What happened when my co-founder quit the night before our YC interview

People compare startups to a chess game, but they're a lot closer to Fear Factor. The hardest part isn't intellectual. It's keeping yourself from melting down amidst an inferno.

From the start, my co-founder and I knew our Y Combinator application was a long shot. On April 8, invitations to interview went out, and we didn't get one. Not unexpected. But April 9 brought a reprieve: Paul Graham emailed us to say that due to a bug, our application was overlooked, and he'd like to invite us to interview.

Miraculous!

…but also terrifying: we had 0 lines of code and two weeks to cook up a demo good enough to impress Y Combinator. The next two weeks we hacked furiously. We spewed out code, then ripped it out, twisted it, stretched it, bent it, and re-molded it until we had cobbled together a makeshift demo.

That week proved Murphy's law: everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.

Ten days before the interview, my car broke down.

Six days before the interview, my laptop crashed and we lost our entire demo.

Three days before the interview, we had hastily re-assembled a demo that worked—barely—and a FAQ covering everything we thought the YC partners could possibly ask us.

Two days before the interview, I told my boss I was resigning. I was scared that if I waited until after the interview and YC rejected us, I wouldn't have the guts to quit.

Now it's the home stretch. It's 12:26am the night before our interview and we're putting the finishing touches on the demo. Then my co-founder emails me [1]:

from: would-be co-founder
to: me
date: Wed, Apr 27, 2011 at 12:26 AM

I'm checking in the changes to demo "My Feeds."  Give it a sync and see that it works on your phone.

But I also have to say up front that after the interview, I'm out.  This just isn't what I want right now.  I'm more than happy to go to the interview with you, and even tell the YCombinator people that I'm in if you think it will help your chances of getting it, but after that, this isn't something I want to work on more, so it would probably be good if you look for someone to replace me.  Really sorry, but I'm 100% sure about it.  But I still wish you the best of luck with it!

Fuck. Sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. There's no way now. My heart races. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. I try to sleep but can't. Why won't the sun just fucking rise already so we can get it over with. Hours later, I finally doze off, then wake up in a cold sweat. The sun is creeping up. Finally.

The interview is at 4:15 that afternoon. I go into work. The code in front of me is a blur. I try to eat but can't keep anything down. My roommate walks by and says, "You look like a ghost." Fitting. I would like to be invisible. Finally, it's 3:30 and time to drive to YC. My hands are shaking. I use my left hand to force the right to put the keys into the ignition of the rental car.

I walk into the interview room alone, and as six YC partners stare back, Paul Graham asks the obvious question:
"Where's your co-founder?"
"I have good news and bad news…" I explain that he had quit the previous night.
Paul Graham pauses. "You'd be surprised how often that happens to you."
"It's the first time it's happened to me."
They laugh, and what follows is 10 minutes of interrogation. The questions come in rapid fire: halfway through answering the guy on the left, the guy on the right interrupts with a new question. Words pour out of my mouth. Where did those come from? Then just as fast as the interview started, it's all over. I have no idea whether it went well but I know I'm impressed: in ten minutes, they asked me every question written in a FAQ that took weeks to prepare. How on earth can did they pull out so much information in so little time? These guys should work for the CIA.

After the interview, the YC partners make a decision on the spot. If you're accepted, they call you that night. If not, they email you with a reason they're saying no. All that’s left now is to wait for the email.

That night my phone rings:
"I wasn't expecting to receive this call."
"I wasn't expecting to make it." Paul Graham continues, "But you had bulletproof answers to apparently damning questions. Would you like to be part of the summer batch?"
Yes. Absolutely!

Over the next few months, great things happen.

My college roommate packs up his whole life in a weekend to move down from Seattle and start the company with me. We change our idea to a better one. We land our first customer. We pitch the world's top expert in what we're doing—and he decides to lead our seed round. We become one of the "hot" startups at demo day, and have to turn down angel investors who want to pour money into our little company. We hire one of the best engineers I've ever worked with away from Google. My roommate's former boss quits his job to join us.

But this story could easily have stopped at 12:26am.

"Don't give up" is the oldest truism in startups. It's not even true. But it's the part that makes startups hard: managing your own psychology when it looks like everything is falling apart.

[1] email reproduced with permission

Thanks to Christine Yen, Jason Shen, and Ben Komalo for reading drafts of this.