The road to a rewarding rejection.

What we learnt while trying to get into Y Combinator as a startup.
March 20, 2019

This is Karthik Mahadevan, the co-founder of Envision and with this post I'd like to share a personal story. This story is about learning and growing from my and my co-founder's (Karthik Kannan) experience with the Y Combinator; this story is what makes Envision what it is today.

Every entrepreneur who has been passionate about the world of tech startups has dreamt of Y Combinator. Those who go through it, speak of it like Hogwarts. Those who don’t get to, speak of it like sour grapes. This is the story of a third kind.

I was in the middle of another usual argument with my co-founder  when we got our YC Interview Invitation Letter. We were excited beyond imagination (like it was a Hogwarts invitation) but had no way to vent it because we were stuck in a high-speed train from Barcelona to Rome. We gave each other an awkward sideways hug and a prolonged eye exchange which said: “We have come some ways since the two of us were sitting in our dormitories in Chennai dreaming up shit”. This moment of profound happiness, however, was almost immediately overcome by fear and anxiety when we realised we now need to arrange a US Visa in less than a week. The rest of the train ride was spent looking up visa requirements using our mobile hotspot. #ImmigrantLife

We had previously applied to YC a year back, when our idea, Envision, was still in its infancy. We had not validated anything, the revenue model was 🤷‍♂, we were naive about how long the tech will take to develop. However, the process of filling out that application form really helped us realise this. By the time the rejection came along, we knew what exactly we need to be working on/towards. When we applied the second time, filling out that application form felt exciting, we had (almost) all the answers. The subsequent skype interview went great as well because we have been at this for a year and knew there’s nothing someone can ask us that we haven’t thought of already. Now it was time to see how far will this enthusiastic optimism take us.

It took us first to hustling our way into getting a US Visa in under a week. Any Indian immigrant who has been through the process will know that this is nothing short of a miracle. Before we knew it, we were on a plane, and it was only while waiting at the departure gate did we have some time just sit and collect our thoughts. This is what they were at the moment.

See a post I shared reflecting on the situation while waiting to board here.

Our eyes were glued to the window on our trip from the San Francisco airport to our Airbnb in San Jose. Every passing landmark, billboard, office or street name felt new yet familiar. We didn’t make any plans on our first day. Went to a Target and ate at a Chipotle and that was about it. The next morning we were on a Uber straight to YC where we checked in (much earlier than we were supposed to). Then we did what we do at any new city we end up in, found the best coffee place to work out of. Because even though we had the interview in an hour, work never stops.

Co-founder Karthik Kannan is sitting at a cafe, wearing the prototype glasses while he works on his laptop and smartphone.
That’s Karthik (Kannan) prototyping with the glasses minutes before the interview.

The time for the interview arrived, we walked into a room with three YC partners and the moment they started speaking, all our prep went out of the window. We knew from what we had read that the tempo of these interviews was very fast paced, but this was much faster than we had anticipated. We did a bunch of things wrong, we spoke over each other, gave longer than necessary answers and failed to be coherent. When we walked out, we knew that we had given it our best shot, but this time the best wasn’t going to cut it. Our biggest regret was our failure to get the bigger picture of Envision across. Since so much of the questions were about our short term goal, our first steps, our answers mostly focused on defending that. We felt we should have done more to steer the conversation towards Envision’s bigger (billion dollar worth) picture.

We went back to the same coffee shop (Red Rock Coffee) and occupied ourselves with work to distract from the anxiety. It didn’t take long for the inevitable email to come:

A screenshot of the email sent by the Y Combinator. You can find a readable link in the caption.
Readable version of the screenshot at https://goo.gl/RaFFXv

We really appreciated the detail in the email. We would have been pretty bummed if we didn’t know why they rejected us. But this personal response (with clear reasoning which resonated with what we felt as well) made for a really good experience. Both of their feedback was well received and this was our response:

A screenshot of the email sent by Karthik as an answer to the Y Combinator. You can find a readable link in the caption.
Readable version of the screenshot at https://goo.gl/RaFFXv

In conclusion, we really loved the whole YC experience. Despite the rejection, it provided us with key insights and reflection points. Hence, if you are a team working on an idea, no matter what the stage, just apply for YC.

Because YC is neither Hogwarts nor Sour Grapes.

YC is Ithaka.

It’s not about what you will learn once you are there, but also about what you learn while you try to get there.

Karthik & Karthik outside the Y Combinator sign

P.S. We spent the rest of our trip (pilgrimage) going around all the places in the valley we had always dreamt of! Click here to visit the Intagram story highlights of the trip.

The thumbnail image is a photo by Tim Trad.

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