Stevie Graham. Hacker at large. Working on Zap.

4th December 2012

Post with 21 notes

How I got a YC interview as a single founder and blew it at the final hurdle

I’m currently 30,000 feet up in the sky, flying home after interviewing unsuccessfully for the W13 batch. I would like to share my experiences with you, illustrating what I did right, i.e. to be one of the select few to be invited to Mountain View as a solo founder; and what I did wrong, i.e. why PG et al passed on me this time around. Hopefully this post-mortem analysis will be of use for those planning to apply for future batches.

Be impressive

YC is extremely competitive. I heard around 3000 companies applied for S12 and it’s reasonable to assume that a similar number applied this time around, especially considering the historic trend of more applicants each batch. With the 40 or so companies admitted for W13 makes for roughly a 1% acceptance rate. I knew my application would have to be particularly impressive to even get an interview, especially considering the bias against solo applications. I had to get across that I’m smart, determined and will get stuff done no matter what. I wrote about Slanger, a black box reimplementation of Pusher that I largely wrote in a hotel room during RubyConf. I was also the first international employee at Twilio, and effectively launched Twilio into Europe alone. Sure, I had some support from HQ but I did all the heavy lifting for the first year when (to my great relief) my Twilio EU “co-founder” James Parton came along! This subtly demonstrated a track record of execution, and that I can handle a massive task alone and still deliver results, essential if YC was to take a punt on me as a solo founder. Bosh, that went straight on my application too. The person who hired me at Twilio, and who co-signed this was Danielle Morrill, now CEO of Refer.ly (YC S12). This helped no end, I’m sure.

“Please tell us about the time you, sjtgraham, most successfully hacked some (non- computer) system to your advantage.”

Earlier this year when I decided to leave Twilio to work on my own thing, I chose my idea (mobile payments) and what I wanted to call it. I chose the name ‘Zap’, because it’s a short, English verb, and the dot com domain name is languishing unused.  After some digging I went from staring at a private WHOIS entry to discovering the domain was owned by Harbinger Capital Partners, a hedge fund in NYC. Great, even 10x what that domain is worth is not going to move the needle for a hedge fund with tens of billions USD under management, but I didn’t give up there, it’s a great domain. I couldn’t just shoot off an email speculatively asking to buy the domain, I reasoned I’d have to do something extraordinary in order to get their attention. I asked around my network for an introduction, found one or two people that could connect me but they were reluctant to help me out. It was extremely frustrating, but I did not give up.

Instead, I ponied up for a LinkedIn premium account and tried to identify someone at the fund with enough juice to authorise the disposal of that domain. Unfortunately those folks were too smart for that and had their privacy settings maxed out, however the P.A. to the CEO had her profile semi-public. I sent her an inMail requesting a 10 minute meeting with the CEO, Philip Falcone and outlined what I wanted to do, i.e. something huge enough to pique the interest of someone already sitting plum on the Forbes billionaire list. She didn’t reply, so a couple of days later I jumped on the horn, called the switchboard, and asked for her by name. She didn’t pick up, I left her a voice mail and later on she replied to my inMail. Man, she shut me down hard; pressed Ctrl-Alt-Del on your boy. But still, I did not give up.

I went to a stationer and bought the most beautiful paper, typed out a short proposal for Falcone what I wanted to do with zap.com, and printed it out many times. The slightest smear of toner, or anything less than perfect penmanship when I signed it meant that copy was consigned to the trash. 60 copies later and I had one I was happy with. I was about to FedEx it when I thought to myself “Fuck it, I’m going to hand deliver it”, and with that I booked a ticket on the first thing smoking out of London Heathrow to JFK.

When I landed, I took my laptop ready to pitch at the drop of a dime, and hopped in a cab to the hedge fund’s office. It’s near the UN, so security is tight. I saw blacked out, unmarked SUVs with flashing police lights, the kind you see when you get a 5 star wanted level in Grand Theft Auto, and maximally militarised NYPD carrying disproportionately large guns; it was massively intimidating, I distinctly remember asking myself WTF was I doing. I walked into the lobby of the building and was immediately stopped by security, “Can I help you, sir?” I looked the dude right in the back of his eye and replied “Yes actually, you can. I’m here to see Trish McAndrews of Harbinger Capital Partners. Can you let her know Stevie Graham from London is here to see her please?” Now, just as one does not simply walk into Mordor, one also does not simply walk into a hedge fund and demand to see the CEO. Instead I asked for the gatekeeper, i.e. his P.A. by name. I didn’t have an appointment, but the sound my huge balls made as I sauntered into the building probably threw him off. He checked my ID and called the elevator.

I emerged from the elevator into the opulent reception of Harbinger Capital Partners. “Can I help you, sir?” asked one of the Amazonian receptionists. She could have easily had a career as a runway model, this only added to the intimidation factor. I gave her the same schtick as I did in the lobby, when she spotted the envelope in my hand and made a play for it. I calmly explained that I had flown 3,700 miles specifically to hand deliver this letter, and would be OK if I saw Trish in person? She looked at me for a while, but “something surprising or amusing that I have discovered” is unbroken eye contact with strangers is immensely disconcerting for most people. So I didn’t say anything more, I just looked her in the eye, implicitly expecting compliance. After a few uncomfortable seconds (for her), she acquiesced and picked up the phone to call Trish.

Trish came down and we spoke. She informed me that El Jefe was out of town speaking at a conference. I asked where, saying I would fly anywhere he was for a 10 minute meeting. Trish firmly but politely insisted he was busy, but she would make sure he received my letter. I thanked Trish for her time and left. I went straight to the Apple Store on 5th ave to find out about this conference, it was in Aspen and unfortunately I wouldn’t have made it there before it ended. 

Back at my hotel I was thinking how to get Falcone’s P.A. on my team, after checking with some female friends that it wasn’t egregiously creepy, I sent a dozen cupcakes from an upscale Manhattan bakery the next day along with a handwritten note thanking her for seeing me the day before and containing my contact details in case Falcone suddenly became available. I thought maybe she might send a thank you note via email at least. Radio silence. Still, I did not give up.

A few thousand quid in the hole, I sat in despair in my hotel room contriving ways to circumvent the gatekeepers, but how? There was no email address on Harbinger’s website that I could take the format from and use to extrapolate what Falcone’s email address might be. I picked up the phone again and called Harbinger, pretending to be a graduate student researching another Harbinger investment that’s been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately, LightSquared. I was hoping to get the email address of someone I could send some questions to, and use that address to work out Falcone’s. It didn’t work, I was simply given a telephone number to call. STILL, I DID NOT GIVE UP. In a last ditch attempt I opened up Mail.app and began typing an email with no one to send it to. I guess it was catharsis, but when I finished I filled the BCC with as many permutations of what his email address could be and then hit send. Instantly I received hard bounces from the Exchange server, but crucially the amount of undelivered recipients was one less than the addresses I sent it to. 3 minutes later Philip Falcone himself replied to my email from his iPhone asking for a business plan. I annotated my presentation deck and sent it to him and over the following weeks it was downloaded 5 times. I followed up with him but didn’t get a reply… I have not given up(!) I’m just not bothering him until I have something more substantive to show him. However, if you’re reading this Mr Falcone, feel free to give me a call! 

I didn’t get the domain (yet) but I did get a massively baller story to put on my YC application. The system I hacked was life itself, and in the process demonstrated that I’m an insanely determined hustler that does not embrace failure lightly. All those times I was shut down, Falcone himself vindicated my persistence by being interested enough to reply to my email and download my deck several times.

Lay the groundwork: Shaking hands and kissing babies

Before applying to YC I went out to Mountain View for Startup School, mainly because I was invited (n.b. randomly selected) to a reception at YC the day before. I knew this would be a great time to get some face time with and stand out to the partners; that would be worth the airfare alone to me. I was introduced to Harj and managed to tell him the entire story I just told you.

Startup School itself turned out to be awesome too. The talks were informative and inspirational, I remember Jessica’s talk in particular inspiring me. I also met a ton of smart people during the week I was there, and it really drove home to me that the Valley is the place to be. 

Get recommendations from YC Alumni

I understand the average successful application has the recommendation of a few YC alumni. I had at least 6, and I got an interview so I’d say it definitely helps. I strongly suspect all recommendations are not equal either. Expect YC to follow up to see exactly how strongly alumni actually recommend you and it’s not unreasonable to assume that the recommendation (as any other) is weighted according to how respected the recommender is by YC too.

I imagine YC also weighting recommendations according to how accurate the recommender has been at picking successful applicants/companies in the past. I’d put money on YC doing this or something similar. PG loves empirical data.

The bottom line is to work hard to get quality recommendations from quality alumni.  

Have a massive idea

PG has said himself that he loves the idea of funding something that has a tiny chance of success but massive upside if it comes off. 

Read PG’s essays

The key to getting into YC is to read PG’s essays. He lays down in black and white what kind of entrepreneurs and companies he wants to fund. The answer to every single question on the YC application form is within PG’s essays. Read them.

The interview

Largely disregard YC alumni advice when it comes to the application and the interview. I received so much conflicting advice that it was ultimately harmful to my performance. Not to denigrate the advice given to me by alumni - I’m very grateful for it - it’s my own fault for weighting it too heavily when synthesising my own strategy. I imagined a barrage of questions, constantly being cut off by the partners, having to maintain and track several conversational threads. I expected to vigorously defend being a solo founder. I was told PG does not suffer fools gladly, and shuts them down in record time. That is what I was told to expect, but was nothing like what happened. It was actually like what I imagine office hours to be, albeit heavily abbreviated. Oh, and surprise, surprise! PG actually says this somewhere. Again, read what PG writes!

I sat waiting for my interview at one of the long tables in the main area at YC. I was not nervous, I did not expect to be accepted so there was nothing to fear. Suddenly, Jessica appeared with the most incredibly warm smile and an outstretched hand, I could not help but reciprocate with a similarly beaming smile. As I went into the room Jessica, PG, Trevor, and RTM all introduced themselves with massive smiles on their faces. That really put me at ease within seconds. Wonderful, considering how gruelling the interview process must be for them too. They clearly do YC because they love it.

PG began asking me questions before I had even taken my coat off, I jumped right in, PG and I riffing on ideas. Every YC alum I’ve spoken to testified how smart PG is. I knew he was smart, I’d read his essays, but the feedback was so universally exultant it felt a bit cult like. However, PG knew exactly what I wanted to do, it was the quickest anyone has grokked my idea. I could almost see this divide conquer algorithm working in his brain as he traversed the idea space, it was spectacular to behold. The back and forth between PG and I continued, I saw Trevor nodding his head in my peripheral vision, Jessica watched us all while taking notes, PG seemed to really dig my idea, the interview overran, man that 10 minutes felt like 30 seconds. It seemed to be going well… then PG hit me with a particular question about acquiring a particular type of user, one I should have been able to answer, one I’d practiced dozens of times over the past few days, one I had several strong answers to. I don’t understand why, but my mind simply went blank. The interview ended a minute or two after.

I went outside and the answer popped into my head instantly. I feverishly banged out an email with the answer to the interviewing partners immediately. I told the alumni milling around outside how it went, including tanking the question. They all still thought I would get in, but I knew deep down I had torpedoed my chances. Later on I got the rejection email, PG didn’t think I had enough of the idea figured out yet. I was so mad at myself because I knew that I did. I can never know why I didn’t make it in. I can only take my evaluation of my own performance and reconcile that with PG’s email.

I wallowed in self loathing for a day and then remembered the Instacart story. Inspired, I hacked out the feature that was the answer to the flunked question and used it on the partners. Not one of them clicked through the email, but by this time I felt extremely motivated anyway, getting back to work on that feature was exactly what I needed to pull me out of the pit of despair.

In hindsight, I spent too much time preparing the demo and not enough time on interview prep. I wanted to rock in and say “Hell yea I have a demo. Can I have your credit card? I’ll use Zap to get my 800 coins for the flight over!” The partners didn’t even ask to see it, that was a shame because it was absolutely beautiful.

Even though I didn’t get in to this batch, it’s not a big deal. I will continue ahead regardless, I might even apply again in the summer. I think I may have even found myself a cofounder too. PG’s advice was also extremely helpful and worth the trip alone. It was an honour just to discuss my idea for 10 minutes with someone I greatly admire.

Some cornball at YC

Some cornball hanging around YC after his interview

Lessons learned:

  • Read all of PG’s essays. Voraciously devour them. The answers are within.
  • Don’t place too much importance on alumni interview/application advice. Alumni will contradict one another, it will be confusing, and do more harm then good.
  • Ignore the iPG simulator. It’s nothing like being interviewed by PG. Whatsoever.
  • Focus on knowing your market as much as possible, finding your unique insight, and building your domain knowledge for the interview
  • Divide preparation time between demo and interview prep appropriately.

Hope this is useful for someone. If you want to stay up to date with what I’m up to, drop me your email address at http://paywithzap.com/

I’m @stevegraham on twitter, and my email address is sjtgraham <-at-> mac D0T com.

EDIT: HN commenters seem to be unfortunately fixated with the cost of my NYC jaunt. Have they not considered that I might have actually tried to raise money from Falcone? When I get him in a room, you can bet that I’ll be trying to get the domain and some capital from him before I’ll try to buy it off of him with my own cash. What do you think is more likely to be successful, a billionaire throwing down a relatively small amount of coin to invest or him hearing out an offer to acquire the domain for 5-6 figures without laughing me out of the room. 2-3 grand for a holiday and a roll of that dice makes that worth a punt in my eyes.

S

  1. badarudheen reblogged this from stevegraham
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  3. youngandhungry said: I fucking loved reading this. Stevie, I have a friend who went through YC to start his company AnyPerk. I could hook you up, I’m sure he’d be happy to help you out / answer questions.
  4. tak-lo reblogged this from stevegraham and added:
    Great post and analysis!
  5. scottsage reblogged this from stevegraham
  6. whiteboardmag reblogged this from stevegraham
  7. namitc reblogged this from stevegraham and added:
    Steve Grahams YC application story, must read.
  8. stevegraham posted this