For me, applying to and interviewing for YCombinator was a whirlwind experience. We applied a few days after the deadline and then didn’t hear anything until 5 days before we were to be in California for the interview. Unlike anyone else I spoke to, we essentially did no preparation. Quite honestly, we were working on another major deadline that week, and simply didn’t have more time to prepare. Still, we managed to get in, so we must have done something right.
Although the title of this post is all about no preparation, I don’t advocate that approach or any other. I don’t have any advice, but I will tell you what I/we did.
A Little About Me
In my case, I was the first and new CTO of the start-up, having joined 1.5 months before the interview date. I knew the basics of the company, but I didn’t know all the details of the business model, prior pivots, etc. I hadn’t practiced pitching the company. I was so busy from the date I joined that I didn’t yet have an answer to “what does your company do?”
I also knew little about the Silicon Valley start-up community. When I first heard “PG”, I was left trying to figure out why Proctor and Gamble was involved with startups. (In the start-up context, it actually stands for Paul Graham.)
Aware of how little I knew, at some point, I’m sure I thought: I’m going to f— this up!
I think the most useful preparation was reading blogs and watching videos. The blogs told me that the interview would be like a multi-person assault. YC interviewers would simultaneously and independently ask all founders questions about the business (more on that later).
I never found YC interview videos but I did find Office Hours videos and I used them as a substitute (e.g. Office Hours at Startup School NY 2014). Although our interview wasn’t like the blogs or videos, I still think they were useful preparation material.
We also used our network to reach out to people who had previously been though YC or were knowledgeable about YC. We managed to setup one short telephone call with a prior founder and with a knowledgeable individual. Although I was hoping for a mini-mock interview with feedback, what we got was some simple advice that was maybe more valuable. The YC partners are exceptionally intelligent so assume they understand your business as well as you do.
In the short preparation time, we also came up with a strategy for sharing answering questions. Since the only part of the product I knew well was the technology, that was my domain and everything else was the domain of my co-founder.
Beyond this, I found a list of interview questions on Quora and wrote down basic answers to the questions. For me personally, I reviewed my answers with my co-founder to make sure I actually understood these other areas of the business. The Actual Interview
Unlike what I read, our interview was calm. We were brought in by an organizer and the interview promptly started with the partners asking questions. Yes, there was the panel of interviewers, but there was only one line of questions and most of the panel was completely silent. The questions were very similar to the online list, covering both the business and partnership.
Our strategy for delegating answers worked well. In the calm interview environment, we were able to tag-team, passing questions to each other, as a sign of partnership. We also came prepared with printouts of slides, which were useless with the limited time.
Overall, I think we came across as authentic, which with little preparation is the only thing we could be. I personally think authenticity was important and showed we pass the “no-assholes test”. During the interview, I even managed to interrupt one of the interviewers and give a short passionate speech (use at own risk).
After the allotted 10 minutes, we left and were asked to wait around to find out if they had any more questions. It is relatively rare, but we were asked to come back for a second interview later that day with a different set of partners. No more info.
The Interview - Take 2
Compared to the first interview, the second one felt much more focused. This group of partners were really familiar with the domain, although most of the partners were still silent .
YC had previously invested in similar ideas that hadn’t (as of yet) become really big, and so this group really focused on how our business would become a multi-billion dollar business. We talked a little about how our business was different from others, but mostly about the business strategy itself. We shared pretty openly but not completely, such as omitting the names and details of some partnerships we were working on. Other Advice
It should be obvious, but be early to the interview. The YC office is surrounded by a couple highways with strange entrances and exits. It is really easy to to take a wrong turn and find yourself on a highway entrance ramp. Give yourself time.
Finally, if you are hungry, try Roger’s Deli for some tasty and huge sandwiches.