25 Oct 2018 8min read

5 things we learnt from our screw-up during the YC interview.

Updated as of 31 October 2018: Pruning.

0. Prologue

A few days ago my co-founder/sister Evelyn and I went to Beijing for an interview for YC China Winter 2019. We were the first to be interviewed[0]. Nice.

And we screwed up horribly[1].

Here are what we’ve learnt.

1. Don’t pitch to YC (and potential shareholders) like you are pitching to a customer.

A start-up is a human system (often founded by 2 or 3 human entities) interacting with the outside world. To a start-up, YC (and potential shareholders) are systems and entities that are looking to integrate internally. Meanwhile, customers/users are systems and entities that a start-up interacts with on a transactional basis i.e. they are a part of the outside world. When you pitch to customers you are ultimately delivering feelings to them in hopes of achieving transactional relationship that will bring value to your start-up, which is why start-ups talk about Customer Lifetime Value (CLV) like they are vampires. But when you are pitching to entities and systems that are looking to integrate internally, you are basically welcoming them to join you on a journey to build a billion dollar empire. Therefore when you pitch to these entities you should never pitch like you are pitching to your customers, and instead go one and two meta-levels up and pitch to them like you are talking to a imaginary co-founder who has amnesia.

2. Be careful of behavioural sugar-coating.

Behavioural sugar-coating is the natural tendency to slip away from negativity and portrait reality in a positive light. This tendency can sometimes over-compress details in order to manufacture positive images, under-exemplify ideas deemed negative with inconclusive anecdotes to prove the contrary and maintain positiveness, etc, basically resulting in an atmosphere of positivity. Useful for things like socialising and project management. Not useful for things like depicting reality accurately and project management.

Behavioural sugar-coating can result in horrible time management, which is exactly the reason why one must be extremely careful with it in a YC interview which is limited to only 10 minutes. Behavioural sugar-coating can prevent one from being precise and giving a 0 or 1 answer, as it encourages beating around the bush for a middle ground in order for things to feel more positive in general. Losing time aside, this risks giving off the wrong impressions and can result in borderline bullshits. Behavioural sugar-coating may be useful if you are a certain ivy-league drop-out co-founding some blood testing start-up. But for start-ups that have actually worked hard in product design, market research, etc, and have many interesting and insightful discoveries to share, behavioural sugar-coating is downright self-mutilating. That is mainly because it would always consume a lot more time than you expect. So you would be left with less time to share with YC the awesome informative stuff (e.g. your analysis of the market and your strategy to achieve early stage sustainability based on the analysis, etc). For YC and other investors these are the stuff that will act as indicators to whether there will a return if they are to invest in you. Not the sugar-coating.[2]

3. Implement a none-verbal communication protocol among co-founders.

We would have certainly performed better had we defined among ourselves a none-verbal communication protocol such as kicking another person’s leg as a request to interrupt[3]. Or sending a signal with secret hand gestures. Just to make sure the other co-founder desperate to speak wouldn’t need to resort to waiting for the right moment (which often means losing more time) or interrupt in a manner that may come across as abrupt and rude (minus point for cohesion).

It will also come in handy if each co-founder computes an elapsed time based on a confidence score before they decide to answer an interview question. This way the question would always be answered by the most confident co-founder. And a co-founder would not feel obligated to give an immediate answer that would often turn into babbling when they are doubtful of their delivery.

4. Be aware of the cons of remote collaboration for early stage start-ups.

It takes time for new ideas to instil themselves into the mind. One can be at ease with these ideas only when there is a sense of familiarity to them. And then one can articulate these ideas with clarity and confidence.

Remote collaboration can result in bad synchronisation of information and ideas among co-founders, especially for early stage start-ups when things are still dynamic and ad hoc.

In contrast to remote collaboration, working (or if possible living) under the same roof brings more benefits for start-ups at early stage. The same-roof arrangement enables meetings to be effortlessly scheduled and conducted in an on-demand manner, making it much easier for each other to communicate new ideas without always bothering with formalisation, organisation and documentation (which all have their pros and cons). It is the readily availability and the flexibilities of choosing when to formalise and when not, when to organise or not, etc, that make a huge difference. Readily availability can still be enforced during remote collaboration although it would require trainings. Meanwhile, these flexibilities are lost when there are structures imposed on the scheduling of meetings and the meetings themselves. And these structures will naturally arise for the sake of efficiency during remote collaboration (or when things become less ad hoc in nature e.g. after reaching product market fit).

5. Cheer up.

In retrospect it is perhaps natural that we screwed up. This was our first time pitching to investors/accelerators after all.

We are still waiting for YC to get back to us, but we are quite sure it is a no[4]. We are just super grateful that this whole thing has happened because we have learnt so much from it. After meeting with Qi Lu and 4 YC partners in real-life and experiencing first-hand a screw-up like this - so surrealistic in nature - Evelyn and I have become sharper and more crisp.

We’ll stay focus and keep shipping. It’s gonna be a long trip.


[0] or zeroth if you are a computer scientist.

[1] It must have been an unpleasant surprise for anyone involved. We’re super sorry about that.

[2] Nonetheless sugar-coating plays a fundamental part in many aspects of life in the human society.

[3] just make sure you kick the right person’s.

[4] Update as of 29th Oct 2018: Just received an email from YC. Yup, rejected. Looks like we would indeed have to apply again next year.

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