We had just arrived at sunny Silicon Valley from the snow country – Norway – as the first Norwegian startup accepted into the prestigious Y Combinator. Everybody back home was cheering for us.
Our startup, Superside (formerly known as Konsus), (a platform for outsourcing business tasks to a pre-vetted team of experts) had been accepted into the Spring (W16) batch of YC. We had applied all the way from Norway, where Konsus was launched just a few months earlier, and we had started seeing good traction of 10 percent weekly growth.
The way YC works is once they pick the startups for a cycle, they invite them to move to the Bay Area for three months, during which the startups undergo an intensive boot camp to get into the best shape possible. At the end of the boot camp, the startups get a chance to pitch to an audience of world’s top investors. This is a highly coveted opportunity for entrepreneurs across the world.
The boot camp was a great learning experience for us and at the end of it, we managed to get funding from some of the top investors, including Slack.
Ever since we’ve returned home after those three intense months, people are keen to hear our experiences. Since stories from international startups are not so common, we decided to finally spill the beans.
What is it like? What did we learn? And how do we make the most of it?
Lesson 1: Use Words People Understand to Convey What You Do. Get Straight to the Point.
Day 1 of Y Combinator
It’s our first group office hours, which is a gathering of the companies in our group, plus two Y Combinator partners. In our case, they were Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator, and Geoff Ralston, founder of what became Yahoo Mail.
We were sitting in a circle of eight or so companies. As I sip my coffee and try to take everything in, I’m suddenly prompted to speak. These are, of course, confidential conversations, but this story is about us and I don’t mind sharing it:
Sam: “Konsus! Tell us what you do?”
[Gulp. Luckily I had our rehearsed line ready.] Me: “Companies send us office tasks and we instantly assign them to freelancers based on skill and availability.”
[We were pretty happy about that line. We found it to be really succinct.]
Sam: “So, that’s way too long. If it’s too many words you lose people’s attention.”
Me: “Did I lose your attention?”
Sam: “I was starting to drift, yes. “
Me: “Oh. What could it be?”
Sam: “Maybe something like an 'On-demand temp-agency'?”
And so it became. Well, almost.
Lesson 2: Talk to Users and Build Your Product. (And Nothing Else.)
Day 2 of Y Combinator
Our first one-on-one office hours.
Office hours are 30-minute advice sessions founders can book with YC partners. On our way down, we frantically try to land our new four-word description. We agree on: On-Demand Freelancers for Business.
Our first office hours were with YC’s president, Sam Altman. You know how when you meet a lot of celebrities, they’re just like anyone else? Well, Sam Altman is not like that. Among his many rare abilities: he doesn’t say a lot of words but when he speaks, every single word really, really matters.
His presence is intense and it feels like he has a mental portal to the future that makes his strategic advice incredibly valuable – like having someone reading up next week’s lottery numbers. He also happens to have several personality traits that are very familiar to us Norwegians, like saying exactly what we think. Needless to say, we liked him a lot. Here’s a heavily paraphrased version of that conversation.
Sam: “I wouldn’t worry about that.”
Sam: “It’s still early for you guys.”
Us: “Anything else?”
Sam: “You guys are doing fine. Just focus on your product and keep growing.”
The meeting was over in something like seven minutes and 24 seconds. At the end, he added something that left us with a smile on our faces, though: “You guys are doing great. I think you’re going to build a billion-dollar company here if you don’t mess it up.”
I can’t tell you how much of a relief this meeting was. You see, prior to this meeting, we had been constantly going over all these dials we could tweak in our company, trying to get it just right. By getting the green light to let some things be, we freed up our attention to focus on the two things that actually matter at the early stage: making something people want and growing.
This sharpening of our focus was probably the single biggest observable change in how we spent our time pre-YC and post-YC.
To make an evolutionary analogy: early-stage startups are in some ways like a new lifeform trying to flourish in a certain environment. And the only way to optimize for that is to know your environment (talk to your users) and change yourself (build your product).
Lesson 3: Be a Genuinely Good Person, but not in a Delusional, Hapless Way.
Day 7 of Y Combinator
Our second Tuesday dinner. During YC, the batch gathers together every Tuesday night to hear a talk and Q&A from a YC alum – Airbnb, Reddit, Stripe – or other impressive founders.
As you listen to these fascinating founders talk, you start to realize that the people here are different. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on it. I just knew that I thought this was the greatest collection of people I’d ever come across.
In retrospect, I’ve come to realize that YC has a very cohesive culture, with very distinct values.
Many international founders lack a lot of great tech role models in their home countries.
At YC, you meet a special type of entrepreneur, with values that you might find pure or even admirable, yet who are also effective. Think of someone like Elon Musk. He’s focused, deals with reality, is resourceful, but also somehow manages to be idealistic. This sort of personality type in lighter variants is a great fit around YC.
Don’t be arrogant or pretentious. Especially not while mentioning that you’re a “YC founder.“
Be honest. With others, and with yourself. YC keeps everyone accountable.
Be technical. Either know how to build your product, learn how to build it or find someone who can. YC values hackers and creators.
Be transparent. Use the SAFE and this new simple method of making early-stage funding more transparent by Geoff Ralston. Have some good metrics that really show the health of your business.
Fitness. Your ideas matter only if you are able to execute them. You’re measured by your results. Paul Graham calls it being relentlessly resourceful.
Self-reliance. We were repeatedly told that YC will “tell you when you’re about to make a really bad mistake,” but they would still let us make the mistake. Also, they won’t provide you with a place to work from, because they want your company culture to develop on its own.
A visual example of YC’s ideals of non-pretentiousness and self-reliance ideals is the YC summer camp. Here you have hundreds of founders camping in a redwood forest. There’s nothing fancy about anything. You just sleep in a tent. There’s a big campfire, and you spent the day doing things like shooting with bow and arrow, hiking or making impromptu speeches to each other. It was pretty great.
The opposite of the YC values could maybe be summed up as, say, a used-car salesman in a really expensive suit, trying to push a hazardous car on an old lady, but then failing at it.
Lesson 4: Make Something People Want that will Hold Value for a Long Time, and Potentially for a Lot of People.
For us international founders, a big misunderstanding is to misunderstand what it means to be, well, “visionary.” In our home countries that usually means being fluffy and vague. And, it turns out, that’s not what you’re looking for at all.
I find this a bit hard to express concisely, so let me start by saying what is not cool.
1. Your idea is derivative: Uber for Cats. Though, you may still use a derivative sentence to explain your idea.
2. Your market is a marginal niche: Shampoo for the rare Desert Sand Cat. Solve big problems for a big future market. (Not to be confused with going after a small section of the market first, which is smart.)
3. You came up with it as a “startup idea” to get “startup experience": An exercise app for obese cats. Instead, work on a problem you have, so that you can be sure it is a problem that really exists.
4. Your idea is something a lot of people would find it “nice to have”: 3D-printed cat food. Instead, make something you know that a few people really, really want.
On the other end of the spectrum are things that will make you seem like a force of nature:
1. Live in the future
… and then look back and see the things that are missing, something that will exist, or ought to. (If you have no idea what the future is, be at the forefront of a rapidly changing field. You have better odds there.)
2. It can grow 1000x
YC will take a big risk to earn a 1000x return, and is willing to take the risk of doing something that sounds weird.
Lesson 5: YC is an Introduction.
The weird thing about Silicon Valley is that it’s not really a place. When you arrive there, it seems like one. It looks like this lush, calm, closed estate filled with incredibly smart and rich people who want to make the world a better place.
But the oddity is, it isn’t really there. Silicon Valley in a very literal way exists in the networked minds of the smartest people there.
There’s no actual place you can go to really experience Silicon Valley (with the possible exception of Ethereum meetups or Burning Man). So if you just go there as an international founder, you will probably leave not having ever been there.
So, How do You Get “In"?
At first impression, people in Silicon Valley are very open-minded. They are also super-open to introducing each other.
(Tip! The low-risk way you introduce someone is by asking both parties first, then sending an email to both, where you introduce them with a reason. If you receive an intro, give thanks and move the intros over to bcc).
But, here’s the big but. Silicon Valley has a similar problem that I would guess you would find in Hollywood. Many people want to speak with very few. The math doesn’t add up, so the solution to this fundamental problem is filtering through introductions.
I am telling you all this because YC is that introduction. For an international founder with no connections and without Stanford comp sci on your resume, this is invaluable.
Wherever I went, when it came up that we were in YC, we were instant insiders. We weren’t international founders anymore. We were YC founders.