Startup School Recap

October 2010

Yesterday I spent the day at Startup School, an annual event hosted by Y Combinator. The agenda was packed to the brim with talks from some of the most well-known founders in Silicon Valley.

By the end of the day, I had the familiar sensation of thinking back to something that had happened early on in the day and feeling like it took place weeks ago. This typically happens on days when I’ve been mentally engaged for long periods of time - so it’s a Good Thing and a testament to the quality of the speakers.

I found myself scribbling down some notes, which by the end of the day had spread fully into any available margin on the agenda:

Rather than do a simple recap (there are a few of those already, and I recommend checking out the video clips of each talk as well), I thought I’d do my best to highlight some connections and themes that I noticed across speakers, as well as to dive into some of the topics and add some color.

Ideas versus Execution

Andy Bechtolsheim started things off and noted in a few different ways that big companies spend tons of time and money on the later stages of product development, but not as much on the idea stage. I jotted down a more colorful version of one of his points as “Throwing money at problems is LAZY. You should be throwing brains at them.”

Startups tend to focus much more on this idea stage, which is good, but it’s not limited to startups. Apple is an example of a company who spends comparatively little on R&D; but understands that you need to throw brains at this early stage in order to succeed.

Two speakers later inadvertently dished out some related pragmatic advice. We heard from Linus Pauling (via Tom Preston-Warner) that “the best way to have good ideas is to have a lot of ideas.” Reid Hoffman shared his view that startups are essentially a set of hypotheses, and that you should start testing those hypotheses as soon as possible.

The Evolution of Venture Capital

Paul Graham talked about how the VC industry is changing and the “battle” between VCs and super angels. My big takeaway was that it’s actually best to focus less on these terms and more on what is actually changing about the deals. Deals are no longer easily categorized into “angel”, “Series A”, etc. as VCs are taking the best of both of the categories in order to be the most appealing to founders (awesome).

Other highlights:

  • “It might seem like these guys are just stupid, but, well, these guys aren’t stupid, so I thought more about this”. I would do well to repeat this to myself whenever I come to that conclusion about someone or something.

  • We may see something with VC’s similar to what we’re seeing in journalism, where your personal brand is what matters most. I think this is very much already here.

  • Funding rounds are no longer all or nothing. You know exactly where you are at any point, with no chance of something big falling apart at the last second (PG related some horror stories of this happening frequently in the past). This reminds me of the difference between so-called “agile” software development and more traditional, waterfall approaches.

  • The question of board seats/control came up here, but I thought Ron Conway addressed it even better later when he said he had “accomplished 10 times more in a 10 minute meeting just now with Dalton than I would have over the last 4 board meetings. Board seats are a waste of time.”

No Permission Necessary

Tom Preston Warner: We didn’t need permission to build something cool. This reminded me of Lawrence Lessig’s point about the birth of Facebook and not needing permission there, either. There are some deeper philosophical underpinnings here about not needing the approval of any central authority (ahem, App Store) either.

No Guarantees, Either

Andrew Mason showed an image of the Groupon lobby, in which the Forbes cover featuring Groupon is surrounded by eight other magazine covers with the likes of MySpace, Napster, and AOL. This rang true with a few of the anecdotes in the most recent book I read - “Once You’re Lucky, Twice You’re Good” by Sarah Lacy. A meteoric rise and tons of press does not guarantee anything.

The Commencement Address

Ron Conway gave a throughly inspiring talk that is better experienced than described.

Just Add Zuck

After starting with a brilliant takedown of The Social Network (it was actually pretty diplomatic in comparison to some of Ron Conway’s remarks), Mark Zuckerberg took off zigzagging through a wide range of topics. Some highlights:

  • Regarding Hollywood’s need to create Facebook’s fictional raison d’être (a girl dumping him): “some people just can’t wrap their head around building something just for the sake of building something cool.”

  • Right now Facebook is really just looking to break even. More revenue means more spending. Why turn a profit? Right now they want to just plow any revenue right back into the company.

  • The first summer he came to Silicon Valley was just to “hang out” - there was no master plan. This reminded me of something that Reid Hoffman mentioned in his talk: that physically being in the Valley shows you how fast you should be moving. It’s very unsurprising that once they were here, they never went back. I think Mark recognizes this - he noted that the Valley is like “instant startup mix” since everything a startup needs is readily available. One attendee quipped: “Just add Zuck.”

  • Coming soon for Facebook: Build once, experience anywhere. Social applications for all platforms.

  • Facebook as the McKinsey of entrepreneurship. Similar to McKinsey’s program where you come to the company for two years and then go on to do incredible things elsewhere because of what you learn in those two years, you can come to Facebook and learn a ton about entrepreneurship and then go on to apply those skills. Exhibit A: Adam D’Angelo, former CTO of Facebook who founded Quora.

Birds of a Feather

As with just about any gathering, interacting with other like-minded attendees proved to be the ultimate highlight. You couldn’t throw your name tag without hitting ten interesting people to talk to. The social norms at both the reception and Startup School itself were noticeably different than anything else I’ve ever experienced. People have absolutely no fear of just walking up to a group of strangers, introducing themselves, and talking candidly about their ideas. If Y Combinator did nothing else but create this extraordinary environment once a year, that alone would be a contribution that outweighed many of the better known entities in the startup ecosystem.