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Ask PG: Did the "apply to YC without an idea" experiment work?
276 points by maximz on Mar 29, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 58 comments
It appears that it's not possible to apply without an idea for S13. Does this mean that the experiment didn't work? Can you share some details of what you found and what went wrong?

To be honest, I wasn't sure whether or not the noidea application was live. I had to go look at the source. So it looks like we de facto killed it by never enabling it for s13. Frankly it's not a big deal either way. We only accepted one noidea application last cycle, and IIRC there were only about 50 applications.

Perhaps the whole idea of the noidea app set the stage for the disaster that was S12. Even though only one noidea app was accepted strictly speaking perhaps both a signal sent that the 'idea bar' was lowered and and a lowering of standards. This seems to me to hold a lot of explanatory power, much more so than the idea that multiplying 66 by 1.27 would be the key thing in turning something that works into something unmanageable.

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.

much more so than the idea that multiplying 66 by 1.27 would be the key thing in turning something that works into something unmanageable

Ever run into an n^2 algorithm?

I think the noidea idea was quite good, but quite possibly what struck me as the worst thing about it was the philosophy it implied "oh you don't need an idea to be an entrepreneur, just start a company anywayy!lol". I know that's not the whole truth of it and that many people wind up changing their idea, but that's the feeling it gave me (and I feel many others).

Out of curiosity, what makes you think that managing YC is n^2? Certainly everyone would need to communicate with you -- that's n. The question is whether or not each YC pair would need to communicate with each other. That is n^2 and seems like an excessively high level of message passing.

Human memory is not linear. The difference between having 10 teams and having to remember their names and their ideas and their challenges and remembering 20 teams is more than a 2x increase in difficulty.

In its then form, every partner had to know what every startup was doing, and the number of partners was a function of the number of startups.

So n log n.

The number of partners you need is not the log of the number of startups. It's more like n/15.

I remember there were some organizational issues - is that what you mean by "the disaster that was S12"?

Those low numbers would be expected, not having an idea would certainly be an exception or a minority among entrepreneurs (the type of people who constantly can't fall asleep because of some new crazy idea eatting away at them).

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...

Considering that YC startups sometimes pivot after getting accepted, wouldn't being able to come up with at least one good idea be a requirement for getting accepted.

How many companies applied with an idea then said they are not particularly attached to it? I would assume for most people they would rather do that than come off as they have no ideas at all.

Who was it?

No idea.

Being one of the no idea / barely an idea teams in s12, one of the teams that acrimoniously blew apart and probably one of the teams that led to the changes that YC made for w13, I am glad that "no idea" is no longer an option.

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.

This kind of hits the nail on the head. An idea is in many ways the context by which you judge a startup team in terms of a core commitment to a common goal, as shown by working on it together for a period of time (more than a week, etc.). It defines what 'team' means. Without that, what do you have? Credentials.

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.

I don't know if it was predictable. It was a thesis that turned out to be incorrect, but on what basis could it have been discounted until tried?

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.

Completely agree. Do you happen to have a link to pg's essay about changes from s12 to w13? Thanks.

It seems to me there would be no benefit to them in allowing it. If you want to get into YC and are smart, determined and all the other qualities they want-- you will come up with something. It may not be right, but PG et al can still decide they want the applicant without liking the idea.

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.

It helps to know something about the business in which you are starting your startup.


If you really want to apply without an idea just do it. No one is forcing you to fill out every single field of the application. Don't fall victim to being constrained by the limits of the system!

Voicegem was one of the no idea companies in the first YC class it was offered. They've already joined Palantir, it seems: http://www.voicegem.com

"Application deadline: March 29"

Today's the last day to apply. How did no one notice or think about asking this earlier?

I read the application for this round when it was announced, and the "no idea" option had been removed.

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 removed.

People have, it was discussed a tiny bit in a thread before when the app for this round opened.

Here's some previous times this has come up:

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4512022 (answer from pg)


His answer was "It's still too early to tell". It might be reasonable to ask again 200 days later.

Also, there may be a need for a large sample size before patterns can be recognized.

I'm a sole founder with a non techincal background who is currently outsourcing the development of my site .I applied for the summer batch what do you guys think my chances are ???

But also, I find it pretty hard to imagine building a successful technical startup in this manner. Not saying there's no value to non-technical founders, but alone? How do you evaluate the quality of the outsourced work?

How do you evaluate the quality of the outsourced work?

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.

I'm not a chef but I can taste food.

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.

Yes, this is what I was thinking. Obviously you don't have to know everything, but having at least a basic background seems valuable. Even knowing how to code I find it's hard enough to find good developers, especially freelance.

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.

you wouldn't know how long it takes to make a basic CRUD app

-- 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.

You're implying that someone who can't program is as capable of hiring trustworthy and skilled programmers as a programmer.

Two intersecting sets: (a) trustworthy people; and (b) skilled programmers. Both difficult to observe. Having good information on at least one set is a definite advantage, both for screening and for avoidance of sub-optimal candidates. One would need to make assumptions about the relative trustworthiness of the candidate pools to decide which is more beneficial. It may be that in certain areas, at certain times, its rarer and more difficult to assess character than competence (the latter even at high levels).

Quality of software is beyond what it does, it also means how easy is it to maintain and change.

Of course I said im non technical not non having a brain .

Avoiding all of the analogies... I'm on the technical side, and there's non-trivial work involved in evaluating the quality of the work of other developers.

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).

Quality of software is pretty much irrelevant for startups. The code is usually crap and gets thrown away over and over anyway. The real focus is on people.

If the code is crap, that might explain why it gets thrown away over and over. In my experience, if code is well-written, it should pretty much always be possible to update, revamp, pivot, etc. Rewriting from scratch (especially repeatedly!) is a waste of time that a startup can't afford.

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.

Engineers for startups are paid poorly and almost always work on technically uninteresting problems. Where are you going to get people who can write good code? And again, why would you bother if the hard part of startups is everything except getting the code to work?

Bad analogy. It's more like choosing a catering company to cater a five thousand person convention on the basis of a single meal they prepare for you alone. Even if it tastes great, you have no idea how they're going to hold up when the number of people they need to serve increases massively. And you have no idea whether they're end up killing guests with food allergies or forcing those with different dietary restrictions to go hungry.

I agree that the word 'technical' is somewhat of a meaningless catch-all. If I were starting a restaurant, I would want to know how to cook. To start an auto shop, I'd want some mechanical skill; a clothing boutique, some knowledge of fashion; and a software startup... the ability to 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! :) )

Exactly my thinking I believe that the whole non techincal thing is kinda off a black cloud over my application . Im learning how to basics thru codeacademy but to answer the earlier question . There are tons of ways to assess the quality of the outsourced work...thank you

Assess. FTFY =)

Bad, but mostly because it's incredibly hard to get in regardless of whether you have a stellar application or not.

The LawDingo dude is a non-technical sole founder. The bar will be higher for you for sure, but it's not impossible and you wouldn't be the first. Good luck with your application, I wish you all the best.

You should have users, lots of them. Then you increase your chance. Else it will be treated as just another untested website/idea.

why not find a technical co-founder? have you tried? convincing a technical person to go-in with you will be much simpler than convincing anyone at YC to accept you.

I was in the process of doing that then some things out of my control came up and he left the country

There is more than one technically-capable person out there. It's a good proof-point for your skills as a hustler as well, convincing others on the quality of your idea.

I have always worked on the principle that entrepreneurs have 1000 ideas, choosing which idea to work on is the challenge.

I presume YC attracts a certain target audience of generally 'people who build things.' . Wonder did YC without an idea change the target audience?

No, everyone "without an idea" had plenty of ideas, just hadn't yet settled on one.

While not related to the original question, how does YC work for non US residents and Visa related issues? Does it accept/sponsor a few outside the US startups? IS it interested in doing so?

YC has plenty of non-US residents. Visa situations get resolved on a case by case basis, but there are general guidelines.

Essentially visa problems cease to be a showstopper once you have money.

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