What was remote YC like?

Summer 2020 saw the first completely remote YC batch in history. My co-founder Peter and I were fortunate enough to participate with our company Plum Mail and we did so entirely remotely from our homes in South West England.

What was it like you ask? Essentially, it was like taking an e-learning course. This had a number of benefits for us as a team, which are totally valid, but a number of disadvantages surface as you progress through the process.

The whole YC team did a genuinely amazing job of making the experience hugely valuable, exciting and accessible. As a founder, your challenge is to step up to the plate and embrace the process if you want to get the most out of it. Being aware of the disadvantages of the remote batch means you can come up with creative ways to get around them.

Hopefully, this blog will help you feel ready to embrace a remote YC batch, so here's what doing a remote YC batch is really like.

1. The Interview

This is your first remote YC experience. It's on a Zoom call that will last around fifteen minutes. You're probably feeling nervous and it may be a very weird time of day depending on your time zone. For us, the interview was at 5pm BST / 9am PST so I had all day to get worked up about it!

For some of our batchmates, calls were at even less convenient times (try midnight) although YC are sensitive to this and will try to accommodate speaking to you at a time that suits everyone on the call.

This combination of timezone conflict and the usual pre-interview nerves are kinda toxic on a video call. You have to work hard to come across as calm, confident and competent.

It felt like sitting in a TV studio waiting to go on air. There is no time for pleasantries as you might expect in person. There is no time for technical errors either. In fact, my internet dropped out at the very end of the call but I only missed a few seconds of the conversation.

I wish deeply that I had gotten used to doing video calls before the interview. Weird as that sounds mid-pandemic, before Covid I had barely done 10 video calls my entire life and now I was doing arguably the most valuable Zoom call I might ever do.

All in all it was quite a stressful experience that I could have aced with some simple steps. Having said that, we were accepted into the batch so it can't have been that bad.

YC Interview Takeaways

  1. Get comfortable on video calls. Take a moment to figure out where best for a clean background. Sit or stand facing a window or other source of light so you don't look like a shawdow puppet. Aim for getting your whole head, shoulders and upper body into the shot roughly square on.

  2. Chill before the call. The interviewer just wants to have a chat with you about you and your product. Nervous people tend to ramble. If you can come across as calm and confident you'll have a more natural, authentic conversation.

  3. Smile. Be yourself.

  4. If the interview slot is at 2am local time ask them to consider re-arranging it. No one is their best at 2am, unless you are your best at 2am in which case, I guess 2am is fine. Don't be afraid to ask nicely if the interview time is massively inconvenient for you.

  5. Jazz up your internet connection. You'll be doing a lot of video calls if you get into the batch and at remote demo day, a sturdy, fast internet connection is essential so why not start now and have a decent connection for the interview too.

2. Your remote working arrangements

Peter and I are used to working remote with meetings every so often. However, local restrictions meant we couldn't always meet up when we needed to. This definitely created issues for us in terms of communication. We would try to use instant messenger but found this quickly descended into hours of wasted typing when a phone call or meeting would have been much faster.

Working remote for me also equalled working alone most of the day. I started out with great focus but would often go astray as my thoughts outpaced my ability to deliver.

This process was compounded during the batch because of the pressure to deliver impressive progress. During the batch you are expected to pull out all the stops to get progress made and I think this is reasonable and exciting. YC is a once (sometimes twice, rarely three times) in a lifetime opportunity.

Overtime, we got good at working remotely in an efficient and productive way but it took a couple of tries to get it right.

What works for us is a daily catch up call at the same time every day. There is always plenty to talk about and it's something to hold onto if you're feeling adrift. Every Friday we travel and get together (assuming local restrictions allow it) for a strategy day.

Time-boxing strategy talk to Fridays is a very efficient way to timebox 'big chat' so that the other four days a week your focus is on actions.

This aspect of the batch experience is probably the most different to an in-person batch where you're living in a flat with your founders and you eat, sleep, breathe your company.

I'd say it's totally worth optimising your remote working arrangements so you can make the most of the productive time you have during the batch. The more progress you make, the more you'll be able to leverage out of the process as the weeks go by.

3. Bootcamp

The first two weeks of remote YC are intense. Somehow it seemed more intense from the comfort of my own home. Bootcamp introduces you to an almost overwhelming number of talks and presentations that cover pretty much every aspect of running a startup.

It's really exciting! It's also all on-screen. Pretty much everything is on video call from here on in.

Each day of bootcamp typically starts with a rousing introduction by a YC partner followed by a series of talks by YC Alum, well-known entrepreneurs or investors and after all of that you are thrust into a video call with a random selection of batchmates to discuss what you just heard.

It all takes around three hours.

The content was all hugely valuable. Somehow it felt harder to access the value remotely. When you're watching someone speak live it's somehow more immersive, over video call I felt disconnected and at times distracted.

However, it is much easier to make notes if you're sat at a desk listening to the talk rather than trying to jot onto a notepad perched on your knee in a lecture theatre.

And that's what made the remote bootcamp awesome for me. I started each talk with a plan to make notes throughout. This gave me a task to do to keep me interested and the output remains a valuable resource on which to draw.

Some of the insights you pick up might not seem relevant at the time but six months in they suddenly make perfect sense.

If you're in a non Pacific time zone, like I was, be kind to yourself and take a little time off-screen before the video calls kick in. Bootcamp will be much easier if you're feeling fresh and don't have eye-strain already from an 8 hour day coding.

For me, bootcamp started at 5pm BST so I typically took an hour or so from 4pm away from the computer to get some air, a little food and exercise before the talks began. A few times I worked through and hopped into bootcamp last minute. That's when I felt least engaged largely because I was through with working for the day before the bootcamp had even started.

4. Serendipity

It's not what you know, it's who you know. This is true as far as I'm concerned and to be candid, a remote YC batch does not lend itself to chance-encounters and lunch-queue friendships.

Those 'water cooler moments' obviously don't happen so, YC tried to create virtual equivalents of this magic sauce. This is so important because your batchmates are potential customers, employees, introducers, a shoulder to cry on and someone to celebrate with.

After bootcamp and dinner talks, YC hosts video calls with up to seven participants in each one and you're dropped randomly into one. What you get are seven people who don't know each other but have two things in common: 1, they are a company founder in your batch and 2, they just watched the same talk as you.

At times these were extremely awkward with no one speaking or maybe one person dominating the conversation completely. However, some of the calls were really engaging and it's a good chance to get to know a few folks. Soon enough you make friends and you'll be setting up video calls for virtual coffee before you can say pumpkin latte.

YC also invited us to participate in random founder pairings in which two founders were randomly introduced to each other and invited to have a 30 minute call. This resulted in some awesome friendships that continue to add value on a personal and professional level.

These moments of serendipity aren't really serendipitous at all, they are forced, however, they do a good job of replacing the serendipity where it just isn't practical to have 400 people in the same room at the moment.

So, embrace it. Yes it's slightly forced but approach it with an open mind and an open heart and you'll be pleasantly surprised.

5. Office Hours

Every two weeks we were invited to participate in a video call always with the same group of people for what YC call Group Office Hours. It's like group therapy. You get to know the folks in your group probably more intimately than any of your other batchmates.

Since you'll be spending a lot of time with these guys on video calls, I would definitely reach out to them outside of office hours to say hello and to allow yourself time to get to know each other.

This really helped me get more out of the office hours. We're all probably a little shy around new people but if you get to know everyone better, you'll be able to access more value from the process faster. It just requires more effort remotely because you can't read people so easily.

6. Success and Failure

Any startup journey is a rollercoaster. When we enjoyed success it was like, cool, I'll have a cosy night in to celebrate. When we had failures, it was like cool, I'll have a cosy night in to comiserate. It felt, well, flat.

The batch had, and still has, a Slack channel in which founders shared their ups and downs. Keeping your mental health in view is super-important for you and your company's progress. A key part of that is being able to celebrate and reflect.

I'm not sure I have the answer to this one. You obviously can't go out for drinks if you land a big sale. I think the way I reasoned to look at it was to try to be there for my closest batchmates when they had good or bad news. A quick video call or supportive email goes a long way and you may be in receipt of some support in return if you need it.

7. Demo Day

Man demo day was slick. A 60 second pitch over video call and you're outta there. YC did an incredible job of facilitating the process to thousands of investors. There is no need to bore you with the technical details but honestly it was just great. Show up a short while before your slot, be ready, say your pitch and wait for the 'demo day likes' to roll in.

8. Post Batch

It all seems like a distant dream now almost like it wasn't real. Before YC, I sat here at my desk. During YC I sat here at my desk. Now I still sit here at my desk. This is perhaps the hardest aspect of doing anything remotely, you don't have any tangible memories of going to a place, shaking hands with a person, coming away with a YC souvenir.

One video call very much blends into another. It's hard to know exactly when YC started and when it ended and demo day itself was so brilliantly done that it literally just slipped into my schedule in between coding and making dinner. I wasn't even wearing shoes! Oh the scandal.

At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, there is definitely something missing from a virtual experience. Like riding a rollercoaster in VR. It sure looks like you're on a rollercoaster but the rush of air past your head and the g-forces just aren't there.

The risk I think is that you lose some sense of occassion from the experience and that, in turn, can affect your drive. It's possible I think to meet in the middle. If there are batchmates in your country, make an effort to meet up with them (assuming you can legally do so). If there are batchmates in your city, meet up with them regularly.

Go for demo-day drinks, maybe organise a day out to an amusemant park. Anything to get you out the house as mother would say.

In summary, the clue is in the name really. Remote YC is just that, remote but in two senses. Remote in the technical sense and remote in the 'I live on a remote island' sense. When you can't go to YC, you need to bring it to you.

Good luck on your remote YC journey. If you have some thoughtful questions please do reach out to me by emailing richard [at] richardesigns.co.uk