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Sincere Apologies to Paul Graham and the Y Combinator Team (from the Seattle Founder's Co-op) (crashdev.blogspot.com)
70 points by brfox on April 16, 2008 | hide | past | favorite | 49 comments

This was nice of them. It didn't bother us too much. We were indignant the first time someone copied our application form, but at least these guys admitted it.

Additionally, the obsolete question(s) on their application (no longer present on YC applications) were not their fault. A bug has been filed with y2combinator: http://y2combinator.com/

It kind of reminds me of a salary history where a company wants to pay you according to how other companies value you, instead of making their own determination.

It's like they don't know what to ask, so they went with what you came up with. Well, if they can't figure out what information they need on their own, how are they going to figure out who to invest in on their own?

What really bothers me about YC-clones copying the application form is how little it shows the group has thought about the program they're starting.

How is it possible that PG nailed down exactly what every seed investor would ever want to know about startup founders seeking funding? Don't these investors have any other questions? Do they actually call people hackers in real life? Is a couple sentences about each founder the maximum all investors are capable of reading?

So I'm left wondering if the lack of thought that went into the application carries over into the rest of the program.

You think an application form indicates thought about the program? They're just going to copy a few forms and start throwing thousands of dollars at people... Right...

If this were a statically typed conversation, it would have been impossible to make a mountain from this molehill.

I don't understand your comment. Could you clarify?

1) My point was that these people have decided to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars. Saying they "haven't thought about it" because of an application form seems to be jumping to conclusions.

2) It's a programming language joke. MoleHillFactory (a Haskell example would be better, but I don't know it) wouldn't be able to return objects of type Mountain. Maybe it's not funny, but I kind of liked it:-)

I still think it's reasonable to think the application form reflects thought put into the program. If I showed up shitfaced to a job interview it would be reasonable for the interviewers to wonder if I took it seriously. I may take it completely seriously, but I would understand if my behavior seeded doubt.

Your argument doesn't really sway me: I'm judging the program based on something real; you're judging it based on what must obviously be the case.

I don't completely write-off a YC-clone just because they put zero thought into the application form. But it does alter my impression.

I disagree with your static typing argument too. "Mountain out of a molehill" means making a bigger deal out of something than it is. Which means both things could be class Mound, just with different values. So in this case static typing wouldn't have saved the day ;-)

I'd just like to mention that, if YC clones use the same application forms, it does make life easier for the applicants...

A lot of the applications for the yc like programs are similar (ex. launchboxdigital), which, I agree, does make it easier to apply to multiple programs.

That's what I assumed what they were going for. Actually, I fully support this approach.

I've written many times [...] so I was caught by surprise

Reading that, it occurred to me that one of the gotchas here is the statelessness of the web. "Statelessness" isn't quite what I mean. "Contextlessness" might be better. URLs are pointers that jump directly to content that mostly gets consumed atomically, without reference to anything else the author has said/done. Of course if readers want context they have ample opportunity to explore: look at what else is on the site, google the sources and so on. But most won't. (I often do, but I didn't this time.) I wonder if one way to mitigate this is to make content more self-describing.

Do you have ideas on how to do that?

Nothing well-formed; I've hardly thought about it. By the way, I didn't mean "self-describing" in any technical sense (like the way Alan Kay might use the phrase - though that is super cool). What I mean is, if there's context that's essential to understanding what you're saying on page X, maybe you should include it in X, or at least a noticeable link to it. Even at the cost of some duplication.

For example, would it have changed your perception of the Founders Co-op application if it had, at the bottom, a link to a FAQ like "Isn't this just like YC" or even "How is this different from other early-stage funds"?

Well, I'm very glad that he responded so quickly. I was so excited to see something sort of like YC in Seattle but I was worried about the whole very-similar-application thing. I am glad to hear that he just really admires the YC program and is going to fix up the application.

Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.

Very true. I doubt PG and co were losing sleep over a copied application form ;) They're probably watching their competition with much interest. It's not like there's room for only one after all.

The only thing I really worry about is that competitors will use artificial deadlines to panic founders into taking offers from them before they've interviewed with us. 100% of the clones make decisions before we even do interviews, probably not by coincidence. Last year when they made offers to groups that had also been invited to interviews with us, they tried to pressure them into accepting before they'd heard from us. I assume they'll do that again. That makes me mad, I admit. It seems such a nasty thing to do to a group of young founders.

Paul, why do you call the firms clones? Aren't you a clone of a seed stage incubator? I absolutely love what you do but to say that there are clones in the investment world (where there is zero scale) is a weird way of looking at the world. You probably have enough money to fund every good idea in each intake but you certainly don't have the time to spread out across those ideas. So if you have inspired more capital to come into this stage then surely that is a good thing for founders?

If there is competition, then founders only win out in the end. If someone was 'pressured' into accepting before other options played out that should be a huge signal to the founder that the firm is less than desirable.

I was calling them clones because that's what other people were calling them.

They are, though. All we have in common with seed stage incubators is investing at the seed stage. What these guys have in common with us is a whole list of distinctive things: investing in multiple startups simultaneously, taking about 6%, using an application form instead of accepting business plans, making founders move to where we are, using a three month timeline, having weekly dinners, bringing in outside experts to speak to the founders as a group, having a Demo Day where they all present to investors. Often whole chunks of text on their sites are paraphrased from ours.

This question 12 was copied from YC application as well

>12. Why would your project be hard for someone else to duplicate?

It clearly illustrate the apparent problem YC will face in the future, I think you should think of something to avoid complete duplicate. From my view I think the value of YC is in its network and Knowhow, any founder will recognize that.

As it's getting harder and harder to even speak to you guys the temptation for founders to go the other way will even be stronger. I'm sure you can come up with something.

So what is to be done about this?

I assume one of your main distinctive features is unique to YC - you.

Surely by continuously refining the detail you can be one cycle ahead of the competition - possibly shortening the 'application open' window.

Why not release more data on your successes. They can't copy that.

I don't think we have to do much about it. Copies are never as big a problem as they seem.

Releasing more data would just give the competition something else to copy. Instead, YC could build a 'one click' application process and patent it.

Seriously though, YCombinator could always franchise their system. That way, they at least profit when others use the fruits of their labors.

YC is a clone of Google's SOC project that occurred the prior summer. Taking on multiple projects simultaneously, providing about 5k, accepting applications, three month timeline, having frequent meetings between people and mentors, bringing in outside mentors, having a day at the end for people to present their accomplishments.

It is natural to be concerned about competitors, but everyone who is being abrasive to these other angels for copying a couple aspects is harming the angel investment community overall. YC is just a couple people with a couple MM, they can't fund everyone.

Bonus similarities: appealing to the young, first session occurred immediately after google's finished, setting up mailing list forum for those interested, primary announcement occurred on slashdot.

YC wasn't copied from the Summer of Code. We weren't really aware how that worked. What it was copied from, initially, was the classic college student summer job at a software co. The idea was basically to let people get a summer job starting a startup.

Later we tossed some aspects of that (going back to school in the fall doesn't work well with startups), but kept others, like the 3-month cycle.

So everyone is a clone.

midgets standing on the shoulders of giants, as even the mighty will admit. what matters is the evolution with each new generation. get the right mix of memes and you end up with something very powerful, which YC arguably is

That does seem nasty. Although from their perspective it makes a twisted sense that since they can't compete with YC on benefits to the startup groups, at least they can pressure them into accepting, and not lose out on the investment opportunity for themselves. But that just says that at the root of it, they have themselves and not the startup's best interests in mind.

Of course everyone has their own interests in mind, but what seems to make YC's self-interest compatible with a founder's self-interest is the degree of freedom afforded the founder. As you said in one of your essays, investors can often suffocate a startup by not allowing enough freedom, which isn't in either of their best interest.

Unless once someone 'accepts' an offer from one of these micro-VC firm they are entering in a binding contract that has some sort of penalty for breaking it, could you not simply allow candidates who have accepted elsewhere to still interview with you? If you like them and accept them, then they'd get to choose whether they'd like to stay with their existing micro VC or jump ship for YCombinator. Granted, filling one of your limited slots with people who have opportunities elsewhere may be a waste of your time. But that would at least mitigate the problem of people 'stealing' away your interviewees.

> Last year when they made offers to groups that had also been invited to interviews with us, they tried to pressure them into accepting before they'd heard from us. I assume they'll do that again. That makes me mad, I admit. It seems such a nasty thing to do to a group of young founders.

Wait a minute, aren't you the guy who gives them 5 minutes to accept once you make your offer?

If they did their interviews/acceptance AFTER you, it would be the same situation with YOU pressuring founders before they'd heard back from anyone else!

Pot. Kettle. If you really care about the founders then you all need to get your schedules together so founders have the option of choosing from multiple offers. Leave the window open longer. It's pretty easy. Give them the forms and have them mail them back once they decide. Like college acceptance; this is a solved problem.

If they did their interviews/acceptance AFTER you, it would be the same situation with YOU pressuring founders before they'd heard back from anyone else!

Sure. And if we stole their wallets we'd be robbers. But we don't, do we?

I'm going to propose to all the clones that in future we all have a common date for startups to make decisions by. But since we currently decide last, we're not pressuring anyone.

alphalab decides after YC. http://www.iwalphalab.org/survey_overview.aspx (look in the sidebar)

I would be surprised if that was the reason for the timing of the decisions, I suspect it was just convenient for them. AlphaLab is going after a decidedly different market than YC: people that live in Pittsburgh. AlphaLab is also consciously an incubator and not something that failed at copying YC and accidentally turned into an incubator.

> But since we currently decide last, we're not pressuring anyone.

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible, eh?

And then there's the "accept immediately or you failed an IQ test" attitude. If you have a common date with the others then that's got to change.

I've never applied to YC, so maybe I'm not qualified to comment, but I'm not sure your remark fairly characterizes what's going on. It seems to me that if YC gets hundreds and hundreds of applications, and if most founders who are accepted say yes, and if people know the situation going in to the interview (which they clearly do), then it's just not worth YC's time to futz around dealing with the few people who can't decide immediately.

Now, if YC and all their clones could agree to a similar cycle, so that founders could pick between different offers, then I would say that YC were the bad guys. But that's not the case (yet).

> and if people know the situation going in to the interview (which they clearly do)

You do the interview. Then you get a phone call with a percentage mentioned and no negotiation allowed. You say yes or they claim you "failed an IQ test". 5 minutes to decide.

> then it's just not worth YC's time

Yeah, not when you do this stuff in bulk, assembly-line style, with most companies fizzling out if they don't fund them (so very little risk of "being proven wrong").

I'll give you that "failed an IQ test" seems a bit harsh. But when did all this occur? 2005, or later? If later, there's been so much written on the web about this that it seems amazing to me that you would have been shocked by the offer.

To the second point, I agree with you that an assembly line style makes individual negotiations impossible. But I'd say two things: (a) that's a feature, not a bug, and (b) if you're a young founder with no track record, exactly what are your other options?

I think the point of the 5 minute thing is that you know going in what the terms will be if you are accepted, so you have plenty of time to think about it beforehand. Furthermore, YC has a good reputation so you can be sure that you're not going to get screwed over by verbally agreeing to an ambiguous deal.

Maybe someone should do a startup to auction off potential startups to potential seed-angel-incubator-YC-clones;-)

At first I wanted to write a response to your comment claiming that the Seattle group is not a competitor. After thinking about what to write for a moment, I realized that debating whether or not they are a competitor is not as important as debating whether or not another program like YC is beneficial to the people on this site and this community as a whole.

I believe another program like YC is valuable. Paul has stated several times that there are good ideas and good teams that he simply could not invite to YC because there were more stellar groups he invited. It does not mean that those not invited by YC should not have the opportunity to be funded. The Seattle program is simply another route to the ultimate goal: a nice payday.

These guys have suddenly gained a lot of respect in my eyes.

The old bait'n'switch at work ;)

Do something a bit bad, get some publicity, then apologize profusely!

Somebody's taken their Apple™ Marketing Training Course.

I hope it is not that... That would kinda ruin my faith in humanity.

Me too. I have already retracted the not so nice things I said about them here


Makes me think of Techstars...I don't think they're an all-out ripoff. Maybe they just came up with a similar idea before YC started. When they saw YC, they didn't feel they were copycats, but had to adapt to YC's presence. Just a guess.

We have built a search of their sites and blogs, whatever you want to know about Founder's co-op, just search for it here: http://www.intelliverb.com/Search/?ul=en-us&six=src63343...

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