Videos from YC's first Female Founders Conference are now up on our YouTube page.
Customer reviews are the backbone of sites like Amazon (where they have turned into a platform for some of the most inspired comedic writing on the Internet), but it can be difficult for smaller retailers to convince shoppers to leave feedback. Orankl, a Y Combinator-backed startup, wants to give all e-commerce businesses the same tools as their larger rivals.
The company’s first product is a review system that can be installed with one click on supported platforms like Shopify or by copying-and-pasting a few lines of code. Feedback forms automatically match the style of each site and the system generates emails that remind customers to leave a review. The startup says some of the sites that have already installed its review system have increased sales by 15% to 20%.
Would you like to intern at a YC company this summer? We're helping place paid interns at YC-backed companies like Dropbox, Stripe, Optimizely and others.
"AirPair, a startup that offers live, online consultation with programming experts, is announcing today that it has partnered with more than a dozen companies. Those partnerships are supposed to connect people having difficulty using a certain API with others who can help...
Co-founder Jonathon Kresner told me that one of the main ways customers use AirPair is to get help integrating an API like Stripe’s. He argued that this is part of a larger trend that he described as “the API-ification of the web.” By making more services and integrations available via APIs, companies are “empowering people” by “lowering the bar for them to build useful things,” Kresner said, but this also creates its own technical challenges.So AirPair has formalized its efforts in this area by partnering with the companies that built the APIs in question. Those companies can now identify experts in their larger developer communities, and if those experts are willing, AirPair can then connect them with users who need help with a specific API, and who are willing to pay for the experts’ time. AirPair’s initial partners include Algolia, TwoTap, TrueVault, Unbabel, Balanced, Evernote, Searchmetrics, Stripe, Keen IO, Twilio, Sendwithus, TokBox, Framed Data, SendGrid, Human API, Vero, the Echo Nest, and AdRoll."
Joshua Reeves wants to change the way you think about payroll. Joshua and his co-founders Edward Kim and Tomer London banded together in October 2011 and started ZenPayroll (YC W12), a modern payroll solution designed to disrupt the behemoths in the space.
What made the ZenPayroll team want to tackle this unsexy problem? I talked to Josh about what drove him to build ZenPayroll, what it means to build a values-driven business, and his advice for B2B companies.
Kat: What inspired you to start ZenPayroll?
Joshua Reeves: My co-founders and I had each run previous companies. We’d used other payroll systems and remembered feeling frustrated with the existing options.
Second, all of us have family members that run payroll. We thought this was a huge coincidence until we realized how many small businesses there are in the world. The manual nature of how small businesses are run affects lots of people. Almost half of the 6 million small businesses in the US with employees still do payroll manually, using paper and spreadsheets, and 1 in 3 small businesses get fined every year for incorrectly doing their payroll taxes. We knew it didn’t have to be this way.
We were also drawn together by a common desire to tackle a core foundational problem. We had sold previous businesses, and wanted to solve a problem that was so big, we could see ourselves spending the next 50 years working on it.
KM: You’ve written a lot about ZenPayroll’s culture on your blog. How have you scaled your culture as you’ve grown?
JR: Values are a key ingredient of ZenPayroll’s foundation. We wrote them down early in our history, and we try to make them a daily part of our lives.
The key to scaling:
1) Hire people who embody the company values. We look for people who want to be part of a team that has a lot of autonomy and personal accountability. Ownership mentality is one of our core values and it means that people on the team think like owners (they all have equity), not like employees.
2) We make sure that each of us (not just the founders) leads by example. Once you have a set of values, they can easily fall by the wayside. They’re only real when they drive your decision making, and come up in conversation daily.
KM: What are some of the main challenges you’ve faced as a B2B startup?
JR: One of the main challenges of startups in general is focus. You're going to have 10 million things to do. Early on, what you spend time on and how you prioritize is incredibly important.
One of the questions I like to ask the team a lot is not “What's important?” but instead, “What have you de-prioritized recently?” and “What have you decided to cancel or stop doing?” If you can't answer that quickly or succinctly, it means you're trying to do everything.
My advice to other entrepreneurs it to make sure you create a structure or an approach that forces you to revisit this question on a recurring basis. Never ever feel like you're “done” prioritizing. It’s an ongoing process, and done well, it can become a core competency of the company.
KM: Are there challenges you’ve overcome that are particular to B2B startups?
JR: 1) Hiring: There's a perception that it's hard for B2B companies to hire because people won’t be as interested in the type of problems being solved. We found that it's important to embrace what makes us unique. There's a type of person that's drawn to what we're doing. For example, we put up a job posting that said: "Do you like non-sexy problems?” The fact that we’re tackling something foundational, which can really change how businesses are run, resonates with many people.
2) Dealing with incumbents: Unless you're in an entirely new market, you're going to have 800-pound gorillas in your space. The key is understanding what makes you different, how you fit into the landscape, and leveraging what makes you different as an advantage.
In our case, I know very clearly how ADP and Paychex build their products and how they acquire customers. We're not using their playbook because they have tens of thousands of salespeople and a lot more money than we do. We have to approach things from a different angle. My advice is to understand a demographic or market that has never been served before, and focus on them. Or understand what makes your product different and how you can sell it differently as a result.
Square's a good example of this. Today, they have giant customers like Starbucks, and they’ve displaced many traditional POS systems. But that's not how they started. They started by going after micro-merchants who had never accepted credit cards before, and that was their entire focus.
3) Scaling user acquisition: The core puzzle of a B2B company is getting users, especially if you're trying to displace an incumbent. We look at what other folks are doing. Companies like Expensify and Bill.com, who are serving the back-office, but focused on different products than us. We’ve learned from them and applied a methodical approach to user acquisition. We come up with a thesis, see if it’s validated through experimentation, and expand once something starts working. We spent 2012 building out a product foundation. In 2013 our goal was to experiment, learn very quickly, and hire folks who could be owners of programs. In 2014, we’re accelerating our programs and really stepping on the gas pedal.
KM: What's the best way to make the most of YC as a B2B company?
JR: Early customers: YC is a great community to get your early customers from. Being a part of YC gives you this set of businesses that can use your product and give you feedback right away. Our first 7 customers were from the YC community. The key of course is quickly expanding beyond that audience. In our case, we’re 100% focused on mainstream business owners and we now have a wide variety of customers, including flower shops, bakeries, dentist offices, churches, and more, but having YC companies as our first customers was a great starting point for us.
Tap into the collective knowledge of YC: With B2B there are a lot of best practices -- whether it's how you scale a sales organization, how you build out a growth model, or how you set pricing. You don't have to reinvent the wheel. You can leverage the knowledge of others around you. Entrepreneurship is not a zero sum game and tapping into the entrepreneurial ecosystem is a key part of what makes the startup community so special.
"Uh oh! Your flight was overbooked. You’ve been bumped off the flight, and they can’t get you another ride for hours.
Surely, the airline has to give you something, right? But what? A drink voucher? A few extra inches of leg room on a future flight?
Try a couple hundred bucks. AirHelp (part of Y Combinator’s Winter 2014 class) exists to help you figure out when the airlines legally owe you money — and they don’t get paid unless you do."
"Can surveys of students, teachers, parents, and principals produce better schools?
That’s the premise at Cambridge-based Panorama Education, which launched last year and already helps about 5,000 schools field surveys and analyze the results. The startup pulled in $4 million in funding last fall — some of it from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and actor Ashton Kutcher — and is now up to eight full-time employees.
Panorama also just started its first pilot project with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that will survey 17,000 students and teachers between now and the end of this school year. The department’s eventual goal is a statewide roll-out of the new survey in 2014-2015, which would be a much bigger win for Panorama."
On Saturday, Y Combinator hosted its first Female Founders Conference. We’d originally planned to host the event at our office, which could fit about 150 attendees. 1,200 impressive applications later, we decided to move the event to the Computer History Museum where we could accommodate three times the people. The number of highly qualified women who applied to FFC, combined with the fact that YC has the highest number of female founders it’s ever had in the current winter batch, leads us to believe there’s a very promising trend occurring here. As Jessica, YC cofounder and partner, mentioned in her opening remarks, “In any big change, there’s a moment that feels to people like the tipping point. I wouldn’t be surprised if we'll look back in 5 years and feel like 2014 was the tipping point for female founders.”
Jessica Livingston, Cofounder, Y Combinator
Determination is the most important quality in a founder
You must withstand a lot of rejection
You need empathy. Talk to your users and really care about their experience.
Make something people want
Live cheaply/extend runway
Focus. Focus. Focus.
Jessica followed her general advice with some that was more specific to women — what she’d tell her sister if she were starting a company.
It’s possible to combine kids and starting a startup — but it’s hard. “YC has funded women (and men) with children of all ages. But for your sake, if you have an option, do it before you have kids. If you already have kids, start the startup, but understand what you are going to be up against.”
It’s okay to be the quiet co-founder. Be quietly determined. You don’t have to change who you are, as long as you get stuff done. But there are unexpected side effects of being the quiet cofounder: “You will be ignored by people who can only hear loud voices.” Jessica noted that, “Quietly determined people often beat out the people who talk loudly but do nothing but talk.”
Learn to program. “That’s the best advice I could give to anyone non-technical.”
Don’t be afraid to start a company with your significant other or spouse. 34% of YC companies with female founders are companies started by significant others.
Adora Cheung, Cofounder, Homejoy
Solve a real problem. It took Adora three tries before hitting a home run with her home service startup. Before Homejoy, Adora built products she thought were interesting, but ones that weren’t getting traction because they weren’t solving real problems for its users. After her brother (and co-founder) Aaron had a tough time finding a good, affordable cleaner for his messy apartment, the two decided to solve their own problem and built Homejoy.
Stick with it. At the beginning of Homejoy, Adora built her site for most of the night, drove to SF and slept in her car to avoid rush hour, then worked all day as a house cleaner to really learn the business. Homejoy now has close to $40 million in venture capital funding, revenues in the millions, and over 100 employees.
Julia Hartz, Cofounder, Eventbrite
Establish a framework for carefully selecting your leaders. Eventbrite is famous for its culture and is consistently recognized as one of the best places to work. Julia emphasized the importance of choosing the right leaders. She uses a classic criteria: Who, What, Why and When? Who is the candidate and why would you choose them to be a leader in your company? What has the candidate done in the past that will make her successful leader? When is the right time in their career development to make them a leader?
Elli Sharef, Cofounder, HireArt
No matter what happens, keep trying. In a startup you always feel like you’re really close to failure. To succeed you need to have a deep rooted sense of confidence, both internally and externally. You have to believe both in the product and that you’re the right person to build it. Believing it doesn’t always make it happen immediately, but you have to get to the point where you can externalize that confidence and convince your stakeholders and investors that you’re the going to take over the industry and kill the competition.
Kathryn Minshew, Cofounder, The Muse
Launch an MVP as soon as possible. Kathryn Minshew, co-founder of The Muse, stressed how important it is to launch your product. “Startups are like Monopoly,” said Kathryn, “You can’t get $200 if you don’t pass GO.” Rather than meticulously working on mock-ups and waiting to launch till what you have is beautiful and perfect, it’s important to build a working product, get users, gather feedback and iterate. You’ll get the most important feedback from your users since, in Kathryn’s words “Your college roommate’s approval does not mean market fit.”
Diane Greene, Cofounder, VMware
You can never over-communicate. When you’re leading a group of people, you can tell people the same thing over and over again, and they still won’t be able to verbalize what you’ve told them. Don’t be afraid to say the same thing over and over again.
On hiring: “It’s who people are, not necessarily what their background is.” During the first bubble, hiring was incredibly hard. Diane hired a man to do yard work for her and he had such a good attitude and work ethic, she brought him on to do QA. The man ended up running all of QA for VMware.
Fundraising Panel moderated by Kirsty Nathoo, CFO and Partner, Y Combinator
Panelists: Michelle Crosby, Wevorce; Ann Johnson, Interana, Danielle Morrill, Mattermark; Jamie Wong, Vayable
At the early stage, angels are your best investors. When asked, “What do you wish you had known before starting to fundraise?” the founders agreed that they wished they’d been more open to smaller angels, and that they’d spent less time pitching the brand-name Sand Hill Road VCs. Smaller firms and angel investors give more personal advice and attention, something important for pre-seed or pre-series A startups.
How being a woman impacts fundraising: Whether it’s a VC telling you “If I knew you were going to get pregnant, I wouldn’t have invested in you,” or “You’re incredibly good looking,” women do endure treatment that a male founder would likely never experience. We’re so appreciative that the panelists opened up and shared their stories about the challenges of fundraising.
Dr. Elizabeth Iorns, Cofounder, Science Exchange
Dr. Iorns shared 9 lessons she’s learned so far from building Science Exchange. All 9 can be seen in the slide above. One of our favorites is: Be amazing at support. “Most startups can do this really effectively, and more effectively than large companies. This can be a huge competitive advantage,” said Dr. Iorns. “For us the bar was even lower than most industries since in science there isn’t a big focus on customer support or friendly user interfaces.”
Jessica Mah, Cofounder, inDinero
You don’t have to apologize for being confident but don’t take anything for granted. Closing the Female Founders Conference on a candid note, Jessica Mah gave us an entertaining account of founding the financial startup inDinero. After spending the first few years living the fast entrepreneur life in an office fully loaded with a hot tub, Jessica quickly realized she was burning cash and not focusing enough on growing users and revenue. Her idea was not working and she had to figure out how to pivot her company out of its trough.
Being an entrepreneur is challenging and it’s essential to have discipline – that means living sparingly, being selective with hiring talent, and making tough decisions like firing underperformers. She and her cofounder buckled down and turned the company around. Throughout that process, she was accused of having a “strong personality.” Jessica was taken aback but admitted, “They might call me someone with a ‘strong personality,’ but I’m just someone who has unapologetic confidence. And I’m happy to say that’s who I am.” Though she started out her journey with inDinero as “cocky and arrogant,” the experience of having the first iteration of inDinero fail taught her to take nothing for granted.
Vidpresso wants to change the way TV producers insert media into their broadcasts, with a low-cost, software-based solution that could fundamentally change their cost structure. At just $500 a month, the company is already giving producers tools to insert Tweets and Facebook messages on TV. Next up: ads.
If you’re a local TV station that wants to insert messages into your broadcasts, you usually have to buy specialized equipment to do so. And then spend upwards of tens of thousands of dollars a month to run it.
Vidpresso, on the other hand, doesn’t require any equipment on its own, and it works with the existing hardware that is already available in broadcast studios. It charges just $500 a month to give studios the ability to insert different types of media into broadcasts.
In yet another sign that IBM is serious about competing with Amazon and Google in the world of cloud computing, Big Blue has acquired Cloudant, a company offering an online database service meant for storing massive amounts of information.
Over the last 15 years, as their web empires grew, Amazon and Google designed brand new database systems capable of spreading information across thousands of computer servers, and these systems have completely changed the way other businesses store, retrieve, and analyze data. The two net giants now offer these systems to the rest of the world through various cloud services, and after publishing papers describing the way their systems operate, they’ve fueled the rise of many similar tools, known collectively as “NoSQL” databases.
Cloudant’s service was built using one of these NoSQL databases, a tool called CouchDB. The service is designed for businesses that run mobile apps and other software that, behind the scenes, involves storing and processing massive amounts of data. The company’s technology operates much like Amazon’s DynamoDB and SimpleDB services, and it provides IBM with another means of directly competing with Amazon.