YC Startup School: 10 Lessons from 10 Weeks in the YC Startup School

YC Startup School: 10 Lessons from 10 Weeks in the YC Startup School
December 19, 2018 Erika Barraza

What problem are you solving?

EVRealities takes audiences out of the newsroom and into the world to better understand the context of the news. Our contributors submit VR and AR digital content that is distributed by Premium Publishers. A few weeks ago we completed the inaugural Y-Startup School program. We were part of a cohort of startups receiving an official YC mentor and were excited at the opportunity to compete for a $10,000 prize. We experienced a powerful shift in our company stemming from two lessons that were repeated week after week and in every conversation:

  1. What problem are you solving?
  2. How are you measuring your progress?

With diligent focus and the integration of several measurement tools (included below) we clarified the problem we’re solving for newsrooms, doubled our growth, launched our public beta, began closing customers, and set up multiple enterprise partnerships that are leading into some exciting collaborations in Q1 2019. All within the 10-week course.

The course isn’t magic. It reinforces a lot of time honored rhetoric echoing all over Silicon Valley. It works if you work, but work harder than you ever have before to make bold achievements come to life. Coming back to these core questions daily trains your brain to focus.

We’re sharing lessons learned in 2018 with you for a prosperous 2019!

Week 1: How to Succeed with a Startup
So you want to start a startup? You can’t just ‘kind of’ do it, it takes a lot of passion. Take note from Sam Altman, being a CEO equals being Chief Enthusiasm Officer. Infect the world with your vision. To successfully infect the world with your vision embody the traits of those who succeeded before you: frugal, focus, obsession, love. People are more likely to follow projects with an ambitious vision that are driven by a mission. Big vision anchored with a sensible business model is the best of all worlds.

“If you build a product so good people spontaneously tell their friends 80% of your work is already done.” – Sam Altman

Week 2: Building Product
Michael Seibel reminded everyone that you’re doing something hard. If it was really easy, someone else would have done it.  Knowing who experiences the problem you are solving is the best way stay focused. Companies can be hijacked by bad customers. Investors are very rarely your customers, so ignore investors, ignore your friends. They will lead you 100% astray out of good intentions. Set a feedback system in place early — follow through with it, and make sure you spend more time listening than talking.

A special note for those building solutions that leverage emerging technologies. Don’t be too quick to blame the Gartner Hype Cycle for lack of adoption. Your customer is desperate for a solution and if you are solving it, customers will adopt it. If you’re building an emerging technology that solves nothing you can only blame yourself for lack of adoption.

Week 3: How to Measure Your Product
Become obsessed with measurement. What you focus on, grows. Suhail Doshi, founder of YC alumnus Mixpanel ushered in week three encouraging us to consider how your business model, your product, and your stage, will change what you measure. Key performance indicators (KPIs) will be different for everyone. Once you know why you are not growing you can take action on a lever and fix it.   Until you have product market fit, you will be changing your growth focus.

If you are charging your customers, your KPI should be revenue. If you are never going to charge your customers it should be a usage base metric – daily active users (DAUs.) It is almost always one of those two.

Set up these measurement tools right away:

  • Facebook Pixel
  • MixPanel
  • Google Analytics

Week 4: Design for Startups
Garry Tan led an epic overview on UI product design, he shared that the one thing that as founders need to spend a lot of time on is empathy. Know your user, know the problem you are solving for your users, and make sure words and buttons on your product drive usability. An interaction designer is influencing people using direct command language. Be direct and tell people what to do. Whenever  you’re creating something new, you’re not competing against all of the other people out there.  You’re only competing against obscurity. 

“When you’re forced to be simple, you’re forced to face the real problem. When you can’t deliver ornament, you have to deliver substance.”  — Paul Graham

Week 5: How to sell
Tyler Bosmeny YC alumnus from Clever broke down sales to one mantra: sales is about listening. You should already be well practiced in this by listening to to your user and customer feedback. He shared three ways in to find prospects.

  1. Your existing networks; many of the earliest deals  for any startup have been through direct connections or friends of friends. Do not underestimate your network, especially if they know your industry.
  2. Conferences; the most underrated aspect of sales and one of the least understood aspects of sales. You have to go where users are. Many times if you’re selling to a business or to a corporate buyer, they go to conferences in places like Milwaukee or Kansas, where they’re cooped up in hotel conference rooms learning with their peers. Your customer is likely not at CES or E3.
  3. Cold emails; a lot of people don’t know how to write cold emails, they don’t know how to reach out to someone in a productive way. It should be personalized, short, to the point, and actionable.


Week 6: Running Your Startup
Patrick Collison of Stripe sat down for a 1:1 style interview and shared that it’s important that startups have some kind of efficient mechanism for making decisions. You should facilitate enough autonomy and agency in your team but also have a strong enough hierarchy to not have things devolve. The team you have around you is the foundation for running an effective startup.

Week 7: Startup Technology – Technical Founder Advice
With 4 CTO technical founders on a panel, the insights were plentiful. A consensus among all of them came from a cautionary approach to contracting developers. There are a lot of trade offs with contractors. Managing contractors is a significant time commitment for you as founder. Keep in mind that remote work may or may not be right for your team. Do what’s right for  you at the size of your company and know that there’s trade offs with all  these decisions.

Week 8: How to Get Meetings With Investors and Raise Money
YC Partner Aaron Harris took a tactical approach to explaining what makes your company a smart investment. Seed investors are often recent founders and have a quick processes because they know they have to move quickly. Their whole job is to meet new founders who they want to talk to and invest in. Remember, that they are investing for a return so that they can raise their next fund. When they’re looking at you, they don’t just need you to return five or ten x, they’re looking at every single investment and saying, “Will  this investment return my entire fund?” Make sure you use your time to pitch the big vision.

Week 9: How to Win
Daniel Gross, former YC Partner and founder reminded everyone that health is wealth and that, “nobody wants to work for a tired idiot.” Founders make mistakes with sleep, food, exercise, their mind, and ultimately leadership. Startups are one of the most draining things you can do to your body, to your mind. It’s bad for your entire company if you’re coming in with  20% cognition because you’re not sleeping well. Garbage food impairs your judgment; you can find healthy food for cheap – eat that instead of ramen. Through the dark phases of a startup, exercise can be the light. Set up good habits while you’re at a plateau, or on an up, because it’s really hard to convince yourself to do anything while you’re down. Give your brain a break. Feed your mind like you’re feeding your body. Spend at least one day a week not working as hard as you can. Come back to work feeling refreshed, your brain will be different and you’ll solve problems with more creativity.

Week 10: The Path Ahead
With no formal lecture on this week, we’re carrying the general good advice coming from these incredible lectures. Werner Vogels, CTO at Amazon instructed “Know exactly what you are going to build, and thou shalt not build more than that.” Sam Altman encouraged startups to stay consistent, you can win over the large enterprises because a project can get shut down with one no – and they often hear several. Whereas startups only need one yes to open the doors to success. Daniel Gross encouraged founders to learn to shift your mind from first to third person, “be able to step back and say, what’s happening now is, I feel  insecure, as opposed to, I’m dumb.” You’ll be able to react better, you’ll be able to lead people better.