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Copying Y Combinator – WHY and HOW

[UPDATE]- I’ve written an update 1.5 years later on the original post: “Looking back – 1.5 years since ‘Copying Y Combinator’”

Have you thought about starting a program like Y Combinator in your city? That doing so would not only build a startup ecosystem but would also bring a good financial return? I studied Y Combinator, TechStars, Seedcamp, and many more programs to develop a framework for “Copying Y Combinator”.

(With apologies to Chuck Palahniuk…)

  • The first rule of copying Y Combinator is: Do Not copy Y Combinator.
  • The second rule of copying Y Combinator is: DO NOT COPY Y COMBINATOR.

The key to copying Y Combinator is to figure out how you can be just as good, but in a different way, than Y Combinator.


Background

This last year I’ve been an MBA student at Cambridge University. In order to complete the degree we had to do a substantial piece of research, and I chose to do it on the rise of Y Combinator and similar “seed accelerator” programs. My hypothesis was that a lot of people/organizations are starting seed accelerators without really examining the full scope of innovations they need to think about in order to achieve their goals.

I wanted to take the opportunity to look into why entrepreneurs choose to go into a seed accelerator, why individuals choose to start a seed accelerator, and then propose a framework for designing new programs.

Key results are described in this post, and the full paper is embedded via Scribd (a Y Combinator company) below.

Data

The very first step in examining these programs is to get data; it’s almost all posted somewhere, but isn’t consolidated. Between the data that each program publishes on their website, press on the various programme Demo Days, and Crunchbase, I built a list of virtually every startup funded by every seed accelerator.

Click this link to see the spreadsheet on Google Docs.

The only accelerator where this data isn’t as comprehensive is for Y Combinator; I’ve put in placeholders where known (ie, 8 companies in cohort X but only 5 have launched). That said, it should only be missing a handful of companies at most. And please note that nearly all exit values are purely speculation, though educated speculation based on exits of similar companies.

I also surveyed the founders of companies that have either been funded by accelerators or are looking to be funded by accelerators (Y Combinator and others). Specifically, I wanted to find out what they cared about when choosing a seed accelerator. The results are as follows:

  • Connections to future capital: 8.51
  • Brand/Alumni connections: 7.83
  • Business support: 7.42
  • Product support: 7.13
  • Pre-money valuation: 5.25
  • Level of funding: 4.14

These numbers did vary somewhat between different programs and non-funded companies. (For example, the average Y Combinator founder valued Brand/Alumni connections much higher than the average respondent.) But the trends show that entrepreneurs value the elements of programs that give them long-term chances for success: connections to investors, other connections, and product/business support.

Financial Results

Since seed accelerators are still in their early days, it’s too early to make a definitive verdict on their success. But the early data is promising.

Y Combinator and TechStars are two of the oldest seed accelerators, and are the only two to have had substantial exits. The TechStars exits have likely already generated a profit, and there are several companies that may still exit at some point in the future. The Y Combinator company exits have likely already brought Y Combinator to break-even, even after having funded over 100 companies. More impressive is that there are a good number of companies in the portfolio that could reach substantial exits at some point in the future. (And potentially a handful that could reach the vaunted $1billion+ exit.)

Recommendations – How to Copy Y Combinator

The bulk of my paper goes through the elements that are involved in a seed accelerator program. But the fundamental decisions that can define the potential success of a program are simple.

Success derives from the program’s founders and focus; together they must create a distinctive and compelling reason for entrepreneurs to join them.

There will always be entrepreneurs looking for funding; what a seed accelerator should provide is the right match of resources for those entrepreneurs. If the resources that entrepreneurs get by participating aren’t compelling, the program simply won’t get the highest quality applicants, and thus will not achieve maximum success.

This is why there has been little true competition for Y Combinator thus far: they simply have truly compelling resources to offer through PG and the other Y Combinator founders, the YC alumni network, and the combined program network. Until another program can be more compelling than Y Combinator, they will attract the best startups. (See rules 1 & 2 at top about copying Y Combinator.)

The key when constructing a seed accelerator is to look critically (and honestly) about the resources a founder has available; the founders’ experience and the expertise available to the entrepreneurs. Find the focus point that is different from Y Combinator that makes it distinctive and compelling. For example, FbFund REV accelerates companies building applications on Facebook. The new Springboard program in Cambridge (UK) is focused on B2B software applications.

Maybe your expertise is in mobile technology, maybe it’s in medical devices or maybe its in enterprise software. The key is that the founders and the mentors they assemble for a program in that focus area are a distinctive and compelling reason for entrepreneurs to apply and attend. Once the founders and focus are decided, many other decisions fall into place. For example, the program length and funding level will need to be adjusted so that companies can reach a significant development milestone during the program. Just because Y Combinator is three months long doesn’t mean that your program can’t be 9 months long, provided that’s right for the companies involved.

The full paper has far more detail, the point to take away is that the founders and focus must align, and must align to create a programme where an entrepreneur would travel from around the world in order to participate. (Even if there was an accelerator in their own backyard.) The potential to do this in the field of web applications is diminishing quickly.

Final Thanks

I want to say a specific thank you to the program founders that agreed to be interviewed: Paul Graham, David Cohen and Reshma Sohoni. And a huge thank you to the people that commented on my blog posts and Hacker News posts over the summer and took the survey I described above; your feedback was invaluable!


The Documents

Copying Y Combinator

 

Appendix A – List of Seed Accelerators

Click here to view the list of seed accelerators. Only seed accelerator programs are listed; see main paper for details.

 

Appendix B – Example Seed Accelerator financial model

 

Appendix C – List of all companies founded by Seed Accelerators

 

OR

Click here to view the list via Google Docs.