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Interviewing with YC? Don't overstep the limits like us (but be close) (grubwith.us)
140 points by eddylu on Apr 24, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 46 comments

Given the inherent dodginess of so many 'social startups' already ("get piles of users now, figure out how to make a big pile of money from later"), this whole 'naughtiness' stuff bothers me. It's a short hop from naughty to 'actively unethical'.

Here's the question: given that you've already demonstrated that you don't really have a lot of regard for the privacy of fellow YC interviewees (however 'intentionally' you outed a bunch of people on Twitter), why should you be trusted with user data?

If you'll pull a stunt like this for seed money, what will you do to get VC money? Just wait until you've got 2-4 years of serious work on a startup and you're 'close' to serious profitability. What 'naughty' stuff will you do when you've actually got some serious skin in the game?

To be brutally honest, if you're not a bit weird[1] you're probably not cut out to make it in the social space.

We're talking about people who would have created a hot or not site 10 years ago without a thought about the pain it could cause people who always ended up 'not'.

These aren't normally adjusted people. They have a lot of good points, and some very bad ones.

If you want to look at it in a good way they're not bounded by social norms. In certain scenarios, they're not very nice people.

I'm not judging and to be utterly frank I sometimes wish I was one of them, they're not like 95% of the rest of us and that gives them some advantages. Like this stunt.

Edit:[1] I'm having a very hard time finding the right word here. Sociopathic? It's a bit too harsh given what can be lumped in there, but it does describe it a bit. A couple of good friends of mine have the trait I'm trying to describe. I love them, but they make me cringe sometimes.

I don't mind sociopaths; they are what they are. What I mind is the sugar-coating of sociopathic behavior that's actually flat-out unethical as 'naughtiness' so these people can be treated as innovative rule-benders rather than creeps.

Doing many of these 'sociopathic' things is a lot like going to a small country town where people leave their doors unlocked and burgling the houses there; you're violating a lot of unwritten and only mildly enforced rules. What bothers me is the idea that you will be specifically rewarded for this kind of behavior if you can spin it as a 'Country Town Social Hack'.

FWIW, HotOrNot scales their votes so that everyone ends up in the top half. (No, they didn't do this when they launched, but obviously they've found it a good idea since then. Even rebels pander to their constituencies.)


synonyms from thesaurus.com:

anarchistic, atypical, avant-garde, beat, bizarre, crazy, eccentric, far-out, freakish, freaky, free and easy, idiosyncratic, individual, individualistic, informal, irregular, kinky, kooky, nonconformist, oddball, off the beaten track, off the wall, offbeat, original, out in left field, out of the ordinary, unceremonious, uncommon, uncustomary, unique, unorthodox, unusual, way-out, weirdo

I'm surprised HN's spam filter didn't try to murder this comment.

"given that you've already demonstrated that you don't really have a lot of regard for the privacy of fellow YC interviewees"

The only thing they really did wrong was publicly tweeting at everyone, had they just used people's twitters to look up their emails they would have been completely in the clear. And even then if they had still tweeted at a few people who were already in the bay area whose emails they couldn't find that would be kosher also, as long as the tweets were carefully worded. They took one short cut they shouldn't have, but otherwise it was a good idea that was well executed.

Although PG uses the word "naughty", I think "radical" is perhaps a more appropriate word. "Naughty" is not necessarily disruptive. "Radical", however, is almost always disruptive. "Radical" also strictly represents the root of something.

Printing cardboard cereal boxes to sell at a convention sounds more "radical" than "naughty". Loading up big piles of airbeds for people to sleep on at another convention sounds similarly "radical". If you look at a list of YC funded companies, you can almost always see a hint of "radicalness" in each of their ideas.

I don't think radical is the word. They didn't invent a new way of doing things, they just leveraged what they could to its fullest extent - innovative...with a hint of naughty.

Personally, I don't get what people here are griping about...the only thing I wouldn't have done is the twitter bot.

Although...as long as they didn't go 'HEY YC FINALIST, come eat with us'...I really don't see a problem with the twitter thing either - its all a matter of tasteful tactic.

"The problem is, while pg outwardly disapproved of our actions, we know he secretly loves founders that push the limits!"

You know what, though: the response function around the limit is not a smooth bell curve; it drops sharply below the x axis as you go past the peak.

It took me a while to get this, so I made a helpful graph for everyone else as slow as I am.


kind of like a Kelly criterion bet


if you bet like a mouse, you get cheese

Thanks for the interesting paper.

Would you have funded them had they not pulled their stunts?

Yes. We were influenced by the large number of YC alumni that they got to recommend them, but not by the dinners they organized for the applicants.

Is it possible that those two events are connected?

I believe not, because they could not have organized these events till they'd already been invited for interviews.

I find myself wondering if they're still pushing ...


Who gets Italy?

Is anyone else somewhat annoyed by the wink-and-a-node style this post is written in? It's like, "Hey look how scrappy we are, willing to push the limits like this, but oh, that's not appropriate for you, you had better play it safe."

It's interesting that the tone of the blog post suggests a desperation about getting into YC, rather than the old adage of wanting to build something that people actually want to use.

It's also interesting that HN is full of people who talk about a higher education bubble, but a YC bubble mysteriously seems to be off-topic here.

(Note that I love and use a lot of YC companies)

If they're anything like me, it's not "desperation" to get into YC, necessarily, as much as the ridiculous hatred of failure. They'd probably go equally nuts for anywhere they applied, be it Harvard or Juliar or for unemployment checks.

Ok, but you're sort of equating 'getting into YC' with 'success'.

I got the impression that mrkurt was implying the Grubwithus founders didn't want to fail the YC interview, not that getting into YC guaranteed Grubwithus would be successful.

It's success at "getting into YC".

This reminds me of a post a long while ago from someone who basically equated getting into YC as the ultimate test for whether their company would be viable. They also hinted that the existential questions of their own self-worth were put into jeopardy when they were rejected.

It is indeed difficult to find a charitable way to read this post.

There's more to an apology than the words "I'm sorry". One must also make a good-faith effort to convince the other party that you're not kidding.

Honestly, I'm pretty disgusted.

From pg's own remarks on the topic http://www.paulgraham.com/founders.html:

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

I get the feeling these folks can't tell the difference between the two. And I am thinking "naughty" is not necessarily the best word for this quality and is bound to be misinterpreted by some folks.

The assumption that these 'naughty' people automatically have a good intuition for the rules that matter is interesting. It's a bit like all those people who think that they drive perfectly well when yakking on a cell phone, drunk driving, or going 20 over the limit, or perhaps both. Everyone's an expert on highway safety, apparently ("my intuition tells me I'm not distracted here, I don't care what those statisticians say").

Interestingly, I have known a surprisingly large number of dangerous drivers (alcohol, speeding or both) in the tech scene and many have fit whole YC 'naughtiness ethos' pretty well.

Playing by the rules without necessarily understanding all of them might have helped these guys at the moment when they outed a bunch of people as applying to YC using Twitter.

The assumption that these 'naughty' people automatically have a good intuition for the rules that matter is interesting.

Language has its limits in attempting to convey what the author really means. I assume pg was trying to convey that, in his experience, those folks who make good entrepreneurs do, in fact, have good intuition for when it is appropriate to break the rules. But I'm not really comfortable speaking for him. He's perfectly capable of speaking for himself. I just don't feel that I heard it the same way you did. (Though perhaps neither of us heard what he really meant. <shrug>)

I think "naughty" is a great word for that quality. The undesirable quality would be maybe something more like "reckless".

I can't think of a better word, I just know that 80% of what most kids hear is "no" or some variation thereof, so most people have a very negative spin on a lot of language. This fact gets me in enormous trouble because it seems to incline many people towards an assumption of guilt. The things I say and do are usually rooted in very innocent motives, though I fail to conform and such. I think it's a complicated topic and the value of 'breaking the rules' comes in having a different understanding of "the rules", kind of like Einstein's Theory of Relativity technically makes Newton's theory of gravity obsolete -- yet we use the formula for gravity anyway for many things because if you stay on earth, there is no real advantage in doing the more complex calculations. Gravity is close enough. (Or so I gather. I'm not much of a physics person.)

I'm sure this one trait and trying to explain exactly what pg and YC are looking for in that regard could be a paper by itself, but no doubt all that complexity really didn't have a place in the piece he wrote at the time. Still, "naughty" strikes me as kind of a blunt instrument for explaining it. I have two "naughty" kids -- two ASD kids who just are baffled by why most folks do what they do and I spent their lives explaining it to them in terms that made sense. And I couldn't be imprecise in explaining it or it simply wasn't useful information to them. I think "naughty" is imprecise in this instance. It's a perfectly good word for those folks who get what pg means but for those who don't, it's a time-bomb waiting to go off. This may be just the first such explosion given how recent events have ramped up the number of applicants.

But that's just my opinion.


Writing twitterbots to spam people? Man, I wouldn't have just yelled at you in an interview. I would have engaged in physical violence. Twitter spammers are right down there with Nigerian 419 scammers in my book. I'm disappointed to hear that YC is funding one of them.

Is it any worse than forcing/requiring people to manually tweet in order to get/win something?

I find both approaches distasteful.

Glad we have our priorities straight about behavior and what is and isn't right.

I get a bad gut feeling when i read posts like this. It is the same feeling i get when i watch MTV or elimidate or something.

The MTVification of Entrepreneurship! That sums up the feeling i get when reading this article and many others like it.

It just feels really... hollow. Like you are building an RPG character based on the "What We Look For Article". Spent all your points on naughtiness.

Seriously, yuck. Stop it.

I'm surprised by the negative reaction that this post has received. I thought the actions were more "cheeky" than overstepping. But maybe that's more an indication that I am afflicted with the same easy morality.

"It's easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission"

Thats a mantra that I found hard to take on, but it really has helped me

In uni myself and a friend used this philosophy to get lab space and desks in the postgrad labs (we were undergrads and normally didn't get our own "private" lab space). We had keycards because we needed access for project work[1], found ourselves some unused space, unused desks etc figuring that if anybody minded we would just apologize and find someplace else. Nobody complained and by the time I graduated we had three desks, in three different labs. Besides the two of us, everybody else in my class had no private labs/desks :)

[1] http://dublindan.posterous.com/things-ive-worked-on-1

I did as an undergrad in the US states doing both undergrad and grad course work in Molecular Biology both lab space and computer lab space..keycards, key licenses to apps using apple's keyserver, etc. Even got an unofficial desk in one of the Faculty member's offices.

It was not just knowing those Professors but we did enough 'free' work that we could easily ask for bribes..either pay us or give us space..in my case I wrote some computer macros/programs to use MS Excel to do stats for certain science areas as they had particular methods and standards they wanted to follow in lab data analysis, etc.

Its amazing what you can get away with if you just try.

Of course, like you, we had a reputation for getting stuff done. We got keycard access and permission to store our project work (since it included electronics) in the postgrad labs and we then went to see how far we could take it. We produced some great projects for them in return[1]. We even got a photo (alongside then prime minister) in a local newspaper.

My project partner is currently doing a PHD there and has used the similar tactics to get equipment, lab space and other benefits and his supervisors don't mind because he has opened new research avenues and published papers for them.

[1] the project I linked to was pioneered by myself and my project partner, but has since been used for further projects (and has been professionally rebuilt using expensive hardware - ours cost about €300 in materials to build; the professionally manufactured version cost approx. €10K - but was (is, I guess - I haven't been involved) also much, much more accurate

Lol... Let's co-opt an unaffiliated brand in the marketing of our product!

The tone of the piece reminds me of a scene from that Capote movie.


Truman Capote: I had lunch with Jimmy Baldwin the other day.

Party date: How is he?

Truman Capote: Hes lovely, hes a lovely man. And he told me the plot of his new book. And he said, "I just wanted to make sure its not one of those problem novels," you know. And I said , "Jimmy. Your book is about a Negro homosexual whos in love with a Jew. Wouldnt you call that a problem?"

>So our advice is, be naughty enough to get your goal accomplished, but retreat if necessary and make sure you apologize!

I would say the advice is more along of the lines of, "First, do no harm (unless it's to the industry you're trying to disrupt)."

Sounds like their major transgression was outing other interviewees who wished to remain discreet so as not to lose current jobs or career prospects. That's a big OUCH.

The secondary one was originally sounding too much like a YC-sponsored event, which could have enticed customers under false pretenses.

A good lesson to keep in mind not just in applying to YC but in any endeavor.


These guys certainly seem mature and professional enough to run a company, especially funded with other people's money

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