Ryan Choi interviewed Jack Forbes, CEO of Kopa (YC W19) on his his experiences moonlighting as an intern at HigherMe (YC W15), playing soccer with YC founders & partners, and what drove him to start a YC company — even after being rejected.
Ryan: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Jack. Now, you have a pretty interesting story of how you were first introduced to Y Combinator.
My alma mater, the University of Waterloo, has the largest co-op program in the world. Through that, I got two great offers for one of my co-op work terms [internships] — from Zazzle and HigherMe. I originally took the Zazzle offer but kept in touch with Rob [HigherMe’s founder] because they seemed like a great crew.
Fast forward a few months, and I start working at Zazzle. Then HigherMe gets into YC and they still need an intern. We continued to talk, and I end up joining HigherMe, while still keeping my other job. Here I am doing a full time shift at Zazzle, and then spending nights and weekends at HigherMe.
Ryan: That sounds like… a lot of work.
It was, but I just loved the vibe of working with the HigherMe team. It was a stark contrast from Zazzle — from a large office with a pool, gym, and cafeteria to a hacker house of guys. And it was a great experience: working with fellow Canucks, learning about the startup life, playing Halo in our downtime and hearing second-hand stories about YC and Paul Graham.
And being in the YC network itself was pretty special — like joining the YC soccer team and getting to know the founders of Pachyderm & TrackIn. I remember John [founder of Boosted] came by and let us try out new prototypes of his board. That was pretty cool.
I went to lots of the hangouts open to HigherMe employees and met lots of great YC founders. Across almost all of them, they had an excitement for startups that was inspiring and motivating. That is when I first began dreaming of getting into YC.
Ryan: Is that what got you starting Kopa?
Well, the following year after the internship, I started Kopa. It was my final year engineering project required by Waterloo engineers. I was certain I wanted to pursue it full time, so I funded it by getting a full-time job and working on it with my co-founder — again, on nights and weekends. That went on for a year and a half. We hit a point where we had helped over 1500 interns find housing, and we processed the entire transaction (without taking a fee). We knew there was something there, so it felt like the right time to apply to YC.
Ryan: And how did that go?
It was a roller coaster. We worked hard on our application and felt relieved to submit it. Eventually, we started hearing about others getting accepted as we approached the last day that interviews went out. My co-founder, Zach, said we’d passed the window and didn’t get an interview . Then, at 11:08 PM, on my final phone check before going to bed, we got an interview.
During the interview, the partners asked great questions. Why are you better than Craigslist? How are you going to solve the chicken and egg problem? We thought we answered them pretty well. We even went mini-golfing after as a little celebration… and to relieve the stress.
Later that night, we got the rejection email. We sulked for a few hours. But that was a turning point: that night, we committed to the company and decided to go full-time with or without YC. We brainstormed our B2B program, and quickly proved it out by signing companies. It’s actually the best source of business for us now.
Ryan: But at this point, you’re still not in YC. What changed?
We applied again in mid-October, and we got another interview — it was actually on Halloween. We didn’t feel as optimistic this time, partly because we didn’t want to be let down, but also because we were still committed to our business.
We ended up going to an accelerator event that night to record a podcast about Kopa. We expressed our doubts about hearing back and during the recording — I kid you not — we got the YC call, moments after we said we didn’t think we’d get in. We all froze and we were convinced it was a rejection. (Dalton even said during the interview, “I think X company has a better business model than you“.) My heart was in my chest, and it turned out to be the acceptance.
Ryan: Crazy. What do you think about the HigherMe experience might have prepared you for starting a startup?
At HigherMe and other startups I worked at, the code I wrote actually made a difference. It goes live, people use it regularly, I got feedback from actual users, and it couldn’t have happened without me. That’s an amazing feeling.
On the other hand, I’ve had jobs [at larger companies] where I worked on projects for over six months, only to have it get thrown in the trash. I mean, the job paid a lot. But if it’s not fulfilling, or helping people, why bother? And it doesn’t need to be non-profit — for-profit companies can do very impactful stuff.
Now that I’m running my own company, I want to run something where people can be proud or happy to say they worked at my company. They feel like they can learn, like I’ve been able to. And mostly, that they can look back and say it was worth their time to work with us.
Ryan: Any advice for students looking for their first internship?
Biggest one: do something different than what you’ve done previously. An internship is a chance to try a new company, a new type of work, without risk. No other time in your life can you do that. Change it up.
I had 6 internships at UWaterloo. I tried Product Management at BC Hydro, a utility company in British Columbia. I learned how to work with diverse teams, navigate larger organizations, and managed some pretty large projects. I ended up coding a fair bit, regardless of the role — I like to automate processes, and found better ways to be productive and effective. Again, I learned a lot and I have no regrets.
Ryan: So now that you’ve started your own company and been through YC, in what ways has YC been helpful?
YC is business school for startups. Hyper-relevant to problems startups face — how to improve your landing page, improve SEO, do B2B sales, and everything else we’ve faced at Kopa. YC opens doors: investors reach out and companies are more willing to work/partner with us.
YC was also a good source of early customers. There are thousands of current and former founders who actually needed to help their employees and interns find housing. They gave us feedback on our product and helped us iterate. We even emailed Drew [founder of Dropbox] and got an intro to their head of HR within minutes
And then there’s the motivation: during the YC dinners, hearing stories from founders on their lessons learned, and the experiences they’ve gone through. Having friends through YC that we can share struggles and successes with is huge. That stuff keeps us going. I wish everyone who was interested in startups had had the chance to get this kind of knowledge and experience.