Sam Altman, President of Y Combinator. Hackathon Hackers AMA!

Q: Do you think the pre-existing lack of diversity within the tech industry hinders the chances of underrepresented minority co/founders getting funding? Not necessarily because they are minorities, but because the problems that they are attempting to fix aren’t problems that the people in Silicon Valley identify with? — Hallie Lomax

A: I think in general investors have learned that they need to look at problems outside of Silicon Valley, and they are particularly interested in doing so in the current environment. That said, I do think underrepresent minorities are at a disadvantage when it comes to fundraising, but it seems to be getting better quickly. It’s also worth pointing out that problems people in Silicon Valley have often become problems lots of other people have (Airbnb, Facebook, etc etc)

Q: What are your thoughts on the startup studio model (i.e. Expa or Betaworks)? — Aashay Sanghvi

A: In general I am super skeptical. Twitter is I guess the example of it really working, but the apparent exception that proves the rule. I don’t think it’s the normal path to create a great company — far better to focus on one specific product you want to create.

Q: What’s you biggest regret in life? — Hallie Lomax

A: Hasn’t happened yet.

Q: Do you play any video games? — David Bui

A: Not right now. The last few games I’ve really gotten into are all the Halos, Mario Galaxy (late to the party), and The Last of Us

Q: How do entrepreneurs in Y Combinator partition their time between pursuing their startup and having a work life balance? — Tyler Adams

A: The honest answer is not super well. Startups are an all-in sort of thing; starting a startup is not usually the optimal choice if you want to have a great work-life balance.

Q: How does design factor into how you evaluate YCF applicants? — Marissa Louie

A: It’s part of being able to build a great product, so it of course counts heavily.

Q: How do you deal with uncertainty? What, if anything, do you believe is absolutely, certainly true? — Shane Creighton-Young

A: Uncertainty is the fun part. I don’t let it bother me. I wrote about some things here I absolutely believe:

Q: Malcolm Gladwell has said that “the key to achieving world class expertise in any skill, is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing the correct way, for a total of around 10,000 hours.” Do you consider yourself an expert in anything? Have you practiced it for 10000 hours? If not, what do you think has afforded you the shortcut? — Shane Creighton-Young

A: I’d say I’m an expert investor. I haven’t quite done it for 10,000 hours, but getting close. I at least study it very hard.

Q: Ideas are easy, implementation is hard.” Do you agree with this? If so, what is the difference between ideas and implementation that makes the latter harder? — Shane Creighton-Young

A: Yes. This should be obvious — everyone has lots of ideas and all you have to do is lay in the grass to have them. Implementation takes years of painful effort.

Q: When considering a startup for YC, would you say you spend more time getting to know the team, or getting to know the product? — Davis Foster

A: The team, but the product is important evidence that the team is good. I need to believe in all 3 of the the team, the product, and that the market will be big in 10 years.

Q: How much does having a prototype already impact your decisions on choosing to fund a startup? — Gene Chorba

A: A fair amount; it is at a minimum evidence that the team consists of doers not talkers. A lot more people talk about their plans to build a product than actually go build one.

Q: What is the worst advice you have ever gotten? — Djames Ryan Hennessy

A: All of the most dangerous bad advice is of the form: “don’t do this thing, it’s not going to work”. Often it’s right, but think very hard every time you hear it.

Q: Why is venture capital raised often viewed as the benchmark for startup success, rather than revenue/profit? — Andrew Ghobrial

A: People like concrete numbers available right now, and raising a lot of money is sexy. More sophisticated observers, though, have learned to instead care about how the company is actually doing — how fast it’s growing, how much users love the product, etc.

Q: I don’t know about the rest of these folks, but my parents are the exact opposite of tech savvy. My mom didn’t go to college, and my dad went to West Point in the 80's. They don’t quite understand the tech scene or the college education system of today. What advice do you have to explain to parents that taking some time off of school to pursue startup opportunities is a feasible path to take? That, while obviously beneficial, a college degree isn’t necessarily required to make it in the tech world today? — Jacob Torrence

A: Surely most parents are already a bit skeptical of college and have at least heard startups are a thing. In any case, don’t live your life for anyone else.

Q: What is the most expensive lesson you have ever learned? — Oliver Belanger

A: Don’t power slide a McLaren around an onramp in the rain, the software goes crazy when the rear wheels lose traction and can’t quickly get it back.

Q: What should a fresh, new CS grad look for in her first job? — Julie Pan

A: The opportunity to work at a super fast-growing startup (new opportunities continue to present themselves, and you will develop a strong network, and gain very applicable experience).

Q: As the president of one of the most well known venture funds, how did you first hear about HH and what made you decide to reach out to us? — Lee Gao

A: I don’t remember. You are our people.

Q: You compiled a blog post earlier this year called “Technology Predictions”, showing how difficult of a time humankind’s had with predicting the future and limits of technology, and how wrong we’ve been in the past. Do you have any technology predictions of your own? — Emily Goetz

A: Many, but I’m not dumb enough to share them publicly smile emoticon

Q: What is you opinion on university hackathons and the hackathon movement? — Timotius Sitorus

A: I like the spirit of building. I think the culture is kinda weird though. I also worry that it puts too much of an emphasis on building the prototype and not enough on the years of work that comes after. Hackathon people often have troublingly short attention spans. I wouldn’t advise becoming a career hackathoner.

Q: If there are a set number of fellowships, could you release the number or are you expecting there to be only a few superb ideas/startups that are even likely to make the cut? — Ryan Dre Bach

A: We were planning on about 20, but I’m open-minded about the number. It could be more.

Q: With the number of hard problems in the coming future in fields such as AI or biotech, would you recommend an aspiring entrepreneur to stay in school in order to have more theoretical knowledge? — Yuwei Xu

A: Better to join a startup working on these problems IMO once you are past a basic foundation of knowledge.

Q: What’s your stance regarding strong AI? — Phuoc Quang Phan

A: I spend a lot of time on this — I think it will happen, and I think it will be the most important event in human history.

Q: Is it wise to have members of some well known VCs as advisers when applying to accelerators? — Joshua Davis

A: Generally not — advisors are usually a mark of lameness. Far better to have a great prototype.

Q: How have designers fared as investors? For example, you have Garry Tan and Kevin Hale as YC partners. — Marissa Louie

A: I don’t know about the general case, but those two in particular are incredibly great.

Q: Do you play StarCraft 2 or something similar? — Thomas Schranz

A: I used to! Very time-poor these days.

Q: Being President of Y Combinator is cool, but when are you running for POTUS? — Dave Fontenot

A: Not old enough yet. Ask me when I’m 35?

Q: I’m a sophomore in the top 20% of my class. I don’t have a Harvard GPA, but I can get into a college such as NC State or UNC. I don’t wanna waste my time at any college too low. Should I apply to a decent college, or just go into the workforce after graduating? — Andy Kamath

A: I would recommend going to college for a year or two. You’ll learn a lot and build up a valuable network. After that you can leave if you want.

Q: What’s your advice to the international undergrads in US wanting to apply to YC Fellowship. Do you think it is possible for us to get an opportunity? — Ayush Saraf

A: Yes for sure. Remote is ok and because it’s structured as a grant you don’t need to be a US company.

Q: Peter Thiel recently joined as a part-time YC partner. What influence did the Thiel Fellowship have on the creation of the YC Fellowship? — Dave Fontenot

A: Peter is a good friend so we talk about stuff a bunch, but no specific influence.

Q: What personal qualities would you value the most from your own hypothetical startup co-founders? — Sean Bae

A: Determination, level-headedness (surprisingly important), complimentary skills, intelligence, and being people I want to spend a lot of time with. I wouldn’t cofound a company with somebody I wasn’t friends with.

Q: I’m solo, I’m female, I’m not-young (see my profile photo; that’s what I did when I finished grad school…), so I have deep expertise in the area I’d like to form a startup, and lots of industry connections — though it’s fin’l industry so obviously you all do, too. However, I don’t have access to coders who’d want to partner with me. Is Y Combinator “for me”? — Jessica Margolin

A: The only potential red flag in there is if you don’t have a founding team who can build what your company is going to build. All the rest fits in the category of people we fund all the time. But it’s very important that teams can build their product and don’t need to hire/outsource it.

Q: What are your thoughts on our environment being an experimental AI environment (with us being the subject) in which biology is equivalent to electronics. When do you think we will get to that point? — David Doan

A: I think it is more likely than not we are living in some sort of simulation, and I think something related to AI is a reasonable guess for why we might be simulated.

Q: What was the best lesson you learned in college? — Alex Kern

A: That I can learn anything I want fairly quickly, and not knowing about something should never be an excuse for not doing it.

Q: We send things instantly these days. Email, snapchat, facebook, what are your thoughts on handwritten messages? — Sathya Peri

A: I still send handwritten notes after I stay with a friend, go to a dinner party, etc. But I don’t think many people do anymore.

Q: Do you have any morning rituals? What do the first few hours of your day look like? — John Yeung

A: I get up late, have an espresso, and immediately start work. I try to get roughly caught up on email before I leave the house, then if I need to write anything or review a complex deal I do that, and then I head to the office and work on my top few priorities for the day. I try to schedule my meetings in the afternoon.

Thanks again to Sam Altman for taking time off to answer some questions from the community!

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