A not-so-obvious reason to apply to YC

I’m a YC founder, but I’m not one of the many YC founders whose company has taken off quite yet.  Actually, I’m no longer working on the company that I applied to YC with and presented at Demo Day.  I’m pivoting, starting over, whatever you want to call it.  So, I can’t prove that YC helped me “succeed” in the way most people define succeeding.  But I do think I have a unique perspective on the YC experience.

In Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman writes,

“...a goodly number of our moods come to us via the interactions we have with other people.  In a sense, resonant relationships are like emotional vitamins, sustaining us through tough times and nourishing us daily.  Among people around the world, nourishing relationships are the single most universally agreed-upon feature of the good life.  While the specifics vary from culture to culture, all people everywhere deem warm connections with others to be the core feature of ‘optimal human existence.’”

When people ask me why they should apply to YC, I find myself telling stories about the interactions I’ve had with YC founders and partners.  Both new and experienced founders agree that being a founder is really hard - with every win, there are new and unexpected challenges around the corner.  Given life as a founder is going to be tough for a long time, you need a constant supply of  “emotional vitamins”.  Whether your startup thrives or dies, at the minimum your life can be better by being a part of YC because you’ll be surrounded by great people.

To try and prove this, I’m going to share a few of the many stories of how the YC community has improved my life.

The Founders

Before joining YC, I had been working on my startup for 6 months and a few of my customers were YC companies.  My startup stocked office kitchens with personalized snacks every week.  When I delivered snacks to BloomthatGraffiti LabsProphecy SciencesStandard Treasury, and ZenPayroll for the first time, founders from each of these companies made an effort to get to know me.  I wasn’t scheduled to meet with any of them and they didn’t know I was a founder.  I expected they might come over to confirm I wasn’t some random person in the office and walk away.  That’s what typically happened.  But these founders were different.  Matt Schwab from Bloomthat saw me in the kitchen, came to say hello, and asked about the company. He said he liked that I was delivering myself (that’s how he started out). Later when I applied to YC, he sent me sample interview questions and offered a mock interview.  Like the others, he was friendly and encouraging.

Beyond looking for people who are ridiculously determined, I think YC hopes to fund people like these founders I met.  I wasn’t a YC founder at the time, but they still cared to fuel a connection.  They likely don’t remember those moments because that behavior is normal to them.  As a team of one, these interactions impacted me in a positive way.  Maybe they sound like small things or common courtesy, but I don’t think most busy people make an effort to say hello or get to know a stranger delivering something.  Actually, I know this because I delivered to many companies every week for 10 months where people ignored me.  Why should you acknowledge someone who you are paying to serve you?  Because you remember what it was like when you were starting out.  And because you’re a good person.

After getting into YC, these interactions grew.  I met with Homejoy founder Adora Cheung before she became a part-time YC partner.  We met in a supply closet at the Homejoy office (it had a small table inside).  That day, I caught a glimpse into the relationship Adora had with her team - she could have kicked out employees from a meeting room and used it herself, but it wasn’t even an option in her mind.  That’s the kind of CEO and person she is.  And that tiny moment was a source of inspiration for me.  After she became a part-time partner, I met with her on a Sunday evening.  Yeah, she was willing to schedule office hours to help a bunch of founders on a Sunday night when most people are trying to get in some last minute relaxation before Monday morning.

During a sales meeting at Indinero, founder Jessica Mah walked by and asked me how YC was going.  What struck me most about our conversation was that it wasn’t the typical small talk:

Person A: “How are you?”
Person B: “Good, you?”
Person A: “Good.”

End of conversation. I think that’s what a nice person does.  What I think a good person does is broaden his or her concern.  Jessica sat down and we got to know each other.  When I talked about sales, she offered training from her own team.  And it wasn’t an offer made in passing.  A few minutes after I left the Indinero office, she personally sent me an email:

“great meeting you today!  Tiffany and I are going to move forward with you guys.  I'll leave the details to her.  let me know if you ever want to grab drinks after work or talk to the sales team here!”

I could continue with stories about my interactions with founders at Framed, Humble Bundle, MemSQL, Rescale, Screenleap, Sendwithus, StoryWorth, Teespring and others but I hope you see what I’m trying to convey [1].  Founders are busy, but these YC founders made time to help or get to know someone because they enjoy it.  And it feels pretty darn good to be surrounded by a community like that as you’re navigating through the highs and lows of startup life.

The Partners

Jessica Livingston has this uncanny knack for recognizing when people aren’t feeling their best.  She works behind the scenes, but when she senses an imbalance in subtle things like facial expressions or voice tone, she won’t hesitate to speak up.  I remember during Demo Day rehearsal, all the companies were getting feedback from the YC partners, and especially brutal feedback from Paul Graham (this is just his direct style).  Jessica could feel people were stressed and dejected.  So, she stood up and told everyone exactly that - she said she understood what we might be feeling.  She shared that she recently received feedback from Paul about one of her presentations and that it really sucked.  After he had finished, she felt like punching him in the face.  She reminded us that the feedback was well intentioned and we had time to improve.  Obviously she wasn’t serious about the punch in the face, but the combination of a shared connection with comic relief was exactly what we needed. [2]

During office hours with Michael Seibel, we were thinking through a problem and I could see it pained him that it was taking awhile to get to a solution.  By the end of the meeting, we figured out some good next steps.  He sighed and said he was happy that this was one of his better office hours that day.  He was still worried about how he could help other founders he had met with earlier.  He cared that much.

I’ve heard from many YC founders that Garry Tan busts open his laptop during office hours and works side by side with you to solve a problem.  That’s pretty cool but what I like most about Garry is that he listens with intent.  He recognizes what you’re feeling and feels with you.  At some point, you may have a problem with no easy solution and it’s difficult to share, especially with an investor.  When I had one of those problems, some people said, “at least you’re in YC”, “at least you’re growing” or “I can’t believe nobody told you that wouldn’t work.”  But Garry patiently listened, said “that’s tough”, and offered a personal story that made me think he really understood the exact feeling I had at that moment.

I first met Kat Manalac before my YC interview.  As I peeked into my assigned room while a group ahead of me stepped out, I saw Paul Graham sitting inside.  Holy moly.  I was crazy nervous, I was going to be interviewing with him.  Other groups of co-founders were calming each other’s nerves, but I was a solo founder and my stress level slowly rose.  Somehow, Kat recognized this from afar and came over to chat and completely de-stressed me.  The door opened and Jessica excitedly walked over with a huge smile and asked, “Did you bring any snacks??” It would have been easy for her to just call the next person’s name given how many interviews she was doing, but instead she immediately put me at ease by relating on a more personal level.

These are just a few stories about the people I’ve met in the YC community.  Individually, the stories might not seem that important, but together they’ve shown me that YC is more than a “startup machine”, “boot camp for startups”, or “Silicon Valley’s dream factory”.  YC is at its core a group of great people.  The interactions I experienced can’t be easily replicated by any machine, boot camp, or factory.  It really sucks to pivot and start over but it’s nice to know that there is a strong community of support at YC that doesn’t end after Demo Day.  If these stories resonate with you in a positive way, apply to YC, and experience them yourself.

[1] I’m happy to share these stories. Email me if you’re interested.

[2] Just to clarify, the shared connection was receiving tough feedback, not feeling like punching PG in the face... :)
53 responses
Thomson Nguyen upvoted this post.
Thanks for writing about this Yvonne. Really enjoyed reading about your experience at YC.
Thanks for sharing, Yvonne :)
Just wonder, is there any base for the claim " Among people around the world, nourishing relationships are the single most universally agreed-upon feature of the good life" ? This sounds more like globalist propaganda to me... The "old" universal agreed upon feature was, family.
Merci, Yvonne. Your writing in a sense did reflect YC's culture. I feel that YC has something very special in the way its community operates like a strong camaraderie between the founders & partners.
Thanks for sharing this. I know exactly what you mean - I really care about people and often find that the reaction to treating people in a super respectful and caring way is, well, odd. It has taken me some time to realize that other people see the world quite differently, and to them caring means different things than it does to me. It matters a lot to me, and it has taken a bit of growing to be able to give others the interpersonal space to be what they think is caring. By applying infinite patience with others, I have found that after a long time people often reveal themselves to be quite caring. Thanks heaps for this post! -Warren
A posthaven user upvoted this post.
Will article like this help secure job or a position in next YC batch?
Viktor Takacs upvoted this post.
44 visitors upvoted this post.