Y Combinator President Geoff Ralston shares actionable advice for startup founders

Running a startup accelerator comes with a number of occupational hazards, but “skepticism is the easiest thing to fall into when you’ve seen too many companies,” said Y Combinator President Geoff Ralston, “and it’s the thing you have to avoid the most.”

Ralston joined me last week for an hour-long Extra Crunch Live interview where we talked about several topics, including how YC has adapted its program during the pandemic, why he has “never stopped coding” and what he sees changing in tech.

“We try to not be too smart, because great founders often see things beyond what you’re seeing,” he said. “If you try to be too smart, you’ll miss the Airbnbs of the world. You’ll say ‘Airbeds in peoples houses? That’s stupid! I’m not going to invest in that,’ and you could’ve bought 10% of Airbnb for like nothing back then… 10% of that company… you can do your own math.”


Extra Crunch Live is our new virtual event series where we sit down with some of the top founders, investors and builders in tech to glean every bit of insight they care to share. We’ve recently been joined by folks like Hunter Walk, Kirsten Green and Mark Cuban.

To watch the entire interview with Geoff Ralston, sign up for ExtraCrunch — but once you’ve got that covered, you can find it (and a bunch of key excerpts from the chat!) below.


Advice for getting into YC

I prefer it when an Extra Crunch Live conversation starts out with actionable advice, so we kicked things off with any suggestions Ralston had for folks looking to apply to YC. And he had plenty! Such as:

  • Mind the deadline, but all hope is not lost if you miss it: “If you miss the deadline, it’s not the end of the world,” says Ralston. “Don’t tell anyone on the admissions team that I said this, but it’s a little bit of a soft deadline. We would never turn down the next epic company because you missed the deadline… although your odds go down of getting in if you don’t make it in by [the deadline]. Why shouldn’t your odds be as high as possible?”
  • Don’t change things up for YC’s sake: “Do whatever you can do to make your company as successful, as real as possible… but don’t try to like, pretty up your company for YC,” he says. “That’s never smart [to do] for an investor. Don’t make bad short-term decisions because you think there’s a deadline that you should do wrong things for. Instead, build your company for the long term, and do the best you can possibly do to find product market fit, to build the right product, to build the right technology, to build the right software or whatever it is you’re building.”

Later in the video (around the 40:55 mark), a question from the audience leads Ralston back to the topic, and he has a few more pieces of advice:

  • Stick to the instructions: “The instructions are fairly clear. It says: do a one-minute video, have all the founders there, and talk to us. That’s a good idea! Don’t give us some marketing video, we’re not interested in that. That’s not how we’re making our decision.”
  • Hone your pitch: “Think about expressing yourself concisely, with great clarity. It does not help to write a book in the application. Be kind to us! We’re reading, you know, hundreds of applications. Get your idea across as clearly as you can. That’s actually a really good signal to us, if you can describe what you’re doing with a minimum of words. That helps us a ton.”
  • Tell your story: “Do not skimp on talking about yourselves!” Ralston notes. “We are super interested in you, who you are, and why you’re doing what you’re doing.”

Three growth marketing experts share their best tools and strategies for 2020

At last month’s Early Stage virtual event, channel growth experts joined TechCrunch reporters and editors for a series of conversations covering the best tools and strategies for building startups in 2020. For this post, I’ve recapped highlights of talks with:

  • Ethan Smith, founder and CEO, Graphite
  • Susan Su, startup growth advisor, executive-in-residence, Sound Ventures
  • Asher King-Abramson, founder, Got Users

If you’d like to hear or watch these conversations in their entirety, we’ve embedded the videos below.


Ethan Smith: How to build a high-performance SEO engine

Relying on internet searches to learn about growth topics like search engine optimization leads to a rabbit hole of LinkedIn thinkfluencer musings and decade-old Quora posts. Insights are few and far between, because SEO has changed dramatically as Google has squashed spammy techniques “specialists” have pushed for years.

Ethan Smith, owner of growth agency Graphite, says Google didn’t kill SEO, but the channel has evolved. “SEO has built a negative reputation over time of being spammy,” Smith says. “The typical flow of an SEO historically has been: I need to find every single keyword I possibly can find and auto-generate a mediocre page for each of those keywords, the user experience doesn’t really matter, content can be automated and spun, the key is fooling the bot.”

Artificial intelligence has disrupted this flow as algorithms have abandoned hard-coded rules for more flexible designs that are less vulnerable to being gamed. What SEO looks like today, Smith says, is all about trying to “figure out what the algorithm is trying to accomplish and try to accomplish the same thing.” Google’s algorithms aren’t looking for buckets of keywords, they’re looking to distill a user’s intent.

The key to building a strategy around SEO as a company breaks down into six steps surrounding intent, says Smith:

  1. Target by intent

Rep. Zoe Lofgren to talk privacy and policy at Disrupt 2020

We’re excited to announce that Rep. Zoe Lofgren is coming to Disrupt 2020 this September 14-18.

Lofgren, a Democrat congresswoman and California native, has served at the heart of Silicon Valley since she was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1995, under which she’s served four presidents — and impeached exactly half of them.

As one of the most prominent lawmakers in Silicon Valley, Lofgren has a unique insights into the wants and needs of the world’s biggest tech giants that serve in her constituency — but also to hold them to account.

As a staunch defender of the people and their constitutional rights, Lofgren has pushed to protect net neutrality, fought to curb domestic government surveillance, and lobbied against far-reaching anti-piracy rules that critics said would have led to online censorship. She has campaigned to protect good-faith security researchers from “overzealous prosecutions,”and is a fervent supporter of secure encryption — despite efforts by the government to push for backdoors. Lofgren also continues to press the federal government to improve election security ahead of November’s presidential vote.

But she has also been at the forefront of keeping Big Tech in check, and hasn’t shied away from pushing legislation to rein in some of Silicon Valley’s more egregious data privacy and business practices.

Lofgren is by far one of the most clued-in and tech savvy lawmakers on Capitol Hill, which is precisely why we’re thrilled she will join us at Disrupt 2020 to talk about some of the most hot-button issues.

Should every American have the legal right to online privacy from data-hungry tech giants? What does it mean to be a startup in an ever-changing world of security and privacy rules? How worried is she about foreign powers interfering with our democratic process? And what can ordinary Americans do to push back against government snooping?

Come to Disrupt 2020 to find out. We’re getting closer to the event and early bird pricing is about to expire at the end of the week. Save some $$ by grabbing your pass before July 31!

How to pick the right Series A investors

Early-stage startup founders who are embarking on a Series A fundraising round should consider this: their relationship with the members of their board might last longer than the average American marriage.

In other words, who invests in a startup matters as much — or more — than the total capital they’re bringing with them.

It’s important for founders to get to know the people coming onto their board because they’ll likely be a part of the company for a long time, and it’s really hard to fire them, Jake Saper of Emergence Capital noted during TechCrunch’s virtual Early Stage event in July. But forging a connection isn’t as easy as one might think, Saper added.

The fundraising process requires founders to pack in meetings with numerous investors before making a decision in a short period of time. “Neither party really gets to know the other well enough to know if this is a relationship they want to enter into,” Saper said.

“You want to work with people who give you energy,” he added. “And this is why I strongly encourage you to start to get to know potential Series A leads shortly after you close your seed round.”

Here are the best methods to meet, win over and select Series A investors.

Identify industry experts

Saper recommends extending the typically short Series A time frame by identifying a handful of potential leads as soon as a founder has closed their seed round. Founders shouldn’t just pick any one with a big name and impressive fund. Instead, he recommends focusing on investors who are suited to their startup’s business category or industry.

Register for our next pitch-off happening on August 13

Here’s a shout-out to all the early-stage founders attending Disrupt 2020. Don’t forget to register for our next Pitchers & Pitches — on August 13 — and get ready to hone your 60-second pitch to a razor’s edge.

If you’re not in the know, our ongoing Pitchers & Pitches webinar series is a pitch-off-masterclass-mashup. It’s a chance to deliver your best pitch to a panel of experts who will provide invaluable critique to help you craft a more compelling pitch. Better pitches equal more opportunities, amirite?

Anyone can benefit by attending Pitchers & Pitches, but only companies exhibiting in Digital Startup Alley can compete. Want to be eligible to pitch in next week’s event? Buy a Disrupt Digital Startup Alley Package here.

We’ll randomly select five startups to pitch, receive direct feedback and have a shot at taking the top prize. We love prizes…especially the kind that help build a better startup. The winning founders receive a consulting session with cela, a company that connects early-stage startups to accelerators and incubators that can help scale their businesses.

Here’s another great reason to exhibit in Digital Startup Alley. You get exclusive access to our three-part interactive webinar series. Check the dates and topics below:

  • August 12: The Dos and Don’ts of Working with the Press
  • August 19: COVID-19’s Impact on the Startup World
  • August 26: Fundraising and Hiring Best Practices

We’ll announce the pitching lineup — and the specific VC judges those founders need to impress — on August 12. Remember, only startups exhibiting at Disrupt 2020 are eligible to pitch. If you want in on the action, get yourself a Digital Startup Alley Package today.

Register here and join us for the next Pitchers & Pitches on August 13. And hey, even if you don’t compete, you’ll hear loads of good advice on ways to improve your presentation skills and make the most of your 60-second pitch.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Extra Crunch Live: Join Eric Hippeau for a live Q&A on August 13 at 11am PT/2pm ET

The media landscape is changing rapidly. Even before COVID, media companies were looking at new revenue models beyond your standard banner ad, all the while trying to navigate the oft-changing world of social media and search, where a minor algorithm change can boost or tank traffic.

Anytime an industry is in the midst of a transformation is a great time for startups to capitalize. That’s why we’re amped to have Lerer Hippeau’s managing partner Eric Hippeau join us for an episode of Extra Crunch Live.

The episode will air at 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT on August 13. Folks in the audience can ask their own questions, but you must be an Extra Crunch member to access the chat. If you still haven’t signed up, now’s your chance!

Eric Hippeau served as CEO for the Huffington Post before co-founding Lerer Hippeau. He also served as chairman and CEO at Ziff-Davis, a former top publisher of computer magazines. He sits on the boards of BuzzFeed and Marriott International.

Lerer Hippeau portfolio companies include Axios, BuzzFeed, Genius, Chartbeat and Giphy. And while the firm has experience in media, that doesn’t mean the portfolio is squarely focused on it. Other portfolio companies include Casper, WayUp, Warby Parker, Mirror, HungryRoot, Glossier, Everlane, Brit + Co. and AllBirds, to name just a few.

As an early-stage investor, Hippeau knows what it takes for companies to get the attention of VCs and take the deal across the finish line. We’ll chat with Hippeau about some of the dos and don’ts of fundraising, his expectation for the next-generation of startups born in this pandemic world and which sectors he’s most excited to invest in.

As previously mentioned, Extra Crunch members are encouraged to bring their own questions to this discussion. Come prepared!

Hippeau joins an all-star cast of guests on Extra Crunch Live, including Mark Cuban, Roelof Botha, Kirsten Green, Aileen Lee and Charles Hudson. You can check out the full slate of episodes here.

You can find the full details of the conversation below.

Hear how working from home is changing startups and investing at Disrupt 2020

Let’s just say it has been a year. While a few ambitious startups like InVision and GitLab built their corporate cultures and talent hiring with a remote-first mentality, the reality is that the vast majority of founders never thought they would have to be socially distant from all of their employees. And it isn’t going to change: Google recently announced that all of their employees will be work from anywhere until summer 2021. We are only getting started with this new model of work.

Culture, productivity and speed are absolutely vital to the survival of early-stage startups, but how do you build growth and momentum in a remote-only world? And how are investors approaching this new environment and the opportunities that our changing patterns of work mean for us?

These are critical questions, which is why we are hosting a panel of VC investor superstars to talk more about them on the Extra Crunch stage at TechCrunch Disrupt 2020.

First, we have Sarah Cannon, partner at Index Ventures, who is perhaps best known in the Valley these days for her ambitious bet behind productivity tool Notion, which valued the relatively nascent startup at a cool $2 billion. Cannon has also backed messaging app Quill as well as Pitch, which offers collaboration around presentation documents. Future of work has been her bread and butter, and we’re excited to hear what she thinks is next in productivity and how startups will grow going forward.

Next, we have Sarah Guo, who is a general partner at Greylock. Guo also has been investing in the future of work and B2B tools, including Clubhouse (not the Clubhouse you are thinking about), which helps dev teams collaborate more effectively. In addition, she has backed family benefits platform Cleo and a panoply of cybersecurity companies — an area that has become acutely important as the classic perimeter of the workplace office has been replaced with employee laptops scattered across locations worldwide.

Third and finally on this panel we have Dave Munichiello, who is a general partner at GV. He’s backed a little social tool called Slack (I refuse to call it a productivity tool, but that might be one person’s opinion), as well as that remote-first startup GitLab, which has received upwards of a $3 billion valuation, and fintech infra company Plaid, which was sold to Visa last year for $5.3 billion in one of the biggest fintech exits of 2019.

From how to build products to how to build teams to what investors are looking for in startups in our crazy pandemic world, this panel has got you covered. Plus, because we are on the Extra Crunch stage at Disrupt 2020, we will be taking audience questions throughout the discussion. So come join the conversation as we figure out what 2020 means for the startup world this decade.

Get your pass today to Disrupt 2020. It’s 100% virtual, which means we 100% want to see you there!

Last chance to save on Disrupt 2020 passes

It’s last call startup fans, last call. We’re not talking about International Beer Day (which is a thing and it’s today — look it up). No, we mean August 7 is your absolute last chance to save up to $300 on a pass to Disrupt 2020. Beat the clock, buy your early-bird pass before 11:59 p.m. (PT), then hoist a beer to celebrate your savvy shopping. We’ll drink to that!

Every new challenge presents new opportunities, and that holds true for TechCrunch’s first all-virtual Disrupt. Now Disrupt is bigger, more accessible and more global than ever. Thousands of attendees across the world have five full days — September 14-18 — to connect, network, exhibit, compete and learn new and better ways to build their business.

As always, Disrupt features the top minds and makers in tech, investment and business. Check out the interviews, panel discussions, interactive Q&As and workshops that explore and tackle new trends, crucial issues and a metric ton (we measured) of how-tos designed to inform and support early-stage startups.

In a nod to the diverse, global aspect of this Disrupt, we’re also planning sessions that focus on Europe and Asia. Translation: time zone-friendly scheduling that won’t keep you up at night. Stay tuned for more on that front soon.

Here’s a quick snapshot of the Disrupt 2020 agenda, with just some of the topics leading experts will discuss. We’ll divulge more in the coming weeks. Hey, that’s another reason to stay tuned.

We’ve just scratched the surface of what you can do at Disrupt.

Network with CrunchMatch, our AI-powered platform that gets smarter the more you use it. It easily finds and connects you with the right people — you know, the ones who can help you reach your goals. And it opens weeks ahead of Disrupt to give you even more time to expand your network.

Explore hundreds of early-stage startups in Digital Startup Alley — or exhibit there yourself. Find new customers, potential investors, exciting partnerships.

Watch some of the most promising early-stage startups around the world go head-to-head in the renowned Startup Battlefield pitch competition. Which team will earn the Disrupt Cup and take home $100,000 in equity-free cash?

It’s time. Time to heed the last call, buy your Disrupt 2020 pass before 11:59 p.m. (PT) today and save up to $300. You could celebrate the heck out of International Beer Day with that kind of money — hey, we don’t judge.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

 

EventGeek relaunches as Circa to help marketers embrace virtual events

EventGeek was a Y Combinator-backed startup that offered tools to help large enterprises manage the logistics of their events. So with the COVID-19 pandemic essentially eliminating large-scale conferences, at least in-person, it’s not exactly surprising that the company had to reinvent itself.

Today, EventGeek relaunched as Circa, with a new focus on virtual events. founder and CEO Alex Patriquin said that Circa is reusing some pieces of EventGeek’s existing technology, but he estimated that 80% of the platform is new.

While the relaunch was only just became official, the startup says its software has already been used to adapt 40,000 in-person events into virtual conferences and webinars.

The immediate challenge, Patriquin said, is simply figuring out how to throw a virtual event — something that Circa offers a playbook for. But the startup’s goals go beyond virtual event logistics.

“Our new focus is really more at the senior marketing stakeholder level, helping them have a unified view of the customer,” Patriquin said.

He explained that “events have always been kind of disconnected from the marketing stack,” so the shift to virtual presents an opportunity to treat event participation as part of the larger customer journey, and to include events in the broader customer record. To that end, Circa integrates with sales and marketing systems like Salesforce and Marketo, as well as with video conferencing platforms like Zoom and On24.

Circa screenshot

Image Credits: Circa

“We don’t actually deliver [the conference] experience,” Patriquin said. “We put it into that context of the customer journey.”

Liz Kokoska, senior director of demand generation for North America at Circa customer Okta, made a similar point.

“Prior to Circa, we had to manage our physical and virtual events in separate systems, even though we thought of them as parts of the same marketing channel,” Kokoska said in a statement. “With Circa, we now have a single view of all our events in one place — this is helpful in planning and company-wide visibility on marketing activity. Being able to seamlessly adapt to the new world of virtual and hybrid events has given our team a significant advantage.”

And as Patriquin looks ahead to a world where large conferences are possible again, he predicted that there’s still “a really big opportunity for the events industry and for Circa.”

“As the in-person events start to come back, there’s going to be a phase where health and safety going to be paramount,” he continued. “During that health and safety phase, it’s going to be the age of hybrid events — where everything is virtual right now, hybrid will provide the opportunity to bring key [virtual] learnings into the back into the in-person world, to have a lot more data and intelligence and really be able to personalize an attendee’s experience.”

Announcing Sight Tech Global, an event on the future of AI and accessibility for people who are blind or visually impaired

Few challenges have excited technologists more than building tools to help people who are blind or visually impaired. It was Silicon Valley legend Ray Kurzweil, for example, who in 1976 launched the first commercially available text-to-speech reading device. He unveiled the $50,000 Kurzweil Reading Machine, a boxy device that covered a tabletop, at a press conference hosted by the National Federation of the Blind

The early work of Kurzweil and many others has rippled across the commerce and technology world in stunning ways. Today’s equivalent of Kurzweil’s machine is Microsoft’s Seeing AI app, which uses AI-based image recognition to “see” and “read” in ways that Kurzweil could only have dreamed of. And it’s free to anyone with a mobile phone. 

Remarkable leaps forward like that are the foundation for Sight Tech Global, a new, virtual event slated for Dec 2-3, that will bring together many of the world’s top technology and accessibility experts to discuss how rapid advances in AI and related technologies will shape assistive technology and accessibility in the years ahead.

The technologies behind Microsoft’s Seeing AI are on the same evolutionary tree as the ones that enable cars to be autonomous and robots to interact safely with humans. Much of our most advanced technology today stems from that early, challenging mission that top Silicon Valley engineers embraced to teach machines to “see” on behalf of humans.

From the standpoint of people who suffer vision loss, the technology available today is astonishing, far beyond what anyone anticipated even ten years ago. Purpose-built products like Seeing AI and computer screen readers like JAWS are remarkable tools. At the same time, consumer products including mobile phones, mapping apps, and smart voice assistants are game changers for everyone, those with sight loss not the least. And yet, that tech bonanza has not come close to breaking down the barriers in the lives of people who still mostly navigate with canes or dogs or sighted assistance, depend on haphazard compliance with accessibility standards to use websites, and can feel as isolated as ever in a room full of people. 

A computer can drive a car at 70 MPH without human assistance but there is not yet any comparable device to help a blind person walk down a sidewalk at 3 MPH.

In other words, we live in a world where a computer can drive a car at 70 MPH without human assistance but there is not yet any comparable device to help a blind person walk down a sidewalk at 3 MPH. A social media site can identify billions of people in an instant but a blind person can’t readily identify the person standing in front of them. Today’s powerful technologies, many of them grounded in AI, have yet to be milled into next-generation tools that are truly useful, happily embraced and widely affordable. The work is underway at big tech companies like Apple and Microsoft, at startups, and in university labs, but no one would dispute that the work is as slow as it is difficult. People who are blind or visually impaired live in a world where, as the science fiction author William Gibson once remarked, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

That state of affairs is the inspiration for Sight Tech Global. The event will convene the top technologists, human-computer interaction specialists, product designers, researchers, entrepreneurs and advocates to discuss the future of assistive technology as well as accessibility in general. Many of those experts and technologists are blind or visually impaired, and the event programming will stand firmly on the ground that no discussion or new product development is meaningful without the direct involvement of that community. Silicon Valley has great technologies but does not, on its own, have the answers.

The two days of programming on the virtual main stage will be free and available on a global basis both live and on-demand. There will also be a $25 Pro Pass  for those who want to participate in specialized breakout sessions, Q&A with speakers, and virtual networking. Registration for the show opens soon; in the meantime anyone interested may request email updates here

It’s important to note that there are many excellent events every year that focus on accessibility, and we respect their many abiding contributions and steady commitment. Sight Tech Global aims to complement the existing event line-up by focusing on hard questions about advanced technologies and the products and experiences they will drive in the years ahead – assuming they are developed hand-in-hand with their intended audience and with affordability, training and other social factors in mind. 

In many respects, Sight Tech Global is taking a page from TechCrunch’s approach to its AI and robotics events over the past four years, which were in partnership with MIT and UC Berkeley.  The concept was to have TechCrunch editors ask top experts in AI and related fields tough questions across the full spectrum of issues around these powerful technologies, from the promise of automation and machine autonomy to the downsides of job elimination and bias in AI-based systems. TechCrunch’s editors will be a part of this show, along with other expert moderators.  

As the founder of Sight Tech Global, I am drawing on my extensive event experience at TechCrunch over eight years to produce this event. Both TechCrunch and its parent company, Verizon Media, are lending a hand in important ways. My own connection to the community is through my wife, Joan Desmond, who is legally blind. 

The proceeds from sponsorships and ticket sales will go to the non-profit Vista Center for Blind and Visually Impaired, which has been serving Silicon Valley area for 75 years. The Vista Center owns the Sight Tech Global event and its executive director, Karae Lisle is the event’s chair. We have assembled a highly experienced team of volunteers to program and produce a rich, world-class virtual event on December 2-3.

Sponsors are welcome, and we have opportunities available ranging from branding support to content integration. Please email [email protected] for more information.

Our programming work is under way and we will announce speakers and sessions over the coming weeks. The programming committee includes Jim Fruchterman (Benetech / TechMatters) Larry Goldberg (Verizon Media), Matt King (Facebook) and Professor Roberto Manduchi (UC Santa Cruz). We welcome ideas and can be reached via [email protected]

For general inquiries, including collaborations on promoting the event, please contact [email protected].