YCombinator is one of the OG startup accelerators that made accelerators popular. Twice a year, they invest $120,000 in a large number of startups and are often seen as the “Harvard of accelerators” because of the exclusivity and access to a prestigious network.

We applied and got an interview for the Winter 2018 cohort. We went out to Mountain View, CA, gave it the best 10 minutes we could (the interviews are only 10 minutes long!), but didn’t make it in this time around. It was a great experience pitching Pepper, nonetheless, and we got to meet a ton of awesome founders from previous YC-backed companies to help us prep.

The deadline for their S2018 cohort application closes on March 24! I highly recommend submitting an application even if you have just an inkling of an idea. Here’s our experience!

The Application

YC has accepted startups everywhere in between the idea phase to revenue-generating business. Don’t let where you think you need to be stop you from applying.

It’s a short, straight to the point application, an early indication of how YC likes to run things.

The only portions that might take a little extra time are the videos. You’ll need 1) a demo video and 2) 1 minute founders introduction video. No need for fancy gimmicks. Here’s our founders video, filmed in Lia’s living room using a tripod made of stacked books.

We submitted the application September 29, and interview invitations were to be announced on October 24 before 10pm. I kind of forgot about that date because I didn’t think Pepper was a YC-type startup since the majority of their startups were tech rather than physical products (lesson: always go for it!).

We received our interview invitation email at 9pm. That’s 11pm ET for Lia, but I called her anyway, because we had to schedule our interview ASAP! You had to literally book your interview slot on the spot because you could see the slots disappearing in real-time.

Our interview was a few weeks later on November 2 for 4pm. End of day wasn’t ideal but that’s how quickly the slots were being booked.

YC reimburses the cost of flight and accommodation up to a cap depending on where you’re flying in from. It was a nice way for Lia and I to hang out in San Francisco (for free)!

The Prep

After talking to a few founders who were accepted in YC, the recommendation on best way to prep was:

1. Get the list of the most common YC interview questions and write out short, to the point responses for each.

2. Make sure that you and your co-founder are completely aligned on  who is going to answer what. Time is of the essence, so no time for awkward pauses and looking at each other.

3. Practice, practice, practice with timed mock interviews from past YC founders.

Keep in mind that YC’s motto is “Make Something People Want”, so being able to convince them there’s a market for your concept is key. Oh and you have to do this all in 10 minutes.

Here’s the prep doc we put together after doing a bunch of research online, listening to podcasts and talking to founders.

Mock interviews were a fun way to get in touch with some amazing people.

After doing a dozen of these mock interviews Lia and I were feeling GOOD. We were getting positive feedback, and a lot of helpful tips on how to improve even further.

We felt ready.

The Interview

Dun dun dunnn!!!

Beautiful, sunny Mountain View never felt so ominous. I used to work at 650 Castro St. back when I was at Mozilla, and it brought up so many memories riding the Caltrain down along with hundreds of other North Face, All Birds wearing techies. I walked down Castro St. and reminisced about all the hasty lunches at Posh Bagel (there’s so many awesome restaurant options now!!).

We arrived at the YC office at 3:30pm and checked in.

The waiting room was a huge, oddly dark and stuffy room with teams huddled around or pacing back and forth. Lia was peeing every 10 minutes and I was so sweaty I had to take off my flats.

The interviews were running late. It ended up being another 45 minutes of waiting around until we were called.

There were 4 judges in our room sitting across from us, Michael Seibel being one of them. I didn’t even get a chance to sit all the way down when the rapid fire questions began. The first one: What are you working on?

The 9.5 minutes after that was a blur. There were questions about market size, our traction so far, and confusingly, a question about what Dollar Shave Club’s early operational challenges were.

We walked away feeling initially awesome, but as we unpacked some of the questions they asked us it was clear there was possibly some misalignment between what were working on and what they thought we were working on. At the moment, Pepper is a pure consumer product company. We use technology to enable direct to consumer e-commerce, but we’re not building proprietary technology (yet, anyway). Their questions around subscription models, whether we had a technical co-founder on the team, and operational challenges made us worry. We didn’t get as much time as we wanted to talk about all the awesome thing we’ve already achieved and are going to achieve.

YC calls you if you made it in or emails you if you got rejected — THAT SAME NIGHT.

Needless to say, Lia and I treated ourselves to a nice meal and a whole bottle of wine. Every time someone texted me or my phone lit up from a notification we would jump. We went back to our Airbnb and watched Shark Tank to pass the time (how fitting right?). At 9:30pm I refreshed my inbox and there it was. The official feedback:

The Takeaways

1. We needed a more compelling defensibility answer. Victoria’s Secret dominates the market at 60%+ and there are so many other lingerie startups popping up — how are we different and how will we stay different? We know how, but we needed a clearer way of communicating it.

2. Knowing how to take control and turn the conversation around when it starts becoming defense rather than offense. Questions from investors to female entrepreneurs tend to focus on potential losses, while those posed to men focus on potential gains, research suggests. There was a point where the questions went off track and we weren’t even talking about Pepper anymore.

3. We had to dig a little deeper about strategic decisions like finding a technical co-founder or whether we were kidding ourselves with fulfilling in-house rather than outsourcing to a 3rd party logistics company. After some soul searching and questioning while walking around San Francisco, we decided to stay the course of current action. We didn’t need a technical co-founder (yet) as we’re still focused on proving out the first product and learning about our customers. We would have also lost the personal connection with our customers that our brand is built on if we outsourced fulfillment to a 3PL. Looking back at these two things now, I’m so glad we stuck to our guns.

Rejection sucks, but it was a great learning experience for us. I’m putting the finishing touches on our S2018 application and am excited to prove them wrong about Pepper.

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