Sam Altman

President of Y Combinator

THIS CHAT HAPPENED ON January 08, 2016


Sam Altman@sama · President, YC
Hi! I'm Sam Altman, President of Y Combinator and Co-chair of OpenAI. I'm excited to answer questions about startups or anything else!
Sydney Liu@sydney_liu_sl · Co-Founder of
Hey Sam! Thanks for doing this AMA. You talk a lot about the relentless focus on product & growth. Obviously, every great startup has these and cannot succeed without them. Another important part seems to be a person's network (which helps with hiring, fundraising, sales, and more, a big value of the YC network). Most first time founders won't have this network. Especially for startups that don't have Facebook & Snapchat growth curves early on. If Brian Chesky didn't get into YC (and unable to raise from his own connections at the time), Airbnb's growth numbers alone wouldn't be enough to get them more meetings. Where should building a network fit into a founder's focus? Should it? And if it should, how should he/she go about it if not plugged into the YC network? Thanks! Sydney Liu
Sam Altman@sama · President, YC
@sydney_liu_sl The best way to effectively build a network is to have a product that is at least somewhat interesting. To use Brian's example, he didn't have runaway growth, but he had actually built a product and had a few users which was enough for some people to be willing to meet with him and help him. Most people looking to "network" have just an idea, so this alone will make you stand out. The YC alumni are a pretty friendly/helpful group of people. They're one of many good ways to get plugged into the YC network.
Jeff Needles@jsneedles · Data @ Houseparty & Maker of Things
@sama Hey Sam! Love following u on twitter & ❤️ this. Question: what was @rrhoover like at YC developing PH? Did you see it becoming what it is today? Also, what's your favorite board game?
Sam Altman@sama · President, YC
@jsneedles The thing that impressed me about Ryan during YC was how quickly he got things done. This is one of the best early tells for a successful founder--successful founders produce results, bad founders produce excuses. My favorite overall game is Go. My favorite game to play casually with friends is Settlers of Catan.
Ryan Hoover@rrhoover · Founder, Product Hunt
Thanks, @sama. 😊 I was fortunate to have some awesome team members hustling during the 3 month sprint.
Nate Legler@natelegler · Farmer, Founder, Cattle Producer
@sama @jsneedles think this is fitting for the reply from Sam
Ryan Hoover@rrhoover · Founder, Product Hunt
Hey, Sam! What was your first entrepreneurial business/experience growing up? Do you think it shaped who you are today?
Goktug Yilmaz@esqarrouth · Dev of Dawn of Crafting
@rrhoover How do you feel that you, as the site owner are the only person who didn't get his question answered? :)
Ryan Hoover@rrhoover · Founder, Product Hunt
@esqarrouth haha, I'm ok with that! There were a tooon of questions and I shouldn't get priority over anyone else. 😊
Kasperi Apell@kasperiapell
Hi Sam! What relatively unknown book had a profound impact on you and why?
Sebastian Nader@sebastian_nader ·
Hi @sama! Thanks for your time. What kind of products do you expect to surge from Latin America in the next few years?
Sam Altman@sama · President, YC
@nadersebastian I hope it will be new ideas that are especially good for Latin America instead of clones of companies that are working in Silicon Valley. One trend I've noticed traveling around the world is that a lot of entrepreneurs outside of Silicon Valley feel like they need to copy something that's already proven successful here. But that's obviously wrong. I'd love to see some new ideas turn into $100B companies elsewhere in the world.
Sebastian Nader@sebastian_nader ·
@sama @nadersebastian =) Yeah! ***STOP COPYCATS*** Thanks and have a great year!
Sam Altman@sama · President, YC
@sama I gotta run. Thanks everyone; this was fun!
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Community and Marketing, Product Hunt
@sama thanks so much for joining us and getting through so many of our varied questions! It's been a huge pleasure to host you chatting with the community today. 🙌😻✨
Hey @sama My question is related to product development. How will you spend your time if you've got one hour to solve a user problem/need? Thanks!
jack rometty@rometty_ · student
@juniusfree interesting addition: how would you solve a 90 minute problem if you only had an hour?
Sam Altman@sama · President, YC
@juniusfree I would spend the entire hour talking to users and figuring out what they desperately need and would really love, instead of sort of need and would kind of like. I think this is one of the most important tips for startups.
Tony Xiao@tony_xiao · Product Guy
@rometty_ @juniusfree what's the context here?
Tarun Atrey@tarunatrey · Software Developer @VMware
@sama Hi Sam! Thanks for taking out time to do this. I would like to know in what ways YC is helping skilled immigrants who aspire to be entrepreneurs? People working in Silicon Valley on H1B visa tend not to take much risks at least till they get green card. They need to maintain legal presence status to stay in the US, which discourages them from taking more risks and pushes them to more "stable" jobs since there is a lot at stake. I would like to know your thoughts on it. One of the primary requirements for all YC programs is full-time commitment to work on the idea. While I understand the need for this, it usually means one needs to resign from any other job and no legal status for a skilled immigrant. Do you think YC might consider a modification to this rule in future?
Sam Altman@sama · President, YC
@tarunatrey We're fairly good at helping the founders we fund with visa issues at this point. Though of course I'd love to see the government do something to make it easy for people to come to the US and start startups. It's a real shame our country still hasn't fixed this.
gnafster@gnafster · -
@sama Hi Sam, Thanks for your time. I've just got a few questions which I hope you'd be able to help: 1) Paul Graham once said "the best way to increase a startup's growth rate is to make the product so good people recommend it to their friends". As a co-founder of a clothing company that has been operating for 9 months, we believe we've a small group of people who really love our products (based on verbal feedback). However, we have not seen any growth rate through referrals (we do not have a referral program). Does this necessarily mean (i) our products are not good enough, or (ii) our products are not getting into the hands of more people who would love them to enable referrals (perhaps because we haven't done spreading much brand awareness)? Are there 'ingredients' that a startup has to put in place (other than making a product people love) before recommendations would naturally occur, and in turn, fast growth? 2) You've spoken about how profitability is more important than growth-at-all-cost. How do you draw a line between profitability and growth? In our case, at the beginning of a startup's life, one often has to invest in brand awareness/marketing and this often means not having any tangible returns from such spending all the time. What would you advise would be a good benchmark of how much a startup should spend on marketing in the first two years? 3) Our products (in this case, clothes) require a considerable investment in money and time to be produced for a collection, the iteration cycles are longer than software companies. As above, we've a small group of customers that love our product who have made repeat purchases, however, revenue growth over the past 9 months have not always been growing (it's up and down), which means we've not achieved product-market fit. We've identified a marketing channel that has been the most successful, and in our case because labour is limited, should we focus and look at the type of customers who had made a purchase and then 'replicate' this channel by finding events which have similar customers we can sell to? What are the other ways we can grow our brand? Many thanks!
Ben Tossell@bentossell · newCo
@sama Hey Sam - thanks for taking the time :) I recently asked @justinkan "If you were to recommend things do to/habits/etc in order for someone to be equipped enough to advise startups, what would you recommend?" He said "Start a successful startup" - I know this is a common answer with a lot of people but other than that what else would you recommend?
Sam Altman@sama · President, YC
@bentossell Why do you want there to be answer other than that? The best way to learn how to do something is usually to do it yourself first.
Ben Tossell@bentossell · newCo
@sama Because it's not the only way. Many people in the industry don't whole heartedly agree with the statement either.
Tony Xiao@tony_xiao · Product Guy
@bentossell @sama There are indeed good investors who have not been operators themselves. One example would be industry expertise.
Kevin Shin@kevnshin · Stanford-MechE MS & TA, LinkedIn-Intern
Hi @sama! Thanks for doing this AMA. What are some areas in tech that you think are underrated but could be huge opportunities?
Philip Kuklis@philipkuklis · Co-Founder, Hubble
@sama Hey Sam, Thanks for doing the AMA. What are your personal goals for 2016?
Laurence Ion@laur_ion · CEO at Intersect
@sama Why do you think Loopt (and especially Loopt Mix) and every other similar social/dating hyperlocal app failed? Do you still care about that mission?
Sam Altman@sama · President, YC
@laur_ion Most people are too boring I think--they're at the same places most of the time. No, I'm pretty burned out on that particular space.
Laurence Ion@laur_ion · CEO at Intersect
@sama @laur_ion How about something like Loopt Mix, but tailored for teens that lock eyes on a crowded subway and would love a second chance to get introduced? Clearly it's something people want, yet it's difficult because of the chicken and egg problem. But doable, as we at are striving towards this and there's no way that we can fail unless we're fundamentally wrong as most people seem to think.
hakinen@khakinen · Just Entrepreneur
@sama why are you passionate about helping entrepreneurs to grow up?
Sam Altman@sama · President, YC
@khakinen I think it's an extremely high-leverage thing to do to change the world (I get to advise people working on literally hundreds of problems), I personally find it fun and fulfilling, and I make enough money doing it I can support random other stuff I care about like OpenAI.
Dorentina Dine@dorentinadine
@sama Greetings! My problem is that I have been trying to find investors for start ups and while find someone that after we signed contract now two of them are making me pressure to send money without receiving one cent from them. I don't afraid them because such of them are mentally ill and want to profit from good people. My big worry is where to find trusted investors , I need only $60K to start and this will change my life but all over the Internet scammers. I can't take a loan on my bank because I am not working. The reason to start up my own business it's only this. If you can help me I will be very pleased. Thank you!
Ben Rahnema@brahnema · Co-Founder at Returnbase
@sama, Scaling YC is obviously a big priority for you and enabling more startups is definitely a great thing. I know you've discussed the growing value of the YC network as the network itself grows, but are you worried that there will be a threshold at which the value of the network diminishes as it grows even more? It seems there is likely a point where the network becomes so large that the connections between nodes are too weak. How are you (and YC in general) thinking about / approaching this problem as YC scales?
Sam Altman@sama · President, YC
@brahnema That will only happen if the average quality of nodes goes down or the connections between the nodes weaken. So we work really hard to avoid those things.
Dillon Chen@dillchen · Source -
@sama @brahnema Offshoot of this question. How do you monitor the health of the network? Interactions, word of mouth?
Abenezer Mamo@mamo_abenezer · Product Manager at Zoosk
Do you ever worry about saturation in current tech trends? Currently the on-demand market....
Sam Altman@sama · President, YC
@mamo_abenezer Yes, definitely. When something starts to get written about as "the hot new trend" it's frequently far too late to start a new company there, unless you have a great new insight.
Nina Patkai@creativemovesd ·, CEO & Founder, @userium
Hey @sama — Thanks for taking the time! What do you think companies could do to retain skilled tech workers?
Sam Altman@sama · President, YC
@creativemovesd Give them more responsibility and more equity. At least that would be a good start.
Anh-Minh Do@minhistry · Director, Vertex Ventures
Hi Sam, A big big thanks for doing this AMA. I'm an investor and community builder based out of Asia (Singapore, Vietnam, etc.) and I'm working on building incubators in the region. I was wondering, what advice do you have for someone who is keen to build an incubator? We don't have the benefit of practice, experience, and network that YC does, so if you started from scratch with no network, finances, and few resources, what would you do to set an accelerator/incubator/labs program up?
Harry Stebbings@harrystebbings · Podcast Host @ The Twenty Minute VC
@sama would love to hear if you think the YC model is scalable? Do you think there is the potential for there to be a YC Asia and a YC Europe? Would love to have you on @twentyminutevc and join the YC team in of Mike, Kirsty and Aaron in being interviewed on the show!