Last year, in 2017, my co-founder signed us up for the YCombinator’s Startup School (SUS). 10 weeks later, our lives had changed completely. We were admitted into the YC’s core program, moved to Silicon Valley and were growing faster than we could onboard customers.
This year, YCombinator launched the second Startup School. And since my picture is listed on their homepage, I have received several questions about how to make the most out of this experience. In this post, I’d like to share what worked for us.
But first, a quick summary of Thematic and what’s been going on when we started SUS so that you have some context.
How it all started
My background is in Natural Language Processing. I spent 8 years getting a Masters and a PhD in the very specific field of finding meaning in text using algorithms. I also spent 3 years at a startup applying these skills to build enterprise software.
But in 2015, after my first maternity leave, I was consulting, when several companies approached me and asked if I could help them with analysing customer feedback. At the same time, I completed an enterprise sales course and managed to turn this initial interest into 3 sales, before actually building a fully-fledged product. Yay! Then I had another baby and convinced my husband Nathan to join. So, we slowly started building the product, a web presence and continue to sell.
Trough of sorrow
Fast-forward to February 2017, and Thematic was in a bit of a sad place. We had 6 customers, some loved the early version of our product, and others didn’t seem to use it. A potential business-minded co-founder went dark on us. The sales were slow. Nathan and I decided that we would stop Thematic by August if we wouldn’t get to a certain revenue target. This was the moment when we signed up for SUS.
Our experience participating in YC Startup School
I remember the first time we had a call with our mentor, Radu Spineanu, a YC Founder. It took 3 hours and Thematic was the second to last company to speak. It was incredibly motivating to hear people around the world working on start-ups in similar stages, realizing how far you’ve come, compared to some of them, and getting valuable tactical advice from those who are further than you in some areas of building their business. Radu impressed us by being both incredibly encouraging and pointing out things we didn’t think about.
And I have to agree with Andrew Pikul who shared on Twitter just how special is this learning experience across countries and continents with others:
During SUS, we signed two major clients, one of them was a successful YCombinator company, another a major airline. We were still a small team with just two people and a rough early product.
At the end of SUS, Radu suggested we apply for the summer batch at YCombinator. We decided to try our luck, we got in, worked really hard, grew our metrics even more, ended up presenting at the Demo Day, within weeks raised our seed round on great terms, and have proceeded to expand our team to 10 new hires over the next 10 months. So, in just months, we went from a two-people team to a small company!
How to get the most out of YC Startup School
Nathan signed us up to SUS to make sure to watch educational videos, but without realizing the value of these weekly meetings with the mentor. They actually mirror the real YCombinator experience: during the week you work on your company, and once a week, you share progress on hitting your metrics. Realizing that this is the most important thing will help you to make the most out of SUS.
1. Choose your metric
Launch if you haven’t launched. Try selling if you haven’t sold yet. As you can see from Thematic’s story, if the problem you are solving is important, companies will pay for just the vision of having this problem solved: a rough prototype is all you need.
If you have launched and are selling, can you grow the revenue by 10% each week? If it’s easy and achievable, pick a more ambitious number. Are you selling to enterprises? Think about how you can start a paid POC. How can you expand an existing account?
Cut out every single task that does not help you with your metric. Evaluate progress towards your metric daily, so that you can remember that this is the most important thing to do. Then eliminate everything that won’t support your progress. Apart from eating, exercising, the time out with your family and friends.
3. Take this opportunity seriously
I asked Radu what his advice was for SUS participants:
“This could be the most high impact 3 months of your life. Be sure that you’ll be noticed if you’re building something special.”
Finally, I get asked a lot: Why YCombinator? Why raising money? Why not just bootstrap your way into a successful business slowly while regaining full control of the business. My answer: It’s completely up to you! Statistics show that the most successful tech startups have raised money from VCs. But this path is not for everyone.
What YC Startup School allows you is a small taster of what it’s like running fast.
Try it! It’s just 10 weeks.