I read the post S12 (post noidea) essay (http://www.paulgraham.com/startupideas.html) as a (if unacknowledged) reaction of someone trying to understand and elucidate why ideas are actually very important (going against the common refrain that 'execution' is all that matters) after having recently seen poor ideas get by a selective process.
Ever run into an n^2 algorithm?
But it was certainly an interesting experiment to see if there are people who accept that they have the skillset to build a company but not have the idea part figured out.
Although requiring them to come up with an idea could be a good ability test, even if it isn't what they end up building. Because a large number of companies end up doing something different that turns out to be successful.
ala "getting to plan b" (or the abused "pivoting") http://www.amazon.com/Getting-Plan-Breaking-Through-Business...
I still view YC's willingness to experiment in an extremely positive light. It's why YC is the innovator, and everyone else (500, techstars etc) are just imitators. That being said, I think "no idea" was a bad idea, for YC as investors and advisors, for the following reasons:
1. It created teams that had not actually worked together for a significant length of time on an idea that all founders believed in. In other words, "teams" which were not actually "teams", but rather a set of individuals with strong credentials.
2. Some of the most important psychological benefits of going through YC, particularly the artificial pressure of Demo Day, have a paradoxical effect on "no idea" teams. The experience of watching good startups grow literally before your eyes at weekly dinners is inspiring, but not particularly conducive to coming up with your own idea. For me at least, it created an almost existential angst.
3. Without an idea, a shared revolutionary vision of the future, there is nothing binding a team together. Each time an idea "failed" there was an intense feeling of loss and personal failure, particularly (as mentioned above) when you see the "idea" teams progressing week on week. That emotional baggage can rip apart formerly great friends .. it did in our case.
Given that, s12 was not a disaster. For one, many s12 teams are doing brilliantly, and I wouldn't be surprised if there are more than a few black swans amongst my batchmates. But more importantly, it wasn't a failure in the same sense that Edison's first 9,999 light bulbs (that didn't work) were not failures.
For me personally, "no idea" was a great idea, as I learned more from my YC experience than can be quantified. While I'd never take funding again without an idea (or a working product or service) as it causes unnecessary and often contradictory pressure, my understanding of how to succeed in startups is orders of magnitude greater than it would have been without YC, and for that I will be eternally grateful.
Of course by disaster I meant just relative to other classes, with a much higher amount of team splits/zombies in such a short period, which seemed predictable. Most startups don't work out, that's expected, but the stage was weighed for things not to work out in re: the startup itself and the friendships involved. Who knows, perhaps you and your friends, with a shared, good idea would have done great in w13, having the right context to build upon where you were at. I know of other teams who were extremely frustrated that something they've dreamed about, Demo Day, turn into something to dread and the quite painfully choosing to give up on the whole endeavor whatever the high personal costs (not necessarily wrongly).
One of the best things about pg's essay was the core message to entrepreneurs that a good startup idea requires not a pressure cooker atmosphere to come up with an 'idea' but the natural space in which you notice a problem that can be solved. It's the starting point, not something that can be tacked on later like the noidea concept would suggest.
Wrt to my own team, we would not have done great in w13 .. it turned out that we were not a "team", we didn't work well together and had vastly, irreconcilably, different views. Some people just aren't meant to work together, and I'm glad to have learned this sooner rather than later. I now know what to look for in co-founders, and that's not a meager knowledge.
Like problem solving in job interviews, doing the exercise tells you a lot more than just if the applicant can get the right answer or not. It can demonstrate your effort, creativity, intelligence, even if it has flaws.
Today's the last day to apply. How did no one notice or think about asking this earlier?
EDIT: took me a while to find it but:
> Sorry, we're no longer considering applications for winter 2013.
> Check back later to apply for summer.
The S13 application date closes today, so either the
above needed editing, or the "no idea" option really was
https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4512022 (answer from pg)
I find that silly. I'm not a chef but I can taste food.
Increasingly I have the tendency to believe that all this technical/non-technical is a really unfortunate simplification. I think especially when it comes to a startup tackling really big problems whether you've programmed before might be a rounding error in the equation toward succeeding.
That's an unfortunate simplification. Without a technical background, you wouldn't know how long it takes to make a basic CRUD app. "3 weeks? Ok I guess. Oh, 3 months actually? Ok I guess." And what about performance, scalability, costs, etc? You'd have no clue.
Also, and perhaps most importantly, when I find a minor bug in my app, I can fix it myself and push an update immediately. If I relied on freelance developers, well, crap, it's Good Friday. So very least I'm waiting a few days. And then maybe my developer isn't available to drop everything and work on my project on Monday (or Tuesday)... One of the primary advantages of startups is their ability to react and adapt quickly; running a technical startup alone, without a technical background, appears to give up some of that advantage.
-- Not to nitpick, but you are implying the technical team is untrustworthy or incompetent, unless they are co-founders. While I (would like to) think all founders are trustworthy and competent, being a non-founder should not be a contra-indication.
Particularly for sniffing out security problems... you're fighting a many-headed beast, so unless you're quite technical yourself (and know how to exploit the whole OWASP list, for example), I can't imagine how you'd evaluate someone else's statement that "yes, this will be secure"; even if the lead developer can talk in depth about 10 common security holes, what if s/he simply isn't familiar with #11 and #12? Or lacks the creativity to notice how an architecture choice will severely hamper security in the future?
There's non-trivial work involved in evaluating my own work, and every now & again when I step back to view my own approach to a technical problem I change course.
So -- it's certainly possible to evaluate developers without being technical, but you're still forced to trust their diligence and skill quite a bit. "Talking the talk" of doing things right technically isn't very hard (just read a lot of dev blogs... you'll pick it up); actually doing them right with some consistency is a different beast entirely, and not everyone succeeds even with the best of intentions (...but this is much harder to evaluate).
Reminds me of this Joel Spolsky essay: http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000069.html
The focus being on people does not preclude writing good code.
Of course there are other skills - management, marketing, sales, etc. - that would also be helpful. But as a sole founder, while not critical, it seems extremely useful to have some degree of competence in the primary area of work for your business.
In fact, were I planning to start a software company without yet knowing how to code, I think my first step would be to learn enough to build the alpha version (or depending on scope, a core component thereof) myself. Not only is having a specific goal the best way to learn, it would likely result in all kinds of insights into the planned business that just couldn't be gained by farming it out. (In fact, that's exactly what I did with SearchTempest, before eventually hiring a far better developer than myself! :) )
I presume YC attracts a certain target audience of generally 'people who build things.' . Wonder did YC without an idea change the target audience?
Essentially visa problems cease to be a showstopper once you have money.