On October 11, famed accelerator Y Combinator hosted 1,700 entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs (such as high school and college students) at the Flint Center in Cupertino, Calif. for Startup School.
During the day-long event, a collection of well-known investors and founders spoke to the crowd, doing their best to impart their best advice, insights, and stories.
Here are our favorite quotes, with some context and color. Take it in:
“You have learn to hire a management team, you have to learn how to manage … You have to want success so badly that you learn how to manage.” — Ron Conway, SV Angel
Conway believes that entrepreneurial drive and ambition are innate — but skills like managing people, recruiting, and so on, are not. Oftentimes, founders make the mistake of believing that because they’re entrepreneurs, they’re also knowledgable managers. But management is a learned skill, and founders need to seek guidance in how to do it well.
“As an investor I cannot tell that. We cannot predict the success or failure.” — Ron Conway, SV Angel
Investors often say they knew from the first pitch that a portfolio company would become huge, that they have great instincts, and so. But the fact is, and especially in the early-stage investments that are Conway’s focus, it’s impossible to predict the future. Investors are always gambling, regardless of their instincts.
“… because I was more obsessed with my ‘why,’ I didn’t care how I solved it” — Danae Ringelmann, Indiegogo
Ringelmann spoke to entrepreneurs who have a clear “why” for what they’re building. She wanted to democratize capital, and she used the Internet, ultimately building Indiegogo, because it was the best tool for her to achieve that. Ringelmann was “obsessed” with her goal, not her tools. The bigger picture here? Founders need to be adaptable and open to ideas that can help them achieve what they want.
“What people tell you and how they act is very, very different sometimes.” — Kevin Systrom, Instagram
Your friends and early users may say your product is great, but how they actually use it — or if they even use it at all — will tell you whether or not it’s successful.
“Everyone in this room has to take the idea that there’s a perfect next move and throw it out the window.” — Kevin Systrom, Instagram
Systrom told an audience of future entrepreneurs, many still in school, to forget whatever professional trajectory they might have in mind. Because of unexpected turns of events, new opportunities will disappear … or arise, just as Systrom’s photography class in college yielded photo filters in Instagram.
“The money isn’t what’s actually giving you the time, it’s the market.” — Reid Hoffman, Greylock Partners
Contrary to the popular belief that raising massive amounts of funding will give you runway to hit certain milestones, your startup’s market is what dictates your timeline. As Hoffman pointed out, the track record of companies that have raised massive first rounds is horrible. Raise a little more than you think you need, then focus. Having too much money often leads startups to believe they can put off today’s tasks to tomorrow.
“One of [the myths in Silicon Valley] is the role of government…. it is in fact what creates the platform environment we operate on” — Reid Hoffman, Greylock Partners
Even though much of the tech industry complains about how government hinders innovation, Hoffman reminds us that there are very important things it does for entrepreneurship. For example, the government creates and supports frameworks that enable business to exist (i.e., it maintains the law that makes a contract valid).
“Our job is not very sexy, we just come into the office and try to fix crashes.” — Jan Koum, WhatsApp
Being a founder and leader of a startup is not glamorous — it’s work. Koum and his co-founder Brian Acton stayed away from the media an investors for much of WhatsApp’s life in order to stay focused on the product, as well as the users. Even today, they’re laser-focused on their work, and that means “fixing crashes” every day.
“[We] help you find your own heuristic so you don’t have to come back to us again.” — Kevin Hale, Y Combinator
For Y Combinator startups, office hours with the program’s partners are a time to receive guidance on how they should solve problems and what’s important to them. Partners won’t give them answers to their challenges, but they will help startups find their own problem-solving strategies.
“The other thing is that the incentives to think short term are so unbelievably strong …. I don’t care what any CEO tells you, they’re thinking short term all the time.” — Andrew Mason, Groupon/Detour
Mason admitted that going public was the worst decision Groupon made. Exits are often in entrepreneurs’ minds before they’ve even put up their first splash page. But going public fundamentally changes how a business runs. Meeting quarterly goals is now the priority, and focusing on longer-term plans takes a backseat, according to Mason.
“All investors are not created equal …. Talk to them and find out what their vision for the company is, and make sure the visions align.” — Michelle Zatlyn, CloudFlare
Picking investors shouldn’t be about who gives you the most money and highest valuation; it should be about the best strategic partner for your startup and vision in the long run — not the term sheet. CloudFlare actually turned down investors who gave them higher valuations, solely because its founders wanted to work with certain investors with the right expertise and understanding of its vision.
“If you make it across the room, you’ve found product-market fit” — Emmett Shear, Twitch
Echoing an analogy Y Combinator partner Qasar Younis used earlier in the day, building a new product is like wandering around a dark room, not being able to see, and relying on user feedback, iterations, research, and so on.
“If you don’t love it, you wont make it through the long pain that is inevitable” — Emmett Shear, Twitch
Shear warns against founders getting into ventures for the wrong reasons. No amount of potential riches will keep someone on board when faced with the exhausting reality of building a company if they aren’t excited every day by their work.
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