Community has never felt louder in startup country. Bringing people together based on a common interest is human nature. And after a lonely, exhausting pandemic, every startup wants to find a way to cultivate community, conversation, and camaraderie as part of their value proposition.
Last week, however, the outside world took a look at how Y Combinator, one of Silicon Valley's most famous and feared accelerators, deals with the nuances and nuances of a scaled but still ultra-exclusive community after the accelerator hits two founders from his internal messaging board, Bookface.
The two founders, Dark CEO Paul Biggar and Prolific CEO and co-founder Katia Damer, say they were removed from YC after publicly criticizing YC for very different reasons. Biggar had previously noticed on social media in March that another YC founder was giving people a tip on how to cut the vaccine lines to get an early shot, while Damer recently expressed his concerns and frustration over the alumni support Community for a now controversial alum. Antonio García Martínez.
Y Combinator says the two founders of Bookface were removed for violating community guidelines, namely the rule never to publish internal information from Bookface externally.
The now public repression of Biggar and Damer, who first turned to Twitter to explain their experience, is a nuanced situation. Y Combinator says that in its 16 year history it has only removed a "dozen or so" founders for violating YC ethics and the guidelines of the Bookface forum.
Nonetheless, YC's decision to remove these founders, especially given a broader perception of freedom of expression and disagreement within startups, has raised a number of questions – some from YC founders themselves – about how the accelerator moderates its community and the public deals with negatives and draws its own line around what can be said openly by its alumni base without consequences.
The best curated communities enable participants to safely and freely exchange personal experiences, discuss and even disagree. Part of this security comes from what some see as a general rule within communities: Do not give out private information publicly.
Pro YC, privacy is an important rule for anyone joining Bookface, an internal news forum that includes approximately 6,000 founders of the YC community, from alumni to management to current batch businesses. Founders log in daily and, among other things, ask for an introduction to a crypto accountant or call up a current job advertisement for crowdsourcing proposals.
"We ask founders not to share anything from the forum with anyone outside of YC as this is a trust and privacy-based community," Lindsay Wiese-Amos, director of communications at Y Combinator, told TechCrunch.
It is more than a polite request. Amos said that when a company is accepted into YC, founders must sign investment documents, including the Founder's Ethics Policy. Within the policy there are guidelines around the Bookface forum, including the phrase: "Do not share anything on the forum or any links to the content posted on it with anyone outside of YC."
YC claims that if a founder breaks the rules, they will come to them with a warning and if the rule is broken multiple times they will be removed from the community.
When a startup is removed from the YC community, YC returns the shares "in general" to the company, although there are exceptions. In Damer's case, says Amos, "your co-founder is still actively working on Prolific, and both he and Prolific remain part of the YC community."
Meanwhile, Biggar's YC startup closed eight months after graduating from the Accelerator, so YC did not have to sever financial ties.
Garry Tan, co-founder of Initialized Capital and a former YC partner who has interests in alumni companies like Coinbase, believes there is a difference between critical discussion and breaking community rules. Tan told TechCrunch that discussions were fine, but that these "founders violated the privacy expectations of other people within the community".
"I think YC has become an institution and institutions are being looked at with great care," he said. "That's not bad, it should probably be like that."
The moment of & # 39; too far & # 39; is when people try to ascribe specific political positions to an institution, when that institution A) are many people and not just a few and B) are probably innocent of deliberately advocating one or the other point of view goes on.
YC's bookface rules are apparently blunted. However, given the measures that have been taken against Biggar and Damer, one might wonder what if someone in the community publicly denigrates YC but has nothing to do with Bookface. Is that also a criminal offense that would result in your being kicked out of the organization? And would the organization make an exception for particularly promising founders?
Amos suggests that all founders be treated equally and that dissenting opinions are welcome. “We firmly believe in freedom of expression and are open to criticism. People are allowed to criticize YC and would not be kicked out of the community for it, ”she said.
"I didn't trust Y Combinator to do the right thing"
Biggar went through Y Combinator in 2010. “I was like a Paul Graham acolyte,” he says. "I have a signed copy of Hackers and Painters, read every essay he published, and as soon as I got my PhD I applied to Y Combinator."
For over a decade, Biggar says, he has been an active participant in Bookface and recently assisted several companies with financial and relationship counseling in separating co-founders.
As the Black Lives Matter movement grew last summer, Biggar noted that Bookface was relatively calm and, as he describes it, "apolitical but derogatory" about issues such as diversity and police brutality. He compared the tone of Bookface to that of Coinbase after Armstrong posted a memo banning political discussion in the workplace.
Biggar's frustration grew and reached a tipping point in March when he saw a founder on the forum bragging about skipping a vaccination queue and offering tips to help other founders do the same.
Soon after, Biggar tweeted, “For the second time, a @ycombinator founder posted on the YC internal forum about how he lied to skip the vaccine line in Oakland, with instructions for other founders to do the same . Absolutely damn disgusted. "
Biggar omitted screenshots of the founder's post or any identifying material to protect the person's anonymity. But within hours of the tweet posted, Biggar received a direct message on Twitter from Y Combinator co-founder Jessica Livingston asking him to notify a partner at YC of inappropriate content on Bookface. She added, "You may get a quicker, more thorough response than if you were to post all over Twitter."
His answer to her: “Hey Jessica! To be honest, I'm so disillusioned with YC that it never crossed my mind. "
Biggar decided to leave out the tweet. Since Biggar was apparently not alone in his view of Bookface's content – Amos says that "the community made their point of view very clear in the comments: They didn't approve of this founder," offers vaccine hacks – YC says it's the. deleted mail less than 24 hours after it appeared on Bookface.
He didn't even have the episode in his head, Biggar says when he received an email last week from Jon Levy, the Managing Director of Partnerships at YC. To Biggar's surprise, Levy announced that he was being removed from the YC community. That meant that not only was he removed from Bookface, says Biggar, but he is no longer invited to Demo Day or allowed on YC Slack.
Notably, Biggar says that YC did not give him a warning or the opportunity to remove posts before leading him out of the wider YC community, despite suspicion that community rules were becoming stricter. A week before he was booted, Biggar says that Y Combinator reminded the founders of a “no leak” policy within Bookface.
YC offers a different take on what happened, saying that it was only "recently" informed of Biggar's tweet by someone in the YC community and that a warning will be given to all founders. YC also states that a founder will only be removed after violating the terms "multiple times," while Biggar claims that he only tweeted once on Bookface. When asked about other examples in which Biggar violated his terms, YC declined to comment further.
Now says Biggar about these recent events: “I have been criticized for not posting it internally, which I think is nonsense. But you know the reason I didn't post it internally is because I didn't believe Y Combinator was doing the right thing. I also didn't think that going public would bring anything. I mean, I'm not someone who really matters here. "
"This is the smallest way you could call YC," continues Biggar. “A couple of community members did a shitty thing, which I think reflects the community. That is too much dissent for them – keep everything quiet. "
Unless you are “the people raised to be part-time partners, [or are] closely connected to the people who matter,” nobody cares “what you think. Nobody ever asks what you think. . You cannot have a different opinion internally. There are simply too many disciples. "
"YC is not a soul search"
Damer's own removal from Bookface may not have been published if Biggar hadn't shared on Twitter last week that he had just been "kicked out". Shortly afterwards she got in touch and tweeted that "YC also kicked me out 2 weeks ago" for her public criticism. In particular, says Damer, she was thrown from Bookface for denouncing misogyny and the lack of diversity within the accelerator community.
It started with a memo on bookface with the title: “Is YC an inclusive organization? If we go on like this, YC will lose its reputation. ”In her post, Damer said that she saw many people defending Antonio García Martínez, the author of Chaos Monkeys, who was recently invited to Apple, and then asked, Leaving Apple after petition investigating his recruitment was signed by more than 2,000 Apple employees. They were concerned about certain passages of the book, including one that read: "[M] Most women in the Bay Area are soft and weak, pampered and naive despite their pretensions to worldliness and generally full of shit."
Like the Apple employees who distributed the petition, Damer believes the book is evidence that García Martínez is a "misogynist" and writes on Bookface about how "disturbing" the support for him is the internal platform is.
"I'm interested in YC and that's why I'm writing this," said Damer. “What is happening right now is not normal and it looks like YC is looking for souls. If this is not dealt with, YC will miss out on some of the best deal flows, especially from women and underrepresented founders. ”
Livingston reacted soon.
"YC is not 'soul-seeking'", wrote Livingston. “Antonio attended YC a decade ago, and I remember him as a decent person… I think, if anything, the YC community should defend Antonio because many of us know him firsthand rather than just cherry quotes from a book. And we know from the startup world how often people are wrongly criticized by the press and on social media. "
Livingston's post received hundreds of upvotes, while Damer's post received a handful. Annoyed, Damer soon went to LinkedIn and Twitter to post screenshots of the interaction, "withdrawing" any previous praise she had given the founders of YC, and advising founders not to give up their equity before VCs gain their trust.
A YC partner shortly sent an email to Damer inviting them to contact the group partners or them directly on all YC concerns, according to a document that the accelerator told TechCrunch. The partner also stated that one of the community rules at Bookface is not to share anything from the forum with anyone outside of YC. The partner asked Damer to write down the bookface screenshots. Damer didn't respond to the email and didn't take the screenshots.
Less than two weeks later, Damer received a second e-mail from her partner, this time with a clear message: Since she did not delete her contributions, she was removed from Bookface and could contact her if she wanted to get involved again.
Communication was extensive compared to how the organization handled Biggar's tweet, suggesting that in Damer's case, YC followed its own protocols far better.
Anyway, Damer believes that YC's guidelines encourage complacency, particularly around diversity issues, and suggests that her decline in enthusiasm for the organization is directly related to her not advocating “women starts when they get the chance ”. Adds Damer, “I don't think anyone from [the partners] is bad, I actually think they are good people. It's more about the complacency – that bothers me so much, ”she said.
Whether she regrets having publicly expressed her despair suggests that she had no choice. “People use rules when they don't know what else to do. This is about courage, this is about standing up for what is right. "
Community rules can be clear, but enforcement can be murky
There are clear arguments for and against the decision of Y Combinator to remove founders from its forum. It is typical for investors to ask portfolio companies to agree to certain conditions. In this case, YC expressly advises those who join its organization that the privilege of using Bookface is associated with its own additional conditions.
Nevertheless, the question of whether the conditions around the community are fair or appropriate could become a question mark in the minds of founders who have not yet applied for the program – as well as the different ways YC deals with two Founders who broke the rules.
By and large, people in communities who have the feeling of not being heard internally, but who are also asked not to express their contempt publicly, come up against such limits. Coinbase left at least 60 employees last fall after they were told the company would no longer tolerate internal political disagreements or debate. In late May, Basecamp reportedly lost a third of its employees after disagreements over the company's stance on internal political debates. Most recently, Medium lost half of its workforce in July after a change of strategy and an internally criticized cultural memo.
Given its successful track record, YC may be more powerful as an institution than any other company, but competitors are always looking for weaknesses, and asking members not to voice their complaints outside of YC could ultimately spoil the outfit. A generation of founders and operators shows that they are less and less willing to displace a point of view in the service of others, and the most talented of these people have no shortage of opportunities, both in terms of mentoring and capital.
YC with its extensive network – perhaps because of it – could increasingly find that it is not up to the trend.