If you’ve ever met Paul Graham and Jessica Livingston of Y Combinator (YC), you quickly realize that the incubator they run is like a family and they are its attentive parents. They have managed to put a very human face on venture capital, one that appeals to young engineers during their most insecure stage: when they have just begun, or are still deciding whether to begin, their lives as entrepreneurs.
Much of their success in establishing YC as the premier gateway for startups in Silicon Valley can be attributed to this characteristic and its manifestations. When these engineers think about venturing out on their own, they turn to YC as a sort of foster home, one that will shelter them during the first few rough months of startup life and prepare them for the scary world beyond. Because of this, YC has secured a nice deal flow for itself, one that allows it to evaluate a massive amount of raw talent before it transforms into validated companies commanding higher valuations and greater sums of money.
As the gateway to Silicon Valley – and truly, you’d be hard pressed to think of another singular starting point for this community’s entrepreneurs (there’s a reason Ron Conway calls it the “Harvard/Stanford of startups”) – YC has decided not only to open its doors to budding entrepreneurs but to actually encourage more undecided youth to become entrepreneurs. This is the raison d’être for Startup School, an annual event that YC holds at Stanford (and which took place again this past Saturday). A large crowd of fresh-faced engineers fills an auditorium for eight hours to collect pearls of wisdom from notable technologists like Mark Zuckerberg, Max Levchin and (not ironically) Ashton Kutcher. And they walk away feeling more confident about starting companies themselves, and not coincidentally, leaning towards opting for YC to do it.
Seen in a common light, this is a win-win for everyone involved. Entrepreneurs get to drink from a firehose of advice, manned by people who they already admire or soon will. YC gets an increased number of applicants and from that larger pool can invest in a greater number of promising startups. Later-stage investors consequently see more promising deal flow coming out of YC, and consumers benefit from the wonderful products that are created by companies that may otherwise not have been founded. All the while, the press and public at large gets to enjoy the appearance of more Silicon Valley success stories, which simultaneously satisfies and fuels their desire for role models of the American Dream.
Paul Graham himself echoed these sentiments mid-day by explaining how he believed the best startup ideas come from problems, not people looking for ideas. He implored the audience to start with a desire and then find an idea rather than compiling ideas from TechCrunch, as he sees many entrepreneurs doing in their applications to YC. He then went on, not coincidentally, to tear down the ideas of several entrepreneurs who presented to him on stage during a mock “office hours” session, as if to illustrate his preconception that many, if not most, entrepreneurs haven’t yet figured out a problem worth solving.
If this is the case, then, that we are experiencing a generation of entrepreneurs who prioritize the phenomenon of entrepreneurship over its justification, we ought to be concerning ourselves as a community with teaching folks not only how to get into the entrepreneurship game but how to find their purpose as well. This is a tricky proposition, and I don’t mean to suggest that people should hold out from starting a company before they have an “ah ha!” moment. Nor do I mean to suggest that a purpose will ever suddenly click into place for most or virtually any entrepreneurs; this is perhaps the most important lesson we’ve learned from the lean startup movement, that the discovery of problems and their solutions is often an iterative process.
But what I am suggesting is that, in addition to the commonly recited mantras intended to help entrepreneurs execute (such as fail fast, be persistent, focus on product above all else, prioritize engineering, surround yourself with “A” players, etc.), we should develop and promote a more deliberate practice of discovering passions worth pursuing and problems worth solving in a less haphazard way. This effort would certainly not be easy or clear from the onset, and it may require fundamental changes to our educational system in addition to our configuration as a community. But without it, institutions like YC and its Startup School will likely continue receiving and channeling ever-more entrepreneurs who may be well-versed in tactics but who lack anchoring values that drive their efforts. And that will be a shame not only for those individuals but the investors and customers who await the fruits of their labor, which otherwise could have amounted to so much more.
Thanks to KvJ for sharing!