Zen, or the art of YC interview

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

So you've agonized over the YC application, crossed your fingers, hit that submit button, and chewed your nails to the core waiting for the response. Finally, you got that precious e-mail inviting you to the YC interview - the fifteen minutes that might change the way you think about your life forever (it won't actually change your life - you'll still be an unemployed ruby hacker with a dream, but it will change the way you think about it). Finally, the exhilaration has subsided. What now? How do you prepare?

The short answer is, you can't. Wait, what?! Can't? What about learning about the market, perfecting the prototype, and practicing the pitch? You can do all these things. In fact, you should do all these things. But they probably will do precious little to change the outcome. You see, the YC interview is Zen. You're supposed to sit just to sit, but then you're sitting there, thinking that you're sitting just to sit, and all of a sudden you realize that you're no longer sitting just to sit, but thinking about sitting just to sit instead. Confusing? Impossible? Yes. YC interview is like that.

So, if you can't prepare for the interview, why am I writing to give advice? I just am. It's like that. The cursed Zen again. You better get used to that, because if by some miracle you get accepted, you'll face a whole pile of Zen paradoxes. Startups are like that, and YC interview is just the beginning.

In all seriousness, you should do as much as you can to prepare. The problem is that you've probably built the whole thing up in your mind, and when you get there you'll be under enormous, self-imposed pressure. Grace under pressure is what it's all about. You can't fake your personality when the bullets are flying. You can't fake anything - you'll just be you. That's what happened to me - we did a ton of preparation, read every piece of advice we could find on the internet, but the moment we walked into that conference room I forgot everything. All that information evaporated from my brain, and I was just me. The past twenty six years of my life was my preparation. I lost self-consciousness, sort of like when you get absorbed into a movie. My heart was pounding so hard, I saw everything in red. I barely remember a word I said. And it worked, but *I* had nothing to do with it. It just happened. I said the only things I possibly could have said in that situation, and I suppose the partners liked something about it. But I couldn't have faked it. If you stay clear-headed, perhaps you can, but I couldn't have.

For us, "interview" was really the wrong word. It goes differently for everyone, but Mike and I agreed that the proper word is "interrogation". My memory is probably playing tricks on me, but I could swear the partners used psychological interrogation techniques (unconsciously, maybe, or perhaps not). I distinctly remember good cops and bad cops, except they switched roles so often I can't figure out to this day which is which. (Jessica was always the good cop, though).

It was great. When we came out, my mind was already made up. "This was the best interview I've had in my life", I said to myself. I even wrote it on a piece of paper, so I couldn't weasel my way out of it in case we got rejected and my psyche would compel me to change my mind and think the interview is lame.

You've already read six paragraphs of drivel that won't help you, so I'll now try to redeem myself and give a few useful pieces of advice. I think the worst mistake we made was to assume the partners will know to ask the right questions. They won't. They don't know anything about what you're doing. During our interview, we got distracted by some side issue - when we came out, we realized that we didn't convey any of the core ideas we wanted to convey. We got lucky, but you may not be so lucky. Stay conscious throughout the interview, and if you feel you're getting into a side issue, gently nudge the partners in the right direction. It is your responsibility to get the core concepts across, not theirs.

Don't get flustered by bad cops - they'll push your buttons on purpose. Nothing you say will be good enough. That's because they want to see how far they can push you. Defend your ideas, don't be a pushover, but accept valid criticism a few times. Don't be too stubborn.

Edit: Paul Graham responded here and said the partners never play any psychological tricks deliberately. So if it feels that way, remember - it's all in your mind!

If you can keep these pieces of advice in your mind during the interview, you should be fine. But I couldn't. I forgot all of it, and was just myself. You probably will too - that's why the most useful thing you can do is not be nervous. I realize how ridiculous this sounds. You probably will be nervous, and you'll be nervous about being nervous, and you'll just end up forgetting it all and being yourself. That's OK too. It's a hell of an experience - just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Some of the YC alumni will be there during the interview weekend to try and put you at ease. Perhaps I'll see you then. In the meantime, I'll leave you with a timeless piece of advice from Felix Dennis:

The first step? Just do it
And bluff your way through it.
Remember to duck!
Godspeed ...

and Good Luck!


If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, please drop a note at coffeemug@gmail.com. I'll be glad to hear your feedback.