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What We Should Have Said To PG (rocketr.com)
247 points by drupeek on July 9, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 216 comments

Opening with "Rocketr is a bottom-up approach to knowledge management" - this is an entirely useless fluff sentence, tells nobody anything, doesn't provide a useful frame of reference for what's coming next... I feel like the story here is that Mr. Peek needed a harsher critic when he was practicing. It's surprising how rarely we encounter good critics in our lives, everybody is focused on supporting and validating and has little practice at really challenging, reviewing, evaluating.

I don't really see a problem with PG driving, I see a problem with not being ready to clearly and concisely differentiate. How is it different from Evernote and how is it different from Wikipedia should be completely anticipated ready-to-handle followups with great one-sentence answers that focus on the customers.

I really don't like the alternate suggested approach because I'm not willing to grant the premise. Does work get done using team based tools? Work gets done to a shocking degree with email, excel, individual text editors, powerpoint... none of which are really 'team based'. My first thought is to go with something like "We help individuals collaborate by [whatever it is this thing does]" simply because that gets me a frame of reference faster and gets to talking about the interesting part sooner. But I'm still not sure what the interesting part is... so far this sounds more like Google Wave than anything else, and that alone might be enough to pass on backing the idea, under the "will fail because it's too hard to convince people they need this" category.

"It's surprising how rarely we encounter good critics in our lives, everybody is focused on supporting and validating and has little practice at really challenging, reviewing, evaluating."

This is a bit off-topic but I was reading some time ago about Dan/Dani Bunten (of MULE fame, among other things), who had gender reassignment surgery. More info here: http://ai.eecs.umich.edu/people/conway/TS/Warning.html#Dani but this is what I was reminded of:

"Despite following the rules and being as honest as I could with the medical folks at each stage, nobody stopped me and said "Are you honest to God absolutely sure this is the ONLY path for you?!" To the contrary, the voices were all cheerfully supportive of my decision."

No one really challenged Dan at the time - possibly for fear of being labelled as a bigot or hater or whatever - and Dani later regretted the decision.

Again, somewhat off-topic, but finding people to really challenge you (in a supporting way) is hard to do.

Pathological skeptic here. Being critical, challenging ideas, and evaluating possibilities is something that makes people very uncomfortable and being honest can burn a lot of bridges, no matter how nice you are about it.

We live in a very lonely world, and most people would rather shut their mouth and damn the consequences that have a healthy argument. It's cold comfort knowing you're right when no one wants to listen.

We are born into a cruelly honest world. Children, before life beats them down, are cruelly honest. Somewhere around that first full time job and the first pregnancy scare, all of the piss is taken out of us. We don't want to be judged, so we don't judge others.

It's a very sugar-coated world to live in.

Pathological bridge-burner here. Agreed.

"We live in a very lonely world, and most people would rather shut their mouth and damn the consequences that have a healthy argument."

And most people would rather not listen to criticism and prefer sugar-coating so it doesn't hurt their feelings, aspirations, dreams, etc.

But the question stands in what a world one wants to live. In a world of sugarcoating, or in a world of truthful edges?

Me, I would love the edges. But that's for everyone to decide for themselves.

False dichotomy.

Ego gratifying false dichotomy.

>It's cold comfort knowing you're right when no one wants to listen.

This says it all. Being critical, challenging ideas and evaluating possibilities isn't about being right and letting people know it. The whole point of being critical, challenging ideas and constructive criticism in general is to do it for their benefit. To help the person see things they may have missed. It's not about ego tripping for your benefit by proving that you're a visionary who noticed all the negative things they didn't want to see.

How about this attempt to be nicely critical and help the guy out: http://matt-welsh.blogspot.co.uk/2009/02/how-i-almost-killed...

Whenever I go to someone for advice or an opinion on something I'm working on, I look for people who aren't afraid to tell me I've done something wrong, something looks bad, or the whole idea is just plain garbage. Instead, what you get is people half-heartedly telling you, "Oh, that's really something."

I'm not a baby, people. Tell me what you hate about it so I can make it better! You can't fix bugs if no one reports them.

Unfortunately, this mentality gets me into a lot of trouble with my girlfriend, who is a Graphic Designer. She'll show me something she's working on, and I tell her what I would want to hear: "That face looks funny", or "I don't like that colour". What she takes from it is, "I hate everything about what you just showed me."

sounds like asker/guesser striking again (<http://ask.metafilter.com/55153/Whats-the-middle-ground-betw...). i've had a job implode, and endless relationship friction, because i'm an asker all the way (as i expect are most people here).

are you and your gf (and the people you ask for advice) from different cultures at all? (could be america/canadia, new york/midwest, or just that you're a normal geek and she isn't.)

Same cultures, mostly. All people from Ontario, Canada (at varying latitudes). She's not quite as geeky as I am, but still much more so than most women I interact with.

It has caused some friction in our relationship, but I just try to remember to preface my "I don't like this part" comment with a "That looks great, but..."

While I agree in principal that people should have questioned Dani about his/her decision, it is hardly their responsibility to do so in this situation, and least of all the responsibility of the "medical folks" at any stage. The only exception would be a doctor you've asked for a consultation on whether it's a good idea medically, or a psychologist on whether it's a good idea psychologically (more relevant here).

I think one can assume that at the level of this type of irreversible decision, said decision maker has thought long and hard about whether to "reassign their gender" and come to the conclusion most suitable for their own lives. At this point, it's only appropriate for close friends and family to perform a last questioning of sorts before the decision is sought through. I mean, there is a point at which you must make the switch from being skeptical of a situation to being accepting of the situation, or you must exit the situation (burn the bridge, etc). The point of acceptance after healthy skepticism is due to the fact that everyone's life is different, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution to any problem. The real trick is figuring out when and how to make that switch.

it is hardly their responsibility to do so in this situation, and least of all the responsibility of the "medical folks" at any stage

It is always the responsibility of a doctor/nurse to ensure that a procedure is best for the recipient. That's the essence of the Hippocratic Oath.

"Gender reassignment" is an elective surgery. For a physician who performs such a surgery, how does she choose whether it's a good idea or a bad idea for a certain patient? And keep in mind this particular patient had no negative physical side effects. She only regretted it. This leads me to believe that a physician who performs such a surgery will unquestioningly perform it for all who ask, unless there are serious medical concerns, which there were not in this case.

Also, the Hippocratic Oath says nothing of elective surgery. For a normal surgery, sure, the onus is on the physician to decide whether it's best. For elective surgery, the physician's duty is to decide whether it's medically OK. Otherwise, we'd have physicians picking and choosing who gets what elective surgery for reasons unknown.

And note, I'm personally against elective surgery, but it exists and it's legal. Someone who wants it should be able to get it without being told NO by a physician who performs such surgeries because they don't think it's a good idea for that particular patient (unless, as I said, it's a medical concern). Leave the psychology to the psychologists.

> "Gender reassignment" is an elective surgery

Both the AMA and APA consider it medically indicated in certain cases. In these cases, the patient has the choice of whether or not to pursue these options as part of their treatment, but it is not considered an elective surgery for giggles, but rather a treatment option for medical reasons.

For liability reasons, most doctors do not perform the surgery on a walk in and have it happen basis. There's a set of guidelines that have been promulgated that are used by internationally by most doctors in their professional practice. These guidelines aren't binding on anyone, but have become accepted enough that most medical professionals working with people in this situation view them as standard practice for this procedure and follow them.

> Also, the Hippocratic Oath says nothing of elective surgery

There is no distinction as far as the Hippocratic Oath is concerned. Elective or not, a surgery is a doctor performing services as a doctor and I would find it odd to assume their oaths suddenly wouldn't apply.

> Leave the psychology to the psychologists.

Current practice mostly does, in that doctors generally only do these procedures after they've been recommended by a set of psychologists or psychiatrists after evaluation. (Usually two are required, at least one must be a doctoral level practitioner.) Almost every doctor also does their own brief check and conversation just to make sure they come to a similar conclusion and add their own confirmation.

Very interesting, thanks for the feedback/corrections. I find it especially interesting that gender reassignment surgery isn't always considered elective, but having your wisdom teeth removed is. Any links to information on how the decision, of whether it is considered elective or not for any given situation, is made?

> isn't always considered elective, but having your wisdom teeth removed is

Wisdom teeth removal isn't always considered elective either. Wisdom teeth removal is considered a medically necessary procedure by my insurance company and is covered.

> Any links to information on how the decision, of whether it is considered elective or not for any given situation, is made?

In the US system, generally each insurance company has their own policies on how they judge things and what they cover. Often depending on how your plan is written, slightly different sets of policies will kick in.

Insurance coverage in the US doesn't always directly correlate with what medical professionals in that field would declare as elective or not.

It is, of course, also extremely common for insurance companies to declare that genital reassignment surgery is elective, despite AMA and APA resolutions which declare otherwise.

It's important to look at the relative upside and downside for different parties.

If you are the voice of uncomfortable truth for someone you have the possibility of a big win (e.g. say out loud that the emperor's butt naked) but are probably viewed as a big meanie and may burn bridges in most typical cases.

If you are the voice of sugar coating and go with the crowd, or whatever you think the other person wants, you are unlikely to have a big win, but at least you are considered "nice" most of the time.

In practice, no one is all one or all the other. It also depends on who is risking what. In the Dan/Dani case, the surgeons and doctors didn't have to deal with the consequences of a mistaken decision, but they did have to deal with the possibility that someone might label them anti-trans bigots. When nothing is really at stake for you, personally, why not be blandly, gently "nice" to someone and avoid hurting their feelings?

On the other hand, if $1M of my own money is on the table (e.g. investing it in a startup), even though I want to maintain good working relations I will ask the hard questions, because there's big downside risk for me if I don't.

Is it up to the doctors involved to question your decision? I don't think it is. I don't understand someone who would rely on that.

I had multiple doctors refuse to perform an elective surgery on me because I was "too young" (over 18, then later over 21). That was beyond "questioning my decision" - that was refusing service for their own beliefs.

You're right, that is really off-topic.

I agree with the first paragraph. I think it's good to start with "X is a solution to the problem of..."

Onto the second paragraph though....

>I don't really see a problem with PG driving, I see a problem with not being ready to clearly and concisely differentiate. How is it different from Evernote and how is it different from Wikipedia should be completely anticipated ready-to-handle followups with great one-sentence answers that focus on the customers.

The basic fact is, the more you can be the one driving the more you have the opportunity to ensure everything gets framed in the way you want it to be framed.

In a recent discussion, Pg here emphasized the need to seem formidable. I would be surprised if people who seem formidable are not in control of the conversation.

Look: You are going there to make a pitch. There's nothing wrong with answering questions, turning aside concerns, and the like. But you need to pitch your business, not be reactive.

What this means is that the original author is right on one critical thing. he didn't know what story he wanted to tell. He didn't have a solidified, crystallized core he wanted to communicate.

I keep coming back to listening to the oral arguments of the health care case and how Paul Clement addressed the concerns of justices. He'd listen to the question and come back with an answer that more or less let him pick up exactly where he left off and go where he wanted to go. Agree or disagree with him on the issues, he seemed formidable..... And he was totally in control of his message.

I think you've effectively captured the essence of my post.

Exactly. I'm actually fascinated with these kind of tools - I have logins for Workflowy, Trello, Asana, Evernote, Simplenote, Orchestra etc. - and I have no idea how this differentiates itself.

What PG zeroed in on is the primary problem here - you are in a crowded category and you need to show a lot more awareness of competitive positioning.

What category of smartphone apps and web apps isn't a crowded category at this point?

I pity startups doing pitches in this space any more. There are simply too many of them doing the same things so it must be murder to speak to what you are doing and claim your are, in fact, "different". Most of the obvious and doable apps have been flogged past the dead horse stage at this point. Silicon valley kind of needs a new rule, until you come up with an innovative and original idea maybe you shouldn't do a startup.

Doing a hundred permutations on the same ideas and hoping that either superior execution, a competitor buyout to get rid of you or a lucky streak of virility leads you to the promised land doesn't seem like the greatest strategy any more.

I guess its still OK for the VC's like Y Combinator, as long as they have the patience to sift through them all, because the more pitches there are the more chances there are to find the ones that are unique, interesting or promise exceptional execution.

The problem with web and smart phone apps is the barrier to entry is too low so everyone is doing them.

We definitely struggle with the same positioning challenge that Wave faced. In our first version of the product (at DemoCamp Toronto), the last comment made from the audience was "It's like Wave, but simpler."

We're actively trying to give people a frame of reference that isn't based in "waves", but rather "notes" and "notebooks". The hope is that through a simple, widely understood analogy, a concept like Wave can gain traction.

I'm sure there are loads of opinions on what it means to be compared to a well-known service. My experience is that it can help with the elevator pitch, just to put a picture in someone's head in a hopefully enticing way.

Then, if they are interested, you can launch into your 5-min pitch where you explain how you're not just like that well-known service, but different and much better.

I used to hate having my startup compared to another service (and I'm still not crazy about it), but I now find such an analogy to be a useful stepping stone in a conversation.

I say this because Google Wave definitely evokes an image in my head, one that is high-tech, interactive, collaborative, and ultimately failed (which is not a bad thing; that's just what my head spits out). A note and notebook evokes an offline pad and paper notebook... or Evernote, for some reason.

Whatever analogy you choose, hopefully you choose one that evokes the right kind of image and sentiment you want from your listener. Good luck!

I feel like the story here is that Mr. Peek needed a harsher critic when he was practicing. It's surprising how rarely we encounter good critics in our lives, everybody is focused on supporting and validating and has little practice at really challenging, reviewing, evaluating.

Exactly, except the surprising part - it's logical enough, because people have an incentive to tell you what they think you want to hear.

The thing that jumped out at me when reading the article was that I would have given them that feedback for a tenth of what they paid to visit Paul Graham.

I wonder if there's a potential market for that service?

> It's surprising how rarely we encounter good critics in our lives

Don't say that, or I'll keep being this way. :(

"It's surprising how rarely we encounter good critics in our lives,..."

It's not surprising at all. Rarely do people really want to be corrected. Indeed, the more they need to be corrected, the less they want to hear about it.

"And most importantly, drive."

This advice is disastrously wrong. That's not how YC interviews work. They're interviews, not presentations. We want random access to your thoughts, not to listen to a single path through them, prepared in advance.

When people walk into the room with a predetermined pitch that they're determined to stick to, things usually end badly.

From what I've been learning about sales in the past year or two, this advice is disastrously wrong not only for YC interviews, but for sales in general. If you ever drive in a sales conversation, it should be to dig out what problem the prospect is interested in solving.

"walk into the room with a predetermined pitch that they're determined to stick to, things usually end badly."

True for sales (as I see someone else below also points out).

I'm reminded of a time in the past where I was purchasing a high end typesetter. 6 figure purchase in today's dollars. The salesman kept hitting on the point of the large font collection that the company had over and over again. I kept saying "what's really important to me is your service program". I couldn't have been any clearer than that. (He didn't have to dig for the hot buttons - I delivered them to him on a silver platter).

I definitely agree with this:

"Walk into the room with a predetermined pitch that they're determined to stick to, things usually end badly."

In my experience, you need to be nimble. But I also think you need to start the conversation somewhere.

You also need to have a clear understanding of what you are trying to communicate.

One thing I am thinking about is the idea of a long sales pitch prepared (generally) and the actual sales pitch being essentially random access to it.

We want random access to your thoughts, not to listen to a single path through them, prepared in advance.

OK, obviously this is a continuum, and not a binary thing. But why "random?" Wouldn't you think there is some value in giving the startup founders the chance to present things in the way that makes sense to them, before starting with the grilling? Or is the case that you actually do that ( that point wasn't entirely clear from TFA)?

I believe Paul is using "random" (in particular, "random access") in the programming sense of "arbitrary" – the interview is there to dig deeper into the bits they are interested in/concerned about.

Yes. As opposed to sequential access. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Random_access

Is there any benefit in a cache? What penalty is there for a cache miss? (Analogy: rehearsed points, needing to say "I'll have to get back to you.")

Suppose you are using very slow media and it takes a tenth of a second to retrieve the information. That's an acceptable performance penalty ;-)

On the other hand if you are using external storage, with indirect lookups in order to find the information, that might not be so great.

At the same time, networked responses are great. There isn't a problem with having a different node respond to the request, since this approach uses a sort of strange architecture and session state is shared between all nodes.

This is why you don't use analogies when speaking with hackers. We take them way too far ;)

What about level 2 and 3 cache?

If you faint during the interview, does drinking caffeine afterwords work like a ramdisk or an ssd?

If we presume your cache analogy holds, all it costs is a little time.

I'm trying to picture the RAM chip designed by a literal-minded electrical engineer (even more so than most engineers!). It stops responding if it detects any predictable pattern in the memory addresses you're accessing.

Sure, I get that. What I was saying is, would it not potentially be better go give the founders some time to give their thoughts in the order they have them in... before starting to go off on tangents and probe specific areas? Especially considering that the question you're about to ask, may be something they're going to be answering anyway.

I guess that if pg and crew believe that they learn something by intentionally knocking people out of their planned routine, then that's one argument for it. That is, if the idea is "we want to evaluate your ability to think on our feet, react to unplanned questions, etc." then OK.

They've already explained their ideas in the form they chose in the application. So the interview starts with questions we had after reading it.

We don't try intentionally to knock people about to see how they respond. We don't have the time or the energy for such games. We just have a lot of questions and not much time to get them answered, and empirically the questions we have almost never turn out to be the ones answered in prefabricated pitches.

Do I understand it right then that what one might call "idea pitch" has already been passed once you are being interviewed? Because in this case it makes sense to ask "random" questions.

Before I read the discussion I kind of shared the op's point. But seeing it from the other perspective, it almost seems like the basic "fault" (if you might call it that) the op made was preparing for a test he already passed.

We don't try intentionally to knock people about to see how they respond. We don't have the time or the energy for such games.

That's good to know. I think some people have somehow gotten the perception that you guys do just that.

We just have a lot of questions and not much time to get them answered, and empirically the questions we have almost never turn out to be the ones answered in prefabricated pitches.

Fair enough.

In my preparation between the accepted application and the interview, I was cautioned that the interviewers will not remember your application when you walk in the room.

Is there truth to this?

As I understand it, random access just means asking you about different facets of your products, probably in the same way you and your teams have been thinking about and solving problems related to your product. You did not sit during Day 1 and outlined every single problem and feature you will support did you? There is randomness involved in your journey towards evolving a products, and that randomness already answered most of the questions PG might have asked.

Remember that YC backs founders much more than ideas. Also remember that they've already vetted both the founders and the idea, with the help of YC alumni, prior to the meeting. I would also imagine they have a strong aversion to BS and a well-honed BS detector.

Ignoring the pre-packaged pitch you have spent months preparing and asking you some unexpected questions would seem to be a great strategy to quickly figure out what they really want to know - which may or may not have any relation to what you want to tell them.

I think that the biggest thing that people on this thread are missing is that the interviews' main point is not to evaluate the idea, but rather to evaluate the team; the value of the idea itself is of secondary importance in that it reflects the ideas and thoughts of the team itself. As pg has said before, one of the things that they look for is confidence. The problem, according to him, is that some people are very good at faking it. Therefore, an objective of pg is to get people away from canned routine and to be original. Therefore, if the people are smart and capable of expressing their ideas, they should do well.

I think you're right, but I also think the result of judging the people is almost a side effect of evaluating the idea in a situation like this one.

"OK, you obviously thought this idea was a good one. Why? Where's the magic I'm missing?"

Having a well-considered answer to that question that shows you've thought it through thoroughly gives them a good idea how good a thinker you are.

Not having a well-considered answer also lets them you on the thinking scale, but probably not where you want them to put you.

Random access is the fastest good way to gauge people in an oral exam. My experience as an academic confirms this.

"the startup founders the chance to present things in the way that makes sense to them, before starting with the grilling?"

If you were sitting down in the coffee shop and talking to a friend or someone you met who had an idea you wouldn't allow them to make a presentation. They would give you a sentence or two about the idea and then you might ask a question. They would answer the question and if they knew of something that was related to what you were asking they would offer it. Every now and then they might blurt out a point which hadn't been covered.

(Edit - corrected "you" and "they" which I mixed up..)

Speaking strictly for myself I don't have any patience to hear presentations. I like to poke around and ask questions and engage in conversations. Conversations aren't presentations and aren't one sided. They are back and forth.

Another thing to keep in mind is this. If you are making a presentation it's possible that the person who is listening will be mind stuck at a point you made in the third sentence and tune out something important you said that comes later. So you can be at a disadvantage depending on who you are presenting to and what they know.

Let's say you say "we are using node.js" and the gatekeeper doesn't process that as a chunk of understandable info. He will stop at that point and miss what you say after that until he recovers.

If you were sitting down in the coffee shop and talking to a friend or someone you met who had an idea you wouldn't allow them to make a presentation. They would give you a sentence or two about the idea and then you might ask a question. They would answer the question and if they knew of something that was related to what you were asking they would offer it. Every now and then they might blurt out a point which hadn't been covered.

Maybe I'm just more patient than most people, but I feel like I'd give them more than a sentence or two, if it was clear that they had more than a sentence or two of things to say... I generally try to avoid interrupting other people when they're talking because A. it's rude, B. it's presumptuous, and C. I don't believe it's an effective way to communicate most of the time. Now if they use a term I'm not familiar with, or whatever, and there's no choice but to ask a question or get lost, then sure, asking for clarification makes total sense.

Now if they were rambling without pause for 10 straight minutes, then yeah, sure, at some point you have to interrupt, especially if there are time constraints (which, to be fair, there are in a YC interview). But if I interrupted with a question, I'd expect to get an answer to that question, and then possibly have them pick their initial narrative back up where they left off.

Anyway, it's all very subjective, and I'm sure Paul has figured out a lot about how to do this over the years. I just find myself wondering to what extent the YC interview gives the startup team a chance to get their initial burst of "stuff" out before starting to take them off on tangents.

"I just find myself wondering to what extent the YC interview gives the startup team a chance to get their initial burst of "stuff" out before starting to take them off on tangents."

I believe Paul answered this in a comment on the thread.

I don't see the need for the start up to present anything in what is an interview, not a presentation. As Paul is conducting a ten minute interview based on the application, why would he have to give any time for the start-up team's prepared presentation? Its only ten minutes, and its him asking questions of the start-up to see how well they can answer the questions that arose from their application.

"We want random access to your thoughts, not to listen to a single path through them, prepared in advance."

You can have both.

Without having true insight into exactly what information you hope to take away in 10 minutes, I would think that a cohesiveness to the order of the information, the pain felt by the potential customer, and a picture of that customer - are all valuable inputs.

My suggestion is that startups put that information in order themselves.

I think you got both. From your article:

“So what is Rocketr?” he opened.

That's a very open-ended question. If you had taken things in a good direction from there, I bet he would have just let you talk.

“So people can all write to the same place. So it’s like a wiki?” he asked.

This question isn't really driving either. He's just reflecting his understanding back and giving you more of a chance to explain clearly.

The missteps continued when he asked, “Who needs what you’re making?”

Here's where pg started driving. And he was doing you a favor. You only get 10 minutes to convince him that you're making something people want, and you've wasted minutes already. If you're someone who's bad at interviewing but is good at understanding customers, this question might sift the gold nugget from the sludge. Unfortunately, your answer was just more sludge.

I'm zeroing in here on what you did wrong, but overall I'm encouraged and impressed that you not only owned your mistake, but made a public blog post about it. And now I'm watching to see what you do with the feedback you're getting.

I'm going to print out the thread and cut it into workable chunks of feedback in order to organize and understand it.

My reaction from reading both your original pitch and your revised pitch is that you were being quite vague. PG knows about the problems of collaboration, limitations of current tools, etc, you don't need to sell him on the existence of pain points. What you do have to sell him on is how your tool is uniquely suited for solving these pain points, which is what I missed entirely in your blog post. His interview style is to cut you off when you are telling him things that he already knows or when you are being to vague. He will force you to be specific and drill down on the points of your idea that are most critical.

The part that is most striking to me about the vagueness of the pitch is:

>“Not really, no. A wiki is more like a google doc – it has one true version at any given time. Sure, there’s a revision history, but nobody lives in the revision history. Rocketr is about having one author for a given note, and a threaded conversation around it.”

The answer to that question is yes it is like a wiki - with these key differences. With only ten minutes to pitch, anchoring your concept to something that is well understood by your audience is critical.

If you really don't think it is like a wiki at all (which would be hard to believe), then anchor it to something else that will be easy to understand, e.g. "it's like email, but the conversations get stored and revisited and edited at will by any of the participants." Anything you can use to make your concept clear in an instant is extra time to sell them on your team and your vision for why this idea can take over the world.

This is a very good point and probably one that I undervalued going in.

My experience with potential investors is that it's helpful to have a general order in your head, but you should also be prepared to jump around. I've heard this advice from other YC startups as well.

It helps to start by framing your problem space and audience. That's where a story and empathy can come in. But there are people who will "get it" right away and jump right into your product, without ever asking about anything else.

Then there are those who will be laser-focused on your business model and spend the entire time talking about that.

And I've spoken to some who know my market well and just want to hear about our competitors and how we are different.

It all comes down to understanding your audience, speaking to your audience, and addressing the topics they care about. At least, in terms of an interview with an incubator (or potential investor).

And most importantly, be prepared for anything.

Isn't that done in the application process? Assuming the applications are read and prepared carefully?

It is. But it's widely assumed that they won't remember the application at all by the time of the interview.

> But it's widely assumed that they won't remember the application at all by the time of the interview.

Really? They're calling you in for an interview and they don't have your application in front of them and haven't refreshed their memory? YC gets results, so I guess if it works it works, but I find it surprising that the assumption is they're going to be unprepared like that?

There is only a minute of deliberation between interviews which isn't enough time to pull out the next application and refresh on it before the next interview is scheduled to begin.

Hmm, that led me to several assumptions that I'm not sure I would make without that information. Seems interesting. Thank you for sharing.

I know from experience it is hard to think objectively right after a YC interview rejection - but use this as an opportunity to be introspective and learn from the experience.

I think whether or not they 'remember' the nitty gritty details of the app during the interview is irrelevant.

You need to sell them on your vision and team during the interview. You should be able to do this within 5 minutes whether or not they have the foggiest idea of what you are doing.

Certainly sequential access is a bad thing when looking at essentially partnering with an investor (or partnering with a customer to meet their needs). I also recognize you may have the better reading of the article than me.

But I think there is a form of driving that is important in conversations generally.

If you ask me "what is it?" That's an invitation for me to drive you around a bit within certain limits. How I choose to answer that is a form of driving. If you ask me who needs it, I get to give you a brief tour of the market, the problems and what we are solving.

In essence there is a difference to reacting to questions and seeing the questions as an invitation to act. I guess what I am getting at is that if the focus is on impressing the other individual that leads to reacting. If the focus is on showing you something cool, that leads to the action I am talking about.

Best advice I ever heard on sales was that the best salespeople spend 25% of the time talking, 75% of the time listening.

The YC interview is fast becoming a business testing benchmark for entrepreneurs, I'm seeing more and more entrpreneurs use it to test their pitches.

The best way to explain something is to respond to your audience's reactions; if they are lost, either decide that point isn't important and get to the implications of it or try another tact. Responding to their reception makes your audience felt heard and validated as well as making it more likely they will actually understand what you are saying. It takes skill and practice, but when done well the difference is staggering.

What you should be sure of is the underlying, abstract thing you are describing. You should know the story is "Snow White", even though this time the audience might not care about dwarves and might not be laughing at the funny squirrel bits, but is really interested in glass coffin construction. If you know your idea inside and out, it is easier to find the part of it that this audience right here is interested in, and you know what the important parts are that make the rest of it make sense. Ideally, you shouldn't have to plan answers ahead of time, because the answers are obvious.

The less superficially you know your idea, the less work presentations are to put together.

Wholeheartedly agree. You simply can't drive all the conversations that happen about your company and product. If your success is determined by your necessity to drive the conversations, you're going to lose badly. The interview with PG notwithstanding, you have a company to run and marketing and sales to tackle -- the latter two of which are notoriously hard to control the conversation.

I see the YCombinator interview as a minimal test - if you can pass that barrier, then you have a chance at possibly getting your customers to understand what you have and its value. But if you can't, then it's going to be tough.

I see the YCombinator interview as a minimal test - if you can pass that barrier, then you have a chance at possibly getting your customers to understand what you have and its value.

Disclaimer: I've never been through a YC interview.

I don't think that's an apt comparison. Pg and the YC crew, as smart, insightful and interesting as they are, are still a very small group of people, compared to the world of customers out there. It's entirely possible that you could fail a YC interview for whatever mysterious reason (maybe pg was having a bad day, maybe something to do with pre-existing (and unconscious) biases, maybe you were having a bad day) and still do fine at getting customers to understand what you do and it's value.

In some ways, the YC interview may even be a higher bar: It's automatically an extra stressful situation, and you're dealing with some "type A" personality types who feel some need to control the interview, and you go in knowing you're limited to 10 minutes or whatever. When you're out talking to customers, you may well find yourself in a lower stress situation, with people who aren't necessarily trying to challenge you, etc.

And I think this is borne out by the fact that there are groups who failed to get into YC, who went on to be successful.

Yes, that is correct. I probably should have qualified it as you did, but you are right. I commented down below here somewhere that the whole idea of Lean Startup / Customer Development is to test your ideas and hypotheses with actual customers who are feeling the pain.

This does bring up the idea then that a YC pitch is a whole animal unto itself. I wouldn't have enough experience to know what the main differences are between a YC and a customer pitch, but as you mention here, in the one case you are presenting your story and value proposition to customers who would be personally interested in the solution and directly feel the pain and in the other case to someone who is managing a portfolio of startup companies and evaluating for "fit" and "merit". Those words are in quotes because I don't know what those measures are specifically for YC, and there are likely many other considerations.

I've commented about how the VC process is likewise totally screwed up with investors who neither feel the pain nor totally understand the markets and wield far too much power in the form of the checkbook. AND they underperform the markets in any case.

'When people walk into the room with a predetermined pitch that they're determined to stick to, things usually end badly.'

Yes and no depending on where you place the emphasis. Predetermined pitches are not a bad thing... know what you do, your strengths, think it through and plan it ahead of time. Nothing wrong with that.

The key part is "...that they're determined to stick to...". You have to know your material well enough to be willing and able to go off "course" wherever the client leads you to. That is where a successful presentation lies, in being able to adapt to the needs presented, not just spell them out as you see them.

Its difficult to " drive " people as smart, well connected and funded as YC. If a team's in such elite position, there would be no explicit posturing required. Basically, quality revenue and traction is inversely proportional to number of questions asked by potential investors ( including YC ).

Sounds like if they got a second go at it they still would have muffed it. Bad times for Rocketr.

How so? We just learned a ton by way of this thread. I would say that's a huge win for Rocketr.

That's a very good attitude - you can never lose if you learn a valuable lesson and keep on trucking. You only fail if you give up. Somehow I don't see that happening ;)

I think they mean if you'd had a second chance prior to reading the comments (on HN or your blog). Just based on the blog entry, I agree. I read through a couple of times and still didn't know what the product was or if I needed it.

I did like the design though. Would've liked to have seen product screenshots to see how that carried through to the interface.

Hmm, my analysis (writing as I go):

- Too much "fluff"; his response sounds like a marketer not a builder

- In the opening two answers he basically contradicts his description; "co-authored notebooks" vs. "one author for a given note, and a threaded conversation around it". It's confusing.

- The alternative opening is even worse; I still have no idea what problem your solving. You just gave me a marketing pitch..

- The alternate answer for "Who needs what you’re making?" is better - but immediately begs the question "how are my labels necessarily effective for both myself, and the YC alumni" and "How do you know the YC alumni don't have their own tag system which they apply as they read emails" or even "sounds handy, but how are you overcoming the convenience factor associated with email"

- Any sensible listener will realise that a) and b) are not the only choices (this is a variation on my last bullet point) and be concerned that you are limiting yourself to only those outcomes.

- It also seems risky to pitch such a personal use case on a supposition. The "problem" might already have been effectively resolved for YC's communications.

All in all it reads a lot like a business person pitching to an engineer. One that is attuned to the problems of "gloss", and is looking for disruption and good engineering rather than a glossy pitch. I get that all the time and it is off putting. It strikes me that the key problem is you possibly don't speak the same language as pg.

As with other commentators; even with the revised answers, I'm still not sure what Rocketr is beyond a note taking app with social features.

My thoughts...

- What does a builder sound like? Aren't we all just trying to speak to customers? Are builders naturally better at that?

- "Co-authored notebooks" and "one author per note" are not contradictions at all. They speak to entirely different units (notes and notebooks).

- While you are correct that you and the startup may have different systems for categorizing, that's exactly the problem we're trying to point to. The siloed nature of how we capture and categorize information.

In closing, I am trying to speak to customers... not engineers.

Thank you for the feedback. I know it took time to write.

What does a builder sound like?

"When I write in emacs, it's inconvenient to share that with my team. When I write in the Wiki... well, I don't write in the wiki because it's annoying. I have been more productive doing X, and I think you will too."

In closing, I am trying to speak to customers... not engineers.

That's marketing speak for "I don't know who my customer is". You are pitching to a customer who is an engineer, so you should be speaking to engineers.

Thank you for the feedback. I know it took time to write.

That's what we do here... this sounds hollow.

I couldn't disagree with this comment more. You are not trying to sell your product to YC, you are trying to sell your company to YC. You do that by understanding your product and your customer and how you will bring the two together. Not by pretending some person in YC is suddenly your ideal customer and shifting your entire pitch around that.

That's what we do here... this sounds hollow.

Wow. Nice.

"Builders" have a common language - jargon - about how things work. It's specific and concretely describes the thing in question, usually through implied behavior. Once we communicate what something is, it's easy for us to understand how it can be used. Sometimes, with a few primers, we can figure out the use before we're told.

In other words, don't tell me you have a "delicious, round edible item with just the right amount of firmness and sweetness to be pleasant to eat." Just tell me you have an apple, and I'll figure out the rest.

Should Steve Jobs have said:

a) It's a tablet b) It's an iPad, or c) It's for consuming content in a relaxed and portable way?

Honest question. I'm curious what your approach would have been.

It's for

Indirect grammar is comparatively weak. It isn't "for consuming", it "consumes".

consuming content

No one "consumes content". They read, listen, watch, and play.


A good writer conveys by action, not by description. If you say that a joke is funny, it is not funny.


He wouldn't need to say this while holding the device in his hand. And he further conveyed this by describing the product's battery life.

So to conclude, Jobs would have said (and may have, I don't remember):

d) Here's a book (thumb, thumb), and here's a movie (play). Isn't that great?

Try saying that for your product.

I think the point is that it's hard to imagine anyone at Apple -- a salesman like Jobs, the designers or software engineers, or even a greeter at an Apple retail store -- saying the phrase "bottom-up approach to knowledge management". (I don't even know what that means.)

The iPod, at least, was "1000 songs in your pocket", i.e., none of the above.

Honest answer: depends on his audience. But I would never pick c), even for a consumer. It's not specific. No one wants to "consume content." They want to "read the newspaper" or "watch videos" or "listen to music." Those actions are, of course, consuming content, but you want to use words and phrases that allow people to imagine using your product. "Consuming content" does not cause me to think of myself using it.

I don't know if Jobs would have stuck with market-specific terms in the primary pitch (tablet) or yet been able to drive things on their terms (iPad). I think it would've been termed a "way" of doing something.

e.g., iPad is the simple and easy way to enjoy the things that matter to you.

Aren't we all just trying to speak to customers?

In a YC interview? If you considered YC a customer then you definitely went about it the wrong way.

The sales pitch is fine for a certain style of customer. It's not in this context.

The point I am trying to make is that you should be speaking in pg's language; not the language of a corporate salesman.

I think the fundamental issue here is that PG tends to interview from an engineer's perspective.

For your business, you should absolutely speak to customers. For an interview with YC, you should absolutely speak to the interviewers (PG, et al), who, in this case, happen to think like engineers. The language you use should change according to your audience.

People say that hindsight is 20/20. No. Hindsight is speculation with the benefit of never being able to be proven wrong.

Having read this "what we should have said" article, I'm suspicious that if they had done everything differently like they suggested, that they would have still come out to the same result.

Why? Because the idea of an article with a revision tree and multiple current versions is naturally confusing to users. No matter how nice the formalism is. Until you can start to think about and present things in terms that the users can "get", you're going to have a serious UI problem that limits adoption.

And even once you have that version, you still need to be able to compare and contrast it to things that people are familiar with so you can talk to people who don't "get" it yet.

It's interesting how many people see PG as the test of their company's viability (did he get it, didn't he get it?) when what really matters is what the customers think. Did they get it? Did they not?

All this handwringing over a post-mortem with PG, and I rarely see the same with regards to customers. Customers are walking from your site, failing to respond to your marketing, failing to convert, choosing competitive solutions, etc., and where's the post-mortem?

This is a valuable lesson. Not about what to say or not to PG, but rather, how much a poorly crafted value proposition or explanation of your product can instantly and quickly turn off your customers.

Make your products easy to understand, easy to purchase, and easy to get value from, and you will win. Make it complex on any of those fronts, you will lose.

It's interesting how many people see PG as the test of their company's viability (did he get it, didn't he get it?) when what really matters is what the customers think. Did they get it? Did they not?

Well said. Pg is an awesome dude, but I definitely wouldn't take his word as being final, vis-a-vis the possibility of my startup succeeding or not. I'd certainly appreciate his feedback and insights - as I think any one of us would. But, in a hypothetical world where our team did a YC interview and got rejected - we'd still take the attitude that we were the ones who'd been out on the streets talking to customers, that we had the deeper domain knowledge of our domain, and the deeper insights into what our business is going to be. So Paul's advice would be valued, but a "nay" from him would almost certainly not be sufficient reason for us to go "oh, sure, let's quit."

Make your products easy to understand, easy to purchase, and easy to get value from, and you will win. Make it complex on any of those fronts, you will lose.

I mostly agree with that, but note that some complex products still sell and make a lot of money... and they're complex because of the nature of the problem(s) they're addressing. SAP's ERP suite, for example, is very complex... but SAP make a ton of money from it. I'd say the goal is to be "as complex as need be, but no more."

Aside: this may also be an argument that SAP's business stands to be disrupted by someone who can do what they do, but with less complexity. Doing so is left as an exercise for the reader.

I'm on it ;) Seriously! (in regards to disrupting the SAP business).

I'm on it ;) Seriously! (in regards to disrupting the SAP business)

Interesting. If you're willing to talk about what you're doing at all, drop me an email. I'm working on an enterprise focused startup as well, maybe there's some synergy to explore or what-have-you. If we're not pursuing the same space (and we aren't doing anything ERP related, per-se) then - at worst - we could bat some ideas around and maybe help each other out in some fashion.

Hey, that means I'm not the only one thinking about start-ups and products in this area. And I totaly agree, SAP's business is about to be disrupted. The only point is, I'm not sure the time is right yet. And when it is, it will be quite a battle... And that's exactly why it's worth it.

I'm always up for collaborating and communicating - I'll drop you both a line and maybe there's something we can do together.

Sounds good. My email is in my profile, drop me a line anytime.

Would be great, just added a contact in my profile! :-)

The reason why PG is a test is that he is pretty good at judging who is likely to succeed.

One of the things that I think he's listening for is your ability to hear what someone is saying and respond on the fly. Even if you have a bad idea, if you have the ability to listen, incorporate information, think about it, and respond coherently, then your idea is likely to get fixed. If you have a great idea but don't have the ability to accept spontaneous feedback, you're likely to fail anyways.

So he doesn't need to hear how great the idea is. He needs to decide whether you're likely to find a way to succeed.

I think you make excellent points.

But "PG as the test of their company's viability" is because PG is a gatekeeper.

"but rather, how much a poorly crafted value proposition or explanation of your product can instantly and quickly turn off your customers."

People have to be able to understand what you are saying. You can't confuse them or give them big words or concepts.

Ironically PG isn't really a good filter for this because he is so high level. If you are selling to a pizza shop owner most likely they didn't go to Harvard and their brain isn't wired the way PG's is. OTOH a concept that the pizza owner understands can be understood by PG as well.

One of the things I always suggest (for researching business ideas) is to run stuff by "normals". Whether it be people at the train platform, Starbucks, or Walmart to use as additional intel and data points.

It ALWAYS makes sense to run your idea by the people who are living with the problem or feeling the pain firsthand.

As smart, talented, experienced, and helpful as PG is, for many (tho not all) of the problems that entrepeneurs claim to solve, he doesn't live that pain or understand it.

While PG may be able to understand at a conceptual level the pain points of a pizza shop owner, he probably hasn't felt the pain to know what pizza shop owners really struggle with. What is truly necessary versus a "nice to have".

Isn't the whole concept of the Lean Startup and the Customer Development methodology to test your idea with "normals" and not proxies, no matter how influential or gatekeeper they might be?

If YCombinator and PG didn't exist, how would you do it? Let's order some pizza!

To some extent, the startup scene is about high valuations, making the investor the customer.

The filters that gatekeepers and valuators use are very hackable.

Is it easier to hack a gatekeeper's filter, or to make an awesome product? I suppose it depends on your skill-set.

One can reasonably estimate that some double digit percentage of funded startups are where they are because they were designed to appeal to investors and receive high valuations.

Correct me if I'm wrong but I thought this article is about pitching to an investor. I thought that once your gotten your idea in front of PG that you've already hammered our your product with customers. Do organizations pitch to PG that have not tried anything with customers yet?

It seems to happen a lot, especially when many of these accelerators claim to invest in the team moreso than the idea. This is especially the case with TechStars. In which case, a lot of ideas are unformed, malformed, underformed, you name it.

While this is a good piece in theory, and provides some good HN publicity for rocketr, I'll play devil's advocate for the other side of the coin: maybe you just weren't good enough.

I'm not saying that's the case, knowing nothing about the batch that made it in ahead of you or the rocketr team, but the startup scene right now is like a track meet.

Making the YC interview is like making nationals - you're the fastest sprinter across several states, and you were born to do it. But at the nationals, so is everyone else there. You can do better than your best and still lose. That doesn't mean you're not faster than 99% percent of the population, it just means you're not the fastest, and YC is looking for the fastest.

The analogy breaks down in a few places - running is purely objective, choosing who to fund is much more subjective. YC will always make mistakes, and timing ideas is important, but I think the core takeaway is that just because you didn't make it doesn't mean you're not fundable.

Great comment.

>Making the YC interview is like making nationals - you're the fastest sprinter across several states, and you were born to do it. But at the nationals, so is everyone else there. You can do better than your best and still lose. That doesn't mean you're not faster than 99% percent of the population, it just means you're not the fastest, and YC is looking for the fastest.

Well, it's not like they have not picked lots of lame ducks too...

Startups fail for a lot of reasons. We'd have to do a fair assessment of the percentage of failures compared to the industry as a whole to really get a feel for whether YC is successful or not.

You'd also have to consider the magnitude of the successes and the amount invested per company. The handful of companies that make it really big pretty much dominate startup investment economics.

Reading this I find myself in the same position as PG: I know nothing about the app and trying to “get it”. The later explanations are more enlightening but I still don’t get what this app does.

I agree. Dissecting their initial answer:

> So what is Rocketr? > “Rocketr is a bottom-up approach to knowledge management. We connect people through their notepads. Basically, people take notes and decide how to share them. The primary mechanism by which they share them is through co-authored notebooks.”

> Rocketr is a bottom-up approach to knowledge management.

That reads like pure marketing fluff. That's your opening statement, and the first thing I hear is dead air. Rocketr is, from here, a methodology. It's an idea. Nothing more.

> We connect people through their notepads.

Okay, this is what it wants to accomplish. My notepad is on paper. How is this methodology going to help me share my notepad and connect me with people? Which people, btw? Why do they want to see my notepad?.

Up until this point, we still don't know what Rocketr is. What is the actual product? Hell, I'm not even sure what the problem is. A notepad is, for me, a place to jot notes down in. It's not a formal document. It contains phrases and doodles. So, I'm not even sure I'm in the right frame of mind.

> Basically, people take notes and decide how to share them.

Again, is note sharing a big issue? I can see content management being something, but note sharing?

And the "decide how to share them" has me confused. I thought that was the problem you were solving, how to share them. Maybe you just mean permissions, which is really something I would assume anyways. It's not a feature.

> The primary mechanism by which they share them is through co-authored notebooks.

So... what? This is going to be an iPad app? I'm assuming here, as it could be something like one of those pens that you take a note with and records the sound (I forget the name), and it has the ability to share the actual notes. That would be interesting. But I'm assuming that's not what you are doing, and so you are going with an actual iPad?

Maybe real time notes, for a meeting? Seems that could get confusing fast.

Regardless, I'm still not sure what it is, or where it sits, or what problem it's solving for me.

You need an elevator pitch. Something that describe what the product is, who the customer is, and what problem does it solve for the customer, and how it solves it.

From there, you can expand, but something simple, something straight forward. Something that is filled with nouns and verbs. Because, I honestly believe if you can't define your product like that, you don't completely understand it as well.

I'm assuming here, as it could be something like one of those pens that you take a note with and records the sound (I forget the name), and it has the ability to share the actual notes.

I think you're referring to a Livescribe Smartpen (http://www.livescribe.com/en-us/). I have one and even extra notebooks but I never ended up using it. Very cool device, at least at first.

I don't know that I buy into the "tell a story" trope, I think that's not really an accurate description of what needs to be done. Could just be my personal connotations for what a story is, though.

But I do have to say the best part of this whole blog post is the part when he talks about the problem he imagines YC to have. He paints a compelling picture of the pain point.

I still have no clue how he plans to solve it, but at least that paragraph told me what he envisions as the problem he's after.

I think it's like what I used wave for soon after it launched. Let's say you're coming up with a business plan with your friends to pitch for VC money and you're putting your thoughts together. You add in your stuff the wave. Others add their stuff. If somebody has an epiphany later, they can add it then. A week or two later you'd have a document with everybody's thoughts in one place that you can run through and compile a slideshow.

I wonder if I got that right.

Anyway, great blogpost!

How is this different then google docs, Evernote, or 100 different PM tools? Still not getting this at all... maybe product shots would convey this better?

Can't you already do that with Google Docs? To be honest, I used Google Docs quite a bit for collaboration and I did try Rocketr when it first launched, it was pretty and all but it didn't meet my needs for project planning. Perhaps I'm not the target audience.


The federated wiki comparison is a good one.

Sorry, I deleted my comment to move it to a more appropriate place:


This is exactly correct.

Then I still don't see how this is different from a wiki, or a pure collaborative document, or a federated wiki.

It's taking serious effort to try to work out what pain this solves that isn't catered for by the above options.

I don't see how this is different from a Google doc, where you have one doc owner and you can set permissions so that other people can view, edit, or only leave a comment?

Agree with you Matt. Check out the google docs promo vids they used during day 2 of Google IO.

(wow this was painful to find)


That style of fun product demonstration would be perfect for this type of app.

Also google docs now work offline really well and across multiple devices, which is incredibly useful.

Who gets attribution for every thought embodied in that doc?

I believe Google Docs keeps all the revisions, so if anyone cares a lot, they could go back and check.

But what I've found with Google Docs is that if someone is making a trivial change (like correcting a typo), they'll just go ahead and make the edit in the doc. If they're suggesting a substantial change, they'll add the suggestion as a comment and let the author decide whether to incorporate it.

We're working on it. :)

Hopefully you’ll interpret this as constructive criticism: perhaps you should have saved the publicity exercise of posting to HN till the time when you actually had this straight.

Truthfully, as another startup founder, I think now was a great time to post it.

I grew my last business to an awesome success. And one of my regrets, looking back, is that I didn't blog more about the process of getting it there. About all the hurdles we had and the missteps we took.

I look back fondly on the few blog posts where I did talk openly about what we were going through, in part because I am so proud of how far we came from those darker moments, and in part because I can remember what I was feeling then and re-absorb the lesson.

I think this is great. You should never hold back when you have something to share with a wider audience, but more importantly, to share with your future self.

He'll have plenty more chances to get on Hacker News in the future. This isn't a one-time opportunity. :) So blog, blog, blog!

Debated it. But truthfully, it's like saying you'll launch the product when it's perfect. It's never done. It's always improving.

We have this long thread, in which you have lots of people asking "what does this product actually do?" No one can figure it out from your pitch, either the original or your rewrite. People have been guessing at what this is like, and yet you haven't really clarified, you've just made excuses.

You have the opportunity to get exposure to thousands of hackers, entrepreneurs, and investors, right here on Hacker News. And yet, you haven't yet provided a compelling story that anyone can actually understand.

What does your product do? What problems does it solve? How is it better or suited to a different niche than many other tools (wikis, bugtrackers, Google Docs, email) that people already use?

"It's always improving."

But what is "it"? It does sound like a wiki, or an article with comments.

Tell me a story. Get me to empathize. :)

I think what drupeek says applies to this as well. You can be working on something and not really know what it is. I wrote this app a quite ago, only took me about 5 days to write it because it was quite simple, but it’s been years since I finally understood what it was for.

In designing another system recently, I wrote down my entire thought process as it developed in the form of questions and answers to myself. When I read it back now I can see how I had this mixed up set of ideas and was actually quite confused. Then, as you read down, things start to become clearer and ideas become more developed. I guess it still has quite a long way to go as well because things certainly aren’t as clear as I would like them to be.

So the point I’m making is that definition and clarity can take as long, and sometimes--although I think this is infrequent--longer, than the software development.

As for the question of whether you should blog about it. I think it’s a difficult call. In a way you could say this story has wasted everyone’s time because I still have no idea what the app drupeek’s developing is about. But on the other hand we wouldn’t be having this conversation now were it not for it.

Interesting... how did you write an app without knowing what it is for? It seems very backwards to write an app (or create anything, really) and then later figure out what to use it for.

Well I wrote it with one thing in mind and when I finished it, it didn’t really help with that thing much. I was pretty sure it would be useful for other things though. Since then I’ve discovered a couple of other uses for it. I think this happens more when you write something that is very abstract as this is.

I stopped reading once I hit "action every idea immediately."

This entire thing drips of the kind of marketing speak that he says he ripped out because YC demands it. Did he think that YC demands it just to be arbitrary and capricious? This style of presentation turns me (and likely many others) off immediately.

The real problem is that he's trying to sell a product that solves a problem that most people don't have. People have tons of ways to write down, organize, and sort ideas. They can stick it in a wiki, in a Google doc, in email, in a bugtracker. All of these have ways of sorting and labeling content. I have seen nothing, in either you original or "what you should have said" version, that answers the question of how what you are doing is better than all of these things that people already have access to.

What problem are you trying to solve? What does your tool do that other tools don't? If you can't answer these questions in 10 minutes, nor at your leisure afterwards when writing a blog post about what you should have said, nor in all the time you spent setting up a slick website with a "sign up to try us out" form, I have to ask whether you actually have a product or are just a bunch of empty marketing.

I you have to carefully wordsmith and "spin" so that others who don't have much time for you get it, then I think you really are in a tough spot.

Forget PG for a moment. What about your customers? If THEY don't get it in a short amount of time and you have to carefully control ("drive" as you put it) the conversation just so they understand it (nevermind actually buying what you're selling), then you really are in a tough spot.

I think PG called this right - your product has to be intuitive to the point that someone understands what you have and how you compare to the rest of the universe without verbal jousting. Now, whether or not they agree or buy into the value proposition is another matter. But you got hung up on the "what are you doing and how does it relate to what I know" part.

“Rocketr is a bottom-up approach to knowledge management. We connect people through their notepads. Basically, people take notes and decide how to share them. The primary mechanism by which they share them is through co-authored notebooks."

"2. I stripped out so much of the marketing jargon (a YC rule)"

No, you didn't. I couldn't understand what you were talking about. "Knowledge management" is jargon."Connecting people" is jargon.

"Rocketr is about having one author for a given note, and a threaded conversation around it."

I thought Rocketr was about "co-authored notebooks"(your words). So we co-author notebooks but not notes?

"Rocketr bridges two worlds that could not be further apart right now how we capture information (using personal tools), and how we get work done (using team-based tools). We’re betting that these worlds will converge, because if they don’t, it will get harder and harder for teams if they can’t collaborate at the speed that information is changing around them. Oh and the medium we use to facilitate all this, is note-taking something we all know how to do."

That still doesn't tell me what Rocketr does.

"Organizations need this to drive innovation" = Marketing speak that says nothing.

I still have no clue what Rocketr does or how it works after reading your blog post. Keep it short and simple.

I've read both the version you told PG, and what you say you should have said a number of times and I still don't get it.

It sounds like Google Wave. I'm not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing, but it sounds like you are having the same problem they had: explaining what the hell it does.

When I tried to explain Wave to people I said it was a combination of the ideas of Wiki, email, chat and a forum, designed to make accomplishing shared work easier. It's still not great, but I don't think it's an easy thing to communicate.

After reading this I have no idea what Rocketr actually is and what it really does, and from that I infer that nobody in the room understood it either.

I see a lot of statements that apparently should be prefixed with "our vision is" or "we want to" - statements of intent. I don't get the impression that the team actually knows how to build this thing.

Just out of curiosity: are product demos allowed at these meetings? If so, was it done in this case? I think sometimes all it takes is one minute of actual UI presentation to determine whether there is anything of substance behind the idea or not.

Yes, live product demos are common.

He thought you were making a wiki and you countered with "No no no! We're making another threaded forum!"

How does rocketr differ from the news.yc interface we're all using to comment? We're collaborating right now, are we not?

It takes the same approach to productivity, that news.yc takes to news.

They are, in fact, very similar in that regard.

Thanks for the reply.

I still have no idea what your product does.

Can a YC-accepted startup confirm that it's possible to drive a PG interview? In my experience we had a story and demo but these were immediately declined in favor of PG-driven questions.

I'm trying to figure out if I could have driven -- perhaps I'm just not a good enough pitchman -- or if this is just the YC interview style and rather than perfecting a story you'd be better off steeling yourself for the inevitable barrage of tough questions.

After reading that, I still have no idea what they're actually building, who would use it, or why.

"Driving" is horrible advice, too -- even in sales. The best introduction to sales is SPIN Selling by Neil Rackham; in short, "consultative" vs. "slimy used salesman", where you work with the prospect to develop needs and then show how your product addresses them.

In the 10 minute YC format, I wouldn't put more than 30 seconds into developing needs (i.e. getting buy-in that a certain problem exists and is worth solving), since I'd assume the YC people are both informed and generally biased towards accepting that problems exist. If they don't believe a problem exists, having a few great datapoints to justify your position is worthwhile ("medical transcription is a $10b/yr industry, and 0.1% of people are killed by iatrogenic errors traceable to mis-transcription every year. We want to make billions of dollars and save 50k lives per year with our direct neural interface for doctors, and we're the team to do it because we've each earned MDs and started 3 fortune 500 companies in the past 5 years...)

I read your whole blog post and I still don't understand what you do. My advice, when pg asked So what is Rocketr? You should have just answered the question with a straigh, no BS answer.

PG: What is twilio? Twilio is an API for developers to build apps that use SMS and Voice.

PG: What is Google? Google is a search engine.

PG: What is twitter? Twitter is a social platform were users can send small messages and others can suscribe to them, so they can read those messages.

I don't like the part about using people's names.

I personally don't like it when someone I don't know uses my name unnecessarily. It strikes me as odd and makes me think they're trying some psych 101 tactic on me. It's completely counterproductive because it makes meh mind jump off topic.

It's fine to show that you know someone's name (like at the end of a call), but if you wouldn't throw a friend's name into a sentence, don't inject a stranger's.

When anyone trying to sell me anything in any way uses my name, it throws up 4 or 5 extra layers of defense. At that point I know you're trying to manipulate me, and you've just made your job infinitely harder.

Having said that, I've tried the trick myself on others and they seem to respond very differently from the way that I do.

So I guess the point is to be very careful of this approach. It might help a little with some people, but it might be a gigantic turnoff to others.

I still don't understand what Rocketr does :-).

It's like a shared notebook, right?

I've been using the OneNote WebApp lately for collaborative work (mainly sharing ideas/notes) and while it's not perfect, it's better than Google docs IMO.

Does Rocketr do something like this?

Yes. It is just like a shared notebook.

I don't understand why people do not just speak like humans when it comes to marketing. Succinct and explicit. It is as if people are embarrassed to speak in simple terms and feel the need to big their product up with verbosity.

Focusing on your blog post more than your pitch, do you think it really adds value to your message to use gratuitous language like "shit the bed" and "f*cking". Dave McClure and Brad Feld have made it in to an art form but they've already made it. It doesn't add any value to your message but does distract from it. Your blog post suggests you haven't learned to carefully focus the words you use in your message for maximum positive impact.

gbattle's comment in the article is gold, possibly the single most useful thing I've ever read on making pitches. For those who didn't read it yet, gbattle provides a strict template for wording one's mission statement in a highly descriptive yet highly concise manner. The point isn't that your optimal mission statement should use the exact wording of the template, but rather that if you're unable to produce a mission statement using the exact wording of the template, either you don't understand your product well enough to bring it to market or your product has serious issues that need to be addressed immediately.

Thought the same and wish I could upvote you more. HN comment readers, if you are rushed for time and don't think you'll bother even clicking through to the blog entry, here is the best takeaway from either blog or gbattle's comment:


...mission statement exercise that I stole from famed marketer/author Marty Neumeier...

  o WHAT: (productname) is the ONLY_________
  o HOW: that _________________
  o WHO: for _______________________
  o WHERE: in ________________________
  o WHY: who ___________________________
  o WHEN: in an era of __________________.

I would ask how it's different than Evernote, and how it will compete with Evernote.

It does the social side of note-taking extremely well.

You keep saying this, but what does it mean? What is social note-taking, exactly?

Have you tried a shared task management app like Asana or Flow? Same premise... applied to note-taking.

I... I still don't get it. I haven't used any of those applications before but I'm assuming it works by different people putting different things in a to-do list and assigning them to members, etc. How does this work in a notebook? Do you assign different part of notes to different people? Do you just come in and work like a wiki without revision history (just removing what others have written and writing your own things in its place)? What does your company actually do?

I can share notebooks in Evernote with people and it Just Works. Where's the pain?

I hope there's more to your app than "I see them type on my screen, and they see me type on their screen".

I'm sure everyone takes notes differently, but with the way I do it I'm not sure a social note-taking system makes sense.

For a note to be useful to me, it has to be quick to make. For a note to be useful to another person, it has to contain enough context for them to be able to decipher it.

For example, the notebook on my desk reads "core 495 0.20%" which I know is the number and fraction of users in the core group - and I have enough context to know what those all mean. If I had to write down that context in a way other people could understand, it would no longer be quick to write, so it would no longer be a note.

Is your idea of what note-taking is different to mine?

Much of the time, your definition will prevail. But what we found in our first version, is that in a significant percentage of occasions, people do tend to put a little more effort into a note knowing that they intend to share it.

It's like when you type out a quick email to your team linking to a competitor and giving a little context. That's essentially what a shared note looks like. The reason we believe it should live outside the inbox, is because the inbox is designed around time-sensitive content - not content that needs time to gestate or be talked about.

I'm not sure if it's helpful, but based on the feedback it might be a useful exercise.

First, take all the main words you use to describe rocketr, and toss them out. Note, collaborate, share, etc.

Second, describe your product entirely through a use case. You talk about telling the story, so tell the story of a user using your app. The parts where Rocketr swoops in and saves the day, where no other tool exists to do so, is where your sweet spot is.

Lastly, distill that story down to a 10 second story. Again, avoid using the words you're trapped in now.

I've developed 3 different pitches for our product depending on who we're talking to. Investors, customers, and the general public (least sophisticated). The one that resonates best with all three is the one for the general public.

Best of luck, keep fighting.

You know people do those 2D and 3D plots with dots representing where ideas are on a spectrum? You know, like this: http://www.politicalcompass.org/images/axeswithnames.gif

I think what you need is a diagram like that with Google Docs, Wikis, Evernote, Piratepad, E-mail and your product. You know, something that answers every "so how's it different from" at the same time.

I think you might be right.

It makes reservations to have drinks with my fellow note takers?

If that is the thing you'd like to collaborate around, then yes, you could use it for that purpose. ;)

We had someone plan a wedding with it during the pilot.

Sorry if this is a dumb question, but can't you just do a demo of your product during these interviews?

Yes. You can. We did do a demo as well, though we got to it a little too late in the interview and were caught between our first version of the app, and the latest (which wasn't quite ready yet).

It'd be nice if the site had a screenshot at least. Anything to give a clue how this could be different/better than Evernote.

Here's a suggestion for your value proposition: Collaborative notetaking made simple.

I actually started with a more complicated sentence [Real-time collaborative editing made simple] but then I saw Helen's comment below your blog post and think she has a more concise description.

I suggest you follow this up with a way (such as a story) of how a customer uses your product. This is where you can use the phrases: notetaking, realtime, and capturing ideas.

I understand why you're trying to steer people towards "notes" and "notebooks". You might not like the fact that people are going to assume your competition is [strike]Google[/strike] Apache Wave or Wikipedia (ok - I mean wiki software) or Evernote, but you need to come up with good answers to those questions and this is where you can focus on important features that you have. It doesn't matter who you think your competition is - it matters what your customers think your competition is. Keep in mind that people are familiar with Wikipedia, and understand the idea of editing a wiki. Use this to your advantage. You need to paint the picture of how this affects them by making it real to them i.e. zero in on their pain point - they may not even know that they have it.

Hope this helps

I´d love to hear from PG whether what the OP thinks that is better, is really better.

The phrase "...the questions of an impatient (if not, widely respected) mind..." implies that Paul Graham may be neither patient nor widely respected. Also, the comma in the parenthetical is unnecessary. I have never read any of PG's code, but I've read his essays, and he would not make those mistakes.

Edit: While I stand by the above correction, my tone is obnoxious. It's a good essay and I enjoyed it and learned from it.

Let me nitpick on two other things:

1. Your blockquote color is basically unreadable if you're not young and/or have perfect vision.

2. If you want to excise marketing jargon from your life, you can start by dropping "action" as a verb.

Good catch. It should have said ("yet", widely respected).

well now you just have an unnecessary comma AND unnecessary quotes

I think he is using quotemarks to highlight the revised wording, and that these are not intended for final consumption.

I think if I'd been PG I would have said "So, it's like Google Wave?"

If you don't want PG to drive - then why are you applying for YC?

You don't trust him to ask the right questions for HIS understanding. Judging from your blog post, you don't seem to trust his judgement in rejecting you - the only reason you came up with (in your blog) is that your pitch/answers were badly delivered. Maybe they were fine, but you have been rejected for other reasons (e.g. UVP not strong enough, market crowded with strong competition, customer segment too small, ...).

I guess the real value of getting into YC is to get great, personalized advice. (You can get great, non-personalized advice from books or blogs). For that, you need to let your advisers drive. If the need your input at a turn, they will ask you - otherwise let them go wherever they want to. You need to understand why they are driving the way they do. In the end, you can and probably will take a few different turns than them (because you [should] have more domain knowledge). But by understanding where they would want to drive, you learn a lot from them.

You may ask yourself, why PG was driving the interview the way he was. Maybe because he questions your UNIQUE VP (So what is Rocketr?), thinks there is strong competition solving this problem already (So it’s like a wiki?), or that your customer segment is too small (Who needs what you’re making?). Maybe because of completely different reasons.

Comparing your two answers for "Who needs what you’re making?", it is the same content, but wrapped differently. While there is definitively value in making your message as clear as it can be, I think a good adviser will be able to get to the content. And then give you the same advice, no matter how the content was wrapped.

Think about it: Would you really want to take advice from someone who would reject you with the first answer, but not with the second answer? I wouldn't.

Anyway, good write-up nevertheless. I still think it is worthwhile to try to make a message as clear and easy to understand as possible.

I have to say that this comment thread is far beyond what we expected when publishing our post.

Our original intention was to start a discussion around honing your pitch, telling your story - and to demonstrate how costly it can be when you don't do that well. By no means do we feel that we are "there" yet, but at the time of the post, we felt there was some progress from when we had interviewed.

Interestingly, this thread has now provided us with a tremendous amount of additional value (for much less of a cost) which we intend on putting to use in the coming weeks.

Thanks to all those who took the time to read the post, sit with it for a moment, and then carefully and compassionately construct their feedback in an honest and direct way.

We genuinely appreciate it.

"Rocketr bridges two worlds that could not be further apart right now – how we ..."

This is also an entry that is trying to sound nice to the listener. Use wording that doesn't try to look nice, only give facts straight. it will sound more pro (because shows you only care and focus on facts) also you will get a more candid discussion. (because your entry was candid in the first place, without adding an artificial tone)

One of the VCs that I talked to had the harshest comments about my presentation but his tone was so candid, it felt like he is the one that cared the most, gives the best advice, and I also thought he was a really cool person to know.

Interesting story. This is something I can relate to as I have seen in a number of occasions people presenting new projects/products without being clear about the end user benefit.

There's several ways to do it, but the "classical" one is to first talk about WHO your users are, and WHAT problems or needs they are currently facing without a reliable solution. Then, you bring your product, and you need to explain HOW it will modify their condition and solve their problem. Then, explain what your users will feel, what actual or perceived benefit they will get through it.

It's the basis of Marketing: Framing, framing, framing.

Having read the amendment, I still don't know what the product is, or rather, how it's different from something like Evernote.


We actually did make mention of them later in the interview and are now running a pilot with a class at University of Toronto.

> Organizations need this to drive innovation

The ability of a note-taking app to drive innovation is highly overrated.

Still not sure if this helps me, but as others noted it sounds like Wave. If it actually is, I'd pay for it today in a heartbeat. While wave didn't reach the critical mass google wanted or needed, I suspect there are enough users that a small startup could make a few bucks with it.

I wonder if YC keeps statistics about coffee consumption. I can't imagine how much coffee I would need to make it through so many interviews. Is there a kickstarter for a coffee machine that keeps track already? Would be a fun graph for any company...

Rule of thumb: If any part of your pitch sounds like Microsoft marketing, you're not ready.

Your WWSHS version suffers from two major problems. First, it identifies (arguably, muddily) a pain point while offering no solution. I need a robot that does my dishes in a big way, but I doubt your startup has a product that addresses that need. Second, you're suggesting that a VC needs your product as a customer, not as an investor. What VC's really need is to make money for their limited partners (PG is perhaps an exception here, but that's beside the point). A gold-plated golf club cover that measures wind speed (oh and makes a damn good cup of coffee on the side) might be needed by a particular VC, but it says nothing about whether or not that's likely to be the basis of a reasonable investment thesis.

What you describe sounds like a big hairy problem and you haven't even begun to address how your product/offering/team are going to tackle the problem.

I read that entire blog post and I still have no idea what the product does...

I like your idea and would like to know more about it. I'd consider angel investing in it (and I'm not an angel investor currently throwing money at the fan). If you are interested get in contact with me.

Will do. Appreciate the interest.

I'm sorry to interrupt this lively discussion, but I still have no idea what Rocketr is. Could somebody please explain? Is there a video, screenshots or mock-ups somewhere?

Probably you should have said what exactly does your product do, which real problems does it solve, and what is your USP. Just answer, leave 'drive' to the one with the money.

Great advice. I screwed up a PG interview the same way!

This is one of the best post-portems of a YC interview. Thanks for being so open. And also, solid advice!

I wouldn't call it a solid advice. Others on the thread have already noted that the problem isn't really in not driving the conversation. It's how you differentiate and make it easy to grasp what you do. I find both advices in the end of OP blog post to be misleading.

Not related to the article, but you have a very solid front end designer on board. Beautiful front page.

We actually have two of the best in Toronto. :)

A great book to read in regards to this is: "Made to Stick"

has anyone used rocketr vs asana?

I've been using Asana for a 16 person team and enjoying the experience.

no matter how you prepare your “benefits” pitch it's hard to sell a wiki.

How is this different from Hackpad (YCW12)?


Why are so many of the commentators entirely missing the point of @drupeek's article? Folks - this isn't about screenshots, whether to blog or not, grammar, or market segments. I know Andrew, and he's really not in need of most of the advice being offered to him in this post.

His point is about pitching, breaking through the noise, and controlling the frame while you have ten minutes with an type-A personality. We all need to learn how to deal with this, and Andrew's making a valuable contribution. A lot of Andrew's advice reminds me of a book called Pitch Anything - I highly recommend you read it.

The book is mostly about two things: using stories to capture and excite the most basic parts of the basic human brain, and controlling the frame of a conversation in order to make sure your story is heard by an audience which is naturally hostile. I believe anyone who's pitching deals should take a look.

In conclusion, please stop patronizing Andrew, and contribute something meaningful to the conversation.

He's top of the page on HN, a great position from which to promote his product.

It's pretty clear from the responses here that nothing in the post communicates clearly what his product does, despite being about finding a better way to do just that.

That's a shame, and there's a rapidly vanishing opportunity here to correct that.

So the feedback he's getting here is the most valuable he's likely to ever get.

After reading the post (and not understanding the product), I went to the homepage and yep still don't get what it is or who it would be for.

"So the feedback he's getting here is the most valuable he's likely to ever get."

I'm getting valuable feedback to be sure, but in now way do I agree with this premise.

Well said. Frame control is a crucial skill, and most people seem to know very little about it. Curiously, I only became aware of the concept, and started studying it, when I start hanging around some of the "pick up artist" guys. Turns out the PUAs dig pretty deep into psychology, storyteling, salesmanship, and related fields, trying to figure out how to connect with women. And, regardless of what you think of their aims in that regard, reading a lot of the material they recommend takes you in some interesting places. These guys got me studying Cialdini's Influence and a number of related works, which have been very influential to me... and in a way that has nothing to do with meeting women.

This is not to say that everyone should rush out and jump into the PUA scene, just noting the (seemingly obscure) connection between that world and some of the areas that we all find interesting. It turns out that understanding influence, constructing narratives, frame control, etc. are important skills in many areas of our lives.

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