Charting The Social Bonds That Power Y Combinator’s Innovation Engine

We all assume that the Valley’s most powerful incubator is defined by friendships and connections, but they’ve never actually been mapped before. Let’s do it!

Charting The Social Bonds That Power Y Combinator’s Innovation Engine

Money’s a poor indicator of how ideas really flow in the Valley. For that, you’ve gotta trace the social bonds that actually determine all those fortuitous encounters that birth the Next Big Thing. And if you’re tracking social bonds, there’s no better subject than startup incubator Y Combinator, a three-month incubator program in which entrepreneurs hash out their ideas with mentors over weekly dinners.

My colleagues Emma Haak and David Lidsky interviewed dozens of Y Combinator alums, all with the aim of finally mapping the Y Combinator ecosystem, for our yearly 50 Most Innovative Companies feature. (The piece was designed by the phenomenally talented Liz Meyer.) If you’re looking for a snapshot of what’s really moving the Valley right now, this is about as close as you’ll get. Y Combinator has come to dominate the Silicon Valley venture scene in record time–more than 25 of its alums have sold their businesses, while its breakout starts include Dropbox and Airbnb. “The closest thing before was the PayPal mafia,” cofounder Paul Graham told Fast Company. “That was 15 or 20 people. Before the last [class], the Y Combinator network was 672 people.”

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Most of the colored lines you see mark old-fashioned business relationships. In purple, you see the advisory relationships connecting various entrepreneurs. In blue, you see the places where one founder is boosting another, by integrating a service into their own. And finally, in green, you see the funding relationships. But there’s another layer of relationships being mapped here. Those thin red lines mark the looser bonds of friendships and common interests linking all these people. Those little icons represent exactly which hobbies bring them in closer contact. These range from playing frisbee to living in the so-called Y-scraper–a building which has housed an outsize number of Y Combinator alums:

You’ll notice two centers of gravity on the chart. One is Steve Huffman, and his power base revolves around personal relationships rather than simply business ones. He’s sort of like the Niels Bohr of the whole scene–the guy that everyone seems to know, and everyone seems to bounce ideas off of.

But another power base flows towards Arram Sabeti of Zerocater, a company which simplifies the office catering process, and which counts among its clients almost everyone in the Y Combinator family. It’s sort of like how in small towns of yore, the grocer had all the gossip because he talked to all the town’s residents–a person’s gotta eat, after all.

Fun as this whole thing is, there’s actually a serious lesson at work here: As I’ve written before, innovation tends to come from dense social networks. The more social a group is, the more ideas flow among its members. It’s no accident that the creative professions, ranging from technology to design, tend to be ones that people have always described as being highly social. You drink together, you invent together.

You might think that Facebook and LinkedIn can help us understand those dynamics, by mapping our social networks, but they’re not even close: The problem is that, in their world, every single connection counts about the same as every other, when in fact, your network’s power isn’t about the 500 people you know well enough to friend, but the 10 people you know well enough to call without setting up an appointment, and the 40 people you know well enough to invite out to lunch.

Of course, this infographic is a limited one, by necessity. But it does make you wonder how much social activity lies just beyond what’s been depicted above: What other bonds do Y Combinator alums have throughout the Valley? And how do these networks connect with other power bases, at places ranging from Facebook to Sequoia to Google?

If you’ve got suggestions about where this chart should go, let us know in the comments! And if you’ve got anecdotes, even better.

Top image: ra2 studio/Shutterstock

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.