It was a ritual that Y Combinator (YC) had down pat. On February 12, 2020, the startup accelerator issued an email invitation to its Winter 2020 Demo Day on March 23 and 24. Almost 200 early-stage companies would “present themselves to a room of specially selected investors,” the invite explained. It included information on the venue — a pier next to the San Francisco Giants’ Oracle Park — and noted (twice) that lunch would not be provided. After 15 years and 30 batches of companies, YC Demo Day was one of the startup ecosystem’s most familiar institutions. But as the Winter 2020 edition approached, it became clear that COVID-19 was about to disrupt every aspect of business as usual. By early March, tech companies such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter started telling employees not to come into work, or at least recommending against it. So it was hardly surprising when YC managing partner and director of the early-stage program Michael Seibel sent an email to those who’d RSVP’d announcing that Demo Day wouldn’t involve a roomful of investors after all: On March 23, YC will host our 30th Demo Day online. With the growing concern over COVID-19, we believe this is the right thing to do for the safety of all attendees, including our team, founders, investors, and the media. While we won’t be able to recreate every aspect of Demo Day, we’ll try our best to create an amazing experience for investors, our founders, and all of you. Four days later, as it looked like the pandemic might lead to a protracted slump in investing, YC moved Demo Day up a week in hopes of squeezing it in before things really fell apart. Rather than attempt to fully recreate founders’ traditional live pitches in virtual form, it switched to a stripped-down format in which each startup got a single slide to summarize itself. (Fortunately, it later became clear that investors were surprisingly unfazed by the global health crisis.) For Y Combinator, these abrupt changes to Demo Day were a big deal. But they were only the beginning of the adjustments it would need to make to its twice-yearly boot camp for batches of new startups it’s invested in, which includes three months of work with its partners, alumni, and other experts and culminates in Demo Day. “We had to invent what a new remote YC experience would be,” says Seibel. “We moved YC online and hosted all the events over Zoom. For the first time we brought all the founders together on a Slack channel as well, so that they could interact with each other.” Nobody is arguing that a Zoom call or Slack channel can match everything that’s satisfying about meeting with one or more people in person. Not does YC contend that its current incarnation is an absolutely faithful replica of the in-person, Silicon Valley-based program. “It’s a different experience for sure,” says YC president Geoff Ralston. “It’s fully remote. How can it not be different?” Still, in terms of YC’s higher mission — helping to turn promising raw ideas into small companies with an honest shot at getting big — Seibel and Ralston say that the online incarnation has exceeded their expectations. Which is why many aspects of it may remain in place even once there’s no reason why YC couldn’t revert to its old, familiar self if it felt like it. The details remain a work in progress: The Summer 2021 edition of Demo Day, on August 31 and September 1, will be another online-only affair, with the format of future installments TBD. “The bottom line for me,” says Ralston, “is that we are still able to fundamentally transform the trajectories of companies that come in and work with us for three months.” ‘That’s When the Real Changes Happened’ By the time Y Combinator took the Winter 2020 Demo Day online, it had been thinking about the threat of COVID-19 for a while. Indeed, Ralston says that he had been bracing himself for a pandemic ever since reading New York Times reporter Gina Kolata’s 2011 book Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It. As the possibility of the coronavirus hitting the U.S. looked increasingly real, “we had been having conversations about what this might mean for future batches when suddenly it became really clear that it meant something for our current batch,” he says. On March 10, YC announced that at least part of its Summer 2020 program would be held in virtual form. “The Winter ’20 batch was far more about ‘How do we finish a batch?’” says Seibel. “It wasn’t ‘How do we recreate YC?’ The Summer ’20 batch was, ‘okay, now we have three months to figure out how to recreate YC almost from scratch.’ That’s when all the real changes happened.” Ralston says that he quickly concluded that the pandemic would not be a blip that could by history by the summer. “I didn’t say to the organization, ‘Okay, it’s going to be two years,’” he recounts. “But there was no way I believed we would be back in the office before the end of 2020. The math didn’t work.” The sorta-good news was that long before the pandemic began, Y Combinator had built its own software platform and made it a core part of the experience for startup founders. It did so partly because pure human contact was hard to scale at the pace that YC wanted to expand. In 2010, for instance, its winter batch of startups included just 27 companies. Five years later, that had more than quadrupled to 114; five years after that, the winter 2020 batch stood at 197 companies. “Who knew that forcing people to drive down to Mountain View made it harder versus allowing them to click a button on their computer?” “Office hours used to be, you’d send an email to PG,” Ralston told me in 2019, referring to cofounder Paul Graham the way everyone at YC does. “Now we have an office hour booking system.” The feature was originally part of Hacker News, YC’s popular news aggregator; now it’s an element of Bookface, which itself began as a Google Group and then evolved into a company directory. Today, Bookface is a full-blown private social network for founders that YC likens to a combination of Facebook, LinkedIn, and Quora. Yet another YC offering, Startup School, was an in-person event at first and then became an online program. It’s a free course and community that budding entrepreneurs can take from anywhere. Seibel explained its purpose in 2019: “We meet a lot of founders who kind of know that there’s good advice online, but don’t really know who to trust and who not to trust. And they’re not sophisticated. They don’t know all of the names. And so oftentimes they’re just looking for one place to go to get all the advice they need.”