This June, I was fortunate to be in the audience at the YCombinator Startup School in New York. #StartupSchool is YC’s one-day event that brings together YC Partners, alum companies, and lots of eager entrepreneurs for a series of talks and networking. Unlike YCombinator’s famed 3-month accelerator program, seen by many as the “Harvard of Startup Accelerators”, #StartupSchool crams talks, office hours, and even YC’s signature dinners (albeit with pizza and chips) into an eight-hour span. But what an eight-hour span it is.
In order to attend, I filled out an application that asked some questions commonly associated with YC: “what have you build that you’re proud of?” (My answer: Explorchestra.) A friend wrote about his work on “The Apparatus,” an exquisite bong he built from pristine chemical glassware by tapping into his work in the lab. I was worried, but a few weeks ago, I got an acceptance email. I was elated.
Although most YC speeches are available online, I want to recap some of what I learned for you. A few years ago, my passion for entrepreneurship sparked up, and I started reading every book I could find on management, product design, marketing, etc. Little by little, I saw pieces of advice repeated over and over. Attending meetups and entrepreneur festivals, I heard the same adages over and over: fail early, just do it, put equity agreements in writing, listen to you users, and so on.
If you’re just getting into entrepreneurship, you will find these pillars of business in most of what you read. I won’t waste your time with them. Instead, here are a few pieces of advice that I thought were either original, or presented in a new way:
Shana Fisher, High Line Ventures:
1. You’re not building a company, you’re building a team. You may have heard that the founders matter much more than the idea; ideas change, but people don’t. So, structure the company around your skills, and don’t have team members with too many repeat abilities. Your people will want to know what their role in the company is – the phrase to watch out for is “Can I talk to you for a minute?” People will ask: what’s my role? Why am I here? Why do I matter? Think of this first. Also, check out the SCARF method.
2. Diversity matters. Hire people different from you. I thought I knew that hiring diverse candidates was a struggle in the Valley ever since Google publically admitted it, but Shana Fisher took a different angle when discussing the issue. Yes, hiring women is crucial – there are too few female founders/coders, and like anyone else, they need the startup experience. However, the core issue is more general: hire people who don’t think like you. Most wildly-successful startups do this intuitively early on. Issues of race and gender aside, I think most people are just not comfortable with people from different academic backgrounds and perspectives. However, your team should represent your users, and the more diverse the company, the better you can connect.
3. Great Design ≠ Apple. There is somewhat of a standard for what “great design is” these days: flat, minimal, clean, “whatever Apple is putting out.” To some extent, investors and users are both expecting this. Don’t get hooked on this aesthetic and let it stop you from being original.
Fred Wilson, Union Square Ventures:
4. A little money is a good thing. Two things kill startups financially: too little money and too much money. Having a little money forces constraints; it pushes founders to make difficult decisions about what is crucial and what it not – which ideas to pursue, and which to abandon. It forces you to define exactly what the business is.
Zach Sims, Codeacademy:
5. Learn, learn, learn, learn. Zach wanted to make his own waterproof iPhone case when he was thirteen years old. He knew nothing about manufacturing. So, he got every book he could, and called up every manufacturer he could find. He made the case for himself, and caught the attention of a product VP at one of the companies. The VP wanted to get him on the phone to talk about expanding operations, and only recoiled once he spoke to Zach and realized that his business partner was thirteen.
Zach was curious about coding, so he got every book on coding and read it. Keep asking: “what can I learn?” If you can’t give yourself a good answer, move on. For Zach, that meant dropping out of Columbia.
6. Just don’t die! Every single speaker at YC Startup School mentioned perseverance, but Zach summed it up best: just don’t die! If you don’t quit, you can’t fail. Just keep trying new things. Apoorva Mehta, who now runs a very successful Instacart, spent a year starting and failing. Katheryn Minshew got turned down by 148(!!) of the 150 VCs she spoke to. You know the drill. Just keep at it. Don’t die.
7. Nobody knows what they’re doing. One of the best things about running a startup (aside from getting offers from Google,) is how much you learn and how quickly you do it. However, it’s very deceptive to look at founders and think “they were born different.” They were not. They were just as lost, unsure, and ordinary as you are. In fact, they still are – they’ve just also figured a lot out. Nobody knows, so you just have to get in there, learn, learn, lean, and don’t die. And one day, you’ll know what you’re doing. Or at least you’ll look like you do.
Kathryn Minshew, The Muse
9. Done is better than perfect. YC often says that you should be embarrassed with your first prototype when you release it, or you’ve waited too long. The best ideas needs to be out in the world; you need the real user feedback to figure out what people want. Forget they hype. Sometimes the thing you make is so new and so different, investors won’t understand it. However, if your users love it, you’ll have growth and proof of concept. So, this is a millionth rephrasing of “just do it.”
Apoorva Mehta, Instacart:
10. The reason to start a company should never be to start a company. It should be to solve a problem you truly care about. Things just get too difficult, too hectic, and too stressful – if you don’t love your idea, you’ll crumble
Chase Adam, Watsi:
11. Everything is broken. Most startups feel like a house of cards, and later-stage startups just feel like a bigger house of cards. Companies look really polished from the outside, but don’t let it fool you. Just keep working.
Alexis Ohanian, Reddit
12. The internet is the great equalizer. Alexis just came back from an 80-university tour for his first book, “Without Their Permission.” In his book, on his tour, and on stage at Starup School, Alexis stresses the same point: the Internet makes it possible for anyone to start a business. You no longer need a factory. You don’t need a business plan (though it may help.) You just need a laptop, passion, and time. On the internet, all links are created equal – as long as Net Neutrality stands. There are a million free resources to teach you how to code. Start with www.codeacademy.com. There are no excuses not to start – so get to it. Make it happen. You don’t need anyone’s permission.