What happened when my co-founder quit the night before our YC interview

People compare startups to a chess game, but they're a lot closer to Fear Factor. The hardest part isn't intellectual. It's keeping yourself from melting down amidst an inferno.

From the start, my co-founder and I knew our Y Combinator application was a long shot. On April 8, invitations to interview went out, and we didn't get one. Not unexpected. But April 9 brought a reprieve: Paul Graham emailed us to say that due to a bug, our application was overlooked, and he'd like to invite us to interview.


…but also terrifying: we had 0 lines of code and two weeks to cook up a demo good enough to impress Y Combinator. The next two weeks we hacked furiously. We spewed out code, then ripped it out, twisted it, stretched it, bent it, and re-molded it until we had cobbled together a makeshift demo.

That week proved Murphy's law: everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.

Ten days before the interview, my car broke down.

Six days before the interview, my laptop crashed and we lost our entire demo.

Three days before the interview, we had hastily re-assembled a demo that worked—barely—and a FAQ covering everything we thought the YC partners could possibly ask us.

Two days before the interview, I told my boss I was resigning. I was scared that if I waited until after the interview and YC rejected us, I wouldn't have the guts to quit.

Now it's the home stretch. It's 12:26am the night before our interview and we're putting the finishing touches on the demo. Then my co-founder emails me [1]:

from: would-be co-founder
to: me
date: Wed, Apr 27, 2011 at 12:26 AM

I'm checking in the changes to demo "My Feeds."  Give it a sync and see that it works on your phone.

But I also have to say up front that after the interview, I'm out.  This just isn't what I want right now.  I'm more than happy to go to the interview with you, and even tell the YCombinator people that I'm in if you think it will help your chances of getting it, but after that, this isn't something I want to work on more, so it would probably be good if you look for someone to replace me.  Really sorry, but I'm 100% sure about it.  But I still wish you the best of luck with it!

Fuck. Sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. There's no way now. My heart races. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. I try to sleep but can't. Why won't the sun just fucking rise already so we can get it over with. Hours later, I finally doze off, then wake up in a cold sweat. The sun is creeping up. Finally.

The interview is at 4:15 that afternoon. I go into work. The code in front of me is a blur. I try to eat but can't keep anything down. My roommate walks by and says, "You look like a ghost." Fitting. I would like to be invisible. Finally, it's 3:30 and time to drive to YC. My hands are shaking. I use my left hand to force the right to put the keys into the ignition of the rental car.

I walk into the interview room alone, and as six YC partners stare back, Paul Graham asks the obvious question:
"Where's your co-founder?"
"I have good news and bad news…" I explain that he had quit the previous night.
Paul Graham pauses. "You'd be surprised how often that happens to you."
"It's the first time it's happened to me."
They laugh, and what follows is 10 minutes of interrogation. The questions come in rapid fire: halfway through answering the guy on the left, the guy on the right interrupts with a new question. Words pour out of my mouth. Where did those come from? Then just as fast as the interview started, it's all over. I have no idea whether it went well but I know I'm impressed: in ten minutes, they asked me every question written in a FAQ that took weeks to prepare. How on earth can did they pull out so much information in so little time? These guys should work for the CIA.

After the interview, the YC partners make a decision on the spot. If you're accepted, they call you that night. If not, they email you with a reason they're saying no. All that’s left now is to wait for the email.

That night my phone rings:
"I wasn't expecting to receive this call."
"I wasn't expecting to make it." Paul Graham continues, "But you had bulletproof answers to apparently damning questions. Would you like to be part of the summer batch?"
Yes. Absolutely!

Over the next few months, great things happen.

My college roommate packs up his whole life in a weekend to move down from Seattle and start the company with me. We change our idea to a better one. We land our first customer. We pitch the world's top expert in what we're doing—and he decides to lead our seed round. We become one of the "hot" startups at demo day, and have to turn down angel investors who want to pour money into our little company. We hire one of the best engineers I've ever worked with away from Google. My roommate's former boss quits his job to join us.

But this story could easily have stopped at 12:26am.

"Don't give up" is the oldest truism in startups. It's not even true. But it's the part that makes startups hard: managing your own psychology when it looks like everything is falling apart.

[1] email reproduced with permission

Thanks to Christine Yen, Jason Shen, and Ben Komalo for reading drafts of this.
110 responses
Awesome post! Totally loved it.
Thanks for the article! Those days I'm so feared about my last school year, my final exams, my life and everything. Instead of worrying the whole night, go to bed and wake up worrying again - I'll just do my stuff now(hopefully).
I have to say that simply fronting at the YC interview, given all the above, must have counted in your favour. Well done!
Wow. That sounds like a real hustler story. Can you post that FAQ you that took you weeks to prepare ? That will certainly be a goodread.
A posthaven user upvoted this post.
Would also love to see that FAQ!
This is one of the greatest stories I've ever read. I salute you for having cojones and I can't help but feel bad for your ex-co-founder. Hat tip to you, sir.
Ross Murray upvoted this post.
Truly inspiring. Many people would have walked away. You're in for the long haul now, and nobody needs to tell you to stick with it now! Best of luck.
Good read, so happy for you things worked out. Best of luck with your startup.
This is amazing, hit REALLY close to him, and really put a smile on my face. This is the kind of stuff that makes every little struggle seem beyond worth it. Congrats, and best of luck going forward! Sounds like you're on a great trajectory.
Great article, thanks!
Been there. Done that. VERY PROUD OF YOU!!!! That's what it takes. That's all it takes. Relentlessness Obsession Knowledge Fearlessness It's why entrepreneurship is rare. 'Cause it takes nearly inhuman discipline. : Cheers!
Congrats, you made it! :-))
Wow, best story ever... Congrats.
Wow. Gripping story. If you don't make it as a founder, consider a future as a novelist! Thanks for sharing.
Congrats! You're right that managing your own psychology is terrifyingly difficult. Best of luck!
Wow! Awesome story. I a was on the edge of my seat as I read the whole thing. Your writing is clear and engaging, if your code and product, is anything like your writing then you'll go far. What an inspirational story this was. Thank you. Wish you success in the long run!
Been there....done that...!! :) congratulations and way to go...
Thanks to everybody who read and/or commented! For those who asked for the FAQ we had prepared for our YC interview, I found a version and posted it here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1hiLQjlCIfBQ... These are raw, rough notes -- we didn't bother to polish them much since they were only for our own usage. But hopefully they're still useful as an example of how one team prepared for the interview.
"Fuck. Sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach." I know that feeling all too well. Good on you. Keep going.
Indeed the best revenge is success!
Such a wonderful post! I can relate so much and I am merely the woman of an entrepreneur! I put a link to this article on my blog as it inspired me! Hope you can check out the woman's perspective. I do commend those brave enough to go out there and do it because clearly it is not for everyone!
oops sorry did not realize my url did not go up! Here is my link for the Woman of an Entrepreneur: http://annettiev.wordpress.com
Thanks for the post! Loved it.
83 visitors upvoted this post.