How to start a Startup – Lecture 3

This week we kept exploring the YC lectures about starting a Startup. In this third session Paul Graham gave some counterintuitive advices he would give himself to his kids about Startups.

How to start a Startup – Before the Startup

The first one was to pick people to work with the way you would pick people if you were picking friends. The second counterintuitive point, this might come as a little bit of a disappointment, but what you need to succeed in a startup is not expertise in startups. This class can teach you about startups, but that is not what you need to know. What you need to know to succeed in a startup is not expertise in startups, what you need is expertise in your own users.

He tells his aprendices that the way to make their startup grow is to make something that users really love, and then tell them about it. So that’s what you have to do: that’s Growth Hacks right there.  This is the third counterintuitive thing to remember about startups: starting a startup is where gaming the system stops working.  So, stop looking for the trick. There are tricks in startups, as there are in any domain, but they are an order of magnitude less important than solving the real problem. Someone who knows zero about fundraising, but has made something users really love, will have an easier time raising money than someone who knows every trick in the book, but has a flat usage graph.

Our fourth counterintuitive point, startups are all consuming. If you start a startup, it will take over your life to a degree that you cannot imagine and if it succeeds it will take over your life for a long time;  If you are absolutely terrified of starting a startup you probably shouldn’t do it. Unless you are one of those people who gets off on doing things you’re afraid of.

After explaining this he provided great answers to some questions, here are the questions and answers that the speaker gave:

Q: Sure we will start with two questions. How can a nontechnical founder most efficiently contribute to a startup?

A: If the startup is, if the startup is working in some domain, if it’s not a pure technology startup but is working in some very specific domain, like if it is Uber and the non technical founder was an expert in the limo business then actually then the non technical founder would be doing most of the work. Recruiting drivers and doing whatever else Uber has to do and the technical founder would be just writing the iPhone app which probably less, well iPhone and android app, which is less than half of it. If it’s purely a technical start up the non technical founder does sales and brings coffee and cheeseburgers to the programmer.

Q: Do you see any value in business school for people who want to pursue entrepreneurship?

A: Basically no, it sounds undiplomatic, but business school was designed to teach people management. Management is a problem that you only have in a startup if you are sufficiently successful. So really what you need to know early on to make a start up successful is developing products. You would be better off going to design school if you would want to go to some sort of school. Although frankly the way to learn how to do it is just to do it. One of the things I got wrong early on is that I advised people who were interested in starting a startup to go work for some other company for a few years before starting their own. Honestly the best way to learn on how to start a startup is just to just try to start it.

You may not be successful but you will learn faster if you just do it. Business schools are trying really hard to do this. They were designed to train the officer core of large companies, which is what business seemed to be back when it was a choice to be either the officer core of large companies or Joe’s Shoe Store. Then there was this new thing, Apple, that started as small as Joe’s Shoe Store and turns into this giant mega company but they were not designed for that world they are good at what they’re good at. They should just do that and screw this whole entrepreneurship thing.

Q: Management is a problem only if you are successful. What about those first two or three people?

A: Ideally you are successful before you even hire two or three people. Ideally you don’t even have two or three people for quite awhile. When you do the first hires in a startup they are almost like founders. They should be motivated by the same things, they can’t be people you have to manage. This is not like the office, these have to be your peers, you shouldn’t have to manage them much.

Q: So is it just a big no no, someone has to be managed no way they should be on the founding team.

A: In the case were you are doing something were you need some super advanced technical thing and there is some boffin that knows this thing and no one else in this world including on how to wipe his mouth. It may be to your advantage to hire said boffin and wipe his mouth for him. As a general rule you want people who are self motivated early on they should just be like founders.

Q: Do you think we are currently in a bubble?

A: I’ll give you two answers to this question. One, ask me questions that are useful to this audience because these people are here to learn how to start startups, and I have more data in my head than anybody else and you’re asking me questions a reporter does because they cannot think of anything interesting to ask. I will answer your question. There is a difference between prices merely being high and a bubble. A bubble is a very specific form of prices being high where people knowingly pay high prices for something in the hope that they will be able to unload it later on some greater fool. That’s what happened in the late 90’s, when VC’s knowingly invested in bullshit startups thinking that they would be able to take those things public and unload them on other retail investors before everything blew up

I was there for that at the epicenter of it all. That is not what is happening today. Prices are high, valuations are high, but valuations being high does not mean a bubble. Every commodity has prices that go up and down in some sort of sine wave. Definitely prices are high. We tell people if you raise money, don’t think the next time you raise money it’s going to be so easy, who knows maybe between now and then the Chinese economy will have exploded then there’s a giant disaster recession. Assume the worst. But bubble? No.

Q: I am seeing a trend among young people and successful entrepreneurs where they don’t want to start one great company but twenty. You are starting to see a rise in these labs attempts were they are going to try to launch a whole bunch of stuff, I don’t have any stellar examples yet.

A: Do you mean like IDEO?

Q: No, like IdealabGarrett Camp’s new one

A: Oh yeah. There’s this new thing were people start labs that are supposed to spin off startups. It might work, that’s how Twitter started. In fact, I meant Idealab, not IDEO, that was another Freudian slip. Twitter was not Twitter at first. Twitter was a side project at a company called Odeo that was supposed to be in the podcasting business, and you like podcasting business, do those words even grammatically go together? The answer turned out to be no as Evan discovered. As a side project they spun off Twitter and boy was that a dog wagging tail, people are starting these things that are supposed to spin off startups, will it work? Quite possibly if the right people do it. You can’t do it though, because you have to do it with your own money.

Q: What advice do you have for female co-founders as they are pursuing funding?

A: It probably is true that women have a harder time raising money. I have noticed this empirically and Jessica is just about to publish a bunch of interviews on female founders and a lot of them said that they thought they had a harder time raising money, too. Remember I said the way to raise money? Make your start up actually do well and that’s just especially true in any case if you miss the ideal target from the VC’s point of view in any respect. The way to solve that problem is make the startup do really well. In fact, there was a point a year or two ago when I tweeted this growth graph of this company and I didn’t say who they were. I knew it would get people to start asking and it was actually a female founded startup that was having trouble raising money, but their growth graph was stupendous. So I tweeted it, knowing all these VC’s would start asking me, “Who is that?” Growth graphs have no gender, so if they see the growth graph first, let them fall in love with that. Do well, which is generally good advice for all startups.

Q: What would you learn in college right now?

A: Literary theory, no just kidding. Honestly, I think I might try and study physics that’s the thing I feel I missed. For some reason, when I was a kid computers were the thing, maybe they still are. I got very excited learning to write code and you can write real programs in your bedroom. You can’t build real accelerators, well maybe you can. Maybe physics, I noticed I sort of look longingly at physics so maybe. I don’t know if that’s going to be helpful starting a startup and I just told you to follow your own curiosity so who cares if it’s helpful, it’ll turn out to be helpful.

Q: What are your reoccurring systems in your work and personal life that make you efficient?

A: Having kids is a good way to be efficient. Because you have no time left so if you want to get anything done, the amount of done you do per time is high. Actually many parents, start up founders who have kids have made that point explicitly. They cause you to focus because you have no choice.

I wouldn’t actually recommend having kids just to make you more focused. You know, I don’t think I am very efficient, I have two ways of getting work done. One is during Y Combinator, the way I worked on Y Combinator is I was forced to. I had to set the application deadline, and then people would apply, and then there were all these applications that I had to respond to by a certain time. So I had to read them and I knew if I read them badly, we would get bad startups so I tried really hard to read them well. So I set up this situation that forced me to work. The other kind of work I do is writing essays. And I do that voluntarily, I am walking down the street and the essay starts writing itself in my head. I either force myself to work on less exciting things; I can’t help working on exciting things. I don’t have any useful techniques for making myself efficient. If you work on things you like, you don’t have to force yourself to be efficient.

Q: When is a good time to turn a side project into a startup?

A: You will know, right. So the question is when you turn a side project into a startup, you will know that it is becoming a real startup when it takes over a alarming large percentage of your life, right. My god I’ve just spent all day working on this thing that’s supposed to be a side project, I am going to fail all of my classes what am I going to do, right. Then maybe it’s turning into a startup.

Q: I know you talked a lot, earlier, about you’ll know when your start up is doing extremely well, but I feel like in a lot of cases it’s a gray line, where you have some users but not explosive growth that is up and to the right, what would you do or what would you recommend in those situations? Considering allocating time and resources, how do you balance?

A: When a start up is growing but not much. Didn’t you tell them they were supposed to read Do Things that Don’t Scale?You sir have not done the readings, you are busted. Because there are four, I wrote a whole essay answered that question and that is to do things that don’t scale. Just go read that, because I can’t remember everything I said. It’s about exactly that problem.

Q: What kind of startup should not go through incubation, in your opinion?

A: Definitely any that will fail. Or if you’ll succeed but you’re an intolerable person. That also Sam would probably sooner do without. Short of that, I cannot think of any, because a large percentage, founders are often surprised by how large a percentage of the problems that start ups have are the same regardless of what type of thing they’re working on. And those tend to be kind of problems that YC helps the most not the ones that are domain specific. Can you think of the class of startups? That YC wouldn’t work for? We had fission and fusion startups in the last batch.

Q: You mentioned that it’s good advice to learn a lot about something that matters, what are some good strategies to figure out what matters?

A: If you think of technology as something that’s spreading as a sort of fractal stain. Anything on the edge represents an interesting idea, sounds familiar. Like I said that was the problem, you have correctly identified the thing I didn’t really answer the question were I gave this question begging answer. I said I’m interested in interesting things and you said you were interested in interesting things, work on them and things will work out.

How do you tell what is a real problem? I don’t know, that’s like important enough to write a whole essay about. I don’t know the answer and I probably should write something about that, but I don’t know. I figured out a technique for detecting whether you have a taste for generally interesting problems.Which is whether you find working on boring things intolerable and there are known boring things. Like literary theory and working in middle management in some large company. So if you can tolerate those things, then you must have stupendous self-discipline or you don’t have a taste for genially interesting problems and vice versa.

Q: If you hire people you like, you might get a monoculture and how do you deal with the blind spots that arise?

A: Starting a startup is where many things will be going wrong. You can’t expect it to be perfect. The advantage is of hiring people you know and like are far greater than the small disadvantage of having some monoculture. You look at it empirically, at all the most successful startups, someone just hires all their pals out of college.

 

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