What I Learned Going Through YC as a 17 Year Old

This post has been edited to include (under Additional Thoughts) friends and acquaintances who have helped me immensely on my journey.

I went through Y Combinator’s W16 batch for my company StrongIntro — we helped tech companies grow their engineering teams through employee referrals. I was 17 at the time and the youngest founder in the batch of 300+ entrepreneurs. Here's what I learned:

The people you respect are closer than you think

I devoured all of PG's essays and read founder bios in my spare time growing up. Coming from a Boston suburb, I thought it would take ages to get to Silicon Valley and meet the founders I respected, let alone work alongside them. But I was able to get a job in SF with a single cold email and zero connections. A year later I was in YC listening to the founders of Reddit and Airbnb share their stories and getting advice from PG.

This is not the case in the rest of the world, but Silicon Valley is incredibly welcoming to newcomers. If you're willing to work hard and create value it's entirely possible to work alongside the people you most respect within a short time period. I consider that magic.

No one knows the right answer

One of the first lessons YC taught us is that the partners, who were successful entrepreneurs and operators, would give us conflicting advice and that that's normal. This felt wrong to me. In school, the experts — teachers — always knew the right answer, and yet these partners who were the most successful people I'd met couldn't give me “correct” answers that would guarantee my startup’s success.

This dampened my amazement at the time but it was also empowering. It showed me that my ideas could be just as valid as someone who's incredibly successful.

You don't need experience to get started

Outside of my own experience of getting into YC at a young age, there are numerous other examples of founders succeeding wildly with little to no experience. The Airbnb founders didn't have experience in hospitality, and they only came up with the idea after brainstorming startup ideas because they wanted to start a company (ironically VCs usually say this is not a good way to start a company). More recently, my batchmate Boom has been making waves building supersonic passenger airplanes. The founder was a software engineer at Groupon before starting the company.

Experience is only loosely correlated with age

The average age of the founders in my batch was 30. Going into the program I was intimidated that everyone else had so much more working experience than me, but I quickly learned that we were all winging it as most were first time founders like myself. YC's group office hours were a time for founders to share what they were struggling with, and everyone, regardless of age struggled with the same general problems such customers not liking their product enough, not growing fast enough, and cofounder difficulties.

Silicon Valley doesn't care about your background

In the East Coast experience and status are highly valued. Bill Gates created class scheduling software in high school, and I wanted to replicate that. I approached our school admin about doing the same when I was 16 and was promptly shut down because I was too young and "entire companies are required to create scheduling software." I wasn't even given the chance to fail.

In contrast, no one cared about my age in YC. Most people didn't realize I was 17, and if they learned my age they always saw it as a positive trait instead of something that would hold me back. This stark difference in mindset makes sense when you consider how many young founders have famously succeeded in Silicon Valley (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg) which is a trend that still persists to this day (Scale, Brex, Luminar).

Failure is acceptable

My company ultimately didn't succeed (we realized we needed to build a services business more than a technology business and that's not what we set out to do), and that was entirely okay. Most YC companies fail and it's baked into their business model — YC partners were even willing to fund my next business. This surprised me because school trained me to avoid failure at all costs — a single bad grade could tarnish my GPA permanently. The consensus goal was to get the right grades and internships to build a good resume, without any gaps that could tarnish the record.

Silicon Valley's willingness to embrace failure is unintuitive but entirely logical. Startups aren't like school because there's no guaranteed playbook for starting a successful company — you need good execution but also experimentation and luck. Most applicants get rejected from YC multiple times before getting in, and most founders fail multiple times before succeeding. Travis Kalanick's first company failed. His second company had a modest exit after 6 years of grinding, and his third company was Uber. The Honey founders ran startups that didn’t go anywhere for years before they started Honey. Twitch was a struggling general-purpose streaming site before they doubled down on the gaming niche. The examples are endless. Failure is a necessary ingredient to success and Silicon Valley rightly internalizes that.

Additional thoughts

East Coast vs West Coast

There's a more generalizable point in that the East Coast is typically more conservative than the West Coast. This is observable when dealing with venture capitalists from both sides as well. East Coast VCs are much more conservative, which is ultimately bad because it results in less moonshots succeeding. There are exceptions as well of course (ie Thrive Capital is ambitious and will bet on moonshots).

Support

I've found that success in any endeavor requires support from a large number of people — and often times those people don't get that much for helping in the moment but they help anyways. To the extent that going through YC at a young age is considered success, here are the people who helped me along the way:

  • Samuel Prouty, my English teacher who helped me figure out how to drop out of high school without risking my education (enabling me to later study at MIT)
  • Walker Williams and Evan Stites-Clayton for giving me a chance to work at Teespring
  • Eric Koslow for teaching me how to code professionally (and for becoming my best friend!)
  • Arthur Levy for teaching me about finance
  • Jack Altman for teaching me about business and exposing me to the YC network
  • Sam Altman for taking a chance on me for YC
  • Matt Krisiloff for being a supportive partner during the YC Fellowship
  • Fouad Matin for letting me work with him on StrongIntro despite having no prior relationship!

The people on this list (including many others) have helped me in other endeavors as well. This is just the list for YC.