YCombinator? I’ll do it

Stanford University
Stanford University

One day last November, I was sitting in the student cafeteria, at Stanford University in California with Josh catching up with Paul, an old friend of mine who was studying there.

We’d had just ordered a coffee from Starbucks, naively answering telling the barista, “yes, we would like cream”, so now we were eyeing up these containers filled with half-coffee, half-squirty-cream monstrosities.

We complaining there was “too much cream in your coffee”, in Starbucks, at Stanford, must be the pinnacle of “first world problems“…


Then Josh checked his email, and we found that the past 3 weeks of blood sweat and tears had been for nothing.

We were wrong. This was the epitome of first world problems.


On April 1st, 2011, I posted on my facebook wall that I was imminently moving to California.

I didn’t actually think anyone would believe me, but somehow, a few people did:

April Fools!
April Fools!

In October 2013, I was having a beer with Josh whom I’d known from the YRS2010 days where he’d done cool stuff along with everyone else. :)

Over the course of the evening, he explained that he’d recently been working on a side project to help people to save money:

Lots of people (even in the UK & US) live paycheck to paycheck. When they want something expensive, they either buy it on finance/a long contract or they drop an entire paycheck on it, and struggle to eat for a month. It’s not ideal. Saving is one of those things that people know they should do (like getting more exercise, eating more healthily) but struggle to do. The application he was developing, Dripfeed, helped people visualise what they were saving for and develop a healthier financial approach to buying things.

Josh told me he’d been accepted to interview at YCombinator – the most prestigious Startup Accelerator in Silicon Valley. The interview was two weeks away.


(A startup accelerator is a programme or boot camp of sorts, often aimed at high tech, high growth new businesses. It’s a strange world.Wikipedia explains more.

YCombinator is *the* best of the best – if you’ve heard of Dropbox, AirBnB, Scribd, reddit, or Disqus – then you’ve heard of a successful company that’s come out of the other end.

If you apply successfully, you gain a (relatively small but not insignificant) amount of cash, you & your team moves to San Francisco for the 3 months, whilst you work on your thing are introduced to, and given advice by mentors, investors and listen to seminars from people who know what they’re talking about and a bunch of other stuff. In short, it’s a good place to be.)


Josh had a problem – YCombinator don’t like accepting companies with single person teams – and so he asked if I wanted to come to San Francisco with him to interview with him. If we were accepted, we’d go 50/50 on it, if not, we wouldn’t. The caveats: the interview was in less than 15 days, and I’d need to pay for my own flight.

 

So for the second time that autumn, I booked a holiday from work and some trans-continental flights at less than 2 weeks notice, and prepared to go to yet another place I’d not been before.

The San Francisco Bay Bridge... and me.
The Bay… and me.

YC’s interviews are are tough.

No matter how much cramming of interview techniques, no matter how much brainstorming of possible questions you could be asked, no much how much you read up about which federal US authority governs which the financial laws you care about, they’re still tough.

Inside the YCombinator's "secret layer"
Inside the YCombinator’s “secret layer”

Firstly, you’re being interviewed by about 5 or 6 people at the same time, all of whom likely know a great deal about building something new “things” with the internet. You’re trying to impress them by showing that you’ve with a slightly offbeat idea, you’ve thought about everything, and that you know how to execute it.

Secondly, the interviews are only 10 minutes long. This means every second counts for quite a lot, being eloquent, concise, knowledgeable counts. Qualifications are worthless. Knowing your area and know the idea kick ass idea, counts.

On top of that, you’re thinking – these next ten minutes influence the next three months of my life and the path I take from here. Will I have to spend three months (probably more), working my arse off, thousands of miles away from my friends and girlfriend? Will this be a big step into a stage of perpetual uncertainty in my life?

I don’t remember exactly who interviewed us, I know Paul Graham was not there though the new head of YC, Sam Altman was in our interview.

The good thing about the interviews, is that you find out if you got in, later on the day of the interview.


Stanford University Memorial Church
Stanford University Memorial Church

We didn’t get in.

As we said bye to my friend Paul in the Stanford University cafeteria, we knew we probably weren’t going to return anytime in the near future.

And then the self-evaluation kicked in.

“Which bit did they not like?”, “Could we have done better there?”, “What if things had been different?”.

Two questions stuck in my mind – probably the two we had the poorest answer to:

  • Q: What’s your plan to promote this thing?
    • A: Reddit Ads – Tim has experience with social media ads.
    • [Response from interviewers: no that’s not the answer]!
  • Q: You’re both experienced hackers – why this? Why not work on something more exciting?
    • A: “errr, it’s not easy – it’s a hard thing to do… etc.”

There are good answers you could give to both of those. We didn’t.


San Francisco, Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, San Francisco Bay
San Francisco, Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, San Francisco Bay

As I spent the rest of my time in San Francisco touristing, I reflected that actually, I wasn’t as sad or disappointed as I’d expected I might be.

I’d been hit by more culture shock than I’d imagined. I found that it was hard for me to accept parts of US culture as the status quo, despite finding similar differences straightforward in non-English speaking countries. Urban areas generally don’t excite me much, and I’m sad I didn’t get out to Yosemite. Despite Silicon Valley and San Francisco being nice places they didn’t really feel where I wanted to be right then.

I realised that whilst the experience had been good, and I’d learnt a lot from it (particularly, what I didn’t know!), perhaps not all the variables had lined up 100% that time, and that actually, I was probably happier as a result.

Returning to the UK was easy…. not that the weather helped! It was 24C and sunny in California and 5C and raining in the UK! But I knew what I was returning to and I could plan parts of my future again. I also knew where I could improve myself, what areas I was weak on, and more about what makes me tick.


And the April Fools day joke on Facebook?

My parents aren’t massive April Fools day fans. Fortunately, they’re not on Facebook so I’d made sure it was just a private prank on my close friends.

Unfortunately, my sister had phoned my mum that day, and just casually asked remarked she hadn’t heard about my emigration until that day…

Well neither had my mum!

In the end, it was all resolved with phone call, leaving just an amusing lesson about how hoaxes go viral.

Maybe that was the scale of first world problems, I enjoyed having… ;)

Happy Late April Fools day! :)


Also see: DripFeed.

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