Blog
Oct 27

Reporting From Y Combinator Startup School

Phil Libin on building epic things and where to be innovative
On October 19th, I went to an event that Y Combinator hosted called Startup School. At this event, Y Combinator brings several people who are in the who’s who in tech to give talks to an auditorium full of entrepreneurs and engineers. This year we had an exciting guest list including Phil Libin from Evernote, Dan Siroker from Optimizely, Ron Conway, Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg. Each talk had its own lessons, but I wanted to share my thoughts on some comments Phil Libin made.

Phil’s main message was to work on something you are madly in love with. More than that, he spoke of building something that you are in love with and will be big. He spoke about his experiences before Evernote when he had built a software business working with enterprise customers, but he really didn’t feel a level of passion for what he was working on. As a result, it was just really hard to be motivated. He offered a great line: “we wanted to make something sufficiently epic to be our life work”. This really spoke to me. In a world where several entrepreneurs build businesses to take advantage of trends or go after a specific market niche, it is rare to find people trying to build businesses that are “sufficiently epic”.

Granted, doing this is hard. However, only by going after such epic ideas will you be constantly motivated to keep working. I don’t interpret epic to be something that revolutionizes the world. Rather, I interpret epic to mean something that provides true value to a large portion of the population. Epic is when customers see that they could not live the same way without your product – even in a small way. Epic is being remembered. Hopefully I can find myself in such a business.

Phil also had another great comment: “be innovative about one thing only, which is your idea, and do everything else by the book”. In the silicon valley culture, I see entrepreneurs and companies embracing the feeling of doing everything that is not symbolic of big corporate culture. Companies are innovating on vacation policy, dining options, pets in the office, IPO auctions, etc. However, these big companies aren’t doing everything wrong. They got big for a reason and they do a lot of stuff right. As a small company, you should only focus your efforts on your product and your idea. Don’t try to be clever with anything else – it’s not worth your distraction. Just follow best practices.

I’ll end the post with something else Phil said, which was inspiring: “Build something for yourself; if you build something you love, a billion other people love it too probably”. While there are a lot of problems with this sentiment (building too narrow a product), a certain part of it resonates with me. For me, I can only work on ideas where I can
empathize with the customer and feel the need myself. It is hard enough building a product, it shouldn’t be a challenge understanding the customer need. By building something for yourself, you can really understand the customer need and you are therefore much more motivated to build that product – and you’ll likely build a better product than an entrepreneur who is disconnected from that need.

This post was written by Kadir Annamalai, Stanford MBA 2014

About The Author

The InSITE Fellowship is a highly competitive leadership development program comprised of exceptional graduate students at top universities. InSITE Fellows and alumni make up a global network of entrepreneurs and leaders in technology and venture capital.

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