<Originally published on Aug 27, 2020>
This past week, I got the opportunity of a lifetime: to present live in front of 2,000+ of the top investors as a part of YCombinator’s Summer 2020 Demo Day.
Except, this demo day was like no other.
Unlike every other batch that YCombinator has ever run, Summer 2020 was the first-ever batch and demo day to be 100% remote.
So what was it like? Here’s my recount of the last 4-month.
YC is notorious for its incredibly challenging interview. It’s quite unusual in that there’s only one… and it’s only ten minutes long.
Ten minutes of being intensely questions by 2–4 YC partners about all aspects of your business.
I won’t talk too much about the YC interview here. There’s a lot that’s been written about the topic on the web, but I will discuss how this interview differs from an in-person one.
I feel as I’m decently qualified to talk about the difference now having done both.
Believe it or not, virtual interviews are in your favor. Making the long trip (possibly, across the world) to Mountain View for a brief, ten-minute interview is not an easy one. Especially, if you don’t end up getting the investment (as most don’t).
I went through this experience last April when I made the trek from Seattle, WA.
My virtual interview experience
For this past batch, virtual interviews took place over Zoom. The format remained the same.
Intense questioning from 2–4 YC partners for a ten minute period.
For me, being able to do the interview from the comfort of my home reduced the amount of anxiety I felt leading up to the interview.
My interview was scheduled to take place at 8:45 AM (PST). It didn’t start until 8:52 AM (the longest 7 minutes of my life).
To this day, I can’t recall the exact questions I was asked. It was a blur.
Ten minutes of questioning felt like thirty seconds and it was over before I knew it.
Like my previous interview, I couldn’t help but spend the day beating myself up — thinking about all the things I could have said differently.
I kept replaying the interview in my mind head over and over again.
It was 6:00 PM and I waited for the rejection email.
But nothing came.
More time passed. Still nothing.
Then right around 10:30 PM, my phone started to buzz. It was YC on the other line. I got in.
The start of the batch was high energy as expected. Some founders put together a WhatsApp group and we immediately started setting up networking calls with one another.
Despite the remote format, you could tell how excited everyone was to be apart of the YC community.
There was about a month between when most of us got into YC and when the batch actually started.
I can’t emphasize how important this initial month is… YC is most useful if the majority of the batch is spent growing your company metrics.
If your product isn’t ready where it needs to be to shift into growth mode, this is the time to make it happen.
A typical week in remote YC looks as such:
- Founder “Dinner” every Tuesday at 9:00 AM (PST)
- Group Event every Thursday at 9:00 AM (PST)
- Group Office Hours every other week at various times
- 1-on-1 Office Hours as requested
As Michael Seibel (CEO of YCombinator) made very clear at the start of the batch, YC is not a school. It’s a collection of resources that is up to the founders to utilize.
As a result, most of the time spent during YC is not actually attending events — rather it's working on your company.
Once the batch starts, founders quickly go into heads-down focus mode.
Very quickly, the excitement of meeting others fades and the primary goal for each company becomes to grow as much as humanly possible.
This only gets more and more intense as you start to see how well some of your batchmates are doing.
While S20 was the first completely remote batch, it wasn’t the first completely remote demo day.
The previous batch (W20) amid the start of the COVID-19 pandemic actually experienced the first remote demo; however, there was no live format.
Founders simply would post a one-slide summary of their company’s progress and it was up to investors to decide which companies they wanted to speak with.
From speaking with YC alumni from the winter batch, it seems like this didn’t go so well. Founders didn’t get the opportunity to “demo” their progress and investors couldn’t get a good feel for the market opportunity from a single summary slide.
This time around, YC listened to the community feedback and decided to host 60-second live presentations over Zoom.
The whole event went without a hiccup.
One of the nice things about leading up to demo day is that founders get to do a dry run in front of alumni the Sunday before. No surprise, this event is called “Alumni Demo Day.”
Having this safe space to practice your pitch really helped founders build confidence leading up to the big day.
I know it did for me.
Being virtual also meant that you didn’t need to worry about forgetting your script. You could have it pulled up in a window right next Zoom.
If you’re interested in learning about some of the companies that presented this week, check out Techcrunch’s write-up for day 1 and day 2. Our company, Virtually, got an extra shout-out in Techcrunch’s favorite start-ups from day 2 (whoo!).
Now, I’ll talk about the highs and lows of being a part of the first-ever remote batch of YC.
The Not So Good
Building a community in a virtual environment is hard. Despite YC’s efforts, I don’t know if it will ever come close to that of being in-person.
Where I really felt this was during YC “dinners.”
YC has a tradition where, once a week, founders in the current batch get together to eat dinner while getting to hear a talk from alumni or a reputable investor in the industry.
The remote version of this was less than ideal. As you could imagine, dinners weren’t really possible with the whole global pandemic thing going on.
Instead, dinners were low interaction webinars that took place over Zoom with an optional breakout room session that followed.
Don’t get me wrong, these were exceptional talks from incredibly accomplished speakers who told great stories, but as the batch went on, the founders became less and less engaged.
During the last three weeks, “dinners” were an opportunity for me to plug in my AirPods and get a workout in.
YC also tried to help foster founder-to-founder connections through weekly “donut” calls; however, as the batch went on, more and more founders flaked on these to focus on hitting their demo day goals.
I would be remiss to not mention the parts of YC that I have to imagine has remained the same, remote or otherwise. And that’s the power of the network.
To this day, I’m just blown away by the power of the YC network.
You get the first taste of this the day you’re admitted and are added to Bookface, YC’s internal social network.
Immediately, you get access to the full extent of YC’s resources. Within seconds, you have access to decades worth of fantastic startup advice.
With just a few clicks, you can get connected with some of the most influential founders in the world.
Before long, I was taking calls with former YC founders who had sold their companies for hundreds of millions of dollars that had taken time out of their day to speak with me.
Throughout the batch, there wasn’t one introduction that I couldn’t get with the help of the network.
Now, being remote did provide some major advantages. I’ll cover those here:
1) Boost in productivity
I think people forget the huge amount of waste that goes into commuting around the bay area.
Whether it’s going to a YC event, meeting with an investor, or just hanging out with other founders, you’re spending hours each week moving from one place to another.
Remote YC removes this altogether. Every interaction is just a click away.
2) Ability to talk to a lot more people
A side-effect of not having to commute is getting the opportunity to talk to a lot more people.
More founders. More investors.
On one-hand, most of these relationships are generally pretty shallow.
On the other, fundraising is a numbers game and the numbers get to be much higher when you’re remote.
3) Not having to move to the Bay Area
Uprooting your life and moving across the country is not an easy decision. Especially, if you have a family.
Remote YC was powerful in that it let founders stay in the area that made the most sense for their personal lives.
4) Reduced burn
Fortunately, the standard YC deal didn’t change for this batch. Founders still received $150k for 7% of their company.
Not having to move to the bay area just meant that this $150k would go a lot further.
I know, I know. I said that building a community is a virtual environment is difficult but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t make some amazing friendships along the way.
Of the founders that I did meet, we got quite close, especially leading up to demo day.
At the end of the day, no bond is more powerful than shared trauma. It takes a special kind of person to put it all on the line to try to start a business. It’s one of the hardest journeys anyone will go through.
This is why YC founders become so close. There’s this shared understanding of how difficult it is to work on a startup and we lean on each other for moral support when sh*t gets hard.
Overall, the last three months have been exhilarating. I’ve grown more in the last three months than I have in the previous three years — both as a person and as a CEO.
I’m so incredibly grateful to have had this opportunity. I owe our success thus far to our investors, the amazing YC partners, and fellow batchmates that helped us get to where we are today.
Now, onto the next milestone 🚀.