The Silicon Valley startup business incubator that invested in Reddit, Airbnb and more than 700 other tech companies visited Ann Arbor Friday to hear student pitches and discuss entrepreneurship.
Qasar Younis, a partner from Y-Combinator, which accepts less than 3 percent of applicants to its intensive seed accelerator program, as well as Jesse Vollmar, a co-founder of a YC-backed startup, spoke about how to compose a solid team of founders, campus entrepreneurship resources, the value of not working for a corporation and other related topics. More than 100 students crowded into a room at TechArb in downtown Ann Arbor to hear the talk and visit office hours with YC officials.
MPowered Entrepreneurship hosted the event. LSA senior Saad Jangda, vice president of programs for MPowered, said YC’s visit to the University shows that Michigan’s entrepreneurial icons are noting the University’s startup savvy.
“This is big,” Jangda said. “And I keep telling everyone it’s big because it means that people have started noticing that Michigan is a place for entrepreneurship. It’s something we’ve been trying to do for 10 years now.”
“It’s not just about Silicon Valley anymore, it’s about the Silicon Mitten.”
YC is rated first among business accelerators by publications such as TechCrunch and Forbes. Its three-month-long program provides seed funding, which covers a startup’s expenses during is earliest stage, as well as advice from YC partners about how to develop ideas and pitch startups to potential investors. Prominent techies also host weekly talks for YC participants, including speakers like Facebook co-Founder Mark Zuckerberg.
The experience culminates in a Demo Day, in which about 450 top investors hear presentations from YC-backed startups and — hopefully — invest in the fledgling companies.
University alum Harry Zhang, co-founder of Lob, a San Francisco-based printing and mailing service, participated in YC in the summer of 2013. The company has since raised $9.4 million from investors, according to CrunchBase.
“Overall, it’s easily the best incubator in Silicon Valley and has one of the best brand names in the Silicon Valley community,” Zhang said.
He said the advice and structured program that YC offered were invaluable.
“It helps you sort of get the traction that you need to launch your startup in a structured environment,” Zhang said. “It helps you internalize what the most important thing is that you should be focusing your time on when you’re building your company.”
The YC-backed company that was represented at the event was FarmLogs, an Ann Arbor-based company focused on servicing farms and optimizing crop rotation. FarmLogs CEO Jesse Vollmar co-founded the company in 2012, and it has since produced a profit of $5 million.
Vollmar presented a storyline of FarmLogs’ early days. After he and his co-founders were accepted into YC, via an e-mail that “completely changed (his) life,” he moved to San Francisco, lived in a tiny apartment with only an Ikea mattress on his floor and assumed 100-hour work weeks of coding — 14 hours per day, every day.
“Our life just became completely consumed by the startup,” Vollmar said.
He emphasized the need to find co-founders who were equally dedicated to the intensive lifestyle, after one person in his three-person team left one month into the YC program.
“We weren’t on the same page,” Vollmar said. “We didn’t all have an agreement that we were going to pour everything we had into this company. It’s something that you should definitely get straight is building a strong relationship with your co-founders first.”
YC partner Younis echoed this sentiment during his talk. Younis, whose feedback platform TalkBin was acquired and then phased out by Google, also discouraged attraction to the image of the dropout startup founder, such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg.
Younis also emphasized the value of working for oneself rather than for a corporation. He said the latter option often offers a larger salary and more security, but foraying into the startup world is a priceless experience.
After the talk, University students with early-stage startups had the opportunity to have 10-minute office hours with Younis.
One attendant was Engineering alum Tim Jones, the founder and chief technology officer of Cribspot, a housing website that he said has helped more than 60,000 students find housing since September 2013. After attending office hours, he said he is considering applying to YC.
“Y-Combinator is really focused on high-growth companies,” Jones said. “You have to grow or you die. Office hours really emphasized how we need to stay focused and that every week we should grow 7 to 10 percent. That’s really important to us.”
Business senior Jay Raina said the office hours with Younis gave him “great wisdom.” He is in the process of establishing an app that will allow users to pay their bills at restaurants electronically, cutting waits of up to half an hour to process credit cards and split checks.
“This is absolutely a problem that needs to be solved and several people have attempted to solve this problem but they failed,” Raina said. “One big takeaway (Younis) gave us is to look at those failures and avoid them to make sure our app is successful.”