YC Startup School - Week 6

Week 6 of Startup School 2018 is quiet one. We only have two interviews and no lessons this week.


Running your Startup - Patrick Collison

Hello, this is Patrick

Patrick and his brother John run Stripe. Patrick has appeared on at least 110 podcast episodes. It's quite an achievement but means the chance of learning something new decreases with each outing. The Stripe story is so familiar now that I'm starting to believe I founded stripe. Patrick, please take a break from the podcast/lecture circuit and implement proper EU VAT handling in Stripe!

How did you stay happy?

The part of the interview that interested me most was the discussion of happiness. It starts with something I too experience:

Patrick: at the bottom of every web page we had a little sort of text box ... most of the problems were negative. It was, you know, like, "The worst thing about Stripe is, or the worst thing that this page is, or, I really hate the way Stripe does," ... at that stage you have to be kind of masochistic ... always waking up to all these emails telling us all the terrible things about Stripe

When you start out, your product just won't be any good and you are probably trying to build the wrong thing anyway. It's hard to keep your chin up when you hear bad news continuously.

Adora: How did you stay happy in the early days?

Patrick: What makes you think we did?

Happy is such a squishy concept ... when I look back through life at the things that I'm most glad I did, I wasn't exactly happy while I was doing them. Often I was very stressed out, or had to work really hard or whatever. But they're the things that kind of post hoc brought the most fulfilment.

I suspect Patrick has quite sophisticated thoughts on happiness but this question caught him off guard. The answer he managed was essentially that he takes misery in the present for a future pay-off, in his case fulfilment. It reminds me of the quip:

I don't want to run a marathon but I'd love to have run one

Climbing mountains, combat sports, starting businesses etc. are hard things where most of the actual experience is painful. Do we really do them for the memory of having done them? Do we value the present so little and our memory so high? I don't think so. I believe there is something intrinsically rewarding in hard things irrespective of the outcome. It's perhaps clearer when we consider work in general. It is naive to idealise a world without work. Work might be burden but idleness is an abyss in which we lose our identity and barely feel alive.

Living life on the hard road

In my case, pursuing hard things is not always virtuous. I have had to answer why, when given the choice between an easy and a hard road, do I always choose the hard? I can be found at 3:00 a.m. doing something insanely and unnecessarily difficult, cursing the sky for why I keep putting myself in that position!

I have come to understand that my endless pursuit of difficult things is a form of perfectionism stemming from self-esteem issues. It's an effort to be beyond reproach and avoid disapproval and rejection. The real damage of perfectionism is that you don't value yourself and increasingly sacrifice self-care in pursuit of impossible goals.

It makes me think of the popular notion that successful founders are often damaged people with something to prove. There needs to be something a bit off for people to try something impossible and to keep going despite being punched in the face everyday. In a similar vein, Steve Blank has noticed a pattern of founders coming from dysfunctional families:

Finding joy in the everyday

So like Patrick, when I have been asked if working on Thorny makes me happy, my truthful answer is that no, it's frequently torture. This is despite loving the practice of engineering. Pursuing a vision for a novel tool is not like a flash of insight where all the details are revealed to you, instead it's a collection of vague feelings that you can't articulate. Trying to turn those feelings into something real is like digging a hole in the ocean.

I don't work for a future pay-off, instead following the ideas of Victor Frankl and ACT, I believe I work as a way to "live my values". Values are an alternative to goals. Enduring misery to pursue goals often doesn't work out. Sometimes there is no greater emptiness than achieving a goal because you lose what gave you purpose. Goals are destinations but values are directions. They can never be "done" so they are reliable long term ways to find reward in the present and not some speculative future.


  • Roles: Patrick - focuses on development, John - focuses on customer

  • There is a third brother! I hope he doesn't feel left out.

  • Took two years to launch

  • Launched with 10 employees

  • Stripe now employs 1300 staff, 200M Api requests / day, worth $20B

  • The Collison Installation - sounds like a 50's scifi story but it refers to on site support for their early customers

Discussion with Elizabeth Iorns from Science Exchange

It's Biotech today. Science Exchange is a two sided market place for experiments as a service. In this case supply was easy but demand was hard.

Not many take-aways for me but one interesting thing was Science Exchange's efforts to help in the reproducibility crisis. The two main contributing factors to replication Elizabeth identifies:

  • quality of assay validation (assays are sample materials)

  • published results are likely to be noise, rather than true experimental effects


Some of the highest voted discussions of the week:

  • +49 "Are we failing?"

  • +41 Being robbed by U.S. accelerator - looking for advice

  • +38 Successful Solo Founders

  • +38 How to ask for help as an entrepreneur

  • +18 Sales is about incentive alignment more than pitching

  • +15 Sifting through top VC and founder advice

  • +13 A big tech company just announced my idea!

Office hours

Not much to report this week. 5 minute progress updates were uneventful.

I have been in a development crunch which has affected my sleeping schedule. I think I am currently on San Francisco time which is starting to make 12:00 GMT meetings a little tough!