The lessons I’ve learnt during Y Combinator

Posted on March 11, 2007. Filed under: Uncategorized |

So investor day is now a memory – it went well.  Our pitch went pretty seamlessly, I was happy with the way we presented and we have a fair few leads to chase up on over the coming weeks so that’s good.  It’s strange though, I wasn’t really quite sure how I expected to feel once investor day was over.  I wouldn’t say I had the level of stress/worry about it as I did for something like my final year exams but at the same time – there was definitely an amount of latent stress that had been built up over the past few months.  Even back in November when we interviewed for YC we knew about the infamous investor day so now being able to say I’ve gone through the process and ended up on the other side is kind of bizarre.  It’s had an unexpected effect on me – I’ve felt quite pensive/thoughtful/reflective the past couple of days.  We decided to take the day after investor day off to actually see some of San Francisco (we’d kept Alek and Tom in the apartment since they got here so we felt we owed them something) and just relieve some of the stress.  That’s when I just generally started thinking about the past few months on YC and I felt the urge to just list everything I’ve learnt since I started on YC.  Hopefully some of them will be useful for some people.

  1.  The first stage of any web idea should be building a product that works i.e. taking the idea and making it something real.  Anything else is seriously irrelevant.  With boso in the early days I spent way too much time worrying about getting the marketing and sales teams in place and getting PR.  I left the actual building part of the site to Tom who put something together very quickly using some old code and we launched it after a couple of days- which was totally the right thing to have done but it needed to be followed up with continued iterations of the site.  The time I spent drumming up press should have been sent on asking people how the product could be improved.  That’s what we’re doing with Auctomatic now and I see now why it’s so important.  By asking users how to improve your product you gain something more important than just a better product – you give the users ownership of the site.  That’s the first step to building what I think is the hardest aspect of any web product – a real community.
  2. It’s not a coincidence that almost every successful tech founder could code in some capacity.  There really is no excuse for not taking the time to teach yourself the basics of building the product if you’re not a hacker.  You don’t need to be a master hacker – you just need to be able to understand the processes involved in building a product.  It’s much less frustrating for you as you actually appreciate why things take longer than expected.  That applies even if you have a tech co-founder, you’ll get along much better if you have a basic understanding of what’s going on in the product side.  After all in the early stages it’s really only the product that matters – if you can’t contribute to that you should ask yourself what can you actually contribute?
  3. The benefits of being around other startups and founders simply cannot be described properly in words.  If you are stuck somewhere trying to do things by yourself without any other startups you only have one choice. Move.  Yes there is always the chance you’ll get uber lucky and launch your killer startup and suceed from Alasaka but why make it so hard for yourself?  Why not have the statistics work for you rather than against you?
  4. Do not react to competition negatively – in a perverse way you need it to suceed.  I remember in the early days of boso having a near neurotic approach to potential competition.  I saw every competitor as a threat and expended far too much energy digging into every detail about them and worrying they were going to overtake us.  This time with auctomatic we’re entering a market where there is probably an overload of similar products but now I see it as a positive because 1) having competitors who can display some moderate success/user uptake validates that there is a real problem to solve 2) you can learn from competitors – ask their users what mistakes they’ve made and make sure you don’t 3) having competition forces you to up your own game.  I have a strong competitive streak in my personality and I’m never more focused than when I make it my personal mission to take something on directly.  Also when you’re in the Valley, competition is a fact of life – if you’re doing anything remotely interesting there are just too many people out here for someone to not go up against you.  You have to deal with it and move on.
  5.  Respect the advice mentors/people you look up to give you but don’t mindlessly follow it.  You need to do what you think is right because ultimately no one knows your company better than you do.  You’ll gain more respect from mentors by taking your own path and following it through than just doing what you’re told.  I think there is some element of taking the pressure off yourself here – if things don’t work out you can always turn around and say “but X said to do it like that” right?  Sure you can – but you may still have killed your startup when your gut was telling you to do something different.  This is much harder to do than it sounds, especially when your mentor is a hugely respected personality with bags of charisma, but it needs to be done.  If for no other reason than to enjoy the real benefit of doing your own startup – namely being your own boss.
  6. Recruiting the right people is more important than anything else.  This is often thrown around as a piece of advice so Im not offering anything new and it’s pretty obvious but I just can’t express how fundamental it is.  And what makes it worse is that the best people ALWAYS have other options.  In fact be suspicious of any candidate who seems to have no other options than joining your startup.  If no one else wants them then why should you do?
  7. Investors can smell desperation and it will make them run a mile.  When we raised our first round of angel funding for boso – we had pretty much reached breaking point.  Kul had emptied out his savings account and I didn’t have enough money for lunch so I was making my own (disgusting) sandwiches.  But we never let our investors know this, we always kept up the front of being eternally optimistic and in control.  When negotiating terms we made it clear we wouldn’t be walked all over (when in reality it was far from clear if we’d be able to survive any longer without funding).  As soon as you let an investor know you’re desperate for their money you dramatically reduce your chances of getting it.  In reality money is a commodity – with a bit of selling raising cash is not hard, especially not in the Valley.  What’s more difficult is getting good money from good investors – once you realise that you’ll be less desperate to accept the first cheque put in front of you and investors can sense that.
  8. Don’t think you know what you’re doing because you don’t.  Just focus on getting anyone and everyone onto the first launch of your product and iterating it like hell – let users do the hard work for you.  Your product might be barely recognisable in a few months time from what it launched as (we’ve gone from student marketplace to online auction tools) – just accept that.
  9. Level out the highs and lows.  Im offering this piece of advice but I’ve still been unable to achieve it.  Sam Altman says he has finally been able to get some sense of detachment and not let the highs carry him away or the lows drag him down.  I’ve not been able to get there – I’m still on this ridiculous emotional rollercoaster which see my views of how we’re going to do swing around on a daily basis.  Thats just startup life and you have to deal with it.  For me this is the toughest part of startups because I find it emotionally draining but I also appreciate that right now I’d find it incredibly difficult to return to a “normal” life.  I’m hooked on this way of doing this now.
  10. Finally – visualise the qualities you think you need to be a good founder and let them creep across into all aspects of your life.  For me I felt like I needed to project a greater air of confidence when talking about my startup (hiding the highs and lows going on beneath the surface) and that has now come from just generally acting more confident about anything.  Personality traits can be faked – decide what you need to be in order to be a success and just become it.  There is no such thing as not being a good presenter/a morning person/technical/assertive/socialable.  People are generally stupid, they can be fooled into believing you are whoever you tell them you are.

Ok I think I’m done, I’ve probably missed a load of stuff – there have just been too many great speakers and people at the YC dinners for me to recall everything I’ve picked up from them.  Most of the stuff I’ve learnt along the way should be covered in my other blog posts.

Time for bed. Over and out.


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19 Responses to “The lessons I’ve learnt during Y Combinator”

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Thank you for this post. As an aspiring YC applicant, this is certainly of much help 🙂
– Jawad Shuaib

You know how you said it’s important to learn programming for Y Combinator? If you don’t know programming, does it mean that you don’t have a shot at Y combinator? B/C i want to enter the application process but I dont know progrmaming.

Interesting read, thanks!

Case: No it definitely doesn’t mean you don’t have a shot – I couldn’t program when we applied for YC and I still wouldn’t say I can program now (I can generally look at rails code, get a sense of what’s going on and write some basic stuff but I definitely couldn’t sit down and just hack something cool together). It’s just that now I have a much deeper understanding of what it does take to code something.

YC definitely prefer hackers and not being a programmer is one mark against you but Kul and I are evidence that you can still convince them to invest (statistically speaking – I think we’re the only group YC has a funded that didn’t have a tech co-founder at the of application)

Great post! Thanks for sharing, startup stories and tips are always welcome 🙂

Thanks a lot for your comment.

It really helped me to go for it. I wish everyone else wrote great blogs like yourself.

[…] The lessons I’ve learnt during Y Combinator So investor day is now a memory – it went well.  Our pitch went pretty seamlessly, I was happy with the way we […] […]

I’ve been reading your blog for a little while now. It gives one of the best glimpses into the life and work of an entrepreneur trying to make it. I hope we get to meet and chat soon. Good luck with auctomatic and Boso.

Nice blog post Harjeet. Keep it up. I agree with you on the appreciation of coding. Since that is the product. Good luck with the new venture, im rooting for you on the sidelines.

Well…I read it but I haven’t a clue what I read…clueless again, I degress…

Smiles and world peace,

[…] Here is his summary account of Y Combinator. But you really should go through and read the historical posts too, as they provide a fuller account.   […]

[…] Click here to read Posted by David Sheardown | […]

All your insight is very worthwhile repeating.

I think #6 “Recruiting the right people is more important than anything else” has to be stressed and I’ve found it out the hard way.


[…] The lessons I’ve learnt during Y Combinator Meal Ticket – %tags% […]

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iVJF9I hi nice site thx

[…] learnt during Y Combinator process Harjeet Taggar of Boso (stands for buy or sell online) describes the lessons they learnt as a startup going through the Y Combinator “trial by […]

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