February 21, 2019

How We Didn’t Get Into Y Combinator: Lessons Learned

Carl Kronika
ck@copus.dk
5 min read

Exactly one year ago, we decided to apply for Y Combinator - the most prestigious startup accelerator in the world. Although we didn't get in, we learned a lot and it changed the direction of our startup.

We first heard about the program through our good friends at SOUNDBOKS, a YC alumnus. Twice a year, the Silicon Valley accelerator invest in a batch of startups, and for 3 months they provide resources and mentorship to help them grow. YC boasts an impressive alumni list, including Dropbox, Reddit, Airbnb and many more.

At Copus, we had built our own platform with the purpose of letting startups visualize and measure the correlation between media coverage and business results. Simultaneously, we ran a PR agency, and the idea was to have a mixed business model. 


The application

We started working on our application and reached out to a couple of YC alumni to help increase our chances of getting in and avoiding some obvious pitfalls. We met up with SOUNDBOKS (YC W16), Peergrade (YC S16) and GetAccept (YC W16). It took us a week writing the application and answering pretty simple questions like what our company is going to make, how we are going to make money, and why we chose this idea to work on. Other than being very experienced entrepreneurs, the people who review the applications are probably also the best bullshit detectors you can find. This forced us to eliminate buzzwords, acronyms and fancy marketing speak when answering these questions - without a doubt one of the most valuable takeaways for us throughout this whole experience.

Right before submitting, we were introduced to the legendary Michael Seibel, CEO of YC and founder of Justin.tv, which eventually became Twitch and went on to sell to Amazon for $970 Million.  

Michael Seibel, CEO at Y Combinator
Michael Seibel, CEO at Y Combinator

We quickly pitched our concept and he replied: “This looks very interesting - good luck with your application!”. It’s safe to say we were excited to receive this email. Two minutes later, we submitted the application.


The interview 

Restless weeks of waiting in excitement passed. Suddenly, we received an email from YC. They requested a video call. This was really exciting news and definitely a good sign. If our application had been total trash, they wouldn’t bother interviewing us. So, we immediately started preparing for the interview and felt optimistic. One of our friends recommended us to use a web app that generates the sort of questions you will typically get asked at a YC interview. Questions like: “Why isn't someone already doing this?” and “what do you understand that others don't?”.

As was the case with the written application, we learned that it was extremely important to have quick and concise answers. We managed to change the way we would usually construct sentences - so instead of starting with a long explanation to get to the actual point, we began with the most important part, and then went on to elaborate if need be. We also met up with a bunch of clever people who would grill us for hours to prepare us to ace whatever questions might occur (or so we thought). After a few days of intense preparation, we felt ready.

Due to the different time zones, we ended up having our interview in the middle of the night. We didn’t know what to expect, other than the fact that we had 10 minutes to convince them how we, three inexperienced youngsters, could build a billion-dollar business. No biggie. 

Five minutes before the interview began, a message pops up on the screen: “Waiting for Michael Seibel”. He showed up not even one second belated and kicked off the interview straight away - while chewing peanuts - with the infamous YC opening question: “So, what are you working on?”. The interview ended up taking 20 minutes instead of 10 minutes. He grilled us for about 15 minutes and then started to open up towards the end. We felt like we were thrown onto Camp Nou against FC Barcelona, blindfolded. It was extremely high pace. No holding up the ball in his own half of the pitch. He really came at us. He liked our team but didn’t love the idea. He suggested focusing on some other functionalities than what we presented. 

Actual footage of us during the interview.
Actual footage of us during the interview.

After the interview, we felt like we’d been punched in the face, multiple times. This experience made things like exams seem like a walk in the park. It really took us out of our comfort zone, and while it was tough, it was at the same time a fantastic experience to discover how it was to play in the big-boys-league. Even just for 20 minutes. Anyhow, none of us had any clue whether or not we’d be accepted to the program or not. Once again, all we could do was wait. 


The rejection 

Aaand, then it arrived. The rejection email. We made it to the top 10% out of the +10,000 startups they reviewed but were not among those selected for the S18 batch. Obviously, we felt extremely disappointed. However, we learned some valuable lessons throughout the application process. First of all, the interview with Michael Seibel made us pivot the whole company. Instead of using our software to measure PR, we are now using it as an internal tool to grow our agency. In other words: Without the bright minds and hard hitting people of YC, our company wouldn’t be where it is today.

Also, we learned that the importance of clarity and focus can’t be overestimated. Keep it simple and make your startup easy to understand. If your product is great, but your communication is poor, no one will see the real value of your company. In that case, your efforts will simply be a waste of time. That’s why we’ve dedicated Copus to help startups tell their story. 

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