Female Founder Stories: Michelle You, Founder of Songkick (YC S07)

by Y Combinator2/8/2015

Songkick makes it easy to go to concerts. We have a website and apps that track your music taste (from the music on your device, Spotify playlists, Facebook listening history, etc.) and notify you when your favorite artists announce tour dates in your city. Every month, we help over 10 million fans discover concerts and go to more shows. After signing up to Songkick, fans go to twice as many concerts as they did the year before.

We also build tools to help artists get more fans to their shows. We make it easy to publish tour dates on their website. Our vast distribution network gets their tour dates in front of people listening to them on Spotify, Soundcloud, YouTube, Bandcamp, and more.

Q: What did you do before starting Songkick?
I was a writer and magazine editor.

Q: Why did you start Songkick?
Ian, Pete, and I are all huge live music fans. Pete and Ian had been best friends from university and always wanted to start a company together. When they both quit their jobs to force themselves to figure out what to do, they explored many different ideas.

I was living in New York at the time, and I found it impossible to stay on top of all the live music in the city. I was subscribed to a million different email lists, checking MySpace and venue websites, obsessively reading music blogs for news, and I still kept missing out on concerts.

I asked them, “Can you just make something that will scan my iTunes library and send me an email when any of those bands come to New York?”

Ian and Pete applied to YC with that idea and were accepted. As a classic, risk-averse female, I had no intention of quitting my job to join them, but I was helping out every spare moment I got. I would ride the dreadful Fung Wah bus up to Boston every weekend to work with them. I hired our first designer out of New York and worked with her on the product. The more involved I got, the harder it was to step away. So I joined them.

Q: How did you meet your cofounders?
I met Ian in Beijing when we were both studying Chinese at Tsinghua University. In some ways, the same qualities that made Beijing an exciting and invigorating place to live attract me to startups today.

Pete came to visit him in Beijing, and that’s how I first met him too.

Q: Was being female either an advantage or disadvantage in working on your startup?
It’s pretty impossible to imagine what I might have been like as a male cofounder, so as with everything, it probably was both an advantage and a disadvantage.

Q: Why do you think there are fewer startups with female founders than male ones?
This is a really complicated problem that deserves more than the glib response I’m able to provide. I’ve been thinking about this question for years, and I still don’t have a clear answer.

Is it because there are too few female computer science majors? Is it because there aren’t enough female entrepreneurs as role models? Is it because of unequal parental leave policies? Is it because women are socialized to be more risk averse and less confident? Is it because women earn 77 cents to every man dollar? Is it because women are opting out of joining an industry whose culture can just really fucking suck sometimes? Is it because we only just got an entrepreneur Barbie this year? (No seriously you guys, she’s real.)

Let’s just say it’s an acquisition, activation, retention, and maybe referral problem. It is not a revenue problem, because we would all be making more money if there were more female founders.

Q: What was the toughest thing you went through as a female founder?
I had never before experienced direct and explicit sexism before starting a company. Sure, it’s endemic to our society– I now am annoyingly expert at spotting its stealth forms everywhere– but never before had I experienced someone saying I was incapable and inferior based on my gender. This guy had never met me in person. It happened in my first year of Songkick.

I grew up with an ambitious and strong mother who worked in tech full-time my whole life. She worked at IBM and Apple and later was a VC. The hand-wringing question of “having it all” was never part of her lexicon. She raised me to believe I could be anything I wanted to be; she taught me to value– and use– my brains, and I never questioned my right to anything.

I thought feminism was something something bra burning in the seventies. It was squarely in the past. It was irrelevant to me because somehow in a quarter-century of existence, no one had ever told me that I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. I was ignorant of sexism’s more insidious forms. Even when taking all those identity politics classes as an English major, I didn’t understand why everyone was so angry. Now I am one of the angry.

This experience was an abrupt awakening. First I cried, and then I got mad. This shit is real and it happens in the twenty-first century. I guess I’m grateful that my eyes are now open and I can try to change things as much as I can in my small corner of the world.

Once it happened, I started recognizing it everywhere. It’s something you have to be alert to and steel yourself for. But you also have to gird yourself against debilitating paranoia that ensues, “Did he add me last in that email chain because I’m a woman? Did he ask me to take notes in that meeting because I’m a woman? Did he ask me to put on his conference wristband because I’m a woman? Did he tell me to be friendlier and more approachable because I’m a woman? Did that article not mention me as a founder because I’m a woman? Did that guy just assume I’m Ian’s secretary because I’m a woman?” (OK, that one I didn’t have to wonder about.)

These are all pathetically real thoughts I’ve actually had. Sometimes you’re wrong and sometimes you’re right. The constant second-guessing can drive you crazy. It’s an experience that your male cofounders will never understand, but you will consider yourself lucky if they try to; if they listen and partner up in creating a culture where you’re vigilant and alert to such things.

The thing is, when you’re an exception, when your very existence includes a caveat– “female”– it can make you question your right to be there at all. So I guess the toughest thing I went through as a female founder is being a “female” founder.


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