Founder Stories: Tracy Young of PlanGrid (YC W12)

PlanGrid founders Tracy Young, Kenny Stone, Ryan Sutton-Gee and Ralph Gootee

Tracy Young is the founder and CEO of PlanGrid, an app that lets construction companies store blueprints and documents on mobile devices. Since going through the YC’s Winter 2012 batch, PlanGrid has grown from a team of 4 to 40 and now hosts over 9 million blueprints in their cloud.

We talked about what it’s like going from construction sites to a startup, losing a co-founder to cancer, and building PlanGrid with her best friends and husband.

Q: How did PlanGrid get started?

A: Ryan Sutton-Gee and I went to Sacramento State where we majored in construction management. After we graduated I went to work for a construction management firm in the Bay Area and Ryan went to Stanford to get his Masters.

We were construction engineers—with hardhats and safety boots—and we were shocked by how inefficient the construction industry was. We were specifically surprised by how bad paper blueprints are. Blueprints are constantly changing so it's difficult to physically ship paper out to every single field worker on the jobsite and ensure they’re looking at the most current information. It's also heavy, cumbersome and expensive, but the biggest problem is accidentally building off outdated drawings which happens often.

Version control of construction data is a huge problem, and there was no software to help manage it. It was so obvious that there shouldn’t be paper blueprints. You should be able to stick them in the cloud and view them on mobile devices.

Ryan and I started working on a blueprint app as a side project. We were two domain experts who didn’t have a technical cofounder, so we convinced our friend, Antoine Hersen, to join us. Antoine agreed to join on the condition that he would be PlanGrid's Chief Mad Scientist. He’d gone to Sacramento State, too, and was based in Chicago working as a high frequency trading engineer.  

I also got my boyfriend at the time, Ralph Gootee, to join us as well. He was a rendering engineer at Pixar Animations.

Q: At what point did you decide to apply to YC?

A: Antoine and Ryan had always wanted to join Y Combinator. They were obsessive about HackerNews—they even got me to read it.

Right before we applied for YC, Antoine was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. At that point Ralph and I decided to quit our jobs. We took a train to Chicago to hang out with Antoine and worked on several projects with him. PlanGrid was just one of them.

We all applied to YC in October of 2011; Antoine was already really sick at that time. I remember how happy it made him when we were accepted. He was able to come to the first YC dinner that winter. He passed away in January 2012 at his home in France.

One of the last gifts Antoine gave to us was recruiting our fifth cofounder, Kenny Stone.  Antoine had told us “Kenny is the best engineer I’ve ever worked with” and without Kenny we would not have been able to build PlanGrid to what it is today.

Q: What is the most important thing you learned from working with Antoine?  

A: Antoine was hacking till the very last minute before he passed away. He cared so much about coding.

He gave me some advice before he left. He told me, “Life is short. Take care of the ones you love. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Never do anything that makes you unhappy.”

There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think about it.

Q: What has been the most surprising part of starting a startup?

A: For some reason I thought it would get easier. We always knew that while we were at YC it would be non-stop work. But it’s 3 years later and we’re still working constantly. It feels like we’re working more now, even though we have a team of 40 people.

Q: Is there anything that surprised you about YC?

A: I had an idea that everyone would be super brilliant. What I didn’t realize was how nice everyone would be. All the partners are nice, funny, good people.

YC believes in me at times when I don’t even believe in myself. That goes way beyond being nice actually. They truly care about motivating us to do our best.

Q: What was the most useful piece of advice you’ve heard from one of your advisors?

A: Almost every Tuesday night dinner, a speaker would say: “Fire those who deserve to be fired and fire them fast.” At PlanGrid, we've taken this advice to heart, and it's always been the right decision, no matter how emotionally difficult it was.

Q: Is there one particular Tuesday night dinner speaker that stands out in your mind?

Kevin Hale. His Tuesday night dinner talk was so inspiring we asked him to come to PlanGrid to speak again. Everyone knows that Wufoo cares very much about support. They take it to extreme levels. We based our company on that principle as well.

We are really serious about support. There’s a chatbox on our website that we man 12 hours a day, 5 days a week. Our support ticket response time is just a few hours. Everyone at PlanGrid does support and talks to users, including the founders.

Q: What’s been the hardest thing about starting a startup?

A: The hardest part of starting a startup is fixing mistakes fast and adapting.

You’re going to make mistakes. But you have to learn from them and adapt quickly. My cofounders and I have made our share of mistakes, but if we were to hold onto every mistake we would have never moved forward. It's easy to wallow in mistakes and place blame instead of learning from them.

Q: Is there anything you wish you’d known when you’d first started PlanGrid?

A: I’m looking around my office and I’m kicking myself for not buying smaller desks. The secret to space efficiency is small desks.

Also—things aren’t ever that bad. We had a cofounder die. Everything else is so small in comparison.

Even if PlanGrid wasn’t doing well (and we’re doing really well right now!), at the end of the day I have my co-founders and best friends and we’d just go build something else.

Q: What advice would you give for people applying to YC W15?

A: Assuming they have some kind of beta, do whatever it takes to figure out sales by yourself. This is one of the reasons PlanGrid has been so successful.

After YC, we brought on a VP of Sales, but he couldn’t sell the product. At the end of the day, we knew the product best, we knew why it would add so much value to our users. Who better to sell the product than the founding team?

We didn’t want our company run by a salesperson. We went out, talked to users, figured out how and when they would pay us, and got to that point.

It's nice not to have to rely on fundraising to sustain the company. It’s nice to have months where we’re cash flow positive. Figure out how to get to that point with just the founding team. You can't rely on others to sell the product you built.

Startup School New York Speakers

We're getting excited for Startup School New York on June 18. There's still one day left to apply: http://startupschool.org/.

Here are the speakers who will be joining us: 

Chase Adam
Founder, Watsi

Shana Fisher
High Line Venture Partners and
Board Partner, Andreessen Horowitz

David Lee
Founder, SV Angel

Apoorva Mehta
Founder, Instacart

Kathryn Minshew
Founder, The Muse

Zach Sims
Founder, Codecademy

Fred Wilson
Partner, Union Square Ventures

ZenPayroll's (YC W12) advice for B2B companies

Above: ZenPayroll founders Edward Kim, Joshua Reeves and Tomer London (Photo credit: ZenPayroll)

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.


Vidpresso (YC W14) Offers Low-Cost Tools For Adding Tweets And Ads To Broadcast TV

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.

Y Combinator Backs Its Next Nonprofit, Coding Education Program CodeNow (YC W14)

"CodeNow is announcing that it has joined incubator Y Combinator — a move that founder and CEO Ryan Seashore said will help with the programming education nonprofit’s ambitious plans for growth.

CodeNow aims to teach programming basics to high schoolers, particularly girls, ethnic minorities, and other underrepresented groups. It launched in Washington, D.C. in 2011 before expanding to New York City and San Francisco last year." 

Read the full story on TechCrunch

42 (YC W14), An Online Platform Bringing Big Data To Brick-And-Mortar Retailers, Makes Its Debut

"Y Combinator-backed online retailer platform and former TechCrunch Disrupt participant42, is today making its official debut. The company, founded only a year ago, is working to turn raw point-of-sale data into actionable insights for brick-and-mortar businesses that can help them boost their sales.

This includes details about a store’s best customers or which products are top sellers, among other things.

The data is something that retailers have access to, but may have a hard time making sense of on their own. Or they may have limited resources to do the kind of analysis that allows them to draw the insights 42′s software-based solution can provide. Retailers might try importing their own data into Excel, which can crash and cause headaches, for example. Meanwhile, their other options for this kind of analysis have traditionally been more expensive, custom software integrations."

Read the full story on TechCrunch

Superhost (YC W14) Is A Property Management Service For Airbnb Listings

"Airbnb is officially no longer just a cute way to make some extra cash by renting out a spare room in your apartment. It’s a big business now. And like most other big businesses, it’s entered a period where managed services have emerged to support super users on the platform.

Enter Superhost, which has quietly emerged as a property management service for Airbnb hosts.

Superhost reduces the pain associated with managing your Airbnb listing — like updating your listing’s calendar and responding to guest emails, as well as setting up cleaning services for your listing in between guest stays. That’s important because the faster a host responds to a guest request, the more likely they are to stay at a certain place. And cleanliness is increasingly becoming an important part of boosting ratings of your listing." 

Read the full story on TechCrunch

Ambition (YC W14) Offers A Fantasy Football-Style Approach To Motivating Sales Teams

"Ambition says it’s taking the process of tracking and motivating sales teams beyond white boards and gongs.

The startup, which is part of the current class at incubator Y Combinator, launched its product last August, but has been “flying under the radar” in the press until now, said co-founder Travis Truett. He compared Ambition’s approach to fantasy football — he’s hoping Ambition users will be excited to log in every day and see how their team is doing.

Unlike fantasy football, however, Ambition isn’t tracking professional athletes competing against each other in imaginary matches. (At least, that’s how I remember fantasy football — it’s been a long time since someone strong-armed me into participating.) Instead, it looks at the performance of different sales teams within the company, allowing them to compete for limited “seasons”, with rewards for the winners.

Each team member is assigned an “ambition” score. The specific metrics that are used to calculate the score can be customized for each company and each position, so Truett suggested that it’s a way to compare people who are doing different positions."

Benchling (YC S12) Is Modernizing Software For Biotech Labs

"After the last two decades of consumer Internet and mobile innovation, is biotech or bioinformatics the next wave?

There are a handful of San Francisco-based startups that cross the bridge between the worlds of biotechnology and computer science.

Benchling is one of them.

Backed with about $900,000 from YCombinator, SV Angel, Founders Fund’s angel investing fund, Draper Associates and other angels, the company offers DNA editing and analysis software to biotech labs and researchers. With the entire team coming from MIT with skills in both computer science and biology, they’re competing against older, more cumbersome software solutions in the space."

An AT&T For Dentistry? Y Combinator-Backed Weave (YC W14) Launches To Bring Modern Telecom To SMBs

"Today, with access to the cloud and affordable SaaS-based solutions fast increasing, small businesses are adopting the kind of services and tools that were once reserved for their enterprise counterparts in droves. It’s happening across the board, from business apps, securitya and CRM to BI, accounting and telecommunications. Y Combinator-backed Weave is one of a growing set of companies looking to capitalize on this trend and bring modern software and services to the millions of small businesses that have traditionally been underserved by big players."

Read the full story on TechCrunch