Michael Seibel often sees founders trying to solve a problem they don’t care about. A lot of startups fail because they lose motivation — it’s one of the biggest mistakes first-time founders make, Seibel says in his Y Combinator blog.
It helps to like the problem you’re trying to solve.
Seibel is partner and CEO at the Silicon Valley-based seed accelerator Y Combinator. Fast Company described Y Combinator as “the world’s most powerful start-up incubator.” Fortune called it “a spawning ground for emerging tech giants.” Its Alumnae include Airbnb, Dropbox, and Stripe.
Before Y Combinator, Seibel co-founded Justin.tv, which became Twitch Interactive and eventually sold to Amazon for $970 million. He also co-founded Socialcam, which participated in Y Combinator, raised angel financing, and ultimately sold to Autodesk Inc. for $60 million.
Y Combinator funds startups twice a year in batches. Qualifying founders from around the world move to Silicon Valley from January through March or June through August to participate in the accelerator. Experts speak, including startup founders, venture capitalists, journalists and executives from well-known tech companies. Speakers often end up advising or investing in startups they meet. About 10 weeks in, there’s a Demo Day where all the startups can present their products and services to a selected audience. Ten weeks turns out to be enough for most groups to create a convincing prototype. In fact, many launch in less than 10 weeks, according to Y Combinator.
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Seibel personally looks at the Y Combinator applications, and there are thousands of them. So he’s well qualified to talk about failure, including his own — getting kicked out of Yale his senior year for bad grades and a lack of enthusiasm. (He eventually discovered his true passion and went on to graduate from Yale with a degree in political science.)
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“Doing startups was never my plan but looking at my history in high school and college, I really needed to be an underdog in order to motivate myself to succeed. Startups are the classic underdog — 99% of the time, they fail. This was so motivating that I didn’t even need to believe in our first idea to stay excited (we started as an online reality TV show),” he wrote in an earlier blog.
Here are some excerpts from Seibel’s recent blog: Some of the Biggest Mistakes First-Time Founders Make:
This mistake isn’t fatal and there are many examples of founders who learn to love their product or their problem at a later date, Seibel said. However, a lot of startups fail because they lose motivation to continue working on their company. A lot of it has to do with the fact that they didn’t actually really like the problem they were working on.
They were trying to pick a problem that they thought people might want or they thought they could do it quickly or people might be cool but it wasn’t something they were actually willing to devote a significant amount of time to solve — like five years-plus of their life. There was no deep connection to the problem
“We had this experience with Justin TV and Twitch,” Seibel said. “At the beginning of Justin TV we were kind of excited by the general idea of democratizing live video and making it easy for anyone online to share live video with their friends but we weren’t actually terribly in love with the people who chose to use the platform to continue to grow.” That changed when Emmett Shear (co-founder of Justin.tv and TwitchTV and part-time partner at venture capital firm Y Combinator) refocused the company around video game streaming. “We (regained) the love for our users,” Seibel said. “Emmett was a gamer and he loved gamers and he loved building things for gamers and that was really one of the core drivers of Twitch becoming a successful company.”
Startups are hard, Seibel said. It’s nice to have a pre-existing relationship with your cofounder so you have a sense of how you’re going to get through the hard times together and whether you work well together. A pre-existing relationship can be a friendship, a coworker or someone from school who you did a school project with. “It’s helpful that you have some context with them, that you didn’t just find them on the street yesterday.”
There are typical topics that create drama amongst cofounders, Seibel said.
Performance: Is my cofounder working as hard as I am?
Goals: Are we trying to accomplish the same goals?
Roles: Whose job is it to do engineering? Product? Talk to customers?
Often times founders just don’t have these completely transparent, honest conversations about these topics and resentment builds up. The relationship degrades and when you do have that conversation, it turns into a fight that can critically harm the startup. Have the conversation, Seibel said. It should be well organized to really share how you feel about the current situation of the company, how it’s organized, who’s doing what.
When people think about launching their company they’re afraid because they don’t think they’re ready for all that exposure, Seibel said.
Do you remember the day Snapchat launched? Do you remember the day Instagram launched? WhatsApp? Uber and Lyft? Probably not.
“Launching is nowhere near as significant an event to your users as it is to you,” Seibel said. “So you should move up your launch as soon as possible.” Until you get your product in front of customers, you can’t validate whether it’s solving your problem. “It’s much better to build a crappy product, release it sooner and get it out there in front of customers and see if they want to use it.”
Part of building a product is measuring what’s being used, what’s not, and what your users do when they come to the site. Not doing this is something Seibel said he sees time and again.
“A lot of founders will email me saying, ‘Where do I find my first user?> For Seibel, this is an odd question. “You chose this problem that you’re working on and you chose to build a solution. You don’t know anyone who has the problem including yourself … That should come from people you know or you already have identified.”
People will prioritize sizzle over steak, or hiring and conferences and investors instead of getting product out there and talking to users. “Tthe actual work of startups is pushing product, getting it into users’ hands and seeing it if they like it, then iterating and proving.”
“I bet you can name a startup that has made every one of these mistakes and still been successful,” Seibel said, “but those tend to be exceptions. If you’re trying to generally improve the odds of your startup being successful, try to minimize these mistakes.”