It’s the first day of Y Combinator and I’m on a plane, headed to Mountain View. Only it’s June, not January, and I’m not anticipating the first Tuesday dinner and the panel, but about to be on that panel. It’s funny being on the other side. Part of me can’t believe it’s been 5 months. The other part feels like I’ve experienced 2 years crammed within 150 days.
And as I look out the window, headed down this gorgeous left coast, I think about the message I want to share with this newest group of the ambitious, bold and visionary.
It’s probably these five things:
1) These 12 weeks are the ultimate gift. Treat them as such. There was a day, maybe 4 weeks in, when I had a rare chance to catch up with a friend. And they remarked that my life must feel like a hurricane with everything going on. It was funny though – I didn’t feel like that. Instead, it felt like being in the eye of the storm. Where people say it’s eerily calm and still, even as the chaos rages around you. I felt like that. Because for 12 weeks I was given the gift of extreme focus.
That’s the part most people forget – the hardest thing of being CEO is not the work or the uncertainty. It’s the focus. The constant tug and pull away from the one thing that moves you forward. So for 12 weeks I was given the mandate to grow bookings by 10% each week. It seemed impossible but it was also so simple – anytime I found myself looking to try something that didn’t lead to another booking, it was easy to say no. So that by the end, we had found ourselves having grown 16% each week.
You will never again get this gift of focus. Cherish it and use it wisely.
2) YC partners are coaches, not teachers. The problem with most accelerators is that they tout themselves as programs to help founders learn how to build a great startup. People flock to them, I’m convinced, because they are seeking the comfort of a program, a plan, amidst all of the uncertainty. And that’s wrong. Entrepreneurship is messy and hard and ultimately uncomfortable. It is no one’s job to make it feel more known or comfortable. And very little of this can be taught, it must be learned through experience and doing.
YC understands this like very few others do. They do not see themselves as teachers. They are coaches. They won’t tell you what to do, only what they observe. They’ll ask the questions no one else is. It’s up to you to figure out what’s next.
So don’t walk into office hours expecting them to tell you how to magically transform your startup into the next airbnb or stripe. Instead expect a raft of insightful questions. A lot of pushback and skepticism. Expect a great coach in your corner.
3) Be your own advocate. Yes it’s your job to listen and take in the advice and thoughts of those that have seen much. But ultimately, like being a parent, you know your baby best. Only you know whether to make that hire or take that money or launch that product. No one ever will or should know the specifics like you do. So if you see the pieces coming together in a way that only you can, trust that. You may be completely wrong and that will be humbling, but at least you can own it. And you’ll learn.
4) Take the time to be vulnerable with a smaller group. The hard part about putting a group of super driven and competitive people together is that it can feel incredibly lonely and isolating. Find a group of people that you can connect with and be real with. It will keep you grounded and sane and humble. It will also make you happy. Voicing your doubts and fears doesn’t make you weak. It makes you thoughtful and human and relatable. Being there for your peers doesn’t steal from your startup but gives you a community to be rooted in, from which you can proudly flourish. On demo day, I was so surprised when my happiest emotion wasn’t tied to our presentation – it was watching my friends kill it and being so proud. That came from sharing the good, the bad and the remarkably ugly. It came from rising and falling and rising again, together.
5) Your job is not to see that path. Just the next step in front of you. I think it’s so easy to get caught up in the big picture too often. To worry about how we’ll ever get to that elusive launch or product market fit or Series A. But think of yourself in the forest in the thickest fog possible. Bring your head up to scan the horizon for the path will only lead to panic and possibly stepping over a cliff. Your job is to keep your head down and focus on staying alive for that next step. Sometimes you’ll be able to take a couple confident strides forward, other times it’ll be a mere shuffle. But if you just focus on the next step forward- what your one or 2 week goal is, then you’ll be amazed at how far you can get in 12 weeks.
And with that, W16 passes the torch to you, to bring the biggest, boldest ideas to life. Good luck and see you at Demo Day!