Female Founder Stories: Claire McDonnell, Founder of True Link Financial (YC S13)

by Y Combinator2/8/2015

True Link offers a financial protection service that helps senior citizens live happily and independently longer. In a typical year, 11 million seniors lose a total of about $52 billion to fraud and financial entrapment. For these people, the problem is devastating. Half of our customers describe financial victimization as one of the five worst problems in their lives.

As a financial services company, we’re producing a tangible product. We replace seniors’ existing checkbook and credit card with a new Visa card we issue, which has extra safety features that protect them from fraud. When there is a charge on the card, we see it in real time, evaluate whether it is fraudulent, and decline payment for fraudulent charges.

Q: How did you meet your cofounder?
We were friends for years in San Francisco, and we’d been kicking around the idea of working together for quite some time. It turns out we both have grandmothers who lost money to financial entrapment, and we share a passion for protecting other grannies from the same fate.

Q: Tell us about your experience at YC.
During YC, my cofounder and I moved to Mountain View and lived in a house with two YC buddies. We left our partners, homes, and friends behind in San Francisco and threw ourselves into True Link for three months. The only breaks from working were occasional trips to the city to see our significant others, Tuesday night dinners at YC, and long walks around our suburban neighborhood, which weren’t actually breaks because we were talking about True Link. We also took house-wide seven-minute workout breaks. Incredibly, even those seven-minute workouts waned as Demo Day approached.

As promised by YC, insane focus produced insane results. In those three months, we easily made about six months of progress. Our big goal was to have a physical True Link Visa Card ready to show off at Demo Day. The ability to issue our own cards was a huge milestone for the business and something that usually takes about twice as long as it took us. After a frantic and nail-biting last few weeks, the first ever True Link Card arrived in the mail on the day before Demo Day.

Our team jokes that a successful startup isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon– a marathon made of sprints. YC was the longest and most intense sprint we’ve made so far. The cool thing about YC, though, is that you have an instant community of people who are all focused on the exact same thing as you– making as much progress in three months as humanly possible to introduce your company to the world on the strongest possible footing.

To further the marathon/sprint metaphor, Tuesdays at YC (with office hours, dinner, catching up with batchmates, and guest speakers) were essential water breaks. This is because, well, they were breaks, and because they are designed to get you pumped up. When you hear about the rollercoaster ride everyone from Adora Cheung to Mark Zuckerberg have been on, it’s a reminder that it’s all a part of the process. And it’s a reminder of the potential outcomes of that process.

The YC partners are really great coaches. One hallmark of great coaching is repeating the same thing over and over until it sinks in. This was one of the more surprising and powerful things about YC to me– the partners repeat the same advice a lot. This means that someone you respect is telling you exactly what you need to hear in just the moments when you really need to hear it. When you’re barely sleeping and doing the jobs of four people, the advice to focus on writing code and getting customers (and for us, nailing bank compliance) is truly game-changing.

Q: What is the atmosphere like at YC during those 3 months with Demo Day approaching?
Stressful. Exhausting. Hilarious. Invigorating. The YC partners strike an impressive balance between getting everyone super stressed and pumped up while also reminding you that hundreds of companies have done this before, and you’re on the right path just like they were.

One of the cooler things about YC is seeing all these companies founded by the people who have become your friends make stunning progress in a very short time period. A company that pivoted four times in the first two weeks might have an insane growth curve out of nowhere six weeks later. Someone who was crying in the bathroom the week before might have just made his first big sale. Group office hours and dinners are always full of surprises.

Q: Was being female either an advantage or disadvantage in working on your startup?
Being a woman is an advantage in actually building our company. It helps me design for and relate to the majority of our customers, who are women. A big part of my job is building internal and external relationships, where having a lot of empathy (which you could argue is a gendered trait) comes in handy. That said, there are situations where it’s clearly not an advantage. For example, I think you’d find very few people that don’t believe that male founders generally have an advantage when it comes to fundraising in Silicon Valley.

Q: What do you wish someone had told you when you were 15?
I wish someone had told me how much humans are influenced by brands. In a noisy crowded world, people use brands (e.g. Ivy League universities, fancy investors, high-profile tech companies) as quick and dirty proxies for merit.

In my idealistic young mind, I believed that destiny was shaped by merit and effort. To some extent that’s true, but it is only in my twenties that I’ve come to truly understand the way brands open doors for people– and you can then run through doors due to merit and effort. If you’re trying to do something hard, like start a billion-dollar company, you want as many brands on your side as possible. In Silicon Valley, YC is one of those brands. It opens a lot of doors that could be hard to pry open otherwise, regardless of how objectively great your company is.

Q: Any advice for female founders?
My advice to female founders is that whether your cofounder is a man or a woman, make sure he or she is a feminist. My cofounder has many truly remarkable traits, but his feminism is the one that has the biggest impact on the quality of my everyday experience building our business. In other words, pick someone whose mother raised ’em right!


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