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What We Look for in Founders (paulgraham.com)
362 points by anateus on Oct 22, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 174 comments

It is pretty hard to change who you are at the core. But the thing about it is that you have your own way of succeeding. You see at some point in life, you more than likely have succeeded.

Instead of determination, you have passion. Instead of flexibility, you are a perfectionist. Instead of imagination, you can communicate well. Instead of being naughty, you are efficient. Instead of a partner, you are well connected.

The things that pg talks about takes years to develop, especially naughtiness and partnership. So instead of spending two years building a friendship to apply to yc, just go build the business. Inevitably, someone will want to join you when it is finished built.

So yes, if you are undetermined, inflexible, unimaginative, goodie to shoe, friendless, go build your dream.

Let a thousand flowers bloom.

Well said.

There's no one "perfect person" that will succeed, although the article by PG would imply otherwise (since YC only wants entrepreneurs and start-ups that will be successful...hence the application/interview questions).

The key is to use your core strengths to your advantage.

"So instead of spending two years building a friendship to apply to yc, just go build the business. Inevitably, someone will want to join you when it is finished built."

I just connected with an old friend who saw something I just built and wants to join in. If you build something that's cool, people will indeed want to join in.

I imagine if you build something cool and get traction, YC will consider you even as a single founder.

We do fund single founders. There were 2 this summer. We just have a higher threshold with single founders, because it's harder to succeed as one.

The last 3 of the 5 we'd compromise on if the person was good in other respects. Only the first 2 are essential. It's hard to imagine a startup succeeding without at least one person who was determined and flexible. It's just the nature of the domain.

100% agree. Another way of saying that: someone has to keep the ship afloat.

As for having other founders, it'll sure help when the ship is in rocky waters.

Aside from the complimentary skillset, it's nice to have another founder so they can pick you up when things aren't going your way.

Have you ever considered funding only one person out of a team?

Great comment. Successful entrepreneurs are often very hard to pigeonhole, and are often classified by others in ways that surprise them. Really, one quality would be your ability to succeed in spite of how other people estimate your chances or "relevant" abilities.

I think you're right. Don't wait for things to be perfect before building.

OTOH, pursuing most of these things is probably a good thing for general reasons. Hacking some non software thing, if you do not tend to do that sort of thing will probably benefit your thinking. Making friends is obviously good for you too.

I struggled to think about how I would answer the "Naughty" question. I thought about it for awhile and remembered something that happened almost 15 years ago.

I hated high school with a passion that still surprises me when I look back on it. My high school allowed kids who got accepted to college to go and have school pay for it while getting credit for college and high school. This sounded great to me but getting accepted was going to be a challenge because I wasn't a great student and I was only 15 at the time.

I met with the admissions officer at the college I wanted to attend and she wasn't sure at all about me. I had reviewed the course catalog before the meeting and made her a suggestion. I said "If I take a 400 level course and get an "A" would that prove to you that I'm up to doing college level work?" She said yes and I suggested that I take a course on the history of World War 2. World War 2 was a mild obsession of mine from 13-14 and I still to this day remember reading pages and pages of statistics about shipping losses during various times during the war. I knew every imaginable detail about virtually anything that had to do with World War 2. She didn't know this of course and warned me many times about what I was getting myself into in signing up for this course.

I was accepted with the provision that we would review my grades after the semester was over. I received the highest grade in the class and the entire course catalog was open to me until I graduated from high school. This ended up working in my favor in many ways but the most obvious benefit was that I graduated high school with virtually all of my liberal arts electives done without having to pay anything for it.

Not sure if this is the spirit of the question or not but it seems like it to me.

Sounds pretty bad ass to me. Damn, nice work.

I think it boils down to this: Do you tolerate bullshit or do you proactively stack the deck for personal advantage?

In this case you leveraged the hell out of a unique personal quirk and created an opportunity for yourself that wouldn't otherwise exist. To use a poker analogy (Thanks, Tony Hsieh), you picked the table where you knew you could win. You knew you'd do better at the college level and you exploited information asymmetry with both the college administrator and your college-level peers.

This is the very essence of how successful people and businesses work. You also showed some moxy and cunning with someone much older and more powerful than you, which is unusual at that age.

You thought many moves ahead and won, reaping huge upside. That's 98th percentile at least, man.

I guess my answer to the naughtiness thing, was when I wanted something from a certain organisation. I looked at the organisation, looked at where their weaknesses were then made sure that I could find ways of addressing them. I then contacted said organisation, offered to fix their weaknesses, did so then asked for what I wanted, knowing that while it was a big ask, they'd have to say yes given what I'd put in, and that if they said no I'd scale back my support (which I think is not unreasonable). In the end they said yes because they wanted to, and felt that I'd put more than enough to justify it, although for me I just picked problems where I already had the solution, or was relatively close to having.

On the one hand, it seems somewhat insincere to approach someone with solutions and not immediately make your wants clear, but on the other it's a win-win all round.

A year and a half into our first startup, I can see why determination (or should I go out on a limb and say downright stubbornness) is so highly rated.

We built a decent product in roughly 6 months, and began engaging with enterprise customers. 6 frustrating months of trade shows / cold calls / presentations later, we had a couple of potential customers but things seemed way too stagnant; their intent to purchase just wasn't apparent.

We were running low on cash and the first visible cracks in our patience were emerging, but we stayed put. And that's probably because we've known each other for over 5 years and each of us didn't want to let the others in the team down.

And then suddenly a month later we received our first purchase order. Okay, it wasn't exactly sudden - we'd followed up a million times with the client and iterated on the product each and every time. But nothing else had changed, we hadn't done anything significantly different in that one month. And that had us convinced that patience can be a real virtue.

We've not exactly dug ourselves out of a hole yet, but we're getting there (with several promising leads in the pipeline) and more importantly, a repeat order as well as a testimonial from our first customer.

EDIT: Just in case you thought the story above was manufactured, here's the a link to the testimonial [PDF]


I bet 80% of people reading that list are thinking: This describes me perfectly.

I was about to post how this list makes me question leaving BigCo. I must be in the 20%, I don't think I have any of these qualities, and behold, my bank account tells me that none of my ventures have succeeded.

Gahd, who reads this and thinks it describes them?

Some of PG's essays stress me out just by reading them. They usually involve the d-word (http://www.google.com/search?q=site%3Apaulgraham.com+determi...). I did my thing (http://readwarp.com) for 8 months. But PG and others told me early on it didn't have commercial possibility. So was it determination or inflexibility that I kept at it? I eventually figured it out for myself, in some approximately systematic way, that it wasn't going anywhere. I've taken a job so I can save enough in a year to last me two years while I take stock. Is that lack of determination or flexibility? Would I be more determined if I was contracting instead? I still work on readwarp in the weekends; I find I can't stop even if I know it's not going anywhere. Is that inflexible? Taking a job has allowed me to change readwarp drastically, make it even more minimalist, something I just couldn't prioritize when it was something 'serious'. I still use it everyday. Am I being inflexible?

When the running back retreats is it flexibility or lack of determination? Can you really tell without knowing if he ended up downfield?

If you watched me work on any given day you'd think I have no determination or persistence at all. I give up at the first sign of trouble, go off to do something else, one of a dozen projects. But in the large I do seem to get things done. I circle back in a few hours or days on that problem I was stuck on, and I find a way to make progress. Is this flexibility? It seems a dynamic fundamentally at odds with being an entrepreneur. Funny thing is, I think PG works like this.

I'm not making excuses, just seeking my blind spot. Somehow the things I'm interested in don't seem to be of more general usefulness. I haven't accomplished anything that would stand out in a YC app. I don't know how to hack any realworld systems, except maybe job interviews and negotiations, but that's probably just another sign I'll give up and go back to a job. So I keep seeking my blind spot. What's missing? What works for others? Why am I on the outside looking in?

Perhaps you think I just shouldn't care what he has to say. But shouldn't I keep looking for feedback? Different phrasings suggest different answers.

Hey Kartik, I remember when I first got to know you before you took that job. Your story reminds me of when Evan Williams (Blogger) was the only person left, and he was just stitching it all by himself, no money, etc. But he had users.

I sense your frustration, that you feel like you're spinning your tires - and I've been there.

(1) do you have a non-negligible number of users? (have you done qualitative + quantitative research, customer development, etc)

(2) do you have a business model hypothesis, that you've sought to validate/invalidate?

(3) does getting into YC have to be a pre-requisite for your startup to succeed? (Can you try to succeed without it?)

Another quote came to mind as I read your comment; as they say in startup world, there's fine line between a visionary and a lunatic. I genuinely want to believe that you are a visionary. All startup founders want to be visionaries. But we know the dismal rate of startups.

We're techies, and we naturally like data. We know that while we founders are emotionally swayed, data is not. What does the data say? Is it looking good?

I feel you when you talk about finding your blind spot. Blind spots are by definition, well .. hard to find, which is why it's so frustrating (been there). There's a quote that I can't seem to recall now, but it's something to do with trying too hard. Counterintuitive, I know. But if you've been staring at something for too long, you might be too close to the problem to objectively assess it.

I don't have answers to your questions. The way I sometimes deal with ambiguity is to define processes, fail-safe checks, high/low-level watermarks, etc. More structure. If I were you, I would come up with a sign post. How do I know I've gone off the deep end? E.g. wait for someone to tell me, or specify mile-markers, or ..

Thanks Jay.

"does getting into YC have to be a pre-requisite for your startup to succeed?"

The goal isn't getting into YC. Or even a successful startup. It's finding something I can do that is of use to others. Somebody boiled it down to four words somewhere..

A long time ago when I met you, you told me you had a few passionate users that used it daily.

Does that meet your criteria? May I ask what is it that you are looking for?

The users left. It's mostly just me and one last reader who checks out a couple of stories everyday. It doesn't engage anyone but me.

There's a problem with this whole category of apps. Reading solutions are like content - they're getting commoditized.

There's also lots of problems with this app itself. There's no overt personalization. It's good that the UI is simple, but bad that the layout is simplistic. There's none of the richness of a newspaper layout to stimulate the visual cortex.

If I could build something that truly engaged a few users I'd be happy for a while.

Let's chat more offline if you want.

I don't know if this is helpful or not, but I had a look at the site and don't really understand what its trying to do.

Perhaps you need something to engage new users - to show them what it is and why they want it? I don't know if I like it because, after browsing for a few moments (like every other potential user of anything, I have a very short attention span when checking out random websites without any prior goals), I still don't know what it does.

Hi, I just checked Readwarp out and have absolutely no clue what it does. If it's some kind of personal, learning newsfeed I'd be definitely interested in it but without a clear proposition I can't be bothered to dive in deeply (you know, register and such).

Thought you'd like to know. Good luck.

Yeah I wasn't really trying to get eyes on the site itself at this point. It used to have a landing page and value proposition and the usual stuff (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1306313), but lately I've optimized it more for employers and coworkers to see what I built, and for the two of us return users, and for me the sole developer and maintainer. No more metrics, traffic acquisition, funnel analytics.

To answer your question: it's a place to come for an infinite stream of stuff to read after you've exhausted your usual haunts and are still bored. When you vote up a story it's more likely to show you stuff from that site. When you vote down it's less likely. Basically a feedreader for people who don't understand feedreaders. There's smarts to show the full text, that works most of the time (try clicking the green arrow at the bottom of some stories). When you get to the bottom of the page it'll autoload more stories.

There isn't that much more to see if you register. We repeat users don't like the scrolling so it shows just one story at a time. There's keyboard shortcuts. That's about it. I pruned everything that didn't work. Thanks for checking it out.

If you've worked on several ventures, I would guess you're more determined than most of the population. Most people only talk or dream of actually working on projects, and never actually do anything with it.

Thanks! Your kind words are much appreciated.

I sometimes have the wrong kind of determination. I created a program for managing classified ads, a desktop database-backed app that integrated with Aldus (yes, that long ago) PageMaker. I did some stuff I'm proud of, including finagling my way into the booth with Aldus at MacWorld and posing for a picture with Guy Kawasaki (a hero of mine those days)...

And yes, I sold my software in Canada, the US, and even South America. But my pricing model was all wrong, I didn't grasp that the reason my competition charged 3-5x the amount that I charged (US$795) was that it cost so much to sell software at that time, the cost of ramen was irrelevant. It took me a while to figure this out. I think the turning point was when I looked out of my apartment window and realized that the bank had towed my car away.

Anyways, I had the persistence of a bull, but as the OP notes, a little flexibility would have gone a long way.

But you're pretty well known (at least in some programming circles in Canada) and you've been involved in some pretty successful ventures. That should count for something.

--edit by ventures, i mean senior roles in other people's ventures

I was thinking it describes PhD students who actually finish. Of course apart from the friendship bit because PhD programs are still solitary journeys.


That is way to small of a data set to draw a conclusion from! ;)

It's a mindset. You believe it, you become it :).

That's actually more true than it sounds. Just a week ago I read Self-Theories by Carol Dweck where she sums up the 30 years of her research.

Summary: People who hold entity theory about their traits (ie they believe their traits - like intelligence, sociability etc - cannot change) are not able to change. People who hold the opposite incremental theory (they believe their traits can change) can and do change and they specifically seek out situations that help them grow (they don't fear failure and they like a challenge).

Everyone can pretty easily switch between entity and incremental theory by as much as reading a news article. Of course the long-term belief is rooted in deeper values but fot that you'll have to read the book. It's definitely worth it. IMO one of the best books a startupper can read.

I picked up Self-Theories after reading the excellent Mindset (which dealt with fixed vs growth mindsets). For an HNer, I would suggest you borrow Mindset but buy Self-Theories.

Thank you for the tip on the Mindset. I enjoyed Self-Theories so much I will definitely pick this one up, even if just to reinforce the point she makes.

How awesome would that be if I could just believe that I am the King of England and so become it.

In his article, PG was describing personal qualities, as opposed to external qualities (with something of an exception in the case of the cofounder item). In the case of most personality traits, if you want that trait and actually try your best to exhibit it, then "you believe it, you become it," is pretty accurate.

If you want to procrastinate less and right away you begin to finish things that you've been putting off, well then you've already won. But if you keep putting off the day when you'll stop procrastinating, well you can see where that's going.

I think most people underestimate their ability to hack their own personalities.

I don't know, there's too much room for self-delusion.

It's easier for an unimaginative person to convince themselves that they're imaginative than for an imaginative person to actually become imaginative. The illusion that you're King of England can't be maintained for long. The illusion that you're good-looking can be maintained for a little longer. The illusion that you're determined, imaginative and... naughty... can be maintained pretty easily.

It's happened a lot in history. Surprising I know, but it has happened.

You certainly can make that happen. Psychiatrists see this every day.

There may be a "selection bias" here with so many of us likely wanting to start a company.

This didn't used to describe me. I was quite happy being Mr. Fortune 500. The 5 years or so back, I went after one startup, then another, then I just applied to YC. I must have some kind of flexibility, determination, etc. to have gotten this far. Time will tell how much of the qualities described I have.

I gave myself 2 and 2 halves.

2 questions on the "friendship" issue:

1. How do you judge whether co-founders are good friends? I'm guessing a simple "how long have they been working together" test is a good indication, but anything else?

2. What level of feedback do you usually give teams that didn't make it? Especially teams that got to the interview stage but didn't make it through? I'm wondering if you've ever told a team your suspicions that they're not good enough friends (I'm assuming if you did, you phrased it better than that.)

There are a lot of ways. Many of the questions on the YC application are at least partially about this. When and how did the founders meet? What have they worked on together? Even the stock split sometimes tells us a lot.

Yes, we've told groups that we weren't funding them because their friendship didn't seem strong enough to withstand a startup. You'd be surprised some of the meltdowns we've seen in interviews.

Is there a meaningful difference between friends who decide to do a startup together versus folks who decide to do a startup together and then become friends? The highest profile successes seem to be more an instance of the latter, but then success seems to help smooth any differences of opinion.

Yes, because in most startups there's a point where things seem hopeless. At that point the startup itself has no power to hold you together, because its expected value is (or appears to be) zero. You need a strong friendship to keep you together. E.g. I know for sure there were lots of times when Rtm thought Viaweb was never going to amount to anything, and only worked on it because I asked him to.

Were Woz and Jobs "friends"? Don't Page and Brin claim explicitly they weren't? It seems more like the shared purpose brought those pairs closer together than where they started or where they would have ended up had they never worked together.

That example of Viaweb helps clarify the distinction I'm thinking of. You guys were friends and so worked together despite differing convictions. But what of people who share a common purpose and in so doing become friends? Is there room in your model for that instance of the concept?

Were Woz and Jobs "friends"?

I believe the answer to that is "absolutely". They certainly weren't in it for the money at first. Woz had to be very explicitly convinced to leave his nice job at H-P even after they had built the first Apple PC.

If you insist that their friendship was somehow bogus because real friendships do not involve "shared purpose", I'm not sure I have any friends, by your weird definition. My high school friends had the shared purpose of playing games and entering math contests. My college friends had the shared purpose of graduating.

I'm pushing back on how friendships likely develop during a startup effort and how that's different from existing friendships that lead to a startup. Jobs and Woz, based on FaW, seem to fall more into the former category. Brin and Page too. By contrast, Gates and Allen, as childhood friends, seem to better fit pg's model. I'm not sure where you got that last bit from what I said.

I'm working with some great folks now and we simply started by trying to build something. We're still in that mindset. We didn't start out as friends but after eight months, we are. There's the pressure to get stuff done because we don't want to let each other down. We laugh more than we disagree. It feels like the friendships and the startup are growing together. I have a hard time thinking that the team could be flawed because we didn't start out knowing each other well.

pg isn't saying that your team is flawed - he's talking in general, and in a statistical sense. People who start out as friends before are more likely to succeed - that doesn't imply anything bad about your specific group. I think at the level where you're "interviewing" thousands of teams, looking for patterns starts to mean a lot.

I don't know about Woz/Jobs, but Page/Brin were definitely friends when they started a company.

They may not have been friends when they started collaborating on their first research project, but at the moment they were "co-founders", they had already become friends.

Jobs and Woz, as surprising as it might sound given the difference in personalities, were friends, based on what I've read, which is Woz's interview in Founders at Work and Sculley's Odyssey: Pepsi To Apple.

A lot had also changed by that point - namely they failed in selling the technology to Excite. Would they have stayed friends had they gotten the $1 million they wanted?

Shared trials make and break friendships.

There would seem to be a huge hack around that - I work with a guy who gets _really_ obsessive about stuff, so much so that he forgets to eat, etc.

Maybe you should focus on getting more people who are turned on by an idea, rather than because their friends might get burned.

what about brothers?

Hi, just recently applied for the next winter round and thought I would get involved and get a few words in! ;-) So the chances of getting accepted as a single founder (which I am) is harder, but surely having a flexible single founder willing to adapt, either by changing his idea or even to team up with other applicants to form a better foundation to move forward, is equally as good (or as risky) as Friends being co-founders. My point is, founders (friends, coders, family etc) could prove to consume more valuable time managing their personalities rather than getting the job done in the first 3 months to get VC's interested or even be accepted by Y-C as pointed out by "pg" in a previous post. There is clearly huge talent being pitched here and I was just keen to hear if Y-C ever formed new partnerships by connecting people?

This is very interesting, and maybe goes against normal reasoning. I've heard the general idea is not to become business partners with friends, but the opposite seems to be true with startups.

In the two startups I've been involved in previously, I hung in there because I didn't want to let the other person down. One ended up dissolving, but we remain on good terms. The other is ongoing, where I freelance, but give it my all because I don't want to let the other person down.

The third is new, and I just was approached by an old friend who wants to get involved. I thought about it for a second, then realized he's the kind of person I don't want to let down and I'm pretty sure the feeling is mutual.

What are your thoughts the two founders being identical twin brothers?

So far siblings seem to work well.

Do you mostly care about groups sticking together long enough to get to profitability? Or are you also concerned about the founders having the same mindset?

Just sticking together. They don't have to have the same mindset. E.g. Jobs and Wozniak.

What would the ideal split be to be called the best of friends? 50-50? I can make a case for that and an uneven split too. Doesn't the split also depend on some combination of effort and potential of each founder?

I think its less of a friendship issue and more of the ability to "get" each other.

My co-founder and I have been working for almost 1.5 years on our startup. We have gone through so many iterations, we can see into each others minds. When an issue comes up, I know exactly what he is thinking and vis-versa. This ability is invaluable during negotiations, meetings, etc.

I don't think of us being on a friendship level, but its something greater. Its been said, its almost like your married to your co-founder - an analogy which is pretty much true. Your futures are tied together.

Definitely finding a co-founder has been the hardest part for me. Not living in the valley currently, you don't have as big of a pool to find people. Also, the type of person that makes a great co-founder(smart, determined, etc.) usually have good things going on already. The people that I talked to that would have been great to work with were all doing great work currently and couldn't commit.

It would be really awesome if YC put on some type of match-making event for single founders to find co-founders in person. Like a speed dating event for startups.

> It would be really awesome if YC put on some type of match-making event for single founders to find co-founders in person. Like a speed dating event for startups.

I wish PG would write something definitive about this.

The people he talks about have often known one another for years. So if you find someone now that you do not know, and have never worked with, it will take you several years, at best to develop a more "long term" relationship. That's great if you're planning on applying to YC in a few years, but comes across in some ways as "trying to find a warm body" if you're applying now.

Granted, there are some people who get married after a few weeks of dating, and of those, it does work out for some of them, but it's a relatively small percentage.

It would be really awesome if YC put on some type of match-making event for single founders to find co-founders in person. Like a speed dating event for startups.

I feel like that would be somewhat counter-productive for YC.

They're looking for people who are going to be Flexible and Determined to make the startup happen, regardless of what obstacles get thrown in the way. Finding a co-founder is one of the first real obstacles, and will definitely not be the hardest one over the life of the startup. By exemplifying the qualities listed in this essay, a single founder should be able to find at least one solid co-founder.

Well I believe my startup will be successful even without a co-founder, so I don't think wanting to meet a co-founder makes someone less determined. Even though I am confident I can make this happen on my own I would still rather have a co-founder than not for all the reasons that PG describes. If better startups comes from an event that helps founders connect, I think it would be a good thing for everyone.

First step, move to where the startup founders are. The SF Bay Area is the best.

Second, once there, there are tons of events like you describe! E.g., http://founderdating.com/

If you can't move to the SF Bay area then the next best thing to do is star throwing startup events and invite all the startup people you know (and tell them to do the same).

If there's no network you have to build it. Cisco had to exist before Facebook could, so to speak.

It sounds like you're trying to find a cofounder amongst people you don't currently know.

I'm not aware of any examples of successful cofounders who hadn't previously worked together.

What about your current colleagues? Long lost friends from university? Neighbors?

I have been talking to people I know, but maybe I need to broaden my search a bit. I think I have been afraid of choosing the wrong co-founder and maybe I have been to selective. PG talks about how important it is for the co-founders to be able to work well together, so I been careful to make sure the people I ask are going to be solid.

Are there any great companies in your area? The kind that hire really smart recent college grads? Have any friends that work at a place like that? It's a long shot, but those places can be breeding grounds for the 'quit the cube' type of startup founder.

I've had the same issue, all the best people I know are happy where they are. But I've managed to get some of them to agree to help me part time

Launch48 & StartupWeekend are good for that sort of thing.

I'm still skeptical about the whole co-founder thing.

Sure, maybe if you're building youtube or justin.tv, and you need to talk to investors or talk face-to-face to potential clients or make deals with giant media corporations gasp then you probably can't do it as a single-founder.

But, there is a large space of problems that can be solved by a single founder.

But I suppose if you're determined enough you won't be bothered too much by people telling you must have a co-founder.

So instead of looking for a co-founder, look for problems that are small enough to be solve-able by you, but hard enough that a big company can't solve it properly.

The purpose of a cofounder is not to help alleviate load. It is to have someone tell you no, that your idea/implementation/justification sucks. They question your moves and make you justify them. Having a cofounder keeps you in check and keeps you from straying too far off the successful path.

This can be done by friends/relatives who are interested in supporting you without having the technical skills or free time to actually be co-founders with you.

AFAIK, PG's argument is that it's a lot of stress doing a startup on your own.

> This can be done by friends/relatives who are interested in supporting you without having the technical skills or free time to actually be co-founders with you.

Sure, but it is much more effective when someone is in the venture with you, and their success is tied to yours. Your friends and family are much more likely to just say "yeah, that's a good idea". No risk on their part.

i'm looking for a co-founder, but i don't feel it's imperative to find one at the idea or pre-prototype stages. not having a co-founder shouldn't stop anyone from pursuing their idea or working on a prototype. if it does, you're missing ingredient #1: determination.

My concern about Paul's vision has always been (2), flexibility. It is my humble belief that you should care what you succeed at, not just that you succeed at something. On this point Paul seems to be leading in the opposite direction from Tim O'Reilly ("work on stuff that matters"), and I wish he would do a 180.

It is my humble belief that you should care what you succeed at

I know how you feel, but if that empirically produces a lower probability of success then what can you do?

You can fail, pick yourself up, and try again. You can increase your probability of doing good, and accept the tradeoff WRT business success.

I should add that I think Paul presents a very clear vision of why he thinks this is not a problem: his mantra about finding a problem a real person needs solved and solving it (substitute actual quotation here). My objection is that where this leads you is to unexploited niches in the market ecosystem -- returning to Tim's language, to focus on capturing value rather than creating it. I suspect Paul tart rejoinder would be that a happy customer is much better evidence of value created than fuzzy dreams of do-gooderism are. I believe he is partly wrong. I hope he will speak for himself on this topic.

I'd rather be moderately successful doing something that matters than very successful selling sugared water.

If you become successful at <random common, unimportant thing>, you can leverage that to pursue <really great idea>. One example that comes to mind is Andrew Mason's Groupon talk at Startup School. Before Groupon, the Groupon guys ran "The Point", which tried to organize people to solve societal problems, including such ambitious, world changing ideas like building a climate dome over Chicago to avoid the brutal winters there. Obviously, the climate dome was never built, and "The Point" pivoted into Groupon. Although I don't think Andrew Mason has enough leverage/money/etc. to build that climate dome, he's certainly a lot closer today with Groupon's success than he was previously.

My accountant (with eons of experience): Worst thing you can do when founding a company is to found it as a partnership

Take it as you will. My personal take is that, if partnership (among several founders) is really strong (friendship from this essay) - then it's certainly better than doing it alone - backed by high profile success stories. On the other hand, I've seen too much companies fall apart because of the partnership - not their business (I have two personal experiences with it).

Question is how do you judge a friendship among founders? Can you spot the weakest link?

Consider that perhaps your accountant has a different perspective. Accountants don't get involved until the company makes enough money to need an accountant. So his perspective, which he may not realize, may be "Given that a company succeeds, it's better to have been started by a single person."

PG has a different perspective. He's less concerned with questions which assume a company has succeeded; he's more concerned with questions about whether or not a company will succeed. So PG's perspective is more "A company is more likely to succeed with multiple founders."

My point: the two perspectives seem mutually exclusive, but they may not be.

Accountants don't get involved until the company makes enough money to need an accountant.

Actually, here in Croatia every form of company is obliged by law to have a licensed accountant (working for them or contract). You can't do your own paperwork - and TBH I wouldn't want to, it is too much liability if something goes wrong when filing papers.

And that fact would constitute a major drag on ever developing a startup culture.

See http://www.paulgraham.com/america.html for some of the other ones.

I've read that, all valid points. However, I should mention that accounting on a startup level (bills, invoices, salaries, tax) is really not a drag here. In fact I would argue it's faster to just collect your inputs and outputs (invoices and bills) and get them to your accountant once per month or quarterly, of half year, or yearly (depends how you told tax office how you will do it). Accountant does the rest for you. On the other hand, you could do it all by yourself and have an accountant check your papers and sign them (some people do it like that). Also, no capital gains tax here. :) But this country could do take some pro-active measures for startups. I don't even want to go there, because I would have to write a book on their mistakes.

it is too much liability if something goes wrong when filing papers.

Interesting. In the countries I know of, the company directors are responsible (and liable) for the accounts being correct, not the accountants.

Both are liable here. Director is basically liable for everything wrong, and accountant is liable for mis-representing books (director also takes the blame, but accountant shouldn't do that in the first place) as well as accounting errors.

This may well be true of companies generally-- restaurants and plumbers and kennels and so on. There the downside of having multiple owners may outweigh the upside. But with startups it's the other way around.

That must be it. It occurred to my after I made a post. Though there are posts often in similar tone posted here: "My cofounder sits while I do all the work", "We went into this 50-50, now he wants more", "I lost the drive for it"... etc.

I know most people here are young and doing startups with their friends, and free advice is worth as much as it costs - but it really doesn't cost you anything if you straighten the terms of partnership/friendship up front, no matter how long you know each other guys. Just do it. It may be awkward, but you won't regret it.

Was he talking about the unincorporated business structure or just going into business with each other? Partnerships add all sorts of weird exposure to liabilities that you don't have to have with a corporation.

I think he may just be suggesting forming as an LLC or some other entity that both shields you from liability, and doesn't dissolve when one partner calls it quits.

He means that from an accounting and tax perspective, the partnership form is the most complicated business entity you could choose. The tax code on partnerships is complicated enough that you could get into serious tax trouble without even knowing (or having any reason to believe) that you're doing anything wrong.

Also, partners in a partnership are not shielded from liability (i.e., for lawsuits, business debts, etc.) like investors in LLCs or corporations are.

Friendship can help, but at the end of the data, a business is about money. Do you know enough about your friend's financial wherewithal to be comfortable launching a business with him/her?

She meant that from a human interaction perspective though.

On the other hand, LLC partnership setup here is easy to setup. 100% of company -> distribution to owners (1+). Liability is on CEO and accountant for paperwork. Worst case scenario is owners are liable for the amount of founding capital (minimum is low 3k Euros now, but soon will rise to 40k euros).

That fifth item, like the post originally mentioning as something that dooms startups, gets me every time.

Having a solid co-founder seems to be the hardest part, and honestly, it helps with all the others. It helps you be more flexible since two people can see things more ways. Gives you more imagination by the same route. It helps you be more determined since one can pull the other up if he/she gets too demoralized.

Finding a co-founder is hard, though.

I'm also surprised that none of these points mention marketing - an ability to sell something seems vital in getting a startup going.

Marketing is crucial indeed. It irks me to no end that so many have faith in the "If we build it they will come" business model. Word of mouth only goes so far. You can have the best site in the entire world but if nobody knows about it you will fail.

While there are numerous companies doing variants of most ideas out there, more often than not it is the one with the most market visibility who ultimately gains traction, even if that product is less impressive than the competition.

> I'm also surprised that none of these points mention marketing - an ability to sell something seems vital in getting a startup going.

I agree. One of the best assets for a good founder with tech-skills is a business/marketing founder. She can keep the ball rolling on the business things that would halt or slow software development, and during development she can be out discussing the product with potential customers. Once a MVP has been developed, she obviously becomes the sales and marketing manager.

> Finding a co-founder is hard, though.

Are you single? Notice that I said "she" above? Consider joining a dating site and trying to meet some cool women who have business or marketing backgrounds (obviously women that you would like to date as well). I've only been on OKCupid for a month, and I've already met a couple really cool, driven women who would be an amazing asset to a startup.

I'm not saying to jump straight into a relationship just so that you can start your startup. My intent was simply to point out one way of meeting a potential cofounder, a way you probably never considered. There are countless other "hacks" that can be employed for meeting cofounders; you just have to put yourself into situations where you're likely to meet the kind of people you'd like to meet. It's really that easy.

As my story goes, I met someone about 6 months into my year-long startup experiment. As luck would have it, she had relevant skills... and she did help a lot with my startup, but not on the level of a co-founder. She isn't that interested in cleaning up the existing mess and the subject matter and targeted audience don't really interest her.

That startup sort of burned out, for reasons not worth going into. If we could find a new idea on a topic we're both passionate about (like travel), we'd pursue it.

Also, she's more technical (front-end) while I'm also technical (back-end), and neither of us have much business/marketing background.

That's excellent! So why did you say having a co-founder is the hardest part? Surely there's some way you can help the world doing something that interests the both of you.

Before I met her, I had a cofounder that didn't work out. It really cost me. In essence, he was to do the front end, and me the backend. He didn't deliver anything of substance. It took me several months(which is millenia in startup land) before I gave up and just did it myself (with help from the aforementioned girlfriend). The story is much longer than that - but those next few months I spent learning javascript, CSS, html, design, etc, cost me what time I had left; the site got online, but it's a mess (it takes 15 seconds to load each page, for one thing).

Since then, of all the stupid things, I haven't had any good ideas. I know, people always need - technical cofounders, or this, or that... ideas are cheap, right? But I haven't got one. Oh, we had a few. A simple iPhone app, a somewhat derivative board game... nothing really sticks as really a good idea that we both think would be awesome

There has to be something out there, but no luck yet.

You probably don't want to do that. A new relationship is a green sprig which must be carefully tended, not an oak tree capable of bearing heavy load.

I didn't mean to jump into a startup with someone that you've only been in a relationship with for a short time. I was just trying to point out a way of meeting a cofounder that others may not have considered.

While it's clearly not a good idea to cofound a startup with a new significant other, I completely disagree with characterizing a new relationship as a "green sprig." If the relationship is so tenuous that it can't handle a little stress and strain, then is it really worth trying to "tend" into a long-term relationship? From experience, that just delays the inevitable breakup.

Characterizing a new relationship like that also carries the implicit assumption that it's the last relationship you're capable of having. While I do my best to avoid hurting anyone, if a relationship is not working out there are other relationships to be had.

Kind of reminds me of D&D abilities...

Dtr 16 Flx 15 Img 18 Nty 16 Frd 14

...though the value placed on 'naughtiness' is more like a preference for a 'chaotic good' alignment.

I can attest to the part about intelligence not being as critical as you might think. The last company I started was with a guy who was brilliant. He dreamed in code and had been hacking since he was 6 or 7. But he had a hard time finishing, and so I couldn't depend on him.

I think the startup failed for multiple reasons and I definitely shoulder a large part of the failure, but next time I do a startup I will make absolutely sure that anybody I start it with is absolutely dependable and determined to finish.

If everything was about raw intelligence, the world would be a totally different place today. I have a similar story as yours - I once worked with a guy with a genius level IQ, but he had trust issues and he was horrible with money.

As in the OP, it's really a recipe of traits that make a startup successful.

pg: would you show an example of an impressive answer to the question about hacking a system to one's advantage?

I'm not pg, but this is probably the best place to tell one of my favorite stories.

The highway navigational signs in LA are notoriously confusing, especially this one sign in particular which didn't make sufficiently obvious an exit onto I-5. So some local took note of the sign and started to work. He found out exactly what paint colors to use, cut some sheet metal the right way, and made a North I-5 shield. Then he made himself a counterfeit Caltrans (California highway department) uniform, went to the sign, and altered it with the counterfeit shield to point out the exit. (He even made the shield dirty, to make it seem like it had been there for some time rather than being newly installed.)

It was nine months before the highway department even noticed--and when they did, they didn't even change it back. It stayed up for years until the sign was completely replaced--complete with this guy's alteration.

I don't know if that qualifies as hacking a system to one's advantage, or even as a hack, but I think it gets at the underlying personality trait.




I'm a L.A. native, and I had no clue about this. Great story! I found a video detailing the events from your links: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-1442683884005576315...

Scores high on chutzpah, obviously, but it lacks the element of self-interest that I think was part of what Sam Altman was going for.

How about Dick Hamming's thing at Bell Labs about crediting programming help in scientific papers? (from You and Your Research)

I also did a second thing. When I loaned what little programming power we had to help in the early days of computing, I said, "We are not getting the recognition for our programmers that they deserve. When you publish a paper you will thank that programmer or you aren't getting any more help from me. That programmer is going to be thanked by name; she's worked hard." I waited a couple of years. I then went through a year of BSTJ articles and counted what fraction thanked some programmer. I took it into the boss and said, "That's the central role computing is playing in Bell Labs; if the BSTJ is important, that's how important computing is." He had to give in. You can educate your bosses. It's a hard job. In this talk I'm only viewing from the bottom up; I'm not viewing from the top down. But I am telling you how you can get what you want in spite of top management. You have to sell your ideas there also.

Here's one:

I used to work as a salaried employee for a consulting firm. I'd record my hours on a timesheet so that they could bill the right clients, but anything over 40 hours a week was ignored on my paycheck. The understanding was that if ever your hours dropped below 40, you could bill an overhead number to make up for the difference, thus the fairness of not getting paid for overtime.

So a year in, I only managed to find 35 hours of work one week, so I called up HR and got that overhead number to put down for those extra 5 hours. Next day, I found myself in a meeting with my boss and his boss, being put on some form of probationary "hourly" status, working part time until I could get my workload back up to speed. I could work as few as 24 hours per week, and I'd only get paid for the hours I worked.

So naturally things picked up and soon I found myself working 50 and 60 hour weeks again, and amazingly, my new "hourly" status meant I was getting paid for all of them. HR sent up the necessary paperwork to get me back onto "Salaried" mode and I told them I'd get it right back to them.

1 month later, they sent that paperwork again, and I apologized for letting it go on so long.

Next month, my boss delivered it by hand and I promised to "get right on it."

Finally, after 180 days of billing 60 hour weeks and getting paid for all of it, I found myself back in that same room with my boss, his boss, and now his boss, all of whom wanting to know why I hadn't filled in that paperwork.

I laid out the math for them. Silence... Then uncontrolled laughter from all hands. Congratulations, son. But how about we fill out that paperwork right now?

The "hacking the system" question on the application was probably the hardest one for me. While nothing just sticks out in my mind of hacking something I would say that I do and accomplish what most people can't do on a daily basis. In dealing with people; a smile always helps, the right attitude and disposition can start a movement, and looking at things from a "how could I fail?" point of view ALWAYS changes the rules of what a so called deal breaker is.

example: When I applied to college in 1999 I was accepted right away however my parents made entirely too much money for me to get adequate loans and grant money. So I used my graduation money from HS and had my parents to pack up all must stuff and drive me down to the financial aid office(425 miles away). After a bit of sincere "asking" and explaining the situation I was in. VIOLA!!! Money started raining on my college dream. Saying all that to say I was a good looking kid, with a personality you had to see (because writing does not convey everything), and had I not been determined to have them tell me no to my face I would have never attended that school. Did I hack anything? By no means...did I use what I had to have the circumstances in my favor? Absolutely!

This surprises me: You do not however want the kind of determination implied by phrases like "don't give up on your dreams".

I would put it diifferently. Don't give up on your dreams, but ask yourself which is more important to you: to have a successful high-growth startup, or to do something in particular? If there is a specific thing you want to do or build, then be prepared for the (likely) possibility that it won't make a good startup. It might make a great hobby or even a successful lifestyle business. That doesn't mean you shouldn't do it -- it just means YC will not be able to help you.

But maybe your dream is to have a fast-growing, high-impact startup, and it doesn't matter so much exactly what it is, as long as it's somewhere in the general area you're interested in. Then perhaps YC may want to get involved. You're still pursuing your dream, I would argue, it's just a different kind of dream from a particular project that someone else might want to do.


if you are looking for a less than kosher time a founder hacked the system. maybe you should ask for that.

  i know personally would have put a more vulnerable answer up there.

The running back metaphor appeals to me. I wonder how far you can take it. Running backs pivot for something that will completely stop them. The fact that getting downfield will take a long time does not make them pivot. Does this analogy make a good rule of thumb for startup pivot decisions?

If my startup is a running back, I feel like I'm Barry Sanders.

The metaphor can only go as far as the person to whom you are using it with likes or even cares about American football.

"He said to ask about a time when they'd hacked something to their advantage—hacked in the sense of beating the system, not breaking into computers. It has become one of the questions we pay most attention to when judging applications."

Very interesting.

I have a pretty good friend on here that has The Best answer to the "hacked" question, and I would never, ever be co-founders with him because he's impossible. There's often a trade-off between "naughtiness" and "friendship."

I thought pg's comment on "naughtiness" was interesting, as I was tempted to use a shorter version of the story I'll relate below in response to the "hacked" question, as it was a very recent experience. I ultimately shied away from using it as my answer, as I thought it might be a little socially unacceptable ("naughty").

At Startup School, there was a line of several hundred people waiting for lunch, which consisted of a dozen or so different kinds of pizza stacked in piles of 7-10 boxes each. We had a group of 3-4 people, looked at the line, and someone said, "This line is ridiculous. How can we hack this system?" Someone suggested going somewhere else on campus to eat, but we wanted to stay and mingle. Someone else in the group knew people farther up in the line, and suggested skipping ahead in the line. Ultimately, I simply squeezed through near the front of the line, grabbed a whole box of pizza, and took it back for our group to share.

This kept our group from further clogging the line and seemed much more efficient than 3-4 of us waiting to select our 1-2 pieces each. Hopefully no hungry Startup School attendees were upset by our line hackery, as we thought it was a pretty win-win hack.

See, I think that's an example of the "bad hack" because it has the potential of damaging people, e.g. what if I was standing in that line for 15mins ahead of you and because you took that box of pizza, just when my turn comes the pizza runs out (you think it's unlikely? Then you haven't been to the wild world of college-student-after-event-pizza-eating).

My definition of a hack is to add value to the an existing system by modifying a property, not changing a zero-sum situation in your favor. for example, in your case, the number of pizzas are fixed, so it's a zero-sum situation. A better hack I usually propose in situations like this is to use both sides of the table, simple but generally people tend to pick pizza from one side only.

> My definition of a hack is to add value to the an existing system by modifying a property, not changing a zero-sum situation in your favor.

That seems like a nice definition of hack, but I don't think it's completely accurate. For example, if a college only accepts a certain number of people and you come up with clever way to get accepted, that's changing a zero-sum situation in your favor, and I would still call it a hack.

I agree, however, that the hack seems a little wrong. More clever would have been for the friends to grab another table, set it up opposite the original one with room for two lines, and then switch half the pizza boxes to the other table. (This works better than being on both sides of a single table because the way pizza boxes open typically blocks access from one side.) Another possibility would be to just grab a box each and carry it down the line offering pizza to everyone starting from the front.

I was at Startup School and did this hack as well (grabbing a pizza box) because it was obvious that there were plenty of other boxes to go around. It wouldn't work in a situation where there was a limited amount, like mentioned before, but it was a good hack for that specific situation.

Also, people who grabbed boxes often walked up the line and offered pizza. Hack + good deed.

For example, if a college only accepts a certain number of people and you come up with clever way to get accepted, that's changing a zero-sum situation in your favor, and I would still call it a hack.

It's not zero sum, though; if you're a genuinely better student than the student who didn't get accepted because you got his spot, it's you++, him--, university++, so still positive-sum.

There was a defined number of Startup School attendees, which means the amount of pizza needed is easily calculable (X participants * Y slices each.. maybe + Z "extra, just in case"). From hosting numerous events, I would definitely expect YC to have "how many pizzas do we need for X people" reasonably well figured out. I would think the greater danger is from people eating Y++++ slices each rather than a group of 3-4 sharing a box and having 1-2 slices each. As limedaring mentions below, we also handed out a few slices to others.

To your point of the "better hack", we advocated the "use both sides of the table" for breakfast, but with pizza it is unwieldly because the lids of pizza boxes only open one way. Yes, reconfiguring the tables would have also probably improved things.. but is much more difficult with 25-50 people trying to access the pizza boxes, and no readily available unused tables on hand.

Decentralized pizza distribution is definitely more efficient.

How do you define good answer to that question? I have thought about that question (probably more than any other) over and over again since filling it out. Mine was about something fairly early in my learning of systems, but it was something that some could consider a bad thing.

My Dad owns a wholesale fence company and when the fire and police dept wanted to rewrite the fire code for gated neighborhoods they wanted to do something different EDIT: By code, obviously I mean as in LAW, not as in programming, my Dad being a fenceman is obviously not a programmer lol. So they came to my Dad and asked him to help a write a forward thinking code for the city, what they eventually settled on was an RFID card system where every police and fire dept vehicle has a card which constantly emits a signal that opens the gate of any neighborhood which has this reciever (it is mandatory for the two parishes nearest to us). So being young (13) and new to programming at the time (this was almost 10 years ago) I decided to try to reverse engineer one of the cards. I took it apart piece by piece looked at the programming software they were using and eventually (after much tinkering) made my own card.

Obviously this is highly illegal and so I was slightly worried about putting it on there, but I also thought it showed characteristics of curiosity and a will to find a better way... In case you are wondering, yes, i still get into any gated house or subdivision in a two parish radius without hassle :P lol

I think YC should consider removing the "describe your idea" portion of the application. I can imagine that there's some value in it for the reviewers, but I'm pretty sure its presence inevitably causes applicants to over value it (and under value the people portion). Every time a YC partner gives advice about applying, emphasis is always made about how important the team is (as opposed to the idea). The data might be signaling something here.

If there was nowhere to describe your idea in the application then it would be obvious how important the team is.

"We thought when we started Y Combinator that the most important quality would be intelligence."

Being intelligent in Silicon Valley matters about as much as the price of tea in China. It's not that being intelligent isn't important, it's that there is such an oversupply of intelligent people that being intelligent really doesn't add that much value or differentiate you. Especially since everyone you meet is more than happy to tell you what to do, along with the market itself.

The price of tea in China actually varies by orders of magnitude depending on the tea. Some teas are surprisingly fancy, especially in a country with a long history of tea-drinking.

Higher than average intelligence is in oversupply, but super-genius intelligence never is. However, there are diminishing returns to ever-higher intelligence for most startups.

Wish I knew about the emphasis about hacking a system question and I would have elaborated on my application....

Although it is a difficult question to put emphasis on IMO because it also makes you in a way "reveal" your bad morals... which I am sure many people don't feel comfortable doing.

Why would you ever want to openly admit you beat ie. cheated a system be it government, academic, or private? Not to imply that I ever have... err... gotta run!

Why would you ever want to openly admit you beat ie. cheated a system

Sometimes your audience is sympathetic because they perceive that the system you're beating is broken.

I read Victor Kiam's "autohagiography," and in it he recounts a story about how parking at a baseball game was impossible to get, but there was a special lot just for limos. So he grabs a peaked cap, puts on a dark suit, and drives his buddies to the game, right into the limo lot.

That (possibly apocryphal) anecdote is a perfect little story of ingenuity and hacking the system without confessing to moral corruption, more of a right the imbalance and tweak the nose of a big, unlikeable organization kind of thing.

A lot of people seem to express your sentiment. I find that surprising. I would have thought anyone who went to University has done this sort of thing many times, for instance. As large bureaucratic organizations, they are infinitely 'hackable.' Education generally has lots of opportunities. I've added classes after taking the finals for them, for instance. You know that's not what they intend.

Any system that loves its rules is ripe for this sort of thing. My wife's mother was born in Canada but came over as a child and had to renounce her citizenship at one point. They changed their rules so we were able to get her citizenship re-instated and my wife can be a Canadian citizen too. She's never even been to Canada.

I always get a little thrill out of beating rules people with their rules. These things aren't harmful (generally) to members of the system, though these kinds of loopholes only tend to exist as long as they aren't too greatly used.

Now being a welfare cheat or talking about how much you like shoplifting is probably not a good idea, but doesn't everyone commit a little harmless loophole exploitation from time to time?

EDIT: The general weakness of institutions are rules. Anyone wanted to disrupt such things needs to know how to exploit those weaknesses.

I think "beating" is fundamentally different than "hacking." I view hacking as more of an act of creativity, or at the very worst an act of defiance. "Beating" implies that someone has been "beat"; there's a winner and a loser. "Hacking" a system can just as easily be a win-win.

It just requires a certain amount of "ballsiness" in putting yourself out there to try to change something that already exists, and a certain amount of opportunism in recognizing when things can be done differently without violating rules/personal ethics/the law.

I think a good example would be the way Randy Pausch "hacked" his way onto NASA's "vomit comet". There was a program for students and faculty were not allowed so he couldn't go as a teacher, but he scoured the rules and found out that press were allowed so he found a way to get a press pass. He didn't break any of the stated rules, just found a loophole he could squeeze through.

I think it depends on the system. Making a system more efficient often depends on bending the rules. We had trouble coming up with examples for our application, because most of the "hacking" we've done isn't anything to brag about. But at the same time, we do need to show that we're willing to ask forgiveness later if we can't get permission now.

I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing to "beat" a system. Sometimes it involves a win-win situation.

Yeah, I hope they don't really put a lot of emphasis on it. I submitted my application about an hour before the deadline and couldn't really think of anything at the time. But later I thought of a bunch of better things I could've put down.

Right. Like I started forging the report cards I gave to my parents starting in 8th grade. I'm not proud of that. Would I really put that on an application?

I think the right answer would involve a hack that bent or even broke the written rules but made everyone wealthier (better off) in the end.

I have no idea what Y Combinator thinks about the answer to that question. But if Paul asked me to help out by reviewing some applications, I'd probably send you an email asking how that was to your advantage.

Actually I did something like araneae stated, I started hiding my transcripts in high school and college to avoid drama between my folks because I was NOT a good student -- the formal education system wasn't for me. There was even one point in college where I was failing out, but gamed the GPA system so that they couldn't kick me out.

Anyway, it worked well for me. I didn't get any drama, and I ended up graduating and landing a job with a top 25 software company.

It can also be when you went to to a 3rd party wireless store and got them to add a cheap unlimited tetherable data plan that no one knows about and is in the "depreciated/archived" features section.

'Systems' is a very broad term. Every group of people that consistently does something has a system for it. while in programming a system is denoted by strict rules, in human interaction it's based on incentives (including social incentives). So, you can get somebody to do something if it strokes with his incentive or you can try to subvert the incentives.

It's not by definition an immoral thing to do. e.g. a real-estate broker wants to sell a house as quickly as possible, so they tend to sell houses slightly below market-value and then convince you it's the best you'll get. you can rig this incentive in your favor by telling the broker you've contacted two brokers and will accept the highest bid.

I actually applied this one recently as my sister was looking for a renter and had contacted only 1 broker. I convinced her to get a second opinion and she got a way better offer.

> They delight in breaking rules, but not rules that matter.

or more accurately, "not the rules we think matter".

If you wanted to be that accurate, you could prepend "I think" to every statement in every essay written. That's implicit, except in proofs.

Here though it's in a context about morality and proprietries, and what's "naughty" vs "evil". So I think it's especially valuable to emphasize the subjectivity.

I'm golden on all counts ...except for the general lack of friends. :-/

(Do grown sons who are insanely loyal make a good substitute? I'm hoping they do. :-D)

Um, not that I am applying to YC. Just hoping to escape BigCo and go do my own thing.

I'm currently the only founder for my startup and have a CS/Engineering background. I find that almost everybody I talk to seem to think its crazy or impossible for a single person startup to succeed.

I wonder what the whole deal is about: - is it because they feel its too much work for one person? - they assume that one person cannot be motivated/determined enough to make a startup successful? - or is it just based on the fact that most of the successful startup were stared by 2-3 person teams..

I'm curious to hear your thoughts on this guys..

Just search "single founder".

There were tons of threads on that.


I thought my browser didn't load the complete article because I couldn't see your obligatory "thanks to X, Y and Z for reading this"...and I kept scrolling. Thanks for the great article, btw.

Oops, fixed; thanks.

I found the "things you've hacked" question very interesting. My answer to it was something that is not actually "legal" so i was a little wary of putting it, but it puts noone in real danger and was an example of what was basically my first endeavor into embedded programming and RFID. I hope the YC crew saw it as something fun and interesting and not criminal lol but it any case I found it relevant to the topic and really enjoyed the question

PG - Great list of attributes to guide us. What I also found really interesting is a trait that's not on the list - "Tolerance For Ambiguity."

I've seen so many creative endeavors move from freedom to constraint too early or sometimes even flat out fold, not because it was the right time, but because the founders/artists/creators couldn't handle living in the question long enough to make the leap to stunning.

Curious whether that's something you look for and, if so, how?

Like all "lists," I would take and file away as a "best practice;" particularly one that comes from Paul Graham. Just don't let the list limit you from executing the plan for your dream. YC even has a place for this on their application...it's called "hacking the system!" The lesser of these have achieved greatness. Many said I would never finish college and law school while being married, but two bar exams later...

+1 for determination.

I've been involved in the early stages of a number of non-profits, time-and-time again it's clearly been determination above all else that drives success.

I recently read "How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas" (It's sort of like Founders at Work but about non-profits), and again reading all the founders stories, it's clear the single factor that unites them is their determination about their cause.

Running back comment is somewhat amusing, if only because a recent article on ESPN said that Chris Johnson's total yardage is down because he's always aiming for the HR, thus lowering his average yardage, trying to find and create space that aren't available.

I guess sometimes you got to take what they give you, but for YC they aim only for the HR, so it's not that relevant.

What would be the value of this article? You are who you are. Some are innate qualities and some are simply the cards that you have been dealt with. You have to become what you want to be with what you got and then some one will write an article some day mentioning you as a reference and the qualities you have as the key to being a founder :)

This is discussed elsewhere in the thread. Search for Dweck

Is lack of distractions or possessing some financial independence anywhere on the list of what is good for founders? By this I mean -- if there are financial or non-startup distractions, could this be detrimental? Does not having a family to take care of rank more favorably than not? Just askin.


#Determination " maybe you should ask for a time when you saw something through, something that was tough, and at your core hard to do. basically what was your last marathon?"

# flexibility " when were your basic assumptions challenged, and how did you adapt or over come them? "

In #1 and elsewhere they reference "a certain threshold of intelligence." So isn't that #6?

Wonderful post, I especially love the part about naughtiness, when it's time for me to apply to ycombinator I will share my little ninja hack that I used for about 2 months ;).

I didn't know about airbnb until now, thanks for introducing me to the site.

"As soon as we heard they'd been supporting themselves by selling Obama and McCain branded breakfast cereal, they were in. And it turned out the idea was on the right side of crazy after all."

How about Sarah Palin tea?

Huh, first thing I thought was "can I go back and change my answer to that 'describe something you hacked..' question?"

There are so many ways to interpret that question from the way the worded it.

My thoughts exactly, I had no idea that that was the intention of that question especially since it had no context.

I suppose these are good questions for a potential co-founder.

I wonder if one could check a box on their application to add it to the co-founder pool?


So. Fix it.

Not sure what your personality mismatch was, but I would tend to believe it's something you could alter/improve/change if you consciously wanted to.

Of course, if you REALLY can't get over the "sting" of a simple rejection, then you might find that the never-ending stream of "no"'s and doubts you run across in trying to get something off the ground would be more than you were able to deal with.


Maybe you should ask, if you don't have a co-founder, why? And what would you look for in a good 1st hire/ partner?

PG, Aren't you misleading the young by so strongly suggesting that their start up needs a friend. Was it Mark... the Facebook founder who created the empire by himself?

Perhaps it is your opinion that friends do better, but to so strongly state it as a requirement aren't you perhaps implicitly disproving any sole founder start up and if so you are, why would you?

Even that Mark had two cofounders: Chris and Dustin. And they were all roommates.

where does the imagination of 'will this work?' come in? Or do you need to have determination of pursuing all ideas you believe 'will work'. Eventually, one will work?

Thing I noticed about successful startups with friends as co-founders is that they are pretty young and both have entrepreneurial spirit. (Plus, the requisite complimentary skill-set)

Those are surprisingly uncommon combinations

What if your circle of friends are not entrepreneurial? What if your friends that /are\ entrepreneurial already have startups?

--then, of course; you'd have to find a co-founder (thats not a friend) or motivate a friend to be entrepreneurial - but, that in itself almost defeats the spirit of #5.

I do believe friends are very important, families as well.

1) They'll keep you motivated. 2) They'll give you advice/input. 3) They'll give you support; (tech expertise, business feedback and connections, etc..)

The quarter back, and the running back need not be friends to win the championships.

Oh cool. Then YC will either pick us, or my friends and I will unceasingly try countless creative ways to change their mind, and they might not all be legal.

Your choice, YC. ;)

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