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Our experience of the inaugural Y Combinator Fellowship (YC F1)

In summer 2015, Y Combinator (YC) launched an exciting new program called Y Combinator Fellowship (YCF) to help more entrepreneurs and teams get started with their startups. We were fortunate to be part of the inaugural cohort, and it was an experience we‘ll never forget.

YC has become the most prestigious startup accelerator globally. But not everyone can join their core program. YCF aimed to change that by providing guidance from YC‘s network and a grant, without requiring teams to quit their jobs or school. The idea was simple but powerful – remove barriers to make entrepreneurship accessible to more people.

YC planned to accept around 20 companies. With over 6,500 applications, our odds were about 0.3% based on Sam Altman‘s tweet. But we felt compelled to apply anyway. This was a unique opportunity to get YC‘s help in those critical early days.

Nailing the Application

I found out about YCF randomly while browsing Hacker News one evening. We had been working on our startup idea part-time for a couple months and had made decent progress. But we weren‘t ready to take the leap into full-time entrepreneurship.

YCF seemed designed for people like us who needed a push over the edge. I stayed up late drafting our application that night. The next day my co-founder and I fine-tuned it and recorded a 1 minute video introducing ourselves and our company.

With the deadline looming, I rushed to click submit so we could get feedback from a YC alumni friend. Fate intervened when I accidentally clicked submit for real instead of saving the draft! Well, no use crying over spilled milk. At least it was done and submitted early.

Waiting the few days for a response was agonizing. I tried not to get my hopes up given the odds. So you can imagine my shock opening my inbox to an interview invite! I‘m convinced submitting early helped us stand out from the deluge of last-minute applicants. Of course we‘ll never know for sure.

We only had 1 week to prep for the interview. This involved a whirlwind of activity – booking cross-country flights, researching likely questions, and creating a simple product demo. With zero info available online specifically about YCF interviews, we had to extrapolate based on everything we could find about the regular YC process.

I stayed up late each night practicing and refining our demo and pitch. We decided attending in-person would help our chances, even though it was a huge trip for just a 10 minute interview.

Nailing the Interview

By interview day, we were armed with a polished demo, metrics, and answers for dozens of imagined questions. My co-founder‘s software engineering prowess made the demo shine. Of course book smarts and preparations only get you so far. But we felt ready.

The interview flew by even faster than the 10 minutes promised. The two YC partners had warm, casual energy as they peppered us with thoughtful questions. We covered our background, progress made so far, challenges faced, market potential, and visions for the future.

After finishing I honestly had no sense of how it went. The friendly conversational flow didn‘t lend itself to discerning much. We enjoyed exploring San Francisco that evening to unwind and recharge.

I deliberately left my phone off to avoid temptation to check email constantly. Let‘s just say I‘ve never been more anxious on a scenic drive down Highway 1 towards LA the next day! Big stretches lack cell phone coverage, leaving us totally in the dark.

The suspense built to a crescendo by the time we finally got that awaited email many hours later. We were in! It took a few moments for the reality to really sink in. The first cohort of YC Fellowship participants would include us and 32 other teams.

Preparing to Make the Most of It

My elation was soon tempered by the reality of how much work lay ahead. The remote YCF kickoff event made it clear we needed to start operating in full startup mode immediately.

This meant urgently tying up loose ends at our day jobs, finding temporary housing, booking flights, and most importantly – honing a product users love. YCF provided incredible access to YC‘s network and resources, but it was on us to make the most of the opportunity.

Choosing to do the program remotely from home would have been easier logistically. But we knew the immersive experience of being in Silicon Valley would be invaluable. We opted to get out of our comfort zone.

As budget-conscious founders, securing housing in the Valley on short notice seemed daunting. By sheer luck, we found space in a shared house called Hacker House. The landlord graciously rented to YCF teams, and past YC founders had lived there too. It wasn‘t glamorous, but the house apparently had "good juju". We‘d take it!

Hitting the Ground Running

The fellowship officially commenced with a welcome dinner at the YC office, where we finally met the partners and other teams in person. I distinctly remember the motivating intensity of that night – this was really happening!

One message came through clearly: as YC fellows rather than full-fledged founders, we had to work harder to prove ourselves. We needed to approach the opportunity with humility but also confidence.

After an inspirational talk from Alexis Ohanian of Reddit, we jumped right into individual goal-setting meetings with partners. With gusto but also trepidation, my co-founder and I laid out our game plan and milestones for the 8 weeks ahead.

The die was cast. We immersed ourselves in building and launching our startup full-time. No distractions allowed!

Grinding Away as a Solo Founder

If you‘ve heard the startup grind described as a sweaty montage of high fives, smiles, and non-stop hustle, I‘m here to report that wasn‘t exactly my experience. Don‘t get me wrong – it was a tremendous opportunity I‘m endlessly grateful for. But for me as a solo founder without a co-founder, the daily reality involved significant loneliness and isolation.

My typical day looked something like this:

  • Wake up at 6am, exercise and eat breakfast alone
  • Start coding by 8am every day, eating lunch at my desk
  • Work nonstop until 7pm or later every night
  • Quick dinner and bedtime, then repeat

The YC partners were clear that we should focus intently on building product, talking to users, eating healthy, sleeping, and exercise. Anything else was discouraged. I really took this advice to heart, almost too literally in retrospect.

I regularly worked 12+ hour days including weekends. When you hustle at that level with no distractions for months, you can achieve an astounding amount during YCF‘s short window. But I often deprived myself of needed breaks, activities with friends, and other things that make life rich.

In retrospect I could have paced myself better. But at the time I was hellbent on maximizing this opportunity. I learned firsthand how intense solo entrepreneurship can be. The isolation and workload creeped up on me.

Structured Support from YC

YC provided helpful structures and resources to guide us through those intense months. This included regular 1:1 Office Hours with partners, small group discussions, weekly reports, and perks to ease our journey.

The Office Hours were extremely useful for getting advice from experienced founders and investors about the concrete challenges I faced building my company. The insightful guidance kept me motivated and on-track.

Every two weeks we had small group Office Hours consisting of 5-6 YCF teams and 1-2 partners. These were great for candid peer learning, though a bit intimidating at first. The partners asked tough questions, so we had to know our metrics cold and show we were making progress.

We also did individual Office Hours 1:1 with partners every other week. I made it a priority to meet as many partners as possible to get diverse perspectives. These served as accountability moments as well as counseling for the issues I was facing.

Having access to people I usually only read about online was motivational. When they told me every early stage founder goes through similar growing pains, it gave me confidence I could push through too. I left our Friday SF office hours so pumped that I skipped meeting friends for beers and kept working into the night instead!

Launching Our Minimum Viable Product

Heading into YCF, our product was still in barebones command-line form. We knew our #1 priority had to be fleshing out and launching a cloud-based MVP version quickly.

Naively, I gave myself just the first week to pull this off. In reality it took over half the program. As the saying goes, the last 10% takes 90% of the work! Each feature took more and more dev time as complexity ballooned.

My perfectionist tendencies caused a few scope creep crises too. But the short timeline kept me ruthlessly focused on the must-haves. I learned the hard way just how difficult and crucial it is to balance an MVP with ambitions for the larger vision.

When demo day crept closer without a launchable product yet, I panicked a bit. But there were no shortcuts; I just had to keep grinding. All the effort finally paid off the day my MVP went live halfway through the program.

While imperfect, our cloud app could finally generate value for users. I watched eagerly as my first users tested it out. Their feedback was invaluable for steering our product in the right direction.

I‘m proud to say our app is still up and running today as the core of our current product. The blood, sweat, and tears of that intense build were fully worth it.

Gaining Momentum with Launch Marketing

A core goal after launching was getting exposure on prominent tech communities like Hacker News and Product Hunt. Thanks to YC‘s network, partners could submit us to be featured.

This was huge since getting traction as an unknown startup is hard. I worked feverishly to polish my marketing materials and website copy in preparation.

When launch day came, I practically wore out my keyboard refreshing Hacker News to see our upvote momentum. I grinned as our product demo gained upvotes quickly, ultimately spending 10 straight hours ranked on the front page!

We got over 2,000 visitors that first day, over 1,400 demo tries, and 120 signups – a home run by my standards. I was blown away by how much high quality feedback poured in from those technically savvy early users too.

We refined the product substantially based on that feedback before going live on Product Hunt a few weeks later. Here again we lucked out with partners featuring us. The PH crowd gave similarly helpful feedback from more of a business lens.

In the end we got significant startup traction and users through those two foundational launch moments. They helped build momentum that carried months after YCF when progress stalled at times. I‘m very grateful to YC for the launch support.

Demo Day: Putting Our Best Foot Forward

A major milestone of every YC batch is Demo Day – pitching your company to investors for fundraising. Even without fundraising as a goal, YCF Demo Day let us practice our pitches and get exposure.

I initially underestimated how seriously I should take preparing for it. But the partners made the importance clear. I spent weeks refining my pitch, presentation, and messaging with lots of practice sessions and feedback.

On the big day itself I was lucky to do two full dry runs before my official presentation. The partners, fellow founders, and even previous YCF alumni showed up to demonstrate their support.

I only had a few minutes on stage. But after practicing the pitch to death, I was able to relax and present with poise. Afterwards we had closing 1:1 meetings with partners to reflect on our YCF learnings.

Standing on stage that day, I felt how far we‘d come. I also realized this was only the very beginning, with so much more work ahead to build something lasting. It was a bittersweet moment marking the culmination of a life-changing experience with YC.

Parting Thoughts in Retrospect

Demo Day marked the end of the official program, though bonds between our cohort run deep to this day. On the farewell day, we gave candid feedback to help YC improve future fellowship rounds.

The partners made sure to reset expectations – the special access and perks would disappear. We had to continue grinding on our own without relying on the YC halo effect.

It was time to get back to the real work – incrementally building and growing our companies. I left refreshed but also anxious, worried my frustrations from before would return without the constant support.

In retrospect, I wish I had been easier on myself during my 2+ years of solo entrepreneurship after YCF. I let the isolation and grind get to me again. I‘ve learned to pace myself and stay balanced.

But those lessons couldn‘t be rushed – like startup journeys themselves, the emotional founder learnings reveal themselves in their own time.

Overall, I‘m endlessly grateful for receiving that gentle yet firm push into entrepreneurship through YCF. The power of community, guidance, and opportunity unlocked our potential. As I continue this winding journey, I‘m still fueled by the spark that was ignited during our unforgettable summer together with YC.

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