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Reflections of a Y Combinator Dropout: Feedback

This post is part of a series.

A few days ago, I posted this series to Hacker News, Y Combinator’s link submission forum. It generated a ton of commentary, including a lot of heavy criticism, and I want to make sure it gets linked to here. I’ve been responding over there but I want to put a few overall thoughts together over here.

There was clearly an overall negative reaction to the tone of my series, where I gave a lot of criticism of the actions or thoughts of my partners. Other people asked why in the world I would write a series like this as it could only make me look bad or make people hesitant to work with me in the future (even my family thought it was probably a bad idea).

One commenter said "I learned more from your story than reading 20 ‘How to Succeed’ articles." That means a lot to me, and it’s exactly why I wrote it the way I did. I’ve read plenty ‘how to succeed’ or ‘how not to fail’ articles, and for the most part without any concrete examples of actions and outcomes they come off as trite or superfluous. That doesn’t mean the advice is bad, it just means it’s likely to not have much of an impact. Another commenter said "First, the lessons page was so long that I wonder whether they have really been learned. Had they been learned it would have been stated in a sentence or two." I absolutely could strip out every anecdotal element, but what would be left would be simply another bullet list that I don’t think would be as useful. In fact I think most of the points I made are not at all original, you can find them in lots of advice articles. I felt that adding the anecdotes added value, and if others were less fearful of doing the same, we would all be better off. The same commenter then said "Rather, what you ended up with is a web page that you _wish_ you could have had weeks ago, to express much of your thinking at the time during the crisis." And that is absolutely correct, and exactly what my intent was, so I’m glad it came out that way!

Others felt I spent the entire time trying to blame other people and make my partners look bad. I’m not trying to demonize anyone, which is why I didn’t use anybody’s names. Unfortunately I think this also gave the impression that I thought all of my partners had all of the problems I mentioned. That was not the case at all. What I meant for this to reflect in part is that the more people you have on your team, the more separate issues are going to crop up and the harder it can become to balance them against each other. Some people felt that claiming "need for consensus" as a fault, I was not being genuine, like saying "my biggest fault is I work too hard". But, depending on the situation, seeking consensus really can be a time consuming process for a startup and it might be better to short circuit it some of the time. This absolutely depends on the nature of your team and your beliefs and you need to figure out what is right for your situation. The latter commenter said "I got the sense that you were ‘hosting a party but constantly worrying about whether people are having a good time’" and that was again spot on. I think anyone who knows me (especially people who have actually been to parties I’ve thrown :-) ) would say the same thing, and it actually is something that often prevents me from having a good time.

Another observation…

The issue of networking is far and away the most hotly contested in the responses and I think there are a lot of valid points all around and I’m not going to try to summarize them here. But I will say it seems like there are a lot of people interpreting my comments as a very black-and-white situation where I wanted my whole team to be networking instead of writing code. That wasn’t at all what I was implying. I don’t think anyone would argue for that. However, as you can see in the comments, there are a lot of people who will argue for the opposite, which is, spend all your time writing code and don’t spend any networking. I personally think this is a mistake.

Maybe an anecdote is in order :-) It was my friend Charlie O’Donnell who put us in touch with Daniel and Jason from Disqus before we flew out for our YC interview, particularly because what they are working on was of interest to us and they also happen to be great guys. When we got out there, we had a great meeting (I think I got Jason drunk on Irish coffee) and they said they liked what we were doing and were going to put in a good word for us with Paul Graham prior to our interview. Now, I don’t know if they actually ended up doing that or not. So, I don’t know if that was a deciding factor in our acceptance, but it might have been, and either way we got a lot out of discussing our ideas with them. Keep in mind, this was the day before our interview, so it was crunch time. We could have been spending that hour trying to tweak our demo (perhaps fix some bug that had a slim chance of appearing during our ten minute time slot), but I think it was better spent this way. In fact the difference in choice there meant the potential for future value in a relationship with the Disqus guys vs fixing a bug in a prototype that had absolutely no bearing beyond the next day.

There was one chain of comments on the issue that particularly bothered me, where it was flat out stated that being a programmer requires intelligence, and being a business guy does not. This to me is evidence of the problem I’m talking about. Now, some people said they would never want to work with a guy like me after reading what I wrote, and I think that’s fine and they are entitled to their opinion. In the same vein, I wouldn’t want to have as a partner someone who felt the way that commenter did. Does that make one of us right and one of us wrong? No. But it means we probably wouldn’t make good partners, and that was part of the point of my lessons learned post. It was a reflection on what I think is important, which other people may not.

There is one thing I particularly don’t understand about the commenters who feel that a startup should do no networking before their product is out the door. To me it seems that one of the main points of taking part in the YC program is to network with other startups and industry vets to share ideas and get feedback. I realize not everyone on Hacker News is a YC alum, but are there any out there who thought that during their three month stint they would have been better off if they had skipped all the dinners so they could write code?

And some clarifications…

A lot of people thought our voting structure was way out of line and evidence of my lust for power. Some people noted a lack of background information, so let me try to add some. The idea for the product was initially conceived and worked on by me for six months before the team came together. During that time, I recruited each of them individually to convince them of the strength of the ideas and to consider leaving what they were doing to join me. When the team did come together, the voting structure was encouraged by every member of the team, as I had their confidence at the time as a result of forming the original ideas and bringing them together, and that I would be spending significantly more time on the venture than any of them in the near future. We planned for this to be replaced with a normal board structure if the company ever got that far. I don’t think this is evidence of lust for power, but rather was a reflection of what was at the time good leadership. There is no doubt that my leadership capabilities did not stand the test of time, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a time when we were a very strong team and our group-derived structures were working for us.

Also, I need to revise what I said about good vs excellent programmers. I should have made it clear that I was talking about startup environments. What makes a programmer excellent in a startup may not make them excellent working for Goldman Sachs and vice versa. Overall though, an ability to balance priorities is critical in either place… it’s the priorities that will vary.

That’s all for now. Thanks for all the feedback!

Posted in Y Combinator.