How Instacart Hacked YC

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Editor’s note: Apoorva Mehta is the founder of YC-backed Instacart, a startup that’s taking on 1-hour grocery delivery. He previously worked on supply chain infrastructure at Amazon.com.

Getting into Y-Combinator is hard enough; but getting in two months late and as a single founder is almost impossible. This is how I hacked my way in.

It was June, and I decided to apply to Y-Combinator. I always wanted to go through the intense program, and I knew that getting in would dramatically improve the chances that Instacart would succeed. But there was a problem: I missed the application deadline. By over two months.

The Plan

I knew that if the Y-Combinator partners experienced my product first hand, they’d have to let me join. So I hatched a plan to get in touch with them. I pinged every YC alumni in my network looking for introductions to the YC partners for a meeting.

Within 24 hours I had several introductions to YC partners and things were looking pretty good. All I had to do now was wait for at least one of them to be interested enough to meet with me.

Then the responses started to arrive. One by one, each of Y-Combinator’s partners told me the same thing. “No way.” It was too late to enter the current batch, and I would have to apply again in the next batch.

In the final rejection email from Garry Tan, one of the YC partners, I found a glimmer of hope. “You could submit a late application, but it will be nearly impossible to get you in now.”

That meant it was possible!

I put together an application, and made a video describing my product. I waited for a response, and several days later I got one: another “No.”

The Hack

As I thought about this final rejection, I realized that so far, no one had seen my product in action. Did they even know what I was doing, and why it was different? I was determined to make one last effort to convince YC that I was worthy.

I opened my app and placed an order for one six pack of beer. I addressed it to Garry Tan at Y-Combinator’s headquarters. John, one of my drivers, handled the order and sent me a text letting me know when he was done.

Half an hour later I got a call from Garry. “What is this?” Garry asked. “This is Instacart!” I exclaimed. Garry asked me to come to Y-Combinator the next day to explain my company in more detail. I was so excited, I barely slept that night.

The Meeting

The next day, I arrived at the meeting location. I faced four YC partners and a barrage of questions about how my business worked and why it would succeed. We talked for almost an hour, but it felt like just a few minutes. I answered questions non-stop.

When our chat was over, I was asked to leave, and told that if they chose to fund me, I’d receive a call. This is standard practice for Y-Combinator, but at the time it felt cold, like there was no chance I would be accepted. It felt like the string of “no’s” would only continue.

Ten minutes passed. My phone rang. “Hello, this is Harj from Y-Combinator. I can’t believe we’re doing this. We haven’t let anyone in this late. Ever. But if you’re interested, we would love to have you. Call me back.”

Wow! I had done it! I reflected for a few minutes, and then called Harj back. Of course I would accept.

Fast Forward

It’s now two months later, and demo day is fast approaching. Thanks to YC, I’m working with the most impressive entrepreneurs and investors in Silicon Valley.

I learned a lot during Y-Combinator, but most importantly I learned that I’ll never take “No” for an answer again.