YCombinator Female Founders Conference 2017

The best part of the YCombinator Female Founders Conference this year was how actionable the advice was. I really appreciated Aileen Lee’s no-nonsense attitude, where she outlined exactly what points women will be grilled at in venture capital meetings.

The overaching message of the conference was: There’s no perfect time to start something, just start

Here are my raw notes from the 2017 YCombinator Female Founders Conference

YCombinator – Jessica Livingston

“Jessica Livingston’s Pretty Complete List on How Not to fail” on the YCombinator blog

We want MORE Women founding Billion dollar companies – unicorns

  1.     Be lucky
  2.     Have the right motives
  3.     Hit a big need
  4.     Be willing to work on a dubious idea (YCombinator said themselves “Airbnb? Who wants to live in a strangers’ home?”)
  5.      Don’t be afraid of a big idea
  6.     Be driven and resilient – drive can be suppressed when someone has authority over you. People may read as less promising in these situations.
  7.     Focus: life’s work – many may not think at all about being acquired
  8.     Be able to evolve into a manager – don’t necessary need management experience

Focus on the unpromising idea that blossoms into a frighteningly big one

Avni Patel Thompson, Founder/CEO of Poppy

She went to YCombinator Female Founders Conference 2 years ago and said to herself in two years, she’ll be up on that stage presenting.

GROW 10% every week

She only had $200 – not enough to hire a programmer to make an app

But what about SMS? What about free software or four week trial periods to not spend money?

Her product for a while: Landing page on Squarespace, Stripe for payments, scheduling via Google Calendar, Database – Excel, feedback – Typeform

She found 15 families needing childcare on the university putting up fliers. “If you need someone for childcare – just text this number” (her personal number). The first week had 4 clients, then 5, 6, 10…

First product – day planner to consult which sitters were available

Just build enough to work – don’t need technically complex

5 lessons:

  1.     What is driving you? Passion or curiosity + frustration. The latter gets you going and solving the fundamental issues
  2.     Don’t talk to experts, friends, and investors – talk to the users, because you’re doing something that hasn’t been done before
  3.      The product doesn’t have to be perfect – just good enough to solve the problem
  4.     $$ is not a budget to spend, but a time to run experiments which leads to profitability or leads to the next round
  5.      Focus – not on product launches but weekly growth – pick the metric that’s most important and grow that metric week over week

Motto: Start…and then keep going

Challenge: find a 4 week period and start something – and keep going – grow that metric

Laura Behrens-Wu · Co-Founder & CEO, Shippo

No magical formula for a great founder or entrepreneurship

“Confidence was cash. You have to have some to get some. And people were loath to give it to you”

It’s about the right place right time – and not shying away from that opportunity.

The most important decision is to get started – you don’t need a grand idea. Work on something, anything, to find the right problem to solve. They started as an e-commerce company. Nothing unique – but along the way they figured out how difficult shipping was for e-commerce companies – there was no Stripe for shipping! So they built it. 

Work on painkillers, not vitamins.

Practice makes perfect for pitching investors – even if all the VCs weren’t right, were prepared for the ones that were right after pitching 125 times. VC told her when pitching “This is a cute little business you’ve founded” – there’s nothing cute about B2B shipping? Investors are like employees that you can’t fire. Do due diligence on prospective investors and do backchannel references, not just who they give you.

Female founders tend to be good at underpromising but overdelivering. This is a good thing to be known for!

Better a hole in the organization than an asshole in the organization

“Better a hole in the organization than an asshole in the organization” 🙂

Padmasree Warrior · CEO & CDO, NIO USA

Smart autonomous vehicles – was at Cisco, board of Microsoft and Spotify.

Buying decisions are often made by women, even with cars! But the dealerships pitch to the men with the features men like, even if they are not the ones buying…so they are ignoring over half the consumers actually buying the product!

Goal: self-driving by 2020 with human intervention. This may be key to getting around regulatory issues since totally autonomous will be closer to 2025 or 2030.

First 100 people hire the next 1000 people.

Men and women do this – we introduce ourselves with our job title, we never say who we are as a person – be authentic.

“I didn’t know” is not an excuse as a leader in an organization. You should be aware and open to feedback. You have personal accountability as a founder/CEO.

Aileen Lee · Founder & Partner, Cowboy Ventures

Seed stage: common questions are on hiring – advice and introductions, what you need to prioritize with money and time to get to seed stage, customer intros, PR.

Seed round should last 18-24 months with a plan on what to accomplish.

Know what you are up against being a woman entrepreneur – storytelling is important. Feedback and practice when you are selling the dream at the early stage.

Women have to walk a finer line in pitching venture capitalists

“He’s such a good guy” <- this is the worst phrase because it means nothing. With women it’s like “oh does she invest in security?” there’s never “she’s such a good woman”. The same thing with entrepreneurs say “they’re such good guys”

Be confident but don’t stretch – women can’t be too arrogant. They will ding you for being an exaggerator or overspun, but don’t be too shy. Guys can get away with “he’s just an introvert” or arrogance but women can’t. It’s not fair, but that’s how deck is stacked.

Women are overly penalized for not being quantitative enough. Know your numbers. LTV, margins, revenue plan. Practice, know it, and if you’re not sure, ask for help.

Be good at follow up. Take notes, and send an email the next day following up on the points discussed.

Elizabeth Iorns · Co-Founder & CEO, Science Exchange

Vanessa Torrivilla · Co-Founder & CCO, Goldbely

Erika Jensen · Co-Founder, The Flex Company

Don’t go into a negotiation thinking it’s going to be harder because I’m a woman. You can go in and change the statistic.

Morgan DeBaun · Co-Founder & CEO, Blavity

Mobile first, digital first

Killing your darlings. It’s a good thing to learn, fail fast and kill off things that don’t work.

Don’t ask for permission. We wait too much for validation from others instead of going to do what you want to do.

Diane Greene · Senior Vice President, Google Cloud

Be able to adjust the plan as the environment changes.

Founders need to be solidly aligned – & the number of founders is limited.

VMWare was a profound innovation. They needed to design and market a disruptive technology in a way that’s non-disruptive. Sales took off on VMWare when they built a tool that took into the virtual environment with no fuss.

Corporate culture – foster a sense of importance of every person and their importance of every person in the company’s goals

GIve it your all – because you have respect for your goal and love the process

Find rich people that deeply understand what you are doing

What would you want to warn first-time founders of?

Think of your board. You need a board that helps you, not one you have to manage. Pick the people with the unique expertise you want. Never wrote slides, wrote a doc – a few metrics on how we were doing, the rest were things worried about and trying to figure out – let’s talk about it

YCombinator Panel Q&A

How much experience is needed for YCombinator?

None – but biotech – need industry experience.

Work in some given industry means you see problems in that domain

Product manager or PM somewhere – this helps if you’re not a technical cofounder because you can build the product without a technical co-founder



What % of applications have a female co-founder?

13% founders applying are women

22-23% of companies have a female founder


What is a myth about starting startups or YCombinator?


  • We don’t invest in non-technical founders
  • We don’t invest in solo founders (but recommend more)
  • YCombinator has no women (or there’s no woman founder of YCombinator 🙂 )

Women time and time again are written out of stories. Jessica Livingston was only Paul Graham’s wife, not the founder of YCombinator, for a very long time.


When should you go full time on a side project?
You feel like it’s getting traction and you’re ready – financial concerns – low burn is great for younger folks

Try to focus full time as soon as you can if you can financially – have to burn the boat before you can make the progress – once it starts getting traction you need to jump in – side project until then


Final notes:

Clear vision of where to go – next steps and how to get to them

Outsource tasks 

There’s no perfect time to start something, just start

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