YC Was Worth It, But Not for the Reasons You Might Think

Hahnbee Lee

Hahnbee Lee


blog thumbnail

Joining the Winter 22 Batch

The deadline to apply for the W24 batch passed last week, making me reminiscent to two years ago when Han and I applied to Y Combinator.

Our YC batch in Winter 2022 took place during the tail-end of the Covid era tech bubble. It was the last fully virtual batch, and it was also the largest YC batch at its time.

Getting into YC made us realize that all our time and hard work was worth something and we were ready to throw everything in to build Mintlify.

Before getting into YC, I had a full-time offer to return to Duolingo. I had grown to really care about the company and team at Duolingo. If it weren't for starting my own startup and all the opportunities YC provided me with, I would not have left Duolingo for anything else.

blog thumbnail

Ultimately I made the right decision and YC was and continues to be worth it, but not for the reasons I originally thought.

The Pros

Before joining, we knew the basics of what YC could bring: the program would let us go all in on building a business. YC is truly unique in that they invest in teams, while being hands-off to provide the space and freedom to innovate.

What we got out of YC was that, and so much more.

Mindset Shift

Many first-time founders are easily drawn into the idea of startup overnight success, such as the stories told about Zuckerberg and Facebook, but that's almost never the case.

Rather, what was happening a lot more behind-the-scenes, and what we had to experience ourselves, was constantly failing fast, reiterating, and going back to the drawing board.

From Day 1, a handful of core principles were drilled into us—to focus on growth, to launch fast, to build something that users would actually want. These were the pillars that everyone operated on, and our time at YC allowed us to apply these concepts in real time as our product evolved. I always tell people that before YC I was purely technical, but after YC I learned how to think about building a business.

Everyone who participates in YC gets group partners who sit down with us during office hours and provide us advice and guidance on what we should be focusing on. With their help, we were able to better navigate our decision-making for when to pivot and when to stick it out in the face of challenges (trust me, there were many).

While everything always seems so clear after the fact, in the moment, when we were stuck with countless issues and moving parts, clarity was the one thing we needed the most. Our group partners came in with a wealth of experience and data points, and their guidance was key to helping us find the right footing.

I remember in one of our first office hours we were told that “a product is only a means to provide value to your customer,” and that we should never be too attached to our product.

These words have really stuck with me and I still abide by this product philosophy today.

The Community

blog thumbnail

When it comes to having a community to lean into throughout your startup journey, the YC network is hard to beat.

People who join YC have a distinct optimism that you can't find anywhere else. These are people who believe they can change the world, put all their time and effort into executing, are eager to help others achieve the same, and are extremely talented. It's a truly motivating group of people to be surrounded by.

Other than being constantly awed by my peers, since we were building a B2B SaaS startup whose main customers are other developer-focused businesses, we were also able to gain insight by conducting user interviews on other YC developer-focused startups. It's as if there is an unspoken rule that everyone is willing to carve out a small chunk of their day to talk to you if you're looking for advice or insights from another YC founder. The insights we gained from these conversations were key to helping us understand pain points that led to us building our current product.

Since graduating from YC, we've quickly realized that our YC W22 batch peers are one of the few people who are pursuing the same journey as us. During the batch, we were all in the trenches, racking our brains over creating MVPs and getting LOIs. Now, when we talk about company growing pains and the eternal headache of the multiple evolutions of a company, I know there's a community of founders who are going through the same. My cofounder Han and I occassionally grab dinner with folks from our batch to see how we have each grown to run our companies in our unique ways and relate to each other about our constant stream of new problems.

To this day, I'm constantly talking with YC alumni and sharing our learnings openly. I love the community and count many founders as good friends.

Investor Dynamics

Fundraising is one of the many things founders need to figure out if they want to take the venture-backed route. But spending time fundraising comes at the cost of neglecting focus on building product.

YC's demo day gives power to the founders by allowing them to schedule calls with investors in one week while comparing and negotiating offers, accordingly. And when it comes to fundraising, YC also has a pleathora of data points on investors and reassures founders when they are confronted with a good or bad offer.

Not only does this give founders greater leverage for negotiation, it also enables us to focus more on developing our product leading up to Demo Day and less on talking to investors before then, which tends to be a very time-consuming process.

Founders are almost always short on time, and having periods of heads-down product building is a huge blessing and luxury.

The Cons

While at YC, everyone was focused on working towards Demo Day. It was an intense environment that called for a near one-track focus on achieving high-growth metrics.

Pre-Demo Day, this mindset was great for helping us iterate and set milestones as we took our product through its early stages. Post-Demo Day, however, Han and I soon realized that it was not a healthy mindset to operate on 24/7.

Our time since YC has taught us that running a business is much more complex than just growing numbers. It's also thinking about how your product can evolve for the better, how you can improve team cohesion, how to hire, when to hire—and by the way, if you're thinking about hiring, you're probably thinking about it too late... It is juggling a thousand things, all at the same time.

Numbers, when all is said and done, are only one side to the multi-faceted equation that lead a business to success.

YC does a great job of getting you into the growth mindset, but learning to step out of it from time to time and taking time to strategize is something that Han and I had to figure out on our own.

Parting thoughts on YC

So, the million dollar question—is YC worth it?

Yes. Absolutely. Of course. If you take away anything at all from this, it is that the pros far outweigh the cons.

Without YC, I cannot imagine how we would've been able to get to where we are today. Now, we partner with over 100 YC companies, ranking as the #1 most popular YC product used by other YC companies in the past 3.5 years.

YC connected us with the people who made our experience; it gave us the opportunity to learn about everything we didn't know and everything we thought we knew but didn't.

During my time living in San Francisco post-YC, I've met a lot of aspiring founders in their early 20s with multiple years of industry experience in big tech. They have the mindset that they have enough connections & industry experience that they don't need YC. I disagree— the community and mindset you pick up from YC is invaluable, and not something that can be easily replaced by years in the field.

YC gave us the confidence and ability to take the startup route— a route that pushes your tolerance for stress, hard work, and caffeine to new limits (nowadays, I live and breathe iced Americanos).

But to think about how rewarding it is to build a product from ground zero and watch it take off—now that is something so exciting and rewarding.

Also, it's still not too late to apply. We know a ton of founders that got in days before the batch started. Best of luck