Y Combinator and Stanford’s BASES hosted the 4th annual Startup School last weekend. It felt to me like the best one so far.
Startup School began as an experiment to “open source” Y Combinator-- to see how much we could give everyone for free in one concentrated day of talks. More than 700 people traveled from around the world to attend it this year.
The atmos at SUS has always been unique, but this year it was even more intense. In fact, what surprised me most was the audience’s rapt attention from beginning to end. I usually expect a handful of people to arrive late, to work on their computers during some of the talks, to leave before the last speaker. But not this year. The room was packed starting at 9:00am and literally had people sprawled throughout the aisles the entire day.
Though maybe it shouldn’t be too surprising that people were interested in hearing from the speakers. We had an amazing lineup this year, and did they ever deliver.
David Lawee: I was fascinated to learn that when David and his Xfire cofounders launched their first product, they knew it was wrong within the first 24 hours. “We took 90% of our resources within that first week and shifted them to a new product [Xfire] and launched 120 days later.” Note to founders: your idea changes a lot in the early days.
Sam Altman: Sam contributes a lot of time advising new YC founders about raising money from investors. His presentation was chock full of practical advice about what to expect during the fundraising process. This is gold for anyone who hasn’t done it before.
Jack Sheridan: You don’t often get free legal advice from one of the top corporate lawyers in Silicon Valley. Trust me, listen to this talk if it’s early days with your startup. It will help you know what you should and shouldn’t worry about, and also understand some key legal concepts that seem like a foreign language to first-time entrepreneurs.
Paul Graham: Founders should guide their corporate strategy by being good. I have a feeling this talk (now online) will be one of those Paul Graham essays that seem so forward thinking when we look back several years from now. Though he's dead wrong about one thing: “At best I speak good as a second language.”
Greg McAdoo: Greg is one of the best VC speakers I’ve heard. He’s articulate, knowledgeable, and gives you the real deal. The surfing analogy had perhaps more marketing influence than usual, but I think it worked. You can have a great team, great idea and execution, but the market is critical and unfortunately not under your control.
David Heinemeier Hansson: Whether or not you agreed with DHH’s advice, you couldn’t help but love his talk. I was so fired up afterward that, had I not been so exhausted from managing the event, I would have gone out for a 5 mile run! I think DHH wins for most popular talk of SUS ’08.
Paul Buchheit: PB has a rare ability to make very important points but to be hilariously funny while doing it. It’s his dry wit, I think. His blog is a great source of insights too.
Jeff Bezos: It was a thrill to meet Jeff for the first time. He seemed remarkably nice and down to earth for someone so successful. What vision he has-- as the world’s top Internet retailer, Amazon branches into the cloud computing business and nails it. Some attendees wished he’d talked more about starting Amazon rather than focusing on AWS (which they all use anyway). But it was interesting to hear Jeff’s take on things and I especially enjoyed the Q&A period.
Mike Arrington: This was one of my favorites of the day. Mike told the audience how to get covered by TechCrunch. A lot of journalists give wishy-washy advice on this topic, so I found it refreshing to hear him speak so candidly e.g. “We only want to write stories that you don’t want written.” Easier said than done, but good advice nonetheless.
Marc Andreessen: Getting to interview PMarca was the highlight of my day. OK, my month. He’s a wealth of information (his blog is a must-read). YC founders asked me to give him a hour-long slot if we can get him to come back and talk next year. What struck me most was some advice from Steve Martin that he shared: Be so good they can’t ignore you. Startup founders: write that down on a sticky and remind yourself of this every morning.
Peter Norvig: I admit he lost me on some of the technical stuff, but all my programmer friends told me Peter’s talk was one of the best. His main point was to let the data do your work for you. This seems to be a philosophy that has helped Google be so successful.
I’d like to thank the speakers for donating their time on a Saturday and coming to inspire and educate all of us. I really don’t know if we’ll be able to top this year’s group of speakers.
And thanks to all the attendees who traveled far and wide to come. Your enthusiasm was contagious. A reporter asked me about the sense of optimism that seemed palpable in the room despite the looming fear of a recession. I reminded her that entrepreneurs by nature have a remarkably high level of optimism. They wouldn’t be able to endure a startup otherwise.
Special thanks to BASES and especially its President Ryan Akkina. There will be some mighty big shoes to fill after he graduates this spring. The Omnisios have saved my hide this year by organizing all the talks online. Justin.tv too. Ross Boucher of 280 North (whom many-- unfortunately for him-- mistook for the designated conference AV tech) helped out enormously with all the slide stuff as did Justin Santa Barbara. Thanks to Alicia Collins for all her support. Reddit’s Alexis Ohanian helped us look semi-professional this year with the snazzy logo. Thanks to Dana Wu for managing the registration desk (along with Ellen Liu, Pokai Chen, Michael Pao, Linn Muang, Bryan Estrada, Matt Jones, David Kinghorn and Ping Taing) and keeping things sane in the lobby. Thanks to Brett Gibson and John Baunach of Slinkset for putting together the “Ask PMarca” site. And last but not least Kate Courteau for all her help with “afterparty logistics.” Photos courtesy of Garry Tan (Buchheit, DHH) and Mathieu Thouvenin (me and PMarca).