July 13, 2017
The key benefit of accelerators like Y Combinator (YC) is that they function almost like warp zones for companies. You enter an accelerator at a given stage of your company and will emerge three stages further along, irrespective of where your company started from. Companies in my YC class for instance, ran the gamut from founders still in the idea phase to companies with fully articulated go-to market strategies and recurring revenue. All of these companies stood to benefit from the experience specifically because of how accelerators like YC function.
Incubators usually provide their companies with coworking spaces, access to internal resources like legal, recruiting and design teams, and shared resources like 3D printers or CNC machines. Unlike incubators, accelerators do not provide resources like these to their companies. Instead, founders are left on their own to decide things like which office space to lease or which law firm to retain. The accelerator, and the network built from it, will provide plenty of advice. However, nothing is ever solved by default for the founders.
From my experiences, this is actually the primary strength of accelerators. The muscle that needs to be exercised in most founders is the capability to make smart, fast decisions in the absence of comprehensive information, then follow through resonantly. Good accelerators are specifically designed to build this muscle.
The main challenge accelerators have is around trying to identify the companies and founders that are most likely to benefit from this kind of environment. Becoming a founder is often glamorized in ways that often drives the wrong types of people towards it and sometimes drives the right types of people away from it. Weeding out the former and encouraging the latter is why application processes for accelerators can become so involved, with seemingly bizarre questions and intense interviews. Even in spite of years of experience, accelerators like Y Combinator freely admit that they will get this wrong fairly regularly. However, their goal is to assemble a class of maybe 60-70 percent of the right types of gritty, tenacious, “relentlessly resourceful” founders from which a three-month crucible of ideas and competition can be built.
I was one of the reluctant founders going into Y Combinator. Friends of mine had introduced me to the Y Combinator community years before I was invited to the program. Twice, I joined up with these friends to submit YC applications. In both cases, we were rejected at the application phase, and rightfully so in hindsight. However, the energy and mindset of the YC founders I met in the process was inspiring. By the time I had built the initial prototype for imgix, I was uncertain if I truly wanted to build a business out of it, especially as a solo founder at the time.
However, after showing it around, those same friends encouraged me to try applying to YC once more. I decided that if against all odds, I managed to get into the program, I would give it my all despite my initial reluctance.
To my surprise, I made it through the application phase (I still have my application video) and into the interview phase. The interview was a rapid-fire question and answer session with seven different YC partners. In my case, the interview was surprisingly smooth. I pitched myself as a “pre-cofounder” founder of an early stage image processing infrastructure company. It turned out that the idea I was proposing for imgix had been an idea Paul Graham had glimpsed before in a company that had ultimately decided to go off in a different direction. He was interested in seeing my particular slant on it play out.
Four hours later, I was accepted into the program, one of only four solo founders that batch. I packed a sleeping bag, some clothes, and a used road bike I had bought for the occasion, and moved into a friend’s unfurnished spare bedroom in Mountain View for the three months during the program.
Once inside of Y Combinator, you always feel two steps behind everyone else. Each company has its own dimension of maturity, whether it be a great idea, strong execution, or compelling founders. As a founder participating in the program, you tend to notice the strengths of other companies while fixating on the weaknesses of your own. This creates a furious spin-cycle of trying to strengthen every weakness you perceive in your company and constantly measuring yourself against the 60+ other companies, each of which are doing the same exact same thing as you are. Imposter-syndrome abounds.
Some founders will break, turn on each other, or simply sputter out. For founders who manage to stick it out, it becomes all-consuming. My life became a revolving blur of waking up, hacking all day on imgix, running to Moffett airfield and back for exercise, biking to YC for dinners, and falling asleep at my laptop.
One of the great benefits of going through Y Combinator was the opportunity to have such an incredibly singular focus for a large chunk of time. The detriment was that all other areas of my life suffered while I was going through it. I ignored my family, lost touch with friends, and put significant strain on my relationship at the time, ultimately leading to its end.
By the time Demo Day came around though, I had developed an idea into a business that I could pitch in front of 200 investors. At the same time, I had established friendships with many of the other YC founders in my class who would go on to be tremendous supports to me as advisors, investors, and confidants. While I ultimately chose not to raise money around Demo Day, I did so with a confidence and understanding about how I wanted to build a business and bring it to market.
I discovered that through the process of Y Combinator, I had psychologically shifted from being an engineer to becoming an entrepreneur.
Read more about incubators at TechCo
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