Startup Lessons From Y Combinator’s Most Sought-after Executive Coach

Fearless entrepreneurship, explained

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When Dr. Gena Gorlin told me that she’d interviewed the in-house coach at Y Combinator for the podcast that she co-hosts with Alice Bentick, I knew that their conversation was going to be gold. In her position as the first—and only—person to serve as the accelerator’s founder coach, Amy Buechler advised thousands of founders through the rollercoaster of emotions that comes with entrepreneurship. For this piece, Gena and Alice Lemée distilled Amy’s best advice for founders as they grapple with fear, anxiety, and doubt. —Kate Lee

People would pay thousands of dollars to be a fly on the wall in some of Amy Buechler’s conversations. As a licensed psychotherapist and the first (and only) in-house founder coach at famed startup accelerator Y Combinator (YC), Buechler has mentored countless of its batches, the cohorts of startup founders who made it past YC’s razor-thin 1.5–2 percent acceptance rate.

But her onboarding as Silicon Valley’s top startup coach was no tiptoe through the tulips. When YC first hired Buechler in 2015 as a “batch director,” her job description was comically ambiguous (“look over founders” was the gist). There were no previous directors she could consult with, no set parameters, and no blueprint. “It was sheer and utter panic,” Buechler tells me (Gena) and my co-host Alice Bentick in this episode of our podcast, The Founder’s Mindset.

So she went into full-blown “entrepreneurial” mode—iterating rapidly, marrying her expertise as a psychotherapist with her insights from spending extensive time with her customers—all while helping founders embrace that mode in turn.

Five years later, Buechler emerged from that directionless moment with clarity and industry-wide respect. She has supported thousands of the world’s top startup founders at YC, and 1,000 more since leaving the company in 2019.

So how does Buechler coach these founders, who often face mounting fear, anxiety, and doubt? 

In our podcast interview with Buechler, we had the chance to speak with her about the psychological patterns of founders, the pitfalls of starting a company, the tools to fix those challenges, and how to enjoy the entrepreneurial ride while being cleared-eyed about the statistical likelihood of failure.

Let’s dive in.

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To be a founder is to be fearful 

Pause. If the entrepreneurial ride is this tumultuous, why on Earth do people sign up? 

Because people see entrepreneurship as a gateway to agency and autonomy. To start a company is to have a personal narrative where you’re not just a character in someone else’s plot, but the protagonist. But do founders feel in control of their professional destiny once they get going?

Buechler would say no—not even close. In reality, most founders operate from scarcity (they don’t have enough time, resources, or money) and uncertainty (they don’t know when or from where that stuff will come). Combine scarcity and uncertainty, and you’ve brewed a potent cocktail of fear.

The first problem with fear is that terrified people often make terrible decisions. “Fear limits thinking and shuts off the frontal lobe,” Buechler explains. The brain’s frontal lobe is involved in our high-level cognitive functions, like problem-solving, emotional regulation, and planning: everything a founder needs to succeed.

The second problem? Those terrible decisions reveal themselves immediately in startups, usually through software, the team, and internal processes.

For example, shipping code full of bugs could trigger a slew of emails from frustrated customers. An incomplete hiring process might lead to hiring a chief marketing officer who doesn’t fit into the startup’s culture from day one.

For better or for worse, a startup will always mirror the founder's internal state. That remains unchanged until the business gets acquired, goes public, or fails.

Three ways a founder can conquer fear 

So, how can a founder manage their emotions? Is turning off the fear switch even possible?

Absolutely. Buechler teaches founders three mental exercises to help them navigate external chaos with internal calm.

1. Figure out what you need—not just what the business needs 

The business’s return on ad spend is dwindling, the churn rate is doubling, and the pitch you sent to the big-shot VC was declined. Things seem bad. Quite bad. Quick, what’s the next step? Buechler says: Before doing anything external, focus on the internal.

Ask yourself what you need (and not just what your business needs). Is it a cup of tea? A heart-to-heart with a loved one? Turning your phone off? “How can we take care of you to give you more strength so you can get through that cognitive process of what’s next?” Buechler says. Your chances of fixing the company are significantly greater if you take care of yourself first and make sure you’re in the right headspace before making sudden decisions.

So, what if you do those things but still return to your startup clueless?

Admitting “I don’t know” is powerful, too. It’s not a sign of defeat but the start of an exploration process. That’s a founder's job: not to have every answer but to forge ahead until they discover them.

2. Find the lens that suits 

Next, establish an empowering narrative. “There will always be multiple lenses through which you can view yourself and your story,” Buechler explains. “Let’s find the one that allows for more movement, optionality, strength, and perseverance.”

That doesn’t mean telling yourself everything is perfect. Instead, be candid about the odds you’re facing. This “disempowered” lens can paradoxically deepen a founder's self-awareness and open the door for opportunities.

Say your product launch was a flop. It’d be purposeless to convince yourself you’re a failure and the jig of being a founder is up as it’s not the full picture. (Hello, imposter syndrome.) Sure, your launch might’ve “failed.” But failure is a data point. Use it as a reference as you adjust things, whether that be your product, message, or timing, until the end result is more in line with what you imagined. “There’s a lot of possibility in that way of looking at the world,” Buechler tells us. 

Why? Because now, failure isn’t an indictment of your basic worth but rather a piece of valuable feedback. It gives you the flexibility to consider the whole range of parameters that might’ve contributed to your failed launch, and emboldens you to experiment with different ones until you succeed.

3. Build your trust bank 

The opposite of fear? According to Buechler, it’s not peace, quiet, or control: it’s trust. 

Build your “trust bank” to mitigate fear. That means placing trust wherever you can: in your co-founder, in the market, and crucially, in yourself and your ability to overcome obstacles. As British entrepreneur Charlie Wardle, author of Understanding and Building Confidence, wrote: “A bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking, because its trust is not on the branch but on its wings.”

The magic begins once the trust bank is nice and full. “This opens up the frontal lobe, allowing us to think clearly,” Buechler explains. “If fear blocks us from thinking strategically, trust opens us up to think bigger.”

It can’t be that easy, can it?

Building trust comes with challenges, especially when it involves the two pillars your startup depends on for survival: your co-founder and the market.

How do I know if I can trust my cofounder?

Under crushing pressure, founders might start to see their co founders as adversaries rather than partners. 

Buechler has seen these strains firsthand. For example: One cofounder might start work at 6 a.m. while another might clock in at 10 a.m. Or, one cofounder gets things done months in advance while the other is motivated by deadlines.

Instead of the cofounders seeing these as what they are—different working preferences—they may believe they’re a sign of catastrophic incompatibility or imminent disaster.

“I encourage founding teams to do everything they possibly can to remember that their co-founders are on their side,” Buechler stresses. A solid way to do this is to remember it’s never you versus your co-founder: it’s always you and your co-founder versus the problem. 

But surely, co-founders can’t always be a perfect match. So what’s the formula to determine if founders should call it quits?

There isn’t one, Buechler says. Figuring out what you can tolerate is deeply personal, which is why there’s no template such as, “Founders should not argue with their co-founders more than 40 percent of the time.” It’s entirely conditioned on a person’s limits, the workload, and whether time and energy could be better spent doing something else rather than actively trying to fix these problems. 

How can I trust the market if it’s against me? 

For others, extending faith into the market, which has been especially turbulent, feels impossible. Asking a founder to trust in the market feels like asking a sailor to trust the sea’s mood.

Buechler coaches founders that making money isn’t the goal of the startup: it’s to build an incredible product. Funnel that nervous energy into building something great, and your chances of success skyrocket.

Otherwise, an obsession with uncontrollable and unpredictable market forces can lead to internal instability. If the market takes a turn for the worse, so does your self-worth. Buechler has seen her fair share of founders experience an identity crisis triggered by a tumultuous market.

That’s dangerous territory because, as we’ve already established, founders then mix their personal needs with those of their startup. The result? “Really, really sloppy decision-making.” 

The key is to find the opportunities in an economic slowdown. That could be to re-strategize, reassess your resources, or spend time with loved ones. “A lot of founders, out of their fear of things slowing down, are missing the opportunities that [slowing down] affords them.” 

The market isn’t an opponent to overcome but an environment to manage. Founders can scale back to get to their core product. They can make small tweaks to extend their runway. Rather than fight the market, good founders evolve their firms alongside it.

‘Every founder is creating their own unique expression in the world’

You could assemble a dream team, build the ultimate product, have serendipitous timing, and your success still wouldn’t be guaranteed. Fear is normal when the odds are stacked this high against you.

But that shouldn’t stop you from seeing the bigger picture. Although entrepreneurship is tumultuous and grueling, it also gives you the chance to reshape the world in the image of your values, from the first employee you hire to the first product you ship. “Every founder is creating their own unique expression in the world,” concludes Buechler. That’s true whether or not your startup is ultimately successful by traditional metrics.

Facing fear is a small price to pay for that kind of personal growth and impact. 

Alice Lemée is a freelance ghostwriter and content strategist specializing in the creator economy and founder ecosystem. She is the author of the newsletter Internetly. Dr. Gena Gorlin is a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a licensed psychologist and founder coach specializing in the needs of ambitious people looking to build

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