From Oxford to Y Combinator

When we founded Prolific in spring 2014 in Oxford, we couldn’t have dreamt of moving to California one day. We were quietly writing our PhD theses and saw Prolific as a fun side project…

Now we’re a team of 15, and we’re super excited to announce that Prolific is part of Y Combinator’s Summer 2019 (S19) batch! 😃🥳

This means that my cofounder Phelim Bradley and I are spending this summer in the Bay Area, intensively working on our product and growth strategy for Prolific.

If you’re unfamiliar with YC, it’s a startup accelerator program: It helps you learn everything you need to know about startups, it offers an invaluable network of some of the smartest entrepreneurs and investors in the world, and it has produced world-changing companies like Airbnb, Stripe, and Dropbox. We wanted to learn from the #1 startup accelerator in the world, so this is why we applied. If you’re into startups, do check YC out. They provide a ton of freely accessible resources on how to start a startup, from Paul Graham’s essays to Youtube videos and podcasts.

Sharing Prolific's YC application

If you’re thinking of applying for YC, perhaps the following can help you. We’ve decided to make our successful YC application openly accessible to everyone because being open and transparent is important to us. You can find it here.

I spent about a week fully focusing on writing this application earlier this year, with the support of many friends and colleagues (you know who you are!). 🙌 It’s a time commitment, but one that’s worth it even if YC doesn’t work out. At the very least, it’ll help you reflect on where you’re at in your startup journey and help you work through important business and strategic questions.

Tips on applying for YC

How did we get in? Great question. I don't know for sure, but I can tell you what we focused on when writing our application and in our interview prep. It was these three things:

  1. Crisp and clear communication about our value prop and vision for the company. No jargon, no salesmanship, just pure and simple language. 👉 "This is what we do, this is how it works, this is how big the opportunity is, and this our vision for our startup in 5-10 years."

  2. Speak to YC founders. We were lucky to know a handful of them, and in addition we proactively reached out to YC founders we didn't know. I can't stress enough how helpful these conversations were. It puts you in the right, constructive mindset and sheds a ton of light into what YC care about.

  3. Try to enjoy the ride. If you're too stern, self-absorbed, and worried, then you'll struggle to emanate passion. Don't be a robot! 👾 Don't drill yourself by doing 30 mock interviews, and don't beat yourself up for getting something wrong! Have friendly and open chats with other applicants on interview day. Remember to check in with yourself, and bring your brightest and most beautiful self to the YC interview.

We thought applying to YC was a long shot. As research geeks from Academia, would we really have a chance in Silicon Valley? 12,000 companies from around the world apply for every YC batch, and only about 200 get in. We’re feeling humbled and empowered at the same time, and we’d like give a shout out to the YC community and all the partners that are supporting us so wonderfully this summer: Jared Friedman, Brad Flora, Eric Migicovsky, Uri Lopatin, and all the incredibly bright and ambitious fellow founders. Special thanks go to our advisor David Rothschild – it's a massive joy working with you!

Is YC right for us? I now think it is.

Did we have anxieties about YC, and whether it’d be a good fit for us? Hell yeah.

As a female founder in a male-dominated tech world, I was worried about diversity and inclusion. I was worried that I might feel like I don’t belong. I feared that the tech culture in Silicon Valley might be aggressive and soul-crushing. Plus, the leap from Oxford to San Francisco seemed like lunacy: It would mean that our team of 15 would be 8 timezones apart! Good luck trying to coordinate… 🙀

Now that we’re more than halfway through our batch (only 18 days left until Demo Day!), I can confirm the following:

  • YC is trying its very best to be as diverse and inclusive as possible. For example, they host female founder events and conferences, and are generally all ears when anyone raises concerns around diversity.

  • YC’s culture is ambitious, but not aggressive. At one of the events right at the beginning of the batch, YC’s president Geoff Ralston went on stage to say one thing, and one thing only: “Be kind to yourselves, and each other.” There’s generally a culture of supporting each other.

  • Working as a remote team 8 hours apart is freaking hard, but just about doable. That said, I would not recommend being further apart than that, because then you literally have zero overlap. I could write a whole post on remote working––let me know if that’s something you want to hear more about!

I’ll never forget how one of the partners said at our YC kick-off meeting in June:

“Be vulnerable with us. Otherwise we can’t help you. Take care of your mental and physical health.”

Way to go, YC. 👏

PS. You can read more about the problem we're working on and why we think it's important in this piece.

PPS. If you're working on a startup idea and need to talk to some people to validate and test your idea, come and say hi! Get $100 off your first survey on Prolific if you spend $250 or more. Just sign up via this referral link. 😀💪

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