Jessica Livingston (YC Partner), the Founding Story of Y Combinator, and How to Get In

Today, it seems like startup accelerators have always been a part of the high-tech ecosystems. It was not always the case. As a matter of fact, there was a time where no one even knew what an accelerator could be or could do. Jessica Livingston who, with her husband, created one of the first accelerators, discussed the early days of Y Combinator; that of a startup like any other.

The secret to success, according to Jessica: “We found people who cared!”

The Founding story of the World's Most Famous Accelerator Program, Y Combinator

A typical dialog in the early days:

Jessica: “We want you to partner with us in our startup accelerator”.

Potential Partner: “You want me to partner in your what again?”

That is pretty much what Jessica Livingston and her husband had to face, some 10 years ago, when they introduced the idea and concept of the Y Combinator to people they thought could help them in their new venture: a startup accelerator. At that time, nobody knew what a “startup accelerator” was because there were no such things - and they basically had to invent the concept and how it could work as they went along.

Hard to believe, isn’t it? This is how fast things have evolved. During a 40 minutes discussion at the StartupGrind Conference in 2013, Jessica outlined the early days of the Y Combinator (YC), its growth phase and what it has become. As most startup, and YC was very much a startup then, the idea, the concept and the creation were almost spontaneous. In other words, there was no business plan, there was no structure, there was no notion ROI...there only was “what about this, we think it would make a difference”. It was back in 2005. Since then, YC has funded over 1000 startups with names such as Dropbox, AirBnB and Reddit. The combined valuation of the companies they have invested in is $65B. They must be doing something right.

How Y Combinator Runs as a Startup

But how did that happen? Simple enough: Jessica and her husband “wanted to help startup founders” but did not really know how to do it. So they did what a startup does: stumble through early stages, got a lot of “no”, were absolutely determined, and focused on people. They kept going until the concept took hold and demonstrated its value.

In three sentences, Jessica captures the very essence of the birth of a startup.

“People did not understand what an accelerator was”

“I wanted Ron Conway (note: a prolific angel investor) to come to one of our demo days and he kept brushing me off”

“And then one day he got it because I kept insisting”.

Another way to look at it: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."

How to Get Into Y Combinator: $100k in 10 Minutes

Their mode for selecting candidates to their program is simple and somewhat brutal.

You get a 10 minutes (as in 600 seconds) "YC interview" and that is pretty much what will either make you part of the program or send you on your way.

Jessica points out to the most challenging question: How do you decide to invest or not invest in 10 minutes? 

“Since I do not have a technical background, I focus on the team, on the people." She explains that, for her, the chemistry between the founders is a key ingredient in her evaluation process.

Y Combinator for Non-Profits & International Founders

With 10 years under their belt and lot of successes, the program has been expanded. It now includes entrepreneurs from abroad (as far away from Silicon Valley as Bulgaria or Egypt) and has now a “non-profit” track.

Basically YC’s message is: innovation and entrepreneurship do not know any boundaries or borders. Jessica and her team have built something quite valuable (if no longer unique): a community of entrepreneurs who care about each other. “We even have a 56 years old founder” she rejoices.  

How YC Found Its Fans

Listening to Jessica, it is very clear she does care. And that is one of the main point she made during the talk: they found people who cared to help them. As she points out: "Better to find a few who love you than a lot who like you". Lots of people brushed her off but in the end, her passion carried the day. She meant what she said, she cared and drew others to care with her about her program.

Obviously, YC has to be selective in who they actually back. That being said, if you are lucky enough to be one of the “chosen”, you will be part of a program that has been very successful since its inception. That does not guarantee success. Nothing does. But finding someone(s) who cares for what you are trying to accomplish and is ready to help is sometimes half the journey. As Jessica said, the rest is left to luck. We can all accept this basic fact of life in the startup lane.

Watch the full interview with Jessica Livingston, Partner and Co-Founder of Y Combinator here.