Startup Mom
A blog based on my experiences building ParentScheduler and Frever

An Interview At YCombinator

About getting an interview with YCombinator! And, spoiler alert, getting rejected.

09 Dec 2020, 5 minutes read

YCombinator is one of the most famous accelerators and seed investors for early stage startups. It also has a free online program called Startup School that provides an online tracking tool, content and free formed group sessions for startups. I’ve been participating in YCombinator’s Startup School for over 5 months and have always found the content insightful (you might have noticed I link to it often in my blog) and the group sessions engaging and useful. So when I found out this year’s winter batch is all remote, deciding to apply was a no-brainer. Like Delton Caldwell says in one of the YCombinator’s videos about applying to the program - set yourself up to be lucky. What’s the worst that could happen? I already have a “no” in hand, why not open up the possibility of a “yes”?

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Working on the application was beneficial all on its own. It forced me to give hard numbers, it forced me to give serious answers to questions I was hand waving till that point. It was actually the catalyst that finally got me to add real event tracking so I have better answers on how people are using my app. Which became a real shift in my startup. In fact, checking my MixPanel dashboard is now the first thing I do every morning (and afternoon, and evening). The application also required a 1 minute founders intro video. At first I was like - what… how on earth can you stuff meaningful enough content in only 1 minute?? It forced me to think of the most important aspects and be concise and I found out it is possible. I was very happy with the result, if you’re curious you can check out the video here.

Though I was happy with my application I knew chances of getting an interview invite are small in general and probably even smaller this year, with the remote option making it available for more people around the world. The night before results were published, at the end of October, I was nervous despite telling myself chances are low and I should not get my hopes up. The email started with “Thank you for applying to Y Combinator.” and my heart sank. It’s a no then. But the next sentence read “ Your application looks promising and we’d like to interview you via a video call.” OMG. I think I totally squealed as I read that.

The interview date was set to the beginning of December. Having to wait for over a month felt agonizing, but was probably good as it gave me time to prepare and gather more data from Mixpanel. In addition, a little like that super short intro video, the interview only lasts 10 minutes. Again I wondered how one can squeeze any amount of information into 10 minutes? and again I learned that 10 concise minutes can actually pack a decent amount of content.

The week before the interview I was so nervous, and having to self-isolate due to exposure to a confirmed covid patient made it even worse. The day came and my heart was pounding. The interview was set to 8pm my time so I had the whole day to fret. Honestly the wait is so much worse than the thing itself. I’m so glad I’ve been meditating for so long that I have that tool at hand. I also did a workout with my daughter and my mom (over zoom) and knitted a whole lot. I think I even fixed a bug - coding calms my nerves, I’m that type of a geek.

Then the interview finally started. There were 4 other people on the call, but Geoff Ralston was the one asking most of the questions. They were all very polite and nice, the atmosphere was positive but I knew I didn’t do well. When I finished the call I knew I didn’t pass.

The interesting part most prep advice didn’t mention was that all these common interview questions you can find online only take you so far. The real questions are going to be specific to your startup. They are the ones you can’t really prepare for (but you should know of the top of your head given it is your startup).

The next morning I woke up at 5am waiting for that rejection email. It arrived at 6:20am and again was very kind and contained specific information on why they chose not to invest in ParentScheduler in this batch. I already knew from the interview I was not able to convince them the pain I am solving is big enough. Based on my current numbers I was not able to convince them I can reach enough people and generate enough revenue. I might apply again for the next batch if I can show a significant increase that can demonstrate the real potential here.

When the interview ended I was a bit devastated I admit. I thought maybe I got it all wrong. When people with so much experience don’t think it’s a great idea, shouldn’t I reconsider? But then I remembered a thing that happened when I was getting my master degree. When I started working on my thesis I felt professor Hans Peter Pfister was the best choice to be my advisor. When I said that to the person respobsible for helping students form a research question and find an advisor, he told me I don’t stand a chance to get Professor Pfister as my advisor since he is incredibly famous and well sought out. And I imagine sitting across from this person with my 5 month pregnancy belly didn’t help either ;). But even though this person helped hundreds of students in his years performing this role, all I thought was - well, he doesn’t know me and there is no harm in trying. Long story short - professor Pfister was my thesis advisor.

I appreciate YCombinator for the experience and for the honest feedback. And I don’t know if I will succeed. And I don’t know if this will work. But I’m not ready to give up yet.

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