Why Not All Great Hackepreneurs Get Picked By Y Combinator

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Why Not All Great Hackepreneurs Get Picked By Y Combinator


This week (Monday, April 2nd) was the deadline for startup founders to apply to be selected for the upcoming batch of startup companies to join Paul Graham's Y Combinator group.  If this year is like past years, YC will likely have received lots of applications (which means Paul's going to be a busy guy for at least a week).  And, if this year is like years past, then not all great hacker-entrepreneurs will get selected.

If you applied, and didn't get selected, this could be because of one or more of the following reasons:

1.  You lack a co-founder:  YC leans heavily towards startups with at least two co-founders.  It's possible you tried to find a co-founder, but couldn't.  Or that you found one, but it didn't work out.  Or that you just don't believe in co-founders just yet.

2.  The idea doesn't fit the profile:  YC seems to lean towards consumer internet ideas, or ideas for which an early user community can be built quickly and monetization can be done later.  If your idea is to develop enterprise software for the steel industry, chances are, you're not going to get picked. 

3.  Your application didn't stand out:  Paul's an awfully smart guy, but he's still not clairvoyant.  If your brilliance and passion didn't come through in the application, it's possible he just fundamentally missed it.  It happens.

4.  You really don't have what it takes:  It's possible that you simply are not particularly suited for a startup at this time and the smart folks at YC were able to figure this out.

Lets assume for a minute that you didn't make the cut at YC for reasons #1, #2, or #3.  So, what now?

I'm going to make you an interesting offer:  A chance to show off your hackepreneur skills.

Basically, what I'd like to do is find exceptional individuals that are really committed to building cool technology and are determined not to go work for "the man" and want to do something entrepreneurial (if you applied for YC in the first place, chances are, you fit this profile).

Here's a high-level look at what I have in mind:

1.  You don't necessarily have to have a co-founder.

2.  You'd still have to be move to Cambridge (or already be in the vicinity).

3.  I'll give you $15k to work for the summer and impress me with your talent.

4.  You have to be willing to work on an idea that is not your own (we have a few laying around).

It's basically an opportunity to join a small, highly entrepreneurial group working right on the MIT campus and work on an interesting project -- and get paid a bit of money for it.  After the summer is done, either we talk each other into doing something more permanent, you talk me into funding your original idea or we part ways as friends and hopefully had a shared positive experience. 

This is the first time I've done anything like this (but everything worthwhile I've ever done, started as an experiment).  To get  a sense for the kinds of things we're working on, you can visit some of our alpha (in development) projects at http://www.websitegrader.com, http://www.dailyhub.com, or learn more about my current startup at http://www.hubspot.com

If you're intrigued and think you might fit the profile, send a detailed email to hackepreneur (at) onstartups.com.  Ideally, you'd send me the same kind of information you sent in for your YC application (you can get an old YC form here, if you need it).  If you're worried about revealing your idea, leave that part out.  I've got the capacity to accept three or four of you (assuming there is enough interest and we can work out a deal), but chances are, I'll only pick one or two.  I've got really high standards too. 

Hope to hear from some of you.  But in the meantime, I wish you the best of luck with your Y Combinator application. It would be great if you are one of the select few that make it in to Paul Graham's Gang For The Gifted.  But if not, perhaps I can provide an interesting "Plan B".

Void where prohibited, no purchase necessary, your mileage will vary and all the other usual disclaimers.

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Thu, Apr 05, 2007


I think this is a really noble thing to do, but.. "You have to be willing to work on an idea that is not your own (we have a few laying around)." You'll probably find the best hackers, but I'm not sure about the entrepreneur part. It's usually cited that entrepreneurs are successful for chasing after their own goals and making their own game. If they're forced into doing someone else's idea.. they might be a great developer or worker, but it's less likely they'll be any good as an entrepreneur, no? Anyway, good luck, because no matter what happens, it's still a really noble (and downright decent) thing you're doing.

posted on Thursday, April 05, 2007 at 11:25 AM by Peter Cooper

Peter: Thanks for the kind comments. I've considered using this experiment to provide early stage funding for people with their own ideas, but I don't have the ecosystem that Paul does to support this. Though I do make early stage investments, for this particular experiment, I decided to fund projects instead of startups. Not sure what the response will be, but I think I still might be able to save a few brave souls from going to work for big companies (and hopefully have some fun and learn something).

posted on Thursday, April 05, 2007 at 11:34 AM by

Perhaps if that is your goal it will work well. I know people who go to work merely because they're not brave enough or business savvy enough to break out on their own even if they have the technical skills. If working on one of your projects is enough to open their eyes and get them believing they can actually kick ass away from a major company, then you might have made a big difference.

posted on Thursday, April 05, 2007 at 11:41 AM by Peter Cooper

To say more directly what others are saying, this sounds more like a contract or a summer job than anything involving entrepreneurship. But perhaps the implementation will really define what it is.

In any case, I suppose that it might start people thinking about entrepreneurship. Maybe YCombinator and your thing are a natural evolution from incubators. A sort of mix of entrepreneurship and being an employee.

The defining factor may be the number of people who are willing to launch companies without your aegis versus the number of people who will just go out and get regular jobs.

posted on Thursday, April 05, 2007 at 12:12 PM by Daniel Howard

Great post Dharmesh. I think I fall into that category which does not have a technically savvy co-founder for a tech startup. Most of my acquaintances I met in school are not in the web/online development field but in the software / support side. This is in part due to the fact I think most of the classes for a Computer Science degree do not go into web development aspects. I have a co-founder for another project(offline/online), and by all means having one is 10x better since we push each other to get work done and work on ideas. But a lot of the ideas I have floating around would require someone with more technical skill to assist in. Perhaps external leadership to bounce the ideas off such as a tech savvy Angel investor or Venture Capitalist would be very beneficial. I am not in need for startup capital (not yet for the initial stage) to require their full monetary support and give up a lot of the company but would be willing to let go of a smaller portion for good leadership. Do you think this is logical to try or would it be better to go for monetary support along with the leadership but lose more of the company? Thanks. Brian B

posted on Thursday, April 05, 2007 at 12:17 PM by Brian B

Vulture! :-) Seriously, this is a good idea. I think you'll probably manage to provide a much more interest summer than a lot of big companies. Though I agree with the thoughts above-- working on someone elses ideas isn't always fun (though it can be if the ideas are interesting enough). I'd also throw out that you aren't really speaking to one of the other desires of young entrepreneurs. Some of them might have dollar signs in their eyes, some might want the notoriety of building something big/cool, and some might have some romantic notions of the freedom of self-employment (HA!). You could probably offer some incentives that speak to these needs (stock options, bonus schedule, etc). Of course, you probably want to keep it simple. :-)

posted on Thursday, April 05, 2007 at 1:12 PM by Tony Wright

Great idea, loved the way you wrote it!

posted on Thursday, April 05, 2007 at 3:23 PM by steve

It sounds like you're just hiring hackers to implement your startup without offering any equity... If so, it's just a summer job -- no reason to go work for you over someone else. The dangling carrot of maybe-possibly funding a startup on who-knows-what terms just isn't that great. The salary is only okay, and we don't get the same community, benefits, experience, resume, and contacts as we would at a Google or similar company. Or are you offering something more concrete?

posted on Thursday, April 05, 2007 at 6:51 PM by Peter

Peter (and others): Though the article was intentionally vague, I will clarify a bit and say that I do not expect to attract anyone worth attracting by simply offering a little bit of cash and no equity. The rationale for the vagueness is that the actual terms of the deal are likely going to vary (like they would if I were simply recruiting employees) based on the individuals, the idea being pursued and the long term goals of the relationship. I'm open to influence (even on the idea), but want to start the conversation and see what happens. It's just hard to put deal terms out there without knowing what I'm getting in to. I wouldn't even do that for a classic hire, let alone what I believe is an interesting entrepreneurial experiment.

posted on Thursday, April 05, 2007 at 9:40 PM by

would have to say that's the most as*****sh thing i've read in a long time. good work.

posted on Friday, April 06, 2007 at 1:38 AM by Peter

While as you say, your post was intentionally vague, I think the message that seems to reverbrate is that it is a summer dev job. I think your experiment would be more enticing if you'd 1. Sign an NDA and ownership agreements 2. Develop the business plan/model for the tech 3. Build the alpha or beta version 4. Pitch to close circuit VC network 5. Decide how to proceed It seems to me that your intention is to foster entrepreneurship. Once the summer is over, you can re-evaluate what to do after summer. And all 4 can be applied to your #4 (You have to be willing to work on an idea that is not your own) as you'd want the understudy to work confidentially as well. I think you'll kill many birds in one stone.

posted on Friday, April 06, 2007 at 2:50 PM by Harsha Raghavan

I dont like you telling the developer what tech to use. my choice is ror.

posted on Saturday, April 07, 2007 at 1:30 PM by Pingu

I think dictating the project is a terrible idea. Use the creative talent of your applicants and maybe their ideas are better than the ones you have in the hopper. Also, letting tech guys develop something they're passionate about is more likely to result in greater motivation and better work product. I understand you're paying a premium to Y Incubator to be able to offer a platter of your best start-up ideas, but I would say just meet the compensation for Y Incubator and replicate the model...

posted on Monday, April 16, 2007 at 11:39 PM by JTreiber

I am missing a co-founder. Someone interested?

The company is up and running, and the idea works. 1000 new customers each year. It pays the salaries, but no success, still in the first gear. :-)

I have a lot of other ideas related to spreadsheet.

posted on Sunday, April 22, 2007 at 8:59 AM by mattiasw


Contract developers typically make significantly more money than FTEs, not less. Unlike an FTE, a contractor receives no benefits, no job security, no employer FICA contribution, and no equity.

You propose to pay a fraction of the prevailing FTE rate for the equivalent of a lead developer/architect.

I suggest that there is perhaps a typo in this post. Perhaps you missed a zero in your number?

posted on Saturday, July 28, 2007 at 3:21 PM by Thomas H. Ptacek

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