The winter 2008 session of Y Combinator is just about wrapped up. What a great experience. If you’re thinking of applying to the upcoming session but aren’t sure if it’s worth it, let me assure you: it is.
Instead, I’ll comment on something a little more subtle: the distinct culture which seems to be emerging from YC. I see this in the current session, but even more strongly in the network of YC alumni. The three month session itself is just the beginning - a boot camp to kick your ass into gear (and maybe weed out those that aren’t cut out for the high-intensity life of a startup founder). As nearly as I can tell, the ties to fellow YCers only get stronger, and the YC culture more distinct, the further out from their initial session a given YCer is.
This got me thinking about the root of this culture, and in doing so, thinking about what Y Combinator is really about.
If you’re a huge geek (and I certainly hope so), you recognize the little inside joke: the y combinator is a bit of lambda calculus, a function that recursively bootstraps other functions. At first, I thought: ok, so YC is a company that recursively bootstraps other companies. Ha ha. But after experiencing the session, I see another layer to this. Although YC itself is four people (three of whom I got to work with in the session, all of whom are very smart and talented), YC’s heart is really Paul Graham. So YC may be a company that makes other companies, but culturally it Paul Graham, and what it does is recursively bootstrap other Paul Grahams.
The process is like this: PG writes essays that grab the attention of smart, technical, entrepreneurially-minded people. A subset of these people apply to YC. PG interviews them to select a further subset that have the most immediate potential. Then, YC puts them all through a three month bootcamp, at the end of which they pop out thinking, talking, and building companies in a way that is remarkably similar to the way that PG would.
If you think this sounds like a criticism, then you couldn’t be more wrong. To my mind, the world could use a hundred more Paul Grahams, or a thousand. And as near as I can tell, we’re well on our way.
I met some YCers from past sessions prior to attending the kickoff of my session. This gave me the chance to see the developed version of YC culture right from the get-go. I then got to watch as members of my session adapted and took on that culture for themselves. It’s a culture seeded by PG, but it’s also developing on its own, through the influence of the growing group of people coming into it.
What are the tenets of this culture? Entrepreneurial spirit, and a belief in one’s own ability to change the world. Blunt honesty and healthy criticism, both in communication with others and in personal self-analysis. Its members have a deep and natural rapport with programming, math, critical thinking, economics, and community. Perhaps most of all, we have an uncompromising desire to passionately pursue the things we believe in, and in doing so, we hope to make the world a better place.