Building start-ups from first principles


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In my opinion one of the most helpful things YC has done for the start-up ecosystem is to apply a reductive mindset to start-up strategy: Make something people want. There is so much wisdom contained in that one sentence.

The thing it reminds me of most is studying mechanics at university. The way I was taught mechanics, your goal is to take a small set of first principles (mainly Newton’s laws of motion) and learn how to rigorously apply them to understand the motion of physical objects. The point in a classical mechanics course where you apply these simple laws and end up with a model of how a gyroscope works is breathtaking.

I watched Elon Musk speak at the Dublin Web Summit, and one of the most helpful points he made was that innovation is the product of reasoning from first principles (good summary here). Given his current set of companies he was mainly referring to the first principles of physics/chemistry, but I think there are some similar first principles for building start-ups that must be discovered and applied. YC’s motto feels like one of them. Like Newton’s laws of motion, the hard part isn’t reading the sentence once, the hard part is learning how to apply it to understand a gyroscope. Paul Graham’s essays on start-ups and their early customers often feel like the course notes that explain how to apply that first principle.

One of the hard things about being a start-up CEO is simultaneously building a product and a business from first principles whilst recognising the need to market your business through narrative and analogy. The classic example here is the “X of Y” pitch that drives most investor pitches. Narrative and storytelling is an incredibly important component of marketing and quickly explaining what you do. But if you want to build a great product & business, and you try to do that by analogy, you will fail. So the art is to learn how to use first principles when you are building, and analogy when you are selling.

The 10X Hustler

I first heard about Paul Graham through his essays. Prior to YC’s brand becoming the international juggernaut it is today, the essays were what lead Michelle, Pete and me to apply to YC. One of Paul’s essays that really stood out for me was How to Make Wealth, and in particular the concept that if you were a great hacker, you could be 10-100X more productive than the average developer at a large corporation. I think for many start-up folks that concept hits pretty hard.

Subsequent to that essay, the topic of 10X developers has been discussed at length on news.yc, Quora etc and become a common phrase in the start-up community.

In general though I believe that the idea of a 10X person is applicable to almost every start-up role. The key is to understand the characteristics that can in combination create enormous leverage for a particular role. We are starting to see this be acknowledged in marketing with the rise of the Growth Hacker term.

I think one variation of this that has not yet been fully acknowledged is the ‘10X Hustler’. I’d define this as someone who can grow a start-up through partnerships & 3rd party integrations 10X faster than the average corporate Business Development person. 

Some examples of 10X hustlers I’ve been lucky enough to get to know:

- Tristan Walker (formerly BD @ Foursquare). Prior to Foursquare, Tristan’s only proven business development experience was an internship at Twitter. He came from a banking background and wanted to break into tech. He hustled his way into Foursquare, and within a couple of years had put together partnerships with AMEX, The New York Times, CNN, MTV, and Starbucks that I believe were a key part of the story that lead to Foursquare becoming the brand it is today.

- Dave Haynes (BD @ Soundcloud). Dave was a label guy who again wanted to break into tech. He started organising events in London to pull together the digital music community in London, which lead to a job at SoundCloud. He then set up the Music Hack Days which have become a formidable global movement in their own right. Those hack days massively accelerated adoption of SoundCloud’s API, and over the past few years Dave has done an incredible job of growing SoundCloud’s community of partners and developers.

- Shakil Khan (formerly special projects @ Spotify). Shak’s impact on Spotify’s is legendary. He started at Spotify with a background that didn’t include having Bieber & Snoop Dogg on speed dial but Spotify wanted their support for the big US launch, so Shak made it happen. The machine Shak has built around himself for making the impossible happen should be the subject of a hollywood movie.

- Paddy Cosgrave (founder of F.ounders). Paddy wanted to set up a conference that pulled the most innovative founders around the world together. He didn’t know many of them so he started cold emailing people to suggest a quick Skype call. He pitched them on the idea of an intimate conference in Dublin. People warmed to him on those short calls, said yes, and made introductions for him. More people said yes. Paddy took all those yeses and went bigger still, getting people like Jack Dorsey, and Chad Hurley to show up. At this point F.ounders is probably the best start-up conference in Europe. He did 90% of this OVER SKYPE in evenings and weekends. Next level hustle.

- Steve Jang (founder of Imeem). Steve pulled off an extremely broad array of partnerships while at Imeem and is one of those rare people who can be a start-ups ambassador to many different constituencies. From hanging out in the LA DJ scene to hacking on projects at hack days, to hard nosed BD negotiators in the corporate world, Steve wins over everyone he meets in a sincere and genuine manner.

These people are very rare, but the impact they have is enormous. Typically the common traits are:

- immediately personally impressive. People have a sense they’re meeting someone special and go out of their way to help them, independent of context. The 10X hustler knows that often they only get 5 minutes and they make it count.

- a hacker mentality. always looking for a more scalable shortcut. Shaival Shah, another distribution maestro put this better than I can here in his post on how a great BD person canibalises their own function

- great at creating ecosystems around the things that excite them. Dave & Music Hack Days are a good example

- able to thrive in a wide variety of contexts and get on with exceptional people from all walks of life. No one would ever describe a 10X hustler as a 'suit’, or a business guy. And probably not a hustler. They’d most likely describe them as awesome.

- on a path to running their own business. They’re fascinated by product, technology, growth hacking, fund-raising and any and all aspects of building an enduring company. If they’re not a co-founder then often a BD role at a start-up is a stepping stone to running their own company. 

If you can find someone like this, their impact can be as significant as that of a 10X Engineer, world class growth hacker or next level designer.



If you’re reading this, and it resonates with some of your own ambitions, then we’re hiring for someone just like this to work with me on Songkick’s partnerships. We have partnerships all over the world with companies like Foursquare, MTV, SoundCloud, Spotify and YouTube, and an awesome ecosystem of artists and individual developers building on top of our API. We’re just getting started, and looking for someone to take things to the next level.