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"Just do it! You've got nothing to lose and you'll probably learn a lot about your idea or startup while going through the application." Rising senior Mimi Tran Zambetti along with Academy alumni Landon Brand and Ben Stanfield just launched Project Wren, a monthly subscription that allows users to offset their carbon footprint by supporting climate change projects.
Project Wren is the second Y Combinator-backed startup launched by Academy students. Here, Mimi shares a day in the life of YC…
What’s your summer been like so far?
A complete whirlwind! Ben, Landon, and I got back from a week-long break on May 18, built a minimum viable product (MVP) of Wren, started YC, and launched on June 12. Since then, we've kept talking to users and building new features, with occasional breaks for YC events and visiting friends.
What was the Y Combinator application process like?
We applied early decision in Fall 2018 for the Summer 2019 batch. We were 90 percent sure we wouldn't get an interview, but figured it'd be worth it for the 1 in 100 chance. Jackson Berry and a couple of our friends who'd gone through the program before helped us a lot with honing our application and practicing for the interview. There's an application followed by a 10-minute interview with a few of the partners (not unlike the IYA application process). You’ll find out the same day of the interview if you're in or not. A phone call means you’re accepted, an email is sent if you’re rejected. I don't remember too much of the interview - it's very short.
We were interviewed by Dalton Caldwell and Solomon Hykes and were struggling to convey our idea for the first few minutes. Once we explained our HR analytics tool we moved into talking about our team. I remember we were so jittery and nervous to hear back that all we could do when we got back to the Airbnb was watch five hours of Queer Eye. Eventually we headed out to dinner with another USC team that interviewed that day, and found out in the car that we got in. The next day there was a big kickoff so that founders could meet each other and get to know their group. As it turns out, there were actually a lot of folks there like us—founders with no startup experience and with no customers yet, but who were generally hard workers with interesting ideas that YC was willing to bet on.
What’s Wren and what was the inspiration behind it?
Wren lets individuals offset their carbon footprint through a monthly subscription. Through a series of questions Wren calculates your greenhouse gas emissions and then offsets them so you can live carbon neutral. Subscribers choose to offset through different projects, like saving rainforests in Peru, and then receive photos and data to prove their carbon is being offset. Some of our users are people who have made changes in their lives to reduce their personal emissions, but it's very difficult for individuals today to live zero-carbon lives (e.g. flying for work). The projects on Wren are climate change solutions that we can do without waiting on governments to take responsibility for our emissions.
At first we felt a lot of dread around climate change. We felt we couldn't do anything about it because we were kids in school and knew nothing about the science or policy of climate change. Then one day, we stumbled upon a website that literally listed 100 solutions that, if enacted, would reverse climate change. We realized that experts had already figured out how we can stop climate change, and all we had to do was find people to help make these solutions happen. That's why we started Wren—to connect individuals who care to implement solutions that are already possible.
Fast Company wrote a really nice piece about us that summarizes some of this too.
What impact do you hope to achieve?
Our goal is to help reverse climate change. Today we have a few hundred people from 20 countries offsetting their footprint, but we hope to reach thousands and eventually millions of people. But offsets aren’t a full solution. Wren will direct users to engage in systemic solutions by making it easier to organize communities and email politicians. We're focused on making Wren simple and fun. When people talk about climate change it's usually dominated by doom and gloom. It's going to be really difficult to get countries to divest from fossil fuels, and it feels like few governments are taking enough action. But we do think humans can still reverse climate change, and Wren can make concrete progress on that goal in a trustworthy and transparent way.
Describe a typical day or week at Y Combinator?
Y Combinator is mostly an excuse to work on our startup all the time. Our days are very flexible and consists of things like talking with users via email, Twitter, text, or phone call, coding, or going to the park to play basketball and wall ball. Then we sleep and repeat! On Thursdays we'll drive up to Mountain View for office hours with the partners. Group office hours are really fun and helpful — we get to hear how four or five of the teams are doing and bounce ideas off of each other. At night, there's a big group dinner with the other startups in the batch followed by a speaker who tells us their founding story.
In addition to group office hours, we'll be up in Mountain View or on Google Hangouts for individual office hours — 30 minutes where we talk about how we're doing and what to do next — with our group partners a few times a week. Every weekend we'll take a break and have a few YC teams or friends from Southern California over for dinner. More about what happens at YC can be found here.
Most memorable moment/experience at Y Combinator at this point in time?
There are a lot!
>Paul Graham (one of the co-founders of YC) tweeted about us. Landon, Ben, and I have been reading his essays for a while now and completely flipped out when we saw the tweet.
>Our first version of the product only supported U.S.-based users. You had to enter a ZIP code as the basis of the calculation. Our first international user, Anders, a hostel owner from Spain, Googled "America ZIP code" and put in one from Washington D.C. just so he could sign up with Wren. Now he (and a few of our other passionate users) texts us ideas about what we could build next for Wren everyday!
>In a similar vein, getting emails from random people on the internet who found Wren and really like it. It's really encouraging to hear from users about why they signed up and how we can improve Wren.
>Barbecuing with other early decision or college-aged founders at our house. There are maybe half a dozen early decision teams in this batch and it's been really fun to hang out, talk about our startups and life outside of work.
Top three things you’ve learned so far?
>You can do things that aren't scalable for a lot longer than you think. You don't need to build from the beginning with the intention of scalability. For example, replying to emails personally instead of using an automated mailing system can be an advantage!
>Launch now. It's easy to be precious about your project and keep it to yourself until you think it's perfect. Chances are that the only way you're going to make it perfect is by showing it to a lot of people and getting their feedback.
>Proving this is a good idea is the only thing that matters in the beginning — for us this means optimizing for growth by building key features first, and then fixing the bottlenecked parts of the funnel.
What I admire about YC is that none of the advice they give companies in the program is a secret. It's all already out there for anyone who wants to "make something people want." Here’s more YC advice: https://blog.ycombinator.com/ycs-essential-startup-advice/.
Tips for fellow IYA students who want to apply?
Just do it! You've got nothing to lose and you'll probably learn a lot about your idea or startup while going through the application. We applied because we thought: "Why not? At least we'll use this as an opportunity to nail our one-liner and maybe get feedback," ... and it worked!
If you're invited up for an interview, try to schedule a few practice interviews with YC alums (i.e. us!). They'll try to simulate the 10-minute experience. A funny tool you can use to practice is iPaulGraham. We're happy to help anyone who's thinking about applying to YC, just ping me at firstname.lastname@example.org.