Y Combinator’s Startup School Europe

Stories & Lessons learned from Partners & Founders

Paul Buchheit — Partner at Y Combinator & Creator of Gmail

Paul for the first time had prepared a scripted talk and it was really good. He will publish the full talk on Twitter soon. Here are the 6 takeaways:

#1 I don’t know anything

It’s important to keep a beginner’s mind and watch out for any believes that limit the range of your thinking. If you believe you already know the answer you are not open to learn larger truths.

#2 Kill all daemon processes

We all experienced computers often work better after you reboot them. It’s because of all these daemon processes that run in the background.

Doubt, anger, peers or media can be like such daemon processes for a human being. Every time you try something new, they condemn & limit you.

Paul brought up the example of this one executive who thought Gmail will never get beyond a million users.

#3 Yes, and thank you.

Things often don’t work out as we plan for them. Don’t let yourself strike back by them and use them to your advantage. Often great things are rooted in some of the worst events. Accept them and say: “Yes, and thank you”.

#4 Choose the more interesting path

External success is not what you should be looking for. Refine success as learning something interesting. Simply work on the stuff where you are curious in as what will happen. It is a sign of unexplored or underexplored territory and you are likely to learn something.

#5 Love what you do

While many people recommend to “do what you love” he advises to focus on “Love what you do”. Often the “do what you love”-reality is nothing like what you thought it would be. In the end it’s about all the small decisions you make during your day to day. Only if you care about them and enjoy doing them you will do the best possible job.

The issue with being very goal oriented is that the time between now and completing a goal is becoming annoying & not worth spending it.

For example Paul used to hate running. He always focused on the moment finishing the exercise. As he recognised it’s about every step you take, he started to enjoy it.

#6 Maintain a healthy disregard for the impossible

One of Paul’s motivations is to rather fail in something awesome, than succeed in something boring. For example inside Google people work on absurdly ambitious ideas. At the time Gmail was built, building a JavaScript application always failed before. Still Paul built Gmail with JavaScript and it turned out well. After Gmail the impossible rapidly became the normal and many more JavaScript applications popped up. He mentioned:

“I like to be in the place where history is happening.”

According to Paul everyone should the have the opportunity & freedom to work on whatever they want to. It would make us all wealthier and to make it happen we need to end the wage slavery.

Can you imagine how many undiscovered Steve Jobses are there?

“Economically we don’t need more Jobs. We need more Steve Jobs.”

Patrick Collison — Founder of Stripe

Patrick walked us through the early days of Stripe. From the day he and his brother John started to work on /dev/payments to the their public launch as Stripe.

They wanted to have a couple production users very early on to shape the product and make sure they actually are onto something. Nevertheless they stayed in private beta for a long time. He advised to rather make a 100 users really happy, than making more people a little happy.

While their growth curve looks incredible most recently it was quite flat for a long time.

Image Source:
“Even if you are onto something, it really takes a long time to get it right”.

And that’s what they focused on: Getting it right.

Patrick often gets asked if it is necessary to be in the Valley to be successful. From his perspective you can build a great a company from anywhere, but being in the Valley maximises your chances. It’s an important insight as it rephrases the question: Do you want to increase your chances by moving to the Valley?

Adora Cheung — Founder of Homejoy

Adora and her little brother Aaron worked on numerous ideas for 3 years until they finally identified the problem they solve today with Homejoy. To her one of the key-factors to success is not to get stressed out. So whenever something goes bad that’s what she tells herself:

“Oh, that really sucks. I won’t do that again.”
Then she keeps going.

Adora doesn’t want to glorify failure. With her story she wanted to highlight that startups are really hard and you need to work really hard.

Ian Hogarth — Founder of Songkick

Songkick is around for 7 years. During these years Ian has seen a lot of things. Startup come and go. Overnight successes pop up & disappear. It resets his sense of what’s possible and what he is being scared of.

For a product being successful it needs 3 engines:

Gratification is about creating something people want. Once you’ve found something that works, you have to focus on the incremental improvements that improves the gratifying experience.

Growth is about how people find your product. There is no way to get this right if you don’t got gratification right. If you got it right and have a great product you will grow with the most fundamental driver which is word of mouth. Nevertheless growing is easier by spending money.

Economic is about how to make money.

Image Source: http://bit.ly/1rO93lZ

It’s kind of paradox, all of them actually are connected and you need to get all of them working. Eventually this will lead you to Unicornness™.

Unicornness™ = Gratification ^ Growth ^ Economic

Hiroki Takeuchi — Founder of GoCardless

Hiroki walked us through the 4 lessons he learned:

#1 Your journey starts now

The story of GoCardless started way earlier than many people would expect. For Hiroki it was during first week at the university where he met the guys at whom’s company he started his first internship later and which shaped his path to entrepreneurship.

#2 Beware whiteboard ideas

Everyone of us can come up with this theoretical really interesting ideas. So did Hiroki and his co-founder Matt when they worked on their previous company GrouPAY. But they didn’t solve a real problem.

#3 Focus on momentum

In the past Hiroki thought success would be linear, but in reality there are peaks & troughs. You constantly need to make course corrections. In the early days Hiroki & his team discussed hours for the smallest product changes, that didn’t matter in the end. They wanted to get everything right, because they thought they didn’t have the resources to make mistakes.

You better start doing the wrong thing, rather than don’t start at all.

#4 Be an emotional cockroach

It’s important to be emotionally unaffected by any bad event happening. For example Hiroki & Matt were near bankrupt several times and living in awful conditions. In order to buy things they had to split bills between multiple credit & debit cards. To Hiroki holding on was one of the hardest things he ever did. If you hold on, you can succeed. Still if it wasn’t for his co-founder he would never have made it.

Alfred Lin — Partner at Sequoia Capital

After selling a couple of companies Alfred started the fund VentureFrogs in 1999. They focussed on Zappos and TellMeNetworks because they weren’t doing so well.

While there were a lot of e-commerce companies Zappos had a special ingredient. Their focus on customer service was a very special back then. Nobody did that. Alfred’s personal lessons learned from Zappos was to solve a hard problem and make it your core competency. At Zappos he figured out how to get products to people by 4-5 days and then they cut that little by little. In the end all these little cuts added up. In addition he noticed companies solving a personal passion or serving a personal pain do a lot better.

Alfred also learned that a lot of companies start out with a great culture, but lose it over time as they simply forget to invest in it, because they were busy with their day to day. You need to focus on culture on a daily basis.

As he has been asked what kind of investors an entrepreneur should look out for he responded that as a company you should look for a partner, not for an investor. He recommended to spend more time to get to know your investors before you let them invest, because if it works out it’s going to be a 5-15 year journey.

Urška Sršen — Founder of Bellabeat

Urška and her co-founder Sandro noticed people were talking about remote pregnancy monitoring systems for quite some time, but nobody made it work. As they started out building a professional healthcare product, soon they realised it was almost impossible to implement and quite hard to use. This realisation made them change the way how they wanted to solve the problem and started to work on a consumer product. Doing this they started to compete in one of the probably most competitive markets right as of today: wearables.

By that time they had a great product, but they needed more people and had no money. To get some exposure they decided to participate in Pioneers’ startup challenge. One of Y Combinator’s partners recognised them there and asked Urška to apply for Y Combinator.

After getting accepted and moving to the US, she learned that being a young european founder transferring to the US is quite hard. Nevertheless it was an important move to them as the European market is hard to crack, because it is fragmented and stiff.

Y Combinator Partners Q&A

Every of the partners has been asked to provide the most important advice they would give to an entrepreneur:

#1 Do it now. You only have 400 months left if you are in your thirties.
#2 Startups are not for everyone. You need to make that decision.
#3 Don’t give up.
#4 Make sure you are in contact with reality e.g. you should never build something without any customers.


This event was incredible inspiring. While I heard many of these things before in one or the other way, I believe it’s an important exercise to re-ignite your motivation regularly.

I’m grateful for attending the first Startup School in Europe.

Say ‘Hi’ on Twitter.