One Response to Rejection

by Danielle Fong

Those who’ve spent time with me over the past few months know both how absorbed I’ve been in the catalysis of our startup, and how poor I am at concealing my admiration for YCombinator. We had poured startling effort into building our product, honing our idea, refining our pitch. But our focus was, perhaps embarrassingly, almost entirely toward a single goal. Getting into YCombinator. It was constantly in our minds. Ample encouragement followed months of work. On occasion, I could be found exclaiming my certainty to the universe. We’ll get in. We’ll make sure of it.

The letter arrived silently. I’m embarrassed to admit that my body read like a chapter on the stages of grief. Shock. My stomach churned as I turned inward. Admonishments ‘not to take rejection personally’ meekly confronted universal doubts. Egos struggled against a rethinking of everything. Hours of discussion lapsed. Plans of what to do were floated, accepted, rejected, forgotten. Night passed to sunrise before sleep. Denial. I woke up recalling a story of one rejection mailed out accidentally, to a startup later to succeed. Thoughts strayed from their success – all I could register was the possibility of a mix-up. Anger. I stewed. ‘It doesn’t matter what they think. I know where they’re coming from, I know what they must think of us. They’re wrong! And we don’t need them anyway.’

Finally, acceptance.

YCombinator has its own personality. Their opinions are their own. They have perspective and wisdom and the will to apply it. But they have no more dominion over truth than the rest of us, nor are they immune to the blindspots that all beings must endure, nor would they suggest otherwise. It’s taken much for me to fully understand this

For years I’ve contemplated PG’s word as philosophy. It has changed the way I think. As PG writes, heroes are those of whom you’d ask “what they’d do in the same situation,” as for years I’ve asked myself. He is a hero.

But PG isn’t my conception of him, no matter how close his words have touched me. YC isn’t what I know of it, no matter how right I’d judged it to fit. And we are not what any others, no matter how wise, can ever hope to judge us.

Once can’t come to truly know people by their writings alone. Yet in my imagination I felt I could. Upon rejection, it couldn’t feel like a group in Mountain View had overlooked our ideas in favor of ideas more compelling to them. Their judgment felt universal. It took hours to move past the looming question: ‘How are we deficient?

Our idea seemed nothing but wonderful. Yet after taking a few steps away, and looking back, there are perfectly valid reasons for skepticism. PG is even on record stating that building applications for people interested in local events is a ‘perennial tarpit’. This isn’t a YC idea, even if it was YC inspired.

It started with a question: could software help people connect in real life? Nothing we knew about was any good. Nobody sane would sift through lists of events online. Dating sites mostly sucked. Put people in the position of a judge, and romance cannot bloom. Chat rooms sucked. There are trolls and perverts everywhere. And the internet at large has no location. Rarely would you find someone nearby. Even more rarely could you expect to know someone by their online persona: my YC dilemma writ large. And we knew, or believed, or hoped. There must be a better way.

But how could they believe us? With neither users nor customers nor a finished product, we have no proof of what is perhaps best described as a social experiment. All we have is code, determination, and the belief in our hearts that we are on the right track.

That belief can only come from imagining our success as we do. But our imagination is not theirs. Without proof, others cannot take the same leaps of faith. It is so easy to take rejection as a challenge to ourselves. It is only a rejection of our rendition. We are unproven.

How were we deficient? Perhaps we don’t see the problems others have seen: traps laying in wait for us just beyond the bend. Or perhaps it is because our imagination, try though we might, could not be made to fit with our heroes, and we were so certain of our shared viewpoint that we were blind to this possibility.

Much attention is being paid to YCombinator clones of late, and there are murmurs of the movement forcast more springing up. When the first batch appeared, they pointed out that YC would eventually struggle with deal-flow. Plenty of good startups were being passed over, so why not fund those? Too little effort was invested in explaining why one might prefer them to YCombinator, dooming them to the appearance of funding YC rejects. Later attempts focussed on a different limitation: bright entrepreneurs must contend with, in addition to harrowing expense, culture shock, and commitment, an immigration system unwilling to receive those planning to work for themselves.

Seed funding is limited by a third resource. For proven teams one needn’t far sight to bet dollars on success. But to bet on the earliest of early startups, run by strangers, not friends, toiling without traction, with working, complete technology, takes more than guts. To back such a startup requires they imagine the success for themselves.

There is hope for new players in the global seed funding game. But none will succeed as YCombinator does, winning successes from strange ideas with unproven players, unless like YCombinator, they cultivate a personality of their own, and call upon their imagination to see as the bright minds applying dream.