I posted on Hacker News yesterday that I was willing to give advice to any YC Applicants who had questions about their upcoming interview. Despite getting little love a few people saw it. One question came in that I particularly liked, so with their permission I’m going to answer it here. The question (edited to remove identifiable information) was:
Me and my co-founder realized a few days ago by talking to users and doing some research that there are some serious issues with the idea we applied with to YC.
In fact, we have changed our idea [already] and YC had known this before inviting us to interview. This is the [xth] time, which YC does not know about. All ideas have been in the same general space of dealing with [problem x] and the changes have been a result of talking to users, etc…
The question to you is whether we should bother coming up with a new idea (which we are struggling to do) incorporating the new knowledge we have gained or simply go into the YC interview knowing that the idea they are expecting us to talk about has a lot of issues.
First of all, I’d like to take this out of context of the YC interview and apply it to startups in general. As Paul Graham has pointed out about 1,000 times, startups pivot. A lot. Maybe more often than not if you look at just the successful ones. Paul Graham knows this. Every investor worth their money knows this.
The most recent example is, of course, Silicon Valley’s current darling, Instagram. As Ben Horowitz explains:
When we invested in Instagram, it wasn’t actually Instagram. It was a company called Burbn, and the idea was roughly to build a mobile micro blogging service… Subsequently, [Instagram founder] Kevin noticed that while Burbn wasn’t taking off, the photo-sharing component of it was doing quite well. As a result, he pivoted Burbn into Instagram.
Instagram started out to solve the problem that sharing stuff from mobile devices sucked. But they didn’t know exactly why it sucked. They thought people wanted to share one thing, but found out they wanted to share another: pictures, so they pivoted and built a great way to do that.
As a startup it’s more useful to keep the problem in mind than the solution. Most of the time you won’t know what the solution is when you start. Sometimes you will (Dropbox is a great example of that) but most of the time you’ll find out by launching and iterating.
So in the context of a YC interview, I’d go in with that in mind. The founder who wrote me is trying to solve Problem X, which is a big problem. Big problems are difficult to solve, but when you solve them, you get a massive success. And by difficult to solve, I mean you shouldn’t expect your first solution to be the one to hit.
If it were me, I’d go into the interview and simply be honest that it’s a big problem and I only have ideas about how to solve it. I’d tell them my best idea, and maybe one or two other promising ones, and where I plan to start.
Startups are a long, hard slog through the mud. You know it and Y Combinator knows it. I haven’t talked to any of them about this, so this is just my gut feeling, but I would be surprised if they (or any other savvy investors) faulted you for not pretending you knew the answer to such a tremendously difficult question. More important is whether you seem like the kind of person who is smart and flexible and hard working enough to figure it out. That’s why PG always says you invest in the founders, not the idea. (I think you also invest in the problem too, but that’s just me perhaps.)
So that’s my advice. Just be honest. In fact, that’s advice that rarely fails you in any situation in life. It sometimes seems to in the short term, but it always catches up in the long run. You see a problem, you want to solve it, and you’re committed to working really hard for a really long time to figure it out because doing so will make the world a better place and make you and your investors a ton of money in the process.
And for what it’s worth, I hope the guy figures it out. It’s a problem I suffer from daily, and I bet you do too. If he solves it I’ll be his first customer.