Founder Stories: Michelle Crosby, Wevorce (YC W13)

Ending a marriage has always been messy and complicated, but according to Wevorce, it doesn’t have to be. Founder Michelle Crosby, a family lawyer by trade, left her job at a large firm and started working in alternative dispute resolution. As a child of divorce, Michelle had seen firsthand how destructive the proceedings could be, and sought to change the system.

Michelle architected a six-step process that combined ”neuroscience, behavioral science, pattern recognition, tools and technology to predictively and proactively manage the emotional, financial and legal issues inherent in ending a marriage.” [1] She wanted to establish an affordable system that focused on the well-being of the kids and kept families out of court. 

Michelle realized she was on to something exciting when she mapped out her vision on the back of a napkin, and Jeff Reynolds (now her co-founder) exclaimed, "This is going to change the world." The two began building Wevorce, and applied to Y Combinator a year later.

We sat down with Michelle to talk about making a dent in the universe, managing intangibles, and advice for the next batch of YC applicants.

YC: How did you decide to apply to YC? 

Michelle: A year after we started working on Wevorce, Jeff and I sat down for breakfast. We had just finished reading a biography of Steve Jobs and were talking about how we wanted to grow a really big company. Jeff had said, “I want to make a dent in the universe.”

My brother was an early YC grad. He and his cofounder started Zenter back in 2007, which was acquired by Google right after Demo Day. He had a YC success story, but because I had a background as a lawyer, I always thought his world was very different from mine. When I decided to apply to YC, I didn’t think there was a chance in hell we’d get in. But my brother said we had to try.

YC: What was the most surprising part of the program?

Michelle: You become somewhat fearless. Building something new is nerve racking, but Y Combinator gives you the audacity to fail fast. They completely reframe failure. Failure isn’t failure, it’s an opportunity to learn. When you start thinking about it that way, you start moving faster.

YC: What was the most useful piece of advice you heard from a Tuesday night dinner speaker?

Michelle: The line that sticks with me is from Brian Chesky of Airbnb. The week he spoke, he was on the cover of Forbes and they’d just pulled a billion dollar valuation. He talked about the discrepancy between how people see you as you gain traction, versus how you view the experience as a founder. He said, "Everyone sees us as this overnight success, but really it’s 1000 nights of misery."

That’s helped me so many times. You have days where you think you’re going to be the next Google and the next day you think it’s coming off the wheels. Tuesday dinners were our medicine for getting through the week. After interacting with the other founders, we came out feeling motivated, normalized. We realized we weren’t going crazy—it’s all just part of the process.

YC: What's been the hardest part of running a startup so far?

Michelle: Managing intangibles. As a founder you get great at measuring tangible things, like metrics. It's harder to measure intangibles like: What’s the morale of the team when you’re driving them hard? Is everyone clear on the benchmarks? When you’re in YC, you get 3 months of undivided focus and it’s awesome. Then you’re off, and you still have to build a company and life happens.

I believe the ability to move through those intangibles is what makes great companies. It’s not robotic. The real art of running a company comes down to managing those intangibles for yourself and for your team.

YC: What do you wish you'd known when you first started?

Michelle: I had no idea how much my perspective would change—in a good way. In YC, you walk through this process of getting things done and building a company, and when you come out of it, the world looks different. Everything feels a little more like “Why not try?” You have more optimism, you learn to fail fast, you learn to reframe failure. There’s nothing you can’t try.

YC: What advice would you give to founders applying to the next batch?

Michelle: Swing for the fences. It’s an amazing opportunity, and you have to give it all you’ve got. You will be surrounded by people who are smarter than you—take advantage of that—and you have this opportunity to learn at a rate that most people can’t even fathom. Have the audacity to try and the humility to learn, and enjoy it. Don’t take yourself too seriously. It’s a daily dance between self confidence and humility, and between those two you end up becoming a leader—a leader of a vision, and a leader of a company.


[1] A line from Wevorce’s original application. More excerpts from Wevorce’s application below.

Excerpts from Wevorce’s application:

What do you understand about your business that other companies in it just don't get?
The democratization of information means the horrors of the adversarial system (“Divorce Machine”) are now common knowledge—and couples are hungry for an alternative. But they don’t just want a different method, they want a different ethos. This means you can’t put lipstick on the pig. You must replace the pig with a lamb. Or even better, an iPad. The Family Blueprint is built on the the predictable patterns of divorcing families so we can replicate it by combining technology with humanity which is far outside of the existing adversarial divorce system.

How far along are you? Do you have a beta yet? If not, when will you? Are you launched? If so, how many users do you have? Do you have revenue? If so, how much? If you're launched, what is your monthly growth rate (in users or revenue or both)?
We’ve been in beta for a year, growing revenue 500% over that period. We have run over 100 families through the Family Blueprint. We’ll book approximately $130k in revenue in 2012. Our focus over the last year was proving that the system was replicable. We have removed founders from day-to-day operations and are operating at break even with negligible investment in customer acquisition.

If you had any other ideas you considered applying with, please list them. One may be something we've been waiting for. Often when we fund people it's to do something they list here and not in the main application.
Mint for divorced families—help them manage schedules, holiday kid swaps, finances, etc.

Please tell us something surprising or amusing that one of you has discovered. (The answer need not be related to your project.)
That by starting Family Architects we are working on our own version of world peace. We believe that peace starts within the walls of our homes and have created a way to keep peace in families during the second most stressful event of their lives.  

People and Pine Cones: URX’s (YC S13) Y Combinator Story

John Milinovich, cofounder of URX, posted a story about their YC experience on his blog. 

"On my first day as, “John Milinovich, Startup CEO” I was shell-shocked. I stared at an empty GMail inbox, unsure of where to start. The novelty quickly faded to the reality of the situation: I needed help. In the early days of a startup, you are battling inertia: how do you force something into existence that doesn’t exist yet?

I reached out to all of the mentors, friends and peers whose opinions I trusted to better understand how to get started. I was humbled by people’s response—people were so excited that I was going after my dreams and were willing to do whatever they could to help out. This led to several introductions, including to potential customers, investors and advisors.

At first, I was scared to share our idea with people. What if they didn’t like our product? What if they thought it wasn’t useful? What if they actually wanted to use it? I didn’t feel we were ready yet, but decided to put ourselves out there anyways.

This process taught me the most valuable lesson I learned early on: no matter what you’re building or “how early” you are in your development, it is never too early to start talking to potential customers. Customers (or users, in B2C companies) are the lifeblood of startups, and step 0 is to understand their problems and feel their pain. The more customers you speak with, the more perspective you gain—if you hear the same things multiple times, it’s probably something you should take into account.

In mid-April, I had the chance to meet Dave Fowler, the CEO of Chartio. Chartio was one of our neighbors in South Park, and had gone through YC a few years prior. It was a beautiful day outside, so we decide to walk around the Park. We ran into Max Mullen, one of the founders of Instacart (also YC) and we hit it off right away. I shared a bit about what we were working on at URX, and within 5 minutes Max said, “Yep, that sounds awesome – we would totally use this, sign us up.” Serendipity had played its hand again, and we had just landed our first customer. Our product wasn’t fully built yet, but Max was committed to working with us to fully help us understand Instacart’s needs.

By this point, we had been invited to interview for the Summer 2013 class of Y Combinator and decided to, “make our own luck” and talk to as many YC founders as possible to get a grasp on the interview process. Bruno introduced us to Sumon Sadhu, who founded Snaptalent out of YC’s S’08 class. Sumon is, single handedly, the most talented strategist and persuasive communicator that I’d ever met. He taught us how the Y Combinator interview process works and hammered it into our heads that, no matter what, we need to clearly articulate our 5 Main Points in our interview. We boiled down the entirety of “Why we should be in YC” to five bullet points and committed them to memory.

A few days later we interviewed with Geoff Ralston, Sam Altman, and Garry Tan and it was the most intense 10 minutes of our lives. The interviews are as difficult as they are made out to be, but we crushed it. We got our points across and walked out confident that we had made a good impression. (In retrospect, I’m proud that all of the YC partners we interviewed with ended up becoming investors in URX, along with Sumon)."

Read more on John Milinovich's blog

URX (YC S13) raises $3.1M seed round from First Round, Google Ventures, SV Angel, Crunchfund, Greylock

Mobile deeplinks open specific pages within apps, and they’re about to transform ecommerce.URX is a new deeplink mobile advertising startup that’s raised $3.1 million from A-list investors to help ecommerce companies get existing users back in their apps and spending money. URX places ads on other mobile properties that deeplink to purchase pages in apps like Hotel Tonight and LivingSocial.


Investors in Y Combinator Summer 2012 startup URX’s $3.1 million seed round include First Round Capital, Maverick Capital, Google Ventures, SV Angel, Betaworks, Crunchfund (Disclosure: run by TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington), Greylock, CyberAgent, Fuel Capital, Garry Tan, Alexis Ohanian, Charlie Cheever, Sam Altman, Paul Bucheit, Geoff Ralston, Gus Fuldner, Plug & Play Ventures, Paul Sethi, Bill Peckovich, Joe Montana, Mehul Nariyawal, Dalton Caldwell, Virginia Turner, Andre Ranadive, Linda MacKenzie, Jamie Lee Curtis, Christopher Guest, Sumon Sadhu, Bruno Bowden, Chris Look, Nicholas Smith, and the Erickson Family.

Read the full article in TechCrunch

Science Exchange (YC S11) gets $1.3M grant to validate 50 major cancer studies

Congrats to the Science Exchange team:  

"Over a year ago, I began my mission to improve scientific reproducibility. I created the Reproducibility Initiative with PLOSfigshare, and Mendeley to provide a mechanism for scientists to independently replicate findings and be rewarded for doing so. We have made great strides in our effort, such as the validation of more than 1000 antibodies for antibodies-online. However, today is the day that I have made progress very near and dear to my heart. The Reproducibility Initiative has received a $1.3 million grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to validate 50 landmark cancer biology studies.

As some of you may know, in my life before Science Exchange I researched breast cancer. There were several times during the course of my research where a study I relied on failed to be reproduced.

I believe the lack of reproducibility in cancer studies is a major obstacle in the development of viable therapies to cure cancer. The funding will be instrumental in not only verifying landmark cancer studies, but also helping to institutionalize scientific replication." 

- Elizabeth Iorns, Cofounder & CEO of Science Exchange

Read more on Science Exchange's blog

RentHop (YC S09) launches a new app that connects landlords and renters

RentHop, a rentals listing site covering New York City, Boston and Chicago, has launched a free iPhone and iPad mobile app for property managers that allows them to “check in” to properties to advertise their geotargeted availability to consumers.

The professional-focused app pairs with a new Google Maps feature on RentHop’s website, “Appointment On-Demand,” that shows consumers in real time where and how long ago property managers have checked in to a property using the app.

The new app, which also allows rental pros to update their listings on the fly, was a way to bring the on-demand world to the rentals space, said Lee Lin, RentHop’s CEO.

Consumers can see where and when property managers checked in to a property and know their availability without having to call or email, which was the whole point, Lin said.

Read more on Inman News

Zenefits (YC W13) launches its HR and benefits automation services for businesses in all 50 states

Back at TechCrunch Disrupt NY in April, a company called Zenefits debuted a service that aimed to automate away many of the most annoying bits involved with running a startup or small business. Hire someone? Give Zenefits the basic details, and they’ll get them insured, on payroll, etc. Fire someone? Click a button to pull them off payroll and send out the COBRA details. Life event changes? They handle it. And they do it all for free.

If your company doesn’t have group health coverage, Zenefits can fetch all the quotes you need and help you pick a plan. If your company does already have health covergae, Zenefits still works — they’ll just take over as your insurance broker.

At the time, Zenefits only operated in two states: California, and New York. Today, they’re rolling out to all 50.

There’s one catch, though: for now, they’re only rolling out to the other 48 states for companies with 20+ employees. Come January 1st of 2014, however, they’ll be in all 50 states for all companies with at least two employees.

Why draw that line? Zenefits CEO Parker Conrad tells me it all comes down to changes in the health insurance system put into play by the Affordable Care Act. Many of those changes don’t go into effect until January 1st, 2014 — but once they do, it’ll be considerably easier for them to pull insurance data and quotes for smaller teams.

Read the full article in TechCrunch

Double Robotics (YC S12) reviewed by Mashable: "Most fun and effective telepresence robot I've ever seen."

Mashable just gave rave reviews to the Double Robotics telepresence robot:

While $2,499 (plus the cost of an iPad) isn't cheap, this is by far the most fun and effective telepresence robot I've ever seen — plus, it's the easiest to use. Even with the current iPad power issue, it's a great solution for widely dispersed companies.

Boris Jabes of Meldium (YC W13) in Geekwire: How to quit Microsoft and start your startup

Boris Jabes, cofounder of YC startup Meldium writes:

There’s always been a steady stream of talent leaving Microsoft, but after recent events, we’re certain to see more of an exodus. Picture this. You’re a young and ambitious Microsoft employee who joined out of college a few years ago. Some of your friends from school run startups, and every once in a while you see Facebook posts about them getting funded, getting their hundred-thousandth user, or maybe even exiting. Many of your other friends work at small companies where they enjoy huge scope and very little politics. They get to take advantage of the latest technology stacks and give back to open-source along the way. You read articles about quitting your job and starting your own company. You begin to wonder if the race to climb from level 59 to 65 is really the one worth winning.

Luckily, it’s never too late to get out and find a more fulfilling role, especially in today’s startup-rich landscape. Here are a few tips I’ve gleaned from my own experience and that of my friends on how to leave Microsoft and join the startup scene.

The first think to do is to ask yourself what you really want. Starting a company may seem like the glamorous path but it’s a huge leap. If you are passionate about solving a big problem, have found an amazing cofounder and are willing to live without a safety net then please don’t wait for anyone’s permission. Just go for it. If that’s not quite the case then joining a startup (ideally early-stage & fast-growing) will undoubtedly give you the crucial experience necessary to build your own business someday.

Read all the tips at Geekwire

Founder Stories: Walker Williams of Teespring (YC W13)

Teespring, a crowdfunding site for custom apparel, has created a new way for people to express themselvespromote causes and even celebrate their favorite 90s TV principal. When they applied to YC, Teespring had already built a significant amount of traction organically — in fact, they were profitable. Since going through the Winter 2013 batch, they’ve celebrated a few big milestones, and are currently shipping well over 100,000 orders a month. We sat down with cofounder Walker Williams and asked what inspired them to apply to YC, how the process helped shape Teespring along the way, and what advice he’d give to new applicants.

A quick origin story
Teespring was born when two friends at Brown University decided to design and sell a t-shirt to commemorate the closing of a beloved Providence bar. After realizing the tee selling process involved thousands of dollars in upfront costs, and a number of logistical nightmares, they figured they could build a better solution.

In under 12 hours, they hacked together a site that sold hundreds of shirts and grabbed the attention of student groups and nonprofits all over campus. Soon, requests poured in for Williams and Stites-Clayton to replicate their model for other groups. Thus the idea for Teespring, a crowdfunding site for apparel, was born.


YC: Tell us how you decided to apply to YC.

Walker: I got really interested in YC about six months into running Teespring. We were doing well, but we knew we hadn’t figured out some important pieces of the business. We didn’t feel like we had the mentorship structure to take us to the next level in Providence. It was a choice between staying where we were and grinding away, or joining the YC community where we could be a part of a network of thousands of entrepreneurs and mentors who we could learn from. Actually being able to hear from and talk to founders who’ve built billion dollar companies, who went through the same struggles you're dealing with today, that's invaluable.

YC: What about the YC program has surprised you most?

Walker: The community. I went through an incubator in college -- one local to the Brown area. It was fun and I learned a lot, but as soon as the program was over the founders all went their own ways. There was no ongoing communication.

We still talk to so many people in the YC community. We get invites to events, we meet with a lot of the mentors, especially PG and Sam. There’s something more lasting about the way YC sets things up, the way they build community.

YC: What is the most useful piece of advice you heard from a Tuesday night dinner speaker?

Walker: The most useful piece of advice I got was from John Collison, the cofounder of Stripe. He stressed the importance of doing things that don’t scale -- of doing things you’re able to do now that big competitors can’t keep up with. I was building from the standpoint of efficiency and scalability. But I took this advice to heart, and it’s been one of the biggest competitive advantages we’ve had.

YC: What’s one thing you’ve done that doesn’t scale?

Walker: We have close relationships with most of the sellers on our platform. We'll teach them what we know about how to sell, what converts. I still get late night calls from some of our sellers looking for help or advice. We listen, gather feedback, and adapt quickly to their needs. It's that constant communication which allows us to build the platform the users need, rather than what we think they need.

YC: What's been the hardest part of doing a startup so far?

Walker: Even though it seemed like we were growing from the start, there were months and months where we’d ask “Do people really need this? Am I doing something wrong?” There were points when we were almost out of money, or when business was stagnant. It’s hard being able to recognize when to persevere and when to give up.  But we made a decision to keep going. Once we joined YC we realized that every startup has these growing pains. They all go through the “Trough of Despair.”

YC: What do you wish you'd known when you first started?

Walker: Suck it up and get on the phone. I’m the worst sales guy in the world, but I had to get out there and sell. When you’re a builder and you love to build things, it’s easy to bury your head in that comfort zone. You say, “I’ll just program my way out of the fact that no one’s using the product. I’ll just add new features.” I was stuck in that zone for months.  But if you’re not out there making a pitch for why people should use your product, they won’t come.

YC: What advice would you give to founders applying for the next batch?

Walker:  Be straightforward. Don’t try to put a marketing spin on your presentation. Just be very very honest. Be brutally honest about where you are, what your numbers are, what your challenges are, who loves it today, and who is going to love it tomorrow.

Read more about Teespring:
Origin Story: “Our Path to $1 Million in Sales”