or not. Maybe they understand perfectly and were just not interested.
2. Even if they don’t understand, it’s impossible to say whether they would have been any more interested in Seekler if they had understood better.
3. Any misconceptions YC might have about Seekler are entirely our fault and not in any ways YC’s. What we said ultimately doesn’t matter – what’s important is what they heard. And we were responsible for making sure they heard what we wanted.
I don’t want to go into the reasons I disagree with their reasons – that’s not really the point of this post. The only reason I mention it is that it illustrates the lessons we learned while interviewing with YC. Hopefully these lessons will be useful to future YC interviewees – but they should apply to anyone pitching to an investor.
Let me really quickly give you a picture of what the interview itself is like. First, it’s really short – only ten minutes. If you have a demo (which we did), you’ll be asked to show it, but YC will almost immediately start making requests and asking questions, effectively taking control of the demo. From there it’s just non-stop, rapid-fire set of questions for ten minutes. It’s intense, but actually pretty fun.
In retrospect, the interview format makes a lot of sense – they have a short amount of time to assess you and your idea, so they need to get the answers they need as fast as they can. But I wasn’t really expecting it and it can throw you off-guard if you don’t see it coming.
That said, here are some specific tips for getting the most out of your ten minutes. The key is to take responsibility for communicating your vision.
Tip 1. If you have demo, walk in with it loaded and your laptop open.
This should be pretty obvious, but don’t trust your laptop to wake up quickly. My MacBook Pro is usually pretty good about coming out of sleep, but of course during the the interview it took about 20 seconds to become responsive. When you only have 10 minutes, every second counts.
Tip 2. Show them the coolest thing right off the bat.
We had a scripted five-minute demo all planned out. We only showed about 10% of it. Don’t assume that you’ll get past step two of your demo – jump right into the part you want them to focus on, because that’s all you’ll get to show once they start asking questions.
Tip 3. If you have user-generated content, carefully prune it for the demo
For our demo, we had prepared data on comic books, because it’s a great example of a niche that is not currently well-served and that Seekler would be prefect for. However, we’ve had alpha users for some time on Seekler and we’ve let them create any types of content that they want. So, when we fired up the Seekler home page, the first thing YC saw was lists on restaurants. They asked to see that, and we obliged. Unfortunately, our data on restaurants sucks. And frankly, restaurants is a pretty bad niche for Seekler – simply because there are other sites that do it so much better than we will.
But first impressions are hard to change – we got several minutes of questions about how we are going to beat Yelp and Zagat. Ultimately, it seems their concept was largely defined by this first impression. We definitely should have only displayed niches that fit really well with our vision for Seekler.
Pruning your data can seem counter-intuitive. Many sites are quite general and it may seem like you don’t want to limit your vision to just one area. We thought it would be good to show the breadth of content on Seekler. But some content is just plain better for your app than other content. Think about it – if you were pitching YouTube, you wouldn’t your investors to come to the front page and just see music videos. This will give them the impression that you’re trying to compete with MTV (plus it raises questions about copyright infringement). You’d be better off showing off the highest-quality user created videos you can find. Always show the data that best fits with your app first.
4. Watch the clock and deliver your vision
YC will hammer you non-stop with technical and business questions. You need to answer these, but you also need to watch the clock and make time to really explain your vision. We spent several minutes answering questions about the mathematical feasibility of our project. We know the math works but we found ourselves eating up a lot of our ten minutes trying to convince them. While we addressed their specific concerns on the math, I think the main focus of the site got lost in the chaos. You’re ultimately responsible for making sure they really get it – and that may mean that you have to gloss over specific questions a bit to make time for explaining your overall strategy and business plan.
Overall, the weekend was a hugely positive experience. We made some mistakes in our interview, but now we know more about pitching to investors. Regardless of the potential misunderstandings about Seekler, YC gave us some great advice which will undoubtedly make Seekler better going forward. We got to meet some incredibly smart people who have inspired us to quit our jobs and start Seekler. And they said we could continue to send them updates, so hopefully we can benefit from their experience even though we won’t be going to the Valley.
Congratulations and the best of luck to all the teams that got funding!

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7 Responses to “Lessons Learned from our YC Interview (with Tips!)”

  1. mike Says:

    Guys, I didn’t read the article yet, but you gotta fix this template. It creates a big horizontal scroll bar on 1024 wide screens.

  2. Dan Says:

    hmmm I wasn’t aware I will take a look at that really soon. I just added a ticket to our bug tracking for it.

  3. Dan Says:

    Thanks for pointing that out the width issue should be fixed.

  4. jeff Says:

    it isn’t fixed on seekler itself

  5. Ben Says:

    Jeff –
    You’re right, Seekler itself does not play well with browser windows that are less than 1024. That’s a considerably bigger job than fixing the blog. We’re trying to get a feel for how important it is to change this vs. spending our time on other features. In any case, thanks for the feedback.
    Ben

  6. Sean Tierney Says:

    Ben,
    we had applied to YC with JumpBox early on and didn’t even get an interview so you guys should be stoked you at least got that far and benefited from PG’s input. From my experience pitching VC’s last week for JumpBox, it’s an interesting dance of letting them take over your demo- on one hand you want to zero in on what interests them and play to that, but at the same time if the conversation is getting pulled off course to a place where you are weak, you want to tactfully steer it back to territory where you are strong. thanks for sharing.
    sean

  7. Dan Says:

    Sean,
    Yeah I think you’re right – it is a dance of letting them take over the demo, but you do have to keep them on a good course. I think we let the demo get steered very off course and didn’t really get to discuss our key points. Anyways hope things went well with the VCs and thanks for the good article about pitching to all the groups.
    Dan

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