By Rachel Sklar (Founder, Change The Ratio)
The time is once again upon us: Y Combinator applications are due tomorrow. From there, Paul Graham and company will choose the next crop of Y Combinator startups, which will converge on Silicon Valley in January 2012 to innovate, iterate, develop, learn and build — and take a sweet check from Ron Conway and Yuri Milner while they’re at it.
The money isn’t why, if you’re an early-stage startup, you should find Y Combinator appealing. (If you’re the real deal, I’m pretty sure it’s not.) It’s because that program pulls together some pretty amazing ingredients that combine to create some pretty good odds for a new company. Or, well, the best odds you can hope for, you crazy dreamer, you.
The stats: Out of the 316 companies that have gone through the program over the years, the rate of women founders funded by Y Combinator has hovered around just 4%. That is one lame-ass ratio. What gives?
I’ll grant it’s possible that women are less interested in starting companies. But 96% less interested? For the sake of argument, and what seems to make sense, let’s just assume that somewhere between the 50% of the population that are women and the 4% represented in Y Combinator there are women who would totally apply and get in — but just don’t.
Change The Ratio‘s goal is to increase visibility, access and opportunity for women in tech, with the idea that each begets the others. We recognize that there are certain institutional biases, defaults and habits that smooth the path of male entrepreneurs — in terms of information received, recommendations made, and patterns recognized. 2011 has been an amazing year for women in the tech/startup scene, but institutional challenges like these still make it tougher for women to seize great opportunities like Y Combinator. Somewhere between that 4% and 50%, that’s what’s going on.
A few reasons. If I may generalize: (1) the strong preference by Y Combinator for at least one technical co-founder; (2) the inscrutability of YCombinator outside the Hacker News-y community; (3) the overwhelming competition to get in; (4) the perception that there is a pretty high/unattainable de minimus level of “being qualified.” Y Combinator is an elite organization meant to breed future top companies, so all that is okay — it should be competitive and rigorous. But if one is going from the assumption that diversity is beneficial to organizations (and industries) as a whole, as well as providing a key perspective on new opportunities and untapped markets, then I’d think it would be worth it for Y Combinator to actively encourage applications from women.
Also, Those Reasons Keeping Women From Applying to Y Combinator Are Bullshit
They are! If you have a company, an idea for a company or a partner you’d love to build a company with, you should take this weekend and apply to Y Combinator. If you’re smart, driven, creative, inspired and can’t help dreaming big, go for it. Now.
(1) The strong preference by Y Combinator for at least one technical co-founder.
Okay, there’s no getting around this — it’s a tough one. Paul Graham says in the YC FAQ that while yes, they’ll consider funding a non-technical founder, “your chances are about ten times better if you find yourself a technical co-founder.” Noted. But, Graham also says this:
How do we choose who to fund? The people in your group are what matter most to us. We look for brains, motivation, and a sense of design. Experience is helpful but not critical.
Your idea is important too, but mainly as evidence that you can have good ideas. Most successful startups change their idea substantially.
Look: You can either give up before you start because you can’t build it yourself, or you can push forward knowing that you *can* build it yourself, by dint of having a great idea, building a great team, and working your ass off. Demonstrate in the application that you know how to attract talent and are aware of what you would need to do to get things built.
Also: You can be a hacker by understanding how to capitalize on existing systems. (I think Birchbox is a great example of this — creating a demand and delivery model innovating around existing IRL systems.) There have never been more platforms to build on than there are now. Of A Kind built on Tumblr. Thrillist sent emails. I always like to remind people that Gary Vaynerchuk started out by making videos about wine.
To this end — Y Combinator says, as most investors do, that they invest in people, not ideas — but you can give yourself an edge by focusing on an area they’re eager to engage in. Their Request for Startups is 2 years old, but still very germane in places. (In particular the Future of Journalism one – you’re still light-years ahead of most of the industry if you even know what Y Combinator is.)
So yes, there’s lots and lots you can do as a non-technical founder building a kickass company. But as much as I’m now encouraging you to hack the Y Combinator system, don’t do it just do it: “Don’t apply with an idea described in an RFS if there’s some other idea you’d rather work on. You’re more likely to get funded to work on the idea you actually like.”
All that said: between now and January 2012, buckle down and learn some code. Ask Sara Chipps at GirlDevelopIt or Avi Flombaum the RailsMaster at SkillShare. Or hit up CodeAcademy. It will make you a better founder, full stop. Start now — I’ll race you.
(2) The inscrutability of Y Combinator outside the Hacker News-y community.
You can’t apply for what you don’t know about, right? The crowd at #YCNYC last week demonstrated that the word is just not getting out — or at least not getting out beyond a few well-worn channels. The audience was placed at about 800–1000 strong, yet alas women were few and far between. (And with the exception of Jessica Livingston, YC founding partner, absent from the stage.)
I’m not saying that I should know everything going on in tech — I’m pretty busy, I miss a lot of stuff, CTR is not my full-time gig. But on the flipside, I’m someone who would be pretty likely to see announcements for #YCNYC — I follow tons of techies, from founders to reporters to investors to the companies themselves. Moreover, I run a listserv for about 150 women in the startup/tech scene, and this is the type of event that usually gets posted there. It wasn’t. I personally did not hear of it until it was happening, when I suddenly saw a flood of #changetheratio tweets letting me know that the event was a total sea of dudes. Luckily I was able to attend, since the application for invitation had been closed for a while (and I know at least one woman who applied and did not get in).
This isn’t just my observation. From a comment on Hacker News:
I feel like diversity fuels creativity and innovation. I like finding myself in a room with a variety of different sorts of people, and the YCNYC event felt like I was in a room with approximately 1000 copies of myself. The most visible example of this was the number of women present. I *personally* know many times more women in technology than I saw in that entire crowd of a thousand or so.
I know that YC is going to appeal to a certain sort of person, but I would’ve been much more impressed with the whole event if it had been apparent that the organizers had gone just a little bit out of their way to reach out to different kinds of people who work in technology in the city.
Next time, hopefully they will! I am totally down to help. (Writing this mammoth blog post is one way, to start.) More generally, while familiarity with Hacker News is explicitly a Y Combinator plus, as a distribution system it is simply too narrow. It’s great to have core sources, and a core that it serves. But around the core is a viable layer of potential participants who are just not in that loop. That probably doesn’t help you for this time. But for next time, we’re on it.
(3) The overwhelming competition to get in
Here are some signals to women that Y Combinator will be tough to crack: 1000 dudes packing the room at #YCNYC; all dudes onstage but for 1 woman; 4% female founders. There’s lots of chatter in startup-land about women being more risk-averse, but I see it as more of risk-management — they’re happy to take a risk for something big if the potential ROI is apparent. (I think this is one of the reasons that fewer women contribute to Wikipedia – it’s easily accessible, but the ROI isn’t there for them. But that’s another story.)
But actually, a woman applying to Y Combinator right now has a major advantage, and that’s perspective: she’ll see things a guy just wouldn’t see. (I use Naturally Curly as an example of this all the time — see this ridic headline vs. comments from Peggy Wallace, Tereza Nemessanyi and me.) According to Aileen Lee at KPCB, women as a group drive 80% of consumer spending, account for 60% of Zynga users, 77% of Groupon users, 70% of Gilt Groupe users, drive 62% of Facebook activity and 71% of FB likes. In short, women are a freaking gold mine. Per Lee: “More female users will likely help your company grow faster.”
By the way, this is not to say you have to develop a product just for the ladies. Last I checked, Facebook wasn’t. But understanding female consumers and female users and a female audience is a mega leg-up over those who…don’t.
(4) The perception that there is a pretty high/unattainable de minimus level of “being qualified.”
After completing the Y Combinator Summer 2010 program, ;Amanda Peyton wrote this on her blog: “I just wanted to put it out there that every single Y Combinator founder, at some point in time, was totally unqualified for Y Combinator.” She then goes on to make a helpful list of ways in which to become qualified.
The most important and universal is “Build Something People Want.” The most narrow and YC-centric is “Stalk Hacker News Like A Mofo.” Paul Graham says flat-out that it helps an applicant to be a regular on Hacker News; that’s one of the ways in which this system skews toward a narrow range of people. Amanda is right that the Hacker News system is there to be gamed; more generally, plenty of great people have started great startups without knowing that Hacker News even exists. There’s a difference in being qualified and being in the club. The latter helps — but not if you don’t have the former.
Look: I’ve read through the Y Combinator application and related materials — they are not scary. In fact, they look like a pretty fun and satisfying exercise for any entrepreneur. Chances are you’re more qualified than you think. But don’t take it from me, take it from Paul Graham — he’s the one who said that they were looking for “brains, motivation, and a sense of design.” And this: “Like all investors, we want to believe. So help us believe. If there’s something about you that stands out, or some special insight you have into the problem you plan to work on, make sure we see it.”
I know time is short (and this post is long!) but if it helps get even one woman to apply who might otherwise not I’ll feel pretty damn good. Even if it doesn’t lead to acceptance, I am an optimist.
So go crazy. You have until 11 pm ET on Monday, October 10th. Why not? Trick question: there is no not. Which leaves only Y.
Aileen Lee: Why Women Rule The Internet [TechCrunch]
Amanda Peyton: I’m A Female YCombinator Founder And You Can Be, Too [SlashBlog]
Jessica Livingston: What Stops Female Founders? [Foundes At Work]
Paul Graham: The 18 Mistakes That Kill Startups [PaulGraham.com]
This post has been modified from the original post at Change The Ratio.
About the guest blogger: Rachel Sklar is a writer and social entrepreneur based in New York. She is the co-founder of Change The Ratio, which increases visibility and opportunity for women in tech. A former lawyer who writes about media, politics, culture & technology, she was a founding editor at Mediaite and the Huffington Post. She has written for outlets like the New York Times, Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and she speaks widely at conferences, on panels and on TV. Rachel is a TechStars mentor and an advisor to several startups, including Hashable, SBNation, Lover.ly, The Daily Muse & Honestly Now. She was named to the Silicon Alley 100 in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Follow her on Twitter at @rachelsklar.