1. The House Y Combinator Should Have Built

    It’s hard to critique a model that has succeeded as well as Y Combinator has… So I’ll be clear that I’m not trying to point out a deficiency in YC, but rather an opportunity to make the experience even better. This idea has been something kicking around in my head since we did YC 2 years ago, but then I stumbled onto this amazing repurposed house… and well, it looked liked just the kind of place that could be the YC House. (then I started typing…)

    The Y Combinator Community Experience

    YC is a heavily curated community; from the selection process of participants to the filtering of the email founders list, it’s curated so finely to maintain the quality.  But I would argue that a more organic community experience could also thrive for YC. (granted it would require a thoughtful and dedicated community organizer)

    The YC experience now is mostly… Founders get a house and live together for 3 months. Mountain View is highly recommended, but a bunch still live in SF and around the bay area. Some previous batches were independently organized well enough to have a large group of founders end up living in the same building, i.e. the Y Scraper. And founders from that batch have remained very close, reinvesting in each others companies, working together again, etc.

    Then there is Dinner altogether once a week. Which is mostly hanging out for 30min and then listening to a speaker talk. The time all together is great, but there is natural competition amongst batch mates and when you only hang out for 30min chunks of time, most conversation is surface level, sharing the best details about product growth, traction, etc.

    But when you’re around somebody else all the time, eventually you run out of posturing things to say about your idea / team and you start getting a bit more real. You work together, you joke together, you prank each other, you prepare and share meals together… You become good friends.

    And let me say, I have friends from my YC batch, but I don’t feel I have any really strong friendships. We didn’t spend enough time together to build any… and then we all got busy running our companies.

    Live/Work & Friend/Founder

    I’ve spent a lot of time living with strangers who became good friends. I organized and ran volunteer centers in Thailand, Mississippi, Peru & the Philippines. The model for my non-profit www.Hands.org is to provide the tools, shelter, meals & organization so a volunteer can show up for a day/week/month and be effective in helping people recover from a natural disaster, ie, get yourself there and then we take care of the rest.  People think they’re coming to selflessly give and help others, but often go home feeling like they got more out of the experience than they gave.  That unexpected value comes from the community experience we curate, between other volunteers and the community they serve. 

    Some of the lifelong friendships are formed in the out field where volunteers are doing hard labor together, or it might happen back at base sharing a meal and a good story at the end of the day. Whenever it happens, it’s often driven by spending so much time together, sharing a living space and sharing experiences.

    There can be distractions when you have a large group of people all in one place. Personality differences can become abrasive… A few rowdy folks can turn a quiet evening into a mess… These are all just parts of normal social interactions and community development. It does take work to manage a community like this, but cohesive output of the group working together is in my opinion well worth it.

    There is an element of what I would call Loving Neglect that PG operates YC under. He’s been known to tell startups to be cockroaches (unkillable.) And the approach to housing for YC batches is one of the many small tests of how a company will work. Each year 100+ YC companies arrive in SF and solve the same problem of trying to find housing, spend time negotiating short term rents, finding / buying furniture, etc. This can seem like a lot of repeated time wasting… but I think it’s PG’s first test of “get your shit together.” And I can appreciate that.

    But in YC there are plenty of opportunities for early founders to test how well they have their shit together. Housing being solved at the start could save a lot of initial efforts so the focus can be on getting your product shit together.

    The Real Value of YC: The People

    It really is the people that make YC such a valuable experience. You can find a small chunk of $ and 3 months of time to work on your idea, just about anywhere. But when you have the depth of experience that PG & the other partners have in working with founders & early ideas… a network of hundreds of fellow founders… and the opportunity to learn from the most successful founders & investors in the game… The people make YC such an amazing opportunity.

    Post YC, the connection you have to fellow founders is through the email list and at events a couple times a year. The working relationships that have come from YC founders working together has made a huge difference for some young companies.

    I would argue that if organized well, a YC batch living and working together would have an even more valuable experience. There are time efficiencies in living, working, eating & socializing all in the same place. And assuming the caliber of all founders in the batch is high, the support and motivation one provides to the other can help solve problems faster, make good products better & open up new possibilities.

    Building a Real Hacker Home

    I have some infatuation with creative living spaces… the hacker in me, likes to see something repurposed and made awesome. This 4,000 sqft home is built from 12 shipping containers. I mean it’s frickin orange! How is this not a YC residence?

    I’ve always thought somebody should buy a crappy old motel and turn it into Startup Housing where founder teams are bunked up in the rooms and the lobby area is turned into office space. This gives teams the private space to sleep / work in, but also the social environment close by.

    I’m seriously thinking about building this shipping container house out here on a ranch in Hawaii… Who’s coming out?

    [Discussion at HackerNews: Share your thoughts.]


    Photo credits peter aaron / esto [More Photos + Details on the House]

  2. More than Money… Matter.

    The mantra you’re taught to embody at Y Combinator is “Make something people want.”  It’s a great one and I’ve been living it since we participated 2 years ago… But I think another mantra is worth focusing on too. “Make something that matters.”

    People want all kinds of stuff that probably isn’t best for them, society and our collective future.  I want a cupcake right now, but what’d probably be better for me is a beet salad (I love beets).

    So many talented, brilliant & creative founders are working on products solely focused on making profits and not on adding meaningful value to the world.  My challenge to you is to make something that makes more than money, something that matters.

    One could also say that if you make something that really matters, people will want it. So they aren’t conflicting visions.

    How to matter: Improve the quality of life for your customers.  Help people express themselves, share knowledge & experience, connect in meaningful ways, etc.  There is a highly profitable version of every business that also adds value. It may take a bit more work and creativity to build it, but the overall reward is far greater. 

    Now that Instagram has put Instabillionaires in the minds of so many eager startup founders, I think it’s important to focus on not just the money your company can make, but the impact it can make in the world and in the lives of your users.

    Aside from the altruistic reasons to strive to make a product that really matters in the world, there are very practical business reasons to do so as well. Mainly; you’re more than likely to fail.  Odds are good you’re going to run out of money and or never turn a profit. …And if you fail focused on making only money, you’ll have completely lost.  Fail making the lives of your users better and you’ll still have made the world better.

    In my several year journey as a startup founder, I’ve been broke a few times. Double broke. Both my personal and business checking accounts overdrawn. $0 to my name.

    If money was all that mattered, I would have given up during one of those lows.

    What Matters to Me

    From the surface it looks like I’m arguing to do something more than add entertainment value and yet I run a site for naming colors… But what we do is more than that and I’ve been lucky enough to see how we deeply matter to our users.  We’re about more than color, we’re about making design and creativity accessible to everyone… And giving them access to it in the most supportive and encouraging place on the internet.

    It’s hurt me both times I learned that one of my active members passed away.  I didn’t know them, but they invested hours and hours into helping build my company’s community.  What hurt about their loss was warmed by the support and love that was shown by the community in that shared loss.

    The blog post that I wrote recently to share the news that Sunmeadow, one of our users passed away received hundreds of thoughtful comments from the community and one hit me especially hard:

    "This is Sunmeadow’s father. We are so thankful to Symea and Jeremy for bringing this site and our daughter’s involvement in it to our attention. We are overwhelmed by your outpouring of friendship, love, respect, and support for Sunmeadow. We were aware of some of her computer graphics design efforts but had no idea of the extent of the impact she had made."

    And not a couple weeks after I read that comment I got an email from the daughter of the other member who passed…

    "I just wanted to let you know that I absolutely enjoy coming to your site to view the tribute that was done for my Mom :) I love seeing her creations and reading her words, as well seeing her fellow Colour Lovers comments. I feel like it’s a piece of her still here on Earth :) and when I have those tough days, this site helps me."

    I am incredibly honored to have had the opportunity to add value to the lives of these members and even more so with the duty to carry on sharing their work with the world. Caring about making something that matters to the world is what has pushed me through the dark days of founderhood… and onto much brighter days of revenue, growth and huge potential.

    Make something that truly matters and the money will come.  
    Believe in yourself that you will get there. 


    Follow-up thought: Another way people can make the world better while building their company is to make a commitment to a cause they care about and make that cause a stakeholder in your company.  I’m a fan of the idea of 1% of Nothing and think more founders should get involved. I’ve committed more than 1% to support my non-profit Hands.org so I’m trying to double my chances of making the world better while building a successful company.

    [Discussion on HackerNews]

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