Doing Y Combinator in your 30s

The stereotype of a Y Combinator founder goes something like this.

Programmer. Smart and driven. Went to MIT or Stanford, or else skipped college altogether. Able to live on a ridiculously low salary. Enjoys working 90 hour weeks. And of course: young. Early-to-mid 20s.

I almost didn’t apply for Y Combinator last year because I thought I was too old. I was 31 at the time. The application asks for age, and I figured they would just ignore anyone who wasn’t in their 20s. But friends of mine made it in to the summer class, and they were older than I was, so I thought I’d try.

Granted, it can be more difficult to do YC when you’re advanced in years, like myself. I have a wife, two kids, and a mortgage. But there are advantages to being a bit older too.

Since applications are open for the Winter 2011 class right now, I thought I’d share my experience. Here is a quick guide to doing Y Combinator in your 30s.

Does YC accept founders older than 30?

Yes. And according to PG, age is neither a penalty nor a bonus. He writes: “I don’t actually know the numbers. We don’t keep track. But I know there haven’t been any with founders in their 50s, and only 2 or 3 with founders in their 40s or their teens. Most founders are in their 20s or 30s. Completely guessing, I’d say 15-20% have founders in their 30s.” (That was a year ago, so the numbers may have changed.)

Basically, the age distribution of YC companies is pretty close to the age distribution of applicants. More YC founders are 25 than 35, but more 25-year-olds apply than 35-year-olds.

(Paul has an essay where he says the ideal range to start a startup is 22-38. As far as I know, that isn’t a rule, just a suggestion. YC has accepted plenty of people younger than 22, and at least a few over 38.)

I’m over 30 and want to start/grow a startup. Should I apply to YC?

Sure. If you can be in the Bay Area for 4+ months (3 isn’t enough if you need to raise money), and if you think you’d benefit from some excellent mentoring, then take a shot.

How can you afford to do YC when you’re so old?

It isn’t easy. A team of three only gets $20K. For most people, that’s not enough to live on in the Bay Area.

When you’re 21, you solve this problem by living cheaply. Cheap apartment, no office, eat inexpensive food, don’t travel, don’t buy stuff. A low burn rate is a huge advantage for a startup, and if you can keep that up after YC, you’re a step ahead of the old guys. Living cheaply is a bit harder to do when you’re older; when you’re 31, you’re more likely to have a high burn rate (due to family, mortgage, or more expensive lifestyle, etc.).

But at 31, you have some advantages too. Like savings: if you’re a good programmer at 31, you’ve probably made a reasonable salary for at least a few years. I supplemented our meager YC funding with savings. I also had run a software consulting shop leading up to YC, so I even had a bit of income in during my YC months (as my employees finished up a few projects).

What happens when your savings runs out?

You raise money, or get profitable.

If your entire team can live on $5K/month, getting profitable is much easier than if you need $25K/month. So if your expenses are high, then you’re often forced to raise money rather than getting profitable immediately.

Personally, I love the idea of running lean, getting profitable, and avoiding big funding. It isn’t for everyone, but it resonates with me. But it’s really, really hard to do, especially when you have a team that needs near-market salaries. So paradoxically, raising money is the easier option for most of us.

But raising money is still hard. Isn’t that risky?

Yes. It is risky to drop everything with just a few months of runway and hope to raise money quickly. If you can’t take that risk, don’t do YC, or do a startup that doesn’t need investment.

Raising money is hard, uncertain, and can kill a startup. But running out of money is guaranteed to kill a startup, so raising money is often a good idea.

The good news is that Y Combinator does an amazing job of preparing founders to raise money. You get great mentoring (by YC itself, by YC alum, and even by unaffiliated angel investors), a small PR boost, and the opportunity to pitch 100 quality investors at Demo Day.

No guarantees that you’ll raise money, but a lot of YC founders do.

Is it easier to raise money in your 30s, or harder?

I don’t think it makes a big difference. At the end of the day, investors are looking for strong founders and a giant opportunity. Young founders have some things going for them, and older founders have others.

What about co-founders?

This is important. If you’re 31 and have enough saved up to work on your app for 6 months, but your co-founders don’t, that’s a problem. To some extent, your company’s runway is only as long as the shortest co-founder runway. If your runways are uneven, be sure you have a clear understanding up-front of what happens when the first runway runs out.

What about spouse/kids/mortgage?

This is very situation-dependent. I have friends who could never do what I do, because their home lives wouldn’t support it, or they couldn’t swing it financially. But I have a very supportive wife, and a little bit of savings. This made YC possible for me.

Aren’t you supposed to pay yourself like $30K/year as a startup founder?

Yes and no. The rule of thumb, I think, is “pay yourself as little as possible”, which equates to “pay enough that finances won’t keep you from focusing on your startup”. Investors understand this. If you have kids and your real burn rate is $90K/year, pay yourself $90K/year. If you pay yourself $60K, you’ll have trouble sticking with the startup for the long-term. But if you only need $30K/year and you pay yourself $60K, you’re doing your startup a disservice.

If that sounds unfair – “Why should I only take $30K when the founder down the block is taking $90K?” – remember that if you take a low salary, you have an immediate advantage over the founder who needs a big paycheck. All else being equal, your startup is less likely to die than the expensive startup down the block. (At least early on; if you have a team of 15 and VC funding, by all means, take a real salary.)

Do people look at you funny because you’re so old?

No. Believe it or not, many startups have founders in their 30s or 40s. I even hear that there are people in their 50s doing startups. Shocking, I know.

Actually, it turns out that the 22-year-old founder/prodigy is the exception, not the rule. Based on a study of 549 entrepreneurs, the average age of a founder starting a “high-growth company” is 40 – not 25. This is partly true because most of us aren’t prodigies, so we need a decade or two of experience and failure before we start to figure things out. But I think the biggest reason is simple: founders don’t stop with one startup. If you enjoy starting a company at 25, there is a good chance you’ll enjoy starting one at 40 too.

  • http://www.replicatorinc.com Joseph Flaherty

    Thanks for sharing your story. As someone who is considering following your path its nice to know that their are non-wunderkinds in each YC class and that the responsibilities of family are not unknown. Did you notice any bias among the investors? I heard Keith Rabois say in an interview once that 30 year olds were over the hill, I see what he means, but seriously, 30?!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jocelyn-Chia/1414499 Jocelyn Chia

    Thank you for sharing this! I am exactly 31 as well and thinking of applying to Y Combinator.

  • http://www.replicatorinc.com Joseph Flaherty

    Thanks for sharing your story. As someone who is considering following your path its nice to know that their are non-wunderkinds in each YC class and that the responsibilities of family are not unknown. Did you notice any bias among the investors? I heard Keith Rabois say in an interview once that 30 year olds were over the hill, I see what he means, but seriously, 30?!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jocelyn-Chia/1414499 Jocelyn Chia

    Thank you for sharing this! I am exactly 31 as well and thinking of applying to Y Combinator.

  • Britt

    Great article. I am 30 and applied to TechStars last year. Its very true that founders don't stop with one startup. I've moved on from my first and have several more in the pipeline. I hope to be utilizing Zencoder for the next few startups!

  • jondahl

    Hi Joseph. Some investors are biased towards younger founders, and some towards older. I think Youniversity Ventures (including Keith) tend to favor younger founders. But for every investor who prefers 22-year-olds, there is another who thinks that it's crazy to invest in someone that young. And for every investor who cares about age, there are several who couldn't care less, as long as the founders are good.

  • jondahl

    Thanks! You should apply. And of course, if you don't get in (like most people), don't let that deter you.

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    As a 36 year old first time founder, this is comforting to hear but also good for perspective. I only worry about my time and energy each night and day off from my day job. How did you come across your first product if you don't mind me asking?

    At Victus Media we started with a social media powered semantic advertising tool but no one wanted it or was interested, so we decided we needed a consumer application first.

    Next up we hacked together a cool framework for social feed reading using only open formats, then watched as Twitter/Facebook continued to dominate social news and struggled with what was ideal. The social feed reader is a hard problem (relevance), and requires tuning to subgroups of readers so we'll see folks iterate on it (Flipboard, Paper.li, etc).Neither me nor my cofounder had front end experience. I only started web programming late last year out of desperation to build something useful, but have many years of algorithm dev and simulation building in c++ (ICK!).

    Next we tried real time map updates of garage sales (Garagedollar.com) but found out another company had been iterating for 3 years (gsalr.com) with a nice interface and an iOS app, and had a deal for Craigslist updates or scraped them. That wasn't an issue, but they only had 50k monthly visitors on average over the year. With only that many visitors after 3 years of work I was discouraged by the potential market size. Either way the even location service isn't a bad play, so we're looking at geofencing and other tools we can craft better than anyone else.

    Now I've got dreams of a distributed photo/media sharing tool with social udpates, kind of like Diaspora's play but it just works. Need a few more weeks to tweak out the design and interface. So far the bleeding alpha shares photos and replicates them between any number of user nodes.

  • Britt

    Great article. I am 30 and applied to TechStars last year. Its very true that founders don’t stop with one startup. I’ve moved on from my first and have several more in the pipeline. I hope to be utilizing Zencoder for the next few startups!

  • http://zencoder.com Jon Dahl

    Hi Joseph. Some investors are biased towards younger founders, and some towards older. I think Youniversity Ventures (including Keith) tend to favor younger founders. But for every investor who prefers 22-year-olds, there is another who thinks that it’s crazy to invest in someone that young. And for every investor who cares about age, there are several who couldn’t care less, as long as the founders are good.

  • http://zencoder.com Jon Dahl

    Thanks! You should apply. And of course, if you don’t get in (like most people), don’t let that deter you.

  • Joe

    You can always write iPhone app and hope it sells like hot cake. Boom, instant millionaire.

  • Joe

    You can always write iPhone app and hope it sells like hot cake. Boom, instant millionaire.

  • jdavid_net

    Thank you. I am 31 and this is quite the encouragement for my current project.

  • jdavid_net

    Actually I would love to still meet a co-founder as YC Seems to look favorable to that.

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    As a 36 year old first time founder, this is comforting to hear but also good for perspective. I only worry about my time and energy each night and day off from my day job. How did you come across your first product if you don’t mind me asking?At Victus Media we started with a social media powered semantic advertising tool but no one wanted it or was interested, so we decided we needed a consumer application first. Next up we hacked together a cool framework for social feed reading using only open formats, then watched as Twitter/Facebook continued to dominate social news and struggled with what would be a compelling design. The social feed reader is a hard problem (relevance), and requires tuning to subgroups of readers so we’ll see folks iterate on it (Flipboard, Paper.li, etc).Neither me nor my cofounder had front end experience. I only started web programming late last year out of desperation to build something useful, but have many years of algorithm dev and simulation building in c++ (ICK!). Next we tried real time map updates of garage sales (Garagedollar.com) but found out another company had been iterating for 3 years (gsalr.com) with a nice interface and an iOS app, and had a deal for Craigslist updates or scraped them. That wasn’t an issue, but they only had 50k monthly visitors on average over the year. With only that many visitors after 3 years of work I was discouraged by the potential market size. Either way the even location service isn’t a bad play, so we’re looking at geofencing and other tools we can craft better than anyone else.Now I’ve got dreams of a distributed photo/media sharing tool with social udpates, kind of like Diaspora’s play but it just works. Need a few more weeks to tweak out the design and interface. So far the bleeding alpha shares photos and replicates them between any number of user nodes. I’d like to extend that to a wider variety of media formats and ease installation or user hosted setups.In eagerness I’ve even looked around for other startups that are hiring, hoping that maybe if I’m in a pressure cooker for a year or 3 it’ll help me laser beam focus on a compelling product play while helping me get much more technically savvy about web development (my old part time day job that pays the bills is not so hot for web tech advancement, for instance chrome isn’t allowed because security vulnerabilities from 2008, and installing ubuntu here is a big deal bureaucratically).

  • Joe

    You can always write iPhone app and hope it sells like hot cake. Boom, instant millionaire.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you. I am 31 and this is quite the encouragement for my current project.

  • Anonymous

    Actually I would love to still meet a co-founder as YC Seems to look favorable to that.

  • jondahl

    We look forward to having you as a customer.

  • http://www.ankoder.com rexchung

    When you're 30+ and have kids, it's hard to prioritize between your startup baby and your real baby.

  • http://zencoder.com Jon Dahl

    We look forward to having you as a customer.

  • http://www.ankoder.com rexchung

    When you’re 30+ and have kids, it’s hard to prioritize between your startup baby and your real baby.

  • bitdrift

    I know a few people have already said this, but I really wanted to say “Thanks” for posting this as well. I'm also 31 with a supportive wife, two kids, a mortgage, and a pile of savings that I'm thinking about burning while I do a startup. It's definitely not an easy risk to take (which is, I'm sure, why the number of founders in their 30s is so much lower than the number of founders in their 20s) so it's very encouraging to hear that there are others in my same situation. I was reading Paul Graham's essay “Why to Not Not Start a Startup” to my wife the other night and we hit point number 9 (“Family to support”) and it was a little discouraging. Not because I felt like it would be a factor in my ability to execute, but because I was afraid it might make investors like Paul less likely to invest in me. And that may still be the case to some degree, but hearing about your success coming from a similar situation is just fantastic. Thanks again!

  • Big D

    There's always bootstrapping. Give up TV and work in evenings and weekends. It takes a while, but a $700K/yr business a couple years down the road with little or no risk is doable. I guess that's a “lifestyle company”, but once you're profitable, there's nothing to stop you from taking it to the next level.

  • http://www.bitdrift.org Ryan Probasco

    I know a few people have already said this, but I really wanted to say “Thanks” for posting this as well. I’m also 31 with a supportive wife, two kids, a mortgage, and a pile of savings that I’m thinking about burning while I do a startup. It’s definitely not an easy risk to take (which is, I’m sure, why the number of founders in their 30s is so much lower than the number of founders in their 20s) so it’s very encouraging to hear that there are others in my same situation. I was reading Paul Graham’s essay “Why to Not Not Start a Startup” to my wife the other night and we hit point number 9 (“Family to support”) and it was a little discouraging. Not because I felt like it would be a factor in my ability to execute, but because I was afraid it might make investors like Paul less likely to invest in me. And that may still be the case to some degree, but hearing about your success coming from a similar situation is just fantastic. Thanks again!

  • Big D

    There’s always bootstrapping. Give up TV and work in evenings and weekends. It takes a while, but a $700K/yr business a couple years down the road with little or no risk is doable. I guess that’s a “lifestyle company”, but once you’re profitable, there’s nothing to stop you from taking it to the next level.

  • http://john.yerhot.org John Yerhot

    Does your wife work also?

  • melissamiranda

    Hello

  • http://john.yerhot.org John Yerhot

    Does your wife work also?

  • http://melmiranda.com/ Melissa Miranda

    It’s good to know that about YC, especially that they have founders that are 40+. However, I cannot underscore how much better it is if you can fund yourself. My co-founder and I taught ourselves python (him) and design (me) so that we could just build out any idea we had by ourselves. We’re both MBAs so know to go after business models than can make revenue from the start. But the best part is spending 100% of your time on product, not on powerpoint for the investors.

  • http://twitter.com/chrisyeh chrisyeh

    As an angel investor who has put money into a number of YC companies, I can honestly say that I prefer the more experienced founders. If anything, their willingness to sacrifice in order to meet the YC criteria make them even more dedicated (and thus attractive) than the 20somethings for whom it is easier to live on ramen.

  • http://twitter.com/chrisyeh Chris Yeh

    As an angel investor who has put money into a number of YC companies, I can honestly say that I prefer the more experienced founders. If anything, their willingness to sacrifice in order to meet the YC criteria make them even more dedicated (and thus attractive) than the 20somethings for whom it is easier to live on ramen.

  • jondahl

    Not anymore. That would need to factor into any startup decision, of course. :)

  • jondahl

    Thanks for sharing. Sounds like you're in a good position to do a startup.

  • http://zencoder.com Jon Dahl

    Not anymore. That would need to factor into any startup decision, of course. :)

  • http://zencoder.com Jon Dahl

    Thanks for sharing. Sounds like you’re in a good position to do a startup.

  • jondahl

    Great point, Chris. Dedication for a 20-something looks different than dedication for a 30-something. Both require sacrifice, but I'm glad you appreciate the sacrifice of us old guys. :)

  • jondahl

    Definitely true. But not impossible, of course.

  • http://zencoder.com Jon Dahl

    Great point, Chris. Dedication for a 20-something looks different than dedication for a 30-something. Both require sacrifice, but I’m glad you appreciate the sacrifice of us old guys. :)

  • http://zencoder.com Jon Dahl

    Definitely true. But not impossible, of course.

  • http://www.e-dealz.com tony bordonaro

    well being 58 and working on a new startup…I was glad to see this article….of course if there are any genius 20 somethings out there who want to join me give a shout !!!

  • http://www.luckyotta.weebly.com tony bordonaro

    well being 58 and working on a new startup…I was glad to see this article….of course if there are any genius 20 somethings out there who want to join me give a shout !!!

  • John Alex

    I would like to share something very interesting and very helpful data for any startup, You can check these stats or information on clicking following link:-http://www.designhill.com/infographics/factors-that-influence-startup-success

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