How We Kick-Started Our Venture In 6 Weeks With Y Combinator’s Startup-School
YC’s philosophy helped me and my cofounders rethink the entire concept of what it means to start a business, what a startup actually is, and how to quickly get going. I wanted to share what we’ve learnt thus far, and hopefully encourage you to take your idea from whiteboard to traction in no time.
How it all started
It’s July 17th 2019. I find myself in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on the first half of my summer vacation to celebrate my boyfriend Josh’s birthday. Josh had just left the startup he had co-founded and was back home for some R&R. I decided to join him to also take some time to rethink my next move career wise: I spent the previous year selling gender equality-strategies to corporations as a consultant, but it wasn’t quite taking off. (Everyone loved the idea of it, very few were actually willing to pay for it). Anyway, we tried to advise each other on what to do next because it was obvious that we both needed a major change.
As a natural result of our mutual passions for tech, entrepreneurship and activism, we introduced the wild idea to do something together. Question was — what? In the 40 degrees (95F) desert heat we came up with ideas ranging from community admin tools, to event management software, to coding bootcamps, all things related to what we had been working on throughout our careers. It was truly the blind leading the blind kind of situation. Serendipitously, Josh received an email from Kevin Hale encouraging him to join this year’s YC Startup School, and we figured it could be helpful for us to get something going.
We spent the last few days of our vacation in San Clemente, California and kicked off Startup School 2019 (SUS 2019) on July 22nd, 2019 with an idea that would help group admins better manage and monetize their audiences which we called Purpose.
Lesson 1. Build something people want, i.e., find a problem that many people have (and then create a solution for it).
Our initial idea, to help group admins, was just that: an idea. Our passions and interests drove us to think, conjecture, and speculate that our idea was a solution that surely many group admins would want for their woes, but we had no real evidence it was a problem they actually had. Funnily enough, neither Josh nor I actually had this problem ourselves. We were falling in the classic trap of starting with a solution instead of an identifiable problem for our startup idea, or what Kevin Hale calls SISP: Solution In Search of a Problem.
We heeded the SUS advice for how to evaluate our idea and talk to users from the first few weeks of the course, and we began reaching out to every group admin we knew to validate our idea. After about three weeks of user interviews, we realized our idea wasn’t as big of a problem as we had initially thought.
It’s now the second week of August, and we’re back to the drawing board. We needed another idea. And we now wanted to make sure it would be a startup-worthy problem we could solve. Little did we know, that idea was to be found on the other side of the Atlantic, and had been in front of us the whole time.
In Stockholm, our friend, and soon-to-be colleague, Alexandra, had been working on an idea to digitize vintage stores to make it more accessible to shop secondhand. It was called ReRobe, and for those of you who have tried to come up with a good name for a startup, I hope you will agree with my instant love for it. Both Josh and I had followed Alex’s journey throughout the year, and we had always found the broader vision to be really exiting: ReRobe could potentially change consumer behavior, introduce a retail experience that had a net-positive impact on the climate, and ultimately help people feel better about the things they purchase.
Back down on earth though, it was actually a real problem I personally wanted to solve: I had sold things from my closet as a financial survival-trick and side-hustle while running my consulting business, and I already had a laundry list of ideas on how this could be done better. Alex, too, had already procured a number of great items from her friends and family who were eager to sell their clothing. But most importantly, the moment I started talking to friends, I realized that everyone mentioned the same problems I had experienced. It was time for us to get to work, quickly.
Alex and I were the first users. We knew exactly what product we were longing for. And luckily, with Josh onboard, we had a software developer and product thinker who could make it come to life (he also has a passion for sustainable living, so the broader goals of the company were all he needed to commit full-time with us)!
Key Insight: Be willing to ditch your idea if it doesn’t turn out to be a problem many people have; avoid the SISP pitfall. Just because you have a great idea for something doesn’t always guarantee a real problem actually exists. Also, ask yourself and your users the important question — would you be willing to pay for your idea? It’s much easier with B2C-ideas, you get the answer directly if you talk to people around you. It’s as simple as asking, “hey, do you ever [insert your idea here]. Cool, what problems or pain points do you have with existing solutions?”.
Lesson 2. Launch fast and keep re-launching (launching is not a singular instance).
Before SUS I thought of a launch as an event with an exclusive setting, influencers and goodiebags. Kat Mañalac’s brutal honesty helped me reconsider what a launch is. In her lecture, she states:
“For most startups, you will launch something, and no one will care. And if it took you 6 months to get there, your startup will most likely be dead before you get a chance to launch again”.
After coming together August 19th to start the venture with Alexandra, we asked ourselves what was the bare minimum we needed to launch, i.e., start start selling and bringing in revenue. Turns out, it was pretty simple: we needed to get clothes to sell, and an event where this could happen, and a way to collect some emails. We set a short deadline for when this was going to happen, and for the following weeks we decided to break down that “big” launch in several steps.
Week 2: Signup form → Launch 1
Week 4: Pop up event → Launch 2 (we procured 200 items from friends & family and hosted an event at a local restaurant. 120 people showed up and we sold for $1300)
Week 6: Web Shop → Launch 3
Week 8: Instagram → Launch 4
We iterated our business model several times during this process, and the great thing about launching over and over again, is that you take down the mental pressure on how ready things need to be when putting them out in public. To put something on display that doesn’t correlate with your grand vision will be a tough challenge for anyone with a perfectionist-striving personality, but it’s the only right way to get feedback and make your product and business better.
Key Insight: The big learning for me was when I realized that the product will never be “done”, it’s a constant work in progress and in order to know what to do next, you have to open up the shop / show sketches / put the ugly prototype out in the light. If you’re not really convinced yet, ask yourself if you remember Google’s launch? Microsoft’s launch, AirBnB’s launch? (Thanks Kat for that!)
Lesson 3. Always talk to users
Before ReRobe, I spent six months developing a concept for companies on how to improve their internal policies for Gender Equality, without talking to any potential buyers. I told myself that I would start doing user testing once the first prototype was ready. I wanted everything to be perfect before starting the outreach. After the 6 months had passed, I felt “ready” to start sending quotes. It turned out the pricing was off, the concept wasn’t concrete enough for buyers to understand what they were buying, and #tbh most companies weren’t willing to pay what I needed to charge in order to stay in business. With my mistake in mind, do yourself a favor and try to find the people who will buy your service immediately. The earlier you open up a communication channel with users or potential customers and implement a feedback look for your product, the better position you’ll be in to know if you’re on the path to building something people want.
The analytics team at SUS provided some data about the final 30.000 startups that had participated in this class. On average, founders who talked to users were 12.8% happier than the once that didn’t. We recommend watching Eric Migicovsky’s lecture on how to talk to users. He argues that you should never ask users what they want. (Remember the Ford quote about the racing horse and the car?). You should present the problem your trying to solve, and ask how they are solving it right now. The reasons why you should do this, Eric argues, is to:
“Figure out whether the problem you’re solving is even something that people are already looking for solutions to, and what the competition is out there”.
With ReRobe, we started by emailing our friends right away and telling them about our idea, asking if they had any clothes to sell, and gave them a great friends & family-offer on the commission. Soon, we expanded the circle and started asking strangers if we could “pitch them on our startup” and get their honest feedback. September happened to be a wedding-intense month, and those mingle-friendly nights were golden for pitching. (Jesus Christ, what had Startup School done to us!). A new acquaintance at a wedding mentioned he had things to sell. Great! We followed up on Facebook Messenger the week after.
What we really loved about SUS was the opportunity each week to dial in to a Group Session with other founders. This was truly startup-roulette, and over the weeks we matched with 32 different companies inventing everything from vegetarian salmon (Hooked Seafood) to safety apps for Women in India (DROR App), to a market place for boat transports in Vietnam (Traisea). Talking to people in different countries made us think of our market as global from day 1, and we are very thankful for these sessions, where SUS-participants did not hesitate to grill us on our business idea.
4. Know your primary metrics and revise them each week
What quickly came to our attention was how important metrics played into YC philosophy. Every week we submitted our weekly update with a mandatory requirement of how many weeks we were away from launching, how many users we had talked to, our morale on a scale 1–10, and a company-specific Primary metric that varies on what sort of business you’re running. For most of us though, there are really only two primary metrics a startup should focus on. Revenue and Users, and for most it’s going to be revenue. We recommend watching Anu Hariharan’s lecture “Nine Business Models and the Metrics Investor’s Want”.
5. Prioritize Time — ask yourself what adds value to your users. Cut out the rest.
As a hard-working woman in my late 20s, I am often struggling with one major theme: How to say no. I even have a post-it from my therapist with the words “Thank you, this sounds like an amazing opportunity. I don’t have time, but thank you for considering me.” Over the past two years, I never used it. I said yes to every meeting request and event I was invited to: Coffee with people who wanted inspiration / help / introductions, panel talks, pro-bono lectures, networking events. Of course, this is great in many aspects, but in too big portions it will leave you feeling diluted, and with split vision. What was my focus? I was currently all over the place and spent more time solving other people’s problems rather than my own. The recipe for success for ReRobe was to put that post-it in practice. I reduced the number of external meetings to (almost) zero, limited my time on social media and turned down everything that would take time from the startup. I only said yes if it was a paid job, because after all, you have to cover your bills each month.
In week 8 of SUS, Adora Cheung put the hammer on the nail and gave the speech of the year in “How to Prioritize your time”. The biggest take-away from it is that you should ask yourself if the tasks you are doing are adding value to your users or to your ego. Talking to users and building product is real progress. Here is a good Adora-example of what fake progress is:
Also, don’t do overly complex or cost-heavy tasks in the beginning. Do you really need a custom mobile app to launch? Do you really need a UX designer before paying customers? Josh has been instrumental in helping us not reinvent-the-wheel when it comes to product and tech by using as many pre-existing tools and platforms to get up and running. Shoutout to Airtable, Shopify, Zapier, and Intercom!
6. Do things that don’t scale
A frequent anecdote from SUS was how AirBnB was having a hard time making their business take-off. Gustaf Alströmer shared in his lecture:
“Paul Graham told the founders to go and see their hosts. Undercover, they started offering professional photo sessions with the hosts and tagged along (they were actually “the professional photographers”, but if they would have admitted that, the company would have looked much smaller).”
By doing this, the founders could talk to the hosts and learn first-hand how they could improve their product. We did the same thing, kind of.
When a friend or stranger said they had things to sell, we took that opportunity to go and manually pick up their items in order to learn how this whole process needed to work. We carried IKEA-bags of clothes through the Stockholm subway, and shortly after, our apartments soon turned into inventory warehouses. The thing for us that is obviously not going to scale is the manual pick-up of clothing, then steaming each item and making them look nice in photos.
The most fun part of it was when we found ourselves in the hallway of the no longer-stranger-but-customer picking up things they wanted to sell. These procurement sessions turned out to be the best source of in-depth interviews for us, and they helped us really understand what the problems were for our users. With this data, we crafted out two seller types and designed our offering based on the findings.
The End Note
We still have a longggg way to go with ReRobe, and we have by no means figured it all out yet. But, following the wisdom, advice, and guidelines from YC Startup school has helped us get a fully working product and company out within 6 weeks, and we have revenue!
With this said, we want to send our biggest thank you to YC for helping us kickstart our venture and for being so God Damn Smart. Also, to our fellow startup-colleagues in the world, we hope to see you again in the future and see you grow.
If you want help to downsize your closet and upgrade your style, ReRobe is happy to help: ReRobe.se
If you want to connect, here is how:
Sincerely, thank you for reading.