Interview with Thomas Pun, Alumnus of Y Combinator
You Must Really Believe That You Will Make it
Interview by Justin Tan
Tell us about yourself. I’m a software engineer by training. I worked at Apple where I met my co-founder before Y Combinator. We built out the video encoding and processing backend for iTunes’ first video store.
Could you tell us about your startup that was in Y Combinator? In 2006, mobile video was just starting and it was a terrible experience. My expertise has been in video compression so I wanted to fix the video quality.
Our inspiration came from another startup where you could create blog posts by email. We wanted to build a video processing service for the consumers through email. They could email us their mobile video at specific email addresses and we would post process (add a title or stabilize the video) and post the result to various platforms like Facebook, YouTube or even their own website. That’s how Pipely was born!
Why did you decide on Y Combinator? Back then, Y Combinator and accelerators, in general, were still pretty new. Even then, I remember reading up on Paul Graham’s (The Founder of Y Combinator) essays and studying some of the companies that graduated from his Y Combinator program and thought that it was a great program!
My co-founder and I decided to apply to YC since we were both first time founders and could use all the help we could get. I had applied to YC with another group before but didn’t get in. Pipely was the second attempt so we were both psyched when we got accepted.
What was your experience like at Y Combinator? We honestly didn’t know what to expect. Y Combinator was relatively less structured at the time, so it would be up to the founders to seek help in weekly office hours.
During our first weekly office hours with Paul Graham, he said that we should consider other ideas! At first, we thought this was crazy. After all, we had gotten accepted into the program based on such an idea. He then asked us to find paying customers to prove if this was what people wanted. We pitched our idea to a few YC startups but ultimately nobody wanted to buy and that was a major turning point for us. We ended up working on multiple prototypes afterwards and eventually launched something totally different.
What was your biggest learning out of Y Combinator? Build something people want.
My co-founder and I already had an idea going into Y Combinator, but we ended up building something completely different that what we thought we would build. Every week we would collect feedback from mentors and users of our program, then do multiple iterations on a weekly basis to improve our own product, which is a very demanding experience.
Do you think that accelerators are suitable for everyone and why should people consider applying? An accelerator isn’t a silver bullet that can provide you with all the answers. There are bad, good and great accelerators, so it’s about finding the right fit.
If you’re considering an accelerator, make sure you know who you’ll work with. The biggest value of YC is the people: the partners and alumni network. These are the smartest and most useful connections one could ask for. If you don’t think the founding team or alumni network of the accelerator can help increase the chance of success, it may not be worth it.
At what stage should people consider applying for an accelerator? Do you think it’s different for Y Combinator? Don’t do a startup because you want to get into an accelerator. Getting into an accelerator is an extra bonus. You should run your startup as if you wouldn’t get into one. For Y Combinator, one of the biggest red flags was when people said, “If I get into Y Combinator, I’ll drop everything and go.” That’s the wrong mindset. For a startup to succeed, you really must believe that you’ll make it, accelerator or not.
How can somebody best leverage their time at an accelerator? If you find the right accelerator, then make use of the mentors and networks available to you! Don’t be afraid to ask for help and introductions. Looking back to Y Combinator, the weekly office hours were really helpful and we should have done more of them.
Thomas Pun is a Y Combinator alumnus and a product startup guy who has been on both sides of the table. He currently advises several San Francisco and Hong Kong based startups. More info at https://angel.co/thomas-pun-io.