9 Pieces of Tactical Advice from Women Founders at Y Combinator
Last week, I had a fantastic opportunity to attend the first Future Founders Conference for women hosted by Y Combinator, and it was the best all-nighter I have ever pulled.
Before I dive into the nine pieces of tactical advice, let me tell you a bit about what the Future Founders Conference is all about and why it is something all aspiring women entrepreneurs must consider attending.
YC’s Future Founders Conference 2020
The Future Founders Conference is an evolution of Y Combinator’s Female Founders Conference, which, since 2014, has been helping women founders start and run their companies. Through the Future Founders Conference (which we all now call it the #YCFFC), Y Combinator aims to bring together more communities like prospective Latinx founders and Black founders to empower women across the world to get started on their dreams.
In their own words —
“Y Combinator believes creating a platform where successful women can share their stories and advice with founders who are just getting started is one way to bring about even more successful women-led companies.”
— and they couldn’t have been more right.
Wednesday, 18th November 2020, saw 2,100 women from all over the world glued to their computer screens, watching incredible women leaders, founders, investors, and experts share tactical advice, empathetic stories, and honest accounts of what is it like to find co-founders, leave corporate jobs, pitch to investors and scale their companies.
The most striking aspect of the YCFFC for me was how real and powerful these incredible women were in sharing their journeys, challenges, and support. It felt like I was sitting and having a cup of coffee with all these great achievers and simply, just catching up. The amount of comfort and the ease with which they were ready to offer advice and answer our questions was utterly refreshing.
I think I speak for all the participants when I say that we all walked away with what were the most inspiring and motivating words of encouragement. We also felt a sense of power wash all over us, telling us that there is absolutely nothing that will stop us from achieving our dreams.
How to Attend
The first of the YCFFC was a virtual conference due to the pandemic, and the application process was relatively simple. The entry to YCFFC was free, but our attendance was not guaranteed. We were required to apply by a set deadline and if approved to attend, would receive a confirmation email within two weeks of applying.
The application form was pretty concise and asked us to explain why we wanted to attend the conference and what we were hoping to learn from it. Not sure if sessions of the conference are going to be virtual in the coming years but I will cross my fingers and hope they will be!
Whirlpool of Networking
The sessions had a great lineup of speakers — Seventeen women, all experts in their field either building notable companies or creating a substantial impact on leadership.
The YCFFC was dynamic, not just because the speakers themselves were dynamic, but the moment the sessions began, there was a whirlpool of networking activity in the Zoom chat. All the women participants started talking to each other, and within minutes groups were created on WhatsApp, Facebook and LinkedIn, channels were launched on Slack, and Twitter was buzzing with #ycffc where most of us found each other and shared our LinkedIn profiles.
It was quite an unexpected but a surprising event because we all walked into it knowing we were going to land on this gold-mine of knowledge that would help us shape our path in the startup world, but this whirlpool of networking blew our minds!
Over the next couple of days, I got to (and still am) speak with so many ambitious and powerful women tackling such real, crippling problems and building innovative solutions and companies. In my experience, this must be the biggest networking event I have ever witnessed.
What did I learn
Where do I even begin!? There was a plethora of advice, inspiration and strength in every talk but here are nine points that stood out for me in those moments —
1. Your Co-founders Are Your Lifeline
When building a company, the most crucial factor for its success besides the idea is your team of co-founders. You must have a good relationship with them, work with people who are effective and trust those who can be reliable.
Same ambitions and moral values among co-founders will drive the company towards a shared vision and goal. Your co-founders must have the determination to withstand rejections as rejections are pretty much day-to-day affairs in the startup life.
Startups are all about donning different hats every day. So, make sure to pick your cofounders with some domain expertise. For example, if you are building software, your cofounder must know how to program. One of you must be the face of the company who should sell to customers and investors. Find those people who have the ability and willingness to sell.
2. Make Something YOU Want
Good startup ideas are not the typical instant-lightbulb moments but are silently lurking within the everyday problems that we or the people around us face. If you can identify that problem, you probably have a good startup idea on your hand.
To make something that people want, make something that YOU want. When you are a part of the target market, you will have great insights. You must be able to understand your users and be fanatically involved in solving their problems and providing them with better solutions at each turn.
3. Aim To Be Ramen Profitable
As Paul Graham beautifully puts it in his essay, Ramen Profitable means a startup makes just enough to pay the founders’ living expenses.
For example, say a startup becomes profitable after two months with a revenue of $3000 a month. The company hasn’t succeeded but is Ramen Profitable because the only employees are a couple of 25-year-old founders who can live on practically nothing.
It simply means that you don’t need to raise money to survive, you are not at the mercy of investors, and you can raise on better terms when you do go for another round of fundraising.
4. Too Much Time And Lack of Focus Kill Startups
Crisply put, don't take too much time to launch and don’t lose focus. Always launch early. Test what will work with low tech, launch and then iterate on that feature.
Launching, again and again, is honestly the best advice out there. It takes the pressure off of you, helps you get quick feedback from your users and continuously keeps you on your toes to iterate your product, which in turn, doesn’t allow you to lose focus.
It is a beautiful circle, and the trick is to keep running to keep the circle going.
5. Three Things To Do Before Quitting Your Job
Quitting your job to work on your startup is a tough decision. Most of the time, we rely on that one big epiphany or that gut feeling which tells us that we should now quit and start working on our dreams. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a tactical framework to take that decision without compromising our passion?
There is, thanks to Erika Hairston, Co-founder @ Edlyft. Erika suggests we do these three things before leaving our jobs —
- Do some startup math. Calculate how much you need to save in the bank to live six months without a job.
- Make a list of all the people you respect and want to work with.
- The hardest part — convince people from that list to work with you on your startup.
With this framework, we don’t have to worry about the money, will start considering putting a team together and be pitching to our future startup family and evaluating our startup idea, all at the same time.
6. Be Proactive
Startups are hard. They take up a significant amount of our time. People often say that you have to be prepared to dedicate at least ten years of your life to building your company. And if that is the expectation, the imperative thing to do is to be proactive.
Learn what you don’t know. Take advantage of the plethora of resources available online. If you don’t know how to code or develop a sales pitch, get to work. Start working on small projects and share them with people. Ask for feedback, collaborate and build and publish something even if it looks awful. Learning is a process that is immensely valuable and will leave you with the skills to keep building your company with new and evolving ideas. To be consistent and work on deliberate feedback, keep a daily changelog.
Be obsessed with your users. Find out where your users hang out and talk to them. Understand their problems, their alternative solutions to alleviate that problem and look for insights to build your solution. User-feedback is the backbone of any product success. Be deliberate in your approach and plans and don’t miss out on opportunities.
7. Dispel Bad Advice
There is a lot of advice and feedback out there. Everywhere we look, we find something new or something old presented in different ways. It is inescapable and naturally, is an instinct to take it all in but you shouldn’t is what Adora Cheung, Partner at Y Combinator says.
Take feedback but don’t be compelled to listen too much. There is a difference between good advice and non-good advice. Good advice is always non-obvious while non-good advice repeats what you already know. We must be able to filter between the two, and this skill can only be developed via practice.
8. Questions to Kick-Start Your Company
Once you are ready with a well-formed idea and your founder team, the next step is to ask yourself these four questions to kick-start your company.
- What type of company are you building?
a. Is it a venture-backed company? If you are solving a critical pain-point faced by a lot of people, you need to grow to keep solving that pain-point and growth needs venture capital.
b. Is it a lifestyle company? If you are investing your own money and using the revenue to sustain, you are building a lifestyle company.
- Where do you find investors? What do they invest in?
- Where do you foresee your future growth opportunities?
- What is your exit path? Is it an acquisition or an IPO?
9. Equal Equity Split
There is a lot of information on the ideal ownership among co-founders, but the best way is to split the equity equally. The idea may be yours but having an idea is a lot easier than executing that idea. Suppose you don’t overvalue your idea and give incentive to yourself and your co-founders to work on your startup. In that case, you can rest assured that there will be enough motivation among your whole team to see the idea transform into the company you want to build.
Also, an equity split must always come with a vesting period. A vesting period is when founders agree that their stock will vest over some time, ideally four years. If by some reason, a cofounder leaves before the vesting period, your equity is protected.
The YCFFC concluded with Open sessions with 18 women founders where all of us had to break out into groups of 30–40 and choose which founder’s brain we wanted to pick for the next one and half hour. We had the option to switch among founders, but it was a strain on our decision-making abilities. There were so many wonderful women to interact with, but so little time. Also, Zoom wanted us to leave one meeting to join another, which was a big bummer.
I got the opportunity to attend the open sessions with Esther Crawford, CEO, Squad and Cadran Cowansage, Founder & CEO, Elpha. We listened to them talk about the communities they are building, the challenges they are facing and their decisions around launching, marketing and revenue models.
It was enriching and empowering in a way to speak to these amazing founders and see them be mindfully involved in answering our questions and giving out genuine and tactical advice.
The YCFFC was a delightful conference which kept me and half of the participants awake till 7 AM IST, and I want thank Y Combinator for this amazing opportunity and for filling all us women with a drive to learn, connect and share lessons in the startup world.
My favourite part from the entire conference was when Anu Hariharan, Partner at Y Combinator, prompted us to take that leap and start working on our dreams and assured us with a vehement conviction that they’ve got our backs :)
Can’t wait to get cracking!