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Jessica Livingston: 9 differences between successful startups and billion dollar businesses

Jessica Livingston: 9 differences between successful startups and billion dollar businesses

by Manuela
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There are thousands of tech startups, but only a lucky few
(or, technically
) ever become valued as billion-dollar businesses.

So what’s the difference between a merely successful company and
a billion-dollar one?

Y Combinator cofounder Jessica Livingston has a ready answer: “An
unpromising idea that blossoms into a frightening big one, and
driven founders who see that opportunity and run with it.”

Livingston cofounded Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley startup
accelerator that churns out batches of 200 companies every six
months. She’s seen thousands of companies become successful. But
she’s also seen a lucky few like Airbnb that have become huge

On stage at Y Combinator’s Female Founders Conference, Livingston
offered nine pieces of advice — based on her past experience —
for founders to follow if they want a chance to create the next
billion-dollar businesses: 

  1. Be lucky: Beyond a good idea, the timing has
    to be right — and a lot of that is luck, Livingston said. “The
    most successful founders have the right idea at the right
    time,” she said, although sometimes those ideas grow and evolve
    before founders realize it was the right one in the
  2. Have the right motives: “The founders of
    the super successful startup are never in it to get rich or to
    seem cool. They’re always fanatically interested in what
    they’re doing,” she said. “They think longer term and are much
    harder for another company to capture with an acquisition offer
    because they don’t want to quit.”
  3. Hit a big need: “Our advice: It’s better
    to do something you yourself want and then hope there’s a lot
    of other people like you,” Livingston said. The idea
    behind the company may not seem like a big one initially —
    Airbnb started out as a service that rented out mattresses on
    floors — but it has to actually be one to be the foundation for
    a billion-dollar business. “You need to find
    something that a lot of people will pay for or something that
    people will pay a lot for,” she said.
  4. Do something basic: A startup’s business
    should be able to be described generically in five words
    or less — like how Facebook is a network for friends or Uber is
    a car on-demand. While ideas often start out less general —
    Facebook wanted to connect Harvard college students — they need
    to evolve into things that solve basic needs.
  5. Be willing to work on a dubious
     When Livingston first saw Airbnb’s pitch of
    renting out mattresses on floors, it just seemed like a bad
    idea, she said. Founders, though, have to be “mavericks” who
    are willing to ignore doubters and work on
    their ideas. “You need to be independent. You cannot
    care what other people think,” she said.
  6. Be unafraid of a big idea: “The fear of
    big ideas prevents most people from starting a site for college
    students and turn it into the whole world,” Livingston said,
    referring to Facebook. It takes work to turn small businesses
    into billion-dollar ones, and “a few people are more excited
    than afraid” to actually do it, she said.
  7. Be driven and resilient: Sometimes it’s
    hard to tell how driven founders are if they’ve come
    from a job where they’ve had someone with authority over them.
    But it’s easy to tell just how much drive they’ve got
    after they’ve launched a startup, Livingston said. “No one has
    authority over you in a startup. Most people find the authority
    vacuum uncomfortable, but a few people expand into it,” she
  8. Consider it your life’s
    In all the really huge
    startups, at least one of the founders view it as their life’s
    work, Livingston said. Those founders are focused on building
    for the long-term future and would never willingly sell their
    businesses short or be tempted by an easy exit, she said.
  9. Be able to evolve into a
     Designing cool things and managing
    people are two very different skills and most people don’t like
    doing both. But to build a billion-dollar business, founders
    need to evolve with their companies. They need to learn
    how to manage people, and probably even have to like doing it,
    Livingston said. “It’s a rare person who can be great at both,
    but you have to be if you want to create a really great
    startup,” she said.

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