We just got back from Silicon Valley, California, where the interview took place. It’s undoubtedly one of the most important experiences as a company, so I wanted to share some of our key learnings from the final interview with Y Combinator.
A quick refresher for the uninitiated: Y Combinator (or just YC as it’s known in startup land) is a startup accelerator in Silicon Valley, California. They invest in small businesses hungry for growth, and mentor them through a three month programme in the US. Airbnb and Dropbox are just some of YC’s multi-billion dollar successes.
Thousands of startups apply, from teams developing an app out of their college dorm rooms to fledgling robotics companies in Japan. Only around 7% of applicants get through to the final round: a ten minute interview with the partners at the head office.
We decided to try our luck in the venture capital lottery and apply for YC. I’m the co-founder of Bello, a messaging app for freelancers and agencies. Everyone in our team has worked as a freelancer or in an agency, so we know how much of a pain communicating with clients and collaborators can be. With Bello, we set out to solve that problem.
Bello was started in August and we had submitted our YC application less than two months later. Three weeks later, we received an invitation to meet the YC partners in their office just south of San Francisco, right in the heart of the tech scene.
Now there only stood a single ten-minute interview between us and an investment from the most prestigious accelerator in the world. That might not seem like much time, but when you’re in the room, it goes by even faster.
And once it was over, and we could look back at it, it’s incredible just how much we learnt from the process.
You have to launch your product fast, even before you think you are ready. When we turned up at the YC interview, our beta had been live for just six days. The app still had a lot of bugs, but we found 25 users who were (hopefully) able to see past the crashes and jankiness to give the app a proper try.
Those first users started adding their contacts and by the time we were in front of the partners, we were up to 50 users. It wasn’t exactly viral just yet, but it helped to prove a point: users wanted to use it.
YC’s philosophy is that you can never launch too soon. It feels weird to release something that barely works, but the feedback is much more useful than spending months polishing something nobody wants. From the first line of code to our first users, it had taken a little over a month. Perhaps that wasn’t soon enough, but we had certainly not spent time on heavy coats of polish or squashing bugs.
In the interview, one of the partners wanted to try the app. It crashed. Perhaps we proved we didn’t launch too late.
Get Real Customer Feedback
From before our team even started developing a thing, my co-founder and I were conducting interviews, learning about the problem, the industry, and the tools they use today. We were testing the user experience too, getting our interviewees to click through mockups of the sign-up flow or onboarding before we implemented it in code.
It didn’t stop once we had launched either. We continue to talk to users, hearing what they need, what they like, what they hate.
In fact, many of our decisions in product and strategy are strongly tied to the insights from user interviews. This made many of the YC partners’ questions less daunting, allowing us to ground each answer in user feedback rather than untested hypotheses and guesswork.
Paint a Vision of Tomorrow
Y Combinator are looking for the next billion dollar business, not just another app idea™. But on the flip side, they’re also looking for real opportunities, not just crazy pipe dreams and unrealistic moon shots. For YC applicants, it’s a balance between selling their long term vision and demonstrating they know the steps in between.
At times, I think we focused too much on what we are now: a messaging app for freelancers. We forgot our vision about how we want Bello to become the place where the freelance economy happens.
YC likes bold claims, but only if you can back it up. Getting that balance is an art in itself.
Remember what you want to tell
One of the places we went most wrong in our interview was that we didn’t discuss some of the really important aspects of our business that make it an interesting investment case. We had some great ideas about our business model and market strategy, but we never got to talk about them.
The last thing you want to do is come out of that interview room thinking “damn, we forgot to mention x or y”. Make sure you go into the interview with a list of three or four things that you need to get into the conversation come hell or high water.
The YC partners know what they want to ask and won’t let you dodge questions, but it doesn’t mean you can’t steer the conversation a little. One strategy is to use your three points as framing devices for your answers. With a little luck, it might influence the partners’ follow up questions. It’s not as easy as it sounds though.
So, how did it go?
After six or seven agonising hours of waiting, we received an email from one of the partners who interviewed us. Unfortunately they were not going to fund us.
A disappointment? Of course.
But the experience of applying and interviewing for Y Combinator has helped us to understand our business better. From drilling down into exactly who are target market is, to explaining every product and strategy decision we have made. Now back in not-so-sunny Copenhagen, we can focus our efforts with a fresh perspective and a renewed vigour.
If you have any questions you are more than welcome to contact me at [email protected]