How to Get Into Y Combinator (as shared by Sam Altman himself)

Notes From Sam’s Speeches and Podcasts

The Best Founder Traits

  • “The way to have a company that executes well is to execute well yourself. Everything in a startup gets modeled after the founders. What the founders do becomes the culture.” – Sam Altman
  • Frugality
  • Focus
  • Obsession (with the problem they’re trying to solve)
  • Love (of their work)
  • Ideal co-founders are tenacious, relentlessly resourceful, decisive, tough, calm, creative, and quick-to-act (i.e., they behave like James Bond)
  • Early on in your startup, avoid hiring for as long as possible
    • When you decide to start hiring, the best source is people you already know
  • They tend to come from upper middle class backgrounds (not super rich, not poor, etc.)
    • Why is this the case?
    • The stability/blessings just make things that much easier
    • “The two great gifts I got in life were my education and the love of my parents”
    • “My mom probably had more to do with my success than anything else”
    • If you don’t grow up in a stable environment, with a great education, and loving parents – it’s very hard to have a good shot at starting a successful company

Every Startup Needs an Evangelical Founder

  • Someone at the startup must be able to recruit, sell the product, talk to the press, raise money, etc.
  • “This requires someone who can affect the whole world with enthusiasm about what the company’s trying to do” – Sam Altman

The Best Founders Have a Confident and Definite View of the Future

  • They may be wrong, but one thing’s for sure – they’re confident as hell
  • “Having courage of your convictions; being a clear leader; saying, ‘We’re going to do this, and here’s why,’ even in the face of a lot of doubt; that seems to really correlate with success” – Sam Altman

Optimism

  • TEAM: You Need Optimists
  • “The whole world will be telling you why you’re going to fail as a startup. If you don’t have that internal fire of belief… If you don’t have the spirit of optimism on the team, it’s very hard to succeed when the world continues to punch you in the face.” – Sam Altman
  • In general, the team needs to always have the mindset of, “We’ll figure it out”
  • You Need Idea Generators
  • Every team needs a few people who are REALLY good at coming up with ideas
  • “I’ve Got It”
  • You want individuals on your team who are always willing to step up to the job
  • Have an Action Bias
  • “Startups, especially in their early days, often win by moving very quickly” – Sam Altman
  • You want people on your team who are willing to act with much less data than they’re comfortable with
  • Then, if things don’t work, they’re able to quickly adapt and try something else

The Y Combinator (YC) Interview Process

  • The Y Combinator interviews are now only 10 minutes in length
  • Sam wants to drop the time even further – “I think we could make decisions that are 90% or 95% as good as we make with a 10-minute interview in 5-minutes”
  • (The interviews used to be 40-45 minutes in length)
  • “So many of the skills and thought processes related to what it takes to create a successful company, and the way people react to being pushed on their idea, are evident in the first few minutes of talking to somebody”
  • What doesn’t YC like to see in the interview process?
  • Paul Graham, the co-founder of YC, has said in the past that one thing which would immediately disqualify a pair of founders is if when one co-founder is talking, the other rolls their eyes
  • What else dose Sam look out for? – Contempt
  • What are signs of a good founder?
  • You need to be a clear communicator
  • “To be an effective CEO, 95% of your job is effective communication, evangelism, and trying to tell the story of the company to people you’re trying to hire, retain, and sell to”
  • “If you can’t communicate an ambitious vision, we probably won’t fund you”
  • Does age factor in to who gets accepted?
  • Applicants do have to be 18 (although they did make an exception and once funded a 15-year-old)
  • The oldest YC founder was 78

YC’s Impact on Valuations

  • YC companies are graduating and getting HUGE valuations, just because they were accepted to YC
  • “I wish that it were not the case that just because you got into YC means you get to raise tens of millions of dollars at the end of the program without enough diligence or discipline around price”
  • This has downstream effects (it hurts the companies in their next round of funding)
  • But another effect – YC is significantly increasing the number of good companies in the world
  • Before YC came along, if you wanted to start a company – you had to go to business school, find experienced managers, and network to even have a chance at getting an investment
  • Now – ANYONE in the world can apply to YC
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