Advice From and For Female Founders at YC's Annual Female Founders Conference 2016

The energy was palpable at YC’s annual Female Founders Conference, with hundreds of powerhouse women convening in one place for a day of sharing stories on success, failure and the long, bumpy road of start-ups.  I know there were many who couldn’t attend the conference as spots filled up fast so I wanted to share my notes from the event because I think the stories told and advice given will be helpful to female (and male) entrepreneurs.

YC Partner Jessica Livingston kicked off the conference with 5 mistakes to avoid as a founder.

  1.  Building Something No One Wants or Needs & Learn to Focus on What’s Important. While this piece of advice seems a bit broad, Jessica recommends solving a problem that you yourself have. Your job early on is to talk to users, build your product, and change it as needed. Also, when it comes to focus, don’t concentrate on being a “woman” in tech. The media makes a big deal about this but if you do too, you’ll lose focus on what matters – building a viable company.
  2. Measure Your Growth. You make what you measure. Start-up growth should be about 10% a month. Denial is the silent killer of start-ups. Know your growth metrics and recognize when you’re not meeting them.
  3. Is Your Start-up Default Dead or Alive? Assuming their expenses remain constant and their revenue growth is what it's been over the last several months, do they make it to profitability on the money they have left? If not, then you’re default dead. Read more about this here.
  4. Keep Expenses Low. Over-hiring is the biggest mistake start-ups can make after building a product/service no one wants. Budget for worst case scenarios. Jessica has seen countless great start-ups die because they run out of money.
  5. Fundraising Gets Harder After Seed Round. Seed investors look for promises. Series A investors want performance and progress before investing.

Ooshma Garg, Founder of Gobble, a home cooked food delivery service, gave a great talk comparing start-ups to playing shoots and ladders. As soon as you feel like you’re gaining traction, you slide right back down to where you started. Gobble spent 5 years in the “Troughs of Sorrow” and was denied by 200 investors before finally getting a Series A and scaling her company. She was also able to secure seed funding without a technical co-founder. Her recipe on doing this – passion, proof of concept and a strong mission. Do what your instincts tell you and listen to yourself. If it feels right, then go with it.

4 Things Kathryn Minshew, Founder of The Muse, Wished She Knew Years Ago

  1.  People Love To Say It Doesn’t Get Any Easier – That’s Not True. Founding a start-up never gets easy but the risk of it dying is not so imminent which makes the day-to-day stress a bit less.
  2. Trying to Figure Out Where to Focus is Extremely Challenging. You need to pay close attention to numbers. She made the mistake of only concentrating on growth and building the product and then realized that their revenue metrics were lagging way behind even with huge user growth. Also, don’t concentrate on creating the perfect product. Just launch and get it out the door.
  3. Culture and Transparency Are The Most Important Things to Consider If You Want To Build A Company That Lasts. It’s easy for culture to be placed father down the list of “to do” but it’s extraordinarily important to write your values down and ensure every single hire matches them.
  4. To Stay Motivated, You Have To Remember Why You Started. There’s a reason you got hooked to the idea and its important to remember that when you’re completely burned out.

Reshma Shetty of Ginko Bioworks. Reshma believes that the best skillset one can have when starting a company is to know how to live cheaply so that you can bring in money while building a business. The hardest part of starting a company is knowing where to start. Reshma strongly advises defining your mission, your “core,” from the start, which was definitely a common piece of advice throughout the various talks.

Selina Tobaccowola, Previously CTO of SurveryMonkey and VP of Engineering at Evite - Selina stressed the importance of finding a co-founder that shares the same goals and missions for the company. Have conversations surrounding the financial aspects of the company – fundraising, IPO, etc – in the beginning because it will save you a lot of trouble down the road. It’s important to consider how you’re going to scale from a global perspective as you’re building a company because it’s much harder to do later if your system isn’t designed for it. Assemble a strong advisory board that consists of more than just your advisors. Independent board members and mentors are extremely important. On leading a technical team, Selina says that transparency and communication are key. Let engineers know why they are building what they are building and the impact it will have on the company.

Advice Selina would have given her 21 year old self: Think very carefully about accepting capital that you don’t necessarily need because you will more than likely be giving up some control of your company to investors in exchange for it. Additionally, always pay attention to your growth metrics because that’s the only way you will build a viable business.

Fundraising Panel takeaways with Talia Frenkel, Katelyn Gleauson, Aarthi Ramamurthy and Liz Wessel

  • If you can bootstrap and not have to raise money, then don’t! Don’t get caught up in the hype that you have to raise capital in order to be successful or attract talent.
  • Fundraising is a long process. You’ll be told no far more than you’ll ever hear a yes. Keep trucking and say thank you with grace. If your company gets traction, you’ll likely be back in front of these investors later down the line.
  • Speak to investors in a language they understand. Growth, traction, market opportunities, allocation. Include social strategies so that investors can relate on a personal level to your business.
  • Know your numbers inside and out and tell investors about the numbers they should be asking about but aren’t.
  • Always ask questions about terms you don’t understand.
  • The first check is always the hardest to get. But then you can take it down the road and use it to attract other investors.
  • Perfect your pitch and know how to tell your story. This is extremely important.
  • And lastly, never give up! You’re far more knowledgeable and smarter about your business than any investor will be. If you know the business will work, then stick to it and you’ll eventually find backers if you need them. 

Urska Srsen, Cofounder of Bellabeat. Unfortunately I missed some of Urska’s talk because I had to take a phone call but loved what I did catch! It’s refreshing to hear from a founder that doesn’t have a degree or two from an Ivy league school or relevant domain expertise and still be successful in starting a company. Urska’s background is in sculpture and she struggled with the fact that she had no qualifications to be a “founder.” Urska said she learned that no one is, in fact, qualified to start a company. That building a startup isn’t about who is the smartest, it’s about who notices and learns the most that will make you successful.

YC Partners Q&A Takeaways:

  • It’s never too early or too late to go through YC although their Fellowship program is designed for “idea stage” companies.
  • Most important qualities of applicants: the determination of the team, domain expertise (a problem you yourself have had or know a lot about), and a big idea in a broken system.
  • Solo founders – yes, YC accepts but it’s much more difficult for solo founders to be successful. But the worst thing you can do is run out and sign on a co-founder that you don’t know very well. Best to avoid the co-founder “death spiral.”
  • Know that all start-ups are broken even if they don’t appear to be on the outside. They are a work-in-progress that happens over a long period of time.

That's a wrap! I think YC is going to post a recording of the talks on their website if you want want to hear the entire day.