What the Y Combinator experience actually looks like

A crowdsourced snapshot of the YC Winter 2017 batch

Y Combinator just celebrated its twelfth birthday. As the world’s most successful startup incubator (having produced all ten of the unicorns that have come from such programs) there is no shortage of things that have been written about YC. Blog articles abound on how to get in, how it compares to other incubators, and all kinds of similar topics.

But what what does doing Y Combinator actually look like?

This will be the first Startup Snapshot article to feature not one startup, but a whole group of them. Having just completed Y Combinator’s Winter 2017 (W17) batch, we reached out to some of the other companies in the batch to crowdsource some snapshots of behind-the-scenes life. (Because the photos in the articles are crowdsourced and in-the-moment, you won’t find Snappr-grade amazing photography here!)

By the close of applications in October 2016, around 7,200 companies had applied to be in YC’s W17 batch. In November, several hundred of these descended on Mountain View for one 10 minute interview each with various panels of YC partners. From these, just over a hundred found out the same day that they had been accepted into the batch.

That gave companies two months to prepare themselves (and their investment paperwork) for the program, which kicked off in the first week of January. Many of these companies were fortunate enough to already be in the Bay Area. Many had to relocate from far afield, including Nigeria, India and Australia. YC recommended that founders locate themselves in the peace and quiet of the South Bay, near YC’s Mountain View office, but many also chose to be in San Francisco.

The view from Indigo Fair’s home office at 7am, when they would start their day

For the folks at Moneytis, this meant relocating from Lisbon, Portugal, which is where we see them here in October 2016

This gradual migration of companies to the Bay came to an end on January 3rd with the first YC dinner. Over 200 founders anxiously came together in YC’s Mountain View space. For most of us, this was the first time we’d been to YC since our interviews. Entering the building involved ‘signing in’ with one’s HackerNews ID.

The entrance to YC's space, with its HackerNews ID login

After some non-alcoholic welcome drinks and some social chit-chat, we sat down to eat with one another and hear from the YC partners about what to expect in the coming three months. We got an idea of just how diverse the batch was, and were told that the median founder age was 29 years.

‍The view from the back of a dinner (photo courtesy of Playment)

After dinner, most people evaporated quickly, keen to get back to work and make the most of every minute of the YC months! A handful of folks stuck around until late and went for a quiet beer in the main street of Mountain View.

Jeff, co-founder of Zestful with Ed and Matt, the founders of Snappr, out for beers after the first W17 dinner

There are three main formalized parts of the YC batch experience:

  1. Weekly dinners and speakers.
  2. Office hours with YC partners.
  3. Getting investor-ready, culminating with YC’s Demo Day.

And then outside of what YC organises there’s:

  1. Bunkering down and getting a lot of work done (the vast majority).
  2. (For most companies) Living and working out of the same house with the whole team.
  3. Socialising with other YC companies.
  4. Plugging into the YC network.
  5. Meeting investors and fundraising.

If you’re anywhere in Mountain View in the middle of a YC batch, the chances are that you’re only metres away from a household of YC founders. Larger teams tend to get a house to themselves, while smaller teams of one or two often share.

Teams from Scaphold, Fiix and DocTalk at their shared Mountain View house

‍The team from Moneytis outside their Bay Area mansion on the first day of the batch

‍The team from Niles working on their real-time Wiki Slack-bot

The WaystoCap (Alibaba for Africa) team hard at work in their kitchen

‍One W17 founder lived right outside the YC office for part of the batch (how convenient!) in a new type of home made by another startup in the batch, Boxouse

The weekly Tuesday dinners were the heartbeat of the YC program. Before dinners, companies would come together in small groups to do ‘Group Office Hours’ (each company would do this once a fortnight). These can best be described as startup AA meetings, where founder shares their wins and their issues, and chip in together with partners to offer each other advice. Dinners would follow, with homecooked-style food and a dinner speaker. During our batch, speakers included the founders of Airbnb, Stripe and Whatsapp. The dinners were a great opportunity to relax for a few hours every week and hang out with new friends. But they could also be stressful if not much had been accomplished in the preceding week. There would always be founders who were simply itching to get out of there and get back to whatever growth task they couldn’t get off their mind!

The speaker chairs at the front of the YC's 'big room'

‍The team from BulkMRO hanging out with WhatsApp founder Jan Koum after one dinner

On one Tuesday dinner afternoon Snappr took profile photos for a large proportion of the batch - the Snappr photographer here with Hassan from SmartAlto admiring his new mugshot...

Office hours are time with YC partners to talk about any topic that founders might be grappling with. YC partners are all extremely seasoned entrepreneurs and investors. Some work for YC full-time - the likes of Sam Altman, Paul Buchheit, Adora Cheung and Michael Seibel. Others are part-time and spend time with YC founders outside of their day-job hours like Gustaf Alstromer (Airbnb) and Aaron Epstein (Creative Market). Office hours would tend to be action-packed, fast-paced 30 minute sessions of strategizing, brainstorming and learning from the successes and mistakes of other companies. Companies tend to book in around two per week. Most founders tend to report that their best office hours sessions were the most value-adding 30-minute blocks in their company’s history.

The founders of Neema with one of YC’s in-house lawyers, Jon Levy (the legal team also offers office hours throughout the batch)

But the vast majority of a founder’s time at YC is not in seminars or training or office hours, but hard at work. For many, this is coding and hustling. But YC now accepts a growing number of product startups, whose day-to-day life during the batch looks much more interesting...

‍Inside the Millibatt lab during YC - these guys are creating the world’s smallest batteries

‍Inside the DELEE lab during YC - they’re a medical device company working on a new cancer therapy

The fast pace and self-imposed high expectations often lead batch companies to a lot of soul-searching, rethinking of strategies and sometime even hard pivots in the middle of the program. Oh and did I mention whiteboarding?!

‍The guys at Indigo Fair ran out of whiteboard space and shifted to using their window for strategizing

‍Moneytis plotting world domination over some beers (this was actually late-night meeting on how to send money to specific countries that have restrictions)

Bit amidst all the hard work, there was still plenty downtime. Much of which tended to involve food.

Some home cooking with founders from Wright Electric (Jeff), the Centre for Effective Altruism (Tara) and Sinovia Technologies (George)

‍Open house tacos with Paragon One in Mountain View

‍A more classy get-together at one of the partners’ homes

At the outset, YC partners advised founders to do only three things for the three months: talk to customers, build their product, and keep healthy. People took different approaches to the third rule.

‍The folks from Tolemi took to the plentiful hiking trails in the Bay

‍Stray Google bikes laying around in Mountain View were a popular means of exercise for YC founders…

The teams from Playment and BulkMRO getting in some beach time

Its also very important to get in plenty of good sleep and rest during YC. Whether it is at home on the couch…

...or in the YC office…

...or a half-resting-half-working hybrid approach...

Many hockey-stick revenue charts and lines of code later, the pointy end of YC was upon us. It was almost Demo Day. At this point, YC shifted gear from product-building and hustling to pitching and preparing for investor discussions. The build-up looked like this: pitching one-on-one to each other, pitching to partners, then to small groups, then to the entire W17 batch, then to the alumni network, and then Demo Day itself, where hundred of seasoned investors were present. In the week leading up to Demo Day, founders occupied YC’s office day and night honing their pitch.

‍Teams receiving pitching wisdom from YC partner Michael Seibel

Demo Day is actually Demo Days. That is, there are two, with around 50 companies presenting each day. It takes place at the Computer Science History Museum in Mountain View. Founders and investors alike sign into the building with, you guessed it… their HackerNews IDs.

‍The Rezi crew in the corridors of the Computer Science History Museum, making last-minute tweaks to their Demo Day pitch

‍Group photo time during demo day (photo courtesy of BulkMRO)

The ‘running list’ on the wall backstage on Demo Day 2 (photo courtesy of Breaker)

‍Taking the edge off the nerves with some smartphone distractions in the Demo Day backstage ‘green room’, where the next few startups to present would line up (photo courtesy of Breaker)

Even the most hardened entrepreneurs and confident personalities couldn’t escape the immense anxiety of stepping onto a stage in front of hundreds of the world’s top investors. It is almost balanced out by the relief of walking off the stage and having your phone light up with ‘likes’ from the investors via YC’s in-house matchmaking software.

As if that wasn’t enough, the very next day came ‘Investor Day’ - which is basically speed-dating between YC founders and interested investors from Demo Day. It looks a little something like this…

Investor Day 'speed-dating' table setup

‍Clipboard Health founder Wei with one of the better-known investors to attend on Investor Day

Many companies had the exhilarating experience of investors signing checks right there on Investor Day. But most of the YC fundraising discussions don’t happen at Investor Day - they happen over the phone and in Bay Area coffee shops in the weeks and months that follow.

‍Here’s one that my co-founder Ed snapped of me, talking to an angel investor in the Snappr house loungeroom, with a lot of dubiously stable Snappr merchandise in the background

With The rate of dinners and parties among the W17 batch companies picked up steeply after the stress of Demo Day and the excitement of signing on first investors.

Founders challenging YC partner Paul Buchheit to Giant Jenga at the final official YC event of the batch

At a post-Demo-Day houseparty hosted by the good folks at Scaphold and Fiix

YC has to be one of the world’s most institutionalized emotional roller coasters. The word ‘accelerator’ is a great one. ‘Amplifier’ would also be a good word for it. Everything is accelerated and amplified: company growth, the highs, the lows, the team-building, the team-breaking, the startup networking, and the friendship forming.

The network of over a thousand companies who have been through previously, including the likes of Airbnb and Dropbox, are notoriously helpful to the each new batch of young companies, and they continue to do so for us. Founders can continue to book office hours with YC partners for all time. And official YC dinners and group office hours give way to informal gatherings of likeminded founders in the batch. The YC W17 batch is now officially over, but YC goes on for all of us.

Author
Matt Schiller
Photographer
Crowdsourced (YC W17)

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