In a candid conversation with students, two of Yale’s most successful entrepreneurs in recent memory shared their start-up story.
Justin Kan and Michael Seibel, both YC ’05, were straightforward and self-deprecating as they held forth at an event at Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall on Feb. 26. They stressed the importance of persistence, the ability to learn and adapt, and the value of talking regularly with people who use your products. Kan and Seibel are co-founders of the Internet company Twitch and partners at the venture capital firm Y Combinator.
“Finding the right people to work with is extremely important,” Kan said. “Luckily, here (at Yale) there are tons of people who are really, really talented, and are going to be winners. You should probably think about working with some of them.”
That’s certainly how Kan and Seibel approached their business odyssey.
Neither one of them specifically studied coding or technology at Yale; Kan studied physics and philosophy; Seibel studied political science. But as they approached the end of their undergraduate years, entrepreneurship was in the air.
Kan decided to start his own company, an Internet version of a personal calendar. Although he wasn’t sure how to create such a product, he convinced a tech-savvy classmate, Emmett Shear, to help. They eventually sold the company — on eBay — and added partners Seibel, who had just finished working on a political campaign, and Kyle Vogt of MIT.
The idea that put them on the entrepreneurial map was Justin.tv, a 24-hour TV show on the web featuring Kan, as he went about daily activities. This was in 2007. “It turns out no one wants to see me take a shower and walk around town, talking to other dudes,” Kan said.
But the idea was novel and attracted attention. It also led to a realization. “The light bulb went off,” Kan recalled. “Let’s build a site where anyone can broadcast themselves, doing whatever THEY want.” Shifting the focus from being a content provider to a service provider made all the difference.
Yet even as their success grew, Seibel, Kan, and their partners periodically sought to redefine their company, fine-tune their products, and troubleshoot challenges that popped up along the way. They made a point of reaching out to their customers, they explained, to find out how people were using the products and how the experience could be improved.
Justin.tv eventually became Twitch, which allows people to stream their own video game sessions. Amazon bought Twitch in 2014 for $970 million.
“When you see that success, you think, ‘Those people were really smart and must have had a really good plan,’” Seibel told the Yale audience. “But any of you could do it.”
Seibel and Kan also gave the Yale audience a sense of what they look for in prospective companies to fund at Y Combinator:
• A core team of 2-4 people who work well together
• Experience getting an idea in front of customers in product form
• A convincing rationale for the company’s future success
• Insight into the product area
• Fortitude to work through problems
That last quality is particularly important, according to Kan. “When you hit a wall, how do you react?” he asked. “That’s a mindset thing.”
The Department of Computer Science and the School of Organization and Management co-sponsored the event.