Startups: simple, but not easy!

Last week was the Demo Day for the latest Y Combinator batch, S15, which included my startup Livecoding.tv.

Having been through the program I wanted to reflect on what is so special about Y Combinator that allows it to be so successful.

The outcome of Livecoding.tv is a story that remains to be told, but regardless of the eventual score, Y Combinator has had an hugely positive impact on the company and me personally.

What is emphasised, throughout Y Combinator is a relentless focus on growth. The logic goes like this:

Are you growing?

Yes —-> Keep that growth going/do more of whatever is causing you to grow.

No —-> Do whatever you have to do to start growing. If you don’t know what to do, remember the YC motto “Make something people want”.

Do this, and your startup will be successful. Now this might seem overly simplified, as there are many, many steps you will have to do for your startup to be successful, but this is the key. As Sam Altman recently outlined in an article called The Post-YC Slump, it is this loss of focus on growth that will lead to mediocrity or death.

The problem with startups, as in life, is that there are always a million other things you could be doing. If you are like me, your todo list only gets longer, and your inbox only gets fuller. If you are not careful you can waste days and weeks in tackling work that seems important, but actually has no bearing on growth. Activities that feel important, but have no bearing on growth and therefore success, include: fundraising, hiring, cleaning up ‘technical debt’, going to conferences and talking to lawyers.

So remember, do what you need to do to grow, everything else is noise.

Oh and in case its not clear, its not like this is a new or original idea, rather this blog post is my way of trying to reinforce the ideas that the YC partners have told us again and again over the last couple of months, so that when I am working on a startup in a year or ten, and I am mindlessly ‘working’, I can look back and remind myself what I should really be doing.

The Road Less Travelled

Emerging from the education machine after so many years can be a disorientating experience for many recent graduates. Many are at a loss what to do next and simply do what they think is the next rung on the ladder – getting a job. How to decide what you want to do with your life, is not a topic that is covered in any of your lectures or seminars. The careers department may occasionally offer “workshops” on how to write a CV or how to get through test centres. Other than that, you are by enlarge left to decide your own path. If you have liberal parents the choice is even wider as they  ‘want to support you in whatever you choose’. Right.

This freedom, unimaginable for most previous generations, is both a blessing and a curse. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying freedom is bad, I am very grateful to have this problem, but the level of choice available to us can leave us wondering what we ‘should do’ with our lives. A first world problem if ever there was one!  The level of choice causes us to freeze and we struggle with indecision, this is the Paradox of Choice that Barry Schwartz describes in this TED talk.

It is all too easy to see our options narrowed and feel like we must get the best paying job with the most prestigious firm we can, in some ‘safe’ profession. Others common paths include travelling in order to ‘find myself’ or plunging desperately back into the safety of academia by taking a masters/PDH.

Anyway, I recently stumbled across a letter written by Hunter S Thompson who was asked for advice by a friend When he wrote the letter in 1958, he was 22.  For those of you who, like me, are struggling to find your way in the world, it is definitely worth a read in it’s entirety, which you can do here. I leave you with this quote taken from the letter;

“I’m not trying to send you out “on the road” in search of Valhalla, but merely pointing out that it is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it. There is more to it than that — no one HAS to do something he doesn’t want to do for the rest of his life.”