How Y Combinator Turned a Mistake into a Defining Moment
Today is the first day of class, and you were expecting to teach a class of 30, but instead in walk 150 eager students. You don’t have enough books and the room is too small, so unfortunately you’ll have to turn 120 students away, right? Well, if you’re Y Combinator, the startup accelerator responsible for unicorns like Airbnb, Reddit, and Dropbox, then you take in all 150 and figure out the rest.
Startup school just got a lot bigger
Y Combinator’s Startup School is a competitive 10-week program that teaches founders how to build a startup. Roughly 15,000 startups applied this year, and a simple mistake resulted in 12,000 of them receiving a false acceptance letter. When Startup School clarified the mistake on Twitter and via email, founders were rightfully upset. What a rollercoaster to experience the excitement of being accepted, followed by the painful burn of learning you were actually rejected.
Startup school is a selective program, and it would have been easy for YC to just apologize and move on. But doing so wasn’t an option.
YC is mission driven not ego driven
YC’s mission is to maximize innovation around the world and they do this by offering resources and expert mentorship to thousands of startups. For many companies the mission statement lives only on the website, but in a mission driven organization it is embedded in how everyone in the company makes decisions. As YC’s co-founder, Paul Graham, wrote last year
What drove us in starting YC was that if we helped founders in the earliest stages, there could be a lot more successful startups. That hypothesis turned out to be correct, and it has a long way to run. Focus on helping founders, and everything else will follow.
If everyone at YC is focused on helping founders and maximizing innovation around the world, there was no other choice but to accept everyone. So although their process originally only allowed for ~3k startups, the mission trumped the process. This is the beauty of powerful mission-driven cultures. There is a guiding north star when what’s happening on the ground is in flux.
In the end, you discover who a company (or a person for that matter) really is when they are confronted with a crucial decision in a defining moment. Now 15k startups across dozens of countries are in the program, collaborating and learning from each other, spreading ideas and innovating together across the world.
- Processes should be a means to achieve a goal, and should be torn up and replaced when a better way to serve that goal emerges. When processes are followed “because that’s the process”, the original goal becomes secondary and they become shackles rather than guidelines.
- Mistakes are opportunities in the making. Depending on your company culture, mistakes can either lead to blame or to problem solving.
- A company’s culture isn’t just defined by the happy hours or the La Croix in the fridge, but by the way decisions are made, and behaviors when times are tough.
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