Why Paul Graham Is Still So Wrong

My name is Denis Shershnev, I’m CEO of 6nomads — remote-focused hiring platform for startups. While I was in the US in May I heard that Y Combinator arranges YC Startup Hiring Mixer and decided that I could be useful at this event: could talk about our study of the remote specialists market, about how my distributed team functions, what mistakes I have made myself, what I learned, and why this format is the obvious future.

Then I wrote to Ryan Choi (Ryan organizes these events for Y Combinator startups) and got this answer:

I’m used to this opinion and have heard and read it many times, but this is the most progressive accelerator of the galaxy, isn’t it?

“Let the other 95% of great programmers in”

Here we need to go back to 2014, when Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator, wrote a great text. You can read it yourself.

There Paul protests against the difficulties that migration policy creates for companies in need of IT talent, and proves that the domestic market can not meet this need. Here are the main points:

  • There is a huge variation in ability between competent programmers and exceptional ones, and while you can train people to be competent, you can’t train them to be exceptional.
  • The US has less than 5% of the world’s population. Which means if the qualities that make someone a great programmer are evenly distributed, 95% of great programmers are born outside the US.
  • It will always be true that most people who are great at anything are born outside the US.
  • Exceptional performance implies immigration. A country with only a small percent of the world’s population will be exceptional in some field only if there are a lot of immigrants working in it.
  • It could easily be the defining mistake this generation of American politicians later become famous for. Unlike other potential mistakes on that scale, it costs nothing to fix.

It’s hard to disagree, isn’t it? Paul explains, among other things, that hiring a specialist from India, Russia, or Germany is absolutely not about saving money on these employees. However, this misconception still exists. To help an employee with a visa, to relocate them to the USA, to pay a competitive salary — do you think it is similar to the desire to save money?

Even at that time, in 2014, in the thread “How Paul Graham Is Wrong” disputes erupted. The rhetoric of these disputes, in general, has not changed to this day. As always, the debate is stuck on the irreconcilable points: the variety of tools for great remote work vs the importance of magical personal communication.

«Use WordPress and P2, use Slack, use G+ Hangouts, use Skype, use any of the amazing technology that allows us to collaborate as effectively online as previous generations of companies did offline.»


«There’s friction to spontaneous collaboration and spontaneous collaboration is what people really care about when they talk about the benefits of in-person work.»

Twitter also did not stand aside:

But here is my favorite:

Maybe, maybe…

Back to the s̶h̶i̶t̶h̶o̶l̶e̶ future

But, let’s step back into 2019, a year when Y Combinator still strongly recommends not hiring remote employees and, God forbid, not to build distributed teams. Y Combinator’s CEO Michael Sable’s tweet looks extremely ironic in this context:

I have a great idea, but you won’t like it :(
Right in front of you!

Although recent Trump’s promises sound good, to get a visa is becoming increasingly difficult, especially in those countries in the “shithole countries” category, according to Mr.Donald’s classification.

Valley markup

Add here the fact that Y Combinator invests $150 000 in startups. That’s great. Not so great is that the average salary of one senior developer per year is about $145 000.

$43 000 of this money will pay for rental housing and $46 000 for taxes. It turns out that projects are forced to spend most of the investment not on hiring the best professionals but to compensate for the high cost of living in the Valley.

Hiring a remote specialist from Toronto, Ukraine, or Montenegro, you do not pay them less than a specialist from the Valley. In this case, you just don’t pay the “Valley markup” — about $60–110 000 a year.

CA$ 100K = $ 76,5K
€ 62K = $ 70,2K
₽ 2182K = $ 34,4K

Especially ironic is that if we go on Angel.co and search for remote developer vacancies in the Valley, what do we see? In 70% of these already not so frequent vacancies, employers are ready to show this courage (to hire remotely) only if the specialist agrees to work for free or on the terms of an internship. They seem to think that if you don’t live in the Valley, why do you need the money? But, jokes aside, here at 6nomads we are against hiring people to work for free. But, to hire two excellent developers outside the Valley instead of one inside it, to refuse to rent an office, to open access to your company to the global talent market — this is something at least strange to give up. That’s what we want to tell you, and Paul Graham, as well.

Remote work is not a trend — it’s here to stay

In fact, one might argue that going fully remote with a 100% distributed team–with no company offices at all–actually makes businesses more successful. Hire the best talent (wherever they are), eliminate expensive office overhead and distractions, and play a big part in reducing our carbon footprint. As Automattic’s Matt Wullenweg has said:
We focus on two things when hiring. First, find the best people you can in the world. And second, let them do their work. Just get out of their way.

If the world’s most legendary business incubator, instead of promoting strong beliefs about the inefficiency of distributed teams, helped create and teach how to manage them, there would not be 15 unicorn companies raised in Y Combinator, but many more. And in Paul’s words, “It costs nothing to fix.”

Yes, distributed teams are more difficult, they concern investors, but this is something that can be changed on our own (unlike politics and Donald Trump). In addition, remote IT talent is already a well-established culture, they do not have to be taught, they do not need to be nursed: they know how to do their job.

We could list many prominent companies whose teams are fully distributed around the world, you already know them: InVision, Buffer, WordPress, GitLab, Zapier, Basecamp, etc. Instead, we’ll give an example of graduates of the same Y Combinator, who managed to succeed, creating a distributed team from the very beginning.

“Three years ago we graduated from Y Combinator, and today we have more than 250 000 active subscribers in the US and revenue of tens millions of dollars. The monthly budget for marketing is $1.5–2 million. And here’s the main feature: we are a service, half of whose employees are in Russia, and what is most surprising is not only development, but also marketing. Was it possible to imagine before?”

Oleg Popov, Head of Growth at Scentbird, April 2018

We can talk endlessly about remote work because we practice it ourselves and believe in it. But, the words of СEO’s and СТО’s of other startups with teams distributed around the world will sound much more convincing. We did a series of interviews with them to convince the doubters, show our case study to beginners, and give new solutions and tips for remote-practitioners.

For some reason, it seems that the guys from Buffer are damn right:

Remote work is not a trend — it’s here to stay.

Originally published at 6nomads.com, a platform where talented developers and tech startups find each other in the shortest possible way.

6nomads.com — a new kind of recruitment service focusing on remote tech companies.

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