YCombinator

YCombinator? I’ll do it

Stanford University
Stanford University

One day last November, I was sitting in the student cafeteria, at Stanford University in California with Josh catching up with Paul, an old friend of mine who was studying there.

We’d had just ordered a coffee from Starbucks, naively answering telling the barista, “yes, we would like cream”, so now we were eyeing up these containers filled with half-coffee, half-squirty-cream monstrosities.

We complaining there was “too much cream in your coffee”, in Starbucks, at Stanford, must be the pinnacle of “first world problems“…


Then Josh checked his email, and we found that the past 3 weeks of blood sweat and tears had been for nothing.

We were wrong. This was the epitome of first world problems.


On April 1st, 2011, I posted on my facebook wall that I was imminently moving to California.

I didn’t actually think anyone would believe me, but somehow, a few people did:

April Fools!
April Fools!

In October 2013, I was having a beer with Josh whom I’d known from the YRS2010 days where he’d done cool stuff along with everyone else. :)

Over the course of the evening, he explained that he’d recently been working on a side project to help people to save money:

Lots of people (even in the UK & US) live paycheck to paycheck. When they want something expensive, they either buy it on finance/a long contract or they drop an entire paycheck on it, and struggle to eat for a month. It’s not ideal. Saving is one of those things that people know they should do (like getting more exercise, eating more healthily) but struggle to do. The application he was developing, Dripfeed, helped people visualise what they were saving for and develop a healthier financial approach to buying things.

Josh told me he’d been accepted to interview at YCombinator – the most prestigious Startup Accelerator in Silicon Valley. The interview was two weeks away.


(A startup accelerator is a programme or boot camp of sorts, often aimed at high tech, high growth new businesses. It’s a strange world.Wikipedia explains more.

YCombinator is *the* best of the best – if you’ve heard of Dropbox, AirBnB, Scribd, reddit, or Disqus – then you’ve heard of a successful company that’s come out of the other end.

If you apply successfully, you gain a (relatively small but not insignificant) amount of cash, you & your team moves to San Francisco for the 3 months, whilst you work on your thing are introduced to, and given advice by mentors, investors and listen to seminars from people who know what they’re talking about and a bunch of other stuff. In short, it’s a good place to be.)


Josh had a problem – YCombinator don’t like accepting companies with single person teams – and so he asked if I wanted to come to San Francisco with him to interview with him. If we were accepted, we’d go 50/50 on it, if not, we wouldn’t. The caveats: the interview was in less than 15 days, and I’d need to pay for my own flight.

 

So for the second time that autumn, I booked a holiday from work and some trans-continental flights at less than 2 weeks notice, and prepared to go to yet another place I’d not been before.

The San Francisco Bay Bridge... and me.
The Bay… and me.

YC’s interviews are are tough.

No matter how much cramming of interview techniques, no matter how much brainstorming of possible questions you could be asked, no much how much you read up about which federal US authority governs which the financial laws you care about, they’re still tough.

Inside the YCombinator's "secret layer"
Inside the YCombinator’s “secret layer”

Firstly, you’re being interviewed by about 5 or 6 people at the same time, all of whom likely know a great deal about building something new “things” with the internet. You’re trying to impress them by showing that you’ve with a slightly offbeat idea, you’ve thought about everything, and that you know how to execute it.

Secondly, the interviews are only 10 minutes long. This means every second counts for quite a lot, being eloquent, concise, knowledgeable counts. Qualifications are worthless. Knowing your area and know the idea kick ass idea, counts.

On top of that, you’re thinking – these next ten minutes influence the next three months of my life and the path I take from here. Will I have to spend three months (probably more), working my arse off, thousands of miles away from my friends and girlfriend? Will this be a big step into a stage of perpetual uncertainty in my life?

I don’t remember exactly who interviewed us, I know Paul Graham was not there though the new head of YC, Sam Altman was in our interview.

The good thing about the interviews, is that you find out if you got in, later on the day of the interview.


Stanford University Memorial Church
Stanford University Memorial Church

We didn’t get in.

As we said bye to my friend Paul in the Stanford University cafeteria, we knew we probably weren’t going to return anytime in the near future.

And then the self-evaluation kicked in.

“Which bit did they not like?”, “Could we have done better there?”, “What if things had been different?”.

Two questions stuck in my mind – probably the two we had the poorest answer to:

  • Q: What’s your plan to promote this thing?
    • A: Reddit Ads – Tim has experience with social media ads.
    • [Response from interviewers: no that’s not the answer]!
  • Q: You’re both experienced hackers – why this? Why not work on something more exciting?
    • A: “errr, it’s not easy – it’s a hard thing to do… etc.”

There are good answers you could give to both of those. We didn’t.


San Francisco, Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, San Francisco Bay
San Francisco, Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, San Francisco Bay

As I spent the rest of my time in San Francisco touristing, I reflected that actually, I wasn’t as sad or disappointed as I’d expected I might be.

I’d been hit by more culture shock than I’d imagined. I found that it was hard for me to accept parts of US culture as the status quo, despite finding similar differences straightforward in non-English speaking countries. Urban areas generally don’t excite me much, and I’m sad I didn’t get out to Yosemite. Despite Silicon Valley and San Francisco being nice places they didn’t really feel where I wanted to be right then.

I realised that whilst the experience had been good, and I’d learnt a lot from it (particularly, what I didn’t know!), perhaps not all the variables had lined up 100% that time, and that actually, I was probably happier as a result.

Returning to the UK was easy…. not that the weather helped! It was 24C and sunny in California and 5C and raining in the UK! But I knew what I was returning to and I could plan parts of my future again. I also knew where I could improve myself, what areas I was weak on, and more about what makes me tick.


And the April Fools day joke on Facebook?

My parents aren’t massive April Fools day fans. Fortunately, they’re not on Facebook so I’d made sure it was just a private prank on my close friends.

Unfortunately, my sister had phoned my mum that day, and just casually asked remarked she hadn’t heard about my emigration until that day…

Well neither had my mum!

In the end, it was all resolved with phone call, leaving just an amusing lesson about how hoaxes go viral.

Maybe that was the scale of first world problems, I enjoyed having… ;)

Happy Late April Fools day! :)


Also see: DripFeed.

Founders at Work

Notes on a book: Founders at Work

Yesterday, I finally completed Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days.

Founders at Work
Founders at Work

The book is a collection of interviews conducted by Jessica Livingston of YCombinator with cofounders and key people of a great deal of well known (and in some cases, less well known, but notable) companies.

Because each chapter is a different interview with a different person, about a different product, company or service, it’s very easy to read small amounts at a time.

There’s quite big variety of products and services that are discussed, but the chapters I particuarly enjoyed were:

  • Max Levchin/PayPal: I hadn’t realised PayPal had originally been a PDA based crypto-system.
  • Craigslist is always somewhat fascinating, and Craig Newark as always seems like a sensible and straightforward sort of person you’d like to work with.
    • Their “softly, softly, BAN, reconcile” approach with rogue apartment real estate agents in New York seems to work well for them.
    • In the long term, I’m concerned that Ebay’s influence on them, will mean they’re unable to compete in new markets because of Gumtree.
  • Charles Geschke/Adobe – I hadn’t realised Adobe developed PostScript for Apple to solve the problem of printer/computer communication.
    • Apple’s present day support for CUPS makes more sense.
  • James Hong/HOT or NOT and Joshua Schachter/del.icio.us – I found these chapters interesting as they were essentially developing “somewhat trivial” web services, that no-one would have said they would have needed.
    • HOT or NOT had the interesting ‘luck’ of being an instant, unexpected hit, with scaling problems associated with that, whilst del.icio.us was able to grow relatively smoothly and organically whilst its founder was still a programmer for an investment bank.
    • I found James Hong’s description of getting his uptight asian  parents to do the initial moderation for HOT or NOT (and when he decided it was time to get someone else to do it), exceptionally amusing.
  • In contrast, James Currier‘s Tickle.com (which I hated i 2007!) set out with a serious aim in mind (and arguably sold itself to Monster on its original ‘serious’ premise) but quickly realised it had to lighten up to make themselves appeal much more.
    • I’d say that HOT or NOT and del.icio.us probably had a much easier and less stressful growing experience, because they solved their growth problems and got their users first, and worried about everything else after that.
  • Most interestingly, none of them (and you can include Caterina Fake/Flickr in this), said “we going to set out to do a startup to dothis relatively trivial thing” – they all built things as a joke/side project/personal project – that only became the product of a startup, once they had lots of users.
  • Probably controversially, I didn’t actually find the Steve Wozniak/Apple Computers chapter very interesting, accessible or useful. I don’t doubt his mastery of his field (using as few chips as possible, to do as much as possible), but the detail just lost me.
  • Having said that, it was very interesting to contrast him with the Ron Gruner and what he had to say of his time at Alliant Computer Systems.
    • I think I’d definitely prefer to work with Wozniak than someone whose hiring process involves refusing to tell candidates what the process is, telling them they’re working every other Saturday and fostering what came across as an exceptionally competitive working environment (based on his background).
  • It was interesting read David Heinemeier Hansson‘s experiences at 37signals of writing the MVP of Basecamp – I’ve heard of agencies trying to build products on various occasions, but some of the reasons Basecamp succeeded.
    • (37signals already were well known, and widely looked up to by the people who [initially] were likely to find it most useful, and be most likely to consider adopting something new.)
  • In that regard, it’s somewhat similar to Joel Spolsky‘s Fog Creek Software – Joel was widely regarded via his blog, and then put out a product (FogBugz) that appealed directly to the people who were his blog’s audience.
    • On a sort of note, I’d be interested to know how much GitHub was slaughtering FogBugz’s market. I can see Fog Creek Software have git/hg products now, but when I was reading the interview – I sort of felt that the debates mentioned in the book about whether integrated wiki’s were what consumers wanted missed the point.
    • I suspect they’ll have legacy renewals, but I worry for the product’s future growth prospects – I’d suggest that perhaps that that product is now yesterday’s posterchild.
    • Today I learned he went on to create Stack Overflow… so I guess FogBugz worries may not be a personal concern so much.
  • I really liked the three interviews with Dan Bricklin/Software Arts, Michell Kapor/Lotus Development and Ray Ozzie/Iris Associates.
    • Being a child of the 00s, Lotus Notes wasn’t really a thing when I started playing with computers. I knew it existed from the Save As dialog that let you save in a format that it might accept, but I never understood anything about the background to the concept of spreadsheets (Visicalc) or the unusual development setup that Lotus Notes was produced under.
  • It’s quite hilarious to read (in 2014) about WebTV and how they managed to cause so much of a stir (to the point that Microsoft bought them) when that category of device was still (somewhat) trying to break through in 2014.
    • (Set top boxes are really the conceptual children, and whilst it’s easy to understand why Microsoft were probably being visionary in realising their significance, it’s most interesting that Microsoft didn’t succeed in the smartTV, setop box, PVR sector, even when the original XBOX was released)
  • Compared to the story of TiVo a few years later, it seems to me, that WebTV open people’s minds, but TiVO actually produced an MVP (and later real-life-actual-product) that people really wanted, once they realised it was possible – Mike Ramsay‘s description of demo’ing ‘pausing’ live TV – to people for the first time is a great example of how consumers should react when they’re presented with a feature that they didn’t know (until that moment) that they needed in their life.
  • Given the majority of people were at least somewhat technical, it was interesting to read about Lycos which was effectively founded by non-techies (the technology was sold to them by a university, and Bob Davis – previously a salesman – was positioned as CEO, which is somewhat unusual).
    • Financially, Lycos looks like a success in hindsight – it was sold to Telefonica -, but I struggle to associate it was much to sing about. I simply can’t help feeling that Telefonica was just getting a bad deal buying it (and indeed, they were!).
  • I particularly liked the chapter about ArsDigita from Philip Greenspun‘s perspective.
    • There’s a lot about how he ran ArsDigita that seemed to make sense from my point of view – for example, recruitment, working quality of life, technology stacks, small self-managed groups with responsibility for their own P/L and where everyone had some common responsibilities for key things.
    • His adventures with Venture Capital sound like a farcical nightmare, almost worthy of a sitcom. However, it does re-enforce – “if it ain’t totally broke” – don’t take someone else’s money in exchange for arguing with their people about how to do things – the distraction is never going to work out for you.
  • Firefox’s non-profit ‘intrapreneur’ development within Mozilla is quite interesting.
    • We forget the days when Firefox was the edgy browser that was up and coming, but Blake Ross did a good job in his interview of explaining how he took the Mozilla browser project as it stood, focused on things that users would want, simplified things, then managed to develop the community of raving users who (for example) took out a full page advert in the New York Times to shout about how awesome Firefox was.
  • Similarly, we forget that less than 10 years ago, Google was just a search company, and their first branch out, was Gmail.
    • Created by Paul Buchheit, at the time, Gmail radically changed the way people looked at email, and radically changed the way people looked at Google. He encountered quite a lot of organisational hurdles and technical hurdles (fun fact: an early [internal prototype] version of Gmail was stored on a single harddisk with no backups, Paul transplanted the hard disk platter into another housing and was able to recover all the data)

There’s many more interesting stories – the story of Hotmail, the story of all the blogging platforms – Moveable Type, Blogger, the story of WAIS, Alexa rankings, toolbars, the Internet Archive, etc but honestly, if you want to read about them, you may as well grab a copy of the book and read through them yourself.


I also feel it worth noting that there were a few moments in the book where I felt people were talking out of their arse/commenting on things they didn’t seem to know about. It’s fact of life when taking advice from anyone, and I’m happy they weren’t edited out – you need to consider things people say, and decide for yourself whether it’s actually what you should do, or whether it simply was what once worked well for the person suggesting it.

The book feels slightly dated – as a 7 year old book of startup stories is likely to feel. In 2007, the recent memories were of the dotcom crash, and the post dotcom successes – the boom in consumer social or mobile startups isn’t really addressed at all (the iPhone was barely released when the book came out).

Jessica has said that she’d like to write another volume, if/when she gets time, and I certainly think, there’s scope for it. There are many new stories from the past 7 years, and many existing stories with new chapters to be told, as well as many other stories from times gone by that deserve page space.


As a book, it comes across as well written, and is full of genuinely interesting interviews. If you’re interested in the history, or how some of these companies and startups came into existence, or you’re interested in learning what people feel they did right… and wrong, then have a read through it.