Sustainability at Startup School

crowd and stage of startup school

This month I attended Startup School, a day long event by Y Combinator in Cupertino. The format for it is a series of different styles of presentations by successful company founders. The talks will be available online sometime this week, but there were some common themes between them that I thought were interesting.

A major one was sustainability, both mentally and financially. Startup School opened with an interview with Ron Conway, a well known angel investor. He said the key to being successful with a startup was working 24/7 with no distractions, no romantic partners and to focus on the product, even to the point of being off-putting. He discussed investing in those traits, not companies, because that dedication was bound to succeed somewhere along the line.

I don't have a startup. I don't really want to be a founder. I wanted to go to Startup School because I'm a contractor interested in the popular areas of data visualization and wearables, and would definitely be up for working with a startup someday. I get the long nights, a lot of non-existant weekends and the compromises with friends, partners and families with your time. Hearing Ron Conway tell everyone (mostly college students or just graduated) that this was how to be successful was sad - it's not the world I want to live in. Working hard for success is how it's done, but not forsaking everything else the way Ron was saying.

The rest of Startup School had little bits of that same theme as the first talk but not as explicitly. The founders talked about their successes and their failures, what they kept and what they let go of to succeed. It was really interesting to see how companies and people evolved over time. It wasn't until the very end of the last talk where the founder of Twitch mentioned to take care of yourself, both physically and mentally, to be in it for the long haul. That was a great contrast after the first talk and made much more sense. The goal should not be infinite work. It's not healthy, it's not sustainable, it's burning through people who might normally might go on to have more and better ideas. Sports teams figure this out - players work hard, but coaches know players have limits to stay within or they get injured. That doesn't just happen in physical work. It's short term gains sacrificing potentially long term ones if your founder is perfect in every way but needs a break every once in a while.

You also lose out on the diversity aspect. There are only certain types of people who can perform that way. Even among people who can handle that lifestyle, only certain types of people who will be believed that they work constantly. There are also people who can work just as hard in terms of hours in the day but don't have the resources available to make that work as productive. Those people all have perspectives and backgrounds that have value and should be listened to.

It came up a couple times that successful founders were ones trying to solve one of their own problems. The people selected as founders for tech companies are not the same as the audience of people looking to have their problems solved. The founder of Indiegogo described how she sort of accidentally stumbled into a need for people to have democratized funding. That's great, but how many of these accidents aren't happening? What kinds of opportunities are being missed because the people with problems need to make money to live right now, not sometime in the future?

That brings me to the second part of sustainability.. the financial sustainability of being a founder. One of the common phrases said was "I went x years without a salary" while being a founder of the early stages of a startup. No one really talked about how that was possible for them. Who's buying food and paying rent? Ron Conway was also very much against moonlighting (having a startup along with a full time job), but that's an excellent way for people without external help to work on their startup. The two people I went with to Startup School are financing their startups through moonlighting. It's hard, and it's probably taking them longer to get their company to where they want to be, but their perpectives and problems just happen to be ones that don't have benefactors, and those are valuable too.

Anyway, the optimistic part of me is thinking this is going to change for the positive with the development of better tools and avenues for education and outreach. More people learning about technology in every stage of their life means more ability to think about how that technology could make their lives easier, and communicate that to someone to implement it (or implementing it themselves!). Tech won't solve everything, but lessening communication barriers is good, even if it it isn't the full solution.