Therapy Session: Paul Graham Counsels Start-Ups at Disrupt

Paul Graham being interviewed by Charlie Rose at Disrupt

Paul Graham just hosted office hours on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt, soulsearching with six founders in a public, 8-minute version of the sessions he has with companies at Y Combinator. “What’s special about you?” “Who needs your product most?” “Above all, you need to get people actually using it.” “I’m worried,” he told New York entrepreneur Philipp Tsipman, a protege of Joel Spolsky who continues to work out of Fog Creek’s office even though he’s working on his start-up, DataCurious, full time.

DataCurious is a data visualization service aimed at investors, Mr. Tsipman said, in a pitch that could have done with some fine-tuning if he were to make the most of his eight minutes on stage with Mr. Graham. “It was a nice introduction,” he told Betabeat afterward. “Now I can say I’ve talked to Paul Graham.”

“Paul Graham reminds me of my grandfather,” he said. “Wise, battle-scarred.” (Regarding DataCurious, he gave us a punchier pitch. “It’s cool, it’s hip. It’s taking the Wall Street Journal and making it for our data-curious generation,” he said.)

Mr. Graham was laser-focused on each entrepreneur, asking pointed questions and at times obviously wracking his brain for how the company could succeed. He drilled down into questions about who would use the service, how many users it has and how they’re counted and possible business models. “Seems like it would be good to try and take their money because then you know if they’re serious,” he told Ben Lavender, of Dydra, who said he had clients asking to pay for his social graph analysis database.

Upon finding out that one company was only two months old, he was gleeful. “60 days! Oh! Plenty of companies start over after 60 days,” he told Justin Riek of Flytivity. “I think you need 98 percent new stuff to repair this idea.”

If Mr. Graham was worried about DataCurious–he was unconvinced it has a market–the other New York start-up chosen to go up on stage, LuckyChic, didn’t fare much better. Mr. Graham spent half the session trying to figure out what the product was, and ended his session with LuckyChic’s Joel Fan by counseling him with the story of Groupon, which saw user growth flatline until it pivoted from The Point, a site for organizing people into groups that could accomplish things, into the current daily deal group buying thing.

“It’s always nice to get impartial feedback,” Mr. Fan said, but Mr. Graham didn’t give him any actionable advice. “We’re already on our way with our strategy.”

Even more remarkable than an entrepreneur that disdains Mr. Graham’s advice: At least five start-ups were selected for the office hours and didn’t come up to the stage, including Neighborly, Hatchy Labs, and Emotely. Maybe they were confused about the schedule, which was running a bit behind. Watch the therapy sessions at TechCrunch.

Therapy Session: Paul Graham Counsels Start-Ups at Disrupt