My Experience at YCombinator's Work at a Startup

June 22, 2010

I just returned from an awesome weekend in the Bay Area, where I had the opportunity to attend YCombinator’s first (annual?) Work at a Startup. It was an intense experience (in a good way) getting to talk with some many Startups who are all doing amazing/fun/cool stuff. It went by in a blur, so I wanted to write down a post-event recap.

I showed up at YC headquarters, around 6pm on Thursday. The moment you enter the YC building the distinctive orange/beige lets you know you’re on YC turf - it is very cool.

As people gathered I got my first chance to chat with some Startups. Right in front of me were a couple guys from Hello, Chair. I asked “how’d you guys get your name?”, and they told me a classic story of late-night name deciding. We then began chatting about their very cool offering Appsaurus. Within a couple more minutes most had arrived, and the event began.

Intro by Paul Graham

PG kicked of the event by discussing the realities, benefits, and decisions to be made before joining a Startup. He didn’t have an official title for the talk, but I’d call it “Startups: The Fun and The Money”.

The Fun

The Fun of Startups is all about the good times working hard with a small, tight-knit group of people. People you’re about to become extremely familiar with. The reality is you are signing up to spend an insanely large amount of time with the team. To paraphrase PG: <div class="quote"> Judge joining a Startup by the Founders. </div> Additionally, a large part of the “fun” is the freedom. You’ll have freedoms not found in large companies. You’ll be able to iterate fast, which will allow for more ideas, and aid you in making your next move. Each move will have great effect on you and your camp’s future. Choose your camp wisely.

The Money

The point of a Startup is to move fast into profitability. You come sweeping into a market and (hopefully) get successful as soon as possible. So ask yourself this question, “will this Startup make money?”. PG said to the crowd: <div class="quote"> You are a tech minded group of people, use your insight of the current state of the industry to make decisions on what will be successful.
</div> Understand what percentage of the company you’ll get is important - and this mostly depends on how far along the Startup is. If the company is hiring and profitable, there is clearly less risk because they have already proved themselves, thus your share of the pie is comparatively smaller. In summary (and somewhat obviously) it’s all about the risk you’re willing to take - the bigger the risk, the higher the payout may be.

The Startups Get 90 Seconds to Pitch

PG wrapped up his intro by telling the audience: “You are the investors, You have the chance to invest yourself if you decide to join. Listen carefully, and make critical decisions” …and the main event began.

One of my main takeaways was that the Startups’ “Come join us Pitches” seemed to fall into one of these 3 categories:

  • “The Product Itself Pitch” (e.g: We are creating an awesome product that people love!)
  • “The Work Environment Pitch” (e.g: Every day is another day of fun and adventure in the office!)
  • “The Exciting Challenges Pitch” (e.g: You’ll be enthralled by the hard problems you’ll get to solve!)

Now for what each Startup had to say.

The following are my quick notes and first impressions I got during the 90 seconds pitch time, and the meet-and-greet after the main event. They are not meant to be “all encompassing” evaluations - there is so much more to these Startups and their Founders!

500Friends: They are working with influencers on Facebook and Twitter, helping Online retailers monetizing Social media.

Addmired: Strong interest in Facebook games. Ramping up on scaling out. Interest in game/app dev on mobile devices. I had an awesome chat with one of the Founders, Gabriel Leydon, who clearly has deep knowledge of the gaming space, and how to monetize apps and be successful there.

Airbnb: Came out strong saying “We are the marketplace for space!”. Making available everything from couches to castles. Strong emphasis on the fun, saying they “Work hard and play hard”. Exciting company, solving a cool problem. They are “Saving the world from poorly constructed search queries!”. Expressed they were solving problems that “effects everyone”. They are scaling up their business, and finding unserved segments on the internet.

Anybots: Working on “turning their robots into virtual employees” that can “switch from one job to another”.

Backtype: Focused on marketing intelligence. Said big brands don’t understand what social value social site have to occur, and they are here to improve that. Working at great scale, with 3 people, growing quickly. Anyone who joins will have a big impact on future company directions.

Bump: Platform to use you phone in the real world. Expressed uncertainty of where they might go next, such as “sexual compatibility of two bumpers”, which resulted in a full laugh from the crowd. Fun guys, great app.

Carwoo: Buying a new car sucks, but they are working on making it fun again! I’ll be going here next time a have to buy a car :-).

CloudKick: Using a lot of awesome technology, to solve a real problems, that tons of web companies have. They do managing, deploying, and monitoring infrastructure. I chatted with Founder Alex Polvi, who is a super cool guy, with a lot of passion for the problems they are solving.

Dailybooth: The best self-publishing app out there. “At first glance it’s just about taking photos of yourself, but it’s vibrant community and special features, it’s way more than that”.

Dropbox: Everyone loves Dropbox. Someone from the crowd gave a loud “Woot!” when one Founder started talking. They said they are really trying to create the “fabric” that ties all data, across all your devices, together.

Etacts: The best way to remind you to stay in touch! They have a ton of great traction, and their product is improving fast. I’ve started using Etacts, and it’s very cool. Got to spend some time chatting with Founders Howie Liu and Evan Beard, who are badass hackers, and very fun to be around!

Greplin: Search files no matter whether they are in the cloud or local. Lots of scalability problems to be solved.

Hello, Chair (Appsaurus): Working on the science of recommendation engines. Said that recommendation engines will change the internet.

Heyzap: Gaming is a massive industry. Been going for about 1.5 years. Fun and passionate about what they do. Iterate fast, always releasing new code. I spent some time talking with Founder Immad Akhund and CTO James Smith who are both very cool and damn smart dudes. Largest live video site online. 45 million hours of video consumed per month. 223 git pushes per month! Looking for smart people, that are willing to get thrown into the deep-end with all the tools you need to succeed.

Listia: Ebay for free stuff. Bid with virtual currency. Looking for someone who enjoys ever aspect of building a web application.

Loopt, Inc.: Working in “a revolutionary and super exciting space”, Stated that they believe a whole new shift is happening in advertising.

Mertado: Started by saying that “everyone who makes purchases online are our customers”. They are in a huge market. Looking to scale out customer aquisition.

Mixed Media Labs (PicPlz):Stressed that they built a very large product (imeem) and been successful before. Talked about company culture, and how they missed what the company was like when it was small. Dalton Caldwell pitched me their current app PicPlz and I was sold! I’ve started using PicPlz from my Android and it’s awesome, go get it.

Mixpanel: First thing stated “We are not like Google Analytics at all” Track user interactions in realtime. Stated they are solving huge problems for companies, and they saw over 1 billion datapoints last month. Making moving easy. Passionate about their product. They are technology focused, an early startup, and going after solving a big problem.

Notifo: Allow Web services to push to/from services. Targeting the iPhone and Android. Hilariously stated that “they are good luck because they are working out of an garage in Menlo Park”.

nowmov: Video discovery. Working on cool problems like scaling and improving the recommendations engine. Great traction from the beginning.

Olark: They take talking to your customers very seriously. Looking to expand with E-commerce, and to integrate with shoppiong. They use “sweet internal tools”, and are looking for someone who codes, but also is very willing to talk to customers.

Optimizely: Dramatically easier to do A/B testing on their customers websites. Did a demo of optimizing a donations page for Haiti donations that was extremely impressive. Seems like a lot of big sites could benefit from using their service.

Posterous: Easiest way to publish online using email. Saud “there are 2 billion email addresses out there” (aka, potential users). Looking to post the rest of the world’s information, from the world’s simplest possible interface: Email.

RethinkDB: Sit down and rethink databases. “Building truly hardcore tech, not Ruby on Rails sites”. Open about how much equity you get. These dudes seem really smart - you better know your algorithms and data-structures if you want to work here.

Scribd: 1% of all online docs are on Scribd. The #2 Rails site in the world. Recently switched to HTML5. Ended with “be awesome, work at Scribd!”.

Seeing Interaction: Started off saying “To put it lightly, we are saving local newspapers from the utter annihilation that they are currently facing.” Open to employees bringing in new ideas, and suggestions to do things better.

Weebly: Policy of getting things done, and doesn’t matter if you are in the office. Builing simple drag/drop interface for creating websites. Looking for people to help them better understand what people are using their app. o Stated that they still had equity to give.

WePay: Making it really easy to track and collect money in 3 clicks or less. Stated there is a huge market to go after. Near future directions are going after money transfer between individual people.

Final thoughts

Exhilarating :-). This is my first time experiencing an event so jam packed with entrepreneurial-geek energy. Additionally, I’ve been a addict huge fan of Hacker News for a while now, so just showing up was a treat (plus I got a chance to chat to PG about Hacker News, and other stuff, which was fun).

There are a ton of exciting companies coming out of YCombinator, all doing great things - it’s all very inspiring. Thanks to everyone that put on the Work at a Startup event, it was awesome! So much hacking to do, so little time…

PS: I’m always geeking out on twitter and github, hit me up.