YCombinator is the early stage startup accelerator that gave rise to the likes of Airbnb and Dropbox. It accepts a cohort of startups several times a year into its accelerator program, where the startups get investment and guidance from leaders in their industry.
The interview round consists of a 10-minute interview where founders are grilled by a set of VCs who have researched the viability of their idea. The session is entirely run by the VCs; the founders cannot prepare any deck or pitch.
In other words, shit is hard, like really hard.
And over halfway in we were doing bad, like really bad.
We were doing bad mostly because Michael Seibel is a professional hater. I've never been denied so consistently by such a charming, kind, and basically snuggly person. He tenderly shot down our every retort to his belief that we were trying something that many companies had already tried and failed at.
"This field has a graveyard of companies who've tried your idea. You're not giving me any reason to believe you wont do the same. You haven’t given me anything different."
We were singing him all of our giya urban exploration greatest hits: Millennials are spending more on experiences than they are on materials; we live in a time of unprecedented loneliness driven by weak connections made on social media; people feel more connected to their environments when they are introduced to their neighborhoods; we'll show people how to drive money into their communities and out of the pockets of Jeff Bezos dammit! He'd heard it all before and wasn't impressed.
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That's when someone started knocking on the door signaling that the interview time limit was up! I could feel the blood leave my face and time slow down. Michael was right: we were no different than the chumps who'd failed before us. No, that can't be right; I've got to dig deep, I know we're different.
I stared at the floor with my fists clenched and did the first thing that came natural to me: I screamed at the top of my lungs.
"My niece has been staying with us for six months and it's fucking killing me!"
“My niece has been staying with us for six months and it's fucking killing me!"
The room fell silent and Michael's face changed from startled to attentive. It was the first time he'd seemed interested in anything I'd said.
"Tell me more."
"My niece has been staying with us for six months..." I trail off, still in shock that I’d actually shouted that in the middle of the interview.
"And it is killing you because..."
"Well she's 20 something now- I know she isn't a baby anymore. I was in her life when she was younger and we were really close. Anyways, she asked to come up to Brooklyn to stay with us and well... Well I thought that we'd spend a lot of time doing things together but that's not how it turned out. She's always in her room, and I'm always at work or doing my own thing. What's killing me is having her so close but feeling so far from her."
"I wish there was someplace that I could take her. A place where I could take her and it'd be easy to connect. That's what giya is about, people finding places to connect in."
He paused and smiled. "I must admit that you've given me something different."
We didn't end up getting funding, but we got a very nice note from Michael after the interview where he offered to advise us.
The energy in the room changed after I told him about my niece. He started asking us lots of questions about the idea, but the next interview was already set to start so we had to end early.
He would later tell me that the best ideas address problems with high pain thresholds. People will pay to fix painful problems that they have and he could hear the pain in my voice when I told him about my niece.
“…the best ideas address problems with high pain thresholds.”
The lesson that I walked away with was to listen to that pain, no matter how irrational it may seem in the moment. I had no idea why I shouted about my niece when I did, but I was desperate.
I’ve been learning to listen and to trust my emotions in less desperate situations in the years since the YC interview. And Michael was right: the best ideas do address problems with high pain thresholds. That is because highly emotional situations can also be highly irrational, in other words not worth most peoples’ time since we are socialized in ways that value making sense of the world.
The next time you’ve got a big pain, joy, laugh try following your emotional feet and sharing it before it makes sense. You may surprise yourself :)
This issue is a part of the Project Profiles series, which are stories of projects that I've done myself, been a part of, or heard of.
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