So you got into Y Combinator, your batch just began, you and your co-founders are super excited, but you're probably wondering what's next, or how can you maximize your YC experience?
Having advised a bunch of YC founders, and having been fortunate to go through the YC program twice myself, I wanted to share a little of what I've learnt through my experiences, and hopefully highlight some useful pointers to help you maximize your time at YC.
Firstly, congratulations on making the cut, you're now part of an immensely valuable community of YC founders and partners who are there to help you achieve your goals of building a great company.
If you applied/interviewed and didn't make the cut, see "So you didn't get into Y Combinator, now what?".
The short - TL;DR:
Focus on executing your startup. Y Combinator is there to help, but it's up to you to make things happen. Take advantage of everything around you, and learn everything you can. Drive towards demo day as a springboard to launch your startup into orbit, and don’t get distracted by the things that are not critical to you executing your startup.
Focus, focus, focus:
The biggest mistake I've seen founders make when going through YC is losing focus and getting lost in all the attention and bright lights surrounding you as a freshly minted YC startup. Focus on executing your startup. Treat YC as the solid rocket boosters that can help you get your startup into orbit, don't treat YC as the destination, or at worst, a short-lived joy ride. Sometimes it's easy to think you're going to succeed now simply because you’re a YC company. YC won't build the startup for you, and you're not going to succeed just because you are a YC company. It's up to you to make it happen. Do leverage everything YC has to offer, the support, the know-how, the community; but ultimately the ROI on your YC experience is purely based on you having absolute focus on executing your startup.
Keeping it real:
I've seen founders that get an ego boost from getting into YC, only to fall short when it comes to executing their startup. My advice is to leave your ego at the door, stay humble, be respectful, and focus on executing your startup.
Get traction early:
By getting traction earlier, you'll be in a better position to take advantage of your time at YC. That way, by the time demo day comes around, you're already well on your way to making big moves to get your startup into orbit. You only have 12 weeks, so make it count. You want to use your 12 weeks in the most productive way possible to be in the best position you can be at demo day.
I use the term 'execute' a lot in this article, but what do I actually mean by that? To me, executing means you are working and tracking against goals that are measurable such that you know where you are at any time on your path to building whatever it is you’re building or trying to achieve. The metrics you use to measure your progress will be different compared to other startups, so you need to figure out what’s important to your startup and how you want to track it. There’s an old saying, ‘if you’re not measuring, you’re not progressing’, which is as true for startups as it is in other things in life.
Book office hours:
Take advantage of the immense know-how and insights YC partners and alumni have to share with you via office hours and mailing lists. They are there to help you, and each has areas of specialties which may be relevant to what you’re working on, so choose the partners that are right for you. Book as many office hours as you need to help you execute your startup, but don’t be greedy. Some founders spend too much time meeting with as many partners as possible. This is fine if you have specific outcomes you want to gain from such interactions, but not if it’s purely to meet with as many partners as possible for the sake of just meeting them. It’s important to point out that besides being greedy, this is plainly wasting your own time which could be better used building, and is your most valuable commodity.
Get help when you need it:
Don't be shy and speak up. If you're having problems, book in office hours and get help. The partners are there to help you, and to some extent can be key to helping you overcome challenges that invariably all startups face. I've seen startups having founder issues that avoided office hours purely so they didn't have to air out their dirty laundry. I’ve also seen founders that haven't had much to show in terms of progress and hence skipped office hours to avoid exposing their lack of progress. Don't be one of these startups, speak up and reach out, and if you get stuck, get help, this is when you need to be the loudest. Remember, the YC partners have seen behind the curtain of many startups. They are rarely surprised when a problem arises.
Leverage the YC community:
Use the community wisely, get help, get advice, ask questions, get appropriate intros - but only where it makes sense. Identify alumni that are privy to the market/product you are executing and buddy up with them, they will help you navigate and help you execute and avoid pitfalls around you. If appropriate, use the YC network to dogfood your product or service, they are a great sounding board and validator of your prototypes and alphas. If there’s value or not, the community will get you early feedback which you can use to help you validate or invalidate some of your assumptions.
Try to stay close to YC’s HQ in Mountain View so that you are nearby and have minimal distractions around you. Mountain View is a very typical and somewhat quiet suburban town, with not much going on; which is perfect, as all you need is a desk, a chair, a bed, wifi, a laptop, coffee and the occasional shower after a 48 hour non-stop coding session. SF is a cool place to live, and one can spend a lot of time having fun there, but there's another time for that. There's also plenty of startup parties and conferences happening in the valley, and one could easily spend all their time jumping from one event to another, but these events rarely add any value to your startup so try to avoid them. Lastly on the topic of distractions, try to avoid recruitment while at YC, recruiting takes too much time and will distract you from what’s important at this time - product, traction, demo day.
YC Dinners - guest speakers;
YC dinners were my favorite part of the YC experience. For those that don’t know, it's an off-the-record event whereby guest speakers come in and give you the low down on many of the stuff you'll never read in any fancy business book. Many times, these guest speakers will share their true stories and unique insights, and by doing so, may expose critical things that were key to their ultimate success or failures (which is just as important). Just remember that everything you hear at YC dinners is strictly OFF-THE-RECORD, that means no tweets, no FB status updates, no posts, no anything that might leak out what's being said. All it takes is one founder to leak out information that can break this confidence, which means everyone suffers. Don't be that person.
YC Dinners - product demo;
It is also a great idea to use these dinners as a way to demo your product to your batch mates and get real feedback. Besides being a feedback source, many founders find the dinners to be an incredible source of inspiration and motivation. Everyone is trying to show off the cool stuff they built the previous week to each other, so if you haven't made a lot of progress you find yourself walking away inspired to aim higher next week, so you also have cool new toys to show off. Some of our most productive coding sessions have been on dinner nights.
Don’t take everything as gospel:
It’s important to note that sometimes founders have a tendency to take every advice or lesson as gospel. They apply it religiously to their own startups without regard to whether it really applies to them or not. Question everything and everyone. Even me, right now with the contents of this post. Don’t treat all advice as gospel, take advice, but make your own decisions based on what you think is right for your startup.
As an Australian that’s held an E2, E3 and now an E3D visa, I have a lot to say about the hurdles one must jump over to legally enter the US to build a startup. My advice to other foreign founders is to work out your visa issues ahead of time - don’t get stuck into visa issues in the middle of your batch, or worse still, don’t put yourself in a position where you will not be able to stay in the US during demo day and the critical weeks/months that follows. Again, seek advice from the YC community or partners if you need help with visas.
Plan for demo day now:
Set a milestone, or a meaningful goal that you’d want to achieve before or around demo day. This will help you get the biggest bang out of the event. During your demo day presentation, you’d want to be showing impressive traction and early signs of a successful startup in the making that’s addressing a massive opportunity. Nothing is better than real traction, real users, real growth, real opportunity, and real whatever is important to your startup. I overuse the term ‘real’ here because there's a tendency to inflate things by the time demo day comes around, you won’t need to inflate things if you plan ahead. As my co-founder likes to put it, “the best way to convince an investor of your world view is with empirical data”.
Meeting with Investors:
Try to resist meeting investors until after demo day or when you are actively raising a round. Ideally you’ll want to open your round on demo day to maximize the exposure your startup will get, and use it as the optimal way to get in front of the right mix and caliber of investors in the shortest possible time. By not spending all your time chasing and meeting with investors until after demo day, you’ll have more time to spend executing your product or service and getting traction; both of which will ultimately maximize your startup's appeal to investors. As mentioned before, there are always exceptions to every rule, so if you are being pursued by a top investor that has real interest and value to bring to your startup, then do take the meetings, just be mindful of the fact that once you are in the process of raising capital you won’t have any time for anything else, so be sure that you are ready for it.
Try to avoid taking meetings with investors that may be trying to pick your brains and get early insight into the startups in your batch. I’ve seen this happen a bunch of times and though some investors may have true interest in your startup, there are some that book meetings with you early in the process who are really digging around trying to siphon out information on your batch. The tell tale sign is when investors are spending too much time asking you questions about other startups in your batch. If they're not spending all of their time focusing their interest in your startup, then chances are they are probably just digging around for information.
Prepare your loved ones:
If you haven't already done so, do everything you can to educate and set expectations with your loved ones. YC is a pressure cooker and it will consume you and your time. As startup founders, you probably won't be as available with your time as you would typically be in a 9-5 gig. You should try to express that to your family and loved ones so that they themselves can be prepared. I like to say that founding startups is not a 9-5 job, it’s a 24/7 life commitment. Just like training to be an olympic athlete. It’s an all-in, fully committed life journey that will affect your family and loved ones. So naturally your family and loved ones will need to play a big role in enabling and supporting you through your startup journey. There is no start and end in a day’s life in startup-ville. You never stop thinking or doing stuff for your startup. Your startup is your life, it’s in you, and to some degree, it’s an extension of you. Above all, your loved ones and family should always come first, and you should do your best to make time for them, they’ll keep you sane, they’ll keep you grounded, so be smart about how you manage your time and set expectations, you’ll have a much better journey all round if you get this right.
Don’t try to be something you are not, don’t try to be the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. Be the next YOU. Yes, the YOU who nobody knows about right now; which is perfect, since it means less distractions for you and more time to execute. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to convince everyone to believe in you and your ideas. It’s up to you believing in yourself, your passion, your ambition and your drive to make things happen, and the best way to do that is to get traction, so again, focus on your startup. The only validation you need is traction, not your background, not your pedigree, not your rolodex, and certainly not your ability to be something you’re not.
Enter the pressure cooker:
One of the best things about demo day is that it acts as a forcing function to force you into getting traction for your startup. This invariably means you will be under a lot of pressure to make things happen. My advice to you is to stay cool, and yes, go hard, but keep a level head. Remember, YC partners and alumni are there to help you when you need it, so if you find yourself in a situation where you have some difficult challenges to overcome, or you are not feeling good about how things are going with your startup, then reach out and get help. On the flip side, if you are going too hard, be sure to stay healthy and get rest and sleep, especially around demo day where you need to be rested to get the best outcome from it. My co-founder and I fell into that trap. We lived on coffee, code and minimal sleep the first time we did YC, so by the time demo day came around, we were borderline burnt out. The next time we did YC we paced ourselves and were much better prepared for demo day and what came next. The proverbial ‘overnight success’ takes at least 5-10 years, so pace yourself and stay healthy, startups are a marathon, not a sprint.
Manage your time:
You will be introduced to lots of people, and lots of people will want to reach out to you. It's up to you to manage your time wisely. Be picky with whom you meet, and make sure these people are worthy of your time, and vice versa. If you’re focused on executing your startup, then it should be easy to pick the people you should meet with, they'll be the people that can help you solve a,b,c. or get to x,y,z. If it's not part of you getting traction for your startup, then it can wait. When it comes to fundraising, try to allocate one founder to be taking those meetings (never the whole team). Other founders should keep executing the startup.
Manage your spending:
Stay lean and hungry, don’t go spending your funding on things you don’t need, don’t fall into the trap of using your cash to reflect success, or, as I like to refer to it, the cash perception of success. Be a startup of substance, build something people truly want, or better still, build something that people didn’t know they wanted and now can’t live without. Let your traction define your success, not the scale of your SXSW party.
More focus, focus, focus
Needless to say, you've probably noticed a pattern in this post, and in the first few YC meetings you’ve attended so far, that is, it all comes down to you, and your ability to focus on what really matters. Execute your startup, make something people want, and leverage YC along that journey.
Last but not least... Have fun, make lots of friends:
Don't forget to have fun and enjoy the experience. It truly is a unique experience that very few people get to experience, so soak it all up and enjoy your time. Make lots of friends with the other YC founders in your batch and share your successes and experiences when it comes time for you to help other founders.