January 26th, 2011 By: Jessica Livingston
The lack of women in tech startups seems a perennially hot topic. I’m keenly aware of this problem because I see so many founders, and so few of them are women. I’m delighted to have 6 women at YC this winter (including an all-female founding team!) but the overall percentage of female founders we fund has remained constant over the years at about 4%.
We’ve found that the number of females we’ve funded is a reflection of our applicant pool. Anyone with access to the Internet can apply to Y Combinator, but few females do. Several months ago Mike Arrington wrote an article called “Too Few Women In Tech? Stop Blaming The Men.” He suggested that the lack of women is not due to discrimination but “that not enough women want to become entrepreneurs.” Since our applicant pool seems to bear this out, it seems a likely explanation.
So why don’t women want to start startups? I wonder if it’s not that not enough women want to start startups, but that not enough women even consider it as an option. I was one of them. I wish now that I’d started a startup in my twenties instead of wasting those years in a series of boring corporate jobs. But the idea never occurred to me.
So I decided to conduct a thought experiment: now that I know more about startups, what advice would I give to myself as a 25-year-old, and how likely would I have been to start a startup even with the benefit of that advice? (2) Some of my thoughts seemed so surprising that I wanted to share them.
(Remember, this is advice I’d give to myself at age 25. My background: I had a B.A. in English, lived in NYC, had a pretty active social life, and had an unrewarding job at a financial communications agency.)
As strange as it seems, the first bit of advice that sprang to mind was: never be in a position where you’re dependent on a paycheck to survive in the short term. Don’t get into debt, and try to have a nest egg—no matter how small. Though I had a decent salary, I managed to spend more money than I made and got into debt. If my weekly paycheck had suddenly disappeared, I’d have been screwed.
Having savings makes you less dependent on your employer and gives you some flexibility to think about pursuing other things. When you first begin working on a startup, it’s hard to convince investors to give you money. So the longer you can live on your savings, the more time you’ll have to figure out your idea and get users.
Duh. Of course no one should live beyond their means. But I’d never thought about the implications of that when I was 25. I was very shortsighted. Living cheaply enough to save money would have meant giving up all sorts of creature comforts like my one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side or festive dinners out with friends. As embarrassed as I am to admit it, downgrading my quality of life would have been a significant barrier to starting a startup. (I have no idea if women generally care more about quality of life than men, but it was certainly true for me.)
Learn more about startups
My next piece of advice would be to understand what being a founder is really like. The media often glamorizes successful founders and makes their paths seem easier than they actually were.
At Y Combinator, we recommend reading all of Paul Graham’s essays about startups and I give each team a copy of Founders at Work at the first dinner. There is so much information about startups online these days.
Grab coffee with anyone you know who is involved with startups and ask them what it’s like. Ask them to tell you war stories. What was the hardest part about doing a startup? What was it like day-to-day? You may discover that some aspects of founding a startup are not things you want to endure: rejection, the daily emotional roller coaster, a general sense of uncertainty, etc.
Find a co-founder. Someone technical if you aren’t.
Finding a technical cofounder would have been difficult for me. I was an English major and didn’t know any computer programmers.
The best advice here is to get out and network. If someone in your IT department is actually good, befriend them. Ask friends of friends if they know talented programmers. Read Hacker News. Go to meetups or other similar events. This may feel uncomfortable but it won’t be the first uncomfortable thing you have to do if you want to start a startup.
Finding a programmer to work with if you don’t already know one will be a challenge. Merely judging if a programmer is exceptional vs. competent will be very hard if you are not one yourself. When you do find someone, work together informally for a while to test your compatibility. Cofounders will endure so much together that their relationship is often compared to a marriage.
Learn to program
I wish I had learned to program when I had the luxury of spare time. Now I’d tell myself: take a class or get a friend to teach you. Even if you aren’t very good, it will make programming seem less foreign and terrifying. It will help you to understand the world in which your cofounder works and should ultimately give you a better vision for the product. Having even a basic grasp of programming will help you fathom what’s possible or not technically, too.
Build your own brand.
LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman talks about how people are now their own brands. It’s really true. Anyone can blog, become a respected commenter in forums, produce videos, etc. One of the most frustrating professional problems I had in my 20s was not having enough “experience.” I wanted to do x, but no one would hire me even though I was capable because I didn’t have sufficient experience in x on my resume. (This is a problem that starting a startup can solve, by the way.)
So create your own experience! If you think you want to do a startup in a particular area, become an expert on your own. Create a blog on the subject filled with useful advice, tweet insightful comments—do anything that teaches you more about this subject and lends credibility to your own personal brand.
Do a test run
I never thought I’d say this because I believe it takes complete dedication for a startup founder to succeed but, the advice I’d give to myself as a 25-year-old would be to work on a startup on weekends at first. If you aren’t sure whether you should be a founder, test things out for a little while without actually burning your boat. (3)
Founders at Work began as a side project. My job was unchallenging and filled with a lot of bureaucratic crap, so I worked on Founders at Work as an interesting project to help keep my spirits up. Once I got a book contract though, I did decide to quit my job so I could work on the book full-time.
Startups are a huge amount of work. If you have a successful startup, you will most likely need to give up many of the “softer” things in life. You won’t be able to date as much. You won’t take long vacations. In fact you might find yourself working almost every day of the year. Your family and friends will complain that they never see you.
Even if you don’t mean to blow everything off, you will become so consumed with your startup that it will occupy most of your waking thoughts. Andrew Mason of Groupon spoke at YC last summer and told us that he sometimes didn’t feel like he was part of the human race for the past few years. I understood what he meant. Paul Graham always said having a successful startup is like condensing 40 years of working into 4 extremely stressful ones. This deal just isn’t for everyone.
Founders face all sorts of rejection in the early days. You are suddenly in a world where you get slapped around a lot, so if you take slaps personally it is going to be distracting. People will dismiss your idea, complain about the functionality of what you’ve built, or publicly criticize you.
At Y Combinator, we advise startups to launch early. Launch as soon as you’ve built something with a quantum of utility so that you can start getting feedback from your users. Though we and the founders know there is a much larger vision for the product, launching early often leaves you vulnerable to criticism from trolls and other naysayers. Constructive feedback from users is valuable, but uninformed and nasty remarks should not take up space in your brain.
Lots of founders find the fundraising process totally demoralizing, too. When you have a hard time raising money it’s hard not to start believing yourself that your company is lame. But even successful founders often have to meet with lots of investors before finding the one that agrees to invest.
Even if some types of rejection/criticism are warranted,you’ll find people are more direct about it in the startup world. In a big company, bad news is often couched in euphemisms. In the startup world, people just give it directly. So just be sure that you don’t take rejection personally.
Make something people want
Y Combinator’s motto is “Make something people want.” We believe it is the single most important thing in building a successful startup. As I’ve said before: by nature, startups are very non-discriminatory. As a founder, your success is directly tied to the success of your product. You must please the market. And if the product is actually good, the market will reward you.
We can help.
We’ve tried to make Y Combinator a great option for anyone who wants to start a startup. Twice a year we have open applications for our 3-month funding cycles. Here’s more about what we do in the 3 months, but essentially it’s like first gear for a startup.
We tend to fund technical founders, but we like to take risks on different types of people, because part of our model is to be able to take more risks by making the cost of failure low. The only thing we require is that you come to Silicon Valley for 3 months.
I’d encourage anyone who wants to start a startup to fill out our application. In fact, we designed the application to serve as a valuable exercise in itself. Even if you never hit the submit button, it will help you formulate your thoughts and think strategically about your idea.
So would I have started a startup at 25 if I’d known more about it? To be honest, I’m really not sure I would have. The biggest obstacle would have been the lack of potential co-founders. I might have started a startup if I’d had the right co-founder, but I just didn’t know the right people when I was 25.
I often regret not having at least worked at a startup, but then I remind myself that it truly never seemed like an option when I was younger. I was 34 when we started Y Combinator and even then the hardest part was telling people about it, because it did not seem like a “normal” thing to do! Lots of people were skeptical, but that’s always true when you do something that hasn’t been done before. Don’t ever let others put an upper bound on your professional aspirations. This can happen without you even realizing it. So you have to make a conscious effort not to get boxed in.
Level Playing Field
It’s been true in the past and probably is still true to some extent that investors discriminate against women. Not necessarily consciously, but their models of the ideal founder are current successful founders, who are mostly men.
But while your ability to reach customers may be limited by the difficulty of getting funding, the customers themselves don’t care. So if you work on something that doesn’t require lots of money to get started, you really do have a level playing field. And fortunately startups require less and less money to start.
There are so many ideas you can do for cheap that even if investors are skeptical, that’s not going to stop you. What’s more likely to stop you is what would have stopped me: not realizing that a startup founder could have been someone like me, and not knowing any technical cofounders. But unlike the skepticism of investors these are things that are completely under your control.
Learn more now by Grubbing with Founders
(1) We don’t know the exact number of female applicants because we don’t ask people their gender on the application form. But we have a general sense judging from their names.
(2) That was 15 years ago.
(3) But make a decision fairly quickly whether you want to do it full time, since it’s really hard to have a successful startup “on the side.”