The Launch Pad

Posted in Review · Dec. 9, 2014, 4:47 p.m. · 500 words

What it is

The Launch Pad: Inside Y Combinator by Randall Stross is an account of what happened to the startup companies accepted into Y Combinator's Summer 2011 programme.

Why I read it

A few years ago, I read Jessica Livingston's book Founders at Work, a collection of interviews about the early days of companies ranging from Apple to Hotmail to TiVo to TripAdvisor. It's an amusing and enlightening book — no other company has quite had Apple's golden admixture of hippie idealism, personal obsession and world-changing ambition, but the roller-coaster ride of the fragile early days of even fairly conventional companies makes for entertaining reading, and the immense amount of work involved in a startup success story makes my grim Presbyterian heart glad.

The subject of the book

You get the impression sometimes that people in Silicon Valley say the name Y Combinator about as regularly as they say Google or Facebook, but a vanishingly small proportion of people outside the tech industry have ever heard of it. YC, which Livingston co-founded, is a kind of finishing school for startups, a three-month residential program in which companies are given a (comparatively) small amount of money in return for a small equity stake, and are plied with advice and encouraged to swap ideas with other startups in preparation for making a presentation to potential investors at the conclusion of the program.

Is the book any good?

It really isn't. Where Founders at Work managed to catch the excitement of the early-startup scramble, what mostly comes across in The Launch Pad is the avarice, the desire to make vast sums of money. Which is the least interesting part of the story — otherwise I'd have opted to read a book about investment bankers. The overriding impression I was left with was of a bunch of people attempting to get rich by peddling some weak combination of QR codes, cloud computing, social media or other fill-in-the-buzzword. In fact, going over the list of Demo Day presentations (the name YC gives to the pitches to investors that conclude its program) there were a few interesting ideas, including:

  • Launchpad Toys: a sort of low-cost Lego Technic for learning creative skills.
  • Codecademy: interactive programming lessons.
  • Science Exchange: a service allowing academic researchers to commission experimental work from one another.
  • Verbling: a Chatroulette-style service that allows users to learn and practice their foreign language skills.

...but as related in the book, they're simply outnumbered by third-rate get-rich-quick schemes (a system to combine CAPTCHAs with advertising, an app to rate your bartender, every possible variation on Groupon). There's a story in that too, of course, but actually getting that story depends on access and if I were running a startup in the embryonic stage of development I'd probably want to keep a journalist at arm's length. Whatever the reason, The Launch Pad is largely absent the surprises, drama and intrigue that anyone involved in developing a new business knows must have been going on behind the scenes.