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Start-up Advice

The Unwritten Rules: Real Start-up Advice To Launch A Game-Changing Business

Here are seven crucial (but often overlooked) bits of start-up advice from the experts at Y Combinator.

GG van Rooyen



Start-up Advice

When it comes to the world of tech start-ups and Silicon Valley, you’ll struggle to find a more respected and influential start-up incubator than Y Combinator. Founded in 2005 by Paul Graham, Jessica Livingston, Trevor Blackwell and Robert Tappan Morris, it has helped some major companies get off the ground and find a workable business model. Y combinator alums include Dropbox, Airbnb and Reddit.

Getting into Y Combinator, as you might expect, isn’t easy. Two batches of around 50 to 100 start-ups are accepted every year. That might seem like quite a lot, but it’s estimated that the incubator receives between

1 000 and 2 000 applications for every intake, with only 3% of start-ups actually making the cut. And even if you get in, you’re expected to move to Silicon Valley for three months to work closely with the folks at Y Combinator. For many start-ups, especially international ones, this can be difficult to do. Not only is it expensive, but moving a whole business to San Francisco can be impractical. So, while many founders would love to grow their businesses with the help of Y Combinator, few can actually achieve this dream.

However, even if you can’t attend Y Combinator personally, you can still learn a lot from the incubator. According to Sam Altman, the current president of Y Combinator, about 70% of what the mentors discuss at the incubator is specific to the start-ups they deal with, but the other 30% is generic and applicable to all, and this info has been made available to the public.

Y Combinator, along with some very prominent and influential guest lecturers, hosted a series of lectures at Stanford in 2014, and these sessions were recently released in podcast form. Every lecture is incredibly dense, packed with fantastic advice and insights. It is definitely worth listening to every single one in its entirety. You can find the episodes on podcast platforms like iTunes, or you can visit for videos of the lectures, as well as annotated transcripts and other resources.

Related: 9 Answers You Need About Yourself Before Starting Your Own Business

There’s nowhere near enough space here to discuss all the info provided, but below you’ll find some of the most interesting tips and lessons from the various lectures. Specifically, we’ll be looking at the counter-intuitive insights that are only gleaned from years in the trenches.

1. A great idea doesn’t look like a great idea

“The hardest part about coming up with great ideas, is that the best ideas often look terrible at the beginning. The thirteenth search engine, and without all the features of a web portal? Most people thought that was pointless. Search was done, and anyway, it didn’t matter that much. Portals were where the value was. The tenth social network, and limited only to college students with no money? Also terrible. MySpace has won and who wants college students as customers? Or a way to stay on strangers’ couches. That just sounds terrible all around.” — Sam Altman, Y Combinator President.

Lesson: The obviously ‘great’ ideas are already taken. As Altman says: “If they sounded really good, there would be too many people working on them.” So, you want something that doesn’t seem like a truly great business idea at first. This means facing a lot of risk and rejection, but it also provides great opportunity. The alternative, argues Altman, is a clone of an already-existing idea with a small or made up differentiator, and these businesses don’t tend to last.

2. Looking for a great idea is not a great idea

“The way to get start-up ideas is not to try to think of start-up ideas. If you make a conscious effort to try to think of start-up ideas, you will think of ideas that are not only bad, but bad and plausible sounding. Meaning you and everybody else will be fooled by them. You’ll waste a lot of time before realising they’re no good. The way to come up with good start-up ideas is to take a step back. Instead of trying to make a conscious effort to think of start-up ideas, turn your brain into the type that has start-up ideas unconsciously.” — Paul Graham, Y Combinator Founder

Lesson: Great start-up ideas tend to pop up when you’re not actively trying to start a business. A lot of great companies, like Google, Facebook and Apple, were not started as businesses, but purely as side projects that interested the founders. So, follow your curiosity and don’t search too hard for an idea. The truly great ones are almost never obvious start-up ideas.

“The very best ideas almost always have to start as side projects because they’re always such outliers that your conscious mind would reject them as ideas for companies,” says Graham.

Related: Admin Hacks For Entrepreneurs

3. Competition is for losers

“You want to be a one-of-a-kind company. You want to be the only player in a small ecosystem. You don’t want to be the fourth online pet food company. You don’t want to be the tenth solar panel company. You don’t want to be the hundredth restaurant in Palo Alto. Large existing markets typically mean that you have tons of competition, so it’s very, very hard to differentiate. The first very counter-intuitive idea is to go after small markets; markets that are so small people often don’t even think that they make sense. That’s where you get a foothold, and then if those markets are able to expand, you can scale into a big monopoly business.” — Peter Thiel, entrepreneur and venture capitalist.

Lesson: Many successful, high-growth companies started out catering to markets that appeared small and unpromising at first. Facebook didn’t start off as a social media platform for the globe, it started off catering to a single university — a tiny market. Too many start-ups wade into a saturated market purely because the size of the market is tempting. A better idea is to find that small market that is ready to explode. What industry will be massive ten years from now?

4. Grow big by thinking small


“My philosophy behind a lot of things that I teach in start-ups is, the best way to get to $1 billion is to focus on the values that help you get that first dollar to acquire that first user. If you get that right, everything else will take care of itself. It’s a sort of faith thing.” — Kevin Hale, Y Combinator Partner.

Lesson: Large-scale, long-term success depends on creating a product or service that truly surprises and delights your customers. The problem is, you can’t do this if you’re too focused on the big picture. If you’re too worried about building a R1 billion business, you’re not taking the time and effort to think about the individual customer experience. So, don’t look at customers as numbers on a spreadsheet, even if your business is already hugely successful. And, if your business is still new, do whatever’s needed to delight the customer, even if your approach seems unscalable. Stay true to the approach that bagged you that very first sale.

5. Do things that don’t scale

“The lesson that I’ve been learning lately is that you want to do things that don’t scale as long as possible. There’s not some magical moment; it’s not Series A, or it’s not when you hit a certain revenue milestone, that you stop doing things that don’t scale. This is one of your biggest advantages as a company, and the moment you give it up, you’re giving your competitors that are smaller and can still do these things an advantage over you. So as long as humanly possible, as long as it is a net positive, you need to spend time talking to your users, you need to move as fast as possible in development, but don’t give it up willingly; it should be ripped from you.” — Walker Williams, founder of Teespring.

Lesson: Don’t worry too much if your actions aren’t scalable. View it as an advantage. The longer you can do things that don’t scale, the bigger your advantage over the competition. There will come a time when you’re too big to do these things, but don’t fret over it in the early days.

Related: Are You An Ideas Explorer Or Are You A Rooster?

6. You get funding if you don’t need funding

“I was so frustrated from this experience of having tried for two years to raise money from VCs and I sort of decided, to hell with it. You cannot count on there being capital available to you. This business that I started seemed like one that maybe I could do without raising money at all. There was enough cash flow, it seemed compelling enough that I could do that. It turns out that those are exactly the kinds of businesses that investors love to invest in and it made it incredibly easy.” — Parker Conrad, founder of Zenefits.

Lesson: Finding funding isn’t easy, especially if your company is hanging on by a thread and desperately in need of a cash infusion. The safest way to build a business is to bootstrap and become cash-positive as quickly as possible. The fact of the matter is, investors will be more attracted to a business that has proven its business model and is making money. Launch as cheaply as possible, get some traction, make some money, and then go to investors when you’re ready to scale.

7. Growth is as much about retention as acquisition

“My contrarian viewpoint is, if you’re a start-up, you shouldn’t have a growth team. Start-ups should not have growth teams. The whole company should be the growth team. The CEO should be the head of growth. Mark Zuckerberg is a fantastic example of that. Back when Facebook started, a lot of people were putting out their registered user numbers. Mark put out monthly active users, as the number he held everyone to internally, and said we need everyone on Facebook, but that means everyone active on Facebook, not everyone signed up on Facebook, so monthly active people was the number internally, and it was also the number he published externally. It was the number he made the whole world hold Facebook to, as a number that we cared about.” — Alex Schultz, Head of Growth Marketing at Facebook.

Lesson: Growing your company isn’t as simple as signing up new customers. Sure, this is important, but ultimately, retention is more important than acquisition when it comes to long-term success. You want people to stick around and continue doing business with you, so, right from the beginning, focus on retention. Make that one of the key metrics that you track and use to evaluate the business. Even if you are landing new clients at an impressive rate, it doesn’t bode well if retention is a problem. Retention says a lot more about the viability of your start-up than new acquisitions do.

Learn more

Y Combinator’s events are known for their high-calibre guest speakers, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg and Zappos founder Tony Hsieh. In 2014 Y Combinator hosted a series of lectures at Stanford. These have recently been released in podcast form.

How to Start a Startup can be downloaded from iTunes or for videos of the lectures, go to

GG van Rooyen is the deputy editor for Entrepreneur Magazine South Africa. Follow him on Twitter.

Company Posts

3 Companies With Memorable Slogans, And How To Create Your Own

Three companies that have enjoyed these benefits as a result of creating memorable business slogans are Nike, Carlsberg, and Apple. Let’s look at each one now.

Jeff Broth




A good slogan serves many valuable roles in business. First, it reinforces recognition of your brand. After hearing it a few times, your consumer instantly thinks of you when hearing it again. If it’s catchy enough, they may even find themselves saying or singing it in their head, reinforcing your brand even more.

Slogans also share a little bit about your company. For instance, if your slogan is funny, it says you have a sense of humor. If it contains your goal or mission, it tells the consumer what is important to you. Some slogans share the problems the company is trying to solve or the consumer its trying to help, making it easier to identify the target market.

Finally, a slogan sets you apart from your competitors. It differentiates you from all of the other companies who offer similar services to you. And if it’s memorable enough, it puts you ahead of them in your consumer’s minds.

Three companies that have enjoyed these benefits as a result of creating memorable business slogans are Nike, Carlsberg, and Apple. Let’s look at each one now.

Company #1: Nike – Just Do It


Though many people use Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ slogan as a reminder that they can do amazing things if they just put their mind to it, its author, Dan Wieden, reports that this line actually has a grim beginning.

In fact, it was an idea he derived from a statement made by Gary Gilmore, a double murderer who, before being executed by a firing squad exclaimed, “Let’s do it!” Still, it has stuck in consumer’s minds and is undoubtedly one of the most memorable slogans of all time.

Related: Registering a Trademark

Company #2: Carlsberg – That Calls for a Carlsberg


Initially, Carlsberg’s slogan was ‘probably the best beer in the world.’ Many consumers came to know and love this slogan; however, in 2011, the company rebranded and created a new slogan: ‘That Calls for a Carlsberg.” The goal of this new slogan, according to CEO Jorgen Buhl Rasmussen, was to encourage the consumer to do good things and then enjoy a Carlsberg after as a reward for a job well done. Both have stuck in the minds of consumers, albeit with some discrepancy as to which one is most preferred.

Company #3: Apple – Think Different


Apple is a company known for thinking (and creating) outside the lines, so its ‘Think Different’ slogan fits it perfectly. According to Rob Siltanen, creative director and managing partner at the company that helped design this Apple pitch, though there are many accounts of how this slogan was created, its true inventor is Craig Tanimoto. Siltanen says that Tanimoto came up with the idea to use black and white photos of some of the most revolutionary people and events of all time and, atop each one, simply display the words ‘Think Different.’ Catchy, right?

Related: Smart Marketing Ideas For Small Businesses

How to Create Your Own Memorable Slogan

These are just three examples of how creating a memorable slogan can help your company get — and stay — in the minds of your consumer. So, how do you come up with this type of campaign?

One option is to get some of your company’s best talent together and see what slogans you can come up with. Have everyone submit one or two ideas and talk them out. See if any jump out at you and, if not, use them to inspire you to come up with even more possible ideas.

Another alternative is using a slogan generator. This enables you to come up with a simple, memorable slogan using keywords related to your brand. Just go through the list and of results and see which ones stand out. You could even pick your top two or three and let your social media followers vote as to which one you should select.

If you find yourself at a dead end and unable to come up with a memorable slogan, or if you lack the creativity or the time, you can also hire a marketing firm to help. Give them a little insight about your company and see what slogans they create. It may cost you some money to take this route but, as companies like Nike, Carlsberg, and Apple have taught us, a good slogan can really propel your brand.

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Start-up Advice

Dear Family And Friends Of Entrepreneurs…

Young entrepreneurs often struggle to establish their businesses as they are not getting the support they need. Sometimes it is not only the obvious support of financiers and supply change developers which is lacking –but also not having that critical “home-ground support” can negatively affect the success of your venture. How can family and friends support entrepreneurs?

Lusanele Mahlutshana




Entering the market as a newbie entrepreneur is a brave step, and having your family and friends share in your vision for success is critical.  Once you have convinced them that being an entrepreneur is in fact “a real job” – one that requires a lot more sacrifices and hard work than a salaried worker – you can continue to encourage them to support your journey, to ultimately share in your success.

Get a job

In some communities, being an entrepreneur is not recognised as a profession. Therefore, those who pursue enterprise development are seen as irresponsible or lazy as it is not regarded as ‘real’ employment. Societal pressure to attain certain material possessions thus prevents them from pursuing their true passion.

This kind of resistance discourages a lot of entrepreneurs, making their pursuit for success even more difficult.

Related: How To Deal With Unsupportive Friends And Family

Finding out who your real friends are

Financial support is the most obvious support needed by entrepreneurs due to a lack of capital and start-up funding, as well as irregular payments and long periods of being cashless due to procurement holdups and fluctuation in the market for your product or service. Not everyone will stick with you in these times – and that’s OK. You may end up finding out who your real friends are, and these are the people who will give you emotional and social support to keep you focused and motivated.

“I know a guy….”

Another issue is friends and family looking for discounted prices as they know the owner. This means that they don’t see the value of the product or service, nor do they respect the owner. By asking for products and services for free, or at a reduced price, they end up taking advantage of their relationship with the entrepreneur and do not financially support his/her the business.

Related: How To Immigrate With Your Family By Starting A Business In The UK

So, if you have friends or family who are business owners, set an example by supporting them in the following ways:

  • Be willing to pay the full price of the product or service offered.
  • Be kind when giving negative feedback – make sure it is constructive.
  • Compliment them on good products or service. Share positive reviews on your social media pages.
  • Share and promote their business among other people.
  • Be patient and willing to help them establish their businesses.

Be prepared to listen to their dreams, hopes and frustrations. Sometimes, they just need an ear to vent about a bad day. Support them with a word of encouragement to keep going.

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Start-up Advice

Why Embrace The Struggle?

Entrepreneurial success hinges on your ability to approach challenges with the right mindset.

Gil Sperling




Self-help and business coaching advice is littered with platitudes, which makes it difficult for entrepreneurs to know what they should take to heart. However, one universal truism that most successful entrepreneurs attribute to their success is their willingness and ability to endure the struggle.

It’s a lesson I learnt first-hand when building our ad-tech and Facebook Marketing Partner business, Popimedia. One of our sternest tests came when we moved into new premises and took on more staff to accommodate our exponential growth. Then, amid new and significant financial commitments, some of our pipeline never materialised.

It was at this time that my son was born, and our family had just moved into a new house. To preserve the business, we were forced into retrenchments and directors didn’t take a salary for a while. And, with a lower head count it became difficult to deliver on client deadlines. Needless to say, my personal and professional level of discomfort was at an all-time high.

We reviewed our operations and streamlined where we could. More importantly, though, the experience taught us a number of invaluable lessons.

Lesson #1: Reframe your context

Our leadership approach, our business mindset and our attitude needed to be drastically reframed.

There is a quote that has always stuck with me, which is: “The antithesis of comfort is struggle.”

Related: 6 Of The Most Profitable Small Businesses In South Africa

I believe a person is moulded by the way they deal with struggle. That’s why I’ve always been inclined to welcome a proverbial punch to the face, and use as a mantra the phrase, “comfortable being uncomfortable”.

Being “uncomfortable” forced Popimedia into rapid innovation – and it was this innovation that led to a sea-change in the business. We learned how to scale, how to improve service levels, how to do what we do better, faster, more efficiently.

As a result, and without increasing our staff complement, our year-on-year growth has topped 100%. What was, at the time, the business’s greatest challenge became its greatest ally, and our biggest lesson.

Lesson #2: Fail fast, and learn from it

Obviously, this approach is not about making life difficult for the sake of personal and professional growth. It’s about understanding what is: expecting it to be difficult and taking a constructive approach towards failure and struggle.

There is one guarantee in business: you will experience failures, and you will struggle.

Central to this is your ability to recognise your failures for what they are, and quickly. This allows for a rejigging of processes, attitudes, operations, and sometimes even objectives.

My personal attitude to failure was reframed by simple sales stats. I came to understand that rejection was inevitable – but when it does happen, it brings with it opportunities. I always ask: “Why don’t you want my product? How is it not meeting your needs?” This way, “failure” is transformed into an opportunity to better understand the market and my clients.

This feedback loop has proved crucial, and allowed us to become what we are.

As an entrepreneur, the pressure never ends and you’ll never ‘arrive’. At Popimedia, we’ve come to embrace every opportunity that takes us out of our comfort zone. Working through failure is the foundation on which the entrepreneurial spirit is forged. It is the willingness to try again following a rejection, or to keep grafting knowing that there’s no guarantee of a pay cheque at the end of the month.

And doing so with the ‘chutzpah’ – the sheer audacity – to endure the hardship through mental toughness and a passion for what you do, becomes your greatest asset, because when you get comfortable, you become complacent… and complacency will work you into irrelevance.

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