An Afternoon With Sam Altman
The President of Y Combinator talks to students about startups and why business school is not suited for founders
W hen Sam Altman, President of Y Combinator, delivered the keynote at this year’s Cyperposium, an annual student-run conference on the business of technology, students were eager to follow up with questions and ideas.
One student pitched him on a particular idea. Altman listened attentively and then decided that he wasn’t probably going to like the idea given his experience in the field. The student looked disappointed. But Altman said that it does not matter. If you believe in your idea, he said, you shouldn’t worry about what I say. I looked at the student’s face. He did not seem to be convinced.
If you need to remember one thing from his speech, it is that you need to have conviction to start a company. Altman displayed convinction when he said that technology and the internet will continue to be at the forefront of innovation. He even suggested that society will see no more dictators, because “you can’t stop the internet.”
He was passionate that real innovation comes from small companies. He was clear that you have to build a product that a small group of people loves. He said that the ideal candidate for a startup is someone who is passionate about a particular idea. Someone who has conviction.
Then he explained why MBAs are not the ideal candidate. MBAs mistake starting a company for building the next resume item, he said. Business schools train you to run a business, but not to start one. “MBAs are divorced from problems that most people have.”
MBAs don’t want to work on projects that sound terrible, when often the best startups begin as something that was considered crazy, not cool. Even Facebook at the beginning was seen by investors as a platform for elitist people who were wasting their time on the internet.
Altman suggested that business school students have to untrain themselves. They have to learn to understand the field that they want to work in. They need to learn the skills that you need as a founder, not as a manager.
Altman stressed the importance of communication. “We do not fund someone who can’t articulate their idea,” he remarked. In that area at least MBAs do very well.
Believing in something that society has yet to embrace is hard, but necessary if you want to create something great. If you care too much about what society thinks about what you are doing, then you will always go for the safe option. Instead find something you are convinced about and then do that.
If you don’t have an idea that you’re convinced about, you should work at a fast-growing company, Altman advised. Eventually you will learn the skill set that you need to succeed on your own.
This was piece originally published at The Harbus, the student newspaper of the Harvard Business School, on November 24, 2014. If you enjoyed this piece, you can subscribe to Patrick Daniel’s newsletter. You can follow Sam Altman on Twitter.