It all began on October 28th 2014 when at 11:22PM an email from Y Combinator was dropped into my inbox: “Thank you for applying to Y Combinator. Your application looks promising and we’d like to meet you in person. Please go here to read how interviews work and sign up for a slot…”. We had completed the Winter 2015 session (W15) a couple of weeks earlier and YC just informed us that they were going to meet us in San Francisco for an interview.
The first thing I did was ringing Daniele and waking him up in the middle of the night with the good news (to be honest I first told him that we were rejected 😉 ). We talked about the minimal chances we had to go beyond this step and about what this opportunity could represent for us. (It seems that from August to October, YC had received about three requests per minute from all over the world).
I promptly booked our interview slot: Monday November 17th at midday. I always liked the number 17.
It was our first apply since we started the Creo‘s adventure and we had been selected by the world’s most famous incubator, “not bad for a start” I thought. I also thought that it was almost an obvious choice due the radical impact that our project can have on software development. I realized that Creo is an extraordinary technological challenge and we achieved unbelievable results so far. Who could have developed a new multiplatform programming language with a blazing fast virtual machine? Who could have rewritten from scratch a mobile operating system fully UIKit compatible? Who could have a product like ours? Nobody, probably nobody in the world… and if YC’s choice was driven by the product than we would had no rivals.
For about 4 years I worked in Texas for Xojo Inc. and I soon realized how important is to find a way to give to as many people as possible the opportunity to develop their ideas. I believe that the original Creo idea was born during those years. I proposed to Xojo’s CEO my idea about a thin layer on top of existing OS API which did not required to develop huge glue code frameworks but Xojo was focusing on different projects and my idea was set aside. As soon as I returned to Italy I started working on finding a way to finance Creo project.
Product has no value
I believe that our biggest mistake was to think that being able to develop such an extraordinary product could somehow give us an advantage against the thousand of other ideas presented at Y Combinator. We were wrong.
Y Combinator has been created for one single purpose: to make money. They are neither a charity nor a fund that aims to help the development of new ideas … they just want to make money and they do it through math and the huge network of knowledge they have in Silicon Valley.
We often read that every startup should follow the creed “Fail Fast, Fail Often, Fail Forward” and for YC it is almost a dogma. A working prototype in the shortest possible time has almost more value than the product itself. YC assumes that no one can be sure about what people really want and so companies need to be prepared to rapid and abrupt changes affecting both the business model and the product itself. This golden rule, however, can not always be met, especially with project as complex as Creo. I really think that the complexity of the Creo project penalized us at YC.
Y Combinator is aware of having a single finite resource: people in his team that must analyze the thousands of submitted ideas. They should try to rationalize the selecting process that can appear almost brutal in its practical implementation.
Five days dedicated to the interviews (from Monday to Thursday, Saturday and Sunday included). About 8 hours a day, 5 rooms each with at least three YC’s members, a 10-minute interview (with a countdown) plus five more minutes reserved for the team to take a roughly decision. Every room can analyze about 30 projects per day (lunch included) multiplied by 5 rooms then for 5 days, result is about 750 projects analyzed for each session. How many teams are actually accepted? There isn’t a predetermined number, I think they can consider money as an unlimited resource, so they do not have a predefined budget and there is no advantage to be interviewed the first days rather than the last … the only thing that matters for them is the business model … I repeat here again: product has zero value.
Daniele and I arrived in San Francisco on Saturday November 15th at about 11PM. We found a nice hotel a mile away from the airport, very close to Caltrain which is the easiest and fastest way to get to the heart of Silicon Valley. So the first and the last day we booked at the Westin San Francisco Airport, which overlooks the bay and offers views and sunsets to lose your breath.
For our stay in Mountain View we opted for a hotel not too expensive but with two essential requirements, fast and free WiFi in the room (Nerd Lega would be proud of us) and the proximity to a Starbucks. Mountain View and Silicon Valley in general are very expensive and a decent hotel can easily get to $300 a night, the Super 8 Mountain View seemed a good compromise and it was also close to 335 Pioneer Way (Y Combinator headquarter):
We arrived in Mountain View on Sunday (one day before our interview) and we decided to go out exploring the city and then to walk up to Y Combinator HQ where a lot of people were busy with their interview. We entered the office (bare and scruffy-style like any other company with “investments worth 30 billion dollars” 😉 and we immediately started talking with the various groups waiting for their turn. Literally, you could find every kind of nerd representation: from payment systems to Lego style robot, from a lonely guy with a green phosphor PC to the guys who had tried to apply so many times that they had almost lost count.
A guy told me that Y Combinator in the past has been much criticized for the fact that it selected very few foreigners and I have reiterated that in this sense Americans have a great advantage than teams from other parts of the world … he then pointed out that by “foreigners” he meant people who don’t live in San Francisco. This statement really amused me but also scared me a bit.
Like every day, Daniele and I started text messaging at around 4:30 AM and we set up to meet at 7 AM at Starbucks. I already decided to go for a run in order to try to relax while Daniele opted for a nice walk, the appointment was a few miles further to Google headquarters… our plan was to then have a good shower and then head towards Y Combinator.
In front of a Coffee Mocha cup we tried to re-read our preparation material, which were just a collection of typical questions that YC asked during past interviews, questions like “what is your market?”, “how you know that people need your product? “,”what do you have that others do not?”. We had collected about 20 significant questions and they are all listed at the end of this article.
Once arrived at Y Combinator, the receptionist told us that our interview would take place in the building 2. Building 2? There is a building 2??? Yes there is, and it is in front of the main YC office, a smaller building with a reception, a large common room where teams wait for their interview and very small rooms where these occur.
Our interview was delayed of about half an hour, half an hour during which we started to be nervous, half an hour during which we had the opportunity to speak with Anna and Rustem (Austrians founders of Robo), half an hour during which two guys go out from one of the interview rooms with a gelatin brain in their hands … I am still wondering what it was.
Then they called us, it’s our turn. A quick glance between me and Daniele to understand that we had the situation in our hands (I am clearly ironic here). We entered the room and facing us there were 3 young boys in their early twenties. One of the them was basically leading the interview and he droves the conversation at what they were more interested in. I could describe the atmosphere as “almost friendly” … but 10 minutes go by very fast and they have to optimize that time.
The first impression is to be at a university exam, something like “Mathematical Methods for Engineering” (I still wake up at night thinking of not passing it). Personally I would have expected that we would have been asked a bit about the project, however apart from a very quick question about what we do, the product practically was not mentioned. The thing that has left us displaced was that it seemed that they had not even read our apply, in which we deeply explained what we had achieved, completed with video and demo as they requested.
However, in short our interview was more or less this:
YC: Hello guys, so what do you do?
Creo: In few words it’s an app that is able to create other apps. We have developed a new programming language with a multiplatform virtual machine and we have rewritten from scratch a mobile operating system (100% UIKit source compatible), all exposed through a desktop application that makes incredibly fast and easy the creation of mobile applications. Development time is reduced from weeks and months to few hours or days.
YC: OK, but there are other similar technologies . For example …
YC: OK, but why should I use your solution instead of using Xcode?
Creo: Xcode? (Have you read our apply?) … those are solutions that can be used only by professional developers, our software is for everyone, even for those who are not a developer.
YC: OK got it… so why should not I install Eclipse?
Creo: (Eclipse Holy God, you really just said Eclipse??) As I already pointed out our development environment is designed to be simple to use, with drag and drop you can practically do 99% of the most common task and the more complex activities such as binding or navigation logic or animations are exposed through a graphical interface very simple and intuitive.
(At this point I am started thinking if they really have read anything about our apply).
YC: OK, how many users do you have?
Creo:We are not yet on the market, so no user so far. (This information was clearly written in our apply).
YC: Why are you spending so much time developing this application?
Creo: It is not only an application, it is a compiler, a virtual machine, a new language and even a mobile operating system.
YC: How many users are using your app?
Creo: We are not yet on the market so only few developers and designers are currently testing it.
YC: How many apps has been developed with your software?
Creo: As I already said and as I clearly written in our apply, we are currently in pre-beta so we just developed apps for internal usage, nothing is on the market yet.
YC: OK guys the 10 minutes are over.
Creo: Well, we’d have a demo to show you.
YC: Ah OK so let’s see.
Creo: (30 seconds later)
YC: Guys, what you developed is really impressive.
YC: Bye guys and thanks for coming.
We came out of the interview dazed … neither I nor Daniele wanted to talk. My impression was that it was a complete disaster … two years of work, two years spent fighting for an idea that seemed impossible to become reality and in 10 minutes they had not even bothered to understand what we had in our hands. We ate a hamburger, we returned to the hotel and I only remember that I slept until the next day.
If you’re accepted at the Y Combinator program you receive a call from one of the team members, but if things do not go well you receive an email with a brief explanation of why you have not been chosen. I woke up around midnight, I checked the email and I saw one of Y Combinator. I already knew what it meant, I forwarded it to the guys and I went back to sleep. Then I woke up at 5 am (standard time now) and I saw a message of Daniele telling me that he would wait for me at the Starbucks at 7.
I do not know what happened during the night, I just know that all the bad thoughts of the day before had gone away leaving a new feeling of revenge and drive to do even more, even better. My concern was for the team, how they would react to the news? How would Daniele react? Certainly we did not sailed in good waters and after many sacrifices I think that we all needed some good news.
I took a shower and then I walk to Starbucks … where I found Daniele who was working, he was concentrated on trying to fix a bug that we have noted the previous day, shortly before the interview’ beginning . He said that he had been there since 5 am and he showed me the new dialog box that we could use to connect to devices via WiFi and also to diagnose possible problems.
And there I realized.
I realized that it did not matter how disastrous our experience has been with Y Combinator, it actually was the best thing that could happen to us. I saw firstly in Daniele and then also in the other team members the desire for revenge, the desire for redemption and especially the feeling of being involved in something really big … no matter the opinion that someone can give you in 10 minutes.
“Daniele, let’s enjoy our holiday in Silicon Valley now” was the only thing that I felt telling him at that moment … and so we did. We spent several days in California, visiting some mythical places that after having seen pictures and heard their names so many times, they appeared almost familiar … we “stalked” people and visited areas that can not be reported in this article … we also talked a lot about Creo and Y Combinator.
Learn by experience
We have spent a lot of time writing incredibly complex code, we have produced more than half a million lines of code, we were so buried in all this chaos of numbers and symbols that we were losing the true meaning of the reason why we were doing this sacrifice: the product.
We decided to create a product as complex as Creo not because we wanted to write tons of code, but rather to give to anyone the opportunity to be able to develop applications. Y Combinator, perhaps in a somewhat brutal, but still very effective way, made us remembering that. Although all our great and deep sacrifices, we needed to focused the one and only goal … have a product on the market. A very simple mission, that no matter how good we were, at that time we weren’t able to achieve.
Y Combinator was the right impetus at the right time. We decided not to submit any apply until we had a finished product and looking at how things are going that was the best decision we could take. For a product much complex as Creo, it has always been very hard to make plans: everyday we come across problems that seem insurmountable and new technologies that may change everything overnight time; these variables are always around the corner and they represent a huge challenge, especially for a small team like ours. But nowadays we are very close to the finished product and I think I can say that we received this last push by Y Combinator.
We’ll try again to apply to Y Combinator, because I am still convinced that their mentoring program is invaluable, not even comparable to the money they could give you. We’ll try again when we have a product on the market, with a real user base and with irrefutable numbers.
Go off and do something wonderful.
I read this sentence from Robert N. Noyce at the Intel museum in Santa Clara and it forces me to think a lot about the startup world. It seems that today the goal of the startups is to raise as much money as possible, as quickly as possible and at all costs instead of invent the best possible products and change people’s lives. Why we were here? For the money? Yes money are important and $120,000 at that time would have been a very good help … but mostly we accepted this so difficult challenge just for one purpose: to create something really innovative that can change the status quo.
So we just need to do that, we just need to “go off and do something wonderful”.
Y Combinator’s FAQ
- What are going to do?
- Potential Users?
- Obstacles in your path?
- What’s wrong with existing options?
- How you’ll overcame the barriers that allow existing options to stay bad?
- Who needs what you’re making?
- How do you know they need it?
- What are they doing now?
- What makes you different from existing options?
- Why isn’t someone already doing this?
- What obstacles will you face and how will you overcame them?
- How will customers/users find out about you?
- What resistance will they have to trying you?
- How will you overcome that resistance?
- What are the key things about your field that outsiders don’t understand?
- What part of your project are you going to build first?
- Who is going to be your first paying customers?
- If your startup succeeds, what additional areas might you be able to expand into?
- Why did you choose this idea?
- What have you learned so far from working on it?
- Six months from now, what’s going to be your biggest problem?