Y Combinator vs. Techstars with Brandon Stokes

An interview with Brandon Stokes, who attended Y Combinator with Qwest (Winter 2019) and Techstars with Buyable (Spring 2023).
February 24, 2024
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Background

Brandon Stokes is the Co-Founder & CEO of Buyable, which makes car ownership a reality by leveraging bank data instead of a credit score. Brandon just wrapped up the Techstars New York program as part of the Spring 2023 cohort. Previously, Brandon co-founded a startup called Qwest, which Y Combinator funded in the Winter of 2019. I talked with Brandon about the differences and similarities between the two startup accelerators regarding the programming, admission process, advice you receive on how to build your startup, and more.

Highlights

  • The quality of startups in Y Combinator are more consistent than Techstars.

  • Y Combinator has a more recognizable brand than Techstars, which helps when raising money.

  • Y Combinator is a better fit for experienced startup founders.

  • The caliber of the Managing Director dictates the quality of the Techstars accelerator.

  • Techstars takes a more hands-on approach with its programming.

Interview Transcription

Edited lightly for clarity.

Kieran: Thanks, Brandon, for joining me today. Could you briefly introduce yourself and what you’re building at Buyable?

Brandon: I’m Brandon Stokes, Co-Founder & CEO of Buyable. Buyable helps banks, credit unions, and lenders issue smart auto loans to credit-thin people. Our AI-powered platform looks at your credit and spending history and matches you with affordable loans and cars. 

Kieran: How did you come up with this idea?

Brandon: I was taking some time off from a previous company that I started, and I’ve owned a used car dealership – so I spent some time there. I recognized this problem of people coming in, especially first-time car buyers and immigrants – almost 1 in 3 people who came into the dealership had trouble getting financing. So we either had to turn them down, or we had a lot of predatory offers – high-interest rate offers – I felt there was a need for a new solution and started my journey down Buyable.

Kieran: Is the product live right now – can you visit the website and sign up for this?

Brandon: You can go to our website and get pre-approved. We’re going to be live in Q4, so pretty soon.

Kieran: So, you were the founder of a company called Qwest that went through YC that went through in Winter 2019, and Buyable is part of the recent Spring 2023 class of Techstars?

Brandon: Yes.

Kieran: Why did you go with Techstars the second time rather than do YC again? Were you looking for something new or something in particular that maybe Techstars had that YC didn’t? Talk to me about your decision-making process.

Brandon: Yeah, to be honest, Techstars just happened. Going through an accelerator again wasn’t my plan when I started Buyable. I just met some great people at Techstars, and through conversations with them and understanding the needs of our business at the time, I thought they could be very helpful. To give context, I started Buyable full-time in September of last year. I had two co-founders in mind that I had been bouncing ideas off of, but they weren’t full-time. From a business standpoint, where we were weakest as a team was on the sales side – we sell into banks and credit unions – I wanted to freshen up my skills on the sales side – especially selling to enterprises in a highly regulated industry. I got introduced to the MD of Techstars New York. Great guy who pitched me on the value of Techstars. I told him what we were doing; he liked it. I liked his mission, background, and expertise, especially being in New York – finance heavy. Then, he introduced me to a lot of dope founders who went through the program that sold into banks and credit unions and had a lot of success – they gave me a lot of perspective and insights into the value of it. That, plus getting our two co-founders to come on board around that time, added a little structure to our team. They were both first-time founders. This is my third company. It was good to have something to give them some structure and onboard them to the startup experience. I think the culmination of all those factors made it make sense for us.

Kieran: Now that you’ve been through both YC and Techstars – I was wondering if you could talk about the major differences and similarities between the two programs.

Brandon: Yeah, they have a very different approach to how they build companies. The theme that I take away from their approach and the outcome of their approach would be that Techstars creates great founders, and YC creates great companies. What I mean by that is – the experience is very different. YC is pretty hands-off; it allows founders to spend a lot of time with their customers and their company. And so if you’re a founder who is pretty mature, well versed, and knows what you’re doing, then your company could have great growth. But, if you’re a novice founder, then it might be a little hard to navigate starting a company, and because YC is so hands off, then it might be hard to get the help that your company needs and you as a founder – because you as a founder always have to grow faster than your company grows. And because YC and the Partners at YC are very important in the community – they have a lot of other obligations outside of just YC companies, and the batches at YC are just also really big – when I went through about a hundred companies, so that was like the largest, I think it’s, I mean, it’s kind of like 400 something companies in the batch – it’s hard to get that 1:1 time because the batches are a lot bigger. So, if you’re a mature founder or have a lot of expertise in what you’re doing and don’t need the hands-on things, your company will go great because they will let the leash off and make the important connections. Techstars is a little different. I would say for a first-time founder who’s pretty raw and is learning a lot about being a founder, what it means to be a founder, and the basic level things you need to be a successful founder – Techstars is really good at that. They have a way more of a hands-on approach. It feels a little bit like school, especially in the beginning. They are onboarding you quickly into the startup space and throwing a lot into you as a founder and not necessarily your company initially. And so – what it helps with – all the skills, sales, strategy, team building, all these fundamental skills that you need as a founder, they kind of like reaffirm that and have programs and people come in and talk about these things. They have decks, reviews, meetings, and all types of stuff like that. Also, their batches are much smaller. There were only 12 companies in our batch. So it’s a lot more hands-on and easier to get 1:1 time. Another key difference in Techstars’ approach is that every city has different batches. So, the quality of the program varies. So, in New York, our MD there has been in the industry for a very long time, a lot of knowledge, big network, big community there – it’s an older program. Whereas potentially, a newer program with a newer MD – you might not get as quality of an experience. There is a range as far as the quality of programs. On the other hand, everybody is together for YC – it’s probably a little more consistent. From a brand perspective, the companies are probably more consistent. With Techstars, I would say New York will probably have better batches than another city. Or Colorado or Denver or the OG ones will have a different set of outcomes compared to a newer city just onboarding. Another difference between the two is brand recognition. YC has a little stronger brand than Techstars because of the consistency – but if you look at the data, they actually have the same number of exits relative to each other – but YC has bigger exits on average. The other thing is I don’t know any Partners at YC that aren’t really really rich. Most of the people who work at YC who are advising the batches are really successful founders themselves. So, they probably have more operating-level experience than some Techstars MDs. Also, since they are wealthy they can write you checks. We had a few Partners at YC invest in Qwest. It might be a little more difficult for that to happen at Techstars. But, the alumni network at Techstars is humongous. So, of course, the alumni make investments in companies as well. 

Kieran: YC is less hands-on – can you estimate the time commitment in YC vs. Techstars?

Brandon: YC is pretty standard – 1-2 hours per week. Directly facing with the YC Group Partner – probably 30 min - 1hr. Batch dinners, which is another 1 - 1.5 hours. It was typically on Tuesday. I don’t know if they changed the format. You’re there from 6 pm to 9 pm. Techstars is different. Techstars is during the day. It can be a little more difficult if you have a high-growth company to manage because it typically happens between 10 am - 2 pm. For the most part, you connect 3-4 times a week for 2 hours. So, probably 10 -15 hours per week. It definitely scales. In the first 2-3 weeks, there is perhaps a 4-hour commitment every day, and towards the end, maybe a couple hours per week. So, there is a ramp-up and ramp-down period.

Kieran: You also alluded to YC’s programming might be better for repeat founders or people who have built startups before and Techstars for first-time founders. What other things do you notice or trends when you think about your peers in your cohorts?

Brandon: From the YC standpoint, it’s funny that back when I went through YC, it was always consumer. They always put the big consumer companies and focused more on B2B. I think that trend kind of goes in association with what’s going on right now and what the startup ecosystem needs. So you’ll notice a lot of YC is AI now because AI is the future, right? And it was like that when it came to Web 3, social, all types of marketplaces, etc. For the most part, I would say YC is always at the forefront of the curve regarding whatever is in motion from an ecosystem standpoint. At the end of the day, although SF has lost some of its luster, it’s still the leading area when it comes to innovation. YC is going to get first dibs for the most part on that next wave. Techstars is more diverse because YC is only in the Bay Area, and Techstars is around the world. They have a different perspective. A lot of their accelerators are, since they’re city-based, they fit the city’s environment or mold. So you’ll see a lot of financial stuff in New York. You might see a lot of entertainment, social, commerce, or even space stuff in LA. Different regions have different ecosystems, and they tailor their programs around whatever that ecosystem is fostering. So I would say that’s the big difference.

Kieran: You mentioned program quality might change depending on which Techstars city you’re participating in. What other major Techstar programs would you be excited to participate in?

Brandon: I don’t know if I have enough knowledge to say that, to be honest. I didn’t compare a lot of the programs. I know there is some standard programming that happens at Techstars. But, then, I would say there is a lot of programming relative to the MD’s knowledge. So whenever you’re evaluating a Techstars program, understand who is running it and their background. That will be useful, but I don’t know if I could rank the programs. 

Kieran: You also talked about YC Partners – many of them are successful founders that maybe went through YC, exited, and now they’re paying it forward. Can you talk a bit about your MD’s background at Techstars so we have an idea of their background and why they’re capable of supporting founders like yourself?

Brandon: Yeah, KJ [KJ Singh] is great. He’s been there for over a decade. The network of people he knows and can bring to you [is good]. Your MD is going to help you be much more successful, right? So if you have a great MD, then they’ll be able to bring different people in the room that are harder to get to –he was able to bring quality advisors, companies, founders to talk to us – because he’s been around so long. He’s able to make the right calls, and people know who he is. So if someone is high level, they’ll do it for him. When evaluating Techstars, the biggest thing is who is the MD of that program and, looking into the background and ensuring alignment.

Kieran: I wanted to touch on the advice you received at YC vs. Techstars. I’ve talked with many YC founders, and I know they constantly drill product, coding, and talking to customers. Those are three of the main things that they focus you on. Is that advice generally the same at Techstars, or do they focus you on other things like distribution or other aspects of your business?

Brandon: I think everyone knows the make something people want. I think that’s standard advice that you’ll get from every accelerator. There are some core beliefs that Techstars has that are different than YC. One of the things that we spent time on in Techstars that we never did in YC was financial modeling. That’s something we would never talk about at YC. Planning and forecasting is a little bit more of a thing. I wouldn’t necessarily say they have different beliefs as far as what drives the business – they have different ways of going about it. Techstars will try to put you on rails with work and things like that – almost homework, tools, and stuff so you don’t fail. In contrast, YC wants you to fail fast. So I guess an example is swimming. Techstars will teach you how to swim. You’ll start in the shallow end and move towards the deep end. YC will throw you into the deep end and will tell you that you have to figure it out. They will coach you from the deep end – do this, do that. I can’t say one approach is better than the other. I think it matters depending on what the founder will be most receptive to and how they want to grow. They both are trying to accomplish the same goal – you swimming – they just have a different way of doing it.

Kieran: Now that you’re an alum, how are you staying involved with YC and Techstars?

Brandon: YC has a great infrastructure for founders to stay connected. We have our own social platform, and I check it almost every other day. They are really good at outreach and updates and building a community. And because they run two batches every single year and, for the most part, you’re in these big groups with a lot of companies – it is easier for it to feel like a community than Techstars, which is a little more fragmented and so the community in Techstars seem to be more fostered around location. But Techstars is catching up from a technology perspective. They are building a new platform that they launched recently this year or last year. So, they are working on improving that founder-to-founder connection. Whether you go through Techstars or YC, both communities will want to help each other regardless, right? So if I hit up a Techstars or YC founder I have never met, they will be responsive and help each other because it’s about pushing the brand forward. Whether someone from Techstars or YC hits me up, I will try to give back, and I think that’s true for anybody who goes through the programs.

Kieran: If a future founder reaches out to you and asks you for advice on getting into a Techstars or YC, what general advice would you give them?

Brandon: First, you need to operate your business like you don’t need YC or Techstars. I think a lot of founders think that I need to get into YC or Techstars for me to be successful, and that’s not the case. I think it could be part of your path, but the founders that I know are successful would be successful whether YC or Techstars is part of their journey or not, right? So, I wouldn’t overoptimize what you’re doing to get into an accelerator. I would overoptimize what you’re doing to be successful as a company. That’s talking to customers, building things fast, iterating quickly, selling, feedback loop – understanding, and all the basic cliche startup advice you need to be doing those things whether Techstars or YC is involved or not. Do them. For the most part, me doing those things is when I got the opportunity to get interviewed at YC or Techstars. I got my foot in the door because the people I talked to knew that I would take this whether I got a check or not – I wasn’t going to stop because they decided to pass. I have a belief, vision, a goal; I’m working towards it – whether they invest or not, I don’t care.

Kieran: Looking back at the admission process for YC vs. Techstars, do you think they evaluate for different or generally the same things?

Brandon: I think generally the same thing. They have a thesis and look for certain things. I think they have good pattern recognition because they’ve been around for a long time. They are taking a bet on you as a founder and your idea second. It’s way less common that they love the idea and not the founders. It’s always the case that they love you as a founder, and whether you go with this idea or not, they don’t care because so many founders get into YC and Techstars and pivot and do something completely different. So really, they are looking for great people and founders that they can back with their dollars.

Kieran: It sounded like you raised some money coming out of YC. Did you raise money coming out of Techstars? Can you talk about the fundraising experience?

Brandon: Definitely different. Naturally, YC is the most recognizable brand in the world. You have a lot more eyeballs on you with YC, but with that comes responsibility because you have to be a lot more buttoned up because you’ll have really big names looking at you. I would say it’s much more competitive because you’re in such a big batch. At the end of the day, 80% of Techstars and YC companies are going to have a tough time fundraising. 5% will have a great time, and 15% will have an ok time. I think YC is trying to optimize that model with their larger $500K investments. I hope Techstars picks that up because, at the end of the day, you give your cohort more runway and, therefore, more opportunity for success, right? I feel like YC will have more long-term success with their larger check size, and founders will spend less time fundraising after the batch than with Techstars. With Qwest, we were cash flow positive, so we didn’t need to raise out of YC. Therefore, we didn’t put much effort or emphasis into raising after YC. That was our strategy with Qwest. With Buyable, we require a bit more capital. It’s a different sales process, a different revenue process, so we’re kicking off our fundraising in September. We raised some money before Techstars and during Techstars, but we will start kicking off our official round in the next month or so.

Kieran: Will you use Techstars’ network as your primary network to contact investors?

Brandon: Both. I’m a part of both networks. At the end of the day, when you’re an alumni of either accelerator, they are going to support you no matter what. Whether they invested in your company, they still invested in you as a founder, so it’s in their best interest to help you win. So, I’ll definitely be using both networks to get our fundraise across the line.

Kieran: Now that you’ve been through both programs, which accelerator do you recommend to founders? Or is it just specific to the founder and the company?

Brandon: I’d give really specific advice depending on the founder and company. If you have an out-of-the-box idea, like wow, this is crazy, and you’re a novice founder, I’d probably recommend YC. What YC is able to do is recognize which ideas are the best and put their resources behind them. If you’re a great founder with an okay idea, I would also say YC. If you’re a novice founder, you don’t know a lot, but have an idea, then Techstars will put you in the space where you can grow as a founder to take the idea to the next level. I would get a feel for the founder, what they are doing, and how they approaching it, to make a recommendation. You can drown at YC and not succeed at Techstars, and even then, my advice could be wrong. It’s just my opinion.

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