For eight weeks in 2015, Washington University in St. Louis engineering graduates Andrew Hess and Philip Thomas, co-founders of scheduling startup Staffjoy, went through the Y Combinator Fellowship program. Geared towards idea- and prototype-stage companies, the fellowship provides a $12,000 equity-free grant and advice from YC partners, and Staffjoy was one of 33 companies selected from a pool of more than 6,000 applications.
WashU engineering graduates Philip Thomas and Andrew Hess are co-founders of a scheduling startup called Staffjoy.
Hess, who majored in systems engineering, and Thomas, who has bachelor’s degrees in systems engineering and physics, successfully launched Staffjoy during the program and set up shop in San Francisco afterwards.
Our experience at Y Combinator Fellowship was: (Andrew) great. We received phenomenal feedback, and it allowed us to get our product out into the market. (Philip) We learned how to focus on growth, find users, talk to them, build what they want and publish the product they have paid for.
During a typical YC Fellowship day: (Andrew) we’d wake up around 7 a.m., get to the office around 8:30, spend the day talking with customers, then the evenings and weekends coding. One afternoon a week, we’d go down to Mountain View to meet with Y Combinator. We made it to the gym to keep healthy, but almost every other waking hour was spent talking with users or building the product.
Our first meeting with Sam Altman, YC President: (Philip) took place in Mountain View. We explained our business model to Sam while walking around the block and asked some questions. The advice he provided was thoughtful, focused and conclusive. In retrospect, we valued how concrete it was because it was exactly what we needed at that time.
The YC office hours helped us pitch: (Philip) by sitting down with two of the YC partners and about five other companies from our class. It was like group therapy for startups. Kevin Hale attended all office hours, and the second partner rotated (Sam Altman, Qasar Younis, etc). We tracked metrics, set goals and developed go-to-market strategies. The Individual office hours were with various YC partners and alumni like Justin Kan, Ilya Sukhar and Jared Friedman. We would typically meet them at their office or home and talk about specific issues that we were trying to solve for our business.
The single best piece of advice Sam gave us was: (Andrew) you should only be doing two things: building your product and talking to users.
Accelerators help raising money because: (Philip) They create accountability. What makes some universities world-class is the peers you develop and the motivation you gain from being among like-minded people in the same situation. And I parallel top-tier accelerators to universities like WashU. The magic isn’t really in the curriculum — it’s nothing secret — but by gaining peers that are going through the same challenges as you, you develop a network that becomes extremely important to your success. And that professional network of professors and peers is parallel to having great advisors in the accelerator world.
Going through an accelerator doesn’t make sense if: (Philip) you are unwilling to risk destroying your business in order to grow to large size. When you’re looking toward a high-growth mentality, in eight years your company will either be highly successful or no longer exist. If you’re looking to accelerate your business, you have the potential to become huge, but you also risk losing the fundamentals of that business. I had one company talk to me that was applying to YC Fellowship, and they were profitable, a small team and happy. So it’s not good for businesses that are trying to grow steadily and maintain a steady state. Accelerators help high-growth companies.
We picked Y Combinator over other accelerators because: (Philip) it has very founder-friendly terms; they’re very much against splitting offers, which is a problem in the Valley. The other thing to look at is the people. The goal of an accelerator is to take your business from being small to growing it to huge size. We’ve developed an extensive network of founders through Y Combinator ranging from peers in the same position of us to people who have created billion-dollar companies. The magic of Y Combinator isn’t necessarily something particular that they do, but that’s it’s made up of really successful people who provide fantastic insight for growing your business.
When we joined the YC Fellowship, we were expecting: (Philip) mentorship on how it’s going to improve Staffjoy as a product. What we received was really mentorship on how to talk to users and build a product that they liked. The thing that was surprising to us was that they didn’t teach us what we needed to make our business succeed; they taught us how to derive that and learn those lessons ourselves. Those are much deeper lessons we keep with us after the fellowship.
What surprised us the most during the fellowship was: (Andrew) how productive we can be when we really focus on building something and how little time we actually spent with YC. That’s really due to how effective and efficient they are at recognizing and providing feedback. (Philip) We really spent only one or two hours every week talking with YC except for launch and Demo Day, when we pitched our company on stage to about 100 Y Combinator alumni.
The two most important things Y Combinator is looking for in a startup are: (Philip) traction and the potential to grow to be massive. Startups need to be aiming for the stars in terms of trying to change the way people think, the way businesses operate and the way societies work. Companies need to have a vision to be worth billions of dollars. As an accelerator, you are trying to create the next world-changing company, not the next $20 million company. But in addition to having a fantastic vision for the future of your company, you need to show progress toward that goal. (Andrew) Another criterion is for the founding team to have cohesion and the skills to execute together on that vision.
Startups applying for the YC Fellowship should: (Philip) talk to users and build a business that they love, not one that any particular accelerator loves. Believe in your business enough that getting into an accelerator does not make or break it. A great business is a great business, with or without an accelerator.
Read more about Staffjoy.