Fashion companies are notoriously secretive, including fashion startups. We've decided that we want Lollipuff to be different -- we want to bring you (our users) along for the ride. We've already shared the story of Lollipuff's creation. Now we'd like to share the next chapter in Lollipuff's story: how we applied to Y Combinator (the world's premier startup accelerator), got accepted, and our experiences during and immediately after.
All of the Lollipuff co-founders came from technology backgrounds where cooperation and openness are the norm. We were kind of shocked and perplexed when we found out that fashion companies (including startups) are notoriously secretive -- and yet fashion communities are so open and supportive. So we decided early on that Lollipuff would try to be a more open company, at least to the extent possible in such a competitive landscape. What does that mean? Basically... we want to bring our users along for the ride and (hopefully) motivate you to follow your dream jobs too.
We've been pretty open about how Lollipuff first got started: Fei's love of Herve Leger, her Herve blog, readers' frustration with fakes on eBay, the blog becoming a pseudo-auction site, and finally, the creation of Lollipuff to fight the battle against all counterfeit designer goods.
You won't find any creation myths or men claiming visceral experiences in their wife's closets at Lollipuff. ;-) Simply put, people were getting scammed and wanted our help... so we quit our "normal" jobs to oblige. Fei, our CEO and lead blogger, continues to share our journey on Lollipuff's blog.
Well, we are ready to share the next chapter in the Lollipuff story: our Y Combinator experience.
Unless you're an entrepreneur or hacker-type, you've probably never heard of Y Combinator...
Y Combinator (aka, YC) is the world's preeminent startup accelerator. Led by Paul Graham, YC is well known in entrepreneurship circles for its startup community (Hacker News) and household-name alumni such as Reddit, DropBox, AirBnB, Heroku, and Disqus. Twice a year entrepreneurs vie for a spot in the current Y Combinator batch (of ~50 companies) and to join the ranks of the 564 other YC-backed companies. And with good reason: the average valuation of a YC company is $22.4 Million.**
** Though that average number is skewed by a few select multi-$Billion startups like DropBox and AirBnb.
There were a whole bunch of good reasons for Lollipuff (or any early-stage startup) to consider YC:
So we decided to apply to Y Combinator's Winter 2013 batch. I mean... it couldn't hurt. If nothing else, we knew it would force us to start thinking about the "right things" for the company.
We're not going to say too much about the application process itself -- for that, you should check out this recent VentureBeat article by Lollipuff's very own, Travis Deyle: How to Write a winning Y Combinator application.
However, it is worth noting that Y Combinator is incredibly competitive. Its admission rate is lower than the most tip-top universities, like Harvard and MIT. To help other women pursue their startup dreams, we've decided to publish our Y Combinator application.
The application consists of a written Q&A (approximately 20 questions) and a 1-2 minute video. We've shared both below with very minimal redactions for privacy and for the occasional piece of confidential information.
The cameo appearance by our cat (bebefuzz) really adds to the video quality, yes? ;)
The application is just the first step in the admissions process. After a first round of cuts, Y Combinator invites teams in for on-site interviews. That's a pretty long and involved story, so perhaps we'll leave that for another day.
The three months in Y Combinator were a whirlwind. (January through March, 2013)
One of the stipulations is that you must be located in the San Francisco Bay Area for the duration of the 3-month program. When we got accepted, Travis and I (Fei) were living in North Carolina. We placed all our possessions into long-term storage, packed a single carload of essentials, loaded up our 2 cats, and made a 3-day drive across the country. Meanwhile, David was in Boston. He gave notice at Google and flew out to a meet us at a temporary apartment complex in San Jose -- the only place that would give a short-term lease with two cats on short notice.
And then the real grind began.
To give you an idea, this is what our site looked like when the beta version first launched in mid-December 2012:
Arg, it's painful to look at the first version (our "minimum viable product"). Needless to say, the site came a long way in those 3 months -- in look-and-feel, UI, automation, and number of users.
I wish I could regale you with exciting stories about those three months... but the fact is, we spent every waking moment working on Lollipuff. Y Combinator recommends that you only do three things during the 3 months: program (work on product), talk to users, and exercise. We took this advice to the extreme. We didn't leave our apartment except to get food and attend YC events. Our only respite were the occasional nighttime all-hands "planning" meetings in the apartment complex's hottub over drinks.
Y Combinator culminates in "Demo Day" -- a day where all the YC companies from the current batch get approximately 2 minutes to present their company to a massive room full of Silicon Valley's elite investors, followed by lots and lots of schmoozing. Here was Lollipuff's presentation:
Demo Day created a great atmosphere for fundraising. Like many of our batchmates, we probably went into it with a little naivete. Days before Demo Day, Paul Graham released the new "handshake deal protocol". So naturally we went into Demo Day with our hands all warmed up for some shakin'. Heh, getting investors to part with their money is not quite that easy, though the Demo Day atmosphere certainly helped grease the wheels.
We were so busy that day that we didn't really capture the moment... but here's a picture of the team wearing their Lollipuff shirts in the backstage prep room (before Fei went on stage). We're standing next to a portrait of Ron Conway, a Silicon Valley "super angel" investor.
Demo Day was a success for Lollipuff. For one, we were named one of TechCrunch's Top-7 startups of Demo Day. We could finally let out a collective sigh of relief and unwind a bit (though really, YC was just the beginning!). However, before all going out to celebrate...
I brought a bunch of Lollipuff's designer items to the event. After all the investors departed, a bunch of the female YC founders and I had a mini fashion party in the restroom while our male cofounders waited, anxious to head off to the after party. One of the ladies demanded to purchase one of the Herve dresses on the spot, even though it was really meant for listing on Lollipuff (sorry ladies, but you know how coveted these things are!).
The entire process was like a bootcamp for startups, and we learned a ton about startups, business, ourselves, our market, and where we're headed now. I think we all agree: it was one hell of an experience -- one we'd gladly do over again if given the opportunity.
Where are we now? We can't really elaborate on too many details... but let's just say: we're still hitting our growth targets and we've got some great expansion plans in the near future. Stay tuned! ;)
We're releasing this information in the hope that it will help inspire your startup dreams. If any of you lovely ladies are ever thinking about taking the plunge, let us know. We'll try to help in whatever way we can.