Campus - 28.02.2022 - 00:00 

Y Combinator x START – Learning from professionals how to make a start-up a success

The start-up accelerator Y Combinator (YC) was hosted by START Global as part of YC’s virtual Spring Outreach Tour. Students were able to learn not only from YC President Geoff Ralston but also from founders Igor Susmelj and Matthias Heller of Lightly, about the qualities founders should have and how Y Combinator supports start-ups. By student reporter Victoria Lorenzen.
Source: HSG Newsroom

How do I find a suitable co-founder? What qualities does Y Combinator look for when selecting its founders? What does Y Combinator offer my start-up? These questions are asked by founders and interested students who would like to build a start-up in the future. The Y Combinator x START Global @ SQUARE event on 23 February 2022 was ideal for exactly these questions.

"The goal of the event is that young, European founders and students can learn about YC’s programme, and use this opportunity to build a start-up themselves. Four years ago, there were no Swiss start-ups at YC and now there are over ten. We want this growth to continue over the next few years and for YC to become more established in Europe," says Tim Birkhofer of START Global.

Over 1000 spectators throughout Europe

The event was part of the Spring Outreach Tour, where Y Combinator hosts talks in multiple locations with YC alumni who talk about their journey as founders and their YC experience. The tour is taking place virtually this year, so participants joined the event via Zoom, either from their homes or together at viewing events. "On the one hand, we have 150 people watching live here at SQUARE, but on the other hand, we also have viewing events in Helsinki, Berlin, Munich, and Barcelona. In total, we expect over 1000 people online and offline", explained organizer Free De Zutter of START Global and adds: "The cool thing about the event is that it's taking place decentralized in many different locations, but still, everyone meets on Zoom and watches together.”

At the aperitif beforehand that included a photo booth hosted by the International Students' Committee, participants were able to talk about their expectations for the upcoming event. Most participants were interested in what YC offers start-ups, how to best apply, and what start-up accelerators look for in applications. Participants enjoyed the opportunity to ask the speakers questions, learn from their experiences, and network at the two aperitifs. Especially founders of the START Fellowship program, who came from Colombia and Brazil, among others, were particularly excited about the event, as some had applied to YC before.

Entrepreneur Matthias Heller on-site at the SQUARE

Directly at the beginning at 7 p.m., YC President Geoff Ralston first spoke via Zoom with ETH alumnus Igor Susmelj from the ETH-HSG spinoff Lightly about Susmelj's start-up process, after which Ralston introduced Y Combinator. After the talk, viewers had the opportunity to ask Susmelj and Ralston more questions - an offer that was well accepted, so that Ralston stayed a little longer. After the Zoom session, HSG alumnus Matthias Heller spoke to the students on-site at SQUARE, answered questions, and stayed for an aperitif after the event. Talking to Heller on-site was the "icing on the cake", said Celine Bittner from START Vaduz.

Accepted on fifth application

With their start-up Lightly, Susmelj and Heller help companies improve their machine learning applications by reducing the amount of data needed and automating the data preparation process. In this way, they aim to make machine learning more accessible to businesses. What Susmelj appreciates about founding his own start-up is the flexibility, on the one hand, and the fact that he can create value for many companies, in his own unique way, on the other hand. But his path to Y Combinator wasn't linear, as he didn't make it into the program until his fifth application. Ralston noted that even on the side of YC, it is difficult to select start-ups because it is hard to predict a start-up’s success. Ralston advises founders to focus on customers and to build a product that is in demand and a team that fits together nicely. His basic rule for building the team is: "Hire someone you would also like to work for". Ralston likes to compare founding a start-up together to a marriage, as co-founders spend a similar amount of time together and must make decisions together. After winning his first customers through cold emails and white papers, Susmelj was happy to benefit from professional coaching and a network of founders at Y Combinator. YC describes itself as a start-up school that supports start-ups not only financially, but also through office hours, talks, and group events. Similar to Susmelj, Heller's path to entrepreneurship was not easy. After founding five different ventures, he founded Lightly together with Susmelj. Like every entrepreneur, he also encountered self-doubt during all his ventures, wondering if he had promised too much - something he calls "Founder Imposter Syndrome." Above all, he learned two things: resilience and that you can only succeed if you don't give up.

Victoria Lorenzen is a fourth-semester business administration student at the University of St.Gallen.

Image: START Global