Many of the most talented engineers have one thing in common: they lack emotion. They operate like machines. It’s good for business, good for coding, and it often produces great results … the behavior is rewarded. YCombinator, arguably the world’s premier incubator, is developer driven. Paul Graham codes, and so do the vast majority of the company’s partners. Jessica Livingston appears to be the exception, in that she appears to be more expressive (from the few times I’ve seen her). So why on earth am I bringing this up?
Yesterday evening I attended a CNET panel that included Naval Ravikant (AngelList), Dave McClure (500 Startups), and George Zachary (Charles River Ventures). George Zachary hit on his greatest dissatisfaction with the YCombinator process: the formulaic presentations at the fund’s semi-annual demo day event. YCombinator has perfected the presentation to the point where there is no longer personality involved in the presentations. It’s simply a delivery of “facts”.
In such an environment, 99dresses became a shining star as the founder is a cult of personality. YCombinator is extremely data driven (something StartupStats is as well), but this may also be their weakness. I often reflect on something that I mentioned to Andrew Warner ofMixergy and Hiten Shah ofKISSmetrics: it’s possible to over-optimize.
For example, HuffingtonPost has taken content optimization to the extreme. They end up with content like the posts pictured to the right at the top of their site: it has nothing to do with quality, it has to do with clicks. This happens to work when you have a mass audience (it also happens to result in “junk”) but when you have a targeted audience that happens to be intelligent, it can backfire.
For YCombinator, the potential of over-optimization can hurt the chances of entrepreneurs who don’t fit the standard “high-quality” sales pitch mold. In other words, over-optimization removes emotion and focuses solely on measurable variables (e.g. Dropbox presented like this, so you should too). Unfortunately for YCombinator, personality can’t be easily measured. Personality and individualism adds another variable to the equation.
While I wasn’t there to see the presentations, both Dave McClure and George Zachary appeared to have similar takes on the presentations, even providing their own mild interpretations. While I’m sure YCombinator will go back and see how the companies’ performance stacked up against their internal algorithms, personality is not going to figure into the equation. Ironically there are plenty of great founders that have such robotic natures: the Google founders, Mark Zuckerberg, the list goes on…
However the greatest founders have something magical about them. They exude an energy that others could only wish for. Steve Jobs is the perfect example of this. Another would be Sebastian Thrun of Udacity (someone George Zachary also invested in). We’re all humans, sobe human. Granted, such strong personalities can also present volatility to a mechanized investment system. Yet letting the personalities shine through is critical. It’s these personalities that make the business and create a culture. Hacker culture is great for coding dreams … it’s not as great at building personality.
If YCombinator can figure out some way to integrate personality into their system that would be awesome. I’m not sure whether or not the computer can handle that though…