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Notes from Startup School 2013

I was lucky enough to get to attend YCombinator's Startup School today.    I figured it might help some people who weren't there to see my notes from the day - it really was a fantastic education for anybody who has ever considered starting their own startup.

These are pulled from my notes in Evernote here

Notes from Startup School 

Comment overhead in line - "yeah, he doesn't want to work at <fast growing startup whose CEO spoke today> anymore because those people all go home around 8. They're just not very driven to succeed.  He hates leaving before 10."

Phil Libin - Evernote

-most important thing is great co-founders

-you shouldn't even be friends with someone you're not willing to start a company with.

2nd most important lesson - being your own boss really sucks if you're doing consulting.  Rewards are immediate but not lasting because you're not building lasting values.

  • it shouldn't be just any product.

  • let's build something that we love, that we ARE the target audience

Two guiding principles

  1. - let's build something that we're in love with
  2. Let's make it our life work - no exit strategy
  • it does not pay to be innovative with company structure

  • be innovative about one thing - your idea

  • mentioned cohort charts for his vc pitch - what are those?

  • the most fun ever had was pre funding / pre success when expecting to fail

  • expectations of failure are liberating

  • you shouldn't start a company if what you're optimizing for is easy. It gets harder constantly - the challenges get bigger and more rewarding

  • it's not fun day to day, but it's incredibly fun month to month

  • if you build something you love, there's probably a billion people who will love it was well. Even if you're really weird, there are millions.

Dan Siroker - CEO Optimizly 

  • there's value in having paying customers

  • important to have a feedback loop

  • really really important to focus on the one or two things that make your startup unique - hiring idea - evaluate each hire based on mean - are they better than the current average?

  • your job isn't to execute the algorithm, it is to define and write the algorithm.

  • The "universal startup algorithm":

Ron Conway - SV Angel 

  • we invest in people first

  • pinterest kept iterating over years, using focus groups

  • when talking investment, value is more important than valuation

  • founder qualities

  • Rifle focused on the quality of the product
  • Don't want to be distracted because they want to focus on the product
  • Decisiveness
  • Important to keep momentum and growth
  • Team builder / leader - can this person manage a thousand people?
  • building your team through understanding your own deficiencies

  • shift in what's important - the user design and the user interface is the key IP these days, rather than the algorithm in the early days

Chris Dixon - Andreesen Horowitz/SiteAdvisor

  • focus of talk on "Good ideas fhaf seem like bad ideas"

  • you have to have a secret.

  • Types of Secrets

  • Know the tools better than anyone else
  • Know the problem better than anyone else
  • Characteristics
  • Powerful people will dismiss them as toys
  • They unbundle functions done by others - take a monolithic entity and perform one of its functions more effectively
  • Did it originate as a hobby?
  • Does it challenge social norms?

Important - how I learned this secret. Direct experience or through market analysis - the best ideas come from direct experience rather than abstract things.  Direct experience diffed with common sense is where the best ideas are.

Diane Greene - VMware 

  • When starting a company, find a smaller milestone that adds value for someone

  • didn't want to have a dependency on anybody to make concessions for them

  • created artificial "VMware preferred vendor" program with fake deadline - convinced big vendors to sign up - having a deadline helps

BSS (Balaji Srinivasan) - Stanford prof and founder of Counsyl

  • "Is the USA the Microsoft of nations?"

  • political science concept - voice vs exit.  In an untenable situation, you can try to reform (voice) or you vs. leave (exit).

- Fascinating talk - all about how we have the ability to opt out of structures because of what technology is disrupting.

  • Mentioned the importance of QS in disrupting healthcare.

Chase Adam - Founder of Watsi - non profit

  • nontechnical founder

  • spent first five months obsessing over every potential externality, interface, way it would work, etc.

  • we wanted to start a non profit that we ourselves would donate to

  • Having nothing lets you do anything you want.

-5 key decisions:

  • Radically transparent
  • 100% model
  • Minimal fundraising - operational fundraising distracts from mission
  • Circular organization
  • Golden rule

3 things we got out of YV

  • focus
  • network
  • stamp of approval
  • Learned from airbnb - focus only on one metric.

  • only 3 months to fund raise no matter what the result

  • find something to work on that you care about more than yourself

Jack Dorsey - Twitter / Square

  • Read to to us from books he loves.
  • The Art Spirit - Robert Henri
    • You have to be a master of your own tools.
    • We have so many ideas, but what really matters is the work to implement the ideas.
    • Success takes years and years years of patience


  • The Score Takes Care of Itself - Bill Walsh
    • Took team from the bottom to the top by setting a new standard of performance
    • He did it by focusing on the details
    • In building a team, you need to set expectations around how people need to perform and act within the company
    • Without those expectations, you will react to the outside
    • Show, don't tell the expected behavior



- Jack's set of notes - writes a note for every person that he encounters

  • Dos and Don'ts lists both for Jack personally and for the company (Square) itself - fascinating life management concept.

  • When everything goes right, we build something that delights people, that they can't help notice

  • one of Jack's favorite songs - Angoisse - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMOfO-ylQ_w

  • we want to build something that resonates with everyone on the planet

  • you are building what you want to see in the world, you are making the bet that what you build resonates with the people of the world,

PG Interviews Mark Zuckerberg

Q - what was the first thing you wrote

  • first code for Facebook started way before - built stuff for myself (e.g music player)

  • wanted to build products that gave insight to the people around me

  • "that stupid movie".

  • first thing - built something called "course match", wanted to see what other people who had taken classes

  • people are missing from the software / internet

Q -  When you first launched Facebook, launched to colleges with competing services. Why did you win?

  • focus on real identity and connections between real people

Q -  If you hadn't started Facebook, there would probably be something like it… would that have HAD to start in college?

  • I don't think it had to be a college thing

  • all reason says that we shouldn't have been the ones to do it - someone else (MS, Google, Yahoo) has more resources

  • the reason we ended up doing it is that we just cared about it more than anybody else

  • It's not that someone else can't do it, it's just that you care more.

  • that's a lot of the reason that great stuff gets built, it's kind of irrational at the time, but it selects for the people who care about it

Q - Is there something unique about you?

  • determination

  • what mistakes should I avoid making?  Don't even bother - just learn quickly and don't give up

  • nothing is impossible, you just have to keep running through the walls

  • PG: the biggest mistake is the meta mistake, letting mistakes demoralize you

Q - Do you think Facebook had a rougher time - was it more of a shit show or less? (PG's actual words)

  • probably more

  • I knew nothing when I got started

  • 19 years old

  • knew nothing about business at all

Q -  You had to learn how to be a manager.  How did you learn?

  • through a lot of mistakes

  • nobody is naturally good at hiring

  • hiring is a moving target

  • developed a few heuristics over time

  • only way to analyze whether someone is good: "would you work for that person?"

  • used to be really afraid of public speaking

Q - Do you like managing people?

  • if you work with people you like, it's wonderful

  • definition of team: a group of people who make better decisions as a group than those individuals would

  • building a team - you want to think about the dynamic

Q - What was your model of a startup founder?

  • never believed that startups were glamorous

  • goal was to quickly get out of startup phase

  • as the company grows, you'll be presented with 100 things you can do - your job is to pick the one thing that matters.

  • FB one thing - connecting people as quickly as possible

  • built tools to remove as much friction as possible

  • Interesting FB concept - "lockdown": whenever a competitor gets ahead of us on a concept we consider strategic, we (used to) not leave the house until they're back ahead.  (Now not "not leave the house", but "as close to that as legally allowed")

  • PG: "we always advise people to just ignore competitors".

  • It is possible to over-rotate on competitors, but clones tend to be a pretty big nuisance.

  • you want to internationalize pretty early because overseas clones are annoying

Q -  What are you a little too obsessed / care too much about?

  • connecting everyone

  • having connections between people is the infrastructure for people to do things

Nate Blecharczk - AirBNB

  • years  1-5 - crazy exponential curve.

  • 4 years to service first 4 million guests.  Next 9 months - 5 million more.

  • 73X growth.

  • 150K guests per night currently.

  • If you are this successful… it will be the hardest thing you ever do.

  • Joe & Nate were roommates: We were both up late every night working on side projects.

  • Worst thing in the world is a partner who doesn't work as hard as you

  • Nate/Joe/Brian had complimentary skill sets

  • Choosing your partners is the most important decision you'll ever make, whether in love or in business

  • You can change your idea, pivot your company, but you can't change your partners without starting over.

  • Sometimes your partnership isn't always high fives - there's a lot of stress and you have to work through those moments

  • PG: "The surest route to success is to be the cockroaches of the corporate world"

  • YC time - 100% focus, 7 days a week.

  • Goal was Ramen profitability by end of YC - $1K/week, enough to pay rent and buy ramen

  • Paul Bucheit - "It's better,initially, to have a small number of users really love you than a large number who kind of like you"

  • PG: "do things that don't scale.  Go to New York, meet your users."

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Michael Murray

Michael Murray