Thoughts on Startup School

Last weekend, I attended Y Combinator's Startup School. When the event was announced, I was distinctly ambivalent about attending — in fact I had decided against attending many previous such events due to the cost (in both time and money) of travelling down to the San Francisco bay area — but everybody I asked told me that it was well worth attending (even for someone from outside the valley), so I took their advice and signed up.

Perhaps my expectations were misaligned, but I was astonished at how geek-unfriendly the event was. At conferences like BSDCan, one of the major considerations is the availability of power sockets; at Startup School, not only were the power sockets very limited — we were in a theatre with perhaps a dozen outlets around the perimeter — but when I plugged in my laptop I was firmly told by one of the ushers (yes, ushers) that I wasn't allowed to do that. For that matter, the ushers were also telling people that they weren't allowed to stand at the side or back of the room, and anyone who left was told that they wouldn't be allowed back in until the current item on the program finished. An attitude reasonable for a symphony concert, to be sure; but entirely misplaced in this context.

The talks themselves, while occasionally entertaining, were somewhat lacking in useful information. When they weren't being outright contradictory — Trust in your vision! But know when to pivot! — there was little to be learned which couldn't already be gleaned from Paul Graham's Essays: Good investors are important far beyond the money they bring; having good co-founders (or, at a minimum, not having bad co-founders) is critical; and the best way to grow a startup is to create an excellent product. There were only two moments which stuck out in my mind: First, Ron Conway's comment that while older venture capitalists are better at giving advice and performing due diligence, it is the youngest people who are best at picking promising startups; and second, the founder of Groupon announcing, to my great astonishment, that he doesn't like people who build unsustainable businesses.

More than anything else, I would categorize the talks as "inspirational" — within very deliberate scare quotes — since while I did not find the talks to be particularly inspiring, the amount of applause directed at any mention of millions or billions of dollars suggested that many attendees were impressed by the speakers' financial successes. I came away wondering if this was in fact the real purpose of Startup School: Rather than being a "one day conference where you'll hear stories and practical advice", as the website billed, perhaps it — taking place just a few days before the deadline for Y Combinator applications — was really just a recruiting program for YC.

On the other hand, maybe the talks aren't the point of attending Startup School: After all, you can watch them online. Startup School brought together about 1700 people who are interested in startup companies; there must be interesting people to talk to in such a group, yes? Indeed there were; the challenge was to find them amidst the crowd. While I did have some very good conversations (and met several Tarsnap users, including a few who, much to my amusement, did not know that I was the developer behind it), there were far more people who I would charitably describe as "business-oriented". While this is a problem I've seen in Vancouver — lots of people who want to run startups, but far fewer people who want to build products — I had always thought that the concentration of technical talent in the bay area produced a better ratio. At the end of the day, I was left longing for the post-dot-com-bubble days, when the business people had fled and only the geeks were left behind.

I don't plan on attending next year's Startup School, and I would hesitate to recommend it to any other startup founder. If you're considering launching a startup and you need some "inspiration" to push you into going ahead, then by all means attend. For that matter, if you're looking for an audience to practice your "elevator pitch" on, you could certainly do worse. But if you're already working on a startup? Your time is probably better spent staying home and writing code.

Posted at 2014-10-18 04:40 | Permanent link | Comments

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