How Webflow got into Y Combinator

The unbelievable story that started it all

Vlad Magdalin
March 8, 2015
Entrepreneurship

The full story of how Webflow began starts over a decade ago. It’s defined by rollercoaster excitement, lifelong friendships, and stories we’ll never forget.

The full story of how Webflow (a visual site creator for professional designers) began starts over a decade ago. It’s defined by rollercoaster excitement, lifelong friendships, and stories we’ll never forget. But all the ups and downs pale in comparison to the emotional rollercoaster we experienced on the day of our Y Combinator interview.

Click the video below to watch co-founder Sergie Magdalin tell the story of how Webflow got into Y Combinator, a prestigious startup incubator. 

Keep reading for our full story.

That’s the story we’re going to tell.

Webflow’s co-founders (Sergie Vlad, and Bryant) had originally started working on Webflow in September 2012, and had the displeasure of a first YC rejection experience in November of that year. That was a big disappointment, but we didn’t let the rejection slow us down since we had applied without yet having a product or any traction. Not much was at stake, to be honest.

So, we put our heads down and started working our tails off -- determined to apply for the Summer 2013 batch with much more compelling data to show the YC partners.

Months later, in March of 2013, we had successfully squeezed out a working prototype, submitted it to Hacker News, and were suddenly overwhelmed by tens of thousands of requests to join our upcoming beta program. All three of us were feeling on top of the world.

We started working on our new YC application right away. The deadline was just a few days away.

The pitch video we included with our YC application. From the left: Bryant, Vlad, Sergie.

A few weeks later, we were thrilled to get a message from YC:

Your application looks promising and we'd like to meet you in person.

Whoa.

We immediately signed up for an interview slot, and shifted gears to dedicating at least a full week to interview preparation. We reached out to existing YC founders -- who graciously offered their time to help us prepare. Ash from SendHub channeled his inner Paul Graham, and in 10 short minutes showed us exactly how intense the YC interview can actually be -- to the point that we walked away sort of shell-shocked, but with the total determination to rise to the challenge. Wade from Zapier also asked us so many hard questions that we were forced to significantly re-evaluate our approach. Getting this feedback earlywas crucial in working up the skills and nerves to face the YC partners head-on in our impending interview.

Not wanting to take chances, we also hired a speech coach to grill us and ensure we could answer questions quickly, clearly, and concisely. We interviewed each other for hours on any given day, asking the questions we knew it would be hard for us to answer.

We even wrote a little app to continuously flash a list of potential YC partners’ questions every 10 seconds,training our brains to not go too long-winded with our responses.

Even with all that preparation, we felt incredibly nervous when we stepped into the YC offices on the morning of our interview. We were so nervous, that we forgot to take the classic “here’s our team before the YC interview” photo next to the famous YC sign. There were lots of other founders waiting for their interviews - some pacing around as if rehearsing for a speech, some making small talk among themselves, and some speaking with various YC alumni who were sprinkled throughout the office.

Our names were called, and we entered a room with three partners that we immediately recognized from YC’s website: Paul Bucheit, Harj Taggar, and Kirsty Nathoo. There was also a fourth mystery partner, which threw us off, because he was clearly really knowledgeable about what we were building and asked about 90% of the questions. We found out later that this 4th partner was the amazing Kevin Hale, who had justjoined YC as a partner.

Never before had 10 minutes flown by so quickly. All three co-founders were silent as we walked to the car and started driving back to the co-working space that we called “Webflow HQ.”

At one point during the drive, one of us said “Well, that was obviously a fail”, and we all silently agreed.

During the drive back, we decided that we needed to calm our nerves, so we headed for downtown Mountain View. We ordered some beers at Bierhaus. Since we arrived after the lunch rush, they were out of nearly everything, so ordering a pint of beer was a mini-adventure of rejection in itself. We sat in the courtyard for about 30 minute --  not really touching our beers -- until Vlad came up with the idea of going to watch a movie to switch our minds off for a while as we waited for the looming decision from YC. So, we headed to the closest movie theater, picked up matinee tickets, and settled into a nearly-empty showing ofOblivion with Tom Cruise.

(We soon found out why the showing was nearly empty.)

Every few minutes, despite the well-refined rules of polite company, Vlad would habitually check his phone to see if anyone was calling (meaning we would be accepted) or whether an email had come in (which would contain the dreaded reason for rejection). About an hour into the movie, Vlad’s phone started buzzing, and he quickly jumped outside of the theater into the hall. Sergie and Bryant quickly followed, clearly excited about the possibility of getting in. On the phone was one of the YC partners that we had spoken to, who in a few sentences gave us exactly the news that we were hoping for: “We really like you guys, and would would like to offer to invest in your company.”

Without skipping a beat, and obviously trying to hide his exuberance, Vlad accepted the offer on the spot and the conversation was over in less than a minute.

We were completely over the moon.

After months and months of working towards this moment, it was finally here.

In that moment, all three of us were simultaneously experiencing the highest professional high in our careers, and it was thrilling. Vlad immediately called his wife (and kids) to share the good news; Sergie called his fiancee; and Bryant excitedly spoke with his girlfriend.

While everyone was on the phone, we set up a celebration dinner just a few hours later in downtown Mountain View. We were all going to meet there at 6:30, but since all of our significant others needed time to make their way to the restaurant, the three of us decided to finish up the remaining 30 minutes ofOblivion.

We made our way back into the movie theater, and sunk back into our seats -- this time with overwhelming happiness as opposed to the anxiety we were feeling the last time we occupied the same space.

This is where the story could have ended, but perhaps then it wouldn’t be a good story :)

For some reason, Vlad kept checking his phone habitually every few minutes. During one of these checks, a new message came into his inbox, with the ominous title of “yc interview”. It read:

Unfortunately we decided not to fund you this time. We enjoyed meeting with you and were impressed by the quality of the product you've built.  However we've seen similar ideas many times before and we worry that you'll end up in a user deadzone, where your product is too technical for non-technical users and not powerful enough for technical users.  This will make it hard for you to achieve the kind of revenues that we as investors are hoping to see.

In silence, Vlad showed the email to Bryant and Sergie, who read it in quiet disbelief. We walked into the hall, and were nothing short of genuinely and thoroughly shell-shocked.

Immediately, our minds started racing. The reason given in the email was spot on - it was the most appropriate rejection that anyone could come up with for our company at that stage. We immediately decided that the phone call we received earlier must have been made by mistake, because it was generic enough that it didn’t identify our company by name (e.g. “We like you guys, and want to fund you” instead of “We liked Webflow…”).

Oblivion. Ugh.

Slowly, we worked up the courage to call our significant others, and put the dinner plans on hold. We replied to the YC email, left a voicemail at the phone number we received the original call from, and emailed Kirsty to get clarification.

We paced around the movie theater lobby, hoping for a phone call or email back. Never had 30 minutes passed so slowly.

Wanting to get some sort of answer, we decided that our best bet was to drive back to the YC offices and see if anyone was still there. It was already well-past time of the interviews, but we had hope in our hearts that someone would still be there to let us know what on earth was going on. So we hopped back into Vlad’s car, and started driving over -- with nervous energy flowing through us in unison.

As we crossed the intersection of Moffett Blvd and Middlefield Road, Vlad’s phone rang. We immediately pulled over into a mobile home park to take the call.

And what a call it was.

“We’re so sorry, the email was sent in error! You guys are IN!!!”, said the voice on the other end. The relief we felt at that moment was almost indescribable, though Sergie does a good job of relaying the feeling in the video at the top of this page.

From that moment, we’ve been off to the races. We’ve kept feverishly building and improving Webflow. We now have over 250,000 users relying on a product that they absolutely love.

We hope to share the next part of our journey with you soon. Follow us on Twitter, and we’ll let you know when we post again to our blog.

Vlad Magdalin

Vlad is the founder and CEO of Webflow.

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