By SUSAN LAHEY
Reporter with Silicon Hills News
Tilt and Handsome co-sponsored the event.
The panel assembled Friday night, Justin Kan, a partner at Y Combinator, Beshhara, Steve Huffman of Reddit.com, Hipmunk.com, Scott Gress of Treeline.io and Lloyd Armbrust of OwnLocal talked about how they got into the incubator, what the learned there and what they’ve learned since.
Beshara told the story of working on his solution to the question “What will crowdfunding look like in a mobile world?” and then, one day, buying a desk from Armbrust on Craigslist. The two began talking and eventually the conversation turned to Y Combinator and Armbrust suggested Beshara apply.
In an interview before the event, Beshara said that he struggled to get funding in Austin and learned that, when it comes to social technology, Silicon Valley has the greatest concentration of talent and investors. Armbrust had assured him that going through Y Combinator would make recruiting and finding investment a lot easier.
“Even if it makes it 10 percent easier,” Armbrust said, “it’s worth it.”
The Reddit Story
Huffman met Paul Graham just before he founded Y Combinator. Huffman and his roommate and later co-founder Alexis Ohanian were at the University of Virginia and learned that Graham would be speaking at Harvard. They took the train up to see him and Graham was so impressed that they’d taken this long journey to hear him speak, he offered to hang out with them for a bit.
“I was standing at the gas tank and they had these pizza subs inside the convenience store and I just thought it was a travesty, a crime against humanity that the guy inside the convenience store didn’t already know I wanted a pizza sub, that would have saved us a few minutes,” Huffman said. So he explained ideas for quicker food access through apps that he and Ohanian had dreamed up and Graham’s response was:
“You’re going to eliminate lines! No one will ever wait in line again!”
“And I thought ‘No, I just want pizza subs,’” Huffman said.
When Graham invited them to apply for his new incubator, they figured they were a shoo in. Then they got rejected. They were headed home on the train, getting “shithoused” when they got a call that they, personally, were welcome to come to Y Combinator. They just needed a new idea.
Lessons from Y Combinator
Several of the panelists described being told that the 10 minute interview that determined acceptance into Y Combinator was the most harrowing 10 minutes of one’s life and that they saw other candidates emerging from the interview looking like they’d been hit by trains.
The panelists, though, had a different experience. Armbrust, who had a newspaper history, remembered being asked what he considered a bunch of softball questions about the newspaper industry and thinking it was a sign that they Y Combinator team didn’t take him seriously. In fact, he was later told, Graham was impressed that he “knew more about the newspaper industry than anyone I’ve ever met.”
Treeline’s Gress, whose company is finishing it’s last day at Y Combinator March 31, said one thing he learned was that maybe they should have started sooner. Treeline builds backend architecture for apps and was being to use its own modular code systems in its consulting business before finally deciding to let go of the consulting business—which was doing well—and build its product.
“If you think you have something worth doing, start working on it and if it doesn’t pan out, you’ll know soon enough….But if it feels like it has potential and you’re in a position to keep working on it, do it,” Gress said. To that, Armbrust added that startups should treat their employees well, buy them health insurance, give them a liveable wage and let them know the expectations you have for the ride.
Huffman agreed that relationships with people you work with are key. In those moments when there doesn’t appear to be anything else keeping you motivated, he said, those relationships will.
All the panelists ironically agreed that startups need to be careful about taking advice. As Armbrust said, everyone offering advice is coming from a particular mindset and set of experiences that will skew the advice they give.
Beshara said there’s a natural human tendency to constantly seek advice of experts, rather than becoming the expert. Every time there’s a problem, the company wants to book office hours. But at some point there are 17 problems that need to be dealt with in a day and you come to the conclusion that you need to know this information for yourself. So instead of outsourcing your thinking, you should build the muscle of thinking for yourself.
“There’s all this research that shows new neurological pathways aren’t created by reading but are created by the emotion of doing something…,” he said.
Gress pointed out that, early in the company, that’s not always possible.
“You might be getting in situations that are so alien to you that any decisions you’re going to make seems completely arbitrary so you default to these people who have done this before, thinking ‘At least they know what they’re talking about,’” he said.
But ultimately, the founders agreed, one person’s success pathway might be completely irrelevant to what another company is doing.
“My friend taught me that there are many paths to success, it’s just important that you are on one of them,” Huffman said. “Granted, he gave me this advice when he was teaching me to play Settlers of Catan….butt at the minimum you have to have a plan and be able to plausibly explain to yourself where the path to success is. “