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April 14th, 2011:

YC: The new grad school

I’ve always been interested in starting companies. Ten years ago I was an undergrad at Penn State. I was told by professors, my parents & the press that the best way to start a company was to go to graduate school, become an expert in your field and start a company with a classmate.   Ten years ago grad school probably was the best place to meet potential co-founders. That’s what Larry and Sergey did.  That is how Filo and Jerry met.

So I went to grad school.

I did not love my time stuck in the dark corners of the control systems lab at the University of Maryland.  The opportunities to evaluate and work with potential co-founders were lacking. Note* I realize this concentration would have been higher at a place like Stanford or MIT. Luckily I met Adam Smith on Craigslist during a summer internship, we became roommates, did a lot of brainstorming over hot pocket dinners and eventually started Xobni together.

From the outside Y Combinator may simply look like a new disruptive venture fund. And it is. But the secondary effects may be even larger.  

I often say Paul Graham doesn’t do YC for the money, he does it to teach.  He is a professor in a new type of university. And as an entrepreneur himself, of course it is a university he founded.

The practicum is launching your first product.
The Tuesday dinners are the weekly lectures.
The coursework is Hacker News.
Your fraternity brothers are the YC alums
And unlike contributions to your university’s general fund – when you invest in Y Combinator you get a return.

As a member of the 3rd ever YC class (summer 2006) I had a sense that I was getting my chance to be an early alumni of a prestigious new community – not unlike the early graduates of Harvard.  As the years have passed, as Y Combinator has grown, this has only become more true.

Founding Sincerely 

I co-founded Sincerely with a former YC classmate, former Xobni employee, and friend, Bryan Kennedy.  Bryan’s YC-backed company Pairwise was an early hit, but never turned into the business he wanted it to be.  Bryan is the quintessential internet hacker; he has been building websites and web communities since high school. He is part developer, part designer.  I recognized his talent early during YC and when Bryan shut down Pairwise I grabbed him to run Xobni’s web team as employee #4.  Later Bryan and I worked side by side running a very analytical growth team at Xobni.  After several great years with Xobni Bryan got excited about the iPhone, left Xobni, started Swipe (a credit card processing app), and sold it within 8 months on the heels of Square‘s launch. Now Bryan and I have co-founded Sincerely together – we’re making it easy to send real printed photos from your mobile phone. We just launched our first product Postagram earlier this week

Lesson learned  

YC founders, look around you. This is the greatest concentration of company & product building talent you are likely to experience in your life.  There are potential employees and co-founders sitting around you at each dinner.  Help each other succeed. And who knows who you’ll end up starting your next company with.  

Welcome to the new grad school.