Highlights from YC's First Female Founders Conference

by Y Combinator3/3/2014

On Saturday, Y Combinator hosted its first Female Founders Conference. We’d originally planned to host the event at our office, which could fit about 150 attendees. 1,200 impressive applications later, we decided to move the event to the Computer History Museum where we could accommodate three times the people. The number of highly qualified women who applied to FFC, combined with the fact that YC has the highest number of female founders it’s ever had in the current winter batch, leads us to believe there’s a very promising trend occurring here. As Jessica, YC cofounder and partner, mentioned in her opening remarks, “In any big change, there’s a moment that feels to people like the tipping point. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ll look back in 5 years and feel like 2014 was the tipping point for female founders.” 

Percentage of YC Startups With Female Founders Per Year 

Over 450 current and aspiring founders packed in to the CHM to get schooled on running a company by a lineup of YC alumni, YC founder Jessica Livingston, Eventbrite’s Julia Hartz, and serial entrepreneur and VMware founder Diane Greene. Videos from the webcast will be up shortly, but in the meantime we’ve written up some of our favorite  takeaways from each of the speakers:

Jessica Livingston, Cofounder, Y Combinator

Jessica kicked off the day with a quick rundown of the 9 years she’s spent with Y Combinator and some general advice for startups. You’ll see these themes get repeated over and over again in the stories of the speakers throughout the day.

Advice for Founders:
  1. Determination is the most important quality in a founder

  2. You must withstand a lot of rejection

  3. You need empathy. Talk to your users and really care about their experience.

  4. Make something people want

  5. Live cheaply/extend runway

  6. Focus. Focus. Focus.

Jessica followed her general advice with some that was more specific to women — what she’d tell her sister if she were starting a company.

It’s possible to combine kids and starting a startup — but it’s hard. “YC has funded women (and men) with children of all ages. But for your sake, if you have an option, do it before you have kids. If you already have kids, start the startup, but understand what you are going to be up against.”

It’s okay to be the quiet co-founder. Be quietly determined. You don’t have to change who you are, as long as you get stuff done. But there are unexpected side effects of being the quiet cofounder: “You will be ignored by people who can only hear loud voices.” Jessica noted that, “Quietly determined people often beat out the people who talk loudly but do nothing but talk.”

Learn to program. “That’s the best advice I could give to anyone non-technical.”

Don’t be afraid to start a company with your significant other or spouse. 34% of YC companies with female founders are companies started by significant others.

Adora Cheung, Cofounder, Homejoy

Solve a real problem.  It took Adora three tries before hitting a home run with her home service startup.  Before Homejoy, Adora built products she thought were interesting, but ones that weren’t getting traction because they weren’t solving real problems for its users.  After her brother (and co-founder) Aaron had a tough time finding a good, affordable cleaner for his messy apartment, the two decided to solve their own problem and built Homejoy.

Stick with it. At the beginning of Homejoy, Adora built her site for most of the night, drove to SF and slept in her car to avoid rush hour, then worked all day as a house cleaner to really learn the business.  Homejoy now has close to $40 million in venture capital funding, revenues in the millions, and over 100 employees.

Julia Hartz, Cofounder, Eventbrite

Establish a framework for carefully selecting your leaders.  Eventbrite is famous for its culture and is consistently recognized as one of the best places to work. Julia emphasized the importance of choosing the right leaders. She uses a classic criteria: Who, What, Why and When?  Who is the candidate and why would you choose them to be a leader in your company? What has the candidate done in the past that will make her successful leader? When is the right time in their career development to make them a leader?

Elli Sharef, Cofounder, HireArt

No matter what happens, keep trying. In a startup you always feel like you’re really close to failure. To succeed you need to have a deep rooted sense of confidence, both internally and externally. You have to believe both in the product and that you’re the right person to build it. Believing it doesn’t always make it happen immediately, but you have to get to the point where you can externalize that confidence and convince your stakeholders and investors that you’re the going to take over the industry and kill the competition.

Kathryn Minshew, Cofounder, The Muse

Launch an MVP as soon as possible.  Kathryn Minshew, co-founder of The Muse, stressed how important it is to launch your product. “Startups are like Monopoly,” said Kathryn, “You can’t get $200 if you don’t pass GO.”  Rather than meticulously working on mock-ups and waiting to launch till what you have is beautiful and perfect, it’s important to build a working product, get users, gather feedback and iterate. You’ll get the most important feedback from your users since, in Kathryn’s words “Your college roommate’s approval does not mean market fit.”

Diane Greene, Cofounder, VMware

You can never over-communicate. When you’re leading a group of people, you can tell people the same thing over and over again, and they still won’t be able to verbalize what you’ve told them. Don’t be afraid to say the same thing over and over again.  

On hiring: “It’s who people are, not necessarily what their background is.” During the first bubble, hiring was incredibly hard. Diane hired a man to do yard work for her and he had such a good attitude and work ethic, she brought him on to do QA. The man ended up running all of QA for VMware.

Fundraising Panel moderated by Kirsty Nathoo, CFO and Partner, Y Combinator

Panelists: Michelle Crosby, Wevorce; Ann Johnson, Interana, Danielle Morrill, Mattermark; Jamie Wong, Vayable

At the early stage, angels are your best investors. When asked, “What do you wish you had known before starting to fundraise?” the founders agreed that they wished they’d been more open to smaller angels, and that they’d spent less time pitching the brand-name Sand Hill Road VCs. Smaller firms and angel investors give more personal advice and attention, something important for pre-seed or pre-series A startups.

How being a woman impacts fundraising: Whether it’s a VC telling you “If I knew you were going to get pregnant, I wouldn’t have invested in you,” or “You’re incredibly good looking,” women do endure treatment that a male founder would likely never experience. We’re so appreciative that the panelists opened up and shared their stories about the challenges of fundraising.

Dr. Elizabeth Iorns, Cofounder, Science Exchange

Dr. Iorns shared 9 lessons she’s learned so far from building Science Exchange. All 9 can be seen in the slide above. One of our favorites is:  Be amazing at support.  “Most startups can do this really effectively, and more effectively than large companies. This can be a huge competitive advantage,” said Dr. Iorns. “For us the bar was even lower than most industries since in science there isn’t a big focus on customer support or friendly user interfaces.”

Jessica Mah, Cofounder, inDinero

You don’t have to apologize for being confident but don’t take anything for granted. Closing the Female Founders Conference on a candid note, Jessica Mah gave us an entertaining account of founding the financial startup inDinero. After spending the first few years living the fast entrepreneur life in an office fully loaded with a hot tub, Jessica quickly realized she was burning cash and not focusing enough on growing users and revenue. Her idea was not working and she had to figure out how to pivot her company out of its trough. 

Being an entrepreneur is challenging and it’s essential to have discipline – that means living sparingly, being selective with hiring talent, and making tough decisions like firing underperformers. She and her cofounder buckled down and turned the company around. Throughout that process, she was accused of having a “strong personality.” Jessica was taken aback but admitted, “They might call me someone with a ‘strong personality,’ but I’m just someone who has unapologetic confidence. And I’m happy to say that’s who I am.” Though she started out her journey with inDinero as “cocky and arrogant,” the experience of having the first iteration of inDinero fail taught her to take nothing for granted.

– By Kat Mañalac and Natalie Luu
– Photos by Marla Aufmuth (More photos available here)


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