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the cult of Y Combinator? I think not.

On August 8th covering , , , ,

Y Combinator is a Venture Capital group led by Paul Graham. It’s named after a mathematical function that I can’t come close to understanding. Something to do with recursion, I gather, probably an inside joke for LISP programmers. They provide seed money for tech startups — small amounts that allows them to do the initial work that will attract larger funding.

More importantly, they ask their sponsored groups move to Cambridge or the Bay Area for an intense 3-month sprint (they don’t like calling it a boot camp) where they receive lots of mentoring and work like their very lives depend on it.

Anyone who does creative work, especially in groups, knows there are times when it’s important to push all other concerns to the margin and go flat-out. Examples of this are a band cutting an album, a theatre company putting a show up on its feet, or a research team focusing intently on a problem. Solo endeavors such as finishing a novel or dissertation can have this quality. Bills and relationships suffer neglect, as does nutrition, sleep, and personal hygiene. Fabled examples such as the Manhattan Project come to mind.

There is a thrill to being able to focus so wholeheartedly on a thing. It is one of the characteristics of creative persons. It is enviable. There are reasons that those us long out of our 20’s romanticize a time when one can get away with this. It’s not a surprise that Y Combinator has its critics — indeed, it’s a valid question whether these boot-camp endeavors do any good.

Some French Guy (that’s what he calls himself) poses the question of whether Y combinator is a cult. He says yes, and offers a standard definition of a cult to support this. it’s a worthwhile read. There’s been much discussion of this. Some of the cult-yes position seems based on the way programmers revere Paul Graham, who apparently is a hacker demigod. Such powerful idealization is something to be careful about, because it can cause people to forget to do their own thinking.

Here’s why I say, without intimate knowledge of Y Combinator, that it is not a cult: it is a time-limited experience. A true cult has no exit. The alleged aim of YCombinator is for the groups to become independent and make loads of money for their backers. if it is a cult, the market will punish it severely.

SFG’s question is valuable and important. Cult-like psychology blocks the possibility of independent thought, which is why organizations full of smart people do stupid things. It is a deadly, insidious risk. This is why Y Combinator should hire SFG or an equivalent to hang around and be the village skeptic.

I also wonder — where is the Y Combinator for music groups?

UPDATE: SFG writes a follow-up post, and a comment below.

One Response

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Daniel Haran

Aug 8 at 17:07


Oddly enough the follow-up I posted never got much attention, so even when I work for free the YC crowd doesn’t want it. See:

Idealizing and romanticizing days of intense ‘work’ is a blunder and a cognitive bias. It mistakes effort for productivity, lack of sleep for perseverance.

While it is a time-limited experience, YC recruits are proud of those mistakes. It shapes their identity.

To the extent that a saner model will be more efficient I believe the market will show them wrong. If we pay attention: we already have plenty of examples of people that did not work like madmen and built successful businesses. We don’t hear about them as much, or choose to listen to those that say it’s hard to start a business.

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