Paul Graham Blog: Talk About Jessica Livingston

Original author: Paul Graham
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A few months ago, in one edition, an article appeared about the Y Combinator project, which stated that in the early stages of its development it was a “one-man theater”. Sadly enough, one encounters such things quite often. But the problem with this description is not only that it is unfair. It also misleads readers. What YC is right now is more to the credit of Jessica Livingston. If you do not understand her, then you will not understand YC. So let me tell you about Jessica.

YC had four founders. One beautiful evening, Jessica and I decided to found it, and the very next day we attracted my friends Robert Morris (Robert Morris) and Trevor Blackwell (Trevor Blackwell). Jessica and I ran YC day after day, while Robert and Trevor read the resume and interviewed us.

Jessica and I started dating before the birth of YC. First, we tried to be “professionals” and act accordingly, that is, forget about feelings. But later it seemed funny to us, and we decided not to pretend anymore. Together with Jessica, we had a huge impact on YC - few would dispute this fact. This platform has become for us something like a family. The founders of startups at first were mostly young people. We all gathered together at dinner once a week, for the first couple of years I prepared a treat for such meetings. Our first office was located in a private house, the atmosphere of which was strikingly different from the offices of venture firms on Sand Hill Road. And in a way, that was an advantage. Everyone who came to us felt sincerity, the authenticity of our motives. And that means that people didn’t just believe us - that was the wonderful quality that startups needed to be vaccinated. Authenticity is one of the most important features that YC seeks in the founders, not only because fraudsters and adventurers annoy, but also because authenticity is one of the main features that distinguish successful startups from everyone else.

In her early years, YC was a family, and Jessica was his mother. And she created a culture that then became one of YC's most important innovations. Culture is important to any organization, but at YC, culture determined more than just how we behaved while working on a product. At YC, our culture was a product.

Jessica was also a mother in another sense - she had the last word. All that we did as an organization first went through it - whom to finance, what to tell the public, what to do with other companies, who to hire.

Before we had children, YC to some extent became our life. We did not have a clear line between work and leisure. We talked about YC all the time. And we liked it in spite of the fact that some areas of entrepreneurship can spoil privacy. We founded it because it was interesting to us. And some of the problems we tried to solve were infinitely complex. How to recognize a good founder? This can be discussed for years. And we discussed - and continue to this day.

Something I do better than Jessica, something she does better than me. But in one thing it cannot be surpassed - in the ability to understand people. She is one of the few who, with only one glance, is able to capture the essence of man. She almost instantly exposes scammers. At YC, she earned the nickname Social Radar, and this particular quality was critical to make YC what it is today. The sooner you choose a startup, the more this choice is based on the identity of its founder. At later stages, investors can evaluate products and growth statistics. At the stage at which YC invests in startups, often there is no product or any numbers.

Others thought that YC had a special understanding of the future of technology. But basically, our understanding could be expressed in the words once said by Socrates: we at least knew that we knew nothing. What made YC successful was the ability to choose good founders. We thought Airbnb was a bad idea. We gave the company financing because we liked its founders.

During the interview, Robert, Trevor and I bombarded candidates with technical questions. Jessica mainly watched what was happening. Many candidates probably considered her some kind of secretary, especially at first. Because it was she who went out to call each group, and did not ask many questions. She was not opposed at all. On the contrary, it was easier for her to observe people if they did not notice her. But after the interview, the three of us turned to Jessica and asked: “What does Social Radar say (see note 1 at the end of the article)?”

And although at first we did it just indulging ourselves, but it turned out that such a practice is incredibly valuable for YC. We did not understand this at the beginning, but the people we chose form a network of YC students. And as soon as we selected them, they forever became part of it (with that rare exception, if they were not in the mood to get something out of the ordinary). Now some believe that the network of YC pupils is his most valuable feature. Personally, I think that advising YC is also quite good, although the graduate network, of course, is one of its key features. The level of trust and help is striking for a group of this magnitude. And basically it's all thanks to Jessica.

(As we learned later, our losses were small when we denied people whose personal qualities we doubted, because there is a relationship between how good the founders are and how they do their tasks. If the bad founders were suddenly lucky to succeed , then they are prone to early sale of the business. For the most part, successful founders are distinguished by positive personal qualities.)

If Jessica was so important to YC, why are so few people aware of this? Partly because I'm a writer, and writers always attract a disproportionate amount of attention. The YC brand was originally my brand, and our candidates were the people who read my essays. But there is another reason: Jessica hates attention. Communication with reporters annoys her. The thought of making a presentation paralyzes her. Even at our wedding, she felt uncomfortable, because the bride is always in the spotlight (see note 2 at the end of the article).

She hates increased attention to herself, not only because she is shy, but because it interferes with her role as Social Radar. She cannot be herself. And you can never watch people if everyone is watching you.

In addition, there is another reason why people's attention is painful for her - she does not like boasting. When she does something open to publicity, her greatest fear (besides the obvious fear of doing her job badly) is that her undertakings will seem ostentatious. She argues that excessive modesty is a common problem for most women. But in her case, it is something more. Deep inside her sits a fear of ostentation, which has almost grown into a phobia.

She also hates clarifying relationships. She cannot fend off - she just paralyzes. And unfortunately, as a public face of an organization, one often has to take a hit.

Thus, in spite of the fact that YC owes its uniqueness to Jessica to a greater degree, those qualities that helped her do this are responsible for the fact that Jessica would not want to appear in the history of YC. Everyone believes in stories about how Paul Graham founded YC, and his wife somehow helped him in this. Even YC haters accept this. When a couple of years ago we were accused of not investing in more women entrepreneurs, people saw YC as something identical to Paul Graham. Recognizing the key role of Jessica in YC would ruin the stories of our prosecutors.

Jessica was seething with indignation at the thought that people accused her company of sexism. I had never seen her in such a fury. But she did not contradict them. Not publicly. Between us, she scolded them great. She wrote three essays on the issue of women entrepreneurs, but did not dare to publish them. She saw how much bile was in this debate, and did not dare to enter into it.

And this is not only because she does not like to quarrel. She is such a vulnerable person that she dislikes even clarifying relationships with dishonest personalities. The idea of ​​clashing with yellow-media journalists or trolls on Twitter would have seemed to her not only frightening, but also disgusting.

But Jessica understood that her example of a successful female founder would encourage more women to start their own companies. Therefore, last year she did something that YC had not seen in her entire history - she hired a PR agency to do a series of interviews. In one of the first interviews with Jessica, the reporter threw aside all her knowledge about startups and concocted a sensational story about how some guy tried to flirt with her near the bar where they had an appointment. Jessica was amazed in part because the guy did nothing wrong, but in history she was exposed as a victim, who is only important because she is a woman, rather than one of the most knowledgeable investors in the entire Valley.

After that, she decided to stop working with this PR agency.

You will not hear in the press about what Jessica has achieved. So let me tell you about her achievements. Y Combinator is basically a community of people - such as a university. He does not create a product. People are its essence. Jessica more than anyone put her hand to the selection of these people and contributed to their further development. In this regard, she created YC.

Jessica knows more about the personal qualities of startup founders than anyone. Her vast experience and ability to understand people are the perfect combination for our business. The personal qualities of the founders will best tell you what success a startup can achieve. And startups, in turn, are the most important source of growth in developed countries.

Jessica Livingston is the person who knows all the most important factor of economic growth in developed countries. Do not you think that such a person should be more famous?


[1] Harj Taggar reminded me that despite the fact that Jessica didn’t ask a lot of questions, they were mostly important:

“Jessica could always smell if something was wrong with the founders team or intentions, and asked disarming questions, which usually revealed much more than the founders themselves suspected.

[2] Or more precisely: while she likes to attract attention in the sense of receiving well-deserved approval for her work, she does not like another kind of attention - constant close monitoring. Unfortunately, not only for her, but also for a large number of people, the first largely depends on the second.

If you happen to see Jessica at a social event, then you will never assume that she hates attention to herself because: (a) she is very polite, (b) when she is nervous, she smiles more.

[3] Not only media, but also feminists should learn about the existence of people like Jessica. There are successful women who do not like abuse. This means that they will not participate in public fights about women and their rights if the conversations are saturated with negativity.

I developed my own Graham Law for conversation. When passions heat up to a certain level, going beyond politeness, more intelligent people prefer to leave. No one understands women entrepreneurs better than Jessica. But it is unlikely that someday she will publicly express her thoughts on this topic. She had already tried to enter this river and decided that she would never repeat this again.

Thanks to:

Sam Altman, Paul Buchheit, Patrick Collison, Daniel Gackle, Carolynn Levy, Jon Levy, Kirsty Nathoo Morris (Robert Morris), Jeff Ralston (Geoff Ralston) and Harj Tagger (Harj Taggar) for reading a draft of this article. And thanks to Jessica Livingston, who made me cut this essay just a bit (surprisingly).

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