Adam Smith

Idea: Y Combinator for Startup Recruiting

January, 2011

Recruiting more college students into startups is a constant topic of discussion.  Just today Fred Wilson mentioned it as one of the critical ingredients for the NYC community.

It always strikes me that more undergraduate hackers go to Wall Street than the startup community.

Maybe we can do something about it, and that's what I want to explore in this blog post...

Y Combinator is a great hack on the world.  It drives $billions of value creation by investing super small amounts.  It’s the ultimate in leverage.  Could college recruiting for startups be similarly hackable?

Well, why do so many students go to Google and Wall Street rather than startups?  It's a complex issue and there are lots of reasons, but here are some of the top ones:

  • College students are irrationally risk averse. Instead of paying annual salaries and bonuses, startup upside is captured in option grants that are riskier.  Many of the best college students at MIT are risk averse and think short term. These dispositions are highly cultural.
  • Prestige. Startups are missing brand value for parents, relatives, and friends.  This is also highly cultural.
  • Too Many Startups / Choice Paradox. Students have no idea how to pick the right startups.  Even if they did, there are an overwhelming number of choices.  This is classic paradox of choice.
  • Mismatched Timelines. Startups are often too short-sighted to do college recruiting well, since it takes a long term investment strategy.

Frankly there’s a lot of content and blogs out there about how to start your own company.  And Y Combinator has come around.  That is all very awesome.

But there’s so little content out there about what it’s like to join a startup, or how to join a startup right out of college, etc.

We’re not marketing to our customers very well.

And more broadly there are no concerted efforts to work on this problem.  What could we be doing together to move the needle for the whole community?

We wouldn't need the entire valley to cooperate here; you could do some interesting things just with just a few startups or as a single VC fund.  Here’s what you would do:

  1. Start by focusing on getting great interns for startups, and move to full time recruiting later as you learn and iterate.  (Successful internships lead to full time hires anyway.)

  2. Set up an open door application that any student can apply to, much like Y Combinator.  Also like Y Combinator and Startup School, the application should ask high signal, aggressive questions.  Resumes are required but of secondary importance.

  3. Find the applications that you think are promising.  The startups involved will get to browse through the remaining applications to decide who they’re interested in.

  4. Select a very particular breed of startups to participate – specifically startups with meaty internship projects where the company has some momentum and has already shipped their first product.  (The students are the customers here, not the companies.  The long term health of the program will depend mostly on quality of the students’ experiences.)

  5. Try to give students a list of three startups that are interested in them.

  6. If there’s only one startup interested in a student, it probably means you didn’t filter applications heavily enough before having the startups look at them.

  7. If more than three startups want a student I would call that student and coach them through deciding which three startups are most interesting to them.

  8. Fly the student out to meet and interview with each of the three startups.  At this point the student and the startup will already know a lot about each other, so the interviews will be two-way and probably more focused on evaluating culture fit.  Give the students some ideas on how to identify the best startup for them.

  9. While we’re at it, throw in Y Combinator style weekly dinners for the interns, with speakers from the startup ecosystem.

Word of mouth would be hugely important to the long term success of such a program.  Corollaries:

  • It'd be helpful to have a brand to leverage from the beginning.  Y Combinator could do it.  Sequoia could do it.  If someone without a brand were to do this they could try to partner with one of these guys.

  • Start with a medium push.  Initial momentum will be important, but so will your long term endurance.

  • Build an alumni network of the students who have been through the program.  They will help each other for years to come.

  • Leverage your alumni network to build awareness at top CS colleges.

  • Make sure the students are blown away every step along the way.  Customer service baby!

  • Be picky about who you accept when it comes to students AND startups.  Pairing a desperate company with a desperate applicant would dilute your brand and wouldn't be worth your time anyway.

So why is this important?

Startups deserve to win the battle for top CS graduates.  These hackers are young; they should be taking risks early in their career.  Their talent would be more leveraged at startups.  They would learn less about bureaucracy and more about creating products and value.

But wait!  It gets better!  …working at a startup can also prepare people for starting their own companies down the road, if they so choose.

Case in point: a few years ago at Xobni we recruited a killer engineer for an internship.  He came to work at Xobni as a full time employee a year later.  After doing some more fantastic work at Xobni, he is now starting his own company, and I think that’s a wonderful cycle to feed.

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