I had a vague inkling of an idea for a company in 2005. A friend of mine mentioned this new program called Y Combinator that was investing in teams willing to move to Silicon Valley and build out their ideas.
We were older (by a bunch) than the college/new grads they seemed to be targeting. We didn’t have any traction yet. Even the thing I wanted to build was based on algorithms in academic papers I hadn’t yet been able to make any sense of.
All we had was the idea and a rough prototype.
But we got invited to an interview to meet the partners in Boston.
I didn’t like our chances…
I’ve always loved magic. I still remember my first magic set. We lost the scarf immediately. It took us days to realize the scarf had vanished in the secret compartment it was supposed to vanish in.
Over the years I kept dabbling in magic as a hobby.
When I was in seventh or eighth grade, my father came up with the idea that I should ask my old kindergarten teacher if I could perform my magic act in front of her classroom.
I remember seeing the teacher on the playground during a recess we shared with her class.
I wussed out.
I was too embarrassed. But, telling my father I didn’t have the courage was worse than the embarrassment, so when the opportunity presented itself again, I walked up to her, and nervously asked.
She agreed. I performed a magic act in front of her class and it went over pretty well.
Fast forward to High School. I love playing basketball, but didn’t get picked for the Freshman team. So my dad told me to ask the coach if I could practice with the team in case they needed extra bodies.
I thought I was going to die walking into that coach’s office with my heart pounding this fast. The coach was nice, but said “No” to my offer. It wasn’t the answer I wanted of course.
But I didn’t die from the embarrassment.
Both examples were practice at putting myself out there and ignoring all the possible embarrassment I could be putting myself in.
When I got out of college I was a glorified secretary at Accenture (Andersen Consulting back then). They didn’t hire me to be a software engineer like I wanted because I had zero training in software engineering. I was a chemical engineer. My job was to record meeting minutes and make sure people signed documents. I hated it.
So besides the countless late nights learning to make things with software, I also started a habit of emailing random partners ideas I had. Like how convenience stores could start shipping things from store to door or that we shouldn’t have to wait in line at amusement parks or how to try on clothes online with just a camera. Just vague, naive ideas (though to my credit they do all exist today in some form).
I’d use the global email directory to find partners at the firm who might be interested. The guy who had the relationship with 7–11. The one who was in charge of the Disney account. The one who was doing projects with Gap.
What’s the worst that could happen? Maybe they’d ignore me. Maybe they’d reply that the ideas were terrible. Maybe they’d even fire me. Unlikely, but sure. The most likely result was that I’d be embarrassed.
But I’ve been embarrassing myself for years thanks to my Dad. 🙂
One of my emails was forwarded to someone already doing some R&D for retail clients like Gap and he invited me into his office. He gave me a job doing software development in his R&D group at Accenture.
How’d I get into Y Combinator? Well, I passed the interview process just like anyone else that gets into Y Combinator. They might have liked the prototype we built. They might have liked our design aesthetic.
But there’s one thing that I think helped a lot.
The night before our interview, my partner and I went to get dinner at an Indian restaurant near Harvard Square. As we were finishing up dinner, all the partners of Y Combinator walked in.
I was sweating right through my shirt when I walked up to their table as we were leaving. I introduced us and mentioned we’d be meeting them in the morning.
It was just a tiny thing. It took seconds. Didn’t measurably do anything for us. But it added a bit of attention to the partners’ minds the next day. And when those Y Combinator interviews are only 10 minutes long, you can use anything you can to help get their attention.
Want to get attention? Embarrass yourself. Ship a product people might hate or criticize you for. Introduce yourself to someone who could by all probability just ignore you. Publish something no one might read. Yes, your pride takes a hit after the rejections, but you’ll still be walking this earth. You do enough of these and those rejections start to roll off.
Do even more of them and they get people’s attention.
P.S. You should follow me on YouTube: youtube.com/nathankontny where I share more about how we run our business, do product design, market ourselves, and just get through life. And if you need a zero-learning-curve system to track leads and manage follow-ups, try Highrise.