According to president Sam Altman of Y Combinator, most of the accelerator’s most promising startup graduates turn out “decent or bad” – because instead of doing real work, they start doing fake work. This is “The post-YC slump.”
Altman defines real work as work that’s directly related to growth. Building the product, selling it, and hiring meet his criteria; interviewing lawyers does not. This is why Y Combinator is relentlessly focused on tracking and encouraging growth week-over-week.
“The best startups we fund keep on doing exactly what they did during YC. This sounds so simple and so obvious, but in practice so few founders do it,” Altman writes.
What do they do instead? Fake work, which is easier and more fun. They raise money, try to get press – do anything that doesn’t make them grow faster, by whatever metric they’re using.
“Fake work does not count and will still get you a failed startup no matter how intensely you do it,” Altman warns.
He offers five examples of things you might hear from entrepreneurs who are doing fake work – things he actually heard from Y Combinator startups who went on to disappoint:
1. “We’re focusing on PR for this month. I’m going to speak at 6 conferences and write 2 thought leadership pieces.”
2. “We’re cleaning up our technical debt.”
3. “We’re doing some longer-term strategic work. You wouldn’t understand.”
4. “We’re building out the organization.”
5. “We are different; growth isn’t our most important thing.”
If fake work truly is easier and more fun than real work, our minds should go through all sorts of twists and contortions to justify it. Yes, this makes sense, but we are the exception or It's only temporary or I know best what's good for my company. But if Altman is right, then all those rationalizations are the first stop on the road to mediocrity.