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Y Combinator Interview: Our Experience (yogatrail.com)
174 points by shaolin69 on May 8, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 101 comments



A lot of commenters here saying the tone of the OP is bitter. I say the tone is human.

This team has every good reason to succeed: they spent 2 years of their life working together building something that's now getting significant traction - and making them money.

Every fundamental metric indicating whether the business will work or not were established facts. That should put them head and shoulders over anyone else.

Given all that, it's hard NOT to feel emotionally invested after 2 years. And it's hard not to want to spend time processing the experience the way they did.

At this point, it doesn't matter why they didn't get in. It would be great to know, and yes, it's awesome that they got some actionable feedback -

Actually, I want to say something about that too. Even if the feedback isn't what you wanted, shaolin69, it's all the more valuable because it's coming from someone who isn't like you. I agree with your priorities - especially your viral loop tricks (way to go on that, by the way). But I hope you'll tuck it away somewhere for the day you scratch your head and wonder "ok, what can I do now to boost traffic?"

But. As I was saying, it doesn't matter why you didn't get in. You still know you have the makings of a successful business. YC's rejection doesn't invalidate your track record. So be encouraged! I'm glad to see you took advantage of your time stateside to look at other accelerators and got some interest. Best of luck, looking forward to hearing your success stories!


Moreover, the author is exactly right. With ten minutes all they can do is evaluate the lead person and the team. Sadly the takeaway is closer to "we didn't like you (enough)" and the "feedback" is a best guess as to why.

The assessment is thin slicing straight out of Blink by Gladwell and that approach has been shown to be very influenced by a whole host of pre-existing biases by the judges. Even very smart people are subject to those biases and experts are especially prone.


It seems like there are a lot of people in these circles who view themselves as far more rational and less prone to prejudice in matters of business.

The truth seems to be more like slightly more rational, but not _that_ much more rational. From my experience, the more a company proclaims strict meritocracy, the less true it is.


Wow, thanks for the encouraging words :)


I'd like to offer an analogy: fast food chain franchise vs boutique restaurants. It seems to me that your startup is a boutique restaurant and so is not a good fit for a McDonalds-style franchise contract. However, at the end of the day, running a boutique restaurant is a lot more satisfying, at least in my opinion, and most of the time, more financially rewarding too. On the other hand, you do need authenticity to be a successful boutique restaurant owner, not the attitude "we are disrupting XXX", "we are changing YYY, one ZZZ at a time".


What to make of Chipotle? They basically took the SF burrito joint from a boutique/local food dive to a viable biz franchise. Hugely successful at scale...


Sadly the takeaway is closer to "we didn't like you (enough)" and the "feedback" is a best guess as to why.

What does this say about the importance of culture fit?


I think a certain amount of angst or bitterness or disappointment is perfectly acceptable.

Their application probably didn't say "First Yoga, Then THE WORLD!!" If it's too niche or couldn't possibly have enough upside you can evaluate that looking at the application. No need for all the flying and jetlag and lost productivity, etc.


Interesting.

On the plus side, I'm very happy to see that YCombinator decides to send, not just a rejection, but actionable feedback that they think the company should follow. I think that's a good thing, and so far samples of these have seemed to usually hit the mark.

On the other hand, the reason they always tell you never to explain why you gave a candidate a "no" is, that it will give them grounds to think you are wrong and discriminated against you. That might (might!) be the case here - the Author seems to give serious weight to the possibility of discrmination, which is of course completely possible. Had YC kept their mouth shut and not offered their valuable advice, maybe there would've been less thoughts of discrimination? I'd just hate to discourage YC from offering advice.


Someone with more legal experience can weigh in, but I wasn't under the impression that people applying for investment were given the same protections as people applying for employment. Disclaimer: I have no legal experience and am talking out of my ass.

With employment, companies have learned to shut up. "Sorry, we're not hiring. Best of luck." As you've said, this is due to applicants getting a lot of protections based on race, gender, color, creed, etc. If the employer admits to rejecting a candidate for being in a protected class, (or even anything that can allude to their status) they're opening themselves up to a lawsuit.

In contrast, I don't think that investing any of this. If you choose only to invest in black-owned companies, it's your money. If you choose only to invest in male-owned companies, it's your money. Sure, you'll be crucified by the press, but I don't think that there's a lawsuit in that.

As a result, investment companies can be a little bit more frank with their rejected candidates.

Now, one thing that complicates things in this case is that YC isn't just investing in companies; they're providing guidance and mentoring. Would this mentoring process (teaching someone how to build a business and then taking a share of the profits) be considered hiring?

I'd hate for YC to be sued for this by some asshole who's just looking for a quick payout and then completely stop giving advice to rejected candidates.


Legally, you're right.

In terms of public opinion, I'd like to think that the backlash YC/pg sometimes get doesn't bother them, but I'm sure it does to at least some degree.

I'm really not trying to argue against the author or make them feel bad, btw - I just want to point out that I think this specific interperatation of what happened is probably wrong, and to point out that we as a community need to make sure we don't rush to attack anyone, lest we deter YC from providing this service.


A Job Application is one thing

An application for a company to get an investment something very different. (And Y Combinator can use whatever criteria fits them best, they're picking companies, not people)

Also remember, YC payed for the interview, hard to think they didn't have a legitimate interest at that point.


Indeed. That said, there is always room for lawyer to attempt to frame the YC model as actual employment in a similar way that they have with some contractors.

For example, based on the set schedule and other things determined by YC and not the founders. Public statements about choosing people and not companies. One might see an attempt by a lawyer down the road to call YC an employer that pays these individuals to accelerate the growth of a particular company as opposed to purely investors.

I'm definitely not trying to say this is valid as I do not have the legal knowledge, simply saying that it is plausible someone might try it and wouldn't be unreasonable if YC kept it in mind.


Could YCombinator offer feedback to applicants with the requirement that the applicant gives up their right to sue?


I agree with the poster that shelling out $1500 for a 10 minute interview, and then basing a significant investment decision on that interview, does seem curious - but, as the poster said, they see hundreds of teams, and have done for a number of years now, so you'd think they would know almost instantly what they're looking for.

I've done a lot of technical interviews myself over the years, and, assuming I'm not pairing with a fellow interviewer who wants to spend 20 minutes outlining the history of the company and describing the role before actually asking any questions, I can usually tell within five minutes, and after really only a couple of carefully chosen questions pertinent to the problem domain, whether the person is likely to be someone I'd want to hire. (And, just like YC, I get it wrong sometimes. That's life.)

The tone of this piece sort of read to me as "I want to make it clear that I'm not complaining about the process, but I'm going to complain now anyway" - it seems like their observations were quite fair, adding a space to your product's name hardly seems important, and they were courteous and did actually give you feedback, which is probably more than you can hope for from many companies.


True - I hope I didn't come across as bitter, overall this was an awesome experience and the people at YC are amazing. I actually do think that they can probably tell if a startup is a good one or not in a matter of minutes.


Well, this two sentences are very different from what you are saying in the OP.

Yes, you sounded very bitter with the process and contested strongly how YC decide if a startup is a good one or not.


| so you'd think they would know almost instantly what they're looking for.

What they are looking for is probably a subset of good startups, ie. your startup can be good but it's not what they are looking for.

To some extent it must be a statistics game for them. The investment they make flying founders out must have a good return for them in terms of potential investments. Since they have been doing it for a while now the numbers must be close to optimal.


I sympathize because I went through almost exactly the same experience with YC - we applied to W14, flew to the interview and did not get in.

Myself and 3 co-founders are all in our early to mid 30's, and have put in about the same amount of time and effort into our startup as OP et al, working on it full time for almost the same period before applying. All of us live half-way around the world from SV (Israel), and got on the plane on mostly our dime to show that we're taking the program, application and interview seriously.

I remember walking into the waiting area and seeing all those fresh-out-of-college-with-a-great-idea founders (not being cynical here), and I immediately felt out of place; very similar to what the OP describes. Not intimidated or phased in any way, just that we were the odd man out. Most of my co-founders and myself are married, have kids, and are in a different place in life than what I'd speculate is the average YC applicant profile. Or perhaps I'm just stereotyping, I don't know - it sure seemed like it from gazing around that room. No offense intended to past/present/future applicants.

The interview was very ordinary and I didn't feel like it went great or terrible. At one point it was mentioned that we're doing something very similar to a recent YC graduate, and that they weren't doing that great [0]. I imagine both were factors in our dismissal. I couldn't say exactly what it was that didn't get us past the interview phase.

Overall I'm not sorry we went - it was an interesting experience, and we managed to arrange other meetings in the valley while there. I'm also not overly upset we didn't qualify - it probably would have helped us move forward, but it's not the only way to succeed and definitely not the end of the world. Take it with a grain of salt and move on.

[0] Don't know if that's true or if I misunderstood the speaker.


Being accepted to Ycombinator is not a signal that your business will be successful in the long term. It might help in the short run being accepted as your instantly validated and have a higher chance of getting VC funding.

Entrepreneurs you shouldn't let getting rejected from Y combinator or any other accelerator bother you. You should consider the feedback they give and try to validate it and if what they are saying is true, try to correct what is wrong.

Consider one other point, while Y combinator partners are successful they are really not that successful. They haven't achieved as much as Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page,Jack Ma etc. If Y combinator partners were really successful they would be running multi billion dollar companies, but they are using their skills to filter out applicants to Y combinator. So don't take their rejection as the law.


> Being accepted to Ycombinator is not a signal that your business will be successful in the long term. It might help in the short run being accepted as your instantly validated and have a higher chance of getting VC funding.

If you mean that getting accepted to YC doesn't guarantee that your business will be successful long-term, then I agree completely. Getting into YC is definitely a signal that it will be successful, however. That's why you have a higher chance of getting VC funding.

> Entrepreneurs you shouldn't let getting rejected from Y combinator or any other accelerator bother you. You should consider the feedback they give and try to validate it and if what they are saying is true, try to correct what is wrong.

There's nothing wrong with letting rejection bother you. It's what you do after you get rejected that matters. I think your suggestion to consider any feedback you get, and adjust what you're doing based on that feedback is awesome advice.

> Consider one other point, while Y combinator partners are successful they are really not that successful. They haven't achieved as much as Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page,Jack Ma etc. If Y combinator partners were really successful they would be running multi billion dollar companies, but they are using their skills to filter out applicants to Y combinator. So don't take their rejection as the law.

As we saw in YogaTrail's rejection letter, even YC knows that their rejection isn't the law - "we are often wrong in our decisions". On the other hand, while the YC partners may not be as "successful" as Elon Musk and Bill Gates, YC is a billion dollar company[1]. So, the YC partners are technically running a billion dollar company.

[1] http://techcrunch.com/2013/10/25/y-combinator-13-7b-valuatio.... ~7% of ~$14B is ~$1B.


7% of first round investment is definitely not 7% of current valuation. Also a lot of that 1B is paper money: the later rounds often get preferred shares and preferences in exiting events. YC got common shares as the employees, and if you are around long enough, you'll know how those common shares are worth in most cases.


Great point. So maybe not a billion dollar company, but pretty close.


The application process is probably similar to large companies like Google and Facebook. The barrier is high, but not stupendously - you have to be good and a little bit lucky. Certainly Google aims for a very low false positive rate when hiring; plenty of top people get rejected, but that's the only way you ensure you don't hire chaff by mistake.

As the saying goes "You don't need to outrun the bear, you just need to outrun your friends". YC only has a finite amount of money, and presumably an annual budget. If you're good, but there are 30 companies better than you who take up that money then you're out of luck.


I am a potential user of your site. I live (a bit reluctantly) in Columbia, SC, and my yoga studio cut back its advanced 90-minute classes and replaced most of them with hour-long, easier classes. Moreover, the head teacher mostly blew me off when I complained about this -- apparently there is increased competition, and times are rough.

Increased competition, indeed. It is presumably a good time to find out if any yoga studio has taken up the niche that my old studio has mostly abandoned -- and your site claims to offer this information.

So I checked out your site. I'm afraid I didn't find what I was looking for. You got the names and addresses of some local studios, and I'll trust that you found out accurately whether or not they offer free mats or sell bottled water.

But what I really want to know:

(1) Which studios offer the most advanced classes? You list "beginner", "intermediate", and "advanced" on your website, but these seemed a bit arbitrary. I didn't really trust them.

(2) More to the point, I like training that is a little bit more "sink or swim" than is the norm in this town -- not in any bad way, but where the teacher wants to get you to Reverse Bird of Paradise Pose, and if you're not getting there today, that's okay! -- but the teacher is focusing on those who will.

I want to know that from browsing your site. That is more ambiguous, and I think a lot harder to get right... but that kind of information (presented reliably) is what would drive me to return to your site.

Best of luck to you.


p.s. Along the lines of (2), I would recommend trying to get yoga teachers to answer a short multiple choice quiz. For example:

> Although both of these are important, which is the following is the biggest priority in your yoga teaching?

> (a) Making sure everyone achieves their full potential

> (b) Ensuring that everyone in the class feels comfortable, and no one feels left out

Etc. Find out from your users which questions best differentiate between studios. But make it multiple choice, so that teachers can't hedge their bets.


Hi impendia, we're working on a number of things that will make YT better for yogis and yoga pro's alike - stay tuned :)


I recently went through the instant interview/rejection process at an up-and-comming SV start-up, and can relate to the OP's confusion. I am also in my 40s and at first wondered how the obviously flawed process could produce reasonable results. The number of false negatives must be staggering. I think the key for them is that incoming volume more than compensates for missed opportunities. This is the luxury of the hyper-successful. I think that for a business owner (or very busy engineer in my case) applying into these types of organizations, you need to expend a lot more effort on applying, researching and preparing for the actual interview than on the specifics of your skills and/or business.


They're really trying to minimize false positives. Those tend to be very expensive opportunity cost mistakes. This is true for both hiring employees and business partnerships. Especially business partnerships.


A number of comments seem to be wondering why YC doesn't provide detailed feedback to each rejected party. Some are assuming it's due to fear of discrimination claims, but I doubt that's the case. I would guess YC doesn't provide detailed feedback for three primary reasons:

1) They interview over 300 companies in a batch, and detailed feedback for each rejection would simply be time prohibitive.

2) They admit to being wrong occasionally, and will often fund companies on subsequent applications. Providing a laundry list of "things they dislike about you" would diminish that probability.

3) In most cases, it's probably less about your deficiencies, and more about the companies ahead of you. There may not be anything inherently wrong with the founders or company, you just got beat out by seemingly better alternatives (see point #2).

In any case, hustle on.


I'd add a fourth:

4) We didn't like you.

Of course that statement can come across in many different ways, so saying that and bluntly is not going to happen.

The rest of the feedback is mere rationalization after the fact. Some may be right, some wrong, it doesn't matter. They choose based on the people.

Always tough to realize that some people don't like you. Our goal is to find the people (customers, friends, spouses) that love us and really treat them well. Some of us are just a bit less loveable.


They provided pretty detailed feedback to us one year and quite frankly they were right.


We interviewed during this recent S14 cycle. We were not funded, but I was very satisfied with the rejection email that we received. It contained personalized feedback and showed that the partner in question gave our team and business a lot of meaningful thought. I thought it was very professional.


If you are getting tired of reading all the "our YC interview" stories on HN, this is the only one you'll want to read. It's different from all the others. Bitter? Maybe. But way more interesting and thought-provoking than the average "teenager just met their idol" version.


I'm curious what these review posts say about the market. They only really recently started appearing. A bubble signal that ambition is outpacing quality?


I think it's a bit of the opposite -- as the economy gets better (or in some cases, "better"), there's more people willing to take the risk rather than keep their heads down, which is going to produce a lot more hopefuls that aren't quite as good vs. those who would rather polish things and wait for the better bet (whether that be an improved economy or a better pitch).


hopefuls that aren't quite as good

This is the same thing as "ambition outpacing quality." :)


YC: Unfortunately, we were unable to get to believing that you had a strategy for supplanting Yelp as the top Google search results — having worked on SEO extensively in the past a better product often times isn’t enough. // You clearly have a product that is better than what else is out there. I encourage you to spend more time on figuring out customer acquisition (possibly through non-search channels). In any case, we are often wrong in our decisions, and I hope that you continue to build your business and wish you the best in doing so.

YT: The feedback about beating Yelp in Google Search results and looking for ways to get customers other than search channels – pretty solid indicators that they hadn’t understood what we had told them.

To me this seems like a pretty solid indicator that they (YT) hadn't understand the feedback they were getting, or knew what to do with it. This is a shame since it makes YC less likely to give feedback in the future.

Embrace feedback, don't explain it away. Especially if you are a fragile upstart.


nice writeup

"I seemed alien to them somehow, with a weird background that was just too different from their own… so they didn’t know what to make of me on a purely emotional level."

Not saying this was the case here, but I feel like this effect, even if it occurs subliminally, plays such a staggering role in business relationships and decisions that it can be discouraging for anyone outside of the "main" group. Aaron Swartz talked about this in some of his blog posts but it wasn't until I was thrown into the corporate workforce that I saw it for myself first hand.

I don't think it's a conscious malicious effort to keep minorities/non-americans out of executive positions, just a consequence of the reality that people are more comfortable dealing with others that share a similar cultural background. This becomes doubly true when dealing with extremely high value contract negotiations and business decisions - you want to know exactly where the other person is mentally and emotionally - and that's much easier to decipher if you share a culture/race with that person.


Sorry to hear you did not get in. Must be very disappointing. I'd have a deeper look at the feedback though, and assume good faith in the rejection. From the rejection:

Unfortunately, we were unable to get to believing that you had a strategy for supplanting Yelp as the top Google search results — having worked on SEO extensively in the past a better product often times isn’t enough.

I read this not bluntly as: You should be able to beat Yelp, else you will fail, I hone in on: 'unable to get to believing that you had a strategy'. From an outsider perspective this is unfortunately what happened: You did not have a solid enough online marketing/acquisition strategy (social, search, advertising, partners, email etc.), or failed to convey it during the interview.

I don't think yCombinator failed to see the market potential, in my view they are actively looking for potential (from SF-based sleeping bag site to world-wide bed and breakfast replacement). I also do not think you were invited to make them seem more outsider-friendly, only to have you be rejected for being an outsider. It is about the online marketing strategy. In their (and my) experience, just having a better site is not enough. For an online directory company, SEO should be in the companies DNA. Preferably a founder has knowledge on SEO and can weave marketing opportunities into the decision making process.

If you think back to the interview part about online marketing, do you remember there being confusion? Or not having a concrete answer at-the-ready? Did your pitch include a slide on marketing strategy?

Also, the questions they asked like: How are you different from competitor X? Were these questions unprovoked? If so, enhance your pitch by listing your competitors, and their differences, pro's and con's compared to your company. This preemptively clears away such doubts.

Take a look at Mint's pitch deck: http://www.slideshare.net/hnshah/mintcom-prelaunch-pitch-dec... They make you believe they've done their market research and have a solid customer acquisition strategy from the get-go. Perhaps you can use it to improve your pitch.

I'll have a deeper look at your website and perhaps will send you over some on-page SEO issues to fix or ignore. But strategy/conversion/campaigns will contribute a lot more.

Also, your site already looks great, you've told us you have decent numbers, a nice community, a great team, so probably: you will get there, wherever 'there' is.


Wouldn't the point of YC's investment and share have been to help and teach them how to work out SEO (in addition to other things) so that they could beat Yelp? (if truly Yelp is a competitor)

Isn't the point of YC to pick and help startups that will elucidate a path to rapid, lasting growth?

That reason for rejection doesn't make sense, unless one is to believe that nobody can ever build a successful specialized directory because Yelp is already and will always be king of the world. Did YC invite them because they were somehow going to be the New Yelp?


If they got in YC, then sure: The network and possibly external SEO companies and designers will help them.

I find this discussion somewhat tiring. It seems that people want to talk about age discrimination, about like-ability, about luck, about SEO being a dirty thing, about 10 minutes being too short for an interview, about outsiders not making it in, about Yelp not being a competitor to online service directories etc.

If they asked: where do you see yourself in 5 years? What is your long-term strategy to entrench yourself in the rankings? And did not receive a satisfying or believable answer, then no amount of help and teaching will suffice. Else YC could better buy that company, outsource some SEO and design and do it themselves. Then they don't have to do it by proxy with 2-year-old founders.

Crude: It does not matter what the point of YC is. The people at YC decide that, not us. What YC does with companies they accept has no bearing on what YC does not do with companies they rejected.

The reason for rejection does not make sense to you (and probably to Yogatrail, because they do not focus on the feedback). It probably made sense to YC, else why take such a decision? Again crude: Why is it relevant that you can not find reason in the rejection?

>unless one is to believe that nobody can ever build a successful specialized directory because Yelp ...

This is not the reason. The reason was that the company was unable to make YC believe that they had a solid marketing strategy and knew what they were doing, now and in the future. Then it does not even matter if they have the best strategies in the world, the take-away is that they failed to convey these strategies. What is more likely: That YC failed to understand what it takes to build a successful online business? Or that these founders kinda flunked the interview?

You have to be aware of Yelp if you are doing this. You have to discuss where you differ and what your plan is to take over their Yoga-services niche. After the latest search engine updates, thin content directories suffer. You have to be aware of this and make others believe you have the strategy to insert more quality content into your sites, to save that channel, and to open up other channels, so one channel can not break your entire business. Educate yourself, especially if you are an online business. Like design, not everyone is naturally good at it, but it helps to familiarize yourself.

>Did YC invite them because they were somehow going to be the New Yelp

At least a similar potential. If Yelp is totally unrelated, then you should be able to convince them of this. But IMO Yelp is not unrelated to an online services directory. Yelp has unique problems like Google taking their traffic with their own rating system, and they adapted well. If Yogatrail will face similar problems in the future, no one can tell, but if I were to invest money into a company, I'd want to know they have a strategy ready for when this happens, that they are aware that this can happen, that they know the webmaster quality guidelines and don't make million dollar SEO blunders. You can't really help and teach preparedness like this. Help and teach yourself: convince YC you know your stuff. You can't change it if YC does not get it. What you can change is your pitch: You did not get YC to get it.


"I don't think yCombinator failed to see the market potential, in my view they are actively looking for potential "

Much of life as we know does have a luck factor involved.

Who is to say if they had spent the money (could afford to) to fly all three people out and not been near the last interview whether the outcome would be different?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Thing is you never know about the minor details that lead to, or prevent success.

When I was younger I once spent my own money to fly out to a trade show, stay at a hotel, walk the floor and as a result landed a job that I wasn't really qualified for that I would have never gotten by resume alone (that I am pretty sure of). [1] Perhaps the person was in a particularly good mood that day perhaps I just said and did the right things. I could spin this story a dozen ways (depending on the point I was trying to make).

My general rule though has always been to "spend money to ensure success". The downside of spending money is very clear (it's finite, the amount of money that you spend and of course the time in this case. Ok sure there is opportunity cost as well.). The upside is unlimited. As a generality people tend to focus on the upside and not the downside in decisions.

[1] There was also quite a bit of leg work upfront prior to doing this as well.


It seemed to me their rejection grew out of Aaron Harris's experience with Tutorspree: http://www.aaronkharris.com/when-seo-fails-single-channel-de...


Thanks for the link.

TL;DR: In a nutshell their business came from SEO and that was it, no other channels. Google changed the game and they no longer got business through organic search results. They tried to get other leads, however, the quality from things like PPC wasn't the same - no conversion. Aside from these problems they were also in a business that did not scale very well - too many locations needing too many resources. They could not afford to grow, threw in the towel and handed money back to investors.


I'm not sure what your alternative user acquisition strategy is but not able to supplant Yelp in Google search results is a pretty valid observation. How do you respond to this?


The bulk of our user growth is due to viral loops we've built into things - we're pretty much getting each new user to successfully invite another at this point. Unlike Yelp, we're very "yoga-centric", and while Yelp is all the rage in San Francisco, that's not the case in the rest of the world... so we don't think that Yelp will be the place people will use to find their yoga, especially their yoga teachers. One persons 5 star is another's 1 star.

That's not to say we're neglecting SEO; we're working on strategies to get more search traffic (and in many places we're doing very well with that) and convert it into registered members. It's just not our main and only strategy.

But the real answer is: we're planning a feature (not there yet) that will solve a big pain point for millions of people (getting the schedule of their yoga teachers at a glance), and which will provide an even better viral loop (yogis inviting their teachers, and teachers using our site for their online presence).


In my opinion, you're building a niche product.

Personally I believe that niche products are the way of the future and that general platforms (Facebook, Yelp, etc.) will not last in the long run. But from what you described I don't think you made this (implicit) assumption clear, and it's not clear whether that's the sort of business they want to invest in (in the short term, the general platforms will be where the money is made, and it will be the aggregate of the niche platforms - a much more profitable investment than a niche product).


His answers are convincing rebuttals to a superficial criticism. In particular, I can tell you that if this startup can measure that it has a positive viral coefficient, it's already light years ahead of Yelp. And he's right that Yelp has basically no market share outside of a few US cities -- that's why they had to buy a much smaller competitor (Qype) just to get a foothold in Europe.

But to your point, I believe it was a YC partner (or three) who said that big businesses tend to start in a niche where a small number of people love you. If this guy really walked into a room and said "we've got a small, revenue-generating product with a positive viral coefficient and a growing user base", the line "fine, but you'll never beat Yelp" is not a compelling counterargument -- it's a lot like telling early AirBnB that they'll never beat Hilton.

I don't know if that's what actually happened -- there could be any number of reasons why a startup gets rejected after a ten-minute interview that aren't captured in a polite rejection email -- but in general, criticizing small startups for being small is not a winning strategy.


I actually read the blog post as a team that hadn't pitched a lot of investors. What you suggest here is being very forward in a setting that had been set up as a passive "interview". He was expecting them to set up the right question and probably wasn't experienced enough to just start telling them what he wanted them to know. There might be some cultural (U.S., S.V., "pitching") aspects to this dynamic as well.


Here's something we didn't share in the blog post. It's some of the print outs we brought along with us to the interview. No reason not to share it I guess. It shows some graphs illustrating virality, connection clusters (just one of them) and revenue growth. http://www.yogatrail.com/yogatrail-stats.pdf


Hey, just a quick piece of feedback on this. You define virality as "the percentage of users invited by other users". That's a very non-standard definition.

Usually virality is measured as "the average number of new users invited by any given user". I'd strongly suggest using that as your definition.


In that case, we're hitting it out of the park - over 4 invites sent per user, but these invites convert at ~25%. There's also "k factor" (invites sent x conversion rate), and the interval between user #1 bringing on user #2 is also important... guess there are many ways to present virality :)


That kind of info (4 invites on average per user, 25% conversion rate) is THE critical information. If you want to talk about virality at all, the fact it's not in your presentation is a serious defect you should correct.


The issue I have with that observation is the underlying assumption that SEO/Google search ranking is going to make or break the business.

I find that a pretty curious assumption.


Has anyone over 40 ever been accepted to ycombinator? What is the percentage?

I'm not saying ageism. In my mind there might be valid reasons why not. I notice the US army doesn't take older people and I assume there are valid reasons. I don't see people crying ageism in that case... I'm just curious.

(For the record: over 40. Not a startup guy. Not interested in applying to ycombinator.)


> Livingston said the latest class of startups entering the program will be its most diverse ever, containing both the oldest entrepreneur the group has ever back at 57, the youngest entrepreneur they’ve funded at 17, the most female entrepreneurs they’ve ever admitted, the most foreign entrepreneurs they’ve ever admitted and, for the first time, 6 nonprofits as well as the normal mix of tech hopefuls looking to make it big.

According to this [0] article, the oldest person was 57 years old.

[0] http://www.bizjournals.com/sanjose/news/2014/02/06/want-to-g...


Yes, founders over 40 have been accepted into YC.


I'm guessing the median age skews a lot lower though. I don't think that's YCs fault necessarily though; I'm sure the median applicant age is also a lot lower than 40.


I appreciate the honesty and critical views expressed here. You don't see this too often with people discussing the YC interviewing process.


From their website: "Not knowing the first thing about building a website, we were lucky to meet Sven Ernst here in Chiang Mai, really by chance. Sven is Managing Director of Buzzwoo!, a German digital agency that does web development, strategy, as well as creative internet design work. After a few short discussions, we all decided to form a partnership, and YogaTrail was officially founded in early 2012."

Perhaps this is outdated. Is Sven full-time on YogaTrail now or still running an agency/doing other work? The only technical team member being a part-timer would be another red flag if that's the case.


... Sven here (sharing this acccount with Alex). I'm full-time on YogaTrail. Besides me there are 2 full-time employees (Drupal Developers) on board, plus we use lots of free development resources from BUZZWOO!, a digital agency I co-founded. I consider this a huge advantage compared with other bootstraped start-ups and it enabled us to actually produce lots of software. Other than the main website YogaTrail has a very successful facebook app (we use for content marketing), several mobile apps and a bunch of very cool tools we use for marketing and growth hacking.


YC is one potential path to success, and they have their criteria, which OP's idea and current business did not meet. That doesn't mean the idea won't be successful. Just keep at it, OP. Don't let rejection from any one investor have an out-sized impact on your attitude. If you believe in the idea just put your head back down and get back to work. Look at it this way: the further along you are when you take on investors, the more you keep.


"could it be that my interviewers have worked on SEO so much that it’s difficult for them to conceive of non-SEO related strategies for growing a user-base?" ...And from the rejection email "I encourage you to spend more time on figuring out customer acquisition (possibly through non-search channels)." So I don't think that "it’s difficult for them to conceive of non-SEO related strategies" is the reason, since they actually suggest the non-SEO strategy in their rejection email. I think that you need to view this from the perspective of ycombinator. The only investments for them that makes sense is a startup with high growth rate. (the very definition of a startup by PG). When you are playing the David against the Goliath of "Yelp" you can not compete on SEO. So you have to have an alternative DEFENSIBLE advantage to allow you to dominate your market. Another thing from what I have read over the years is that ycombinator looks for teams that are not married to their initial idea. In fact they prefer the team to the idea. So if in the interview you come off as very defensive about the validity of your idea that could be a red flag.


Thanks for writing that. The first part was interesting, but the last part probably comes across as more bitter than you intended.

About YC's interview policies - it would be very interesting to do some kind of cutoff analysis (http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2157932) and to see the difference between the companies that do make it in and those that do not. The problem is that making it into YC gives companies that are barely over the cutoff a huge boost (which is why you give them 7% of your company, afterall) so it would be very tricky to take that into account rigorously.


I'd imagine that if YC didn't think you and your co-founders would fit in due to your background, they wouldn't have invited you for an interview.


It seems to me that in order to get accepted you'll either present something very, very new or unorthodox, where traction and beating competitors is less important, or present a me-to kind of venture that already has very good traction and is already beating competitors. From what I can gather you have to be on either end of those opposite option in order to get funded.


I don't know if the OP will read this comment but coming from India, I can very well understand the kind of circumstances you are in. When you talk about the expenditure they make on you and how you can pay your rent for 10 months, I can absolutely relate with it. Moreover, travelling across the globe and then being given only 10 minutes to understand what you actually do. You may actually have a better chance of getting funded in your own country without all this travel and hassles.

Someday, I would also start my own business and I understand that getting traction is of utmost importance. But, there is another aspect to it which is the fact that some people actually start a business or just run a simple idea for the sheer pleasure of solving a problem and to help others. I think you are on those lines and I wish you all the best to continue working in this direction.

I think your post was very well written and you have actually listed some of the possible issues with their selection process.


I think both you and the OP are missing the context of the $1500. I suppose it's "non-negligible" as he said, but it's barely enough to cover 2 founders flying from New York, plus a hotel and rental car. In Thailand $1500 may cover the cost of 10 months rent, but in SF or New York, it's closer to the cost of one month's rent. It's not an insignificant amount of money over the 300 teams they invite for interviews per batch, but it's certainly the cost of doing business.


I can understand when you say that $1500 x 300+ is a great amount they are investing at the cost of running their firm. While this is very important, we should not overlook the way the entire process is conducted (at least this is what I gather from the OP's post and personally believe too).


Thanks for your supporting comment and good luck with your business! Besides the money more of an issue was possible distraction for us. We are 3 co-founders. For us all going there would mean several hundred hours of flight and travelling. So we made the decision to only send one person (after consulting with Y Combinator).

However we should point out that Sven & Alex were on stand by via Skype during the interview to answer any possible questions that might have come up.


The decision you all made is very logical because it doesn't make sense if all of you leave your business for pitching to a fund. I am not saying that the pitching part is not important but you are already running your company for 2 years and all of your leaving your office for such a long time would make your business suffer in some way.


I'm sure you didn't intend this, but the post ends up sounding very whiny and bitter. Instead of taking the opportunity to reflect on ways you could improve your pitch, you criticize the YC process.

Also, during this critical time and considering the importance of YC partners, 10 minutes of partner time is likely worth more than the $1500 to YC.


Doing the math on that (assuming 8 hour workday 5 days a week, 52 weeks per year) comes to around $9M per year per partner which does seem high to me but I don't know YCs numbers overall.

It makes more sense if you assume that most of their candidates come from within the US and a large % from much closer to YC HQ (Stanford?) so they will pay out significantly less in travel expenses on average.

The only other option would be to give those travelling from further afield longer interviews to pitch their startup which could be seen as unfair.


I get closer to $4.6M/yr per partner. $150068552/4 (there are 4 partners in an interview)

Still seems high, but then you have to take into account that their work is very cyclical in that a lot of important decisions need to be made in this time period.


I do not think it's just 10 minutes. It's technically impossible to interview 8*6=48 teams a day (10 minutes a team for 8 hours). I think realistic number is 15-20 teams/day because they also need to discuss each team and come to the decision. It means 2-2.5m per partner which is reasonable compensation for highly talented people.


I did the calculation based on 3 partners for some reason. There's probably a limit to how much time any one partner can spend evaluating startups in a given week without burnout too.


It also read as very bitter to me. Puts a lot of the "why we weren't picked" on the interviewers and none really on the site and strategy.

10 minutes is the interview length but it's probably also what you're going to get pitching or trying to convey your plan to potential customers. Less on the web or in radio/TV ads. I imagine that a powerful idea supported by driven people will generally get across quickly.

They also acknowledge that they will miss some future successes - so be it.


Exactly. A lot of people on this thread have been kind, which is sometimes not honest feedback.

Compare and contrast with Strava, the running and cycling app. Word of it spreads by word of mouth, even amongst those that do not run/cycle. If they have a colleague that uses Strava they tell their cycling/running friends without even seeing it for themselves. Furthermore, Strava has female users, it isn't a boys own gimmick.

This yoga thing should be able to sell itself on the same basis. But in reality it is a slow Drupal desktop site that doesn't really have any stickiness on mobile. Women have been welded to smart phones for five years or so, women do yoga, the app/site should just be a mobile thing for women that the occasional bloke can use on his desktop too. The product has failings. Drawing board failings.

There is nothing wrong in building a community site on Drupal, that is what it is designed for. But doing so does not make you some pioneer of the digital age. Much like using an egg to make an omelette for a meal does not get you a Michelin star.

As a complete newbie, how are you supposed to know what a given style of yoga is? If you are not into it already, yoga is yoga not some foreign restaurant menu where you are magically supposed to know the buzz words. There should be an opportunity here to cut through the buzz words and explain things in a better way than with a footer link that takes you away from where you are.

A process such as YC or a TV talent show has a certain amount of slots = 'we have twenty slots to fill!!!'. Sometimes, regardless of the prize and cost of bringing people into the interview, you need people to make up the numbers. So there may be some stand out contenders but then there is best of the rest, the make-weights. Being invited to attend may mean you applied and the standard of candidates was 'patchy'. It might mean that your idea was better than the guy with the app for oiling his co-founder's girlfriend's spare hamster wheel. It does not mean you are the next Google.

You could decide on whether to back 'Strava' in ten minutes, you would not even need a founder, just a user would do. If you need more than ten minutes the problem is quite fundamental.

All told, rejection in this instance is probably the best thing. There is now hopefully some determination to succeed to spite those nay sayers like myself! More Ramen Noodles and a drawing board is what this project needs, not some VC wanting a return and proper company structure.


Thanks very much for this extensive feedback - very helpful! Getting some more noodles now :)


> Also, during this critical time and considering the importance of YC partners, 10 minutes of partner time is likely worth more than the $1500 to YC.

Yeah, it may be worth more to the interviewee, but I think the OP was pointing out that it may be a waste of YC's time, considering they invest $1500 in the process for only 10 minutes of time with the candidates.


I'm not sure if you agree with me? That's precisely my point: I bet YC values its partners' time at more than $1500. Hence the to YC.


why is it worth more to the interviewee ? meet someone for 10 minutes then fly back to Thailand never to speak or see them again. I think the guy didn't even know the names of many of those on the interview panel. Am I missing something ? Do the interviewers give out their personal contact info, so they can coach his business or something.


If I understand correctly, YC will sometimes ask applicants to return soon afterwards for a second, extended interview. So they don't always make a "yes" decision in 10 minutes, but they can make a "no" decision in 10 minutes, which is quite logical. Think of it as the professional equivalent of a coffee date.


Now you made me curious about the stats of different age groups accepted into YC.


Thanks for sharing your experiences. I'm sorry to hear it didn't go the way you wanted. I'm going to tell my wife about your site - she actively practices yoga and we're about to move, so I'm sure she'll be happy to know about a way to find new yoga teachers.

I also wonder if what you're working on has the potential to ever be a billion dollar company. In the 10 minutes they spent with you, they might have decided that you are two years in on this idea already and married to it so might not be a good fit for them no matter how talented your team is.


I know your passion is Yoga, but it seems that your model would work with many types of fitness and health professionals (pilates instructors, personal trainers, massage therapists, etc.) and maybe even broader with other service professionals.

It may be risky if you feel you have tapped into a very dedicated niche of users, but increasing your scope (and ability to scale) may make you more attractive to investors and other accelerators. Good Luck!


Very interesting post! Our team also applied to YC. We didn't even get an interview :/ although we have a user base, paying customers and a product that got 20k sign-ups the first 48 hours. Read more here: https://medium.com/avocode-stories/ec1a87294204


> Then imagine restricting yourself to a 10 minute interview before deciding whether or not you’re going to hand someone $120,000 in cash and spend 3 months coaching them on their business that you’ll get a 7% share of.

Well they asked a fair number of startups to participate in a second interview (usually with a different group of interviewers).


You state in the post that you're making some money at the moment - how ? Your FAQ page says you'll soon be adding ads and adding premium content - but that implies these strategies are not implemented yet.


Hi, "YT Premium" has been live for a few months and is the main source of revenue (we've actually doubled revenue nearly every month since January). Ads are there too, but they just started and are making only a small dent in our budget :)


You guys are clearly ฝรั่ง, how have you managed to overcome Thai immigration laws based in Chiang Mai, or are you working there illegally? Did you get a BOI permit, or?


We are a BOI company. You're welcome to stop by our office space anytime for a cup of coffee :-)


I'd love to; I'll be permanently in Bangkok from October, but happy to head North for a little while. It'd be great to pick your brains about the BOI process too...


sounds good. feel free to get in touch via our website.


> since YC only reimburses founders for travel expenses up to $1500

I thought it was $1100?


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I think you're underestimating the Yoga explosion that has been happening recent few years. It's insane and certainly becoming very mainstream.


The yoga community has been growing by 30% every 4 years for more than a decade.


I'm confused. Are you saying that Git is more or less mainstream than Yoga? If more, then woa you're filter bubbled.


To be fair to them, they state they have never received funding and the site is profitable since the end of April. But it's very niche alright.


but the product and target market would have been known at the time of initial application - so to invite them to in-person interview suggests this niche and alternative product was suitable. This may give weight to some of the more "murky" reasons for rejection the author alludes to.




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