An Update on Hacker News

I frequently get asked about the changes we’ve made and are making to Hacker News, so I wanted to share some updates.  A lot of people feel strongly about HN.  It’s an important part of the startup community and we want it to be both the best source of news and discussion about technology and startups and also welcoming for everyone, especially groups that have historically been marginalized in the tech industry.

First, I want to thank the community for all the work people have done over the past six months to downvote, flag, and comment on content that doesn’t fit the site guidelines.  It’s a lot of work, but it has a huge impact and we hope users will continue to do it. I’d also like to thank dang and sctb for all the work they’ve done as moderators and with software to increase story and comment quality.

Traffic is up about 30% over this period, and we'd like to think that the increase in quality and decrease in toxic comments is the main reason.

There is much more to do, of course, and there are still comments that have no place on HN, but we’re happy that we've heard from so many users that feel the quality has increased.

I'm sometimes asked how historically marginalized users can help shape the HN community when the karma threshold for down voting inappropriate comments is high. It's a fair question, and we are experimenting with lowering the downvoting threshold.  Also, the best way to deal with inappropriate comments is to flag them.  To do so, click "link" next to the comment timestamp and then "flag".  The threshold for flagging is low (only 30 karma), so nearly everyone can help there.

To prevent abuse, moderators review flagged stories and comments and revoke flagging privileges from users who flag inappropriately.

We changed two things about flagging recently. First, we lowered the threshold for flags to kill inappropriate comments. We're watching the data closely in order to unkill comments that have been flagged unfairly, but there are few such cases.  Most of the time this only happens to comments none of us want on the site.

Second, we've started indicating in the UI which comments/stories have been killed by user flags.

A third experiment didn't go so well: we briefly made the software kill comments that had been sufficiently downvoted. Many users objected, arguing that killing downvoted comments is too harsh a punishment for unpopular opinions, especially since downvoted comments get faded to begin with.  We heard that and reversed the change.

In general, though, these experiments in community moderation seem to be succeeding, and we plan to do more of them.

Welcome, Ali

I'm delighted to announce that Ali Rowghani is joining YC as a part-time partner.  He will mostly focus on helping our alumni that are a few years out of YC scale their companies, but I’m sure the current batch will enjoy getting to know him as well.

Though we've traditionally focused on helping very early-stage companies, our successful companies have asked for help on topics like scaling operations, managing hypergrowth, building out management teams, etc.

Ali is a perfect fit for helping YC companies with these scaling questions.  Ali was the CFO at Pixar, where he spent 9 years working closely with Ed Catmull and Steve Jobs.  In 2010, he joined Twitter as its first CFO, at a time when Twitter had about 100 employees, 20 million users, and virtually no revenue.  In late 2012, he became Twitter's COO and took on many additional responsibilities within the company.

Welcome, Ali!

We Make Mistakes

We’ve just finished reviewing applications for the Winter 2015 batch and have sent out invitations for interviews. In this cycle we saw a +40% increase in the number of companies applying over the Summer 2014 batch. 

Reviewing this many companies is a humbling experience and one we take very seriously. Most of us who work for YC are alums and understand the gravity and emotion that can go into submissions. We know it’s tough to separate your own identity from the company you have founded so applying can be quite personal.

If you applied, you should not take our evaluation as either a final judgment or perfect assessment of your company. This applies to both the companies that did and did not get invited to interviews. We are sure we missed some great companies as a byproduct of operating at this scale. Don’t let funding take your eye off the goal: making something people want. Everything else, including going through Y Combinator, is there to support that goal but is not the goal itself.

We also wanted to take this opportunity to thank our alumni publicly. They are the invisible hand that helps our small organization with this significant task. Often YC founders themselves will tell you that the best thing about YC is to learn from a cohort of like minds with similar ambitions. YC would not work without the 1,400+ alumni founders who take their time to help us and each other.

Finally, many companies at this stage can seem small but we noticed that they are more ambitious than ever. We love that. It refutes the meme that early stage companies today are too myopic or working on incremental improvements. It’s an easy complaint to lob at founders who are in the field toiling away but one that seems to be off the mark.

Humble Bundle (YC W11) is going truly multiplatform

The Humble Bundles offer a variety of interesting games at low prices, with the idea that selling in volume will make up for the lower per-game price.

So far they've been correct, with the bundles raising large amounts of money for both the developers involved in the bundle and a rotating selection of charities. Players are also offered a bonus if they pay over the average price, and that bonus usually includes more games or soundtracks.

The latest bundle offers something different, however. The games have been ported to a platform-agnostic Humble wrapper that will allow you to play each of the games inside your browser, no matter if you're using a Linux, Mac or Windows-based system. This is a new frontier for Humble, and they're excited about what it means for the future.


Startup School 2014 Recap and Videos

If you missed Startup School 2014, the videos are now on YouTube.

 

Notes from the 10th anniversary of Startup School: 

Ron Conway, SVAngel

Are entrepreneurs made or born? According to Ron Conway, who has invested in over 700 companies with SVAngel, good entrepreneurs are born with certain traits:

1.     Strong work ethic
2.     Ambition
3.     Aggressiveness
4.     Toughness
5.     Curiosity
6.     Intelligence

In Ron’s words, being a founder is a vocation. Your company becomes your religion, and it always ends up coming first. So before you start a startup you need to ask yourself “Am I willing to work 24/7?” “Am I willing to sacrifice?”

On cofounders: Starting a company is so hard that there are very few successful startups with solo founders. As an investor, it’s important to know how founders interact with each other. The cofounder relationship cannot be forced. Most founding teams were collaborating, came up with an idea and decided to build it together. Paul Graham summed up the conversation saying: “You don’t just want to work on interesting problems, you want to work on interesting problems with people.”

What do the best founders do? They have to be rifle-focused on the product and nothing else. “Focus on the product and business follows.”

Danae Ringelmann, Indiegogo

During her time as an investment banker on Wall Street, Danae Ringelmann found her inspiration for Indiegogo when she produced a play for famous playwright Arthur Miller and couldn’t successfully help him raise money for it from investors.

Feeling rejected by the “gatekeepers of capital,” Danae sought to democratize access to capital and founded what eventually became Indiegogo.

Danae looked back at her six years at Indiegogo and gave founders three important things to consider as you grow a company:

Know your WHY. Understand WHY you do what you do. Dig into what is driving you to solve the problem you’ve set out to solve. Indiegogo’s mission was to democratize access to capital because its founders believed the world should be more fair. Being driven by a clear WHY helps get you through tough times, guides strategy, makes hiring easier and attracts passionate users.

Be intentional with culture. Define your values at the very beginning so everyone is aligned with the company’s mission. When hiring, seek to bring together people who have a variety of backgrounds, ideas, experiences and perspectives. But they should all align on values. Just as you track other metrics (users, revenue), you should keep track of your company culture metrics. Some ways to measure this are eNPS (happiness) and OKR (productivity) scores.

Technology is a means, not an end. Define a problem and use technology to build something the world really needs.

Kevin Systrom, Instagram

If there’s one thing to know about life strategy, it’s that there is no perfect next move. From working on side projects at Stanford to working at Google and eventually founding Instagram, Kevin Systrom urged the Startup School audience to “have a bias toward action.” Keep moving, learning and making progress.

In terms of technical skill, you don’t have to be the best – you just need to know enough to be dangerous. When working on a startup, entrepreneurs learn the leadership, teamwork and engineering skills they need to run a company. You can’t expect to have the best idea or know everything going into the process.

When founding a social media company, Kevin stressed that Instagram’s #1 value was “community first.”  Instagram’s first hire was a community manager, and the users of the photo-sharing app are what made it so successful.

Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn

Despite founding the Facebook for professionals (or the “Friendster for professionals” as investors called it back in the day), Reid Hoffman advises entrepreneurs to stay away from starting a derivative business (Airbnb for Dogs, Uber for X).  Instead of seeking direct competition, do something contrarian and enter a space with little to no noise. Reid founded LinkedIn in 2003 when there wasn’t much social media.

Now an investor at Greylock Partners, Reid divulged several questions he asks startups looking to raise funds. Can it scale to hundreds of millions of people? Is this a capable team? Reid asks, “Is this how the world should be? Is the initial plan a good shot at changing how it works?”

An important lesson to entrepreneurs fundraising is to only raise as much money as you need. Founders are tempted to raise the largest Series A round, but forget they might be sacrificing quantity over quality. Even if it means taking funding from an investor who gives the lowest valuation, choose your investors for the guidance they will provide.

Jim Goetz, Sequoia Capital & Jan Koum, WhatsApp

On stage with Jim Goetz from Sequoia Capital, Jan Koum talked about the early days of WhatsApp. “I don’t think I ever decided to start a company,” said Jan. He built a product he wanted to use himself and realized other people wanted it too and were willing to pay for it.

For a long time, the WhatsApp team stayed under the radar intentionally so they could focus on product. They ignored press and countless emails from top tier Sand Hill Road investors before accepting Sequoia’s term sheet.

In fact, WhatsApp was not pressured to fundraise at all. “We were able to choose our partners because we had revenue.” WhatsApp charged users $0.99/month, and was self-funded.

An “unconventional background”: If you think you have an “unconventional background” for a startup founder, you’re probably wrong.  After dropping out of San Jose State University to work at Yahoo in 1998, Jan probably didn’t fit the bill of the typical Silicon Valley entrepreneur. By spending over 9 years as an engineer at Yahoo in its growth stages, Jan developed the chops to build WhatsApp.

Eric Migicovsky, Pebble

Even if all you have are some parts to put together a makeshift prototype, it’s worth taking that first step towards making your vision a reality. The first version of the Pebble smartwatch was a cell phone screen and Arduino.

With a team of engineers and industrial designers, a 3D printed watch with working electronics became a branded smartwatch called the inPulse.  

With a working prototype and limited access to funding as college students at the University of Waterloo, Eric and his team participated in numerous pitch competitions. When you don’t have VC money to fund your project, be scrappy and creative. When Pebble couldn’t get VC funding after their YC demo day, they turned to Kickstarter and became one of the largest funded projects on the crowdfunding platform ever. In 30 days, Pebble got over $10 million and 70,000 customers through Kickstarter.

Andrew Mason, Detour and Groupon

In his first public interview post-Groupon, Andrew Mason talked about his path from The Point to Groupon to Detour. Groupon started as a side project at Andrew’s first company The Point, but almost immediately after launching, Groupon started growing exponentially and the team decided it was time to shift their focus to the group buying “coupon” site. Groupon became the fastest growing company in history.

While Groupon was the first mover in group deals, it was an easily replicable business. Rapid feedback loops were essential to the growing the business – the team was pushing out new versions as quickly as possible. To enter new markets, Groupon was receptive to making acquisitions.

On both acquiring and getting acquired, Andrew had a lot of lessons to share. When acquiring companies, it is essential that the acquihires have the same values as the CEO. In the face of rapid growth, it is unsurprising that tech giants approached Groupon to acquire them. But if you think your company will keep growing exponentially, keep growing and don’t sell.

On exiting to the public markets, Andrew thinks that going public is awful and Groupon would have been better off if it hadn’t done so. A lot of time is wasted on financial reporting and the incentive to think short term is incredibly strong. Releasing performance on your company every quarter wastes time and forces your company to think in the short term.

Michelle Zatlyn & Matthew Prince, CloudFlare

The founders of CloudFlare had insights on finding cofounders and hiring. Instead of thinking about who should be your CEO, COO and CTO, think of it like you’re hiring the best salesperson, organizational manager and top-notch engineer. "If you’re cofounders and you’re fighting about who does what, you’re probably in the wrong founding team,” said Matthew Prince. “We asked, ‘Do we cover a lot of surface area? Do we have complementary skill sets? Do we trust each other,” said Michelle Zatlyn.

In terms of what to look for in your employees, hire people with great adjacent experiences over someone who has done exactly what the role is set up for.  If someone has deep experience in the role they are looking for, they may not be as open minded to thinking creatively and may forget to check their assumptions.

Hosain Rahman, Jawbone

Even in a terrible market, don’t give up. Since it’s founding, Jawbone has had a number of near death experiences that could have closed its doors for good. After the market crash in 2001, funding was extremely limited and building a hardware company was capital intensive. Founder Hosain Rahman kept the lights on with DARPA funding in Jawbone’s early days.

The first Jawbone headset was built in 2003, and thanks to brutal feedback from a panel of design experts (including Steve Jobs), Hosain and the team realized they could no longer compromise the product to meet an aggressive product release timetable. They focused on the product’s problem areas and went from $0-70M revenue in one year. “When you focus ruthlessly...you can transform your business overnight,” urged Hosain.

A critical time for Jawbone was the transition to the Internet of Things, on top of being an electronics company. Jawbone’s team had translated what they learned in headsets and sensors to health, creating what would become the top selling Jawbone Up.

Emmett Shear, Twitch

You can’t learn how to be an entrepreneur until you try it, and don’t give up. Before Justin.tv and Twitch, Emmett Shear and Justin Kan built six different startup ideas in one and a half years. "ADD prevents you from succeeding, but we learned a lot about coding,” said Emmett. Though none of those initial ideas took off, the team gained programming and prototyping skills and learned what it would take to eventually run and scale Twitch.

Emmett highlighted the skills founders themselves should have:

Know the product and engineering behind it. Have the technical skills to understand how your product is built and know how to communicate effectively with your engineering team.

Know how to scale. The first step is building a great product, but the next step is to keep growing your user base. A great product is nothing without its customers.

Know how to hire and manage. Once you find the right employees for your company who are talented and committed, it’s important to know how to motivate them and cultivate company culture.

And last but not least, know how to talk to your customers. One of Twitch’s greatest strengths was figuring out customer needs and cycling through feedback to constantly improve the product.

- Kat Mañalac and Natalie Luu 

Elsewhere: 

SoundFocus (YC S13) launches iPhone Amp for amazing speakerphone calls with better mic, speakers and software

Is there a more loved, yet deeply hated part of the iPhone than the speaker? On one hand, it lets you take your calls without holding the phone up to your face. You can also use it while watching videos or listening to music without headphones, and — of course — hear calls coming in from afar. On the other hand, it’s pretty terrible for listening to music, if you’ve ever tried to use it for music at a barbecue or, god forbid, on public transit.

Inventors Alex Selig and Varun Srinivasan have come up with a specialty iPhone case that they believe solves both these problems. It’s called the Amp and it’s one part speaker, and one part microphone. It listens to ambient noise and adjusts what you’re playing to compensate. It’s not really noise cancellation; think of it more like adaptive EQ.

Selig and Srinivasan, who met while working at Microsoft, call the feature dynamic noise reduction. It analyzes music and noise, and tunes elements of the music accordingly. It’s constantly listening to what’s around you using the microphone array built into the Amp case, and it compensates for what it hears during the last 10 seconds, making changes within 5 seconds of noticing a difference in ambient noise. How does this work in real life? Say you’re walking along the city street and bunch of cars and buses start driving by. The sound will get adjusted in a way that’s not louder, just more discernible, Srinivasan says.

Read the full article at The Verge

Making Event Data The Language Of Business Intelligence, Interana (YC W13) Emerges From Stealth

Interana, the stealthy startup founded by a who’s-who of programmers behind the new architecture of today’s brightest tech businesses, is taking the covers off its technology to turn event data into the lingua franca of business intelligence.

Founded by the dynamic husband and wife duo of Ann Johnson, a former Intel executive, and Bobby Johnson, who literally was the man behind Facebook’s adoption of Hadoop, development of Hive and the author of Scribe and Haystack; and Lior Abraham, who invented Facebook’s SCUBA interface for its staff; Interana is the enterprise company that was down from day one.

Hacker News API

Today we’re excited to launch an official Hacker News API. We’ve partnered up with Firebase (YC S11) so that the data we’re making available will be near real time, which should be a huge improvement for developers who had to rely on scraping the site for this info.

The API is available at https://hacker-news.firebaseio.com/ with some initial documentation and a few examples written by our own Nick Sivo on the Hacker News Github account. Currently, it’s read only, but we hope to improve it over time and may later enable access to private per-user data using OAuth.

Most importantly, the reason we released an API is so that we can start modernizing the markup on Hacker News. Because there are a lot of apps and projects out there that rely on scraping the site to access the data inside it, we decided it would be best to release a proper API and give everyone time to convert their code before we launch any new HTML. 

Our goal is to switch to a new rendering engine (still powered by Arc) in three weeks (Oct 28). This new markup will allow us to iterate faster on the frontend and finally make Hacker News mobile optimized.

This is one of the reasons why we chose to partner with Firebase. In addition to giving developers near real-time access to our data, we got out of the box well designed, easy to use SDKs for iOS, Android and the Web, in addition to a REST API for developers building server apps. It should hopefully make switching your apps fairly painless.

Many thanks to the YC Software Team for making this happen (specifically kogir, dang and sctb). If you have any questions or feedback about the API, you can send them over to api@ycombinator.com.

BuildZoom (YC W13) raises $2.15M from Formation 8, others for its home improvement contractor platform

As if big data and data science haven’t been reshaping every service and product we use already, it’s about to make shopping for a home improvement contractor hopefully that much better.

BuildZoom, a Y Combinator-backed startup that announced today it has raised $2.15 million, uses big data to find you the most suitable home improvement professionals based on their permits and history of projects.

Read the full article at VentureBeat

Learn about Startups with YC at Carnegie Mellon University (Thur, Oct 9)

How do you come up with an idea?
How do you raise money from investors?
What’s it really like to start a startup?

Join us at Carnegie Mellon University (Doherty Hall 2315) on Thursday, October 9 from 5:30pm-7:30pm for a short talk and Q&A with:

Qasar Younis
Partner, Y Combinator
YC Winter 2011 Alum

Rick Morrison
Founder, Comprehend
YC Winter 2011 and CMU Alum

Qasar and Rick will be doing one-on-one office hours before the talk. You can sign up for office hours here.

Food & drink will be provided. We're looking forward to meeting you!