Y Combinator Accepts Former i-lab Residents Erik Schluntz and Merrill Lutsky of PollVaultr
Late November 2012: Erik Schluntz and Merrill Lutsky, Harvard College sophomores, sit nervously in a Mountain View waiting room buzzing from a 10 minute rapid fire Y Combinator interview which tested every angle of their startup venture, PollVaultr – a point of sale survey and data collection platform.
… Gary Tan, Partner at Y Combinator walks out of the room where the panelists are debriefing and approached Erik and Merrill: “You all are 19, right?”
Gary pressed: “And you all started PollVaultr when you were college freshmen?”
Gary Tan returned to the room where the judges were deliberating. Erik and Merrill traveled back to their hotel to wait for the response. Rumor had it that a call meant you’re in and an email meant you’re out…
Merrill received the call. Extreme excitement, jubilant calls to family and friends, frantic changes to travel plans, and celebratory sushi ensued. What to do about the remaining five semesters of school could wait. PollVaultr was taking off!
Friends, classmates, and business partners Erik Schluntz – Cofounder and CFO, and Merrill Lutsky – Cofounder and CEO, met freshman year at Harvard College in the popular class CS50. They chose each other as teammates for their final project and the resulting idea evolved into PollVaultr.
Erik and Merrill turned to Harvard University’s innovation resources to get their idea off the ground. They put PollVaultr through Hack Harvard’s 2012 Hack Week incubator and entered into the 2012 Harvard College Innovation Challenge “i3” - winning the Harvard Student Agency (HSA) Award and space to pursue PollVaultr for the coming months before moving into the Harvard Innovation Lab (i-lab) as summer residents. During this time, PollVaultr expanded their team to include two sales representatives and three developers (all Harvard College students), built their customer base (including the i-lab), shaped and developed their product, and thought about what direction they wanted to take PollVaultr.
Erik and Merrill decided to apply to Y Combinator in autumn of 2012. They felt they had built a good product, had a solid idea and Y Combinator was, according to Erik, “something of a goal for PollVaultr.” Y Combinator, along with seed funding, would help PollVaultr fine-tune their product and provide the talent and expertise to advise PollVaultr on sustainably scaling to target.
Getting accepted into Y Combinator’s three month program is extremely difficult. “The application process is intense – the interview is even more intense…” remarked Erik, “…the application is very in-depth, focusing heavily on the idea behind the company, the team description, and the team dynamic.” However, once accepted teams are highly mentored, intensely refined, and taken very seriously on the other end by potential investors.
A couple of weeks after they submitted the application, Y Combinator notified Erik and Merrill that it had selected PollVaultr for an interview (along with around 200 other teams). Erik and Merrill bought tickets and vigorously prepared for the interview. On the plane out to San Francisco, Erik and Merrill were still prepping, firing questions back and forth, testing every angle of their idea, and grilling each other on their team resolve. They arrived one day early to acclimate. The next day they threw themselves into the interview, which they described as a full on rapid fire attack focused on their product and testing their ability to think fast and respond even more quickly.
After finding out they were accepted into the program, Erik and Merrill extended their visit through Sunday, where they were oriented with next steps including a requirement to move to the Bay Area for the duration of the program and in time to make the first Y Combinator dinner on January 8th. Y Combinator dinners are famous, six hour sessions where an eminent speaker discusses, over desert and off the record, candid experiences from their efforts to develop a startup. The dinners also function as weekly demo days, pushing teams to hit targets and goals, accelerating the development of their idea.
Around a week after arriving in San Francisco, Erik and Merrill returned to Cambridge having accomplished a major success for PollVaultr, only, as Erik stressed (mid-finals), to face “surviving the next two weeks” of finals, securing their absence with Harvard College, and finding a house in the Bay Area in which to live and work.
The Y Combinator acceptance was an incredible opportunity for PollVaultr, and presenting a great challenge for the cofounders, PollVaultr team members, and the venture: they were Harvard College sophomores with five semesters remaining. Merrill and Erik are taking leave from Harvard College to pursue this venture, acknowledging this as a once in a lifetime opportunity. The beauty of Harvard College is that students can return to finish their degree at a future date. This was a major selling point to their families who were naturally concerned about their decision to leave Harvard, but incredibly encouraging about this opportunity to develop PollVaultr. Erik, Merrill, and a couple of the PollVaultr staff will move to the Bay Area in early January, and a few remain in Cambridge to continue their studies and maintain their customer base in the Greater Boston area.
For PollVaultr, the most exciting part of entering the Y Combinator program is the opportunity to work fulltime and be totally focused on their product and idea. Their goal is to develop a way to scale sales from their current 19 Beta Testers up to their goal of serving large retail chains – transitioning to another market segment while maintaining their baseline customers. Erik and Merrill are also excited about the mentorship that Y Combinator offers and the opportunity to meet and test their product on the other teams.
PollVaultr has a positive and constructive team dynamic. Erik enthused that he and Merrill are extremely “compatible in skills and design philosophy”. Erik explained that Merrill’s strength is “the long term product vision” and Erik’s is “testing and re-testing the idea providing a healthy dose of cynicism and realism”. This balance and strong foundation has allowed the team to succeed in developing their idea and building their company.
PollVaultr has come a long way in just over a year of development and has a bright future ahead with the energy and hard work committed by the PollVaultr team coast to coast. When asked about how Harvard University has helped and benefited a venture like PollVaultr, Erik stated that mentorship, access to free legal advice, classes like CS50, resources like the Harvard i-lab and Hack Harvard, and challenges like i3 and the President’s Challenge provide students the tools, guidance, and freedom to pursue great ideas and succeed in their entrepreneurial ventures.