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Secrets of YCombinator

The Startup School Radio podcast, put on by YCombinator partner Aaron Harris, gives those outside the YCombinator ecosystem a means to get YC's take on how one should go about starting a startup. It also gives a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the world's leading startup accelerator (that's YC). Spoiler alert—there aren't secrets, per se—all of this info could be gotten by listening to all thirty hours of the Startup School Radio podcast. The real secret is that we used a kick ass tool to analyze what is inside that huge bank of audio knowledge—an audio analytics API.

Podcasts and Info

These podcasts are a treasure trove of startup advice on how to make good startup decisions (iTunes, SoundCloud, Wharton). Acting on this guidance helps make sure your startup doesn't die and then actually has a chance of succeeding. We at Deepgram are naturally interested in this advice (we're a startup in Silicon Valley) but we also are in a unique position to consume and analyze this data in an interesting way since we have a kick ass audio analytics API.

Mining Data: Get out the Pickaxe

We set out to mine data from the 30 episodes of Startup School Radio that are currently released (as of early January 2016). This is about 30 hours of audio that would take a normal person several exhausting days to sit down and consume. Our API gobbled it up in under an hour.


I won't bore you much more before we get to the results. The first thing we looked at was commonly mentioned keywords having to do with startups (that is a technical term).


You can see 'startup' hits the top of the charts on this list of 'startup-related keywords' with over a thousand mentions. This is not a terribly surprising situation since the radio show has startup in its name and people are literally talking about startups the entire time. Next!


Money. Not terribly surprising since a startup is a business with an end goal of making money. Also, most startups need money in order to grow in order to fund employees, equipment, legal, and real estate costs. This is all closely related to the third highest mention 'funding' as well.


Now we get into the meat of it all. YC has had a long standing tradition (look up what Paul Graham says on this) to encourage startups to launch extremely early to test the market's reception to their first product.


Scaling comes after you have found something that strikes a nerve with users. Is your product something that could get really big? How do you get it into the hands of millions? This is the core of starting a billion dollar scale startup, you've got to be able to scale it out into the world.


Education is a big factor here. Basically all rapidly growing startups take a tech-savvy twist on a longstanding problem and you've got to have the skills to use tech tools to build it. This is where college usually comes in. It's traditionally the place where people learn to program and become good at leveraging the world.

Cautionary words here though. Paul Graham (the god of YC) once upon a time said that YC does not observe any correlation between where you went to college and how successful you are see it here. Having a college education at all, however, does enable you to navigate the tech+business world.


Here is a one that Silicon Valley loves to romanticize—failure. At first glance it sounds stupid—you don't want to fail, you want to succeed. But the point is that people learn a ton from failure and not nearly as much if they succeed. Trying then failing is good if you pick up the skills to then not do dumb things anymore. Got it?


Network effects matter. This is where the constant mention of social in the podcasts is coming from. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Medium, Snapchat, AirBnB, all these megagiants get their power from the large number of people using their services and the network that they make up. Your company doesn't have to be a social media app to have these networks effects matter, however. How are you going to get the word out on the street if you don't expose yourself to the heavily linked up society that we live in? How will people find your product? Most likely it will be through some sort of social hook—whether it is word of mouth, social media, or the like.


They probably can't say this enough. Iterate on your product until you know that your users are interacting with it in a predictable and valuable way. What does iterate mean? Change things. Make them better or worse. Do anything to try to improve the user experience. When you do this you will learn what works, what doesn't work, and what doesn't matter. But you have to constantly do that: change, measure, ask customers what they think, and do it all again.

all the rest

The others on this list give you a cross section of what people at YC tend to think is relevant.

  • Harvard — lots of people in the business world have a heritage in Harvard School of Business. They are around and get mentioned a lot.
  • China — massive foreign market with huge growth potential and knowledgable population.
  • your users — always communicate with these people to figure out what they really want. Then give it to them.
  • traction — a sign that people want what you are doing. You keep gaining users, they are actively seeking you out to pay you, growth and awareness keeps going up.
  • prototype — a barely functioning version of your product that gets the point of what your company is trying to do across.
  • master's — a highly educated person would end up with one of these if they kept going after their undergrad degree.
  • product/market fit — what every company should strive for. If you find a product that fits with your market then you are off to the races.
  • silicon valley — the place where Tesla roams the streets freely, where Apple, Google, and YC live, where tech is built (half of it anyway).
  • PhD — a too highly educated person would end up with one of these and may have learned some lessons as a result.
  • Stanford — a lot of talented tech people come out of this university in the heart of Silicon Valley.
  • disrupt — to drastically change the way a sector of business is done. You might want to do this and see if it makes money.
  • leverage — to utilize something very well, gaining multiplicative advantage.
  • something people want — this is what all startups should build. If people know about what you make and the want it, you are golden.
  • lifestyle — a type of company that provides the owner with income but little time investment.
  • pivot — changing your company's focus to extract value using a different approach.
  • freemium — charging nothing for basic usage of a service, but asking for users to pay if they want to access more features.
  • buzz — the hype and chatter around an exciting product.

Company mentions

We'll leave you with a list of the top company mentions in Startup School Radio. YCombinator is mentioned a ton (hello brand awareness!) followed by a lot of the top tech companies and the heritage which tended to spawn them.


These Startup School Radio podcasts come out every few weeks. Check back at the Deepgram blog to bug me about new trends which you think might be emerging in them.