Our little Chiang Mai startup was invited to Silicon Valley to interview with the Y Combinator Accelerator program for their the Summer 2014 batch. Here’s an account of what happened and what the experience was like (spoiler alert: we didn’t get in)…
YogaTrail is a global yoga directory, created and maintained by a team that’s based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Since launching the site last summer, we’ve built decent traction, generated some revenue, and are just now reaching the point of “ramen profitability”. Things are going well – but living and working in Northern Thailand occasionally has us wondering if perhaps ‘Team YogaTrail’ is a little bit isolated. We think we would have much to gain by connecting with some mentors and learning things from veterans in the startup world. Of course, the prospect of raising some cash is also attractive, as we move to “scale up” and take YogaTrail to the next level.
That’s why last month we spontaneously decided to apply to Y Combinator. Having just missed their deadline by a few days, we scrambled to fill out a late application, shoot a 1-minute video, and submit it all in the same afternoon. Total time invested: 3 hours.
We knew our chances of getting past the application stage were small – they say that getting into Y Combinator is harder than getting accepted into Harvard University. So we were pretty surprised a few days later when we received an invitation to Mountain View for an interview. “Wow!”, we thought, “this could be a game changer for YogaTrail!”
Our application is here. Here’s our video:
The application that got us the interview involved a very small amount of effort in comparison to what followed. Once we realised that we might have a real shot at joining the next batch of YC companies, we got serious about preparing for the interview.
With just two weeks to go, we studied everything we could find about the YC interview process, the kinds of questions that are typically asked, and the kind of answers that the Y Combinator people seem to like. We held mock interview rehearsals and asked for tips and pointers from the few VC connections that we do have. We even had a local VC come by the office to grill us on our product and give us advice. Lastly, we bought a book: “The Launch Pad: Inside Y Combinator” to consume on the plane to San Francisco.
On the other hand, we didn’t go completely crazy, either: since YC only reimburses founders for travel expenses up to $1500, we decided that we couldn’t afford to send the whole team (for all three of us the round-trip flights from Thailand would have amounted to $4800). After being reassured by Sam Altman (YC president) that they would understand if only one of us could make it out there, we booked a single flight for myself to go alone. The rest of the team would be live on Skype during the interview.
We’ll never know if my “solo appearance” played a role in YC’s negative decision – but we’re certainly glad we didn’t spend $5k to fly everyone to San Francisco only to be rejected after a 10 minute interview. To put things in perspective: $1600 (the price of one round-trip ticket) amounts to 10 months of rent for one of us. Indeed, the runway we get in Thailand is one of our main reasons for being here.
In addition to paying for the flights and a short stay in one of the most expensive cities in the world, another cost for us would have been a non-negligible time investment: spending 50 hours on planes and in airports for the three YogaTrail founders would have lost us a lot of productivity, too.
Before the Interview
On the sunny morning of the appointment, I appeared somewhat early and in good spirits at the YC office in their suburban neighbourhood. After being greeted by a very warm and welcoming Jessica Livingston at the front desk, I had a pretty good feeling about things while checking in.
Inside, the mood was less cheery. Some YT assistants were manning a table with paperwork, and as the various other startup founders started rolled in, they quietly positioned themselves on benches in a kind of “common area”. While these teams were waiting for their interview, I could hear them nervously joking with each other. Occasionally, a YC person would appear from somewhere in the building to pluck out a team and provide an escort to their interview.
Inside the Y Combinator Waiting Area
I counted a dozen or so other teams in the room. For the most part, they appeared to be very young (as in: still in college). Since I didn’t have my own team-mates to chat with, I talked to a few of these teams, and learned that some had only had their idea for a startup a few weeks prior. “Hm”, I thought, “if I were an investment fund, I would be very reluctant to buy a piece of some of these startups”.
Some background: YogaTrail’s founders have been working full time and closely together for over two years – so our commitment to the project and ability to get along with one another was firmly established by facts. On top of that (and not to boast too much), each of us founders have done some pretty extraordinary things in the past. These factors, along with the traction that YogaTrail already has, the kind of growth rates we enjoy, and the encouraging feedback we’ve gotten from thousands of enthusiastic users all gave me reason to think that “things were looking good” for us.
But while I was kept waiting (things were apparently running late), and as I observed more and more applicants, the horrible thought arose that Y Combinator was actually an exclusive club of some sort, where admission is reserved for members that fit a certain profile… and YogaTrail didn’t fit. We might be regarded as an outsider.
The people I was looking at were young, American, and probably had a Stanford background. I’m 44, and I didn’t study computer science at Stanford. And YogaTrail is working out of South East Asia – while according to the folks at Y Combinator, any self-respecting startup must be located in Silicon Valley. In short, doubts and worries began to creep up.
And then it was our turn. A solemn looking man came up to me and told me to follow, and then led me into a small office with a long table, across from which sat 4 (or were there 5?) people. I recognised Garry Tan in the panel, but the 3 people that ended up actually asking some questions were unknown to me. They seemed very young. Handshakes all around, and 30 seconds gone.
10 minutes – that’s all you have to convince the people sitting across from you that you’ve got a product and a team worth investing in. Needless to say, the time went by very quickly.
“What’s YogaTrail?” was the opening question, and I explained our website (and the reason for it, what problems it solved for which people, etc.) in a minute or so. I was also able to show the panel some graphs about user growth and the importance our viral loops were playing in new user acquisition. The interviewers used their laptops to visit YogaTrail online, they poked around a bit, and ended up looking at some yoga teacher profiles in Mountain View. Six minutes gone.
How were we better or different from MindBody Software? Check.
How were we different from Yelp? Check.
Who in the team was doing what? Another minute spent on that.
Next thing I knew: time was up. “Thank your for coming today”.
Wow. Did they “get it”? Do they know anything about the size of the market? What did they understand about the team? Had they read our application, and, if so, did they even remember it?
At the end of the interview, I had no idea whether or not this thing had gone well or not. Just a vague sense that my interviewers couldn’t possibly have come away with an informed opinion about YogaTrail: who we are, what we’re doing, and what we plan to do.
And then it was time to wait. In the evening, YC would either call (“you’re in”) or send an email (“you’re out”). Thankfully, I was jet lagged and had little trouble falling asleep that afternoon, avoiding the anxiety that most YC applicants must feel in the hours after their interview.
At around 9pm, the rejection email came:
Dear Alex, Alex and Sven,
Thanks for coming in to talk to us today at Y Combinator (and for taking the time to Skype in, for the two of you). Unfortunately, we have decided not to fund Yoga Trail for the upcoming summer batch. This was a difficult decision for us, you guys clearly have a lot of passion for yoga and have made a pretty cool site with a fair number of users. Unfortunately, we were unable to get to believing that you had a strategy for supplanting Yelp as the top Google search results — having worked on SEO extensively in the past a better product often times isn’t enough.
You clearly have a product that is better than what else is out there. I encourage you to spend more time on figuring out customer acquisition (possibly through non-search channels). In any case, we are often wrong in our decisions, and I hope that you continue to build your business and wish you the best in doing so.
The feedback about beating Yelp in Google Search results and looking for ways to get customers other than search channels – pretty solid indicators that they hadn’t understood what we had told them.
Most likely, this was entirely my own fault. I just didn’t communicate clearly enough, or with enough enthusiasm. On the other hand, it could have been the result of any number of other things:
- Perhaps the people at Y Combinator actually do believe that no directory website of any kind will ever be able to compete with Yelp and is bound to fail. (God help us all if that’s true).
- Timing: our slot was on the very last day of interviews – so it’s likely that the guys conducting these interviews were pretty fatigued (after nearly 200 interviews in the previous three days).
- Perhaps the “having worked on SEO extensively in the past” provides the clue – could it be that my interviewers have worked on SEO so much that it’s difficult for them to conceive of non-SEO related strategies for growing a user-base?
- My personal favourite theory for why YogaTrail was rejected: I myself wasn’t “liked enough” by the people behind that desk because I seemed alien to them somehow, with a weird background that was just too different from their own… so they didn’t know what to make of me on a purely emotional level.
I think that the outcome of a Y Combinator interview is mostly determined by whether or not the interviewers “like” the interviewees. That’s really all that one can achieve in 10 minutes: make a good impression and be liked – or not.
Y Combinator makes a non-negligible investment ($1500) to bring applicants to their offices for interrogation. In my opinion, they might do a slightly better job at conducting the actual interviews.
Imagine flying people from around the world to your own office to interview them for something at a cost of $1500 – and then restricting the time you spend with them to 10 minutes. Seems like quite a waste.
Then imagine restricting yourself to a 10 minute interview before deciding whether or not you’re going to hand someone $120,000 in cash and spend 3 months coaching them on their business that you’ll get a 7% share of. I personally wouldn’t do things that way – but who knows? The folks at Y Combinator probably know what they’re doing.
Anyway, it was a good experience – and we didn’t let ourselves get demoralised. Being in Silicon Valley was an opportunity that we grabbed within an hour after our rejection, by reaching out to other accelerators. And so, before boarding the plane back to Thailand the next day, I got to visit the San Francisco office of 500 Startups…
Update 9th May 2014:
This blog post trended almost 24 h on Hacker News (?!). We were very flattered by how many people provided supportive and encouraging feedback – thanks! Check out the discussion here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7714555
Update May 18th 2014:
We’re hiring. Drupal dev’s, go here.
Update: June 20th 2014:
We just got word that we’ll be joining Batch 10 at 500 Startups in San Francisco this summer – hurray!