58 Quotes from Sam Altman on Startup Ideas

From How to Start a Startup — Lecture 1

Rajen Sanghvi
How to Start a Startup
6 min readSep 24, 2014


From Stanford’s CS183B Course How to Start a Startup — Lecture 1

Like so many others, I was excited when I first heard that YC was going to make the lectures from How to Start a Startup publicly available online. As I reviewed the speaker line up and course outline, I knew this would be a great learning opportunity and resource for the global startup community.

Earlier this evening I sat down to and started watching Sam Altman kick things off with the subject of Startup Ideas. To help myself retain some of the information, I decided to go through it slowly, while taking some notes along the way. I quickly found that the majority of my notes were basically quotes taken verbatim from the lecture. As a result, I decided to trim my notes down to quotes from Sam Altman, all 140 characters or less, and share them here for fellow startup enthusiasts to read and share.

I plan on going through the rest of the lecture and posting additional notes shortly. In addition, I plan on doing the same for the upcoming lectures as well. If you feel there are any additional quotes you would like me to add, feel free to comment and I’ll be sure to add them in.

  1. “It’s become popular in recent years to say that the idea doesn’t matter.”
  2. “Great execution is at least 10 times more important and a 100 times harder than a good idea…”
  3. “…but the pendulum has swung way out of whack here. A bad idea is still bad, and the pivot happy world we’re in today feels suboptimal.”
  4. “Great execution towards a terrible idea will get you nowhere.”
  5. “There are exceptions of course, but most companies start with a great idea — not a pivot.”
  6. “If you look at successful pivots, they almost always are a pivot into something that the founder wanted. Not a random made up idea.”
  7. “AirBnB happened because Brian Chesky couldn’t pay his rent, but did have some space.”
  8. “In general though, if you look at the track record of pivots, they don’t become big companies.”
  9. “I myself used to believe ideas didn’t matter that much, but I’m very sure that’s wrong now.”
  10. “If it works out, you’re going to be working on this for 10 years.”
  11. “So it’s worth some real up front time to think through the long term value and the defensibility of the business.”
  12. “Even though plans themselves are worthless, the exercise of planning is very valuable and totally missing in most startups today.”
  13. “Long term thinking is so rare anywhere, but especially in startups. This is a huge advantage if you do it.”
  14. “Remember that the idea will expand, and become more ambitious as you go.”
  15. “You certainly don’t need to have everything figured out in the path from here to world domination.”
  16. “Someday, you need to build a business that’s difficult to replicate. This is an important part of a good idea.”
  17. “The idea should come first, the startup should come second.”
  18. “Wait to start a startup until you come up with an idea that you feel compelled to explore.”
  19. “If you have several ideas that all seem pretty good, work on the one that you think about, when you’re not trying to think about work.”
  20. “We hear again and again from founders, that they wish they had waited to start a startup until they came up with an idea they really loved.”
  21. “Another way of looking at this, is that the best companies are almost always mission oriented.”
  22. “It’s difficult to get large groups of people, to the extreme levels of focus and productivity that you need, for a startup to be successful”
  23. “A related advantage of mission oriented ideas, is that you yourself will be dedicated to them.”
  24. “It takes years and years, usually a decade, to create a great startup.”
  25. “If you don’t love and believe in what you’re building, you’re likely to give up at some point along the way.”
  26. “There’s no way I know, to get through the pain of a startup without belief that the mission really matters.”
  27. “Good startups usually take 10 years.”
  28. “A third advantage of mission oriented companies, is that people outside the company are more willing to help you.”
  29. “You’ll get more support on a hard, important, project than a derivative one.”
  30. “When it comes to starting startups, in many ways, it’s easier to start a hard startup than an easy startup.”
  31. “The hardest part about coming up with great ideas, is that the best ideas, often look terrible at the beginning.”
  32. “The thirteenth search engine- and without all the features of a web portal, most people thought that was pointless.”
  33. “The tenth social network, and limited only to college students with no money, also terrible. Myspace had won.”
  34. “Or a way to stay on strangers couches, that just sounds terrible all around”
  35. “These all sounded really bad, but they turned out to be good. If they had sounded really good, there would have been too many people working on them.”
  36. “You want an idea that turns into a monopoly. But you can’t get a monopoly, in a big market right away; too much competition for that.”
  37. “You have to find a small market in which you can get a monopoly, and then quickly expand.”
  38. “You need conviction in your own beliefs, and the willingness to ignore others naysaying.”
  39. “The hard part is that this is a very fine line. There’s right on one side of it, and crazy on the other.”
  40. “The truly good ideas don’t sound like they’re worth stealing.”
  41. “You want to sound crazy, but you want to actually be right.”
  42. “You want an idea that not many other people are working on, and it’s okay if it doesn’t sound big at first.”
  43. “Unpopular but right is what you’re going for.”
  44. “You also really want to take the time to think about how the market is going to evolve.You need a market that’s going to be big in 10 years”
  45. “Most investors are obsessed with the market size today and they don’t think about how the market is going to evolve”
  46. “I care much more about the growth rate of the market than it’s current size and I also care if there’s any reason it’s going to top out.”
  47. “I prefer to invest in a company that’s going after a small but rapidly growing market than a big but slow growing one.”
  48. “You cannot create a market that doesn’t want to exist.”
  49. “You can basically change everything in a startup but the market.”
  50. “You need this sort of a tailwind to make a startup successful.”
  51. “Why now, why is this the perfect time for this particular idea, and to start this particular company?”
  52. “Why couldn’t it have been done 2 years ago, and why will 2 years in the future be too late?”
  53. “In general, it’s best if you’re building something that you yourself need.”
  54. “If you don’t need it yourself, and you’re building something that someone else needs, realize you’re at a big disadvantage.”
  55. “If it takes more than a sentence to explain what you are doing, it’s almost always a sign that what you are doing is too complicated.”
  56. “More important than starting any startup, is getting to know a lot of potential co-founders.”
  57. “If you can just learn to think about the market first, you will have a big leg up on most people starting startups.”
  58. “…the thing we see wrong with YC apps most frequently, is that people have not thought about the market first and what people want first.”

If you found this list useful, check out my post on the second part of this lecture: “37 Quotes from Sam Altman on Building a Great Product.” If you‘re interested in watching the full lecture for yourself, you can do so here:


If you liked this post, please click on ‘Recommend’ button below. Others may stumble upon my post and it will motivate me to continue this exercise for the rest of the course. Thanks.

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Image Credit: Y Combinator — By Paul Miller



Rajen Sanghvi
How to Start a Startup

Founder & Sales Builder @ www.salestraction.io | The future of sales is authentic, transparent and intelligent. Btw it’s already here.