I dropped out of my Economics PhD, founded Homejoy with my brother, and became a Partner at Y Combinator. I'm Adora Cheung, ask me anything.Featured

Hi Everyone –I’m Adora Cheung, I’m a Partner at Y Combinator. I was the CEO & Co-founder of Homejoy, which was funded by Y Combinator in 2010, and before that I was a product manager at Slide which was acquired by Google. We scaled Homejoy to serve hundreds of thousands of homes in over 30 cities in North America and Europe.I’m an Economics PhD dropout from the University of Rochester and I have a BS in Computer Science from Clemson University.Ask me about Y Combinator, scaling a startup, dropping out of your PhD program ;), or something else.
Thanks so much for joining us, Adora! Please ask your questions for Adora here, and she will answer them before the end of the week. Note that she may not have time to answer all of them, so upvote the ones you're most interested in. Thanks, everyone!
My husband is one of my co-founders (we're in the upcoming Startup School batch) and we're confident and intentional about maintaining a healthy business and personal relationship, but don't know how or what to communicate with potential investors.As a founder who started a business with a family member, what objections or concerns were raised by investors and other stakeholders?
Also curious about this, as my co-founder is my partner.
I'm interested to hear this one too. Also @biancawakeford what were some of the things you did or would recommend to do in having a partner as a cofounder (outside of talking to potential investors)?
Hi @melissang, @quinneyeQ, and @rashmibham! Sorry for the delayed response... just saw the notification today.My partner and I both worked in family businesses in our past lives and spent 6 months working together in a different startup before co-founding Wander. That progression (family business to working together to co-founders) definitely factored into our decision to start a company together.In the event that those stars don't align, it would still be important to evaluate your ability to work together AND live together by embarking on some sort of project where you have to collaborate.Another super-critical item for us is that we see a coach both individually and as a couple every month via phone call. This has been really transformational in our personal and professional lives because it gives us a safe space to deep dive on a regular basis. This would be a non-negotiable if I had the opportunity to hire or invest in a couple or siblings in the future. Hope this helps!
Thanks for sharing your experience. I really like the coach idea & it's something we had never thought of before. Thank!
Thanks for sharing your experience and advice! I'm really liking the coach idea.
In the same boat... would like to hear your thoughts on that
A common question you'll get is how you split duties and make decisions so you should have a good answer here. Pro-actively having well-defined and separate responsibilities is probably a good thing for the business anyway. For example, in the beginning, my brother was in charge of customer service and marketing, while I was in charge of engineering and ops.
Thanks Adora!
Hi @adora! After getting your first hundred users, what were the acquisition strategies that you employed for more traction, and what are your tips / tools for measuring that? Was there any surprising correlation / causation that you've uncovered?
Referrals worked the best in terms of acquiring the best customers. On the other hand, gift cards and discounts were the worst. In general, unless you're trying to be Wal-mart, I would avoid value-driven customers - they are the hardest to please (drive up customer service costs) and hardest to retain (without offering more discounts). Once you have enough data, I would segment your users by various qualities (gender, income, kids, city, etc) and see if you see any patterns on who the best types of customers are. This will help inform your targeting for acquisition strategies.
Hi @adora! On the flip side, how do you get your first 100 users as soon as possible? Say in a month. Thanks!
Thanks Adora! That was defo insightful, I really appreciate you taking the time.
How did you recover when Homejoy failed? I feel I always hear about successful startups and never about the most other startups that don't make it.
I was fortunate that our team got acq-hired into Google (they started a home services team), which gave me a little runway to do anything I wanted. So I moved to Beijing for a year to learn about the startup ecosystem there and helped out founders where I could. I always tell people who've come off a very long, intense journey of building a startup to take a break and outside of Sillicon Valley if possible. It's quite the bubble and getting perspective is refreshing.
There are so many founder that have gone through Y Combinator (seems like more and more in every batch!). I'm sure only the tiniest fraction would end up joining YC themselves as a partner. Can you tell us this backstory and what drove that transition?
Around 2015, Paul Graham approached me about joining as a partner but I just never thought of myself as an investor and fully intended to start another company. But a year later, YC was really scaling fast and needed another partner. And I was still in China basically helping founders for free/fun instead of starting a startup so Kevin Hale (another YC Partner) tracked me down and convinced me to join. It's funny because I don't think any YC partner ever seeked to be a YC partner. It was just about right timing and wanting to give back to an institution that did so much for us as founders.
What does YC look for in a solo founder (and/or her startup) that may increase the likelihood of the founder being selected for participation in its core program? Particularly, if it is a health tech startup she is founding. What can a solo founder do (aside from seeking out co-founders) to increase her chances of success (not just for her startup, but) *getting into YC*?
Also keen on this question
Here's a little info on us funding solo founders: only thing I'd add is if you're not technical, it helps to have evidence that you can get a product built. Examples: (1) you were previously a product manager that got a lot of engineers to build a great product, (2) you already have a team building the product, (3) you've already launched with users/revenue
At YC, how do you ensure that applicants are as diverse as possible, and therefore increase the likelihood of funding more diverse businesses?
We focus on top of funnel. Main thing is doing a ton of outreach specifically targetting diverse applicants. @Dom, @katmanalac and Michael Seibel (CEO of YC) spend a lot of time this, so they might have more to say on this front. We also expect Startup School - which is free for anyone - will lower the barriers to nothing to startup a startup, and eventually help drive diversity in our applications.We certainly want more ideas to try so please send them our way!
I think this is such a tough one. I run a hardware accelerator and I've found that we put a lot of work into building up our channel partnerships so we can be aware of startups with diverse founders. For instance, getting recs from funds that target women founders or other programs that focus on verticals that tend to have more women (fashion) or people of color (agritech). Would love to chat more with some of you at YC about this to exchange ideas and how to keep doing better.
How was it to build a startup with your brother? Would you do it again?
It was great, and would do it again if we found something we both were equally passionate about. I certainly was very lucky in being able to hack the whole "finding a good, trustworthy cofounder" part of the process in starting a startup.
Good to know, thanks Adora!
Thanks so much for doing this Adora! I'm super curious to know:1. What were your 3 most eye-opening lessons learned while running Homejoy? 2. Was the always raising customer acquisition cost the biggest problem in scaling the business? 3. What would you avoid/do differently now? (I'd love to know the answer to this question soooo much) 🙏🤞
I answered most of this question here: question 2 - it was actually supply-side (vs demand-side) acquisition and retention of service providers that was the big problem. This was driven by a number of factors. Perhaps most notably we were competing from the same labor pool as Uber/Lyft and every other well-funded on-demand company. We all collectively drove up the CACs to over thousands of dollars in some cities. I wouldn't be surprised if it's gotten worse.
My team and I have been exploring eco friendly alternatives to the use of hospital plastics. We've done this by interviewing our users (medical device reprocessing technicians), and gone into hospitals to conduct further research. We're pretty much in the ideation/problem probing stage. Here are my questions :1. What metrics would you use to track progress in the ideation stage? 2. With a highly technical product + potentially expensive + has many legal parameters, how can I pick/measure the "right" idea to test? 3. I have multiple stakeholders - the MDRTs are the ones using the product, but the managers are the ones purchasing them. How do we know who's more important?
When you're still figuring out the problem you're solving and who your customer is, there really is no metrics to track. I would instead focus on talking to as many potential users as possible. I would do some pre-sales before building anything that's expensive. Having the actual user be different from the economic buyer is the toughest position to be in as a sales person. I would start by getting the MDRTs as strong advocates for you so that when you talk with the managers, they have this in mind. With buyers, you'll need to understand how they make purchasing decisions (e.g. what matters most to them - saving costs, saving time, etc) and frame the pitch and pricing with this in mind.
If the product is built for Enterprise and large companies so is it okay to approach them once the POC is ready?I do have a platform for developers and already Onboard 10K+ developers, they love it. Now my challenge is can I approach companies for POC demo feedback/suggestion?
That's pretty cool you have that many devs using your product. Are any of them working at large companies (you can probably tell from their emails)? If so, I would contact them as a starting point - they will be your best advocate - and then work your way to whoever the buyer is in the company. I wouldn't build anything extra for these companies until you have a good understanding of what they actually want and will pay for.
Hmm, I have not released the could sync yet, I'll release this feature within a 1 month. As a developer don't like to submit their email address for the first time, they use it then they submit. But yes, approaching them from their email is the best way! Thanks!!And for larger companies, we had a demo, they asked us to improve and build some extra feature and we build it with POC, we asked them to take a look, now they are not responding. I'm not sure whether they are not responding or they are busy.But I'm happy, their input was soo great that it helps me to stand out in the market with unique way!
My question is related to scaling a startup. Do you have any best practices that might have worked for you in getting your team to give it their all and operate at their best? Any lessons to share on how to inspire your team to go above and beyond and not settle for mediocracy in their work? We are operating a startup where we do a team Standup at 10:30am and we do team Recap at 6pm and we don't expect anyone to work overtime or on the weekends unless something major comes up. Sometimes I feel like we are too lenient especially in this early stage of trying to get to scale. At the same time, I don't want to be a slave driver and cause burnout.
Tbh, two meetings a day to summarize what ppl are doing seems way too much. I'm skeptical there are major diffs / learnings from meeting to meeting and I wonder if that could be actually demoralizing. The main thing at a startup is to trust your team members with their jobs. This starts with giving them space to experiment and make right and wrong decisions to learn from in their own timeframe. One thing I'd suggest is having a primary KPI that you're driving together (e.g. MRR or DAUs) and get aligned on the goal for this metric. Put this graph everywhere so it's a constant reminder that we should all be working on this together, and if you aren't working on something that will impact this metric, then you should proactively fix that.
Could you talk about the factors that made you consider dropping out of your PhD program? Also, would you ever return to your program?
There were many but the two main ones: (1) too much focus on theoretical models that didn't really predict or explain reality, so I became pretty disillusioned with how I'd ever make a real enormous impact with it (2) I didn't discover tech startups until 3 years into my PhD when a friend introduced me to it. I was immediately hooked and spent all day coding instead of doing research.
In line with what @chinasa asked above. I would like to know if you would consider going back to academia. Given your experience with Homejoy and Y Combinator, what would you look for in a PhD program now? Using the way you evaluate startups, what would be your priority: advisor, location, funding package, school? How would you choose the right fit for you?Would you choose a different research area or topic? Also, are there any startups who work on services we can use when applying to PhD programs in the US? Or anything that helps startup founders with going back to school?
I wouldn't go back to finish a PhD in economics, but I've certainly thought about going back to school to learn a completely new field - BCI, law, biology are areas I'm interested in.I'd priortize on advisor first and foremost, and then everything would still matter but be secondary. It's probably analogous to choosing investors as a founder -- the firm doesn't actually matter, it's the partners that you'll work with most that are most impactful. Aside from, I don't know of any startups that help aspiring PhDs - unfortunately, it's a group of potential customers who usually don't have much money to spend :)
I went to Rochester Institute of Technology (go Rochester!), I can understand if weather played any role in your decision to leave :) I'm curious to learn about why you decided to go from CEO/co-founder/product manager to partner at Y combinator? Were there any specific instances that made you feel like it was the right move at the right time?Also so cool to see you on here after watching you on Sam Altman's How to Start a Start Up (2014). I loved how honest you were in the video and hearing your stories about initial scaling.
My dad was also a PHD from University of Rochester :) What's your perspective on MBAs (from top 3) for product managers if you goal is to stay in product and eventually build something of your own?
Getting an MBA has two, big positive effects: (1) increased salary and (2) increased networking opportunities. To the extent that's what you're mostly seeking, I say go for it.
1. What was your fav part about starting HomeJoy? Scaling HomeJoy?2. What's your fav part about being a partner at YC?
Favorite part of Homejoy was the people. It's really all a blur at this point but the thing I'll always remember is the feeling of happiness and motivation in being in the trenches with some of the smartest, hardest-working people. And that's not just employees but also the home service providers who were the backbone of the marketplace we were building. Favorite part of YC is meeting founders around the world. We have such a great platform to really inspire and help people change the world in their own way. I'll never take that for granted.
Hi Adora! We met sometime last year when you came to UofT in Toronto for a presentation.In terms of customer acquisition, you've said referrals worked best and discounts were worst, from your experience with HomeJoy. What were the in-betweens?
For a founder that has already started a business previously and has a good network, what are the benefits of joining a program like YC?