What I’ve learned from users



NhanH 9d
I adore pg’s essay. But this time something is tripping my spider sense, so I had to take a closer look (at my spider sense, and a bit on the essay too).

This is the first time an essay feels like a sale pitch. Specifically, a sale pitch for YC. I’ve read pg’s essay about YC for about 15 years, and this is the first one I have that feeling.

Specifically, this one is a bit too abstract. I’m getting the idea that YC can help founders tremendously, that their knowledge is specialized and hard to get elsewhere. But I’m eagerly waiting for one concrete example, and none are to be found. Normally I’d expect a real set of examples from startups, instead of the analogy in horror movies. I still remember the essay where pg describe how he came up with Jessica the idea of YC, while walking somewhere, explaining very concretely what he thought at the time.

For any other writer or organization, I’d just guess they are trying to “keep their secret recipe”. That is neither pg or YC’s MO.

So yeah, this feels strange.

kiddz 9d
Funny, we're literally launching a new project today that allows for distributed focus groups. We haven't changed over the DNS -- here's the Heroku link (https://opinion-graphs-website.herokuapp.com)

How we got here: for a while we had been struggling with breaking through on another project that user voice input to measure sentiment for office space.

Last week, we took a step back and thought that having a tool that could allow start-ups to ask opened ended questions where people could just "talk" and what they said is analyzed for sentiment would be valuable. So that's what we're building with OpinionGraphs. IMHO this is directly in the vein of PG's points about learning from users.

With whatever you're building, if you're interested in trying a new way to connect to users or targeted customers along the lines of PG's advice, please dm me or just leave a comment here and I'll reach out.

debacle 9d
Paul, if you're reading, this the color on your footnotes is very light on my screen and they're very easy to miss.
JL-Akrasia 9d
Caveat - The best type of mentors for founders are other founders. VCs, Incubators, are not optimal mentors, rather those are key folks to have in your pocket.

My suggestion for all founders - find a mentor who is a founder & builder.

vaylian 9d
> YC founders aren't just inspired by one another. They also help one another. That's the happiest thing I've learned about startup founders: how generous they can be in helping one another.

Synergy is a powerful thing.

avg_dev 9d
I’ve read a few of pg’s articles over the years. I believe it was one about nerdy kids and their relationships and worldviews that first brought me to this site. At some point, I read the article “Hackers and Painters” and I felt like pg’s essays didn’t resonate with me anymore. I even read a response called “Dabblers and Blowhards” that I resonated strongly with. I thought to myself, pg is distanced from reality, and that perhaps I was or had been as well.

Over the past year or so I’ve been trying to make sure that my opinions are mindfully and consciously held. I’ve worked on debugging them: I test and evaluate my beliefs when the opportunity arises. I try to make sure I still feel what I think I feel and that I understand what is going on in my head and my heart, and that they act congruently.

For instance, I know now that I dislike many, many things that Amazon has done and how it treats its workers. But I think that the people who worked on my Kindle Oasis have the utmost respect for their users. It makes me somewhat comfortable with the ambivalence that for me goes along with using it. For I surely love my Kindle and I surely am happy to purchase books on the Kindle store while I simultaneously am disgusted by the treatment of factory workers, delivery drivers, software developers, and other real human beings who work for Amazon. I could say the same about my iPhone. Sometimes I think hard about the slave labor that went into the manufacturing of the device that I am typing this message into. Should I stop using it? Maybe so. Maybe not. At the moment, I consciously choose to continue using it. It is quite possible that history will judge me quite harshly for this. But I believe that there is empathy and soul (and blood and inhumanity) in these things.

This morning I had a feeling of revulsion when I saw that pg had written another article and that it was on the front page of one of my favorite websites. I readily see the hypocrisy in this. But as I mentioned at the outset, I wanted to determine if I felt the way I most recently felt about reading his essays. So I read it with as close to an open mind as I could.

I believe that on this subject, pg knows more than I likely ever will. His users are early stage startups and he has clearly identified wide classes of issues and the ability to suss them out in the course of a brief conversation. He is able to envision founder habits changing, and recidivism of said changes. He is able to approach each situation with the mindfulness and presence that it deserves by understanding that as much as these issues fall into buckets, the circumstances surrounding them are unique, and the people involved are individuals. He is able to relate these and understand them in the context of one of the most near and dear things to my heart: cutting edge software development. He is able to see when a founder is incorrectly assessing their own situation, and he is able to guide them to a course correction. He is able to ask the founders key questions that they themselves can evaluate to understand their predicament. He is able to understand their humanity.

And he has built a whole team of partners with this ability.

Going against the grain of my prejudices and my expectations, I thought this was a fine article. I have considerably more respect for YC and pg than I did before I read it. I am more comfortable browsing this site as a result.

KennyFromIT 9d
Off-topic, but I wonder how much traffic is lost on PG's site due to not having a valid TLS certificate for his domain.
fbanon 9d
This guy is very smart!
dustedcodes 9d
I thought this article was about what PG learned from users but he just wrote about how good he is at identifying startup problems because they are all the same but actually not so same when it comes to replacing his job with an automated FAQ.
gaul_praham 9d
I, too, sometimes pat myself on the back. But I don't make a blog post out of it.
yashap 9d
This was a surprisingly bad essay (and I generally enjoy PG’s essays). It claims to be about “what PG has learned from YC users (startup founders)”, but basically just says “founders are wrong, YC is amazing,” then descends into a YC elevator pitch.

There’s really nothing concrete about what he’s learned from users, other than “they have similar problems” (with zero information about what those problems are) and “they’re wrong about what’s important for their businesses” (again with zero details). If anything, this reads like an essay of someone who aggressively DOESN’T listen to his users.

jefftk 9d
> At first I was puzzled. How could things be fine at 60 startups and broken at 80? It was only a third more. Then I realized what had happened. We were using an O(n2) algorithm. So of course it blew up.

This is neat, but isn't actually right. Each partner has to know each startup, which is, yes, O(n2) relationships. But there's no one who needs to do work proportional to the number of partner-startup relationships: each partner only has O(n) startups to keep track of. So probably the reason it blew up was just ordinary linear growth outstripping capacity: 60 startups was an amount most partners could keep track of, and 80 wasn't.

lifeisstillgood 9d
The thing that leaps out is "fund lots of small startups, the lessons are repeatable".

I occasionally bang on about "Million Startups". Some back of the envelope maths and I reckon one could finance a literal million startups with what SoftBank might call a bad year (around 30 billion). When YC started they funded people with 5k per founder.

I am not saying fund the next fusion machine, but put momentum into cities and groups across the globe.

And if what pg says is true (there are few new problems) then guiding those startups must be more feasible then "million" sounds. Yes 60 to 80 is a big leap but 80 to a million is only slightly bigger :-)

Anyway - saying more startups on HN is very much preaching to the choir so Inwill stop now.

thenerdhead 9d
> Speed defines startups. Focus enables speed. YC improves focus.

Couldn't you substitute YC for mentorship, coaching, advisement, etc? Or even peers trying to accomplish shared goals/vision?

Surprisingly this article has little to even say about users, but more about YC users (i.e. founders in the program).

I was hoping to read something applicable to how little companies actually talk to users and how practicing zero-distance between them will make you successful regardless of how much money you raise. Instead, this read like an ad for YC.

dsr_ 9d
"[2] When I say the summer 2012 batch was broken, I mean it felt to the partners that something was wrong. Things weren't yet so broken that the startups had a worse experience. In fact that batch did unusually well."

When something unusual happens (every partner needs to keep track of more startups) and the result is unexpectedly more success instead of less, doesn't that suggest that the partners were counterintuitively wrong about feeling wrong?

An experiment might be in order.

fairity 9d
More of a meta discussion, but it's interesting that pretty much all HN threads on PG's recent essays have a strong, negative sentiment. My guess is that this is explained by 3 factors:

1) The quantity and quality of new ideas in PG's essays is declining.

2) Readers' expectations of quality in PG's essays is increasing.

3) The pool of disenfranchised readers is growing.

The quantity and quality of new ideas is decreasing because PG naturally wrote down his best ideas a long time ago.

Readers' expectations increases because YC's power and influence grows.

And, the pool of disenfranchised readers grows as more people try to join YC's ranks unsuccessfully.

I feel badly about this because anyone who has interacted with PG irl knows he's as kind-hearted as people come. But, then again, I get the sense this doesn't bother him too much .

vecter 9d
> We learned that the hard way, in the notorious "batch that broke YC" in the summer of 2012. Up till that point we treated the partners as a pool. When a startup requested office hours, they got the next available slot posted by any partner. That meant every partner had to know every startup. This worked fine up to 60 startups, but when the batch grew to 80, everything broke. The founders probably didn't realize anything was wrong, but the partners were confused and unhappy because halfway through the batch they still didn't know all the companies yet.

I was part of the S12 batch. I certainly knew it was broken a few weeks in. Every week when we had office hours, it was always with a new partner and we spent the entire time getting them up-to-speed on just our background and context.

Still enjoyed the experience and would do YC again, but, yes, we knew it was broken.

jseliger 9d
Another related surprise is how bad founders can be at realizing what their problems are. Founders will sometimes come in to talk about some problem, and we'll discover another much bigger one in the course of the conversation

This is also true of undergrads, who often come in to office hours thinking they have one problem, but they in fact have another, or several others. I suspect that mentorship is useful: https://jseliger.wordpress.com/2010/10/02/how-to-get-your-pr... because good mentors often see the non-apparent problems.

lisper 9d
This essay is getting a surprising amount of hate, and I must confess that my first impression on reading it was that it sounded an awful lot like a Robert Kiyosaki book [1]. But then I followed the two links in the essay [2] [3] and that put it into perspective: the thing that Paul learned from his users is that they are looking for The Answer, the formula, the procedure for how to succeed, and there is no such formula. It's like Goedel's incompleteness theorem, except that it's not a theorem. People come to YC and buy Robert Kiyosaki's books hoping to find an Answer that simply doesn't exist.

The difference between Paul and Robert is that Paul is up-front about this while Robert is cagey and deceptive and makes his money by stringing people along thinking that The Answer can be found by buying one more of his books. But I think a lot of the hate here is driven by disappointment that Paul is honest, and that his answer is that there is no Answer. It can be frustrating to hear that (which is also something that Paul explicitly points out).


[1] https://www.amazon.com/Rich-Dad-Poor-Teach-Middle/dp/1612680...

[2] http://paulgraham.com/lesson.html

[3] http://paulgraham.com/before.html

t3estabc 9d
Oh cool a new essay from Paul.
jollyllama 9d
Good article, there are still startups out there (some in late stages) choosing mistaken strategies that don't allow them to get or incorporate user feedback.
phpthrowaway99 9d
PGs take on why early stage VCs gain so much experience reminds me of my opinions on why car sales is the best sales experience.

I sold cars for almost a decade and was pretty good at it averaging 30 cars a month. That means every year I helped people sign for $16 million of products. In the end I probably sold 3000 cars for over $100 million.

(Note, I stayed in it way too long. I think most of these benefits would come from 2 years)

I made close to 50,000 phone calls, leaving probably 20,000 voicemails. I closed atleast 1000 deals purely on the phone.

I've heard excuses, stalls, lies, promises and objections over 10,000 times.

I've seen thousands of married couples discuss if they should go ahead with spending $30-100k. I've seen how they interact while waiting. (Nothing pains me more than couples, or moreso one party, playing games on their phones ignoring each other).

While there is a lot more to modern tech sales than just closing incoming leads, I think car sales is an accelerator course for interacting with, reading, and closing people.

FerociousTimes 9d
Prompted by the negative feedback that this essay received, ranging from being a sales pitch in disguise, to being a word salad going in all directions without answering the central question posed by the author right in the opening paragraphs, I had to go and re-examine the piece and see if these concerns are valid or not, and unexpectedly the second reading reaffirmed my initial positive reaction that this is actually a good piece, maybe not the best, but still good.

In spirit of open discussion and intellectual curiosity here, I share my insights in the following order matching that of the post:

1) PG opens with the best advice that he could dispense to prospective applicants which is "what you've learned from users".

2) He proceeds to ask himself the same question.

3) He then informs readers that his users; startup founders, usually face the same set of problems across the board.

4) Since these problems are the same, he thought of automating the solution to scale his business (dogfooding in some sense).

5) That blew up in his face spectacularly that he had to rework the plan and concede that his solution won't scale.

6) But these same problems are not recognized uniformly by founders as they sometime face difficulties identifying them in the first place, that's where the YC partners' role come to fill this unmet need.

7) Even when people are good at identifying problems, some are bad at determining the severity or urgency that these problems pose, cue again the YC partners' role.

8) Even when they're good at risk assessment, some are bad at risk mitigation, and won't listen to the advice given by the partners but it is not made clear what he means exactly by "not listening", dismissing/not acting on solutions proposed by YC staff, or not acknowledging that there's a problem to begin with?

9) Getting down to business to solve these problems warrants focus, and how's this focus tied into speed, and how YC can help with that.

10) Startup colleagues are more important than YC partners when it comes to realizing success with their feedback, guidance and even practical help and how YC is the best in class in this regard.

Even though the marketing language, esp the value propositions in the piece is a bit stronger for my taste, but I can't say with honesty that it overpowered the core message of the essay nor was it incoherent or disjointed in anyway that made following or understanding impossible as some have claimed here.

Verdict: 8/10

hinkley 9d
> Not that founders listen. That was another big surprise: how often founders don't listen to us. A couple weeks ago I talked to a partner who had been working for YC for a couple batches and was starting to see the pattern. "They come back a year later," she said, "and say 'We wish we'd listened to you.'"

I have a theory I've shared a few times that one of our main problems is Exceptionalism, and stuff like this go into the evidence pile. My first thought on reading this paragraph was, "Someone needs to watch more Gordon Ramsay shows."

PG's observation is practically the thesis of GR's Kitchen Nightmares. Owners think their business is in trouble, not that they are in trouble, and so any advice that touches their identity is abruptly and sometimes aggressively dismissed. One guy was so invested in the fact that he'd bought some fancy french stove that Ramsay had to bully him into selling it. Even used the price versus a stove more appropriate for the business was enough cash to keep the owner afloat for an extra 3-6 months. It seemed like Ramsay thought that if he hadn't bought it in the first place, the restaurant wouldn't have gotten on his show at all.

Most of the computing problems in software were solved in the 70's and 80's. The new solutions trickle in just fast enough to keep things from getting tedious. Most of what we spend time on are 'process' or 'style' issues that are really people problems, ranging from cognition to group dynamics. But we don't want to face that because, as someone once put it, some of us were drawn to computers because we thought we could avoid interpersonal dynamics, and instead what happened is that we spent years looking at computers while our peers were practicing interpersonal skills, putting us several years more behind, and then we find out the job is substantially about interpersonal skills. We don't want to look at it because it both breaks the illusion and suggests that we made a mistake, and we can't make those, can we.

O__________O 9d
Oddest part of this post to me is that the author founded HN, but largely abandoned it because dealing with the users was a huge mental sinkhole for them; not able to find the quote, but clearly recall him saying this, though might be wrong.

As it relates to HN, PG what have you learned from the users? If HN was a startup, would it make it into YC?

jrm4 9d
I think I very much understand the hate this article is getting, and perhaps it's a thing endemic to the entire concept of "investment."

People around here like "solving problems," and I'd go further to say that this is perhaps the most fulfilling thing one can do.

VC doesn't do that. VC is "just greed." This is not to say that VC's can't invest in companies that solve things. If they do, great. But what's perhaps irksome is, here we are watching money try to chase more money, and whether or not a problem is solved is irrelevant.

For those of us who have actually solved problems by means of a business -- watching this particular flavor of a mistake by wealthy (or wanna-be-wealth) people e.g. "oh, I wouldn't buy the product myself" is just annoying.

To those of us that solve problems -- we're now hearing about obviously just a complete f**ing idiot chasing money -- and worse, a space that still might give to him despite this.

I understand that this it just how it is sometimes, but I'm not surprised that this catches backlash.

andrewmcwatters 9d
God, even as an open source maintainer, all of these insights SCREAM incredibly relevant.

In fact, what is worse is that you don't realize your focus is totally wrong because you're not losing revenue. You might be losing eyeballs or growth and adoption, but that's easier to gloss over considering it's a factor of advertising.

I constantly ask myself when looking at some of the de facto solutions in open source spaces what the hell the maintainers are doing, because what they are focused on is completely irrelevant.

The same could be said about large companies who have so much revenue that can continue to make mistakes until someone challenges them.

gnicholas 9d
Is this what VCs want when they ask what you have learned from your users? It sounds like most of the learnings are about what his users do wrong, and why. There's surprisingly little in the way of "our users told us X and we realized we need to do Y".

I assumed that when people ask what you've learned from your users, they're not asking you to list how lousy your users are at doing various things, and why they just need to listen to you more.

I would actually be interested to read a post about what a VC has learned from his/her users, in a constructive sense.

maverickJ 9d
“Focus is doubly important for early stage startups, because not only do they have a hundred different problems, they don't have anyone to work on them except the founders. If the founders focus on things that don't matter, there's no one focusing on the things that do.”

Paul hits the nail on the head with this.

I like to think of this as the idea of everything is not for you. It’s very important to know what the goal is and ignore every other thing that does not align with it.

The article below helps provide a framework of focus and the idea that everything is not for you.


breck 9d
Amazing essay.

The only weak spot I could find was "It took me a long time to figure out why founders don't listen."

I think sometimes their advice is packaged in a data backed, falsifiable way. For example, JL's: "I don't know of a single case of a startup that felt they spent too much time talking to users".

But sometimes it's just "Because I said so".

In the latter case it would be better if they showed their CSV backing their advice, or took the time to reformulate into a testable, falsifiable piece of wisdom.

personjerry 9d
A bit surprising that pg hasn't upgraded to https yet
ano88888 9d
I like PG and his essays. And I followed him on twitter also. While I really admire him but no one is perfect including PG. What I notice is that he always stubbornly believe he is right on all things he believe and look down on others who have a different opinion. I think PG should reflect on himself, if he believes he is right on all things all the time, then it is probably objectively not true. This is the smart people trap. They are right a lot of the times and that make them too errogant.
skhameneh 9d
> Indeed, very ambitious people probably need colleagues more than anyone else, because they're so starved for them in everyday life.

This stood out for me, likely for reasons different than intended. I've tried to reflect more on ambition and focus, realizing that others cannot read ones mind. In many ways we're limited by how we express ourselves and how we're perceived. Everyone has their own scale of ambition and beliefs; a good colleague will be able to understand your level of ambition irrespective of their own.

sbt 8d
This essay is uncharacteristically incoherent. The title is "What I've learned from users", yet after reading it I have no answer to this question.
Jenny_Wengerd 8d
contingencies 9d
YC founders aren't just inspired by one another. They also help one another. That's the happiest thing I've learned about startup founders: how generous they can be in helping one another.

This goes both ways. A few years ago a group reached out to me from HN who wanted to start up in the same sector we're working in. They were a small group of guys from a famous US university who arranged to call me and pick my brains, which I was happy to do for over an hour. I was all like "welcome to the space" and gave them some strategic pointers. I had done online YC and met some of the YC partners and felt these people being from a decent university and engaged with HN should have been, err, of reasonable ethical stature. Later on these people totally blanked me, are presenting my insights freely shared as their own, and have since secured YC funding. I am not worried in the slightest - in fact I can see them struggling and their mistakes are clear to me from afar, but I just wanted to note clearly that there is no code of honour that will not be broken, and this place is not immune.