Q&A with YC Partners at the Female Founders Conference

by Y Combinator7/14/2017

This Q&A was recorded at our fourth annual Female Founders Conference.

Partners: Kat Manalac, Jessica Livingston, Adora Cheung, Anu Hariharan, Carolynn Levy, and Kirsty Nathoo.


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Craig Cannon [00:00] – Hey, this is Craig Cannon and you’re listening to Y Combinator’s podcast. Today’s episode is a Q&A with YC Partners and it was recorded at our fourth annual Female Founders Conference, which took place here in San Francisco this June. Okay, here we go.

Kat Manalac [00:12] – So I’m really excited to introduce you to all the, not all, but many of the incredible women that I get to work with every day. These are the partners of Y Combinator. And so… So I would love for, we’re going to be answering some of the questions that you sent us, and so, I’d love for each of you to introduce yourselves and then we’ll just jump in. Kirsty.

Kirsty Nathoo [00:38] – Okay, shall I start? Okay, hi again everyone, I’m Kirsty Nathoo, I’m the CFO here at Y Combinator and I’ve been involved with YC now since 2010, so I’ve seen it go through a lot of changes.

Carolynn Levy [00:52] – I’m Carolynn Levy, I’m partner and general counsel at Y Combinator and I’ve been here for about five years.

Anu Hariharan [00:59] – Hi everyone, I’m Anu Hariharan, I’m a partner at Y Combinator’s continuity fund. I joined YC last year. The continuity fund is fairly new, we invest primarily in growth-stage companies and help with company building at scale.

Adora Cheung [01:15] – Hi, my name’s Adora Cheung, I’m a partner at YC, one of the group partners, meaning I work directly with the startups. I’ve been here for about a year now, little over a year, and I went through YC myself in 2010, I guess when Kirsty started.

Kirsty Nathoo [01:30] – Yep.

Jessica Livingston [01:32] – I’m Jessica Livingston, I’m a co-founder of YC.

Kat Manalac [01:35] – And I’m Kat, and I’ve been at YC for about four years now, and started out as the first director of outreach, so meant working with a lot of potential applicants, like you guys. Alright, let’s just dive into the questions. So, how much industry experience do you typically recommend founders have?

Jessica Livingston [01:54] – Zero.

Carolynn Levy [01:54] – Zero.

Anu Hariharan [01:55] – Yeah.

Carolynn Levy [01:56] – Well no, actually, I think for biotech it’s pretty important that the founder have industry experience, but not true for other–

Jessica Livingston [02:05] – Well, also it’s how do you interpret that question, ’cause in my talk earlier I said that ideas grow organically out of founders’ lives, and usually they’re working in some given industry and they’re an expert in it and they say “Gosh, this aspect is totally broken, I know how to fix it.” And so we love funding people with domain expertise, I guess.

Adora Cheung [02:28] – Yeah, usually these people have been in the industry for just a little bit, not too long, so that they are so entrenched in it that they don’t know how to fix it, or know how to build to fix it, but yeah.

Kat Manalac [02:42] – Just long enough to kind of experience the problem, and say, like, “This is insane, I have to fix it.”

Adora Cheung [02:46] – Right.

Kat Manalac [02:46] – Yeah. And so, yeah, I think at YC I’ve seen folks that have had zero industry experience in something that they’re launching, and some folks that have had many years, so I guess it really just depends. But I guess there’s no simple answer to that question.

Jessica Livingston [03:02] – There’s no simple answer, I don’t think Drew Houston had a whole lot of experience in storage when he got frustrated because he’d left his talk in Outback and he was on the bus to New York, you know?

Kat Manalac [03:15] – So, here’s a stats question. What percentage of applications have a female co-founder or what percentage of, I guess, the overall population are women. So I’ll take this one.

Jessica Livingston [03:27] – I’d say.

Kat Manalac [03:29] – I obsess over the stats. So right now, we’re seeing about 13% of the founders that apply to YC are women, and so I just want to let that sink in, because I want that to be closer to 50% of the population of people applying. Thank you. And then, so about 22%, 23% of the companies have a female founder. And there are very very few companies that apply that are, you know, female only teams, and so I would love to see more of that as well. What is a myth about starting startups, or about YC, that you wish you could dispel?

Jessica Livingston [04:10] – I cannot answer that question. There are so many, so many. Going to have to write an essay on that one.

Anu Hariharan [04:17] – I’ll probably start with that and you all can fill in. I think, especially because I joined YC only a year ago and I remember after going through all the interview process I was super excited about having gotten the offer, when I was talking to other people and what are some of the myths that I think now that I’ve spent a year I can say. So one is, I think it’s a myth that we don’t invest in non-technical founders, we do. I think the other myth is that we don’t invest in solo founders. I think we encourage having co-founders for various reasons, but there is no strict rule that says it’s an absolute no. And the third thing which actually really surprised me, because I had never thought that in my head, is that YC has no women. And when I went through the interview process I actually met–

Jessica Livingston [05:03] – Or it doesn’t have a woman founder.

Anu Hariharan [05:05] – Founder, yes. So I think that that’s, you know, I never had that doubt, especially because I had met all of them through the interview experience, and now that I’ve worked at YC for almost a year I can certainly say with conviction that, you know, women play a central role in every decision in YC.

Kat Manalac [05:27] – I get frustrated because I feel like women often get written out of a lot of stories, right? I mean, this is a thing that we’ve seen time and time again, and I was just telling someone this morning about this. Back when I started at YC, all these reporters would write about YC and they would refer to Jessica as like, Paul Graham’s wife.

Jessica Livingston [05:46] – I was only described as Paul Graham’s wife.

Kat Manalac [05:49] – In YC, you know that Jessica’s a founder of YC, right? And it’s such bullshit, and it was like, she is half of the operating part of YC, and so it would just frustrate us internally, and then yesterday a story came out that referenced Jessica as co-founder. There was no mention of wife or anything, and I was like, progress. Like, I was just so thrilled that you were given your due.

Jessica Livingston [06:13] – There was some article that came out that said Paul Graham, Jessica Livingston’s husband. I don’t remember which one it was but I remember oh, look at this. Can I say something on the whole myth thing, ’cause there are too many for me to even address, and some I get very emotional about, but when I hear things like, people come up and say “Oh, but you don’t fund solo founders.” Like, it breaks my heart. What I’d love for just people who would like to give us a chance, is to say okay, I’ve read a lot of these articles, I think this is the case. Let me make sure, let me just ask if that’s true with someone who went through YC and see what their experience was like, so that’s my only request if you do come across a myth that you think is true, remember there’s always several sides to a story and not to believe everything you read on Twitter or in the press.

Carolynn Levy [07:08] – You know, actually, I just want to say one thing. Even after we fund solo female founders, they still don’t believe it. I was having a dinner with one of our female founders from last winter, and she said to me “Why did you guys fund me?” And I’m like, “What a weird question, what do you mean, why did we fund you?” She’s like, “Oh, I’m female, I don’t have a co-founder,” I was like “Seriously?” It was like four weeks into the program and she was still doubting, it was depressing, a little bit, but–

Kat Manalac [07:34] – There’s a question that this actually nicely dovetails into, is that, you know, YC has funded non-technical founders and sometimes even non-technical solo founders. What was it about those founders when they applied and interviewed at YC that impressed you, and I guess convinced everyone?

Adora Cheung [07:52] – For me it’s they have a clear vision of what they want to build, and they have a clear roadmap of how to get there, step by step, and they understand that maybe I lack a technical co-founder but I know how to hack my way into those next steps. Another good indication is if you’ve been a product manager or had a PM somewhere and you’ve worked with a lot of engineers, and you’ve directed and orchestrated product-building before, I think that’s a really good historical reference too, that you can build products without needing a technical co-founder.

Kirsty Nathoo [08:27] – I think it depends on the kind of product as well. Not all products that get built need to have super technical founders, and as long as you have, like you say, the language to be able to understand what takes a long time, what doesn’t, to be able to talk to engineers, to be able to set out the product, then that’s what’s needed, and not all founders have to be deeply deeply technical.

Jessica Livingston [08:49] – And lastly I’ll just wrap this up. There is no one type of founder we fund. We never say never about anything, there are just so many different things we do, so I wouldn’t want anyone to think YC never funds blank, ’cause that’s not true.

Kat Manalac [09:05] – Okay, does YC fund and work with later-stage companies? Do you want me to kick that over to you?

Anu Hariharan [09:12] – Yeah, sure, so yes, yes we do. So the YC continuity fund that was launched two years ago, our primary goal is to really help support the companies in the growth stage, so we do invest in companies in the later stage. At that stage what we’re really looking for is has the company sort of figured out its product market fit, and, you know, they’re really raising money for scale, and many of the activities that we help in that stage is really with company building, right, because the early stage program does a fantastic job of really helping you figure out how to get the product market fit, and really, you’re just starting in the initial phase of the company which is one to 10 employees or 20, but when you get to 30 people and you’re scaling now to 100 or 200 or even 500 people, the problems are different, your job as a CEO changes. So we help with a lot of elements in that phase.

Kirsty Nathoo [10:08] – I think it’s also, coming back to the idea of myths, that people make up their own myths about Y Combinator that bear no resemblance to anything, and so they convince themselves that “I’m too early for Y Combinator” or “I’m too late for Y Combinator,” and again, there’s no too early and there’s no too late. We fund companies at all stages, and so people make our decisions for us by not applying. Let us make that decision.

Kat Manalac [10:37] – Okay, next question is what advice do you have for a mom who wants to start a company?

Jessica Livingston [10:44] – Do some of the moms want to take that?

Carolynn Levy [10:45] – Be prepared to have another baby, ’cause that’s what startups are like. That’s what I always think when I’m talking to founders, I think “God, this sounds like having another kid.” ‘Cause they take that much work, so, that’s the way that I would think about it, it’s like having more kids.

Jessica Livingston [11:01] – I actually asked Diane Greene this at our first Female Founders Conference, when she came and spoke. I was behind backstage with her and I said, “How did you do this?” ‘Cause I at this point had my two children, one was just a baby, and I was struggling a little bit. It’s a lot of work to juggle everything. And I said “How did you run VMware and, you know, have kids while you were doing all that?” And she gave me some good advice, which was, she really made an effort to outsource a lot of things that didn’t have to do with specifically her children, so she had a gardener, she had someone who came in to clean her house and did all these things ’cause she couldn’t do everything, so outsource the stuff that can be done by someone else. You know, I used Instacart all the time. Let’s just say I got anything that could be delivered, I had delivered. Saved me a drive to the grocery store, drive wherever, and so I always appreciated that advice ’cause it seems reasonable but I hadn’t really implemented it.

Anu Hariharan [12:00] – Yeah, I would say, you know, if you’re really passionate about something, do it. It doesn’t matter, the timing is never right, there is no perfect time to start something. Three years ago I met Nicole Shariat Farb. She started a company and I actually met her because she was pitching her startup to us at the time. And I had just delivered a baby at that time, and I thought my life was crazy. And so I finished the pitch meeting and I told her “Nicole, my kid is really sick, “is it okay if I get back to you in two days?” And she understood. And she never mentioned anything, I later got to know that she had just delivered twins, two days after my kid, and I was like “Wow, what was I thinking?” So I just think that, you know, there are a lot of women who I have seen, quite a few, I mean it’s not in mass numbers, but who, at least in recent years, have seen there’s no right time, and you cannot wait for the perfect time. So if you are really committed, and you know that is the thing you want to work, go do it.

Adora Cheung [13:01] – There’s actually a really good example backstage, the Proven founders, so we just accepted them this batch, and when they interviewed us I had no clue but they were both pregnant, and so they’re hobbling backstage hustling and talking to people and trying to get users for their product, but they’re like, pregnant. But they were doing it, so, if you’re passionate about it you can–

Jessica Livingston [13:23] – How far apart were their due dates?

Adora Cheung [13:24] – I think one month.

Jessica Livingston [13:25] – That will probably be hectic.

Adora Cheung [13:30] – They said they’re going to share babysitters, they’re going to share everything, so, we’ll see.

Kat Manalac [13:35] – So, next question is if you’re working on a side project, at what point would you feel comfortable going full time on it? When should you bail out of your job or think about taking time off school?

Adora Cheung [13:49] – I think there’s two pieces to that, one is you feel like you’re ready to go all in, obviously, and it’s getting some traction, that’s a good sign. Two is financial concern, so if you have low personal burn, I mean, this is why really young people start startups probably more than maybe older folks, but if you’re in a financially good place to take off for a year, that’s probably a good place to start.

Jessica Livingston [14:14] – And I’d say try to focus full time as soon as you can if it’s okay with you financially. Try to do it sooner than later, we always say you got to burn the boat before you can really make that kind of progress. But then again, I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth ’cause a lot of times I say “Don’t quit your job, you’re thinking of starting a startup, work on something on the side and see how it goes.” But the point is once it starts getting a little traction, the sooner you can focus full time, the better obviously it is for that company.

Kat Manalac [14:46] – And I really liked what Morgan had said, while she was working at Intuit she started the first version of Blavity and then there was that moment where she started to build, you know, an audience, but also was so passionate it just pulled her out. I thought that was pretty cool.

Adora Cheung [15:03] – It’s also one of the reasons why YC exists, ’cause if you’re ready you can apply, you get in, you can quit your job.

Carolynn Levy [15:09] – It’s a forcing function.

Kat Manalac [15:11] – So here’s a question about investors. So this person says “I’m told much of the small talk that investors do is really a disguised way of identifying distractions.” So, specifically when investors ask about your kids, or your social life, is that just a way to, you know, they’re trying to identify red flags, and what’s the best way to handle those questions or handle this casual seeming chitchat?

Adora Cheung [15:38] – You’ll be able to answer this.

Anu Hariharan [15:39] – Okay, I can take it. I think the question is actually broader than investors. I actually started my career as an engineer and went to the east coast and then came back to Silicon Valley, so I’ve gotten this question many times, meaning when I was married, they wanted to know if I was on mommy track. I had a baby 10 years later and you know, when I was pregnant it was like am I going to quit? And now that I have a child, sometimes, you know, there are questions around how much time I can give. But to be honest, if you pick the right work setting, you don’t run into that, right? But you do you handle these questions, one, if these questions are with an intention of they’re trying to find distractions, it’s a red flag, you may not want to work with that person because they truly don’t understand where you come from and how committed you are to doing what you’re doing. So in those cases, you know, if someone asked me about starting on a project and whether I was going to be pregnant, and if I felt that it was an uncomfortable question because they’re trying to figure it out, I just ask openly “Why is it a concern?” And often when you put people on the spot, they sometimes give it to you as is, and one of these managers had told me “Well, I’m a little concerned because this project is really intense, so I just want to be sure.” And I knew the situation, so I just said “Look, I wouldn’t be signing up for this if I didn’t know I could do it.” And that was enough to, you know, shut the problem aside and move on. So I think it depends on the situation. Some of them I do think, maybe, they are just asking just to get to know you, and that’s sort of their way to break the ice. You have to tease apart why the question came, but if you sense that they are doing this because they want to figure out if that’s your distraction, just ask them openly, and that has always worked for me. And you know, after a few years there was a joke within our firm. Nobody would ever ask me that question. So that’s another way to do that.

Carolynn Levy [17:36] – There’s a flip side to this, which is that I think we have heard from some founders, married co-founders, that they didn’t disclose to investors that they were married, and then it kind of went on for too long and then they didn’t actually know when to disclose it without it being super awkward. So that’s something to navigate as well, I don’t know what the exact right answer is there, but that can come up, so it’s probably best to sort of be upfront about some of the stuff. It kind of depends, but… You don’t want to hide the ball on this stuff, ’cause it can get awkward later.

Kat Manalac [18:06] – Yeah, I mean, I think what Laura was saying in her talk about transparency and being really transparent with investors is important, because that’s, you know, she was saying that she expects the same from them. They’ll be honest with her, and so, I think probably it’s best to bring it up sooner than later, and if they don’t invest in married couples then, like, forget them. But most of the investors I’ve talked to are not concerned by that, they just want to know, I guess. So we only have a couple of minutes left, so one question is who are your mentors, and is there anything, I guess really quick, that they’ve taught you that stuck with you?

Carolynn Levy [18:50] – I’ll go first. I don’t have a specific mentor that I can point to, and it kind of makes me laugh, this question, because when I was at the law firm where I worked before Y Combinator, I was in a women’s group and we endlessly debated the whole topic of mentorship, because there’s this whole debate, like should it be organic, or should you connect people, we just, all we did was talk about it. But I didn’t actually have a specific mentor but I realized I learned a lot of stuff from every single one of my colleagues. I continue to learn from my colleagues at YC, and one of my biggest takeaways that I’ve learned from my colleagues is customer service. And that applies in the legal world as well as everywhere else. Always give good customer service. Always put your client, customer, whatever it is, first.

Anu Hariharan [19:37] – Yeah.

Kirsty Nathoo [19:39] – It’s kind of hard, I guess, doing what we’re doing, which is such an unusual thing. You kind of pick pieces of information up from lots of different people, and it’s all pieces of a jigsaw that you piece together, but definitely the people that we work with.

Jessica Livingston [19:55] – I’m the same way, I pick up different things from different people and I just have this patchwork quilt of fabulous lessons that I’ve learned from people, and when the dinners are going on at YC and there’s a founder telling a story, I am listening just as intently as all the founders in the group, I mean, I learn so much from the people that come through the doors of YC, and my colleagues.

Adora Cheung [20:19] – When I was starting my startup, when I first came to Silicon Valley there were some people that were influential and helped me along the way, so my former boss, first startup, Next Legend, he helped me a lot, and he in fact funded part of my startup, and then Paul Graham of course. But I would say in terms of running my startup and someone to talk to on a weekly or even monthly basis, I didn’t have that person and I wish I did, and I wish I had seeked that person out, I guess. And I think it’s helpful to have someone who’s not your investor, you’re not related to, who’s not your friend, per se, like a personal friend, who you can talk to about these things and bounce ideas off of. Do you have any tips for folks looking for those people?

Kat Manalac [21:02] – Finding those people… So I didn’t find one, so I guess– This is the debate. This is that debate, the endless debate, how do you find the person? It’s tough, ’cause you do want it to be organic, right? To some extent, but I think for me, some of the most important recurring people in my life have been advocates, so not just mentors, but people who always advocate for me, I think. I used to work with Alexis Ohanian, the founder of Reddit. He’s always been like a cheerleader, like a supporter. But I think I would say the same thing. I pick up a lot from everyone I work with, especially you guys, and then also the founders that come in. I’m constantly learning, and then as their companies grow, I also learn, as they kind of share their experience with me. I guess we are out of time, and so, I hope you’ve learned as much as we have learned today listening to the founders here.

Jessica Livingston [21:59] – Thank you for coming.

Craig Cannon [21:59] – Alright, thanks for listening. So if you want to read the transcript, or watch the video, you can check out blog.ycombinator.com, and as always, please remember to rate the show and subscribe. Okay, see ya next time.


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    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