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Student Stories

The Startup Life: Road to Y Combinator

Jackson Berry is co-founder of Splish, a Y Combinator-backed startup that’s carving out a new niche in the social sharing space. Touted as the next anti-Instagram, Splish is a short-form video sharing app where friends can create and share looping videos and animated photos.

Splish is decidedly about life, friends, and meaningful community; less about follow counts, likes, and glossy perfection. Its videos have a grittier look and feel than your average Instagram feed and more staying power than Snapchat’s ephemeral messaging app.

"The incumbents in the consumer social space fail to build relationships in the same way that humans do in real life. They're generally split into two categories – broadcast and messaging,” says Jackson. “Splish instead functions as an online 'third space,’ giving people a place to build and reinforce their relationships on the internet.”

Splish originally started as a generic creative tool in the augmented reality space. While the early photo and video-focused product was evolving, it still felt uninspired until the team discovered a subset of power users who were using the app in a very specific way. Through user feedback and testing, the team began to design deliberately for this segment of power users to reinforce the features that users valued.

"We've followed a product design process that's balanced our thesis and our users' requests, ensuring that we're building with their values and intentions in mind. It's very similar to a design-thinking or user-centered design methodology, and has proven very impactful on our product iterations," says Jackson. "Splish’s success is the culmination of focusing solely on the things people fanatically love most and cutting the clutter of indifferently-received product features." 

Exploring new spaces and experiences is nothing new for Jackson. An Arizona native, Jackson moved to Los Angeles to attend the USC Iovine and Young Academy before setting off on a solo backpacking trip around the world. When he’s not working on his startup, Jackson immerses himself in meditation retreats and creating meditative VR experiences.

Here, Jackson shares his best advice and tips for a successful Y Combinator application.

When did you decide to apply to Y combinator and what was the application process like?

Y Combinator (YC) has been a personal dream of mine since I was 16 years old. Where I grew up, no one was involved in tech. I was the only person at my high school who took computer science, and I taught myself how to make video games and websites via YouTube tutorials. Most of my early schooling in the startup realm came from YC’s forum “Hacker News” and the essays of YC’s founder, Paul Graham. So, naturally, it was my top choice when applying to accelerators, but that didn’t mean getting in was an easy process.

When Splish first applied to YC in Fall 2017, we got one phone interview and were subsequently rejected before the next round. We kept our heads up, continued working, and decided to reapply in Spring 2018. This time we got the interview in Palo Alto. YC interviews are intense ten-minute bouts of ravenous idea debate. Usually teams have one debate, but we were called in for a second because they'd not finalized a decision on our application after the first round.

Describe a typical day at Y Combinator?

Day-to-day life in Y Combinator’s program is exactly what you'd expect – we spend 15+ hours a day heads-down talking to users and building features. We're lucky to work from a living room instead of a garage. To break up the intensity of the long, hard sprints, YC hosts weekly dinners with all the founders of the Summer 2018 batch. We also have small-group office hours with other companies in our space. This small-group time is incredibly impactful as we're able to solve the biggest problems that face our startup with the best mentors, advisors, and founders who understand exactly the position we're in.

Any tips for startups wanting to apply to Y combinator? Is the program worth it?

I used to think that the best way to learn about yourself was by wandering the world, exploring ancient cultures, and reading great books – these are all great options. But, after this summer, I'm convinced the most potent learning experience you can have is sitting in the same chair, hunched over a computer, drinking egregious amounts of coffee, working 15 hours a day on the same problem, with the same people, for three straight months. I don't think it would be possible to condense more leanings about business, tech, people, myself, and life in general into such a short time frame as YC managed to. I would highly recommend applying to any founder. Even if you don’t think you have a chance of getting in, if you want it, you might as well take a shot.

My advice to getting in to YC is this:

Find a great team that you love to work with. Find a problem that you all are uniquely qualified to solve (and would enjoy solving). Work day and night to make your solution a reality. Then learn how to tell your story succinctly and intelligently. If you do all those things, you'll have a good shot at getting in to YC. And if you don't get in to YC, all will still be well because you now have a hardworking team aimed at problem you enjoy solving.

Three top lessons learned so far?

1. Everyone who was successful before you was just as human as you. They had the same doubts, anxieties, stresses. What sets the most successful founders apart is their ability to keep fighting. Formidability trumps talent.

2. Your team is your product. The character of any project you build will inevitably reflect the character of the people who built it. Be sure to choose a team that fits the product and a product that fits the team.

3. You need to learn to scale yourself as much as your company. You need to examine your own deficiencies as much as your product's, and work constantly to improve on them. No one begins this journey anywhere near as impressive as they end it (just google a before and after photo of Jeff Bezos and you'll see what I mean).

Best advice you’ve received?

"Make something people love." This is YC’s mantra and the most important point at the heart of any startup. It doesn’t matter how pretty your design is, how advanced your tech is, or how visionary your mission is – if there isn’t a core group of people who love it, it’s worthless. 

Something about you that people might find surprising or unusual?

I’m very interested in philosophy, meditation, and spirituality. I spent part of this spring practicing at a Zazen monastery in Big Sur and will be doing a seven-day silent meditation retreat in the fall. I tend to combine that interest with another passion of mine – video game development. When I'm not working on my startup, my consistent side project is making meditative VR experiences. The most recent was "Gestations," a surrealist VR experience about being born.

I also spent much of last year solo backpacking around the world. I spent two weeks in South East Asia, a month in the Middle East, two months in Europe, and two weeks in Cuba. While traveling I 3D modeled the people and places I encountered and made them in to a computer game.

Thank you, Jackson!