Hacker News new | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Paul Graham on Building Companies for Fast Growth (inc.com)
250 points by shakes on Aug 26, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 172 comments

I'm really disappointed that this was Paul's top of mind criterion for rejection, "One quality that's a really bad indication is a CEO with a strong foreign accent."

That reminds me of an incident earlier in my career when a recruiter ranked candidates on their 'communication skills', which really was a proxy for whether they were an immigrant or not, in order to try to avoid discrimination laws.


Besides, it's failing to communicate clearly and be understood that makes a bad leader, regardless of the behavioural cause (foreign accent, mumbling, random trains of thought).

It's not our top criterion. It's just one that I'm willing to talk about publicly, because there's no way to fake it.

We're not against funding people from outside the US, and we fund a lot of them. But 564 startups is enough to see patterns, and the empirical evidence about very strong accents is striking.

And I am talking about failure to communicate here. I don't mean strong accents in the sense that it's clear that someone comes from another country. I'm talking about accents so strong that you have to interrupt the conversation to ask what they just said.

If I had read this reply 3 years ago, I would have called you "racist". But after spending time with engineers from different countries, I believe having an understandable English accent is not a nice thing to have, but rather a professional responsibility.

I have personally witnessed people losing their jobs/contracts because of this issue, and although I enjoyed their friendship, I wasn't really sorry for losing a teammate. Because trying to solve a technical issue while your mate uses a very broken accent is very very mind numbing and frustrating at its best.

Interestingly, my wife was also having trouble with pronunciation of certain English words as she was learning the language, and I did not want her to have the same fate when (or if) she got a job.

So I created a very simple app for her to practise her pronunciation. Later on I turned it into a webapp when her classmates also wanted to try it. If you are interested you can check it out at: http://www.sayafter.me

Your video uses phrases which are not standard English. The phrase 'a spaghetti' is not used. 'A plate of spaghetti' might be used in that context. Additionally the phrase "Would you please bring some water" would only be used if you have just asked "What should I bring to the game?" or something like that. In the context displayed 'ordering food' you would most likely say "Could you bring me a glass of water?" or "Could you please bring us some water?"

I fully support your effort and think this is a great tool.

This being HN, I immediately thought he should run it by some speech therapists and see what the market would be for such a tool.

I actually talked to a friend and showed him the app who was receiving speech therapy for his stammer. He told me that they are doing "similar" exercises in therapy sessions. So there may be a market, yes. I will research this subject more, thanks for the idea.

> having understandable English accent

Do you mean American mumbling accent or International English accent?

If the later, I fully agree and this apply the most to US citizens.

Last week I was having beer with two friend (one US one Canada) and a guy from LA came by, and it was completely impossible to me to understand one single word in his sentences (except for "fuck" and variants, which convey no meaning). He didn't seem to imagine that other people are different.

By the way, I'm French, living in China since 10 years, my English is rost because I use much more Chinese, but I usually can understand and make myself understood in International English.

For me the "hitishu" would have been obvious.

There is one thing behind this chitchat: English do not belong to UK or US anymore. It belong to the world. (Reasonably clear) Indian English has as many rights to life as have German English or Texan English or Aussie (which could well be the hardest).

> Do you mean American mumbling accent or International English accent?

I mean anyone who can pronounce words in English without causing you to interrupt them often, and ask to repeat themselves, regardless of their accent.

Another sad thing about this is the lack of "negative" feedback these people get, about their inability to communicate.

Most often native speakers are just too "kind", no one will ever say "I did not understand the half of what you just said, please speak slowly and pronounce words correctly". That is why most people never realize the severity of this issue.

You are correct about English belonging to the whole world, but trying to follow a common standard (British / American English) during education wouldn't be a bad thing.

You can ask someone to please speak slowly, but to ask them to pronounce words correctly?


Listen, people pronounce as correctly as they know how to. Do you know why people have an accent? It's because they can barely here the difference between sounds that sound alike, so they pronounce them the same. Many speaks of English around the world. Can't hear the th sound, they hear t or d. so they say tink instead of THing or Dis instead of THis. If you ask them to pronounce clearly, they will repeat the same thing over and over until they actually are taught to differenciate the sound. Until they can learn to hear it, isolate it, learn to reposition their tongue, mouth movement, etc. They won't be able to pronounce it "correctly"

Besides if they can do all that, that's still not enough, stressing the wrong part of a word, note, word not even sentence, can be a reason for you not to understand them. If they knew how to pronounce every single world the american way and stress it. If they don't link it or use the american intonation, you could still have a terrible hard time understanding them, unless they speak in an absolute monotone voice where it sounds like they are reading from a word list. That in itself is not easy as well.

It's not easy to acquire any accent, until you try it as an adult. You won't understand.

The common standard exists already! It is international business English and my point is that German or Indian speakers are often much better at it than many Americans I have met. Weirdly enough, Americans who happen to also speak Chinese or another language are much easier to understand in English. Probably having learnt another tongue teaches you how hard it is and how annoying are those natives who make no effort to slow down and clarify their speaking, and no effort to understand others as soon as they pronounce slightly differently from hometown accent.

I got TONS of negative feedback at first, people here would make zero effort to try to understand me, typical "not my problem" attitude. What I didn't get was any CONSTRUCTIVE feedback to know what I was doing wrong, I had to figure it our by myself and fix it.

You are correct, "Indian English" or any type of english has as much right as say "British or American English" but the issue and reason pg could make such a statement is that American money is calling the shots.

So even after dozens of centuries we are still in under Law of the Jungle, were the ones who have more can bully and look down on the ones who have less?

If it is like so, we should go back to slavery, it made no sense to abolish it.

> Do you mean American mumbling accent or International English accent?

> Indian English has as many rights to life as have German English or Texan English or Aussie

You are missing the point. It's not about "rights to life". No language (or dialect, or idiolect, or accent) has a "right to exist", or they all do. Who cares? (Also, German English? wtf?)

What matters are things like: Are you getting the results you want? Are you delivering good value to others (so that they want to give you good value back!)?

If your job doesn't require communication, speak whatever you like. If you're so damn good at your job that everyone else has to obey your whims, AND you don't care about the total effectiveness of your team, then speak whatever you like. But most people need to communicate, and for some people, poor accent becomes a dominant factor in their job performance. The responsibility is shared, but it falls most-heavily on the person who is most-different, because it's easier for one person to change than for a whole office to change. This, I hope and trust, is what znt meant when he said "professional responsibility".

Sometimes it cuts the other way, though. I'll give you an example from my own life. I am personally bad at understanding thick south-asian accents. I used to think all people from my background (Canadian anglophone) had the same problem. But I'm learning that I have more trouble than most people. That means it's mostly my problem. But if everyone agrees that so-and-so is very hard to understand, then it would be mostly so-and-so's problem.

This isn't about "rights" or "entitlement". It's about being effective. It's not the "law of the jungle", it's the law of gravity. And it's laughable, stupid, and somewhat offensive, to say that we might as well go back to slavery.

(Of course, sometimes I hear someone say "you have no right to speak your own language in my country". Those people are stupid and wrong. Fortunately, most people who say things like that are also not very good at other things in life, and they usually get punished by the marketplace, and we can ignore them. The rare people who are both powerful, and also stupid xenophobes, everyone else should cooperate to punish such people.)

Too bad we need to create an account (in clear HTTP) to try it.

So, use a unique password and/or a throwaway email?

This reminds me of a fun thing that happened to my colleagues a few years ago (weeks prior to me joining them). They were working on a router pimped with some home automation features (Z-Wave/ZigBee interfacing & co.); the baseboard that the HW provider was offering had 2 Ethernet ports, but they wanted four. They informed them they don't have a four-port version, so they asked if a custom one can be made, extending the current design.

The answer (in a strong Chinese accent)? "Noooo we can't do extended custom design hitishu".

They were baffled. Sure, they understood the "can't do extended custom design part", but the last word was entirely foreign to them. They tried to dig deeper, but all they got was "if we extend cable network we have hitishu".

The talks continued, in order to explore some alternatives; while the business guys did their talking, one of my colleagues figured what this hitishu gizmo was by accident; a few days later, he accidentally touched one of the chips on the board and burnt his fingers. The problem was that the processor they were using was already fairly loaded and, due to the design of the case, couldn't be properly ventilated. They feared that pushing it even harder could get it to heat up even more, which would have lead to heat issues.

I have a Southern American® accent. I work with Indians of various English fluency. I make an effort to reword and repeat certain phrases that I know would cause trouble for a non-native speaker. I don't have any immediate examples because this habit has become second-nature when speaking with others who have heavy accents. Think of it as an attempt at automatic forward error correction.

When I run across someone doing what you're talking about, I just wish they'd repeat the phrase another way: "...hitishu; it get too hot." Problem solved.

"That correlates more with any other success factor that I've seen in the world's greatest entrepreneurs. If you look at Bezos, or Andreessen, David Filo, the founders of Google, they all seem to be white, male, nerds who've dropped out of Harvard or Stanford and they absolutely have no social life. So when I see that pattern coming in -- which was true of Google -- it was very easy to decide to invest." -- John Doerr

Anytime race is involved you've got to be careful before playing the "strong correlation" card.

Granted this is about accents, which an be trained. But it's a little unsettling to me how nakedly pg relies on correlation of a racial/cultural signal, without so much as a comment on how obviously racist and sexist Doerr's perspective is.

pg is not a politician who must appeal to all to be successful, so why do you wonder? he just thinks of the things that work. I run an outsourcing shop, and if i clearly knew that black gays are 2x productive for the same rate i'd quickly turn worst racist/sexist guy you seen.

Only politicians should be concerned with racial equality? Wow.

Only politicians have to pretend that everyone is 100% equal in every way, because they can't afford to offend anyone. pg, on the other hand, doesn't need to worry about that as much because what matters is whether the startup is successful or not. If there is a pattern indicating that a certain group of people are particularly bad at running a business, why should he take the higher risk associated with investing in them?

Because correlation != causation, and applying "pattern recognition" to race and gender is racist and sexist.

Sort of like your university calculus professor then? I remember students changing seminars just to avoid a certain not so easily understood prof.

I have zero doubt that it affected peoples grades. They couldn't clearly understand what was being said, and were less likely to ask for clarification if they knew communication would be a chore.

Coming at it from the teaching side there is definitely a high correlation between lack of foreign accent and good teaching skills. In school I used to help assign graduate TAs into math sections. We would go through and rate all the graduate students by teaching skill and then use that to divide up teaching and grading assignments.

The data showed unambiguously that TAs who lost their accent were much better teachers than those who didn't. It wasn't about not being able to understand the words of the TA; there was an English qualification test that weeded out anyone who couldn't be understood clearly. I think the lack of accent was a proxy for other changes, like being adaptable and willing to alter one's behavior. The bad TAs with accents tended to use ineffective teaching techniques and not change while the good TAs updated their teaching methods based on feedback.

Agreed. The thick accent is just the tip of the iceberg. I found people like this to be somewhat old-school. Education as a hazing experience rather than a process of learning.

This fits well with my experience.

This happens all over the world?? In my university (USP at São Paulo, Brazil) there were several foreign - normally Russian - physics and calculus teachers with terrible accents - some were still learning portuguese.

In my undergrad EE, we had an elderly german prof who pronounced "quiescent" as "christian." Awesome professor, but half the class didn't take the initiative to understand (1) the meaning of the word or (2) it's true pronunciation. Could you imagine communicating with these people in industry?! It would've been maddening. </anecdote>

I recently had a math prof with a bit of an accent and also fairly bad handwriting. He always used the variables "u" and something that sounded like "wee", where "wee" was drawn kind of like a backwards uppercase "N" where the right hand tail didn't go all the way down to the baseline.

I realized about 5 weeks into the class that "wee" was actually just "v". :( I've had other profs with heavy accents before (that other people said they couldn't understand but I did alright with), but this prof just completely lost me on some words.

My Electronic Circuits professor pronounced 'threshold' as 's-ratio'. I didn't actually discover until after the semester in another class that there was something called a 'voltage threshold'.

I had a professor turn pivot into something close to pervert (pee-vert, to be precise). It was... distracting.

But I do understand how hard it is. I don't even know how long I confused the pronunciation of cheveux (hair) and chevaux (horses) and I used to butcher the pronunciation of l'eau (water; it sounds like 'low' not 'loo').

Thanks for replying. I guess I should explain further why it is disappointing to me.

Accent is intrinsic to a person's sense of self, akin to their religion or ethnicity (truly). Asking people to change their sense of self for you is a lot.

Imagine I said I couldn't relate to a business person because they were just too, say, Chinese and so I suggest they take lessons to act more Canadian to fit my liking. Yikes.

Then imagine I said that in an nationally syndicated magazine as a role model to young foreign-sounding entrepreneurs. Double yikes.

After criticizing you, I guess owe you a different perspective. The real question I suggest in a business context is "were my expectations met?" Did they clearly explain their idea? Build rapport? Answer my questions? Direct the conversation? Organize a plan? It doesn't matter how foreign they sounded if I got what I wanted.

Accents aren't really important. They vary wildly even in the United States. Is Steve Ballmer's heavy New England accent germane to his leadership's successes and failures? Or did Ross Perot's Texas accent matter when building EDS? Or Scott Thompson's Boston accent matter when turning around PayPal?

Conversely, it's easy to find successful tech CEOs with "strong foreign accents" such as Sridhar Vembu (ZOHO) or Rashmi Sinha (Slideshare) or Mikkel Svane (Zendesk) or Tobias Luetke (Shopify).

On the other hand, of course clarity does matter. Consider Todd Bradley who was passed over for German-accented Leo Apotheker as CEO because (reportedly) he mumbled during presentations (despite running a $41B division of HP)? cf. http://tech.fortune.cnn.com/2012/05/08/500-hp-apotheker/

That's different. You can still be clearly understood with a strong foreign accent. cf. Gandhi. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8yMcNubXqc4

He's talking only about accents that are so strong that you struggle to understand what they are talking about. For a CEO this totally does not work. A CEO is a communicator.

I find it best when somebody has an accent that is enjoyable to listen to. I love a nice elegant German accent. Love listening to a good Indian English accent. But some people are struggling with the language and accent so much that it gets very distracting.

I worked a bit with a Pakistani guy and as much as I liked hanging out with him and talking, it was always a struggle for him when he had to stand up and present. It really blocked him. (actually I am guessing that he's also hard to understand in Urdu)

OTOH I know some Germans who have such a good American accent that its disconcerting. This is an uncanny valley effect. You spend a lot of time just listening to them and trying to spot any small errors. ("Yeah, we've been doing this since 4 years...")

If you took the time to learn English and you took the time to learn all the complexities of building a business (technical, legal, financial) and probably also learned how to pitch, use your hands, communicate, then you should take the time to fix an overly strong accent. Its not that hard.

> Accent is intrinsic to a person's sense of self

This is a bit of a truism don't you think?

> You can still be clearly understood with a strong foreign accent. cf. Gandhi.

I hesitate to argue on behalf of someone as esteemed as pg, but surely he is using foreign accent to describe the cause of their communication deficiency, rather than painting persons with foreign accents as deficient.

Ok, let me pull the quote and be more direct about my reaction.

"One quality that's a really bad indication is a CEO with a strong foreign accent. I'm not sure why. It could be that there are a bunch of subtle things entrepreneurs have to communicate and can't if you have a strong accent. Or, it could be that anyone with half a brain would realize you're going to be more successful if you speak idiomatic English, so they must just be clueless if they haven't gotten rid of their strong accent. I just know it's a strong pattern we've seen."

As I read it, unfortunately, there's nothing in this published interview that says a foreign-accented person failed to communicate or needed to repeat themselves to be understood.

It just says a "strong" foreign accent, with not clear definition of the subjective meaning of "strong".

Then, it goes astray, saying "subtle cues" could be what leads the person to business failure; presumably subtle cues that would be obvious to a native speaker. Further, not being idiomatic (i.e. not a native speaker). Thus, the conclusion is the deficiency is the foreignness, not a functional problem like elocution.

So, then I think it's pretty cutting to say people are "clueless if they haven't gotten rid of their strong accent" (emphasis mine). Since the strong accent is the foreignness, this read to me as saying Americanize which means change your identity.

I contend this is not the best way to make the point. Also, the wrong track since as we have discussed above to death the real problem is the elocution, leadership and business skills, not the foreignness per se.

However, do you think I read the interview (as published) incorrectly? I'm thinking about a cold reader, like a 21-year old woman in Tennessee who moved here with her parents when she was 12 from Sri Lanka thinking of the next big thing.

If I ever had to live and work in a foreign country, I'd be proud to speak their language so fluently they couldn't quite detect an accent. It would be a little different moving to another English-speaking country, but lots of people end up picking up a slightly different accent after living someplace for a long time. It doesn't have to be a matter of identity unless you choose to make it one.

As an Australian that has tried both, it was a lot easier to sound English than it is for me to sound French. I can almost pull off a decent English accent these days - enough so that I'm not identified as Australian in a short conversation. In French, after 10 years of living in the country, my accent is picked after oh, around about one syllable I think. Maybe two syllables... And yet I'm perfectly fluent, and can write better idiomatic French than a good percentage of the French population. Accents are hard if you don't have the ear for them.

Until you move to a foreign country and speak with their language so fluently that they can't detect your accent. You need to come back to reality. If it was so easy, everyone would be doing it.

Sure, it's not easy and you'd probably have a recognizable accent unless you worked hard at it. But speaking e.g. French in a thick American accent is a stupid thing to incorporate into your self-identity, just like speaking English in a thick French accent.

Well said. I find it amusing how Americans are not friendly to sexy accents. But they still love Arnold Schwarzenegger and don't object to his accent. Made him governor and even toyed around with the idea of him running for president.

It's a good thing you not a football manager, imagine Lionel Messi, Ronaldo,Zinnedine Zidane or Ronaldhino coming to your team. These are some of the best footballers in the world, all speak different languages but can walk on a field in England and beat an offside trap, request a pin point pass through top rated defenders at a speed of 100mph. Most people just don't want to take the time to try and understand someone because the expectation is that you are in America and you must speak english.

In football, you can't go an complain that you don't understand your teammate, you getting paid $200 000 a week, so shut up and make it happen. Park Ji Sung and Patrice Evra became best friends yet one spoke korean and the other french, teammates would laugh commenting on how they don't know how they communicate. The issue is that they were both willing to learn to understand each other, having mutual respect for each others culture but bottom line no football player can use language as an excuse.

My first language is English, so i was amused when moving to LA, an asian girl from UCLA was at one of the teller windows and i guess that she could not fully understand this girl so she just bravely says to here coworkers that "this asian girl is so dumb, how did she get into UCLA, she can't even fill out a deposit slip". The amazing thing is that she felt so natural saying it as she knew other americans will not mind what she said, even though she is a teller and the young girl is attending a top U.S College.

I would also like to add that many football coaches take jobs where they cannot speak the home language fluently but are still successful. I feel that Europeans are more accepting of foreign accents than Americans and i have worked in Europe and stay in the U.S.

Most people just don't want to take the time to try and understand someone because the expectation is that you are in America and you must speak english

It's demonstrably false that what you're talking about is a "'MURICA!!!" thing— English is the lingua franca of engineering and the technical world. Not only in America, but all over the world. This has been discussed over and over again here.

I'm guilty as anyone of being a xenophile, but the analogy doesn't hold for scale reasons:

The CEO of a startup is the leader and public face, so should be in command of the company's message. If this person cannot make themselves understood, their odds of success are zilch a priori.

If anything, a big football shop is a highly-adapted enterprise with tons of cash that can afford extravagance. They have already scaled and can afford specialized subject-matter experts with multitudes of baggage.

In an early startup, you need "go doers": those that are infinitely more capable on average to either get shit done or know what shit actually needs doing (and fast). Later on, the time will be right to bring on more specialized people as the early founders may start to get bored.

Is there an aspect of association football that depends on language like a CEO in an English-speaking industry does? My impression is that the majority of success-oriented communication in soccer is nonverbal.

"My impression is that the majority of success-oriented communication in soccer is nonverbal."

No, if payers wore mic's you would hear it is very verbal as well, just lip read sometimes or in preseason watch a warmup game since the crowd is small you can hear all the calls, "wazza backdoor" etc, is mainly between one to three words, but you use everything you have. Then half-time, the strategy sessions are all talk. I forgot to mention when the coach can't speak english or any other home lanhuage but still is successful.

Sir Bobby Robson spent a good deal of his management career at Sporting Lisbon, Porto, and Barca without speaking Portuguese or Spanish. You might have heard of his translator--Jose Mourinho.

Other interesting tidbits...

Southampton are currently managed by a guy who speaks no English: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mauricio_Pochettino

Giovanni Trapattoni manages the Republic of Ireland national team (and is one of the highest paid international managers around) speaks notoriously poor english. When he managed previously in Germany, he was also known for mangling the local tongue.

Jose Mourinho is a fascinating character. He is highly educated and speaks 5 or 6 languages fluently. He is one of the most tactically astute managers in the modern game. He's also notoriously paranoid, convinced everything is a conspiracy against him, which seems to stem from an incident in his childhood where an uncle was a wealthy member of the ruling elite, but a peaceful coup meant that the family lost a lot of their wealth. Here's a good documentary covering his recent managerial career:


I'm still not convinced it's an apt comparison.

Communication is a primary requirement in a team sport and especially football.

His own example, forget the manager, the players themselves have to be on the same page in so many levels during practice. Don't you think Messi, Neymar, and Alexis (all 3 different countries playing for Barca) would have to practice and know precisely about their timing.

I think the key thing here is the who really needs whom. Most entrepreneurs need YC/VCs and so might have to suck up what they expect.

Perhaps? Since football is entertainment, it involves building a public image to draw crowds and sell merchandise. This BBC video talks about how Beckham's accent has become more posh over time.


I'm fairly sure all four players you mentioned could make themselves understood in Spanish on the pitch without much trouble. But being a CEO is all about communication and not at all about what you can do with a ball at your feet. Remember, it's fine if the CTO has a thick accent because he can back it up with hacking skills, but the CEO is a professional conversationalist.

How many sales meetings a day does an average football player take?

According to this article, 14% of the top 500 CEOs are non-native to the company's homeland.


Even empirically your dataset consists of startups that target USA markets mostly and hence this conclusion. I am guessing CEOs are good and can come from anywhere, its perhaps "sales" that really needs the idiomatic speak.

That statistic is meaningless. As pg said explicitly, the problem is not being foreign. The problem is having an accent so thick no one understands you when you speak.

I don't think I disagree with what you have mentioned and pg has concluded. My point was, it is possible to find a dataset where the audience actually doesn't need to stop the speaker because they can tune in to the way english is spoken.

I see this happen all the time here at startups in Bangalore. Of course if the audience is YC and the investors, it goes without saying what the language requirement is.

Indira Nooyi (Pepsico, CEO and one amongst that cnn list) articulates it perfectly in this video:


it is possible to find a dataset where the audience actually doesn't need to stop the speaker because they can tune in to the way english is spoken.

Of course. But again, what does that really tell us? To be effective, you need to be able to communicate with a large variety of people, not just a carefully-chosen subset of people. As Indira acknowledges, it is your own responsibility to ensure this- not your listeners.

I've met people in America with accents almost this unintelligible: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5XyecKONu8 (although typically their mother tongue was of Asian lineage so the sound was different)

PG: I wonder how well you account for the fact that even though you have 564 data points, you end up having much fewer data points for each type of subsample - and since startup data is by definition highly non-linear and non-normally distributed, you could end up reaching sweeping conclusions from way too few data points

>But 564 startups is enough to see patterns

This is an interesting point. Beyond happening to notice patterns yourself, have you tried running machine learning algorithms on your data to try to find other characteristics?

Do you keep any startup analytics?

Having now gone publicly on record with this, I wonder what kind of lawsuits this might lead to down the road. I could imagine that any company pg sits on the board of would now have their lawyers scratching their heads how they are going to minimize their risk.

Not that I want to supply more oxygen to this deeply silly thread, but is it even possible to sue an investor for discrimination? Would not the premise of such a suit be that there are cases when an investor can be compelled to make an investment of some sort? That sounds crazy.

It does sound crazy. But is it much different from an employer bing forced to hire a certain sort of employee?

Yes, it is much different than that.

What is the difference in your view? Very interested to hear this. The sums involved in this case ($20000) are less than those involved in most employment scenarios.

I can help you with both. This will lead to no lawsuits. The legal counsel at any company of which PG is a director will not have to worry. In the remote chance someone believes this is an issue, PG would only need to abstain from a matter involving a person with a foreign accent. Again, this will never have to happen, but it is an easily solved matter.

I have strong foreign accent and I can tell you: it is much harder to be a CEO with heavy accent than not.

Look this way... The job of a CEO is to hire and sell. And having heavy accent is a big disadvantage when doing these two things. So if you have strong foreign accent you should be aware of that and try to "hack it" and somehow use it in your advantage.

Having a strong accent can make it much harder to communicate. I don't know if statistically true, but from my experience most of people with bad accents tend to use the language less effectively too. If you're in tech you probably use English everyday if not all the time. With that amount of immersion it's just kind of hard not to be at least mediocre.

Also there's this immense sense of quality about people that speak a foreign language super well.

I think pg meant strong foreign accent combined with usage that just doesn't feel native. Which I feel is strongly correlated.

'That reminds me of an incident earlier in my career when a recruiter ranked candidates on their 'communication skills', which really was a proxy for whether they were an immigrant or not, in order to try to avoid discrimination laws."

There are a handful of successful immigrant CEO's in tech along with other industries (CEO of coca cola is just one example). One of the things they all have in common is excellent communication skills in english...so you can't necessarily write off that metric as an anti-immigrant filter.

This may be my opinion, but I don't know any tech companies that wouldn't hire someone just because they're from a different country other than for visa reasons.

Totally. That's why I was so surprised the recruiter's only dimension to evaluate communication skills was a candidate's accent. I assumed it would include presentation, negotiation, project management, etc. skills which would be relevant.

Can anyone here share their experience on how they get rid of their accent? As a non-native speaker, there are some phonemes that are just straight up unrecognisable for me : "h" - "x", "war" - "wall", "word" - "world" to name a few. I recognized the problem about a year ago and has been trying to figure it out since then, albeit without much success.

I work in the foreign language education business, and so am naturally curious when I meet someone who speaks English without accent, but should have an accent. I have met 7 people that speak with no accent, but should have one, e.g. moved to the US from Taiwan at age 21, but is now 31 and speaks with no accent. They all told a similar story. They listened to the same piece of audio content thousands of times. For one it was an episode of Friends, for another guy it was a Bill Clinton speech.

If you want to make progress, I suggest finding a piece of content 15-30 minutes long, and listening and repeating everyday for a year. Once you have memorized the content word-for-word, then you will be able to stop hearing meaning, and actually hear the sounds.

You could also spend time with a book which explains differences like the 'th' difference in 'thin' and 'then'. I assure you that book will not help you. Many native english speakers don't distinguish between 'pin' and 'pen' but no one confuses 'thin' and 'then'. Trying to learn a bunch of rules will not work. You have to learn to hear the difference, and the only way to learn to hear the difference is to listen to the same thing over and over.

Absolutely fascinating method. I need to try this.

I have an actor friend, who is well-respected professionally. I once discussed how he approaches the new play that he is working on. He said that at first he just rote-learns the play, so that he can keep all of it in his head.Only after that he starts to analyze and think about the role, deeper themes and emotional flows in the play.

I also used a somewhat similar tactic to get better at public presentations. I studied and watched two presentations over and over, making notes about structure, pausing between words, content of the slides, etc. It really helped and I managed to create a presentation that people liked a lot and I was asked to give presentations afterwards in several events.

thin and then have a different phoneme at the start

I have succeeded with the academic approach, I can pronounce English sounds without an accent when I try and with a very slight accent when I don't try (most people can't hear minor mistakes when I speak)

I can tell you the difference between apical and laminal consonants and actually pronounce it. There is not just one way to learn. But I doubt most people can replicate my success without putting in as much time into it as I have. You have to be genuinely interested in linguistics

Pick an accent in English that sounds very extreme to you. Learn to speak that accent. For example, if you live in California learn to speak the difficult words as if you are from Texas or Georgia. Don't aspire to say "there" but go for "thar" instead. Example "can you hand me that book over thar?" Your goal should be to make people think, "this guy speaks good English. When he moved here he probably refined his English in Texas or somewhere in the South."

Once you have learned to mimic one accent you can quickly master another.

Source: I did this myself in Brazil when learning Portuguese. The words that were hard to pronounce I would say like I was from Rio. It was easier to mimic the accent from Rio because it was different from what I was hearing every day. If I were actually in Rio I would have probably found it easier to mimic a Paulistano accent.

Thanks for the answer, it's an interesting method! The main problem (I think) would be that self-study material tends to be heavily skewed toward either West Coast or East Coast accent, and I don't think I have seen anything on Southern accent.

I actually have been thinking about something similar for a while too. In my case, I thought that British accent would be easier for me to mimic. I haven't actually tried that out yet and now seems to be a good time to do so. Would British accent be a good goal? Out of curiosity, has there ever been a case of someone having a "too thick" British accent that would make it hard for American to understand?

Yes, you should mimic a British accent. Your first impression should be correct choice for you. There are different types of accents and some would be considered too strong to be understood, but you probably won't gravitate to those. I recommend you watch all episodes of Peep Show on Hulu. The characters are English with a few Scots. The shots are mostly close ups so you can really study the mouth movements. The characters are very affected and therefore easy to mimic. You should be able to say "right" just like Jeremy or "turkey fucker" like Johnson from the first go.

I find that I have to learn how the phoneme is actually said (where is the tongue, etc.) and then practice it a lot with recording(s) of native speakers (i.e. a recorded TV show) to compare with. Once you can make the right sound, practice it until you can say it easily.

If you have friendly native speakers, you may be able to get them to exaggerate the sound. E.G. the difference between thin and then is that the 'th' in then gets voiced (your throat vibrates) and the vowel is different. 'World' has an extra syllable (wur - ul - d) vs. 'word' (wur - d). I'm less sure about your issues with the others, save that certain sounds probably don't exist in your native language.

And those you just have to study & practice. I know how hard it is, though, having learned such sounds as 'ng', the 'eu' vowel in 'feu' (French - fire), glottal stops (yes, those exists in the English word bookcase, but...), the Japanese 'R'-group sounds (they're not 'R's or 'L's as we know them).

As others have mentioned, there are many different British accents. I wouldn't recommend a Cockney accent. However, a nice neutral British accent, like a BBC newscaster is a very good accent to have. Most Americans perceive people with such accents as being more intelligent and more attractive than people with neutral American accents. As someone who grew up in the Midwest and intentionally made my accent more neutral American while living on the East Coast, I have a pretty neutral American accent. However, now that I'm living in Hong Kong, I'm intentionally trying to pronounce my vowels in a slightly more British manner. However, I'm too attached to my Rs to switch to a non-rhotic British accent.

A slight Southern American accent sometimes does cause many Americans to perceive someone as more trustworthy, and some Americans do find a slight Southern accent to be very attractive. Though, be warned that a Southern accent may cause some Americans to perceive you as more stubborn and slightly less intelligent.

Britain has many incomprehensible accents, but as long as you stay in the realm of comprehensible ones you'll be fine.

Yes, there are plenty of American comedy skits about unintelligible British.

When I was learning to speak French, I struggled until my sister said "speak in a French accent".

I know, it seems trite. But the point is: think of someone who speaks your native language. Copy their thick accent into the language you are learning.

So when I began to use ze outrrrageous Franch acc-sont, my actual French-speaking improved.

My college German instructors told us to imitate Arnold Schwarzenegger's deep Austrian accent when we were speaking German in class. The idea worked for us too.

there are a few phonemes that are hard for me to discriminate but i've found asking friends who can discriminate to describe the physical arrangement of their lips/tongue for each of the sounds helps. i still can't discriminate between the sounds of certain phonemes but i can discriminate between how they feel when i vocalize them

Listen to Khan Academy videos (if you consider Sal's pronunciations as good as any American's).

There's a bit of conflation between cause and effect here.

Seems he was just saying that those with strong accents were less successful in previous rounds. That certainly could be due to prejudice in society at large, but it still would be a valid predictor.

You can work on your accent. I know a good coach who can help reduce your accent, send me a message and I'll put you in touch. He works via skype.

I totally get your point, I just got a bunch of BS from a washed-up speech coach (who ironically is also foreign and with a noticeable accent) because of my accent.

I think the problem is the attitude: when I speak in my language with english speakers who are just learning it I go the extra mile to understand their broken accent and mispronunciation and not be too upfront when correcting them.

On the other hand when I see foreign founders with a thick accent pitching something I can sometimes see some faces in the public changing from a neutral "let's see what this guy is working on" to a decidedly negative "oh not another [insert term here]]".

Is there bias? yes there is, I could tell all english speakers trying to speak spanish "shut up your accent is horrible!" but I refrain from doing so out of cordiality. Maybe its a cultural thing, because over here that cordiality rarely exists.

That's a very Kate Courteau picture incidentally. She's our architect, and is the reason YC looks so distinctive. It's hard to get simple right, but she does.

I love the way she used a super wide shot to pull in so many graphic elements - beautifully done, Kate Courteau.

oh I see now that she didn't take the actual picture but Jason Madara did that -

Like food styling, architectural photography is a discipline unto itself.

I would love to have a high-res version of that.

If you're in a Q/A mood, I'm curious: When you start to see one of the YC batch companies struggling... what does an intervention look like?

I don't see anything very distinctive. Aside from the usual colorful doors == sf startup, the place (from that photograph) looks just like any other startup space (except darker, but that's likely because it would have made taking that photo difficult if the background were bright)

"One quality that's a really bad indication is a CEO with a strong foreign accent...they must just be clueless if they haven't gotten rid of their strong accent."

I'm curious to learn more about this. I'm certainly not accusing YC/PG of being racist in the least, but although I don't have an accent, I feel like I know numerously brilliantly smart people with heavy accents, many of whom happen to be Indian-born Stanford students or Google employees. I think we all know that "brilliantly smart" doesn't necessarily correlate with "great CEO", but it has to suck that something like your own accent puts you at a huge disadvantage applying to YC.

I talked about this on another thread, but by strong accent I mean so strong that people have a hard time understanding you. It's not a problem if founders have accents as strong as, say, the Collison brothers'.

Is it just accent or that people make too many grammatical mistakes? Or to put it another way, if you had to choose between two: clear pronunciation with a lot of grammatical mistakes vs a strong accent but flawless grammar. Which one is harder to understand for a native speaker?

I have had a few Indian professors who tend to have perfect grammar but strong accents, and some Chinese professors with poor grammar but better accents. I find the latter much easier. It's easy to correct simple grammatical errors in my head, but if you don't know what words are being said, it doesn't matter if grammar is perfect.

Thanks, that's something I thought, but wasn't sure, because as a Finn it's hard to get enough samples of the equivalent situation: someone speaking my native language without accent or without grammatical errors.

I've heard from some Finns that they have never heard of a foreigner speak Finnish at a level comparable to a native.

Contrarily, I have heard several Europeans speak American English almost flawlessly.

It's not that bad that Patrick has the accent, but he talks really fast. I struggled to listen to his talk at Hacker School. I have talked to him solo in person and understood him fairly well; maybe it was just the auditorium.

Do you mean Startup School? I don't recall him talking at Hacker School.

Yes, I meant Startup School.

"they must just be clueless if they haven't gotten rid of their strong accent"

Specifically "clueless". I agree with that but I also think it's an attitude as well in some people. I think even if it was explained to them they might not think that it would benefit them. In that case they are not clueless they are simply rigid in their thinking, right?

As the saying goes "when in rome do as the romans do"

Along those lines I am surprised at the number of people who are foreign born who don't change their names to something more Americanized.

Back when people came to this country at the turn of the century I believe the immigration people would give people americanized versions of their names so they wouldn't experience as much rejection or racisim. Maybe it was for other reasons as well.

Now you can look at it as wrong that people jump to conclusions or you can simply do what is practical and attempt to lessen the disadvantage that you are in if someone perceives you in the wrong way. If I am a member of a religious group and I know that people that I am selling to are biased against that religious group I see it as practical not to wear any symbol of that religious group. It's a business decision.

I'm not saying that someone needs to totally hide the fact that they are Indian, Chinese, or whatever. I'm simply saying you can make the name a little easier for people in America (where you live) to remember it. That's in a sense basic marketing.

Lastly, I've been approached by people trying to sell me with really difficult names to remember. I am less likely to connect them with others simply because their name is so hard to remember.

I've actually asked some American (one of them being my boss) on whether I should be using an American name to make it easier for everyone at work.

I received two "It's weird" answers, and haven't asked the third person yet.

Considering that my name is relative short (the first 4 letter of my username, Americans tend to remember the "h" and "a"'s position swapped though), would you consider it a difficult name to remember or not?

I use my real name and offer them an easy to use nickname in the same sentence. I've been doing it since childhood.

Nhan? I'm assuming that sounds like 'non', so it's probably easier to use your real name. I do know some people who abbreviate their names, though, if there's a workable abbreviation (e.g. Siddahrta / Sid).

Take a look here: http://www.forvo.com/word/nh%C3%A2n/#vi

The "h" is not a silent sound, and I think pronouncing as "non" is part of the reason why American tends to mix up "Nhan" and "Nahn".

To me, when listening to that, it sounds like "Nyen" or "Nian", which isn't a sound that any English word I can think of correlates with an H. Perhaps sharing one of these spellings with people will help them. You might experiment with different people and see where you get your best results.

Interesting. It sounds like nee-han or something. You might be able to get by using "Ian" as a nickname, losing only the initial N sound.

If it's "nhan" that's fine and maybe even a little exotic (which could be a plus). Would depend also on what your last name is in combination of course.

I can't say what you "should" do, but here are some thoughts.

Your name is really really hard for English-only speakers. Sorry.

I have a friend named Nhan. I put a lot of work into learning to say his name correctly. Most people did not. After two degrees in Canada, when he moved to the Valley he gave up and changed to an English name. An ex-co-worker named Nhi has just accepted that everyone calls her "Ni" (like "knee")... at least it's closer than calling you "naan" or "non". ;P As far as I can tell, the best spelling to get people to say your name correctly is probably "nyen". (Like maybe if you put in your email sig "Nhan (pronounced like 'Nyen')") If you want to make a joke about it, I guess you could even say "the 'h' looks like an upside-down 'y', so just pretend it's a 'y'". Although I dunno if you feel okay about using humour about your native language to try to improve communication.

As I'm sure you've noticed, Vietnamese pronunciation rules have surprisingly little in common with English pronunciation rules, so virtually zero English speakers will correctly pronounce your name, unless they've been told (by you or by someone else). The other more-common examples are Ng and Nguyen (I've been told these are actually Chinese names, but everyone I've met with one of these names was Vietnamese... I dunno, I'm just an ignorant Canadian struggling to be less ignorant). Almost zero English speakers pronounce these names correctly, even after being told many times! It's not that hard, people! But most people are hilariously lazy about learning new sounds. "Nhan" is a lot easier to get almost-right than "Ng" or "Nguyen".

Personally, as a language nerd, I like it when we're forced to learn a little tiny bit about another language, so selfishly I hope you keep your name. =] But you'll have to decide what's best for you.

As a little side story, in Vancouver there used to be a pho restaurant named Pho Bich Nga, on a very busy street (Kingsway, for the Vancouverites in the crowd, which has lots of Vietnamese shops... I'll drop a shout-out here for Green Lemongrass). I'm told that's correctly pronounced kind of like "fuh beek nga". English speakers don't really know what to do with that, but the best guess usually ends up being "fo' bitch nigga". Teenagers think that name is pretty funny, yes sir. Sadly, they changed the name, and a Vancouver cultural landmark is no more.


The reason might be not cluelessness, bad attitude, rigid thinking or bad marketing, but the hidden costs of your suggestions. Many migrants tend to spend an inordinate amount of time, during the first months, thinking about how they might be perceived, often playing pointless guessing games. For example: having two different names is an additional source of confusion, and a constant reminder of "otherness". These costs have to be balanced against the perceived benefits. Sometimes they are worth it, often times not.

Focusing on improving communication skills is different because the cost is time, effort and perhaps money, but there are no negative side effects.

> I believe the immigration people would give people americanized versions of their names so they wouldn't experience as much rejection or racism. (edited for spelling).

You were hopefully thinking about refugee immigrants when you said this?

I think the difficulties of communication, specially during incubation time and demo day, justify this qualifying as a bad indication. A great deal of YC value lies in the office hours and everyone has some bias to listen what they want to listen on a feedback session and to create excuses as "they didn't quite get my idea, that is why they are pointing these errors". When mentors actually don't understand them and vice-versa, this may totally nullify a feedback session. Networking on Demo Day (and subsequently fundraising meetings) also is seriously jeopardized. How to look formidable when you can't even sound "right".

But on the other hand, this shows a way of doing business that SV still suffers from: they are too west centered. These companies build things to US market and, sometimes, Europe. South America usually follow-up as we (i am brazilian) are very connected to US culture. But even we have our thriving copycat companies. But if you take Russia and China into account, then they often have juggernauts versions of SV companies (not regular copycats, but dominant companies) that the original ones just can't easily beat when they try.

I don't think there is causality here, just guessing that they are both reflects of a particular trace of SV companies: US is the Total Adressable Market. So, if you don't completely fit with the US culture, you will likely fail as a startup CEO in SV (for pragmatic reasons, not any "racist" bias or anything like that). At the same time, these companies usually take a little too long time to expand internationally.

This a diferentiation that 500startups have that, in my opinion, will pay large benefits to them eventually.

Me too! I would have thought there could be so many things in the number 1 spot ... and then this :)

Err... if you read the article, he says "one quality", not "the number one". Also, it's worth considering that this is something that has jumped at them only after a number of batches of YC, not something that they started out with, so it is, in some way, based on actual data. They probably already filter out people based on any number of more important criteria.

If found it worth a mention for a worldwide released article ... I am sure its pretty high on his list

I know a good accent-reduction service (among other language services) via skype, hit me up by email and I'll hook you up. It's definitely something you can improve!

> There is a secular trend going on, in which launching a start-up is a more common thing to do. It used to be there were two things you could do after college: go to grad school or get a job. Soon, I think there will be three things: go to grad school, get a job, or start your own company. I suspect this will be one of these economic transformations on the scale of the industrial revolution.

That's a very interesting topic, and is something I wonder about too. Historically speaking, the amount of capital required to start an internet company these days is amazingly low. Will this last? Maybe in the future, to even get started, people will need more horsepower in terms of servers, or storage, or something like that, and this low-capital period will be seen as an anomaly. Or maybe the trend will continue and spread to other fields. Are there others that are ripe for a similar transformation, where it gets super easy to start something new?

Also, I like this quote/thinking:

> The way you'll get big ideas in, say, health care is by starting out with small ideas. If you try to do some big thing, you don't just need it to be big; you need it to be good. And it's really hard to do big and good simultaneously. So, what that means is you can either do something small and good and then gradually make it bigger, or do something big and bad and gradually make it better. And you know what? Empirically, starting big just does not work.

"He is brilliant and hilariously funny."

How is being hilariously funny an advantage in terms of working for YC?

That's actually a very interesting question. I've noticed for a while that the people who are best at giving advice to startups tend to be funny. It's not a job where it would be good to be the humorless variety of smart. I think the reason is not that being funny is important per se, but that being funny and having good ideas about startups are so similar that it's impossible to find one without the other.

Would add that humor to me is linked to being liked which is important in getting people to do what you want them to do or listen to you..

And being liked is related to at least two things [1]. One is having lots of people who want to be around you which can be an advantage (you can get people to help you and do things for you it's like being the "pretty" girl).

Of course it can also be a big distraction (you are funny and people want to spend time with you so you are less inclined to stay in side and study or hack at something).

In terms of someone listening to you humor is like an anesthetic that puts people at ease and makes them more inclined to at least hear you out (that is if they don't take you as being a complete goofball). And perhaps the mental state that a good joke puts them in makes it less likely that they will be defensive and opens them up. (An example is my wife who I can never get mad at because she is always following up with humor to anything that goes wrong.)

I could also stretch and add that being funny provides social proof since the group as a whole likes or appears to like the funny person giving advice.

[1] Strictly my observations over time.

One component in humor is taking an idea out of context. This is in some ways related to "lateral thinking" where you try and brainstorm by randomly changing marketing bits (price, place, promotion, product) to come up with a new way of seeing things. I think some people with a creative/entrepreneurial mindset automate this process in their heads. So you could see humor as a similar creative process to that of some innovators: being able to see the world in a slightly different/skewed way. In one case, it makes you laugh because of the incongruity, in another, it may help you see ideas for businesses where others do not see them.

More generally, I would tend to say that humor is often about finding odd connections. I can easily imagine that being an important ability for giving good advice to businesses.

Jesters were important in monarchies because they could speak truth to power. I think there's a similar idea here: you have to be very headstrong to do a startup, but at times you also need to pull yourself out of that and really consider other angles/viewpoints. If you can couch advice sometimes in humor, maybe it can be an effective way of getting through to a founder who would otherwise have a hard time hearing it.

Although one could imagine a humorless person spending 20 years of his life building startups and thus becoming a useful advisor, despite not being particularly funny. Another possibility is that the humorless type aren't as interested in offering to help.

Could it be that people from startups won't listen to someone that takes themselves too seriously? A "Very Important Person" in a "Very Nice Suit" won't resonate with an engineer in flip-flops. But someone who experienced hypergrowth, and can laugh at their own mistakes.... Well that's someone worth listening to.

Humor is correlated with mental resilience. Laughter diffuses stress and improves mental well being. Additionally, being funny is associated with mental quickness and thinking on your feet.

A person who can't laugh at himself and the absurdity of the world and situations that tend to happen when you are creating a startup ... he won't last long as an entrepreneur.

Presumably being likable is important when you're trying to make business deals. Plus, if you are doing well and earning more money that is necessary, you can probably afford to optimize for other things, like enjoying the people you work with.

I think a good sense of humor is an advantage at every company. I'm a Scum Master, been at it 7 years, and I shudder to think what my experience would be like if I didn't have a sense of humor. (Some say over active, but let's not quibble)

It's an advantage at working at any non-menial job anywhere. If you're competent as well as a pleasant person to work with, you'll go far in most fields.

" If a place has really good food, it can be in an obscure location, charge a lot, and have really bad service, and it will still be popular. If it has bad food, boy, it better do something really special to get anybody in there."

The "special" can be "location". Food on the NJ Turnpike (or similar) is an example of a captive market where quality of food is not the key ingredient but landing the contract and being merely acceptable can still be very profitable.

Likewise being in Times Square, if you can afford the rent, can be profitable because you are not worried about repeat business but simply grabbing the tourists that will only be a customer one time.

I see the times square trend in Myrtle Beach, in a slightly different way: poorly run (which includes bad food) restaurants can be open only seasonal, get sufficient 'incidental' business to survive and then shut down during the off season due to low property costs. I suspect eventually property valuations will make it too attractive to sell out to more profitable business, whether thats due to being better run or all-year.

Just to be clear, this rule doesn't work for McDonalds - as it's an established brand. Their food is awful, but the place tends to be clean and tidy - with a toilet. Interestingly, where I live, Burger Kings tend to be filthy and poorly maintained, with slightly better tasting food. They are also popular - so cleanliness doesn't seem to be a major contributor.

McDonalds' food is awful by what standard, precisely? From a health standpoint, sure. From the standpoint of a foodie, yes. From the standpoint of pretty much anyone who is accustomed to nicer food, in nicer circumstances, sure.

But McDonalds isn't competing on the dimension of "quality" as other restaurants might define that term. McDonalds is competing on scale and consistency. A Big Mac [1] in Jakarta tastes identical to a Big Mac in Cleveland. A pack of fries in Moscow tastes identical to a pack of fries in Istanbul. If you walk into a McDonalds in any part of the world, barring a few local specialties on the menu, you know exactly what you're going to get, and exactly when you're going to get it. That's pretty damned remarkable.

McDonalds runs a marketing and logistics company, not a restaurant chain.

[1] Insert Pulp Fiction reference here.

Also, McDonalds is pretty tasty if you're too poor to consistently afford better. Their fries in particular are an amalgam of fat and salt, two of the most pleasing flavors that are available cheaply.

McDonalds' fries are the perfect fat/carb/salt delivery vehicle. I would pit them against heroin in their ability to hit the brain's pleasure centers. :)

I once heard a story in grad school, from a professor who consulted with McD's in Marketing. I'm not sure if this story is apocryphal, or maybe entirely fictional. But it goes like this: why are McDonalds' fries so thin? Why didn't they make thicker fries, which were all the rage back when the first few franchises were getting off the ground? It's because thinner fries can be grabbed by the handful, while thicker fries get picked up one by one. As a result, people scarf down thinner fries and will consume more volume in a single serving.

The story made me think, because suddenly I became aware of the fact that I'm a cluster-grabber of McD's fries. I have friends who pick out one at a time. Every now and then, on those rare occasions we grab fast food, I'll pay attention to who eats fries how.

Something interesting: a lot of people thought Airbnb was terrible, including YC and Fred Wilson.

I was 23 when Airbnb was founded. I had had many happy experiences with Couchsurfing.

For me, and many Couchsurfers, the idea of an upscale, paid couchsurfing was trivially obvious. None of us built it, but I assumed someone would.

I'm not sure what the lesson is.

The lesson learned is to build things you love but others don't yet understand. Thats the key to emerging markets

I guess what I found interesting is that this was something MILLIONS loved and yet it was a very specific demographic so the wider world missed the potential.

Heck, most people, if you pitch them on Airbnb today, will say: "That would never work". Half the people I know outside the tech niche haven't heard of it.

So something can be quite large, well proven, yet seem like a lousy idea if you have a set of blinders on.

Does anyone know what has been PG's ROI on his investments is, for all we know it could be below industry standard.

Also, by PG's own words he only invests in the relentlessly resourceful. What do they need PG and later round VC's for? I always get the feeling with PG that something hidden is at play, he's a really really clever guy. There's a sucker getting played when he's around. (For example, Zuckerburg is not as smart as PG keeps enthusing, there's a lot smarter guys than him, so I think he's got some sell YC companies to Facebook flow going on. Another, Andrew Mason is just a terrible business guy - why is PG linking with him - probably experience at knowing how to keep investors from realizing what's actually happening).

>> Does anyone know what has been PG's ROI on his investments is, for all we know it could be below industry standard.

Hell no. Just do the math:


The total value of YC companies is more like $12B today. That makes their average 6% stake worth around $700m or so. Around 600 companies total, at around $20k each - a total investment of just $12m or so by my calculations.

$12m to $700m in <10 years is about as good as it gets in investing.

If that's true, then that's astounding. Why isn't some huge wall street fund swooping in to this? Do people not know. The White House should be calling in PG for advice.

That's a good question. The main reason is that the hypothetical Huge Wall Street Firm doesn't see a way to reproduce the project at scale. They don't have pg et al, and while YC is applying mass-production techniques to startups, by the standards of markets where APIs exist to conduct transactions they're still in the early industrial revolution.

If pg was just a decision engine for Startup#fund(amount), a vaguely specified API which could put hundreds of millions of dollars to work on any given day and which didn't require artisanal mentorship and connection-making of the fledgling startups, you would expect somebody from Wall Street to already have said "We can offer you an arbitrarily high amount of money to do that for us."

That's basically exactly what Yuri Milner did. He decided that YCombinator did a great job picking startups and mentoring them, and so he would invest $150K into each one that went through the program, effectively freeriding off PG et al's mentorship & decision-making processes while contributing additional capital.

It unfortunately seems not to scale, as making $150K available to otherwise equivalent founders made for worse outcomes, and so the program's been scaled down to $80K or so.

That's a good point - PG is essentially decision engine.

All YC investments are public and some investor could go through and build PG's model using videotapes of all those founders. Collect all this data, put a few data scientists on it, and build a virtual PG.

The connections don't matter if you're a huge fund, you can buy your way to a meeting with Presidents, silicon valley types are puny in comparison.

This is a golden opportunity for oil tycoons (tesla and google are going to be demolishing them in the next few years with electric self-driving cars, they better get in the tech game, and so far PG has been most reliable at it).

you can buy your way to a meeting with Presidents, silicon valley types are puny in comparison.

Ah, but how do you know who to talk to? What presidents of companies, what SV types?

I thought their 6% stake typically got diluted to much less.

With hands in pocket he has not been captured mid motion. He is therefore purposefully guarding entrance into the "Y". The blue exit door is for anyone who cannot answer his questions three.

"What have you made?" "Who wants it?" "How do you know?"

"We were the kind of start-up started by nerds who were really good at programing and really, really bad at sales and business. Now I would know exactly what to tell my previous self, which is that I should be spending all my time selling."

Is this a case of playing to your personal weakness, or is it playing to your personal blind spot? In either case, how long until you say, "This is important, but I'm not good at it. I have to bring someone in to do it while teaching me." My impression is a good salesperson quickly pays for themselves.

In my experience, a good salesperson is either a total drag or big boost.

The total drag happens when a salesperson is brought on too soon. When the product is not aligned with the market (pre-product/market fit), there is little a good salesperson can do. In this situation, everyone gets frustrated as success does not happen and costs increase.

Post-product/market fit, a good salesperson can certainly accelerate growth. The use of the word "accelerate" here is deliberate as the founder(s) should be the ones to spark growth.

Initial sales should always be made by the founders for several reasons: 1. Your initial idea is likely misaligned with the market. The only way to figure this out is to be listen directly to customer's rejections and stall tactics. 2. Customer's will initially be positive (before you ask for money or ask them to do something), and watching this change from positive/supportive to neutral/negative forces a good reality check. 3. The founder(s) bring the most excitement to the sales process. You need to be the spark for interest/excitement about the solution. Salespeople will then feed off of your excitement.

Fair enough - you don't need them too soon. But in this instance, the starting point is the founder deciding (in hindsight) that spending all of their time in Sales would be good.

"Nobody knows what they're capable of until they try it. Maybe half a percent of people have the brains and sheer determination to do this kind of thing. Start-ups are hard but doable, in the way that running a five-minute mile is hard but doable."

Worth remembering.

It is amazing how much value and change in the world has occurred because of ycombinator companies, direct and follow on effects. And all of this for the paltry sum of 1.7 billion (ish) dollars.

The 1,467 Billion we've spent on the war(s) so far could have made ~850 ish entire ycombinators, on the order of 450k startups. As well as exhausting the entire io and ly domain name spaces.

It's important to note that YC skims from the top, taking the creme de la creme. Applying 1000x the money would not yield 1000x the return, as there's a finite number of the "good founders" PG notes.

The limiting factor on YC is not cash.

With the kind of money I present, one can farm and not just spear fish.

Is anyone else digging the Tevas with long sleeves look being sported by PG?

Everybody got excited about the foreign accent thing, but my favorite quote was actually "it's easier to be an investor than it is to start a company". So very true. I just launched an incubator, and I've been telling VCs to drop the attitude.

What I am wondering about is: would Einstein be a good start-up founder?

History says no. He was never able to build a great business with the fashionable blouses he designed. He never was able to scale his refrigerator company beyond the customer discovery phase and sold the patent to Electrolux... Google these if you think I am joking.

I found the patents for the blouses / refrigerators, but it seems to me that this was more of a hobby of his, not a serious startup endeavour.

My imaginary scenario is more like this: let's assume that there is something like the relativity theory of programming, i.e. in order to build programs of a certain size and complexity you HAVE to use the relativity theory, otherwise you'll fail. Now, could Einstein have built a software company that takes advantage of this?

Funny --- next time when YC rejects a company with foreign founders, you should ask them "Was it the idea or the accent?" :D Hilarious ...

Has there ever been a bubble in low liquidity assets like startup equity? I would think high liquidity is a huge piece of a bubble.

So, one of the purposes of the application video is to judge a person's accent? Is that fair?

What would fairness have to do with the success of a startup? Put two founders on stage at a conference and the audience won't be fair either. Extend that to other events, web video, TV appearances and other audio/video media. He's not in a position to change other people's prejudice with his investments.

By "Is that fair", I meant: Is that fair to say? As in, is that what it means (?).

I hope that Paul doesn't consider a Boston accent to be "a strong foreign accent."

I do! I was born and raised here. I dropped it in high school and am happy I did. America doesn't tolerate regional accent diversity like they did in the past. People listen more if you speak Generican.

I cackled to myself 4.6x.

Honesty is the sniper of the mind.

Thanks 'pg.

In the tradition of Dijkstra...

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact