When it comes to the startup world, every entrepreneur has a unique journey filled with ups, downs and a whole lot of learning.
One of the big decisions along the way is whether to join a startup accelerator. A choice that isn’t just about funding. It’s about tapping into a reservoir of resources, mentorship, and a network that could significantly shorten the steep learning curve that most entrepreneurs face.
Today, I’m sharing an open conversation I recently had with Bilal Dahlab, an entrepreneur who tackled the decision firsthand and went on to take part in Y Combinator.
Bilal’s path shifted from financial consulting to launching Moneco, a fintech startup aimed at easing the process of setting up a bank account and making international money transfers for the African diaspora living in Europe.
In this candid chat, Bilal shares his experiences with Y Combinator. He talks about why he chose this path, the doors it opened, and the community he became a part of. His story is a blend of ambition, learning, and the power of a supportive network.
Bilal also dishes out some solid advice for aspiring entrepreneurs considering the accelerator route.
Through his narrative, we get a glimpse into the real-world benefits and challenges that come with diving into the Y Combinator program.
So, whether you’re just starting to consider a business idea or are deep into the entrepreneurial hustle of building your product, there’s a good chunk of insight waiting for you in this conversation.
About Bilal & Moneco
Jamie: Could you start by telling us a bit about yourself?
Bilal: I was born and raised in Switzerland, Geneva. My mom is English Italian and my father is Algerian.
I have a business background, I studied at the University of St. Gallen, then at ESCP, I’ve worked mostly in finance and then I did some consulting at the Boston Consulting Group in Casablanca. There I was mostly working on financial projects for the biggest African banks.
As long as I can remember, sending money to Algeria has been a huge pain point.
Sending money to Algeria is very complicated. Sometimes you can lose up to 40% of your money. So people need to find tricks. They take the money in the aeroplane, then they do exchanges on the black market and so on.
And it’s not just Algeria that faces this problem (although it may be the worst). Cameroon, Senegal, Morocco, etc. have historically always been expensive.
When I was at the Boston consulting group and making plans for the biggest banks, I had the chance to see how various business units were operating.
And then I could really get a peek behind the curtain. I could see where a lot of money was getting lost on the way. I was also understanding how you sent me from one place to another.
Then I was like, okay. So now I understand this problem very well, I know a lot of people are facing this issue – maybe it’s worth exploring bringing a solution to the table.
I started digging into the topic, and then I realised that sending money to Africa was one of the pain points, but it was not the only one.
The other one is that Africans who migrate to Europe struggle to open a bank account.
The financial services they have are, let’s say, not very efficient.
The African diaspora in Europe is really an unaddressed market in terms of financial services.
Then it turned into, okay, so what if we managed to open an online bank for the basic needs? Then, on top of that, we could add a layer of services like sending money back home.
We realised it could be interesting. No one was doing it. The market is big.
Why Bilal Joined Y Combinator
J: It sounds like a classic startup journey. You saw a problem, you had the experience from your previous work and then you decided “Right, I’m going to fix this.”
And, from the conversation so far, it already sounds like you were perfectly positioned to do it.
So I guess the next question is why did you decide to take this idea and apply for an accelerator in the first place?
B: To be honest with you, we didn’t want to apply to any accelerator. For us, it was YC or nothing.
J: If you didn’t want to apply to an accelerator, what was it about YC that made you go, okay, this is worth it?
B: There were a few factors that made us apply for Y Combinator.
The first one is the help they give you in terms of building the product, understanding your market and so on. A lot of accelerators really help you a lot and are very good. But we needed less help on that side.
But the other side, which helps you a lot when you get into an accelerator is about perception. And YC has a very good reputation.
Having the YC name behind you helps a lot when it comes to recruiting people, negotiating partnerships, promoting your brands among customers and so on.
This was extremely beneficial.
Next was the investment side of things which, again, boils down to that YC name behind you.
Once you get into YC fundraising becomes much easier. Despite the market downturn in the VC environment, we managed to secure funding much more easily than we had expected.
The other financial benefit to YC is the discounts you get with key services you need when you build a startup like Amazon Web Services (AWS), Spendesk and so on. It means you’re able to operate more efficiently without breaking the bank.
Finally, the community you’re able to build through YC is a huge benefit of being part of the accelerator.
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The Application Process
J: You’re not the first person to tell me that the community is one of the key factors. Aside from the support, it helps you get your foot in the door much quicker.
The next question is about the application process.
What did the process look like? From filling out the initial online form through to the acceptance into the batch, etc.
B: For us, it went super fast. I would say maybe in three weeks.
We went through the late application process ( to be honest we’d forgotten about YC because we were so busy). Once we’d filled out the form we got accepted and moved on to the interview.
Ours was with Dalton Caldwell. In the space of about 10 minutes, he asked us about 25 questions.
It went super quick. In that situation, you have no time to make up a political story if you don’t have a good answer.
Something that really impressed me during that interview was that he knew everything about what we were trying to achieve.
Because you have no time during the conversation to explain the context, he comes into the call directly understanding what you do, the problem you’re tackling, who your customer is, the pain points, challenges – everything.
He came in and went directly to the burning questions and everything went super fast.
That interview was on a Monday. On Tuesday he called us for a second interview.
So we prepared for a lot of questions that he didn’t ask the day before. We went into the interview raring to go to discover that he was just calling to say we were accepted.
I think we were very lucky because it was our first application for YC and in three weeks everything was settled.
A Typical Week at Y Combinator
J: I don’t know if you can put it all down to luck. At least some of it sounds like a testament to the idea you had and the value you were bringing to the table. Either way, it sounded like a whirlwind three weeks!
Can you talk to me about a typical week at Y Combinator while you were doing the accelerator?
B: The first thing which is very good at YC is they know that you’re running a company, you’re facing a lot of issues – so the goal is not to take up all of your time.
They book out a matter of hours per week – so as not to prevent you from making solid progress on your startup.
There would be four things which were happening almost every week.
First, you have a one-on-one discussion with your group partner. So you tell them what your challenges are and how you are solving them. Then you cover your goals for the coming weeks.
Then you also have one discussion once a week with with your group team.
The YC companies are aggregated by their industry and geography. We were with other fintechs from India, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.
We would share our milestones and the hurdles we were facing and talk through them with everyone.
It was great because one person might be facing an issue in the Middle East and someone else would say, in Africa, we solved it this way or in Europe, we did this.
It was all about exchanging issues for solutions collaboratively
This also led to partnerships and people would often try to outright solve the problem for you if they could.
The regular activity was the conferences with successful founders – which happened once a week or once every two weeks.
We had conferences given by the founders of Airbnb, Binance, Coinbase, OpenSea, Stripe and so on.
A lot of big, super successful startups. It’s inspiring to see people you recognise from TV or Forbes rankings and they’re telling you “10 years ago I was in your shoes, I didn’t know what I was doing and faced thousands of hurdles. I never thought we could skyrocket like we have.”
Lastly, you have meetings with YC group partners. Which gives you the opportunity to chat with these professionals in a more informal setting.
And because this happens in person with the whole batch – not just your industry – it allows for impromptu run-ins and conversations to happen.
For example, we ran into Michael Seibel multiple times just while we were getting food. He wasn’t in our industry, so we weren’t officially supposed to have sessions with him.
But we kept ending up at the same table as him so we ended up chatting for hours sharing the things we were tackling and getting his feedback and opinion on multiple topics.
It was really cool to meet people that you wouldn’t normally have access to. More than that, they then treat you like an equal. You own a company just like they do.
J: This almost sounds like a type of business therapy, a constant reminder you’re not in this alone
B: Exactly. And the thing which is cool is you really have the chance to act normal with them.
There is no negative impact. They’re not partners. They’re not investors. I could really be myself with them, there was no pressure.
I could talk to them like I would a friend. And it led to some very valuable conversations.
The Main Benefits of Joining a Startup Accelerator
J: That sounds like an incredible experience.
So with all of these factors can you pinpoint one key thing that was the best thing about going through Y Combinator?
B: So to me, definitely it was the people you meet. So the YC partners, you know, when you meet the co-founder of Monzo, the co-founder of Twitch, the guy who invented online streaming music, the woman who did Pokemon Go, a plethora of really successful people.
Not only are they successful, they’re super nice.
Back then, I was in the world of consulting. In that world, a lot of the time when you try to talk with managing directors and partners, you simply can’t reach them. There’s a corporate barrier between you.
But with these guys, they were really reachable and super approachable.
I would say that was maybe my best memory.
And then also, all of the companies you meet worldwide which is also very beneficial. Which helps you make a connection to the YC community.
J: What would you say to an entrepreneur, the main benefits of working with an accelerator in general, or specifically Y Combinator?
B: In general, I would say that it really helps you to structure your product to know in which direction you have to go, because sometimes as an entrepreneur, it can become difficult to know and distinguish the level of priorities.
Sometimes you can end up focusing on something which has low added value. I think in an accelerator you get guidance in the steps you have to follow. This is also true for YC, obviously.
Specifically at YC, the thing which we benefited from the most, I would say now is the reputation.
We managed to negotiate better deals and better contracts because they had the feeling that our company was likely to succeed.
They want to be associated with a YC alumni startup.
We managed to have better pricing for recruitment as well.
It’s also better when you want to recruit talent. They are more likely to trust taking work with a young startup if YC is behind it.
There’s another thing, which is maybe a little bit stupid, but it matters, is that we have to collaborate a lot with influencers because we’re a B2C industry.
A lot of influencers are afraid to endorse digital services because it’s not a physical product. They’re not 100% sure if it’s a scam or not. So when you tell them “We went to YC just like Airbnb, Stripe, etc.” They’re much more inclined to trust you and endorse you.
The Cons of Joining a Startup Accelerator
J: It sounds like a fantastic experience, but nothing in life is perfect, and I’m assuming Y Combinator is the same.
Was there anything that didn’t work during your time there?
B: Yes of course. There were two things, one I regretted, and the second we had no choice or control over.
We went through the YC experience before we launched our product. This meant our milestone discussions weren’t as concrete as some of the other, post-product, companies.
Other founders were sharing milestones like “next week we want to have 1000 customers” or “In a month we aim to have X amount of transactions”.
Whereas we were sharing things like “We want to close a partnership with X.” or “We want to increase the number of people on our waitlist.” and so on.
We didn’t have the feeling of urgency the other companies had. Potentially, we applied a bit too early.
In a sense, it’s good, because we’re getting positive signals of what we’re trying to create. Also, we were seeing a lot of companies with products already out in the world and the hurdles they were tackling.
In another sense, we didn’t get to benefit from the YC expertise of being “live”.
The other thing, that we had no control over, was the structural challenges of having a nine-hour time difference from the rest of our team – most of whom are based in Europe or Africa.
We had to do everything by texting each other. There were fewer chances for spontaneous discussion or solving problems in real time.
The Y Combinator Community
J: Are you still in contact with alumni and people you met at YC? What support do you still get from Y Combinator and its community?
B: For the partners, we are free to reach out to them. They call it office hours.
We can request office hours for any topics we are facing, which is super helpful. We’ve faced a few hurdles with licensing, pricing and other things but we’ve been able to sit down with them for an hour and work out a solution.
Otherwise being in contact with the other YC companies is really helpful for partnerships. Also, hearing about how other companies in our industry are doing can help us be more efficient and avoid some of the same hurdles.
I’ll give you an example. We’ve had to change our banking partner. We were in discussions with 15 banks in Europe – the same banks a lot of other YC companies had also been in contact with.
So we could reach out to them and ask them about their experience and who they’d recommend collaborating with based on what we’re trying to achieve.
It’s really like a circle in which if you manage to be part of it, you’re going to get value. I mean we have a lot of WhatsApp groups for instance. You just ask the question in the WhatsApp group and you can be sure someone will reply. And then the next day you will plan a call and so it really helps you to save time.
Advice for Entrepreneurs Thinking of Applying to Y Combinator
J: I have one more question for you. Imagine an entrepreneur comes to you tomorrow and says “Hey, I’ve got this idea I’ve got my vision I’m about to start filling out my applications for accelerators. What advice do you have?
B: So to me, the most important thing is to, first they will have to apply on the online form.
You need to be very concise with your answers. You need to show that you have understood the problem in a very astute way. You need to show that you understand your market in a different way than all competitors.
Present the problem in a simple way. Show how the problem negatively affects a significant group of people. Finally, present your solution.
Your solution should be innovative. But you should be able to explain it in a simple way because people will need to understand it quickly.
Sometimes founders reach out to me because they want to ask me questions. They are unable to explain the solution in a simple way, and if you are not able to explain the solution in a simple way, even to me, then consumers will never get it.
Ergo, they will not buy it.
Next, you need to show them you are in the best position to address this problem. So either because of where you come from. Your background, your experience, your specific knowledge or specific capabilities, etc.
And then the other thing, which I would say matters a lot, is to show how strong and how resistant you are. Me, I know it’s, I know it’s one of my strengths too. I especially show it in my application the issues I was facing in my life.
In my application, I showed them that when I have issues in my life, I do not quit. I really do my best to achieve my goals and so on. I think like this, in a sense, “hustler spirit” is important because, when you have a company, you can be sure that you have a lot of bad surprises on the horizon.
Thank You, Bilal,
For taking the time to sit down with me for a very frank and engaging conversation.
Bilal’s experiences shed light on various facets of the entrepreneurial journey, particularly through the lens of a startup accelerator like Y Combinator.
And there are several key takeaways from the conversation that I wanted to share with you:
Identifying Pain Points:
Bilal’s venture began by recognising a significant problem within the money transfer sector, primarily for the African diaspora. This focus on addressing real-world issues is a cornerstone of meaningful entrepreneurship.
Value of Accelerators:
Y Combinator provided not just funding, but a wealth of resources, mentorship, and a network that could be a game-changer for startups. The reputation and connections it offers can significantly ease the journey of budding entrepreneurs.
Community and Collaboration:
The camaraderie and collaborative spirit within Y Combinator emerged as a significant boon. Sharing challenges and solutions with a like-minded community can accelerate problem-solving and foster valuable partnerships.
Timing of Joining an Accelerator:
Bilal’s experience highlighted the importance of timing when joining an accelerator. The stage of your product could influence the kind of discussions and benefits you derive from such programs.
Pragmatic Advice for Aspiring Entrepreneurs:
Being concise, understanding your market, and having a clear solution is crucial when pitching your idea, not just to accelerators but to any potential stakeholder. Bilal’s advice underscores the importance of clear communication and resilience in the entrepreneurial landscape.
Sharing and learning from entrepreneurs across the globe enriches the startup journey, providing diverse perspectives and solutions which could be adapted to local challenges.
The support from Y Combinator didn’t end with the program; the ongoing access to mentorship and the community continues to provide a support network, aiding in navigating subsequent challenges.
Bilal’s narrative embodies the essence of modern-day entrepreneurship – it’s a blend of vision, resilience, and the right support systems.
Whether you’re an aspiring entrepreneur or a seasoned business leader, the insights from this conversation offer a slice of the real-world startup ecosystem, laden with both opportunities and challenges.