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Y Combinator Veterans Handing Out Advice

By Rachel Youens on Thursday, October 1st, 2009

If you missed Tom Howard and Fenn Bailey last month at The Hive in Melbourne, you missed a great success story in the making. The two founders behind Y Combinator alum Adioso have created a natural language travel site aimed at those people who may travel more on opportunity than on specific dates. In other words, if you’re looking for a flight some time in December to somewhere in Thailand, it might be the place for you. If you’re in a startup right now an feeling uninspired or discouraged, I would advise you take a  few minutes to read Tom’s post Y Comb wrap up blog for a bit of a pick me up.

Now the two are trying to bring some of that Silicon Valley energy back to Australia and help cement Melbourne as a tech startup capital. They will be hosting a meetup at The Order of Melbourne for fans of HackerNews and those possibly interested in applying to the next cyle of Y Combinator, closing October 26th. I took a few minutes to talk with Tom (who is also part of IPitch startup Orgnition) to find out what attendees can expect from the free event and what he feels is holding Australia back:

Q. What can attendees expect at the meetup?

A. A few quiet drinks, hopefully in sunny Spring weather, in the company of fellow Hacker News  devotees, Y Combinator fanboys and other tech startup founders.  People who are planning on - or vaguely considering - applying to YC, either in the upcoming cycle (which closes Oct 26th), or in a later round, can talk to Fenn and me about our experiences and ask our advice, if they think that may be helpful.  For everyone else, it’s a chance to put faces to Hacker News usernames and chat about startup life with like-minded founders and aspirants in a friendly, informal setting.

Q. What prompted you and Fenn to organize this event?

A. As Y Combinator startup founders, we’d been getting a few requests from YC aspirants for advice and assistance with their applications.  We figured it would be more beneficial to bring everyone together, so people with startup ambitions could work together and help each other.  It seemed like that would scale better than us trying to respond to every request individually.

Beyond that, we’ve found that Melbourne does have the beginnings of a tech startup scene, but it needs a bit of co-ordination to gain momentum.  Our experience of SIlicon Valley is that social interaction between startups and founders is one of the crucial ingredients.  Melbourne has a handful of regular social & networking events for entrepreneurs - The Hive, Mobile Monday, The Churchill Club - but nothing focused on the YC-style startup, ie, the two guys in an apartment working 12-hour days and living on 2-minute noodles, determined to build the next Facebook or Twitter. Whilst not everyone buys into the Y Combinator ethos, Hacker News has become the primary global meeting place for people who have lofty startup ambitions, so it makes sense to use it as your starting point in trying to build a startup community.

Q. What do you think is holding back Melbourne from being a startup hub? Why is it the best place in Australia to become the startup hub?

A. I think the main things holding us back are the awareness that you can do it, and the support to people you along the way.  In the USA, it’s more natural for a nerdy kid to aspire to be a tech startup founder, as there’s a long list of success stories from Steve Jobs & Bill Gates to Larry & Sergey to Zuckerberg as evidence that it’s possible.  From there it’s a matter of having the right attitude and working your way into a startup ecosystem, where you can find co-founders and investors and a supportive, encouraging environment.  That’s not to say it’s easy, but there’s much more reason for someone there to consider tech startup success realistically achievable.

In Australia we have good universities and plenty of smart, talented people.  The crucial things we lack are inspiring success stories, investment and mentorship from people who have had their own success, and other startups to work with and learn from.  There’s only a handful of people in Melbourne who enjoyed big exits in the 90s internet boom, and I’m yet to see any evidence that they have the insights to help a modern-day web startup or the willingness to provide the type investment and mentorship required.

But I think it’s up to the current wave of startups to bring about change.  There are enough of us doing interesting things that there’s a strong startup subculture starting to take shape. By being utterly determined in finding a way to succeed despite the difficulties, encouraging others to start things and helping them along the way, and being vocal about our success, we can attract the investment and support we need.  Then we can be the ones to provide mentorship and funding to those that come after us.

I’d argue Melbourne is the natural place for startups in Australia, as it has similar qualities to those that make Silicon Valley and Boston startup hubs.  In his essay How to be Silicon Valley, Paul Graham asserts that the two things you need to make a startup hub are rich people & nerds.  Rich people, that is, who have become rich through tech startups and are willing to give mentorship and investment to new ones.  And nerds, who are smart and determined enough to make great things and build successful new businesses.  Whilst we don’t quite have many of the right types of rich people just yet, we have good universities and an adequate supply of nerds, and our city has the personality and culture that attracts and keeps the creative types who start startups.  Whilst it’s inconceivable that any city in the world will surpass Silicon Valley for a long time, Melbourne is the ideal place to be a hub for Australian-focused startups and those that have ambitions of progressing to the USA.

It seems as though Sydney currently has the edge in terms of startup activity.  Time will tell if Melbourne manages to match or surpass it; my inclination is that Sydney’s weather is too nice for enough people to want to stay inside building startups. That said, we could do with a little Sydney weather for our meetup on Sunday.

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