Ben Silbermann at Startup School

by Y Combinator11/8/2016

Here are a few excerpts from Ben’s conversation with Ali Rowghani, CEO of the YC Continuity Fund:

Ali : You’re clearly creative, you clearly had a sense the internet could be something interesting to solve various problems but you weren’t technical. How did you overcome that in the early days in terms of actually being able to create the things you wanted to create?

Ben : I would always start off thinking about an idea and I had some friends that were technical. None of us were super technical so we would always just sort of chip in and learn what we needed to do to get to the next part.

In learning about things like product design and simple front end coding you end up learning little bits at a time. For me at least, it’s a lot easier to learn things when there’s something that you want to build versus doing it in a very abstract, classroom way.

Ali : How did you find your first users?

Ben : So we released the app and I did probably what everyone does–emailed all my friends and kind of hoped that it would to take off. And no one really got it, to be totally honest with you. Neither the people on the East Coast that Evan knew nor the people on the West Coast that I knew. They were just really polite, like, “Oh, looks interesting… Very interesting.”

But there was a small group of people that were enjoying it. And those folks were not who I think stereotypically you think of when you think about early adopters. They were folks that I grew up with, people that were using it for regular stuff in their life. You know, “What is my house going to look like? What kind of food do I want to eat?” Things like that.

And we really thought, where are those people congregating? Who’s their community? I ended up going to a conference for a lot of the blogs that those people were reading. I met these bloggers and they seemed like the kind of people who would really enjoy it. So we organized a marketing event with those bloggers where we had each of them introduce the service to their audience.

But we did all kinds of pretty desperate things, honestly. I used to walk by the Apple store on the way home. I’d go in and change all the computers to say Pinterest. Then just kind of stand in the back and be like, “Wow, this Pinterest thing, it’s really blowing up.” [Laughter]

Slowly we started to get folks who really loved the service. And since it took us so long to get those users, we cared about them so much. I used to have my cell phone on all the customer support emails. I would take customer support calls all the time so when the service would go down I’d have this problem where everyone would start calling me like, “Hey, I can’t get my pins.”

I think that that for me there were these two lessons. One is that there’s a stereotype of where early adopters come from and they should be these technology forward folks. I just think that that idea is really outdated now. So many people have these amazing computers in their pockets, so many people of data, that early adopters are coming from everywhere. It could be a taxicab drivers in India or Midwestern folks who are planning their home. I think if we had been really dogmatic about wanting cool Silicon Valley people to like it we probably wouldn’t have made the service that we made.

And I think there’s a lesson in really taking care of users. All the time I would sit in coffee shops and ask people to try the service just to watch them and see what they were doing and see where we could smooth out the edges and improve the service.


  • Y Combinator

    Y Combinator created a new model for funding early stage startups. Twice a year we invest a small amount of money ($150k) in a large number of startups (recently 200). The startups move to Silicon