YCombinator: Our Interview Experience After Flying 5,351 Miles for 10 Minutes

Today we’re flying home from San Francisco to London, after flying out here for an early interview with Sam Altman for a spot in the YC Winter 2015 batch for our company, Trakio. We’re flying home for a few days to pack more clothes and then we’re returning to SF to do some more meetings and participate in an accelerator!

This is a post about our experience in getting Trakio known stateside and interviewing with some of the worlds top-tier startup accelerator programs.

Interviewing With YC Early

The main issue was that our original interview date with YC (17th Nov) wouldn’t have been until a competing offer, from Alchemist Accelerator, had expired (their offers ‘explode’ – which is pretty irritating).

With this in mind, the YC team were amazingly flexible (Kirsty Nathoo, YC Partner, totally rocks for making this happen!). They agreed to meet us on the 7th Nov on super short notice and covered all expenses – literally we had to jump on an 11hr flight the next morning!

We didn’t want to rush into any decisions and weren’t fans of having offers with deadlines. However, any one of these programs are world class and considered top-tier, and we wanted to know exactly who’s offers we had on the table. Best case scenario: we expected to decide between YCombinator, Alchemist, Techstars NYC or 500 Startups.

However, we also got excited by the idea of participating in multiple programs, for example: YC focussing on product acceleration and funding, and Alchemist focussing on sales and business development acceleration (thanks to Julian Gay from Xen.do for the advice and suggestions on how to put these 2 programs together!)

Each program handles applications differently, but YCombinator is the only program that insists on a face-to-face interview before making an offer. But they also fund the whole experience – they play in a different league for sure!

Here are a few lessons from our YC interview experience for those flying out for their YC interview. The interview process has stayed pretty consistent and I hope these lessons will be valuable for many years to come (and of course, good luck!)

Practice Answering All Questions In Under 15 Seconds

From all the YC alumni and investors who helped us with our application or helped us to decide which programs were right for us, the one theme that came up again and again was “Practice, practice practice!”

However, both Matt and I had been in situations before (University exams) where over-practicing can cause mental paralysis – you become so overwhelmed and your answers become so contrived that you’re unable to “free flow” and you start to lose the rhythm and finesse to your thinking.

However, a key supplement to this advice came from YC Alum, Fred Stevens-Smith (Rainforest QA) – “Keep every answer under 15 seconds without exception! You only have 10 minutes to cover a lot of ground!”

Honestly, without this advice we’d have been a total train-wreck in our interview.

Here’s what we did: we got to the interview location on the morning of our interview (the YC partners were kind enough to put the meeting in their San Francisco office to make it easier for us with flights – another example of how pro-founders they are). We jumped into a coffee shop 5 hours before our interview, and started writing down around 50 questions that could come up. (Here’s a list to get you started)

We then gave each other a mock interview, running through every single question and adding a small key next to each question whenever:

  • The answer took longer than 15 seconds
  • The answer had too much mumbling and sounded improvised
  • The answer just wasn’t very good and might need attacking from a different angle
  • The answer clearly needed discussion and development

With this, we were able to cut away maybe 75% of our practice questions – mostly ones that customers have already asked 100 times. What remained were some awkward ones like “Tell us something funny” or “What’s something surprising you have learned?”

By the end of the session, we had cut out all the ‘fluff’ from our answers and could articulate with conviction and accuracy, every time.

Try To Balance Answers Between Cofounders

We’d specifically made sure that we both knew ‘each others’ areas of expertise. However, as CEO I’m just naturally in a position where I’m explaining the company/product more often, and so it’s easy to assume a role of doing all of the talking.

However, we’re fortunate as a team in that Matt is very technical but also very charismatic and articulate. Despite the fact that he rarely interacts with our customers or investors, we’re lucky that he’s equally able to articulate the company vision.

When it comes to your YC interview, you should definitely show off your whole teams ability to communicate to the outside world. Because that CTO may soon be leading a team of 20+ engineers, speaking at engineering conferences etc.

With all this said, our interview soon quickly became an intense ‘back and forth’ between Sam Altman and myself. (Yeah, he’s very smart!) Afterwards, I kicked myself for not breaking the flow and introducing Matt into the flow more often. We specifically didn’t want to come across as a “Business guy and a tech guy” but that was probably the impression we gave… 🙁

Plan For A 2 Hour Interview

As I mentioned before, we practiced around 50 questions, and then played with permutations and follow-up questions to each answer.

I have been in some pretty intense interviews/meetings with VC’s back in London and a 1 – 1.30hr meeting is not uncommon. While we knew the YC interview would only be 10 minutes long, I was fully aware just how much there is to ask/answer about the company. We could talk for an hour alone about the strengths/weaknesses of each competitor in the analytics space!

Just like college exams, this meant we needed to be amazing at a lot of material because there was no way to know which small selection of that material would come up in the interview. Which points were the YC partners already “sold” on, and which areas did they want to dig deeper? It’s impossible to know.

For example, we’d spent at least 30 minutes thinking up funny or interesting anecdotes, and then iterating on them until they were concise (and also interesting!), so that we could deal with questions like “When has a customer surprised you?” or “Tell me about a time you made a huge mistake and how did you fix it?”

As it happened, none of these questions came up for us – but I know they have for founders in the past.

Take A Breath and Count To 3

Then there was one question in our interview that kicked me in the nuts. One of those “I need to lay down on the floor” situations. (Apologies to female readers, I’m not sure how to describe an equivalent sensation)…

It was at the peak of mine and Sam’s verbal volleyball and I could hear myself getting flustered, and I could hear the frustration in Sam’s tone too. He was irritated and wanted me to give him a good answer, but was maybe 10 seconds away from just “giving up” and dismissing my thoughts on the topic.

He asked me the question the first time, and I instantly started splurging something out. As I was saying it, I knew it wasn’t a question we’d practiced and I knew I was just filling the silence with rambling. Sam spoke over me after 15 seconds and asked the same question again, but in a different way. (Genuinely, he was trying to help me to succeed)

Again, I started to ramble on from a different angle, but his facial expression instantly gave away that he wasn’t satiated. I’d messed this up. I felt my face come up red. The “nuts kick” started to set in. I felt Matt look across at me in support, (although I knew that he’d probably started to clench his fists under the table like he does when he’s nervous!)

Once again, Sam spoke over me to shut me off and, failing to hide his frustration, added that no one usually gave him a satisfactory answer to this particular question.

With one last chance – I simply shut up.

I took a breath.

I counted to three.

Suddenly able to enjoy the incredibly awkward silence that fell on the room – I could finally think. I hoped Matt wouldn’t panic and fill the silence with a rushed answer.

Please Matt, keep quiet. I’ve got this.

I hoped he trusted that behind the silence, my cogs were turning.

Then the answer came to me. And it was something I’d actually answered before for a previous investor. Damn it was there all along! I calmly broke the silence, and gave a concise and well reasoned answer.

Matt later told me that the satisfaction and relief was immediately radiant on Sams body language. And Sam even said “Wow I’m actually impressed by that answer!”.

The exact question is irrelevant. [And I like to keep it private as my own little momento of the time that Sam Altman kicked me in the nuts.]

The point is that in your YC interview, make sure all of your team know that if a “doozy” question comes up, you should shut the hell up and focus on thinking – not talking. If after a few seconds you don’t have anything, just say so and allow the interview to move on. But don’t ever attempt to fumble an answer – these guys are pros and they’ll just cut you off and save everyone the embarrassment of hearing your full awkward answer!

Have A Plan B, and Plan C

We went to our YC interview with cash in the bank, revenue and acceptance offers from other accelerators (with others still hanging in the air). We weren’t walking in with the pressure of “Its this or our startup is dead!” which is an attitude I’ve heard from a few startup founders.

Is the YC network of companies an “easy” receptive customer or pilot customer? Sure. Are the mentors amazingly experienced with product development and growth? Sure (particularly for a B2C product). Does YC give a hyped (i.e. founder-friendly) valuation on demo day? Definitely. Is it the greatest accelerator in the world? Probably.

But is YC the only way to build a company worth hundreds of millions of dollars? Of course not!

In our case, we weren’t approaching YC as the beginning or end of our company. We had made multiple applications to multiple programs and we’d already put together ‘combinations’ for our best case scenario of getting multiple offers.

Any offer from any top-tier program would have been an amazing, life-changing opportunity!

But we’d also played out the worst case scenarios – what if we get no’s from everyone? What if we have only 1 yes on the west coast and 1 on the east coast and we have to choose, potentially pissing someone off? What if none of our angels follow through with their convertible note investments? What if all of our UK/EU customers cancel because our support will switch to a US timezone for a few weeks?

Location, Location, Location

Your YC interview is one of the highest pressure situations you’ll likely face in the early stages of your company. But for non silicon valley natives, flying in for the interview is an experience in itself and you should relax the pressure a little by adding a few days before and after your interview to check out San Francisco

(NB: Our budget motel in the Marina district was $100 a night for 2 people to share a room. Uber is cheap, and there are 4-10 meetups a day to choose from where you can get fed for free!).

Whether you get a yes from YC or another program, you should get a feel for the city and for Mountain View and start planning where you might stay if you come back. Hotel or AirBnB? Vallye or SF? Mission, Marina or SoMa?.

Within 2 days of our YC interview, we had viewed 5 AirBnB apartments or hotels offering monthly stays. We had eaten out all over the city. We had gone for investor lunches. We checked out some office space (though for Visa reasons we found out we couldn’t rent one). We had even found time to party a little!

(Partying In SF: Only in SF would a night drinking in a bar result in 5 business cards and meetings with potential investors, 3 potential customers and a handful of potential future hires who asked for our email and if we had any open positions!)

So… Trakio Is Moving To San Francisco?

Well – not quite. The Visa situation in America is pretty complicated right now, even for a UK company who just wants to open an office and employ American citizens… :-/

Trakio is still a European company and Matt and I are still employed within the UK. There’s no short term plans to have an office here in SF or employ anyone in SF.

However, thanks to the Visa Waiver Program we’ll still be able to participate in mentorship programs and meet with our investors over here in short trips.

[But to the US border agent who printed this blog post out: No, we are not working in the USA while participating in a program.]

Thanks to YC for offering to re-imburse the major part of our adventure, this whole journey only cost us $1,500.

A huge thank you to the people who have helped us in the last few months as we’ve worked to get Trakio to the states: Sam Altman and Kirsty Nathoo from YC (Legends!), Alex Iskold from Techstars NYC, Ravi Belani from Alchemist, Nicole Glaros from Techstars Boulder, Julian Gay from Xen.do (Alchemist alum), Fred Stevens-Smith from Rainforest QA (YC Alum), Michael Koh from Uguru.me (500 Startups alum), Ela Madej from Innovation Nest, and Carter Looney from MML Partners (who wired us £10k without hesitation when we realised our Credit Cards didn’t work here!)

(Out of respect for YC, Alchemist Accelerator, Techstars NYC, and all the opther programs we applied to, and other investors we’ve dealt with and all of the startups who are still waiting on answers, we aren’t sharing details of which programs we are participating in or how any of our interviews turned out yet.)

Update: We Joined Alchemist Accelerator!

Published by

Liam Gooding

Liam is the cofounder and CEO of Trakio. Previously an engineer, he writes about growing subscription companies using data-driven techniques and inside glimpses to Trakio's own growth journey. He wrote a book, "Growth Pirate!" which discusses data-driven growth strategies for startups.

  • JoeThomsett

    Hi Liam, I know you haven’t mentioned which program(s) you are participating in but whichever ones they are well done, that’s amazing – I hope trak.io really takes off out there 🙂

  • Ali

    Im assuming that your using the Visa waiver (ESTA) rather than a temporary B1 business visa, as your being forced to come back after 90 days?

    If this is the case, i would be a bit careful of what you post here on the blog, as your not allowed to enter the united states on a visa waiver and do things like open offices/hire staff.. When they grill you at immigration and you tell them your flight back is in 3 months, they will probably question this further..

    • Thanks for the heads up Ali – we’ve been really careful to plan out what things we will and wont be able to do while over there. For example offices, hiring, getting paid… It’s such a tricky situation and I can’t wait to get to work on our O1 Visa’s!

  • Feki

    Hi Liam,
    I just want to apply for the next YCombinator batch, I’m a French citizen. I want to know how exactly can I participate on this program and having our startup in France. The main rules for the foreign Citizen is that the company should be a corporate US one. So technically, could I applying to YCombinator with my French company ?

  • coyotespike

    Great write-up, thanks! Now I’m curious, though – what was the question Sam stumped you with?

  • Oliver Sisson

    Thanks for the blog post – why not get a b1/b2 visa in your passport? It gives you 6 months, much more than the 90 days for the visa waiver. It also gives the border agent more confidence in you.