Founders Are the New Rockstars

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"OMG, you know the guy who started Reddit?!"

My sister-in-law — a freshman at the University of Maryland — was starstruck, and immediately took to Facebook to tell her friends she was in the same room with Alexis Ohanian. Her roommate responded right away "Where are you?? I’m coming NOW!"

Everywhere Alexis went last night on stop 29 of his 150-stop college book tour, students and fans of Reddit were clamoring to get their pictures taken with him so they could tell their friends they met the founder of Reddit, got their copy of his book signed, and drank beers with the guy behind their favorite site. True rockstar status.

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Granted, Alexis is a special breed — touring the country in a massive tour bus like an actual rockstar — but the best startups being created today are touching lives much the same way that music does, and giving founders a celebrity status among the internet generation.

It’s now just as cool to start a startup as it is to be in a rock band. Just as cool to spend hours creating in front of a computer as it is to spend hours practicing guitar in your parents’ basement. Just as cool to reveal that app you’ve been working on to your friends as it is to release your band’s first demo.

Coding, designing, finding users, building a brand, and ultimately creating a company out of nothing is an art form. It starts with a blank canvas, makes people’s lives better when released to the world, and takes years of practice to become great at it. And pop culture is beginning to recognize and embrace the startup creators who pour their hearts and souls into their work to build a better future.

After he got off stage, the success of Alexis’ message hit home for me when my sister-in-law — an 18-year-old girl obsessed with fashion, parties, and Snapchat — said afterward that she wanted to learn how to code so she could have the power to be one of these creators.

Kids growing up today are already obsessed with technology, and all they need now are more positive founder role-models to focus their scattered energy and show them the way. So while we don’t all have to go on rockstar cross-country tours to do our part, we owe it to future generations to get involved at local schools, mentor passionate kids overflowing with ideas, and give back to the community that will ultimately change the world.

Startups Aren’t Risky

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"Not everyone’s like you," he said. "Startups are risky, so not everyone sees that as a viable career path." But I disagreed - startups aren’t risky.

It wasn’t long ago that I was talking to an entrepreneurship professor at the University of Maryland about ways to get more students excited about joining the startup world and following their passions and dreams, rather than taking the traditional path through corporate America. And his response surprised me.

So when I got the chance to give feedback to some ambitious University of Maryland students at a speed pitch event this afternoon, I was struck by the contrast between the entrepreneurial students giving pitches in our classroom vs. the career fair going on just outside in the hallway.

It got me thinking about how these aspiring entrepreneurs had to literally walk through a sea of students in suits swarming the recruiting booths for Pepsico and other mega-corporations, to arrive in our classroom to get feedback on big businesses they had dreams of creating themselves.

These students weren’t looking to play the game to advance to the next stage in their lives or careers, as they’re expected to do by so many of their families and peers. Put on your best suit. Make your resume sound sharp. But keep it to a single page, because no one wants to read more than that. Make yourself stand out to the recruiters. Get their contact info and follow up. All for an opportunity to take the road most traveled, to live the life they’re expected to live.

It brought me back to when I was graduating from the UMD business school a decade ago, and all of my tech friends were jumping into government consulting jobs while I was the weird one into startups. And I get it: decent pay, 9-5 hours, short-term job security. But none of them were actually passionate about consulting. It was a job.

So why didn’t anyone see starting or joining a startup as a viable path? There are some myths out there that prevent a lot of really smart, passionate people from taking the plunge, the biggest of which is that startups are risky. And sure, most startups and small businesses fail. Chances are, if you start (or join) one, you will too. But that doesn’t make it risky.

Because when you build a startup, you get the most incredible experience across a huge spectrum of skills, and come out the other side (successful or not) with a significantly more employable skillset. By their very nature, startups take you out of your comfort zone, and force you to grow by putting you in situations you’ve never been in before. Pitching investors to raise money. Building a product where nothing existed before. Convincing other people to get behind your startup and join the team. Figuring out creative ways to tell the world about your product. Reaching out to partners to help each other along the way. Being resourceful. These are all skills that you’ll be forced to learn in the first year of your startup life, many of which are skills you’d never learn after decades in corporate America.

This is not risky. This is empowering.

Risky is becoming a cog in the wheel, performing the same specific job function day in and day out, never being forced to truly expand your horizons and grow. And then what happens if you get laid off by BigCo? Right back into the rat-race of career fairs and job sites to see who you can convince that those specific skills you’ve been using over the years are the perfect fit for them.

On the flip side, what happens if your startup fails? This is where all of those startup skills really come in handy. Every single one of them is a skill that forces you to make connections and meet other people doing similar things. Investors, potential partners, potential employees, potential customers, startup friends. Being in a startup forces you to meet people who, coincidentally, are always looking to hire smart, ambitious, resourceful, get-shit-done people like yourself. So you’ll never be without opportunities.

So to all the students out there who come to the fork in the road, don’t be afraid to take the road less traveled. It won’t lead you astray.

How to make your YC application stand out

Oct 14, 2010 in

As a YC alum (COLOURlovers.com, W10), I had a great time seeing some old YC friends and meeting a lot of new faces at the YC Q&A at the Hunch offices in NYC last night (video here, in case you missed it).

There were a lot of really smart people working on some really cool ideas, and almost every potential applicant wanted to know the same thing: Did I have any advice for putting together a killer application? Why yes, I do:

  • Focus on the team.
    This is the single most important criteria that YC will be looking for as they read your application. Ideas change. All. The. Time. But the team doesn’t. Do you have the passion and drive to persevere even when things are going south? Do you and your co-founder(s) have a strong enough relationship to push each other to do better and never give up, every single day? It’s a long, hard journey starting a company with nothing and turning it into something special, and it’s your job to prove to YC that you’re excited by the challenge.
  • Know your audience.
    Picture this scenario: a YC alum has just finished reading the 50th application in a row, and then leans over to pull yours out from the pile. How will yours stand out?

    As you write your application, imagine that you are writing for a very tired YC alum who has just read through a billion of these things. Keep it short. Get to the point. No one wants to read an essay when a sentence or two will do the job.
  • Don’t pitch.
    I understand that YC is technically an investor, and you are technically pitching them to invest in you, but leave the formal marketing speak off the application. PG, Jessica, Trevor, RTM, Harj, Alexis, and any other YC alums that read your application are real people. Real, normal, nice people. So talk to them (and write your application) as if you’re talking to a friend, not a stereotypical investor. YC is looking to invest in real people, not robots spewing buzzwords and jargon, so just be a human.
  • Be yourself.
    This is especially true if you submit a video of yourself with your application. Don’t worry about adding fancy editing effects, or trying to make it seem professional. In fact, the more professional you make your video, the more it’s probably going to make them think that you’re a little too slick, and maybe you’re hiding something. Just be yourself.

    What I recommend is this: turn the camera on, smile and wave as if you just saw an old friend on the street, and have a short conversation with the camera about who you are, what you’re working on, and why you have it in your bones to start a startup. One take, no editing. If you stumble over a word you were trying to get out? Who cares, you’re human. Make sure that who you are comes through.

    Ultimately, the point of these videos is not for you to sell them on your idea. It’s another opportunity for YC to get to know you and your team as people, in a way that words on an application form can’t convey. So focus on the team, rather than spending the entire video trying to explain your idea.
  • Show passion!
    This isn’t something you can fake. You either have it in your soul, or you don’t. And if there’s one thing that PG/Jessica/Harj/etc are really good at, it’s that they can smell lack of passion and commitment a mile away. How bad do you want this? What are you willing to give up? Anything and everything?

More on passion: Before submitting your application, it’s important to make sure that this is something you really want to do. There were a couple questions last night from people asking if they “really have to move all the way out to Silicon Valley” or if they “have to stay out there the whole 3 months, or can they go out for a month and then go somewhere else for a month…”. And while Harj and Alexis were very diplomatic with their responses, the truth is that if you are even thinking about this then you should not apply.

Yes, it’s really hard relocating across the country. I know because I did it less than a year ago. When we applied to YC in Nov of ‘09, I was living in the DC area with my wife and puppy. At the same time we got accepted to YC, my wife got a job up in NYC. The week after Christmas, we drove our entire lives up to our new apartment in NYC, got my wife settled in the city, and then I flew out to San Francisco to live on the other side of the country from her for 3 months.

And it was, without a doubt, one of the best experiences of my life. If you’re passionate about building a startup, there is no better opportunity than to live with your co-founders out in Silicon Valley, free from the distractions of your usual everyday life, and just work and create, every single day.

There is no concept of Monday morning, or Friday night, or Saturday night when you’re out there cranking away. All of the days just bleed together. The only day that matters is Tuesday, because that is when you head to YC to catch up with all of the other founders in your batch, see what they’ve been up to over the last week, and hear the inside dish from a speaker that may or may not have been on the Forbes Richest People In the World List.

I hope PG doesn’t read this, but I tell people all the time that in hindsight I would’ve done YC for zero dollars and still given them the equity percentage. You will leave YC on the “inside” of the SV bubble. You will have personal relationships with founders and investors that you read about on TechCrunch. How can you put a price on that?

If you have any other questions about the application process or the YC experience, I’d be more than happy to help, so please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me at: aepstein [at] gmail [dot] com. And good luck!

Free lifetime software upgrades are bad for customers

May 29, 2010

As a software developer, when you’re first starting out and working on releasing v1.0 of your product, it’s common to think that potential customers might be hesitant to buy it or, worse yet, might choose a competitor over you. You want to give them every reason to buy from you, so one of the first mistakes many developers make when they release v1.0 is they offer free lifetime upgrades for anyone who purchases a license. I made this mistake when I released ColorSchemer v1 back in October of 2000, and I quickly came to regret it.

The thinking is that for anyone that is on the fence about buying your product, or trying to decide between your app or the competition, the offer of free lifetime upgrades will surely get them over the hump and put extra money in your pocket. After all, you’re really sweetening the deal for potential customers, right?

Well, it turns out that this is actually a terrible idea. Not only for developers, but for customers as well. Here’s why:

  1. It’s bad for customers because developers have no motivation to significantly improve the product, and adding new enhancements will not directly translate to increased revenue through upgrade sales. Lacking the financial motivation for continuing to develop the product, developers will move on to other projects where the grass is greener, and the product will become abandoned.
  2. It’s bad for developers because they leave money on the table that customers are willing to pay. It’s completely expected for customers to have to pay for significant advances and major upgrades to software. You’re not offending them by charging for all the new features and improvements (not to mention the time and effort you’ve spent) added to your software that make their lives easier.
  3. You lose an opportunity to sell your future work to the group that is far and away the #1 most likely to purchase: your existing customers. They already trust you. They’ve already had a great experience with your product. Take advantage of this.

When we released ColorSchemer Studio 2 for Mac (a paid, major upgrade) in December, upgrade sales accounted for 63.5% of the total number of sales and 54.5% of the total revenue for the month. That’s a lot of revenue to leave on the table if we were offering free lifetime upgrades. And there’s no way that the offer of free lifetime upgrades would have increased sales of ColorSchemer Studio v1 enough to make up for just this one month of upgrade sales alone.

And you know what else? I can’t wait to get started on ColorSchemer Studio 3. The potential for future upgrade sales gives developers the motivation and business justification to continue to improve, support and build great products, and that’s a big win for customers too.

Form is Function

May 28, 2010

Hello, my name is Aaron Epstein, and this is my new blog where I’ll be sharing the insights I’ve learned about product design, development, and great user experiences as I’ve worked to build both ColorSchemer software and my new startup CHROMAom.

I started ColorSchemer in my dorm room in 2000 when I needed an easy way to find colors that matched with client logo colors. When I couldn’t find a tool that would just tell me what colors go well together, I decided to build one.

By evolving ColorSchemer software over the last 10 years, I’ve learned a lot along the way about designing products that make users smile. And that’s where the title of this post comes from: Form is Function.

It means that building great products that people enjoy using is about more than a set of product functions, or what the product looks like. It’s about how it works, and how it makes you feel when you use it. And everything - from what the user sees, to how quickly the product works, to how intuitive it is to use, to how fast the user can receive a helpful response from customer support - works to create a lasting impression with users.