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Startup School & Startup Culture

09 March 2007
Well, I've made it into Startup School this year. I'm genuinely excited, not just for the speakers but to meet the other 649 hackers.

I'm curious to meet Paul Graham in particular. Over email he's always gracious & thoughtful. But --and this is a little seed of a thought that's been growing for a couple of years-- I wonder about the effect he's having on the industry: whether YCombinator is doing good for the art of software as it is for the business.

Take music, the other creative pursuit linked with garages. People learn it on their own or at expensive schools. Groups condense out of the social soup of young people, and it tends to clump in certain cities. They have goofy names. They do it because they love it. The best are able to work magic. A lot of them fail, some make a decent living, a very few become rock stars.

That's the myth. But that's not what actually happens. In the background are competing factions of promoters, managers, coaches, ghost writers, hired experts, financial backers. Without the cooperation of this network your chances of making it are thin enough to cut your wrist. Without them the Beatles would have just been a really good bar band. Generations of jazz and blues geniuses died in poverty because their looks were not marketable. Talent is not closely correlated with success.

So ask yourself: Who makes money in this regime? The backers, the promoters, the hired guns, the music schools, and a pinch of the talents. How does this regime further the art of music? Do you have a radio? Have you used it lately? The internet is a great end-run around the music cartels, but your startup is already on the internet.

YC is backed by serious & smart people. The pitch is soft, the benefits are compelling. They didn't create this situation. They are doing a lot of good: directly to the kids coming to Boston and as inspiration to everyone else. But if you love the art of software, keep your eyes open. Don't assume that what's best for your success is best for your art, or what's best for them is best for you.

Sometimes you don't want the programmers running the company. They get all starry-eyed, adding new bits to the next version, without thinking of backwards compatibility or how the end-user might need something that's inelegant but still useful.

They get themselves hung up on the art and find themselves out on the street not because the code wasn't pretty, but because it wasn't useful.

I'd be interested to see how YC sees itself. These types call themselves 'incubators', but I wonder if they take care enough to maybe take it a step further and become 'gardeners', taking out the 'weeds' before they take over the place.
YC doesn't like to be called an incubator. They are actually pretty hands-off: they hand you 5000 * (n + 1), any advice you ask for, and introductions to funders and acquiring companies. They also rub you up against 7 other startups to encourage sharing. In return they expect 5-7% of the company and that's it.

I'm trying to get at something different here: if every smart kid's attention is focused on making a little internet startup (low cap, quickly built to be acquired), the rest of the art may be neglected.
YC sounds a little more like the Grammine Bank in those respects then.

It's up to the startups then, their buds in their little group to come up with something, and then the vultures, er acquisitions comanies get to pick and choose among the fruits.

THAT's where the art is going to fail, if it's going to. You're being giving the bootstrapping, but if someone doesn't see the long-term value and keep funding you until the rest of the world catches on, that's it.

Does YC get a 'finders fee' from the VC and acquisitions companies? 5-7% of a startup is kinda tiny.

(silly blogger doesn't like the strike tag)