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Grow the Puzzle Around You (foundersatwork.posthaven.com)
613 points by katm 8 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 49 comments

If you've spent any time working with stage managers, this isn't counterintuitive at all. Complex human endeavor runs more smoothly with a skilled and dedicated operator systematically clearing the logistical and interpersonal hurdles, creating a conducive space for the "real" work. We've known this for a while in performing arts. I hope call-outs like this will bring tech around to the role’s importance.

As a person with a theatre background now doing startup tech work, I agree the magic of “the show must go on” is unparalleled.

this is an incredible, non-obvious parallel. Thank you.

Thanks Jessica for that wonderful and candid post. I've applied for YC once a while back but didn't get in. I think many founders who don't have access to YC get bitter and start thinking it's a clan and only certain type of people (Elite schools, etc.) get in.

I think the problem, as you rightly pointed out, is that a lot of entrepreneurs are not that at all. They want to start a company and do a me-too venture just to ride the 'Sold to XYZ' train.

No one likes the test or to be judged by others and resent being rejected. When we talk of emotional intelligence, I think it's about knowing what you want to and can do, and allowing your peers or mentors to help you get there. I've met many YC alums and do see a certain set of qualities that unite them - I suspect those are the ones you picked up on :)

Thanks to you and the YC team for creating a wonderful new pathways to fulfillment for budding entrepreneurs.

> The first was the quality that caused my YC cofounders to nickname me "The Social Radar." I was one of those kids that you just couldn’t get anything past. If something seemed off or out of character, I noticed and made inquiries. I was always trying to figure things out based on subtle social cues.

> When it came to investing, I had something that my cofounders didn’t have: I was the Social Radar. I couldn’t judge our applicants’ technical ability, or even most of the ideas. My cofounders were experts at those things. I looked at qualities of the applicants my cofounders couldn't see. Did they seem earnest? Were they determined? Were they flexible-minded? And most importantly, what was the relationship between the cofounders like? While my partners discussed the idea with the applicants, I usually sat observing silently. Afterward, they would turn to me and ask, "Should we fund them?"

Perhaps the unreplicable advantage of YC in its early years.

I've always been fascinated by this and would like to learn more about how to do this. However, I think it is really a function of how much experience you have talking to real people. For example, it is easier for me to retroactively analyze a social situation after it happens (like a date) than to proactively act and do the "right things" in the moment of the situation. I think it really comes down to how much true experience and pattern recognition you have. You can't analyze a situation correctly until you have been through it way too many times and can "step back" from yourself.

I think perhaps a small handful of my more socially adept friends are good at it but probably not at the level of JL.

You have to watch out for the "water dowser" effect. If you're in front of a group of people who have no ability to check your answers, it's very easy to convince them that you're always right. If a trusted person with good social skills came in and said, "don't work with him he's not earnest," how would the room ever find out whether he was or not? They'd be unlikely to trust him enough to end up in a situation where they'd be able to see for themselves.

It's also impossible to know if she's "set right".

It's not enough to never pick a "bad" team if you're also turning away 9 out of every 10 good ones.

That all depends on the return you get from the 1/10 good ones. If you do great with that one good team, it could be totally worth it. I could definitely imagine a scenario where picking no bad teams has higher value than picking more both good and bad.


The world operates on value judgements with scant information. I'm not sure why this is being dismissed as inferior.

Who is dismissing it?

I think part of the problem here is that most of the time, most of the people who are really good at this tend to have an intuitive approach, which makes it harder to formulate and teach, especially in a way that a less intuition-oriented person can understand and learn from. (Or at least that's my impression as a person in the latter category who has spent years trying to learn more about these things.)

> Perhaps the unreplicable advantage of YC in its early years.

I think PG had said she was their secret weapon for many years, when there were other accelerators copying them left and right.

First of, thanks for being part of YC and making it such a great place. I've never been there, but the whole spirit is healthy and that I very much appreciate.

>I looked at qualities of the applicants my cofounders couldn't see. Did they seem earnest? Were they determined? Were they flexible-minded? And most importantly, what was the relationship between the cofounders like?

I second this. People who say soft skills are dead or unnecessary are wrong in my opinion. Of course, software is software and hardware is hardware. But how does it get there? And where does it go from there? People help people and being nice to each other is not only more beautiful, but also leads to higher productivity in my experience. Having more empathy for your co-founders, employees and investors goes a long way.

>People who say soft skills are dead

Are you sure people actually say that? This struck me as odd because it seems to be the total opposite of what people say. It seems virtually everyone stresses "soft skills" repeatedly.

But I have no proof of this so I just did a quick search of Google's 130 trillion pages to try and get a sense if people out there are really saying that soft skills are useless:

"soft skills are dead": 3 results (and 2 of them happen to be from you in this thread): https://www.google.com/search?q="soft+skills+are+dead"

"soft skills are useless": 7 results : https://www.google.com/search?q="soft+skills+are+useless"

"soft skills are worthless": 4 results : https://www.google.com/search?q="soft+skills+are+worthless"

"soft skills are in demand": 43000 results : https://www.google.com/search?q="soft+skills+are+in+demand"

"soft skills in demand": 94000 results : https://www.google.com/search?q="soft+skills+in+demand"

Also, on HN... In the top 3 threads with "soft skills" in the title, the comments all emphasize the importance of soft skills: https://hn.algolia.com/?query=soft%20skills&sort=byPopularit...

Feels like a pretty typical strawman for socially awkward nerds in the tech industry.

On that note -- has soft skills ever actually been called useless, ever? Even in the earlier decades of Silicon Valley, when (it seemed like) more of the valley was more hacker than entrepreneur?

"soft skills are dead" is not expressed that way. It's expressed as "the cofounders should be tech", and other such advice which emphasizes the technical capabilities of the cofounders and early hires, and to not trust "suits". Not taking a side here, but just saying that the valley does tend to emphasize a lot on tech over other aspects of running a business.

It gets a bit complicated when the soft skill in question is dealing with technical people and making sure they're as productive as possible, because this has historically been an area where non-technical managers struggle.

This seems like a false dichotomy.

"Founders need to be tech" is said often, but you're assuming "Founders need to be tech OR Founders need to have soft skills", which is an unnecessary assumption.

For example, "Founders should be determined" is also expressed often, doesn't mean they're expecting it to be an either-or with the quality of "being tech"

I really liked your approach of going about proving your point with Google Search hits. Really well done sir. I'm going to borrow this approach :D

Soft skills != being nice

Soft skills most essentially involve communication. “Being nice” is a much wider umbrella which includes reciprocation of many things not limited to: dignity, consideration, morality, mutual respect, agency and comradery. When we treat the former as the whole of the latter, the structure breaks down. It may not be obvious, and the damage might be displaced out of sight, but the point I’m trying to make is there’s nothing “nice” about making that mistake.

(While the success of soft skills will usually depend on other types of skills, “soft skills” nonetheless is essentially limited to interpersonal communication skills.)

What a great piece. There is a distinctive quality that YC's alum have in common has shaped the rest of the software world. Would Microsoft be reshaping its culture as it is without Dropbox, Stripe, Reddit and others demonstrating a new way to operate, a new set of values? The world is better off IMHO with the ethic that Jessica helped create. Go English Majors!

> I read the book Startup by Jerry Kaplan, about his pen computing company called GO, and I was immediately hooked.

Incidentally, I read Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston back in my college senior year in 2012 and, as she put it, was immediately hooked.

Thanks for writing that book, and for everything else you've done for the startup world.

Jessica's 2001 (wow!) book "Founder's at Work"[1] is something everyone should read.

The stories behind lots of theses names everyone has heard are amazing. I still remember reading it in about 2006 and being so immediately impressed with everything Paul Buchheit said. It was shocking to me, because I'd started that chapter thinking he shouldn't be in the book ("Gmail? He's not a founder!").

The other thing was the superficial "insights" that one particular (well known) founder had in the book. They were clearly wrong, and they have colored my thinking about luck and being in the right place ever since. It's only recently I've started rethinking that after they made some good (lucky?) investments over the last few years.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Founders_at_Work

* 2007 book

That makes a lot more sense!

The Google preview says 2001 for me, which it gets from https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/98233.Founders_at_Work (note the "first published 2001")

But Gmail wasn't out then, so that can't be right, and I must have read it in 2007 or 2008.

Great, much needed article.

I wouldn’t use Mark Zuckerberg as an example of someone you “got right” though. Whether his creation has been a net gain for society as a whole is highly debatable, which I think should disqualify him as an entrepreneurial success story.

I enjoyed the article, but I worked for a startup in 1999 that was funded by a technology accelerator. So it would appear Ycombinator wasn't the first, unless this is meant in some more specific way.

I can appreciate how you feel, but the winner writes history. Out of curiosity, what was the name of the tech accelerator that you're referring to?

Red Hot Law Technology Accelerator in Atlanta, GA.

I've known of many others too. I'm sure Red Hot wasn't the first.

I was around then.

The pre-YC incubators operated on a completely different model. They typically had shared services, centralized control, and were rarely filled with entrepreneurs doing their own thing.

"Accelerator" was a term that YC used to distinguish themselves from that model, and whether or not they were the first to use the term what they did was truly different.

How would you characterize IdeaLab? As a startup studio? They were definitely more top down.

Yeah exactly.

Yeah, the claim caught me too.

Just an example: CMGI, Inc. was calling themselves an Internet Incubator around 1995.

Probably better to make a claim based on success.

CMGI and the other “incubators” of that era were nothing like YC. The label “accelerator” was applied to YC years after it was started because of the need for a generic term to describe YC and all of the clones. Whether or not that label was previously used for some other kind of business is irrelevant.

Makes sense. I suspected that might be the case, which is why I mentioned the possibility of something more specific intended. (In case other readers are struck by the same thought, it might be worth a footnote).

Reading this gave me goosebumps. Bravo Jessica, you should be increbily proud of your work and what you’ve helped others achieve.

Photo of Alexis Ohanian at dinner in first batch is classic!

That first class all looked like misfits, social outcasts, and the typical d&d crowd. Entrepreneurship wasn't cool back then. I think those are who I will invest in if I'm ever in that position: people who are entrepreneurs because they have no other choice, not people who are entrepreneurs because they could do anything.

Jeez, how painful to think that she has to explain her role regularly just because she is a woman. My wife and I are both software developers, and recently moved from Helsinki to Berlin, with two kids. If you could see the faces when we tell people how we moved here, "with _her_ job" :D First they look at her, like "does she look the part", and then looking at me, like "what does he really do?" It's actually fun, and more of "our thing" to watch those reactions than a pain, but in the bigger scheme of things what a waste that we are scared of all those wonderful women who could work with us, but don't.

She didn't say it was because she was a woman, in fact she explicitly says it was because she was the only non-technical cofounder.

I think the issue is that there’s a kind of Jim Crow discrimination if we try to act as if “technical” is a valid filter for whether someone is recognized as making a clear contribution. If women are less likely to make technical contributions, and we only recognize technical contributions, then we’re de facto minimizing crucial contributions of women.

Also, what does “technical” even mean? Why is setting up the legal structure of a company non-technical but writing HTML for the web site is technical?

Sometimes I wonder if non-technical is just a slur.

Had it been early years of YC, this post of explaining herself could have made sense. After so many years of being at the helm of YC, who is a nut to doubt her? Or is it that she is still insecure and any indirect reference to her capability, she begins to explain herself. I am speculating and I would be really happy to be proven wrong!

I half took it was your meaning as well, and I guess it's good that we are recognizing this as a potential issue.

The other way of looking at it is that PG was definitely the front-man, you kinda got an idea of what he did.

If I had met Trevor or Robert (or if somebody had asked me who they were), I'd probably ask the same question.

In fact, if you asked me "who started YC?", I'd probably say "PG & Jessica".

The vast majority of people who get 'moved for jobs' are regular professionals - and especially in Europe, they look the part.

I walked into a store once in Ottawa, and bought some expensive kids stuff, the owner said: "Are you a software developer" and I said 'how'd you know'? ... Because almost everyone who can afford her stuff is a lawyer, government exec, banker, or otherwise professional.

So I'd say the bulk of it is to the people you tell ... it's an anomaly, that's all.

It is interesting that someone who works at the forefront of startups which thrive on adoption and change makes an argument that if you read between the lines, it's essentially an argument for Nature in the good ol' Nature vs Nurture debate.

This is an amazing story. Truly inspiring, thank you.

I absolutely grant that Livingston was crucial to YC's success but it would be wrong to ignore the reality of what holds most people back: lack of opportunity.

The opportunity that Paul Graham gave Jessica Livingston is being massively underplayed here. He would not have chosen to start YC without her but he could have. It very well might've failed without her. That's entirely possible. But she absolutely could not have started YC without him and his money. She would have had no opportunity to become the great success story she has become.

YC partners fund ~3% of the founders that ask them for opportunity. That leaves ~97% of people out in the cold, desperate for the same kind of opportunity that made them successful.

The reason YC funds so few founders used to be their limited resources. Now they have all the resources they could possibly want and they've consciously chosen not to scale. YC has become a VC firm that is perpetuating exactly the problem they were founded to fix. It's an exclusive club for the chosen few and a mark against anyone that is not granted membership. Just like the old elitist VCs they were supposed to replace.

I don't begrudge YC or any of its partners their personal success. I do think YC has gone from being a potentially great force for good to probably a net negative for society.

> a net negative for society

Where did that come from?

Even if YC is "elitist" now -- that does NOT mean "negative for society".

I am uncertain of the staunch analysis but I believe they're making the argument that YC gives a massive advantage to startups that are part of it, and staunch believes that the selection process is unfair, so it follows that YC gives unfair advantage which can be reasonably seen as net negative.

Nice read, but it could have done without the patronizing 'what you should learn from my story'.

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