It was a pleasure and privilege to once again photograph Y Combinator's Startup School 2009 yesterday at UC Berkeley. An assemblage of several hundred awesome engineer/hackers and future founders got together to hear the most successful entrepreneurs of the computing and Internet revolution speak about what it takes and how to get there.Funny story: I sat in the front row of SS08 last year. YC applications were due the following Monday (just as the latest application cycle is due this coming Monday). Was not a founder then, just a designer/engineer with a sparkle in my eye. I grabbed a seat in the front row and took photos of all the speakers from last year, (posted on my Posterous here). I posted my photos on Hacker News. YC partners Paul Graham and Jessica Livingston saw the photos... later they told me it played a part in helping us get selected for interviews out of the likely thousand or more apps for that batch! We accepted YC funding for Summer of 2008, launched 3 weeks into the program, raised an angel round in Oct 08, and so you're reading this now on a startup of our own. I guess you have to give a little to get a little. We feel greatly appreciative of being a part of YC, so I couldn't think of a better thing to do than to take photos once again. If you were there at Berkeley yesterday, I was that guy with the white Canon L lens running around the stage. ;-) The amazing speakers included...
Editor in Chief, Wired Magazine
Founder, FriendFeed; Creator of GMail
Partner, Y Combinator; Founder, Viaweb
CEO, Zappos; Founder, LinkExchange
Partner, Kapor Capital; Founder Lotus
Partner, Sequoia Capital
Founder, Zynga; Founder, Tribe; Founder, SupportSoft; Founder Freeloader
Founder, Blogger; Founder Twitter
Want more photos? Check out the full 85 picture full gallery at my smugmug. That gallery includes full 12 megapixel images suitable for print. You may use these images with attribution link back to my blog. Thanks friends!
A dear friend Dan Haubert, cofounder at Ticketstumbler, passed away this week, and we are all left with questions and anguish. When we first met Dan, it was last summer during our Y Combinator experience. He was the awesomely friendly, hilarious guy who brought 6-packs of beer to our weekly dinners. He was quick to smile and share his deep insights into everything there was to know about business.We made a lot of friends that summer in Cambridge, MA. Dan was a lynchpin of our motley band of entrepreneurs. He left his mark on all of us, and for that, we are grateful to have known him. Dan and I would often talk about how awesome Mark Cuban was, and I remember thinking, given time, Dan may well eclipse him as a businessman. I am shattered to think this will never happen. Dan, please find peace.
via The Startup Guru: Y Combinator's Paul Graham, Inc Magazine
(see infographic, The Family Graham) It was a privilege and an honor to be included in the magazine, especially with so many great fellow YC alums.
A friend told me recently that it was somehow fitting that I get quoted in a business mag saying "Holy Crap!" *grin*
Y Combinator applications are due on March 18th (EDIT, was pushed back to 25th) for the latest funding class, and I figure better late then never to post some advice. It's been an incredible journey for us at Posterous. YC gave us an incredible push, and we're always looking for ways to give back to the community.I thought I'd pull together six specific thoughts that would be helpful to startup teams applying for this or any future round of Y Combinator. Keep in mind I'm not affiliated with YC (just an alum) and the ideas below are merely my own suggestions. Here they are.
1) You are raising money.
YC teams span the gamut. Some people are just out of college, and others have a lot of experience. If you have less experience, take some time to really realize what you're doing when you're applying to YC. You are raising money for your startup. This isn't like applying for a summer program, or getting an internship. You're commiting yourself to building a serious business. Part of raising money is realizing you're committing your life (or at least foreseeable future) to returning investors their money, plus a healthy return. That's the entire point -- it's not a grant. We do startups because we want to create massive value, reward ourselves and reward the people who help us create that value.
2) Solve a hair on fire problem, or do it better than someone else. Great hackers get caught up in technology, but technology doesn't create value in and of itself. Technology is only useful for solving people's problems. This is the basis for why Paul Buchheit's oft-quoted line is true: Startups can often just add "done right" to any other business and have it work out fine. "Done right" means you're making something better/cheaper/faster than something else out there that already creates value. The best startups don't just make something right -- they solve a hair-on-fire problem. Avid Technologies, founded by Bill Warner (one of our investors), is an example of a hair-on-fire problem. Prior to nonlinear editing software, editing videos was such an error prone and difficult process that when Avid was released, a billion dollar industry was born. If your startup doesn't quite fall under the "hair on fire" or "done right" categories, then you're going to have that much harder a time explaining to investors and customers why you're important, or even surviving. Yes, the idea matters.
The ideal startup team (regardless of YC) requires the following trinity of skills:
- Great Coders. You just need to be able to create it on your own.
- Great Designers. You have to be able to make it solve user problems, and make it look damn good too.
- Great Hustlers. You have to be able to get the product out there and in front of people.
Throughout your team, you should have each of these important aspects locked up. Be realistic with yourself about what you and your teammates are good at. You are getting married to your cofounders -- you're literally getting out onto a life raft in the ocean with them, and you're going to need to work with them (and well) to survive.Doing a startup without a kickass team who can really clean up on each of the three skills is going to war without guns, ammo, training, or all of the above.
You've got mentors, right? Get as many trustworthy and intelligent eyeballs on your written application as you can. This goes for any application for anything, really. More eyeballs will always help you flesh out your concepts, spot weak links and strengthen your case. Email founders of YC companies, or founders of any company, to get feedback. We're here to help -- someone helped us.
You've got to keep working on the startup no matter what. Realize that you don't need anyone to give you a permission slip to create your own startup.
I met Brian, Joe, and Nathan, the founders behind airbnb.com recently through the YC grapevine. They are total user experience/design badasses. And they also help people find cheap places to crash with locals all over the world. Hosts get to rent out a spare bedroom or a couch and get spare cash, and travelers get a great deal, safe place to stay, and often times an awesome local to show them around town.Check this out. This afternoon, I was looking for a place to crash in Austin for SXSW and actually almost booked this place near downtown. Great deal, and a great location. But I got distracted and didn't book it, even though I did make it to the booking screen. Just now, I received an email from them...
I can click on "continue the booking process" to jump right into the same flow I was in before. Brilliant! Why doesn't Orbitz or Travelocity or even Kayak.com hook me up with a) history, and b) email reminders, and c) total extreme convenience of jumping back to where I was? Because they don't hustle. AirBed & Breakfast hustles. They're the guys behind Obama O's and Cap'n McCains, which incidentally helped them bootstrap and self-fund their venture... which by the way, actually makes money, and has made money from Day One.
Hustle + great design + great business model makes airbnb.com destined for some incredible success. I know I probably won't be booking a hotel again anytime soon, especially when traveling for fun.
Money can lead to greater happiness for the person possessing it and those around them, if it is used to buy experiences, not possessions.
This explains why a spoiled rich kid can have all the toys in the world and still be empty inside. Buying stuff is a short term high, but money also lets you experience more too, and that's what matters in the long run. I'd add another aspect to this -- money is needed to let you connect to other people.
Last year, I spent many thousands on pro camera equipment (dSLR, pro lighting gear, top quality lenses and all the accessories). But along the way, I discovered that I absolutely loved capturing the beauty of life in photos. I got to go to concerts for free, get to know party promoters, connect with cool local SF bands, and help them on their road to stardom in some small way with my concert photography. Same with the various models I did promotional shoots with. I got to take photos on editorial assignments with a hip hop magazine Hood Star Magazine, and got to see a side of hip hop and street culture from the inside I would never have seen otherwise.
My first interaction with Paul Graham and Jessica Livingston of Y Combinator was actually through my photos of Startup School. Shortly afterwards, one of my photos appeared on the front page of the Startup School -- with thanks from PG himself. Awesome, I thought. It might well have given us a small push when we applied for YC later that year. When Jessica invites me to an event these days, she makes sure to ask if my camera is coming too. =)
I also learned the wonder that is a great, functioning user-generated content community (Flickr), and it helped Sachin and I every step along the way as we designed Posterous. Flickr addiction taught me the virtuous cycle that can happen when personal creativity gains a very real audience.
So I think the money was well spent. The experiences it purchased altered the very trajectory of my life. It put me in touch with new and awesome creative people, let me express myself in a powerful new medium, and in aggregate I'm happier and more engaged in my life now than ever before.
The next time you're considering whether or not to drop the cash on that new gadget or that trip or whatnot, think about whether it will unlock new avenues. If it will, consider it an experiential investment. Take that path and good thngs will come.