The Y Combinator Experience

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Advice

Those who know, don't speak. Those who speak, don't know.
-Lao Tzu

It is said that the Silicon Valley attracts a lot of smart people. This is a half-truth. Aside from the smart people, the Silicon Valley attracts a lot of people in general (after all, I'm here!) Meeting many people and sifting through their advice is incredibly important - I don't think it's possible to build a successful business without a team of competent mentors willing to spend time with you. Since we started RethinkDB, a large chunk of our job has been distilling advice of hundreds of people and integrating it with our vision in order to build a great product. We quickly found out that Lao Tzu was right when he said, "those who know don't speak, and those who speak don't know."

Over the course of the last three months we had the privilege to meet a few people whose advice is full of gems every time, people that are an exception to Lao Tzu's ancient wisdom. I can say with utmost sincerity that everyone in the Y Combinator team is that exception. Between Paul's incredible business acumen, Jessica's warm encouragement, and Trevor's and Robert's technical expertise, I couldn't dream of better advisors. I would expect to have to travel across continents to meet such high quality people, but in Y Combinator they're all under one roof. When we applied, we spent considerable time discussing how much of the company we're willing to give away. Looking back at these discussions makes me smile - the advice alone is well worth the price of admission.

Transforming the fear of failure

What stops you from declaring to friends and family that you're quitting what you're doing in order to follow your dreams? In many cases the answer is financial hardship, or existing obligations. But in most cases the answer is fear of failure, or more precisely, fear of public embarrassment. This is a tremendous force, a force that will keep you on your knees forever, or propel you to the sky if you learn how to master it. Y Combinator transforms this force from a weight on your shoulders that keeps you down, to a powerful rocket that propels you to the sky.

Before we got into Y Combinator I couldn't bring myself to tell people I decided to take a leap and start a company. What if it failed? I would have to go back and admit failure, and even worse, be embarrassed at admitting that I should have taken everyone's perfectly rational advice to stay in grad school. When we got accepted to Y Combinator, telling people was easy - we got accepted to the best seed program in the U.S. Not going would be stupid.

Now that I took the leap, I can't easily go back and admit failure. Fear of public embarrassment is now working for me. I knock on doors I would never have had the courage to knock on before, and I do things I never would have done, all because I can't go back and admit failure. I'll accept failure only as the last resort, after every other avenue has proved to be a dead end.

This doesn't just transform your company. It transforms your life. How much are you willing to pay for that?

The application

The good news is that getting into Y Combinator is probably not as hard as you think. Pitch your business to a dozen strangers, and carefully record every objection they bring up. Answer the objections in the best way you can. Rinse, repeat. After a few iterations, you will truly understand your business, inside and out. Filling out the application will be a breeze.

Once you've filled out the application, send a few of the YC companies an e-mail. We'll be happy to review it. Getting in was hard for us, and we'd love to make it easier for you. You can go a long way with a little bit of feedback.

That's really all it takes. If you diligently go through this process, I would be genuinely surprised if you didn't get in. At the very least it will help your business - this is something you probably should be doing anyway. What are you waiting for?

If you don't get in

Y Combinator can't make you succeed. Paul can only show you the door. You'll have to assemble a team of advisors on your own, but most YC companies do it anyway - even the smartest people have limited expertise. You'll have to get your own contacts, but most YC companies do that too. The only truly difficult thing you'll have to do on your own is conquer your fear of failure. I didn't have the courage to do it without YC, so I have no advice on that. I do wish I had done it earlier. It's hard. I hope you find the courage to do it.

Take the plunge. Believe in yourself and in your destiny. Let the historians sort out the rest.


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