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Y Combinator was a deeply in-person experience—until the pandemic hit

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It was a ritual that Y Combinator (YC) had down pat. On February 12, 2020, the startup accelerator issued an email invitation to its Winter 2020 Demo Day on March 23 and 24. Almost 200 early-stage companies would “present themselves to a room of specially selected investors,” the invite explained. It included information on the venue—a pier next to the San Francisco Giants’ Oracle Park—and noted (twice) that lunch would not be provided.

After 15 years and 30 batches of companies, YC Demo Day was one of the startup ecosystem’s most familiar institutions. But as the Winter 2020 edition approached, it became clear that COVID-19 was about to disrupt every aspect of business as usual.

By early March, tech companies such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter started telling employees not to come into work, or at least recommending against it. So it was hardly surprising when YC managing partner and director of the early-stage program Michael Seibel sent an email to those who’d RSVP’d announcing that Demo Day wouldn’t involve a roomful of investors after all:

On March 23, YC will host our 30th Demo Day online. With the growing concern over COVID-19, we believe this is the right thing to do for the safety of all attendees, including our team, founders, investors, and the media.

While we won’t be able to recreate every aspect of Demo Day, we’ll try our best to create an amazing experience for investors, our founders, and all of you.

Four days later, as it looked like the pandemic might lead to a protracted slump in investing, YC moved Demo Day up a week in hopes of squeezing it in before things really fell apart. Rather than attempt to fully recreate founders’ traditional live pitches in virtual form, it switched to a stripped-down format in which each startup got a single slide to summarize itself. (Fortunately, it later became clear that investors were surprisingly unfazed by the global health crisis.)

For Y Combinator, these abrupt changes to Demo Day were a big deal. But they were only the beginning of the adjustments it would need to make to its twice-yearly boot camp for batches of new startups it’s invested in, which includes three months of work with its partners, alumni, and other experts and culminates in Demo Day.

“We had to invent what a new remote YC experience would be,” says Seibel. “We moved YC online and hosted all the events over Zoom. For the first time we brought all the founders together on a Slack channel as well, so that they could interact with each other.”

Y Combinator managing partner Michael Seibel speaks at a YC dinner in 2018. [Photo: courtesy of Y Combinator]Nobody is arguing that a Zoom call or Slack channel can match everything that’s satisfying about meeting with one or more people in person. Not does YC contend that its current incarnation is an absolutely faithful replica of the in-person, Silicon Valley-based program. “It’s a different experience for sure,” says YC president Geoff Ralston. “It’s fully remote. How can it not be different?”

Still, in terms of YC’s higher mission—helping to turn promising raw ideas into small companies with an honest shot at getting big—Seibel and Ralston say that the online incarnation has exceeded their expectations. Which is why many aspects of it may remain in place even once there’s no reason why YC couldn’t revert to its old, familiar self if it felt like it. The details remain a work in progress: The Summer 2021 edition of Demo Day, on August 31 and September 1, will be another online-only affair, with the format of future........

© Fast Company

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