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Ask HN: What startups were refused from YC but became successful?
112 points by mw67 on April 21, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 71 comments
Alternatively, what startups did the YC partners failed to see become successful, but did so?

SamA needs to do an Anti-Portfolio :-) -- http://www.bvp.com/portfolio/antiportfolio

what would be even better is to know why they got rejected. as a founder it's always very interesting to hear rationals from smart people (whether they end up being right or wrong).

> In some cases, we were making a conscious act of generosity to another, younger venture firm, down on their luck, who we felt could really use a billion dollars in gains.

What? I never would have thought that firms did this.

And the fact that it's the first of two reasons listed sends the message that it's something they do more than just once in a while.

They're just being facetious. That reason is immediately followed up by:

> In other cases, our partners had already run out of spaces on the year's Schedule D and feared that another entry would require them to attach a separate sheet.

I see. Thanks.

I think that would be a joke.

if BVP are going to reject you, don't worry, you will become multi-billion company in next 10 years, rejected google, fb, intel, ebay, fedex, wow

That is an amazing list of what they passed up on.

Wow, that's quite a prominent list...

The Ionic team applied to YC before we were Ionic (back w/ Codiqa, our visual design tool for jQuery Mobile apps). I was freaking out since they didn't email us until the day after the interview! I guess we were right on the edge.

Oh well, was a fun experience and we've been successful w/o it.

(for reference: http://ionicframework.com/)

Somehow I missed this. At first sight I figured Ionic was Yet Another Framework, but this looks potentially amazing. Will check it out.

Pacifica (http://thinkpacifica.com) is built on Ionic. We're also featured in iTunes right now, just a note that it's very possible to build beautiful hybrid applications. While the company isn't a success quite yet, we've been rejected from YC twice as well.

Ionic really is amazing. Their development pipeline is really smart and makes the whole process a lot more enjoyable then most other "mobile" frameworks.

Did you find other investors, or did you bootstrap yourselves?

A mix of both. After the rejection we bootstrapped for a while and were able to go full time (we're bootstrappers at heart). Later we applied to TechStars and did that. Four months after TechStars though we started working on Ionic and then raised a $1M seed round quickly since we felt we were on to something big and wanted to get to work.

As a sort of real-time answer, my startup[1][2] just had a booth at the NMX/NAB show in Las Vegas and completely blew up from a user acquisition perspective, and had applied to this upcoming round without getting an interview. We wanted to sign about 8 blogs in order to cover the costs of going to the show, and wound up signing over 1200 blogs, 5 major retailers, a couple licensing deals, and a lot of smaller retailers (some fashion startups among them) whose products we could list in our catalog.

I'm kind of glad that the interview wasn't even an option, since we're based out of San Diego and it simplifies the logistics of our operations for not having to move to SF for a period. Having no idea of how NMX/NAB was going to go, YC seemed like the best way to get our idea out there whilst getting their great support system. Now, we can just go heads-down in development and prepare for our June release.

It's always extremely discouraging to get rejections -- we got rejected from EvoNexus[3], TechCrunch Disrupt NY, and YCombinator (twice). This pretty much tells me that I'm horrible at filling out applications. I'd like to think that if the YC partners had walked up and talked to us at our booth, we would have definitely gotten the interview.

This Vegas trip was the most amazing thing that has happened since I came up with the idea of pleenq[4], because we barely had to sell the product -- people were so excited by the possibilities it would bring, and about all the monetization opportunities it opens up. Most of our customers were referrals from others who had seen our booth, and were told to "make sure they saw pleenq before they left the show". I closed every single person I talked to at our booth over the 4 days of the show, which was basically the highest form of encouragement I could have hoped for.

[1] https://facebook.com/pleenq and http://pleenq.com

[2] Demo of PLEENQ that we showed at NAB/NMX: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wu4gaiaA7I

[3] A San Diego-based incubator that takes 0% equity and is really great for startups with a little bit of traction

[4] Pleenq lets you tag items in any image on the internet and link them to where they can be purchased

I always thought Svpply was the future and Amazon missed the boat on not acquiring them. This is a great idea.

Why do you want/need an incubator? Pleenq seems like an idea that's very easy to bootstrap.

The EvoNexus incubator takes 0% equity and would give us free office space, $25K in yearly Amazon (AWS) credits, and exposure to VC's if we had gone the funding route. Our office is actually in the same building as EvoNexus (11th floor vs. 2nd floor), so it seemed like a logical fit.

As you said, though, it turns out it was just much easier to bootstrap the entire thing since it starts paying off really quickly.

For instance having a family can make any bootstrapping almost impossible.

Not necessarily. It will be a lot harder but by no means impossible, and you can have one more person working on the start-up in the beginning which is actually a benefit.

Do users have to install the browser extension to see the image with link? Or can anyone use it (even without the extension)? This seems like a strong barrier.

Did you intentionally mix serif and sans-serif fonts on your website?

It made my amateur design hackles stand up.

I contracted out the website, and although it isn't to my liking (doesn't look at all good on mobile), it just needed to exist to facilitate user signups. Our actual work was done in person at the show, so the website wasn't going to turn off anyone that was interested since they already knew what it was before going to it.

The eventual website will be more of a web application akin to twitter, instead of a signup landing page. We've just prioritized releasing the actual extension ahead of getting the website done, since the probability of an organic signup was next to nothing.

same here. in principle, one can mix and match serif and sans-serif fonts as deemed fitting, but this here seems to be a mistake. the designers wanted to use a font named Arvo, but failed to include it via @font-face. thus, the browser falls back to the default serif font.

That's... quite an unprofessional mistake to make.

If you have Arvo, the design looks sort-of-okay. I have more of a problem with the ad copy.

"Easily tag items to where they can be purchased" is non-standard English and doesn't do a great job of communicating what's going on.

I had to chew through it a couple of times to work out what it meant.

Maybe I'm missing it, but they only seem to be using serif fonts as headers. That's totally legitimate, although their choice of serifs is horrible.

So this is an image map generator?

Couchbase (then CouchOne) seems to be doing pretty well. SendGrid, Buffer, Storenvy, are others that come to mind.

I think that there are more founders that were rejected by YC that became successful, not startups.

interesting comment re founders. probably the reason why drew from dropbox applied a second time with a different idea.

I’ll bite and say my firm CastingWords ( http://castingwords.com )

Even though just existing 9 years after the interview would have been a failure condition for our build to flip mindset at the time - but today it’s paying the founders salaries and still providing intersting challenges - so a success as we define it.

And it must be said that the advice we got in our interview (that we rejected - no doubt one of the reasons we were turned down) was dead on - not just for what it would take to make the company a successful startup, but also for seeing some of the challenges in the road ahead. Just the interview was a fantastically useful.

And the fact that we rejected the advice was probably a good indicator that what we really wanted out of our company was not a startup, but rather a platform to play with interesting technology and business problems and make money doing it. Startups really aren’t for everyone. YC was part of us discovering that.

Can I ask what was the advice that you turned down? it's very interesting that after all this time you still consider that the interview was fantastically useful. I'll consider applying for mine just to hear their thoughts.

It's fantastically useful as a touch point. It's a point that, retrospectively, the road forked and it changed who we are and what we do, and sort of defined our values. We compare ourselves, and our competitors, to the theoretical company we could've been fairly frequently.

As for the advice even if it was shocking at the time it doesn't seem that scary these days. It does seem a little prescient. The big one was to ditch our largest supplier, Amazon Mechanical Turk, build it ourselves and compete with them, as our success would be limited by them. This wasn't something we were willing to do at the time, we viewed them handling those problems as a major leg up for us. However in the end much of this was correct and building our own (more limited version) was part of us being financially successful as a company.

Most of the advice consisted of start up tropes, applied to our particular business. They basically told us to dream audacious dreams, do difficult things that don't scale to boot strap and build relationships while doing it. But they didn't use any of those words and did apply them specifically to our problems which was pretty helpful.

But the real value was as a touchstone, and illustrating how far ahead people who are good at this can see

> what we really wanted out of our company was not a startup, but rather a platform to play with interesting technology and business problems and make money doing it

Yeah, the more I read about startups, the less I can imagine taking something I love to YC or some other accelerator. An idea I'm halfway enthusiastic on that will make some money, sure. Something good for the world where the technical work is not my favorite thing, definitely. But if I'm passionate about the work, I want to keep doing it, not pivot, manage, hockey-stick, and sell.

I think SendGrid initially applied to YC before getting into TechStars. See http://www.quora.com/Why-was-SendGrid-rejected-from-YCombina...

I have been rejected each and every time I have applied, and have submitted with various ideas/projects. However, the most recent project is patent-pending software that allows drivers to hire ticket defense law firms without the need for human involvement. The proverbial...Rocket Lawyer for Ticket Defense.

Our software has been live since September with a Florida Ticket Defense Firm we have seen great traction and growth (400 clients in the last 90 days), and we appear to be on schedule to offer our software to law firms nationwide starting next month. I am not sure to date this could be defined as a success in the YC sense, we have had no funding, we have had no media coverage, no VCs on the board...but there has been local market adoption of our product and the potential to scale this seems attainable even if boot-strapping.

Edit: To be clear I am not saying YC defines success as funding, or media coverage...but show me a YC company that has achieved anyones definition of success without getting Funding and media coverage as a step along the way.

How are you different from Fixed?


In terms of traction, you got 400 people in a quarter (and how many of those routinely get tickets?) vs. Fixed's waiting list of 25000 signups from more than a year ago.

Everything...Fixed is an App that facilitates the resolution of parking tickets fought by in-house staff (I think non-attorneys). Our software is for a driver who gets a traffic ticket and our software connects drivers with law firms licensed to fight the ticket and offer transparent pricing. The transparent/automated pricing is the basis for our pending patent and what differentiates our software.

On the business side Fixed's 25k waiting list...none of them are paying customers, of those who are not on the waiting list and using the app, Fixed gets nothing when they challenge a ticket and lose (which appears to be 80% [1]), but when Fixed wins I think they get 25% of the original fine. I think more generally Fixed wants to offer "Justice as a Service" and start challenging all kinds of quasi-legal problems that do not require a licensed lawyer, which is a tremendous space and I look forward to seeing them grow. Of our 400 in the last 90 days, they are paying clients of our partner law firm, and the relationship is between the client and law firm, not us and the client.

[1] http://autoweek.com/article/car-news/fixed-parking-ticket-ap...

I hate patents, good thing my country got rid of software patents.

For curiosity's sake, what exactly is patentable about what you describe?

The only one I know (Platzi), achieved those before applying for YC.

Munchery was rejected by YC after the interview[1], and they have since become arguably the most successful and fastest-growing[2] "prepared food" startup in Silicon Valley and the US.

(More than Sprig, despite Sprig receiving significantly more tech press coverage.)

[1] https://medium.com/@munchery/pitch-your-life-2f170eab933b

[2] They raised a $28 million Series B round this time last year.

The team at Keen.io recently shared a fantastic blog post about being rejected on stage at YC startup school, and their success since then: https://keen.io/blog/116400439081/lessons-from-a-failed-yc-p...

I think it's really useful to watch the video of the "failure". The guy explains the value add and PG is just not getting it. He didn't do a bad job of pitching, but he would be answering the question and getting to the salient point and then PG or the other guy would interrupt him to ask an irrelevant question. They kept derailing him rather than listen. I'm sure they were trying to wrap their head around it, but it's clear in the first 30 seconds that PG had locked onto "this is the same as mixpanel" and then wasn't hearing what was different.

I think he did a great job of explaining it. I don't fault PG for locking onto the wrong concept-- it's gotta be hard to be up on stage like that and figure out what people are really doing with so little info and on a rushed time scale, and then do it again and again 10 times in an hour.

I think the most important lesson from that is, whatever the first words out of your mouth are, they are going to flavor the entire rest of the conversation because they set the context, and it's really easy to get the investor locked into the wrong context.

> Then I jumped on Hacker News and there’s a post on “How Not to Talk to Investors” and it had two videos, and I was one of the examples of how not to do this, basically being publicly humiliated.

Well, aren't we a lovely bunch. Good for him he didn't give up.

I'd be interested to see which thread it was.


Depends on what you mean by success. If you mean being a profitable bootstrapped business there are probably tons of companies. Companies that went on raise series A and beyond some companies might be out there.

However I have feeling success for YC is having a company become a Unicorn. The question to ask is which startups that didn't get into YC are now Unicorns.

Some friends of mine started www.overleaf.com, and were rejected by YC a while later. They haven't had an exit yet, but as far as I can tell they're doing exceptionally well.


Give me a year and I'll say: "mine" :)

Edit: removed name of my startup to avoid "click-bait"

Please don't. I suspect, like many here, I find many interesting and useful project via posts like this. I especially dislike it when someone shares a story of their startup or project, but then doesn't include the name, so I can't put it in context.

That's not to say I'm in favor of blatant self promotion, but I think people on HN are more shy about their projects than they ought to be.

Yes - people here ought to be proud of what they're working on. We're smart enough to tell if someone does nothing other than toot their own horn.

It's in his profile if you're interested.

I agree with you 100%. But I also understand that self-promotion might be uncomfortable for some people, so I just try to be respectful with them.

I am uncomfortable with you deleting the name of your startup.

It is his company.

Don't listen to "some people". Do what's best for your customers.

If you had a cure for cancer, would you promote it?

I think you are too modest.

Saving others an extra click to your profile page: "Co-founder @ rmotr.com. Ex-CTO @ Athlete.com"

How do I become a teacher on your platform? I am a python developer.

I think the guys from https://www.Pay4Bugs.com did. I'm a user of theirs (crowdsourced bug testing for apps / websites / software)...

They've been developing tons of new features and seem to be getting more and more major positive press every week.

But if nothing else, this is definitely one of those 'invest in the founders' situations... Larry and CS are crazy smart and are now at that solid experienced-but-not-too-old age.

Can you explain what is too old for you? What is the impact of being "too old"?

It differs from person to person, but there's definitely a point where most of us have an energy level drop-off or family commitments that make a sheer-hustle startup life far more difficult.

I think the early-to-mid 30s is a perfect age for most. "Old enough to do it right, but young enough to do it all night long"

Let me guess: "too old" is five years older than whoever you ask, is.


I know there was a mobile gaming company that was very highly valued, can't remember the name though.

Sahil Lavingia, founder of Gumroad, applied to YC with his iPhone App Dayta

How do you define "successful"?

Sendgrid was rejected from YC.

None. Acceptance into YC is the ultimate measure of success /s

I'm surprised by how few are listed here and that "successful" wasn't even defined by any parameters in the initial question and no one has mentioned that yet. Does successful mean profitable? Reached some revenue target? Has grown organically by some amount? Didn't fail?

I think this is more interesting if the parameters of success is kept broad.

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