Back in 2010, my startup FlightCaster had hit some serious obstacles and we needed to pivot. We had set a deadline for ourselves for some metrics and we failed to meet them. It was a bruising time. We had to let half the team go. I had to tell my investors what had gone wrong. They asked that we consider just giving back the remainder of their money. It sucked.
We had set this deadline early enough that we still had some money in the bank and still had plenty of enthusiasm. What seemed insurmountable was starting over with a new idea. To get us through this tough time, we played a little trick on ourselves. We pretended that we had just gotten into Y Combinator again. We had about the same amount of money left as YC+Start Fund. Our runway was similar. Why not just pretend we were in the program. When you’re in YC, going from zero product to a launched product in 10 weeks is the name of the game. When you’re not in YC, building something that fast feels overwhelming.
For the next 10 weeks, we tried to mimic each step. We wrote up our various ideas as if they were YC applications. I re-read a bunch of Paul Graham essays and got myself back in the mindset. Once we landed on an idea (it was an enterprise travel product), we gave ourselves 4 weeks to get to Prototype day, just like YC. We demoed weekly–to each other, other entrepreneurs, and our investors. It wasn’t as good as Tuesday night dinners, but it worked–our productivity shot up as we wanted to make significant progress each week. After that, the pressure was on to launch something. We held off working on a business deck stuff until our Demo Day approached.
I was amazed how simply adding some YC-like structure to those several months made everything we were doing feel better. Before that, we had been pretty lost. But once we pretended to be in YC, we were motivated because we had a schedule to hit.
Effectively, our Demo Day turned out to be presentations of the new product to large travel agencies. And they were interested. Which then brought new term sheets from our investors. Which also brought interest from a larger company, who wanted to have acquisition talks. Eventually, we took the acquisition.
I’m hearing from fellow entrepreneurs right now that didn’t get into Y Combinator. The very best of them have already moved forward and are working on their startup at full speed. Love that. YC is helpful but certainly not required.
While there are definitely a lot of advantages to being in the YC program, the fact is you don’t need them to succeed. You can get a huge chunk of the value of YC without actually being in the program. That what this post is about. Go out and grab it.
What you can get from YC without being in YC
Advice from Paul Graham and the YC partners
Fortunately, Paul Graham writes down most of advice right in hisessays. There is no set of YC secrets that he hides from the rest of the startup world. In fact, much of what he says in person simply reinforces the advice that he has already doled out through his essays. Having watched him for several years now, I also find that if he starts to give out new advice within a YC batch, you will soon find that idea better articulated in an essay a couple of months later. The same goes for many of the other YC partners who give their advice out for free in their blogs.
Advice from speakers
Every Tuesday night in YC, famous founders give advice to the group. Fortunately, a substantially similar experience is available to you every year. YC runs startup school each year in October. Many of the speakers that come to YC on Tuesday night dinners also present at startup school. And if you miss it, their videos are posted up in the startup school archives. When I did my first startup (which we did not do YC for) I sat down and watched two years worth of startup school videos as part of my preparation.
A set launch date
One of the most overlooked values YC provides is the date of demo day itself. When you get into YC, the date at which you will have to show your product and traction to investors has already been set. When you have a demo day approaching and you desperately want to show 4 or 5 weeks of traction, the pressure is really on to launch quickly. And launching quickly is one of the single best pieces of advice you can get out of YC. So, if you’re not in YC, simply continue to accept the date of demo day and force yourself to launch before then.
Feedback from other founders
One of the most intimidating parts of being in YC is that we demo our progress to each other every Tuesday night. There is nothing formal about it; you’re just around a lot of people who are working non-stop and everyone is interested in what each other’s building. And when you demo that often you inherently want to show progress so that you’re not showing the same thing two weeks in a row. Just like taking a class in college provides some social motivation and structure, YC provides a really nice social cadence. Find a community of startups in your city, and start demo’ing each week. Make weekly feedback a heartbeat that powers your startup.
I don’t want to be dismissive of the $15,000 you get from YC. For three of my startups, I was dead broke (and significantly negative) during the building phase of the company. But I can still look back and honestly say that $15,000 was not a make or break number. There are other ways to make it work. Now of course, YC also gets you start fund now, and it is certainly nice to have $80,000. However, it’s rarely a number that fundamentally makes the difference.
YC has a bunch of mantras. For the most part, they are simply concise versions of advice that has n0w been given hundreds of times. Ignore them at your own peril.
“Make Something People Want”
“Write Code, Talk to Users”
“Be a cockroach, impossible to kill”
“Do stuff that doesn’t scale”
No doubt, demo day is an incredible opportunity for a startup. The amazing thing though is just how far each of the startups have gotten in such a short time. Most of the startups have traction graphs that go steeply up and to the right. If you make the same progress in your own startup, you won’t need a demo day to raise money. With extra networking and AngeList effort, you’ll do just fine raising money. No traction? Well then, demo day wouldn’t have helped you anyways.
The network of YC alumni is quite awesome. Everyone’s willing to help each other out. It’s the second most helpful community I’ve ever been a part of. The first? Hacker News. Ask for feedback and you’ll get it. Ask for help and you’ll get it. Give back to the Hacker News community whenever you can. Treat it as your community, full of people conspiring to help you with your startups. The comments can often be overly critical. Don’t let that distract you from the immense value this community overall still provides you. Use it.
Go to it everyone! And if we here at 42Floors can help you in any way at all—please let us know.
Discussion on Hacker News