Steli Efti just wasn’t feeling high school so he dropped out at age 17 and moved across the world to Silicon Valley, chasing the startup dream. His company, Elastic Sales, went on to become the “best kept secret in sales” for well known companies in the Valley, helping hundreds scale their sales to success. A huge part of that was the “secret sauce” developed by his team: an app that streamlines the sales process all in one place.
Eventually, Steli and company realized that the tool they’d built to boost their own productivity was something that the sales world was clamoring for. As word spread about their super-streamlined, salesperson-focused software that took out the hours of manual labor other systems required, they took the leap and decided to start marketing it as a standalone product.
The end result is Close.io, a product designed for salespeople, by salespeople that’s taking the sales world by storm. I had the privilege of sitting down with Steli recently to chat about Close.io, an awesome hack for getting into Y Combinator, and why you really should be working less. Check it.
So what brought you to Silicon Valley originally?
I’ve been an entrepreneur all my life; I dropped out of high school when I was 17 or 18 years old. I’m Greek, as the longer version of my name makes clear – Steli Efti is the shorter version to make people’s lives easier; I have a very long name.
Anyway, I’m originally Greek but I was born and raised in Germany. I dropped out of high school and started a couple of businesses and the reason I came to Silicon Valley is that I had an idea for a tech startup. I had no background in technology, knew nothing about it, but that legend of Silicon Valley was really appealing. I thought, “If I can get to a place where I can surround myself with the smartest people in the space, I have a higher chance to succeed.”
That was seven or so years ago. It’s been a pretty wild ride and I haven’t regretted taking that step.
I saw that you guys participated in Y Combinator.
Yeah, absolutely, we went through the Y Combinator program.
And how was your experience with them?
It’s hard to look at something that has gotten so much recognition, that people might even wonder if it can live up the expectations, and then to tell them that it’s actually under-hyped. It’s even better than people think it is. It’s hard to make that pitch in a believable way but for us it was a pretty incredible experience.
I have to say that every batch is probably a little bit different. We went through the program in early 2011 so it’s been awhile but when we did it, it was a pretty incredible experience.
The staff at YC is exceptional and still to this day it’s the only place I can go to an event with alumni and there’s hundreds of founders in the room, I’m hard-pressed to talk to anyone that isn’t both impressive but also really likeable. Usually in a big enough of room you find people that you either don’t find impressive or you don’t find very likeable.
Oh yeah, I’ve been to those events.
Yeah, in San Francisco you go to those events all the time! There’s always cool people but there are always people you don’t resonate with as much. I’m so impressed at the group of people YC has managed to get together, even at this scale. The alumni are pretty amazing people.
Being the stupidest person in the room is always a great place to be if you want to learn and grow.
Do you have any tips for entrepreneurs who are interested in participating in Y Combinator?
Yeah, I’ll share a hack to get in. There’s a lot of generic advice I could give, like “Word hard!” but that’s not useful.
Yeah, we don’t need that. (Laughs)
So I’ll share a hack that is useful and that I think will serve the individual founders well.
I think a big reason we got in – besides the fact that we were doing something that seemed to be good – is that we actually tried to meet with as many Y Combinator founders as possible prior to applying. We saw them as mini-versions of the YC partners and pitched them idea, just to get feedback.
Eventually we had enough feedback to refine our application but we’d also built relationships with a few people that liked us and we liked them, so we had a few Y Combinator alums on our side when we did the application. Those guys actually sent an email that recommended us to the partners at YC saying, “Hey, we met with Steli, we met with the partners at this company and we think they’d be great at Y Combinator. They’d fit really well and you should definitely invite them for an interview.”
I think that ultimately that’s what helped us stand out and get an interview. I think that’s a really good strategy for people to follow.
So you networked and you hustled.
Yeah, and we did what you should always do. You shouldn’t go to the first degree by sending an application to the top and hope that you stand out and that famous person wants to meet you. I’ll try to figure out if there’s somebody who is more accessible to me who can be a bridge or a connecter to the person I ultimately want to influence or connect with.
I see if I can build relationships or make people like me and validate that they think I would actually fit into this thing. Meeting with other YC founders to get feedback and then ultimately maybe get some recommendations for your YC application is probably the smartest thing you can do when you apply.
How did you find the connections between you and those YC alumni?
That’s a good question. Some of them I knew from my original startup seven years ago. It failed but I met a bunch of people. One of them turned out to be a YC alumni so when I started this company, I actually reached out to him.
When I met him I asked for other people who are cool that I should meet. He connected me to a few YC alumni. Then there were one or two people that we just cold-emailed and said, “Hey, I love what you guys do. We’re thinking of applying for YC in a week or two. Here’s why it would be really awesome if you could meet for 20 minutes for coffee. Here’s the kind of questions we have and here’s why we think you’d have relevant feedback.”
It’s surprising but most YC alumni, if you ask them for help, will be very generous with their time because, chances are, they asked other people for help.
I still do this today where before every batch I have a bunch of calls or coffees with people who are having an interview or applying and try to be helpful because other people helped me.
When I see alumni, I’m typically very open to those meetings and enquiries.
That’s an awesome positive lesson, but now I’m going to totally switch gears. When you look back at all these years of being an entrepreneur, what’s something that makes you cringe when you think about it?
Oh there are many, many things I could talk about.
Well, I’m thinking about one that’s useful to others rather than just embarrassing to me. I think that the biggest misconception about entrepreneurship that I had for many, many years that didn’t serve me well and didn’t serve my team well was that I bought into that false idea that, as an entrepreneur I have to suffer my way to success.
Like, if I don’t work so hard that I fall asleep from exhaustion on my desk, I haven’t worked hard enough. I haven’t worked enough that day.
If I don’t work seven days a week, 17 hours a day… if there’s not a degree of suffering and of doing things that are really, really hard and persevering through it, then what I’m doing has no value.
I think that as an idea was the main reason I failed at certain projects because I was more concerned about working many, many hours than the productivity of the hours and what I was actually accomplishing.
And it’s not just me. Because I was like that, I attracted people who were like that. I set the standard for everyone else to follow suit.
For instance, I never told anyone not to take a vacation but when a team member would say they wanted to take a weekend off, I would say it was okay but I would resent it, internally. I think that people could feel that, ultimately, so they would feel uncomfortable taking a break.
In the end, we all burned out and got less and less productive and it was just massively stupid, I think, so I regret that. I see it with other entrepreneurs and it’s advice that’s hard to buy into if you haven’t gone through it. I don’t think I would have taken my own advice on this but I wish I had. I wish more people would, so I try to share that story with more and more people.
Ultimately what that long period of working crazy hours led to was not just burnout but a long phase of depression. Many founders go through that and it just took a lot of health, wealth, and energy out of myself and others. I wish I hadn’t wasted all that time on that stupidity.
That’s great advice, Steli, thank you. Last of all, where can our readers find you?
One thing that a lot of people are really responding to is a talk that’s online where I talk about startup hustle. People seem to enjoy it and at the end I share my email address. I want people to send me an email if they have questions or they want help or feedback or anything else. Watching that video would be a great way to get there and also get some more value from me.
Awesome, thanks so much, Steli!