Applies to employees as well. One of the better things about Google is that with most engineers, you can raise some concern or some alternative way of doing things, and they'll just get it, understand all the implications, and be able to implement it with no further direction. (The ones that can't are pretty infuriating to work with, because it takes you longer to hand-hold than it would to just do it yourself.) I had an intern last fall where I could just give him the name of a product or technology to look into, or a contact e-mail for the team in charge, and he'd go look into it and come up with a working implementation. He's just been given an offer, so with any luck he'll be a coworker next year.
The thing is - I'm not certain this is entirely a property of the person involved. Yes, there are certain skills that make it easier to find information on your own. But this is also a function of the problem domain and how well you know it. If you give me a credit card and a problem statement, chances are that I can come up with a working webapp that solves the problem. But if you give me the name of a VC and tell me to go raise money - where do I start? How do I approach him? What will burn bridges and what won't?
So my question to PG and any other resourceful folks out there is: how do you approach a problem domain in which you know nothing, and manage to gain enough of a map of the territory so that you listen to someone's one-word suggestions and instantly grasp the implications?
I'm really not sure if you can really consider this a quality of a person or a quality of the state a person is in.
In my best job situations, I've generally been approachable and ready to change directions based on outside input. In my worst job situations, I can see that I've been less approachable and this has been a function of being overwhelmed by the situation.
Now, one way to avoid going into a new situation and not being overwhelmed by the situation is to take the situation bit-by-bit - don't immense yourself in all the details but instead deal calmly with one thing then another. In fact, most competent people know this. And so, a lot of the time when a reasonably competent person winds up still paralyzed by a situation, it is because they've been confronted with some kind of emotional trap - "I know this should take a week but this puppy will die if you don't finish it tomorrow!" etc.
But if you give me the name of a VC and tell me to go raise money - where do I start? How do I approach him? What will burn bridges and what won't?
My skeptical side says that as long as you have a product and traction that are both awesome enough for him to consider investing in, it doesn't really matter.
That's sort of where I take issue with this article: he may just be picking up on signs of confidence that are the result of really believing that you have a kickass product. That reality (as well as the attitude that it inspires) make it both a lot easier to successfully pitch your wares, as well as to talk about them to previous investors.
Similarly, in the Google example, a large part of what you see is probably that the people there really understand their domains of expertise exceptionally well. As a result, they're confident that they know what you're talking about, and eager to just get to the meat of it, without bothering you for details that they already know about.
I'd be hesitant to assume that emulating the confidence that comes along with expertise or good prospects necessarily works causally in the opposite direction, I've seen many examples to the contrary...
Is it cheating to suggest not knowing nothing about problem domains likely to be of interest to you, and or learning generalizable techniques for learning quickly?
For example, hypothetically, if one has a weakness regarding chasing down money and one knows their career path is likely to involve raising money, then one could get a fairly rapid education in the subject for the price of a few cups of strategically ordered coffee. Don't know the character of a VC? Thirty seconds of Googleage should give you the names of five compulsively chatty people willing to give you their take.
I can sort of see why, if one were busy, one would quickly burn out on explaining How To Email People A Question to folks who did not immediately see that in the solution set when they had a plan of action which required a bit of discoverable organic knowledge.
That doesn't mean you'll know the nuances of the situation if you've not done VC raising before. Nuances and confidence come from previous successful experiences. To bring this back to the article - of course a VC would prefer someone who has experience, and who of course will be easier to talk to then. It looks to be more closely aligned with if people know how to execute or how much experience they have with doing so, taking and processing information. Personally, I'm not good processing information and acting on it quickly - some of it, sure, but it takes time for certain types of information to sit. Sometimes I'm sure I overthink what needs to be done, instead of just initiating and playing off of what happens.
"Nuances and confidence come from previous successful experiences"
And to add to that what one person is able to pull off given their skills is not always possible by another person even if they have been told what to do or how to do it.
Seat of the pants feel involves knowing how to react and adapt when the situation changes ever so slightly (a nuance). It's impossible to prepare someone for every possibility that might come up. That's something that comes, as you said, from "from previous successful experiences".
The best advice I can give is to learn concepts as opposed to a specifics and to understand exactly why something (say in a negotiation) should be handled a certain way. It's like the difference between learning what streets to turn on in NYC and learning the way the streets and avenues run so you can arrive at your destination even if you miss a turn.
There's a bit of comflation (implied, not stated) in pg's article of brightness, and willingness to listen and then research and follow through. There's no need to instantly grasp the implications. The thing is, if someone only hears you through their filters they will never grasp things instantly, whereas someone who hears what you're actually saying will grasp things instantly sometimes, and after thinking about it at other times.
As for working in domains outside your comfort zone... it's uncomfortable! If you are smart and willing to give it a shot then admit your ignorance, to yourself and others, and then begin learning what you need. Here's a personal anecdote...
Some time ago, the big boss here came to me with a problem of a malfunctioning instrument. The instrument is one of a kind, on a spacecraft, so we are limited to figuring this out from whatever telemetry is available and there is no option of replacement with a different unit. Now I'm a software guy with no prior training or experience in hardware, and certainly not with this kind of thing. This problem had been given to other people but nothing came of it, so he gave it to me. Knowing nothing, I learned whatever seemed like it could have a bearing on the problem. I thought about it. A lot. I asked questions. A lot. The problem was sporadic, so I tried to find correlations. For two solid weeks I had nothing to show for my time but I kept at it, and then I found a 100% correlation, leading to the instrument people finding the problem and correcting their firmware. I'm not one of those prodigy polymath people. I grasped nothing about this instantly. The only reasons I succeeded were that I kept an open mind, kept thinking and learning, asked for and used any help I could get, and determined to see this through until I had an answer.
I'm sure the process of getting money out of VCs is exactly the same, except all the details are different.
Would 'asking for advice' not be contrued as 'hand-holding' then - as it's not something you take and immediately run with? I personally don't see anything wrong with it, but I'm guessing the VC and entrepreneurs aren't aligned in expectations in that instance then.
If I hand someone a task, and then the next day have to ask for progress and get told that they don't know how to proceed, and have to explain to them what the next step is, go away, come back and have to repeat the process, often while having to explain the same things or "obvious" consequences over and over, that is hand holding.
If I hand someone a task and they ask me follow up questions, go away, do some real work tracking down more information or carrying out tasks, then comes back to me and asks more questions about new things based on stuff they've learned since last time, and repeat the process, that is not handholding to me.
The difference is who is driving the process forwards and whether or not they are absorbing the information they are given and taking initiative.
Not at all. An entrepreneur is not expected to be an expert in everything. Rather, he's expected to to figure out the fastest, cheapest way to get things done. Oftentimes the best way is just to ask somebody.
On the hand-holding point, it's really just about taking action and trusting that you will figure out how to see it through to completion. You don't have to know much to set up a meeting with a VC, but you do have to follow-up and actually set up the meeting.
It's amazing how few people in the real world follow through on things this simple. I have a friend who complains about his job every time I talk to him. I've offered many, many times to put him in touch with companies he might want to work for and even an HR specialist friend at Google for some free career coaching. He always says "sure!" but never follows through. This has gone on for years. Years!
Asking for advices is not bad as long as you process it and act on it accordingly. Pretending you know something that you don't, OTOH, is another form of arrogance. I've never heard anyone say "that guy's not arrogant enough."
One of the best feelings when handing a task to someone is when you know that once you've handed it off, it will either get done quickly, or it will spawn a rich bramble of e-mail conversations that only ends when someone in the network has figured out what needs to be done, and then the person will do it. And if nobody knows, they'll be on the phone with you telling it straight the moment they realize that fact.
That's a very difficult quality to discern in the context of interviews, unfortunately. One thing that's useful is to try to push all of your candidates beyond what they can reasonably handle, and see how they react - people that are quick to look for help when it's needed tend to deal with these situations honestly and quickly, admitting the limits of their knowledge. The worst will just wubble about endlessly, never realizing that something is beyond their reach.
Once I realized how attractive that "quick to admit ignorance" quality was in job candidates, I stopped feeling so nervous about being interviewed, and started just being rigorously honest about what I can't do and don't know. It's better for everyone that way, and most interviewers I've met with seem to appreciate it. The only downside is that I've lost some work that I genuinely wasn't qualified to do, which is not such a great loss anyways...
I think it's fair to say there's a difference between 'hand-holding' and 'asking for advice' in PG's scenario. Hand holding would be having to constantly be checked up on, much like a child. This would be the person who receives the number to a VC and doesn't bother to figure out how to capitalize on it, if they even attempt to reach out at all. However, being resourceful would at least be able to figure out a rough game plan and think up a few broad questions for advice so they can take full advantage of the situation. Utilizing resources to have an advantage on other candidates.
"any other resourceful folks out there is: how do you approach a problem domain in which you know nothing, and manage to gain enough of a map of the territory so that you listen to someone's one-word suggestions and instantly grasp the implications"
Well, before answers were available online here is how it was done by an example just today.
Although it has nothing to do with my current business, I decided to explore the possibility of renting out luxury cars (high end performance cars).
The first thing I wanted to know about was the insurance.
But if you google "car rental company auto insurance" all you get are links to auto rental insurance (the type you get when you rent a car). I want companies that sell rental insurance to rental companies.
So the old fashion way to do this is to start to make phone calls to hone in on the brokers who handle this type of insurance (I did turn up AON as a vendor because they offer it in the UK but so far w/o a phone call I can't see if they offer it in the US).
So if I decide to pursue this idea I will make some calls and ask questions.
But the other thing I will do is visit a local small car rental agency (they rent beat up trucks) and I will do some form of either social engineering or play the "doing some research" angle after gaining their trust.
Or maybe I will make a deal with the owner to guide me in the business by making him a partner (edit: or paying him for consulting)
So this is something I know nothing about. But in the course of an afternoon so far this is what I came up with to start to vet the idea. If the initial metrics work I will take the idea further.
In other words be curious, ask questions and do some research. This has worked for me in starting three businesses in which I knew nothing about the business.
I'm sorry, I know nothing about your context, but if I was asking someone about renting luxury cars for, say, a special week-end with a Chinese client and his "cousin", I would appreciate someone coming the next day with a eye-dropping limo and all the details: a chauffeur, a filled minibar, etc. , all for a reasonable price. While, if the first thing I was hearing about was problems with insurance, I would not be so fully amazed...
> how do you approach a problem domain in which you know nothing, and manage to gain enough of a map of the territory so that you listen to someone's one-word suggestions and instantly grasp the implications?
Through trial-and-error, intuition, and a bit of luck. :)
I think the most important first step is to not get scared. You have to feel comfortable with the fact that you don't know anything, and so you have to be a beginner. That is a great thing to be though, as beginners tend to be very open and enthusiastic about learning.
From there, it's just like studying any other art or endeavor. You start with enthusiasm, build up your skills, and eventually you feel confident enough that you can take more advanced instruction.
It's at that point that the one-word instruction can give you tremendous insight. That's been my experience, anyway.
"But if you give me the name of a VC and tell me to go raise money - where do I start? How do I approach him? What will burn bridges and what won't?"
Of course there are many ways to handle this but one way would simply be to practice on another VC or four in order to get comfortable.
In the 90's I was able to get two different VC's to show up at my office. They wanted me to meet them at their office. I told them I was ready to make a decision and didn't have time. That I had met someone else and had an offer on the table. That only got them more interested.
Well, in this case it was. But the "come to me", well I could have easily went to them truthfully. But I knew it would make it seem more urgent and make me appear more independent.
But in the end a gamble is a gamble and much of business is made up of chances where you bet correctly. Of course there is a risk. On the other side you can be totally honest and that has it's own problems, right?
Telling someone that "I had met someone else and had an offer on the table" isn't really concrete enough to be called a liar. Deals fall through all the time for many reasons.
> how do you approach a problem domain in which you know nothing, and manage to gain enough of a map of the territory so that you listen to someone's one-word suggestions and instantly grasp the implications?
You don't necessarily need to instantly grasp the implications. You need to listen, and if you don't grasp everything, you need to ask probing questions and learn. And you need to make sure you chase down any implications afterwards.
The first thing is to figure out what you don't know.
Note the part about glassed over eyes? If you listen actively, inject comments and questions and think about questions, most people can get a rough idea of quite complex areas they previously knew nothing about relatively quickly, and you won't be that guy with glassed over eyes.
The problem is not taking time to process something. The problem is when people are listening to the words but not the meaning, and then trying to find a way to force the words to mean something that fits into your existing world without changing it.
If someone gives you advice and you realize you don't understand it or it bores you or you don't agree with what's being said, and so you zone out, then you lose out. If you realize you don't understand something, or you disagree, and you use that as a signal to pay more attention and make an effort to understand or to figure out the cause of your disagreement, then you win.
You're right that a lot of outcome comes from past experience. I don't think a resourceful person riding a bike for the first day can be nearly as good as a non-resourceful person who's been riding for decades. So outcome isn't purely a function of past experience.
But let's take a group of people who have the same experience in a domain. Then I would define resourcefulness as the component of outcome that depends on the person, specifically how much self-drive the person has, and how much the person can leverage the tools in his or her situation.
Resourcefulness, as define this way, I think is some part skill. You have to be intelligent enough to put the match and sandpaper together to start a fire. Part of it is tolerance for being burned -- it's much harder to cold call a VC if to you it's personally painful to be told to shove off. And as pg mentioned in previous essays, the last part is determination. Resourcefulness is inherently related to schlepp and you won't schlepp unless you really, really, care about the problem.
Basically, I think you're right in that some situations really benefit those who've seen it before. But at the same time, to dismiss the effort and self-ambition of the person isn't quite right either.
If you give me a credit card and a problem statement, chances are that I can come up with a working webapp that solves the problem
Just so I interpret correctly, are you basically saying that if someone cut you a blank check, you can solve any problem? Or that with a blank check, you can take a stab at a problem?
Either way, I could give you my credit card and tell you of my personal problems, and I doubt you'd be able to solve them. I'm also not rich, so I can't pay for the possibility of getting a solution to my problem, I only want to pay for results.
It's probably a measure of conscientiousness. I'd guess that if you actually intend to do what you say, you'll be a lot more communicative. You might be assertive ("No, I think that's a waste of time, because ...") or agreeable ("OK, but how will I ..."), but you won't just sit there wondering if you passed the interview.
A very good mentor of mine once put it succinctly: when thinking about a problem, he said, "don't start with the barriers." Don't frame the thought process as "Here are all the reasons why not; now I need to figure out why." Instead, start from a place of "Absent all barriers or obstacles, here's what I would like to accomplish." There will be plenty of time to address obstacles, but it's best to be energized by them when you get there. If not, you'll see every obstacle as a crushing defeat.
If this sounds new-agey, well, perhaps it is. It's a mindset thing. But mindsets can be extremely critical. There's a huge difference between someone who sets out to succeed and prepares for failure, and someone who sets out to avoid failure and hopes for success. The former will exhaust every option to circumvent the obstacles; the latter will almost look at the obstacles as vindication of a deep-seated suspicion that he's wrong.
First I write some sample code in exactly the syntax I'd like to use, in an ideal way ignoring whether it's possible or not to produce. Then I create a macro to transform that syntax into code, iterating the sample code if I encounter barriers (usually unparseable syntax). It has really helped me (a poor to mediocre scheme programmer) create good macros very quickly, improving the expressive power of my code dramatically.
Another reason to focus on goals rather than obstacles is that it's the goal that matters, and there will be more than one way to get there. Obstacles on a given path may be unsolvable no matter your focus or perserverance, and the only way to solve them is to choose a path where those obstacles are absent. The other paths are difficult to find if you focus on the thing that's stopping you on your current path.
@pg Coming from an outsider looking in, I wonder how much of the issues is with you and other YC mentors. I know you have an incredible amount of knowledge but how you impress that information on people is very crucial. I wonder if the process of sharing your knowledge with people needs some refining.
Watching you do office hours and other interactions, you often make the situation uncomfortable to people who are already unsure of whats next. When you ask them a question, you cut them off as they are trying to explain what they see, only to try and answer the question for them. This has been feedback from many who have experienced the YC process.
There are people like me who have built a company and held true to our vision. We make money and we know how to run our business. We have applied to incubators not to have someone tell us what to do, rather to get advice from people who have experience similar challenges and the apply them to our structure. Granted there are groups coming through YC that don't have that experience and those people need some direction. But for both sets of groups, they want you to actually listen to them. When you bring them in for their hour each week, listen to them. The wall is not that they cannot communicate or motivated to take down leads. They are put out because every time they try to communicate they feel the door is slammed in their face as if their thought or idea doesn't matter.
In a recent blog post I wrote "When people feel comfortable, essential and free to be individually themselves, a person can become a solar flare of focused energy that fuels the world we call business." So make them feel like they are not only essential to their company but that you actually care enough to listen and hear them. People going on rants are an altogether different issue, but sometimes people need to just talk out loud to work their head around an idea. As a matter of fact, you are one of those people! But you have to give people the sense that their voice is relevant in the direction they are taking and not driven. Give people time to understand why your suggestions should be heavily considered, so they can figure it out for themselves.
Again, this is from the outside but maybe it is a place to start.
At first I did worry that the problem was on my end. That is always one's initial assumption when people don't seem to understand. Maybe I wasn't clear enough, you think, and you try again to to explain it a different way.
The reason it seems unlikely that the problem is on our end is the correlation between being difficult to talk to and failure in the outside world. If the problem was on our end, we would experience difficulty talking to both successful and unsuccessful startups.
Incidentally, if all you've seen is "office hours" on stage at a conference, you don't really know what office hours are like. Office hours onstage at an event are about 1/4 as long as real office hours, and with people I've never met before. So of course they are all over the place. Office hours at events are more like YC interviews than YC office hours.
But do you not see the flaw in that logic? "We are not the problem so we are not going to try something else". What advice would give if one of your groups said that? Paul everything I have studied about you and YC over the last 5 years tells me your an incredible person but you are stubborn and you know it. You love experiments, the next office hours simply try this approach with one of the groups. Ask them questions and then just sit back and listen. I know it is hard because you are an excitable guy but try it. They look at you as an authority figure, this larger than life person who just made there dreams come true. That holds so much power, I wonder if you realize it? Ease that stress by leveling the playing field. One or two meetings like this, where they feel you are actually listening, and they will be right back to your level and its business as usual. I bet you dinner at your favorite spot that if you truly give this a chance, it will work.
I understand the difference and don't pretend to know the daily goings on at YC, am just putting an alternate perspective on the table for consideration. Tonight when you reflect on this conversation, I think an idea will come to you. I am sure this is something that bothers you very much, because you are obsessed with solving tough problems. I think people also forget that you are human and have feelings and your not always on the top of your game. When people are overcome with a tough process they shut off. As you stated, that doesn't mean they don't know how or that they are not capable. They just don't know how to get back on the right track. These situations don't need force they need delicate leadership. If they don't respond from there, then you have done all you can and that is all anyone could ask for.
I even up voted you because I know you have taken time to have this conversation. I most likely will never get into YC because I am a single founder, therefore I fear no recourse. When the terms are level, inspiring conversation and progress can be made. I appreciate that you have listened to me and considered my thoughts, as someone trying to reach a goal, that means very much!
Think about this conversation and then what I just said, the answer is right there staring at you my friend.
I don't think pg is saying his communication is flawless, he's saying that the good teams could get past whatever those flaws are and the bad teams couldn't. The same would likely apply to another investor/mentor's differently-flawed communication style.
That of course is no reason for pg to not try to relentlessly improve, but the point about the founders stands.
I think we would all agree, none of our communication is ever flawless, including mine. I also think that from PG position he can only hold peoples hands for so long until they have to be big boys and get on there own feet and get there ass in gear. For all those who have played sports, great coaches treat different players differently based on how they best respond and that allows them to get the maximum effort from their talent. All I am offering in this thread is maybe there is something more that can be done from a new angle, for both PG and the founders growth and a solution to make the YC process even better.
Sure, and there's probably a subset in there that would actually be successful with someone else but just have a personality mismatch with Paul. But it's probably a minority of those who couldn't make it work with him.
> The reason it seems unlikely that the problem is on our end is the correlation between being difficult to talk to and failure in the outside world. If the problem was on our end, it we would experience difficulty talking to both successful and unsuccessful startups.
Not necessarily. YC's advice and guidance have huge value; so communications challenges with you and other mentors have a big impact on your startups' success. Correlation doesn't imply causation, but it doesn't rule it out either.
That is true. Think about how hard it is to find the right person to date and then marry. In the business world that is exactly what is happening. If the founders don't feel support and connection the way that best helps them, then even the best people will ultimately find it difficult to succeed.
It is why even the very best of entrepreneurs have failure. The relationships matter, it is one of YC's guiding principles.
Honestly I think this same observation is true of engineers (good ones you can give them the direction and they'll go work out how to solve whatever problem they're having, the bad ones will look at you blankly and you end up doing the work yourself).
And then, as someone who has been a founder, an engineer and a corporate worker in enterprise during my career to date, I realized that this is also true of people in big companies.
I guess in startup world the stakes are greater (your company will fail vs you won't get promoted or make bonus) but this is no different to middle managers who reach a glass ceiling.
The bottom line is this: if you identify with the negative character trait PG identifies, you need to snap out of it anyway regardless of whether you're being bold and doing a startup or whether you want to play it safe and take a corporate job.
While I think that PG is probably right in his observation, it is not actually very helpful. It is kind of like when he said, "When we haven't heard from, or about, a startup for a couple months, that's a bad sign. If we send them an email asking what's up, and they don't reply, that's a really bad sign."  Well... ok. But is that cause or effect? I doubt business was booming and they just decided to stop responding to email.
If you have a startup that is growing I am sure it is easier to take advice and get funding. ...all sorts of things. If the business is not doing as well I can see where it is more difficult to see the correct action.
It's true I didn't write this as a source of advice for founders so much as just a report on a surprising (to me) connection I'd discovered. But it's not useless. It should be very useful to investors, for example, because it offers a quick way to detect which startups will succeed. It even helped me understand the procedure we've evolved for YC interviews. What we do during YC interviews is essentially to start YC right then, as if we'd funded them. Now I know why that works so well.
It should also be useful for founders, as a warning sign to look for. People can change, and they can also stand outside themselves to some degree. So some founders will probably be able to read something like this and ask themselves "does this happen with us?" and if the answer is yes, to try to be less timid.
People who are timid are less willing to attack schleps, to acknowledge schleps and ask for help with schleps. Maybe this is the correlation? Maybe people are timid because they are embarrassed or unconfident in their ability to overcome schleps? Maybe they put up a wall or get defensive so that others who seem smart (and who blow through schleps) don't see them as unintelligent.
This is why successful people I have interacted with have most often been extremely welcoming and nice, because they have learned that putting everything on the table when surrounded by peers and mentors is the best trait of success.
If this is the case then the solution to making more successful companies (and not "wasting" investment) is to get around this dilemma somehow. The solution might be for founders to practice a little "mindfulness" or "self-awareness" throughout the day. This could be a check-in with your body before meetings or after an important call in the form of being aware of the breath or feeling sensations like your feet on the floor. If your body is tight or you are feeling defensive or unconfident then air it out.
Any other ways people think founders can solve this dilemma?
It's quite possible that the situation is different in academia, but in my line of work I tend to find the opposite: some of the most accomplished people are very cautious and unwilling to take strong positions without thinking them over. Usually, because they are so knowledgeable and thoughtful that they can, as soon as they start saying anything, see a million possible caveats. In the worst case that can be paralyzing, but it can also help avoid the opposite behavior: the hot-headed, confident, untimid person who just doesn't really know enough (or think over what they know) to realize why they should be more cautious about overarching claims, especially on questions that a lot of smart people have looked into already.
It's not a universal correlation, but I've generally noticed junior and less knowledgeable people (graduate students, early-career professors, etc.) to be much more brash, confident, and even aggressive in that sense than accomplished researchers, though there is a bit of an inverted-U curve (undergraduates and 1st-year graduate students tend to be very timid). Of the people I've met professionally, probably the most humble, and least willing to make strong statements without thinking them over and later offering a tentative opinion with caveats, was Bob Moog, who is also probably the smartest and most accomplished person I've met professionally.
I agree with your assessment, and I think in many ways one of the critical parts to learn is how to assess when it is ok to "turn off" the critical eye and be brash and confident and aggressive.
Some of my most valuable experiences stemmed from just throwing myself in on the deep end instead of waiting to analyze all the implications. But at the same time those experiences were terribly _hard_, and carried a great deal of risk. E.g. my first company was an ISP. Started it with some friends at 19. Knew nothing about running a business or about setting up a large scale WAN, or about accounting, or sales, or configuring Linux servers. A year later I'd had hard, brutal and effective lessons in all of that and more.
If I'd spent time carefully trying to figure out the risks and implications beforehand, I doubt I'd have started that company. It didn't make me wealthy, but it was definitively worth it in terms of what I learned, and the connections I made also led directly to my next job and overall it has been pretty vital to my career.
On the other hand, there are many situations where not stepping back and being careful and considered and chasing down the implications up-front would've had disastrous consequences.
The problem isn't being cautious, if you know when not to be, but not taking action. Being cautious because you want to chase down and understand the implications is very different from being timid about addressing weaknesses in your knowledge. Whether you address those weaknesses with research or by trying is less important than avoiding paralysis.
"People who are timid are less willing to attack schleps, to acknowledge schleps and ask for help with schleps. Maybe this is the correlation? Maybe people are timid because they are embarrassed or unconfident in their ability to overcome schleps? Maybe they put up a wall or get defensive so that others who seem smart (and who blow through schleps) don't see them as unintelligent."
Very useful insight. As someone who isn't timid at all, I think often times I may help in my own way build the wall for timid people.
I am so caught up in shooting down "schleps" that I think that ends up being even more intimidating.
And I think the counter for that is as you say, being "Extremely welcoming and nice."
Because it's always better to take "schleps" with someone who is making you feel better about it than someone that is just doing the work, and moving on with no consideration for their feelings.
This was my experience in the interview. I felt like during the interview, I held my position too tightly rather than accept the problems that showed up. It wasn't until we left that I could really digest the problems more thoroughly, and test that advice against potential customers. I wouldn't have gotten that advice without the interview, and probably would have spent more time in the wrong direction. For me, we came to most conversations except the interview at that stage looking for advice or data, and we went to the interview looking to have an unorthodox presentation. Not only was that the wrong approach to get in, but I'm sure some of what was said to us was lost, which is unfortunate.
All that is a bit strange to say publicly, and is a bit of a rehash of advice given elsewhere I think. Maybe it helps somebody else though.
I think on thing that PG is trying to get across, that he and the YC team have said so often, they like teams that are scrappy. Because this is a two way street. As PG said, people change so does everything else. What worked today might not work in a week. I think YC is trying to grasp how things are changing so they can become proactive.
But at the same time, I would kill (metaphorically) for an opportunity to get into YC. If I give in because my idea isn't working or another company in the same industry/space takes off and starts having success, what does that say about me?
On one side PG is trying notice the trend. On the other side he is saying, if we fund you, you better freaking bring it!
Everyone has to get better, including the people who are/will not ever be apart of YC. The connection is the will to win. Sometimes how you inspire that in people just needs a little bit of tweaking.
While it's tempting to treat "resourcefulness" as a trait intrinsic to founders, in my experience it can be a sharp function of the founder/startup fit. When I did YC, I didn't feel resourceful at all, but that's because I was working on the wrong problems. (Don't ask; it was painful.) As soon as I switched to education and technical publishing (the Ruby on Rails Tutorial, started after YC), I was suddenly resourceful as all get-out—and I started to feel unstoppable. I suspect that if I ever do YC again, the resourcefulness transformation will appear miraculous, not because of any change in my intrinsic resourcefulness, but because the new startup will be a much better fit for my interests and abilities.
One could argue that truly resourceful founders will iterate until they find a good fit. That's probably true—and it's exactly what I did. It's just that sometimes the penultimate "iteration" involves shutting the old thing down and starting something new. Chalk it up to my Artix Phase (http://www.paulgraham.com/bronze.html).
My feeling with the bad groups is that coming into office hours, they've already decided what they're going to do and everything I say is being put through an internal process in their heads, which either desperately tries to munge what I've said into something that conforms with their decision or just outright dismisses it and creates a rationalization for doing so. They may not even be conscious of this process but that's what I think is happening when you say something to bad groups and they have that glazed over look. I don't think it's confusion or lack of understanding per se, it's this internal process at work.
is precisely what happens with students, too. A few weeks ago a former student wrote to me about career choices and whether she should major in biochem or English, because she'd struggled in biochem classes. My girlfriend was a biochem major, so together we wrote a thorough response that turned into an essay called "How to think about science, becoming a scientist, and life" that should go up soon. After spending a couple hours on the response, we sent it, and I got back an e-mail from the student saying. . . she's going to go to law school and "become a judge."
So all of the considered reasoning and description and discussion was merely "put through an internal process in" her head. Experiences like this teach me why a) a lot of professors aren't eager to interact with students and often distance themselves from students and b) why writing "How to get your professors' attention, along with coaching and mentoring" was useful, if only for the relative handful of students who get it: http://jseliger.com/2010/10/02/how-to-get-your-professors%E2... .
I'm not saying your student didn't have a pre-filter as you describe. On the other hand, you may have been just one source of advice for your student. Asking for advice doesn't mean that taking it is always the best course, it's information to be weighed against all other advice and information.
So all of the considered reasoning and description and discussion was merely "put through an internal process in" her head.
I think that's a bit of an leap - isn't it also possible that she actually took your "How to think about science" essay to heart, and realized that she didn't actually want to do it? This is not uncommon, even if someone is good at something - even if they're the best - that doesn't necessarily mean that they should pursue it.
When I used to advise grad students in the context of GRE training, I considered myself very successful when I talked students out of pursuing graduate education in fields that they were not passionate enough about to commit themselves to properly (or, in a couple of sad cases, where they flat out didn't have the skills - this happened a couple of times with people hoping to go into physics or math that just weren't good enough at math to make it, and as horrible as it was to do so, I had to be honest [gently] about that fact).
This is particularly relevant to me because I was one of those people that understood (and I like to think, still understands) how science is done, was good at it, even had a passion for it, and still decided to pursue another path - I've written the very e-mail that you mention, though it was "program computers" instead of "become a judge". But I think very highly of the professors that gave me an accurate and honest view of how tough the field was (physics, in my case) and how it functioned. Though they might have been disappointed that their feedback played a part in my staying away (honestly, it was money - I realized that unless I was a shining star in the field [I wasn't], I'd probably never have enough, and I didn't have it in me), I consider it to have been extremely important in my decision, and for that I'm really grateful.
This sort of thing used to happen to me a lot. I learned to deal with it by being very careful in asking the right sorts of follow up questions (you need to understand what kind of an answer someone is looking for, or whether they are looking for an answer at all) and not spending more time answering something than what the original questioner spent explaining their priorities and conflicts. In hindsight, this is obvious... if they are to make the decision, all I can do is lend an ear and double-check their thought process - not do the thinking for them!
At a company I used to work at they used to put the new engineers through kindergarten. They had a few tasks that needed doing and the way to get these tasks done needed a little bit of resourcefulness.
One of the tasks was to get a set of data from a very old computer (PDP-11) into excel. Of course there were lots of problems with doing this and of course most things were broken.
I was working at some crappy desk hidden near the PDP-11. The easiest solution I would tell everyone was to type the numbers into a laptop, it would take them about 2 hours.
The difference in the way people would listen to what I would tell them was as different as their responses. Most people would try something for about an hour or so then type it in. A few resourceful people would implement some very amazing solutions and then tell me about it, I was impressed. And then there were quite a few people who would spend two days trying to implement a technical solution only to end up typing it in or just give up completely.
Some of the resourceful results where quite simple. The main thing I found was that trying to tell the difference between the resourceful people who came up with a solution in 30 minutes and those who took 2 days was impossible. Neither of them really wanted to hear my answer. Observing the differences in how people would deal with the problem and then with the advice was enlightening to say the least.
The people who gave up because they didn't want to type in data for 2 hours ceased their employment rather quickly.
In a meeting convened to tackle a problem in China,
he had said: "This is really bad someone should be in
China driving this." Thirty-minutes in the meeting he
chided Sabih Khan, the then operations executive,
saying "Why are you still here?". Khan responded by
immediately booking a ticket to China, sans a change
I've always found that story really interesting, for a number of reasons. For instance, was Khan obviously the right person to take responsibility for that problem? Maybe the story is an illustration that saying "somebody go take care of this" is less effective than assigning a particular individual to take care of it.
I can see learning a lot more than that. For instance, my takeaways would be:
(a) This a global company, and distance is irrelevant. Whether it's the other side of campus, or the other side of the world, if you need to be there now, you need to be there now. So go.
(b) At this level, budget is not an issue. Nor are aggravating details like travel authorizations, expense accounts, etc. Seriously, just get on with it.
(c) Your staff better be ready to to deal with this, in that they need to be dialed in well enough to cover for anything you need at a moment's notice - including your suddenly being in Beijing. That is to say, you need a deep bench. So spend the money to build a deep bench. And when you have it, use it freely.
(d) This company is the opposite of complacent, and doesn't take its success for granted. Thinking or acting like you can't miss is a sure way to get fired. On the other hand, having the brass to be the right person in the right place at the right time is a great recipe for success. Be that person.
(e) 'Executive' is derived from 'execute', and that's what your boss really values. You've got the power. Now use it.
I can see all of this adding up to an extraordinarily liberating sense. For Khan, it was clearly a word to the wise.
Deep-down the unresourceful founders are afraid, which causes anxiety that their decisions are wrong, so anything that approaches being wrong causes the anxiety to repress and get in the way of the freedom to explore things.
Resourcefulness is also about letting new ideas and opportunities come to you, which helps if you listen to your unconscious, which you can't do if anxiety makes your conscious mind jumpy.
It bothers me to hear this, because I know that I tend to fall on the "hard to talk to" side. I used to be really bad at this kind of resourcefulness, and I would have a hard time "chasing down" those various implications. I like to think that I'm better now.
I think that, as with many areas, deliberate practice has helped.
Just sit down and think not just about what a person said, but why they are saying it.
If my dad says, "Son, never date girls who are hippies", that probably means that he himself was burned from an experience like that. While reading it plain would have given me a catch-all theory that is not necessarily true, reading into the reasons told me two extra factoids: my dad doesn't want me to get hurt, and he has dated a hippie girl and that ended badly.
Someone told me once: "You're good at putting the puzzle together, but only when you have all the pieces."
I can't really give specific examples, but it really is a daily thing, where I remind myself to follow things to their logical conclusions, in order to know how to proceed with a task/project/question/etc..
If you know it, then that is half the battle won - as you say you've been able to work towards fixing it.
I honestly think most people like this have no idea that they are hard to talk with, or if they do they have not interest in fixing it, and just want to be left alone: The "I thought doing this job meant I didn't have to speak to people?" types.
This effect goes both ways; resourceful people should be wary of people who are hard to listen to. I feel like when I'm speaking to someone on the same wavelength about a specific topic it's quite easy to take shortcuts through a lot of the conversation with a simple nod and a word.
The opposite type of conversation feels like you're walking through a swamp with no end. You know exactly where they're going with their point many sentences before they reach it, however they continue to drag out the thought.
I think there is something in operating under a fearful authority that spoils people in this way — that causes them to make excuses, obfuscate, counterattack, pass the buck or shut down when confronted by a sound argument against their way of thinking.
Once someone has succumbed to the politics within a large organization, they have likely internalized these patterns of dealing with objections.
So here is a reference, 'Confronting Reality' by Bossidy and Charan  it's worth a read. (Their book on execution is better but they are both worth reading)
The core thesis is exactly what Paul writes about, successful enterprises are successful at confronting a reality which does not agree with their world view, or their desired world view. Fundamentally, if there is a problem, or more importantly a problem in a place where you won't look, it needs to be dealt with. If you don't deal with it sooner, then you will be forced to deal with it when it does so much damage that you cannot deny it any more.
People who can confront those issues fix them when they are small and thus don't waste any time on excess damage control.
Hmm...not sure about the conclusion from the data here.
Maybe they lacked "resourcefullness" (noticed by a difficulty in closing) because their startup wasn't so hot...maybe they were hard to talk to because, again, their startup wasn't so great and they didn't want to talk about it.
It's the old "basketball players are tall because they are good at basketball" thinking...
Look deeper, I suggest the cause-effect be inverted.
The partner note at the bottom is spot on. I have reflectively seen myself doing it. I used to get so focused on the particular idea I had that I lost sight of the fact I was solving a problem, for which there were likely many solutions – blinded by wanting to simply do it the way I had in my head. Conversations would just be a way for me to validate my concrete idea, not to search for additional ideas or entirely new approaches to the problem.
I like this essay because it serves as a personal reminder to always avoid that. As soon as you close your mind off from the ideas others may give you (directly or indirectly), you've lost.
Of course, as a founder, you could make it a point to embrace the reality not just of your inevitable death, but also your startup's inevitable eventual death.
I say this because I'm guessing a lot of the things pg says to the least successful startups involves the reality that their startup will die if there are not quick and radical changes to some part of the business.
I'm sure many physicians must have this problem when talking to their patients who smoke, binge-eat, do not take their medicine, etc.
This is going to sound mean, but I don't mean to be mean. I am genuinely curios:
Could you describe "hard to talk to" as not having very high social skills? I would say that a lot of average folk could be described as hard to talk to, but super smooth people are never hard to talk to.
So I mean to restrict my question to well above average social skills.
And this leads me to my next question. Could it be that social skills require more brain power than traditionally intellectual pursuits?
We know from AI work that things which come naturally to humans are some of the most computationally intensive and most difficult to replicate.
Whereas things like math and playing chess are much easier to implement in software.
Doing math in your head can feel much more difficult than just having a conversation with someone. But what if having a conversation feels easier only because a huge amount of brain power is genetically devoted to vision, language processing, face recognition, and reading other humans' emotions?
(This is what's going to get me grayed out)
What if socially awkward geeks are truly lacking brain power compared to socially super smooth but not particularly intellectual people?
And does pg's experience prove that social smoothness provides higher fitness even in the high-tech startup environment?
Are then technically brilliant but socially awkward people truly less fit in almost all areas of life?
Do socially awkward people only out-compete socially smooth people strictly in situations where interaction among humans is truly minimal?
> Are then technically brilliant but socially awkward people truly less fit in almost all areas of life?
I would say no, they are not, if they recognize their lack of fitness and choose to do something about it.
I think it's true that a lot of technically brilliant people are socially awkward. It makes sense why they are that way, though. In order to become technically brilliant, they had to log many hours in front of a computer screen to practice and get good. Those hours spent programming didn't go into sports, theater, public debate, or whatever other activity might have built up their social skills.
The clincher for a lot of these technically brilliant people, from what I've observed, is that they start to feel superior to others because they are so smart/talented. They then begin to feel like the whole "smooth thing" is a waste of time, because we should just be able to compute our relationships with each other. (That may sound like I'm being sarcastic, but that is not my intention).
It's kind of the old story about "book smart but not street wise". There is a lot of value in learning how to make others feel comfortable around you, or to being able to work smoothly through challenging situations.
I'm thinking of the kind of situation where everyone in the room is tense and somebody is able to defuse the feeling. Being able to do that requires emotional intelligence, which is something many engineers don't always have in abundance.
Acquiring those abilities begins with seeing their value. If somebody who is socially awkward thinks it might be worthwhile to become less awkward, they can definitely do it. (I am speaking from personal experience here!)
I think you misunderstand. He's not talking about social awkwardness, but rather a mindset that prevents the open and honest evaluation of ideas that fall outside of a predetermined set.
When you try advance ideas through discussion with someone with that mindset, communication breaks down because they are unable to wrap their minds around something they for one reason or another do not want to hear. Talk critically with an entrepreneur who is obsessed with a horrible idea (they're rather easy to find at meetups and whatnot), and you'll see what I mean. There is a palpable disconnect in the conversation if you try to get them outside of what they "know".
> Do socially awkward people only out-compete socially smooth people strictly in situations where interaction among humans is truly minimal?
As someone who's been socially awkward in the past (yet good with math, a typical nerd type I guess) but who eventually taught himself to be social to the extent that I can arguably surpass most of my former friends at this game (yet who is nowhere near Paris Hilton yet), here is my hard-won perspective:
1. Being truly social requires two things: (a) social experience, (2) a sophisticated theory of mind, a brain "faculty" that is incredibly resource-intensive, possibly more so than the faculty which performs abstract reasoning. In evolutionary biology, there is an influential theory which claims that it was theory of mind (which is being able to figure out what others think) that developed due to the pressure of living in groups and not tool-making that was the original cause of humans becoming sentient. This is why I don't believe for a second those who say that women are less smart than men (most women were simply taught to be dependent on others from the early age).
2. Our education system especially tends to value social skills less than hard problem-solving skills and therefore convinces us at early age that being social requires less brain power than doing math (because "brainy" is always "good"). This is because of two things (1) people with high social skills are somewhat more likely to steal money from you or cheat or use you in some other way without you ever knowing it, (2) most people except the autistic minority are capable of powerful theory-of-mind type thinking given enough social exposure, while only a select minority (whether because of education or biology) is capable of high-level abstract reasoning.
3. At one point in my life I felt I could be very social if I wanted (and I indeed could), yet I still avoided social interactions because being social felt incredibly draining to me (all those neurons firing consume glucose...) and I did not learn yet to derive pleasure from being social.
4. People who are very good at being social (past a certain threshold) derive a lot of pleasure from it, to the extent that they forgo most non-social intellectual pursuits which they perceive as less rewarding. This is actually a dangerous trap to fall into (similar to a drug addiction) if your main area of work requires quiet contemplation.
5. People who are truly brilliant (I'm not there yet) learn to balance the amount of interaction with others (and pick those they interact with carefully) because they understand that social withdrawal can give them a serious advantage, since most of the society (perhaps except tiger-educated Asian kids) falls squarely into the social-driven category.
I think both are just manifestations of intellectual curiosity - some people, when they talk to you, are asking themselves: "what is this guy trying to say?" So they listen. Those same people, when they see something unusual, for example, a new type of design, they ask themselves - why did these people do this? So they are constantly discovering, and it's that discovering of methods and ways that ultimately leads to them discovering the path that works.
The other people - the non-listeners - are not observing what's going on. They are looking inwards, so are unable to react to changes, and they are unable to see the path when they stumble across it.
Exactly. A person who is constantly reverse engineering business, peoples behavior and life in general.
Curiosity is a big thing. Before I wrote this reply I clicked your handle to see what you did and who you are. I guess that's fairly common on HN but there are people that I know in the local area who still haven't visited my website and have no idea what I do. They just aren't curious in the least.
To further explore this topic, I would recommend reading the book Iconoclast. It identifies "a lack of fear and mental laziness" as some of the key qualities rare extraordinary individuals possess. Having a child's mind and looking at things fresh was another way of putting it for me at the time I read it.
Reading PG's post, it immediately reminded me of the detailed analysis of this quality in the book.
I don't know if you believe in the 'Myers Briggs' stuff (I do to an extent) - but one of the most valuable tools with it (which isn't often mentioned) is to look out for any of your types switching from one to the other.
If this is happening it means you are under stress, and once you can spot it and do something about it, it's really powerful.
That's interesting. I've always tested as an ENTJ ("The Executive or Field Marshall). Lately I've been under a lot of stress as my startup has gotten zero traction and something needs to give soon, because I'm hungry (for food!). Anyways, I recently took the Myers-Briggs again and the result was INFP - which some websites refer to as "The Idealist" who are focused on searching for the value they can provide in life. Weird.
Myers Briggs is a descriptive, not prescriptive, categorization of personality types; belief doesn't enter into it. Like all categorizations, it's merely a useful description of people with a fixed precision of 16. If 16 is an accurate enough categorization for a particular need, then Myers Briggs is sufficient. And like all categorizations, it's just a single way of looking at things, it's not in any way authoritative. You can't dis-believe in a categorization system.
I think the GP was talking about belief in the usefulness (or reliability or validity) of Myers Briggs. Note that the MBTI doesn't just classify people into 16 categories; it classifies people into discontinuous binary categories along 4 axes, obviously resulting in a total of 16 categories. It's certainly useful to think about peoples' positions along those 4 axes, although maybe there are other axes more useful for describing personalities in some situations. However, I find the idea of absolute binary classification (i.e. you're either an introvert or an extrovert, there are no shades of gray) hard to swallow.
Organizations can be complicated things, so I'm guessing there is some history behind the wall. I think the first step is thinking about (and hopefully understanding) why the gap is there. What do you think the reasons for the wall are?
This reminded me of one of the "motivational" posters we have in my building:
*Never take down a fence before you know why it was put up in the first place."
I'm still not sure I agree with it, since it sounds like rationalization for "We've always done it this way."
EDIT: All of your responses are correct, and I appreciate knowing where the quote/paraphrase comes from. Unfortunately, the unique environment I'm in means that this paraphrase is aimed at the type of people (warehouse workers) who would most certainly read into it as a cop-out, and not the nuanced and thoughtful call to rational thinking that it is.
The phrase make good sense. Knowing why the fence was put up in the first place is key. Then "We've always done it this way." is usually defeated with a more appropriate reason. Unless the same type of fences you see are reasonably indicative of poor or confused judgement. Then blast away at will!
rephrase it again. "Yea x is annoying, why did we introduce that step in the process?". That doesn't have the same 'we're not going to stop x!' implication, but explicitly asks for the information you'd need before you went through with stopping it.
"The point I wish to make is this: McKinley gave Rowan a letter to be delivered to Garcia; Rowan took the letter and did not ask, "Where is he at?"
By the Eternal! there is a man whose form should be cast in deathless bronze and the statue placed in every college of the land. It is not book-learning young men need, nor instruction about this or that, but a stiffening of the vertebrae which will cause them to be loyal to a trust, to act promptly, concentrate their energies: do the thing—"Carry a message to Garcia."
'The Master said, "I do not open the way for students who are not driven with eagerness;
I do not supply a vocabulary for students who are not trying desperately to find the language for their ideas.
If on showing students one corner they do not come back to me with the other three, I will not repeat myself."'
I would love to see more stories of YC companies that didn't work out (no personal details needed of course). It seems like the weeding process is good enough to have a very high success rate so the ones that don't do well should be good examples to keep in mind.
I think the primary flaw that PG has identified in start-up founders who fail is the inability to acknowledge and deal with potential weaknesses in your plans.
This can come as a result of many things, but here are a few off the top of my head:
1)Having a set idea about a product or feature and not wanting to adjust it to user feedback due to being enamored with that idea.
2)Not wanting to accept that something will take many hours of tedious work and then having to put in that tedious work.
3)Worrying that if X essential feature is necessary that you don't have the ability to create X
4)Having to learn and work hard in an area that doesn't come naturally to you (tech founder doing sales/marketing or non-tech founder doing programming)
5)Social encounters that require one of the following hard to master traits: charisma, confidence, tact, or stubbornness. Social anxiety or nervousness are a given for most people trying to employ these (VC pitches are the obvious example here, but closing a big deal or just talking to your users also applies).
6)Having to seek/turn down investment after working on the basis that you were going to do the opposite.
I don't think the communication with the YC partners is necessarily the problem (although if you can't communicate well with them, then it's likely you can't communicate well in other crucial areas. Even socially awkward types like Zuck and Houston have found a way over time to communicate well where they need to), it's just a symptom of it. If you can't communicate well with them then it's likely because they're exposing you to some uncomfortable truths that you don't want to hear. But there are still founders who are bad communicators who have the necessary honesty about their business to succeed.
> I could never quite tell if they understood what I was saying.
Still it seems this is just coming down to communication. Is it possible that the less successful ones were doing things in areas where you personally had less expertise? Perhaps your advice was impractical or irrelevant, but they felt intimidated into silence rather than feeling they could discuss the problems honestly and see how the advice could be adapted.
I think a huge portion of the blame of this is on the YC partners.
I'm extremely comfortable debating and discussing ideas in an extremely logical and thoughtful way. My favorite question every day to myself is "If I was starting over today what would I do". And Joe Kraus's "Face reality".
I found it impossible to do that during my YC interview though. From minute one it was a series of arrogant and condescending statements after another. Their ideas were nuggets of golden insight and my (far more educated in many instances) responses were dismissed out of hand.
I've had countless discussions of the same type with many other smart people (successful founders, investors, regular smart people) before and since. Some who raised far more difficult questions. I have reason to suspect the biggest problem was the YC partners and not some problem I have being flexible or thoughtful.
I think the essay as well as this quote are very revealing:
With the good groups, you can tell that everything you say is being looked at with fresh eyes and even if it's dismissed, it's because of some logical reason e.g. "we already tried that" or "from speaking to our users that isn't what they'd like," etc. Those groups never have that glazed over look.
I think you're mistaking some founders ability to placate you with thoughtfulness in many, but certainly not all, cases.
One person who publicly talked about this phenomenon (in a joking way) was one of the founders of Heroku. He said that pg said "You're an Oracle killer" so he "smiled and nodded because I wanted to get in" (paraphrasing).
I think that's very indicative of the way many founders probably feel when talking to the YC partners. The ones who disregard that idea are likely marked as "difficult to talk to."
I think there's a very real danger you guys aren't hearing stuff like this because who in their right mind would tell you and who would you listen to? You would probably just say they're difficult to talk to.
The problem with being so damn smart (which all the YC partners truly are) is that you can start to think that any problem you run into (like founders who seem hard to talk to) you're assumption is that it's their fault instead of your own.
I do think there's some unbiased truth to the essay and maybe the founders who are good at placating will make better founders. But you have to consider: would Bill Gates or Steve Jobs really have smiled and nodded or would they have said "What the hell are you talking about, that's stupid." (We know what Jobs would have done anyway.)
I'm still a really big fan of YC and all the YC partners, but I do think you might have let some arrogance creep in to your process. You guys are doing alright though, so feel free to ignore little ol' me.
>From minute one it was a series of arrogant and condescending statements after another. Their ideas were nuggets of golden insight and my (far more educated in many instances) responses were dismissed out of hand.
This is exactly what pg is saying; you don't seem to be considering that you are "difficult to talk to" at all. YC's behaviour is irrelevant to analyzing your chances of success.
You might (and probably are) correct about each particular statement. However in business, successful people will take what they have learned - after all, it worked - and apply it to your problem, often in very arrogant or seemingly condescending and possibly incorrect ways.
Instead of focusing on the statement, digesting it from their angle and replying, you are focusing on how it was said, assuming authority and dismissing it; a combative rather than an intuitive, "learning" stance.
You may be right. You may be wrong. The whole concept is that this is irrelevant to thesis - which is that people like you tend not to succeed as startup founders. It's perhaps ironic that YC founders would probably be in this failing group with their current attitudes. (I don't know, I've never met them, it's also possible that in a different context, they alter their approach.) It doesn't refute the point however.
It's the humility and resourcefulness that leads to success; the idea that you never fully understand your problem scope and that further knowledge can come from anywhere, including ideas previously dismissed. People that adopt this mindset tend to do well. That's what pg is saying in this essay.
I think it's just as likely that only founders who fit that behavioral profile tend to do well in YC. Assuming that YC is representive of the world would be a mistake. There are a great many startups created differently outside YC that are very successful.
I also find it hard to imagine a lot of the most successful people I've known fitting this profile. Some maybe, but not most. In fact it's a profile, that as you point out, pg himself certainly does not fit.
I think your comment would be much stronger without this statement:
But you have to consider: would Bill Gates or Steve Jobs really have smiled and nodded or would they have said "What the hell are you talking about, that's stupid." (We know what Jobs would have done anyway.)
That's a straw-man argument. pg didn't say or imply that they want people to "smile and nod" or who don't challenge them when they're wrong, you said that.
I've had over a dozen meetings during which my cofounder and I have challenged things pg has said. But we listen and try to understand what he says first.
YC wants people who are flexible and who will honestly consider feedback, but they don't want sycophants.
The purpose of the interview is to find people who will make good founders. It is not a salon for intellectuals to sit around and be "comfortable debating and discussing ideas in an extremely logical and thoughtful way". It's closer to a boxing match. We're definitely not looking for people to "smile and nod". In fact, we sometimes make misleading suggestions in order to see how founders respond, so simply agreeing with everything is definitely not a winning strategy.
The idea that you would make intentionally make misleading suggestions certainly would explain a lot. I was actually expecting that to some degree. I think what confounded me so much is just how ridiculous the statements were and how many there were.
At one point I was reduced to essentially defending the very idea of startups and technology innovation. In the stress of the moment I also assumed like the comments were made sincerely (call me naive) so I did my best to pick my jaw up off the floor and explain why they were wrong -- only to be cutoff half way into a sentence. Rinse. Repeat.
When I say I'm "comfortable debating" I don't mean that I need to be comfortable while debating. I grew up with lawyers in my family and in a household where heated debate was part of our every day life. I've worked with some extremely smart and opinionated people. I love a vigorous debate about topics I'm passionate about (like startups). No one who knows me would say I'm a pushover, and most would agree I'm very open to sound logic and evidence.
I think if there's one thing that felt very different in my YC experience it was the intentionally misleading statements. I really am not accustomed to arguing with people who repeatdly make disengenous statements just to judge how I'll react. It's one thing to take an arbitrary position and defend it, it's another to just throw out random misleading statements. To me that would seem to only muddy the waters.
I'm sure I could learn to play that game. Maybe the best founders are great their first run. For all I know I was judged okay on that front. I don't really know.
I do know though that one would learn a lot more about my ability to think by restricitng the conversation to an honest debate of the relevant issues.
Again. I respect all of you guys and know you're good people and ridiculously smart. I'm not making any judgements on that account. One of the reasons I find YC so amazing is that you don't have to be "someone" to get in. It's not an old boy's club. It is disappointing to me to see that tinge of VC arrogance in the interview process, which is why I point it out.
I mean "misleading" as in "leading in the wrong direction", such as "have you considered doing X?", where X is something that I think is a bad idea. If they agree with every I idea I have, then they will even agree with bad ideas, and won't make for a very effective founder (because the reality is that investors will make all kinds of dumb suggestions).
I've never been even a fly on the wall in such circumstances, so I can't comment on the accuracy of what you are saying but look back to the text... "Like real world resourcefulness, conversational resourcefulness often means doing things you don't want to". I think what could be taken from this is, those that are resourceful find a way to get from point a to point b, and while communicating with arrogant or difficult people is never easy, there are ways to handle the situation to get a desired outcome--sometimes you just have to push your own ego aside, and give them what they want. It's kind of like when you get into a trivial argument with your loved one, and just to end the fight you cave in, and tell them what they want to hear, just so you can get back to the good times.
I really like the questions you ask yourself, it's an interesting exercise, but maybe you could add, "How can I get better?" That's what I ask, because I feel like instead of growing from your experience (You made it to the interview process at YC! That's an accomplishment!) you kind of seem a bit bitter--even if they are arrogant, and I really hope they aren't, don't let it affect you. Be better. And do you know what? It sounds like you're a smart guy with the ability to make some really interesting things in life, you've got no reason to be bitter. Don't sweat the small stuff, just be better.
Being firm in your position and rooted in your values, while open to suggestion is different then being combative. When you come into an interview thinking "I'm gonna show these guys they can't push me around because I am smarter than them" you are hard communicate with. That is not to say that you have to know the answer to every question. When you come across a tough question, you have to answer it with either facts, or from the position of "these are x scenarios we are researching now to figure out the best answer to this question, this is what we found so far."
Bottom line, you first need to appreciate the opportunity of even getting an interview and when it starts speak truth, speak slow and be real.
Furthermore, I wouldn't be surprised if this was a planted post based on real thoughts and observations designed to get feedback. YC is clever that way. Part of the process is meant to be chaos in my opinion, at least the interview. If you cannot handle 15 minutes of Hell's Combinator, what will happen when your company faces significant challenges that could determine the life of your business? That is not to say YC knows it needs and is trying to get better. It is so much more than a snapshot. Certain situations require certain action and are designed to get a certain type of result.
>I think there's a very real danger you guys aren't hearing stuff like this because who in their right mind would tell you and who would you listen to?
Tons of people have told him he's a pompous blowhard. The problem is that the answer to the second half of your question is "nobody". Paul's ego does not allow him to listen to anyone. "I was lucky once" is his standard reply to any form of criticism or questioning of his "wisdom".
I think Paul is only partially right. There is another side to this. It is the people that do ask a lot of questions that are usually more able to look at things from a different perspective and to be innovative. A man of action is great for getting things done but he (or she) will usually always do things the same old and usual way and not think much about what he is doing.
A more contemplative person will ask a lot of questions and figure out the problem in its entirety and then be able to test the boundaries and question the implicit assumptions.
I think a good team requires one of each, although having at least on man (or woman) of action for a team is important.
Please. This is the manager's side of the argument whenever there is miscommunication. There are 100 you things you can do to fix communication problems.
Besides being overly general without any anecdotes, this article completely overlooks that there are solutions to miscommunication on both sides of the table, and that some people simply are not suited to work together, whether in a investor-to-founder relationship, or at the manager-employee level.
I agree with Paul's comments here, and think they hold true far outside the bounds of this conversation. However, there is something about the context in the original post that doesn't seem clear to me. It relates to what qualifies as "being hard to talk to."
It sounds like the label is being assigned to those who don't jump at something, take a ball and run with it, or whatever metaphor you'd like to insert. And the summary reaches a point of "hard to talk to yields lack of resourcefulness." And as evidence, those who weren't hard to talk to were those who closed funding, grabbed users, or some other metric. And those who were hard to talk to were the ones who didn't.
Those who succeeded at something were easy to talk to, but those who didn't succeed at something were more difficult? Not really a surprise, but what's smoke and what's fire? Seems to me there exists the possibility that failure in those areas may be the cause, and hard-to-talk-to was merely a symptom representative of a point in time.
I imagine this is contextual in the relationship of YC to its member companies, but from an outsider's perspective I could see this working out differently.
This was a very insightful post which confirms my experience that generally working with people you can't communicate easily with almost always leads to bad results. What I'm wondering though, is if it really is a property of the person, or the fit between the two parties. Some people just don't get each other. Maybe their values are too far apart or something. Maybe they try to follow the other parties implications, but it leads somewhere they don't want to go, or then they cannot even fill in the blanks correctly because of different mental models.
So an alternative explanation for pg's observation is that when there is founder-advisor fit, communication is easy, because both parties can follow the implications of the other party and value similar things. Then the startups with better founder-advisor fit do better in the outside world, because they can actually benefit from the advice they are getting, whereas for the ones without founder-advisor fit the advice is pure noise to them, and does not guide them in the right direction (that is the one they want to go).
I have of late been grappling with Dunning-Kruger, which I'd like to apply to this topic.
How do I know if I have this problem? Because everyone filters advice through their brain in one way or another, right? How can I tell if my brain is filtering in such a way to conform advice to my preconceptions, or if I'm truly grappling with the advice?
And if I do have this problem, how do I fix it? Is it remediable?
> My feeling with the bad groups is that coming into office hours, they've already decided what they're going to do and everything I say is being put through an internal process in their heads, which either desperately tries to munge what I've said into something that conforms with their decision or just outright dismisses it and creates a rationalization for doing so. They may not even be conscious of this process but that's what I think is happening when you say something to bad groups and they have that glazed over look. I don't think it's confusion or lack of understanding per se, it's this internal process at work.
A great deal of this article seemed to be concerned more about flexibility than resourcefulness.
"Like real world resourcefulness, conversational resourcefulness often means doing things you don't want to. Chasing down all the implications of what's said to you can sometimes lead to uncomfortable conclusions."
"My feeling with the bad groups is that coming into office hours, they've already decided what they're going to do and everything I say is being put through an internal process in their heads, which either desperately tries to munge what I've said into something that conforms with their decision or just outright dismisses it and creates a rationalization for doing so."
This sounds like a testament to the lean-startup movement, where success is more dictated on the ability to iterate on user feedback rather than being stuck in one static idea of what your business is or is meant to be.
Another indicator of this is verbal ping-pong. How granular you have to answer questions/give direction. If you get a lot of "What do I do next?" or "you never told me to do that!" A non-resourceful person would say "How am I supposed to know that an introduction means X, Y, Z?!"
I've spent much of my professional career thinking about this concept, because I've experienced it so often, but more out of frustration for my peers who DON'T seem to work this way.
There is nothing better than the feeling of clicking with someone intellectually, or even on a romantic level, when either of you can say one word and the other just gets it.
That said, there is nothing more frustrating than watching a peer, co-founder, or employee doing the exact opposite. PG doesn't mention the situation where you're witnessing someone over-explain something, when the other party clearly understood after one word, but the person explaining hasn't realized it. This infuriates me to no end (especially when pitching), but it's almost impossible to explain this to the guilty party!
This just crystalized something for me. I like to create stuff with people. Once I find that someone is thoughtful, reflective, or whatever you want to call it, I like to talk with them in a manner that prods the abstract. It now makes sense to me that my most successful collaborations have happened with people with whom I can easily speak in the abstract. Details and competence are real things, but they are not the most important things by a long shot. Details can't be accounted for except for the fact that they will arise and they will have to be dealt with in one manner or another. Also, besides a reticence to talk in the abstract, one thing that puts serious doubt in my mind about people is self-help books.
Well, I am sure that some will disagree, but what I've seen, most of what is in self-help books is common sense, although the best wrap it in amusing or counter-intuitive anecdotes. I think self-help allows people to convince themselves that there's formulae to life, when it's really just a matter of doing things in earnest and learning as you go.
So, basically I see self-help books as a sign that someone over-values impersonal advice. Not a sign of confidence, IMHO.
"With the good groups, you can tell that everything you say is being looked at with fresh eyes and even if it's dismissed, it's because of some logical reason e.g. "we already tried that" or "from speaking to our users that isn't what they'd like," etc. Those groups never have that glazed over look."
Because honestly ... sometimes it suck when someone with general knowledge tells you to do something you've already tried, and you have been having success with your own paradigm. Sometimes it's hard to work with someone who has a different paradigm but is also successful. Which is a shame! It would have been great to know that there's more than one way to approach things.
Thanks for pinging the article. It applies very well to my actual situation, which is different and yet similar in its essence. I am still in school and when I had problems I dealt with it by myself no matter how hard or the quantity of extra activities. Since then I have learned to rely on the help of actual people not only internet. I guess thats a problem many of you guys already solved. Anyway, it was mine to solve and this article only makes the map neater.
Sounds like executive intelligence coupled with a willingness to take personal responsibility if it fails - that's why they chase up the implications. Hard to talk to can also translate into talking to users. The paradox with startups comes in building something very much for yourself, but also very much for other people: possibly a similar maturity in talking to others, requiring a mental leap of faith.
This elegantly summarizes some thoughts I've been having myself the past years.
PG applies it to founders, whereas I apply to potential friends.
The word I've been using internally for this: pounceability. As in, with high-quality friends they will POUNCE on stuff you say to them and return to you later having independently researched whatever it was that you told them about. Whereas others have to be hammered into submission pretty much.
Resourcefulness might decompose into several well-defined traits or aptitudes. If I had to guess, I'd expect successful startup founders to score low for neuroticism, high in conscientiousness & openness as well as having an internal locus of control.
This could be invaluable, both in selecting the companies as well as for coaching and teaching.
Though I'm not otherwise a big fan of Donald Trump, I read one of his books to see what he had to say. The book was called "Think Like A Champion" (I suppose that says something about Trump, but let that go by).
He pointed something out which I thought was a great business lesson: if you can't explain yourself in 5 minutes or less, you are going to be in trouble.
Relating this to pg's story, it means: you have to be able to express your ideas cleanly, succintly, and then forget all about them so you can take feedback. You have to drop the fact that it's "your idea" and just listen to what is being said.
I've worked with a number of people who were really, really, really excellent technically, but you could literally see the cogs churning in their head as you were speaking to them. And it was very much like what Paul describes, a sort of glazed over look. Afterwards, you'd have to rev the same idea with the a few times until they got it, or until you had to give up and make a decision by yourself.
I think it's a hard habit for some people to break, but it can be done.
I don't read that from the writing. It just isn't relevant to what he is saying.
What he is saying is, taking the ball and running with it on your own, and really attacking the issue, for all it's faults is better than saying you're taking the ball and running with it, and instead allowing challenges throw you off the path.
That's what I read from it. Nothing about flexibility or being open minded. You can be both of those things, and still allow challenges to make you focus on other topics.
If you're really attacking the issue, you're not concerned with talking about it.
The whole issue comes down to fear. Fear that the challenges and issues are a negative, and feeling embarrassed by it.
Being bold, attacking the issue, tracking down details, giving updates on status without fear. These are the qualities.
Being timid. Hearing the request, and putting it off because you don't know where to start. Not asking for help because you don't want to be thought of as someone who doesn't know something. Working on other tasks that you are good at, but not addressing the tasks you're not good at. The next time you think about it (aside from worry), is you being asked for a status and you have nothing. You put off the email.
That's the difference no? That's what I see working in startups.
There are the types that you hand them something, and they own it, and there are the types that you hand them something, and they fidget with it, and delay it at the first challenge that they don't know.
Perhaps I'm reading it wrong. That's my experience.
I'm not an investor, but I've had a parallel experience having been involved with roughly 150 tech contracts in my career.
A strong predictor for mediocrity is when communication is troubled. If we're unable to have two-way conversations with all project stakeholders, it's almost a guarantee that we'll end up delivering something that has less value than it could, at a higher cost than was possible, and that nobody is thrilled with.
This reminds me of the book "Blink" by Malcom Gladwell. Something doesn't seem right and our instincts pick up on it way before we understand it.
Communication is such an import part of business, relationships, and life. If there is a lack of communication it can spell trouble in many different areas down the line. In this case it seemed to be an indicator of many other problems as well.
Thanks for sharing, interesting to see how the pieces are connected from a business/startup perspective.