How Hykso rubbed Y Combinator the right way


They were the very last team of 6,000 to have the chance to wow Y Combinator brass, and they pulled it off.

After completing the second cohort of the Founder Institute in Montreal last summer, Hykso was accepted to what some have referred to as the “X Factor of Tech,” or Y Combinator in Mountain View, California.

An American startup fund started in March 2005, Fast Company has called it “the world’s most powerful startup innovator,” while Fortune has called Y Combinator “a spawning ground for emerging tech giants.” 

It’s a combination of advice, connections, and office hours with other startup founders, as well as exposure to potential investment in exchange for equity. Some of the most notable graduates of Y Combinator include Dropbox and Airbnb.

MTLinTech had the chance to catch up with Hykso CEO Khalil Zahar midway through the program. We picked Zahar’s brain about Y Combinator, how it compares to the Founder Institute program that Hykso had participated in Montreal and more.

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Founded in Montreal in 2013, Hykso is a type of wearable technology that tracks punches and boxing performance. And rather than merely tracking your calorie expenditure or whether you’re exercising optimally, the wheelhouse of most wearable technology, Hykso works to make sure fighters are throwing better punches by providing real-time data to its accompanying app.

Despite the originality of their idea and their success at the Founder Institute (finishing 3rd place in the graduation pitch), Zahar said it was still a shock and a huge honour to have the opportunity to participate in Y Combinator.

“It started with the Founder Lab in Silicon Valley. We visited it as part of the tour, and that was the moment they asked us for our one-minute pitch. They seemed impressed and ended up telling us to apply.”

Out of the 6,000 applicants, only 480 were selected for a 10-minute interview, to be done in person in Mountain View.

“When you think about the cost it’s crazy! They spent probably 1-4 million dollars flying in teams just for the interviews in November,” said Zahar.

All of the interviews were set to happen in one week, and out of everyone, Hykso was scheduled to be the last team interviewed on the last day. In the time leading up to the big day, the team practiced with each other up to 40 times to prepare themselves.

“It was super intense; they were firing out questions, interrupting mid-sentence to ask about something else –  just an overall demanding mental exercise.”

On top of this, since they were the last team, the partners were definitely tired by that point. Part of Hykso’s strategy was to hype them up and give them a bit of energy after hearing so many pitches.

Hykso ended up passing three separate interviews, and then had to do the hardest thing they’d done yet: wait.

“Once they pass you through the interviews, you wait for two things: either they call you and tell you you’re selected, or you’re waiting for an email telling you you’re not selected”.

Waiting in a sports bar in Palo Alto, California, the team had one member hitting refresh on Gmail, one waiting by Skype and another in contact with their old Founder Institute co-graduates back in Montreal, sending them updates.

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Getting the good news was “super emotional”. The team went back to Montreal, packed up their lives, and got ready to move to California for three months.

When we spoke with Zahar, Hykso was midway through the program, but he had already noticed a marked difference from the Founder Institute, which was “much more hands on.”

Y Combinator, on the other hand, is very hands off. The biggest thing is to focus on is growing your company in your own way with your own customers. Everybody has very different challenges. Both programs have powerful networks, but at Y Combinator they can leverage established founders from reddit, Airbnb and Fitbit. It works with a platform of office hours that you can choose from, so you’re essentially picking your own mentors and making the time to meet with them.

Khalil Zahar, CEO, Hykso

It’s a rigorous program that Zahar described as “16 hours a day, sleep, repeat.” CTO Patrick Chandler agreed: “At Y Combinator we have been challenged more than ever before.”

Both Chandler and Zahar repeatedly stressed that the biggest thing that sets Y Combinator apart from other programs is simply the calibre and quality of the startup founders mentoring them.

“True innovation on our product was driven by all these emerging startups giving power to other startups with low-cost solutions to their biggest problems. The integration of these solutions gave us time to focus on what really mattered, getting to know our users and making a product they will love,” said Chandler.

Zahar was equally enthusiastic: “It’s just really where you get to see that success is definitely not linear. There’s lots of ups and downs, but so far the pressure is so high that everybody performs at 130% of their usual capabilities. I didn’t even think it was possible to work that much.”

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