Hi, everyone. My name is Sam Altman and this is How to Build the Future. Today, our guest is Jessica Livingston, the founder of Y Combinator, where I network Y Combinator has funded 15 hundred startups and they're worth more than 70 billion dollars in total. More than 10 of them are worth a billion dollars or more. So in terms of how to create a unicorn. Jessica Livingston probably knows more about this than maybe anybody else in the world.
So we are super delighted you came here today to talk to us. Thank you for having me.
What I really want to get out of you is how founders get on a path to build a huge company. So you have now for 11 years seen founders come in when they're just two or three people in an idea. And sometimes those founders go on to do nothing most of the time. Sometimes they create a small success and sometimes they create these companies that really transform the world. And NYC has been very fortunate to be involved in a lot of those BMB.
Dropbox stripe, the list goes on. And what I think would be really helpful is to talk about what the companies do during Y Combinator that allows them to then go on and build these super impactful companies.
So what have you observed? The very best companies do when they're brand new?
Well, I've now seen more than a thousand companies go through. I see. So I'm very familiar what these companies do during Lycee.
And I'm first going to say that there's not really one path for everyone necessarily. And a lot of times these successful startups get started almost accidentally. But when they're at the point where they say, yes, I am going to take this company seriously, I'm going to apply to Y Combinator, and then they they come here to Silicon Valley for three months. The most successful founders I've noticed are totally focused on two things building their product and making something people want, which, of course, is our motto and talking to their users.
And they do not let themselves get distracted by anything else. And that seems so obvious.
But what's not obvious is how easily distracted founders can be by lots of other things going on.
And the most successful startups are like hyper focused on their product.
What are some of the things that distract founders that seem like good ideas at the time?
Oh, there's a lot of these. And in fact, in a talk that I gave at the Female Founders Conference a couple of months ago, I referred to some of these things as like the startup equivalent of wolves in sheep's clothing because they really do seem like you're doing business.
A few of them are talking to big companies to try to form partnerships in an attempt to get better distribution or somehow get more users to do a lot of PR before you've nailed down the product to talk to corp dev deaf people.
When you're not thinking about being acquired yet, you'll still have meetings with these people or you'll take meetings with investors when you're not in fundraising mode just to sort of build a relationship.
I mean, or go to going to conferences, networking events, all these things that seem like important things to do as part of your business are not important in the very early stages when it's critical to build your product.
How do you know when you have hit the product, as you just said?
Well, I think when you have people using it, like you can measure your growth and you can measure how many users you get. And are they coming back? Are they paying for your product? I mean, that's just the greatest thing of all if you can charge for your product and that that growth rate is guilty.
So for all the Y C companies that have gone on to be these sort of household names, did they all do this during C where they just focused on their growth rate, writing code, talking to users and they the companies ended up ignoring everything else?
Yeah, pretty much. If I had to think back on the most successful startups all during Y C, they were super focused and they weren't all over the place in terms of ideas that they were working on or things that they were doing. They were definitely focused.
Did they have big plans even during where? C Like could Brian Chesky of BMB have told you during Y? See, here's how we're going to be a 25 billion dollar company and here's we're gonna look like seven years later.
I don't think they would have gone that far. I think that all of the most successful founders have ambitious plans and they certainly start a lot smaller, like they seem much less important when they're first getting started. But I think the founders do have a grand plan.
I have to believe, though, that when they're all in the earliest phases, none of them can predict just how big they'll be. I don't think Brian Chesky knew that they'd be where they are today.
And how much strategizing do you think the companies do about how they're going to get from here to the next step or the step after that, like during why? C, are they really just focused on trying to make a few users really happy? Are they thinking about, well, we need to build up a monopoly and so on? Being BMD case will have that because we'll have one marketplace? Or is it really just like let's build this product people love and see where it goes?
I really do think it starts as let's build this product and see where it goes. In some cases, let's solve our own problem and see where it goes. I'm specifically thinking of Stripe. I mean, they built that product because it was a pain in the ass for themselves. They were solving something for themselves. So I do think that they are saying, let's build this and see where it goes. However, I think that the most successful ones do have that grander vision.
I remember specifically during why Sea Air BMB said to themselves, and I think to. Westerners, we plan to become the eBay of space like they were nowhere near the eBay of space. At that point, but they had that vision and they were working toward that. How much does the idea matter? Like you said, it BMB came with this idea that turned out to actually be the eBay of space.
But a lot of founders, I think don't get started because they don't yet feel like they have the idea that can be the hundred billion dollar company. So how important you think it is to get the idea just right at the beginning or to just get started with something and then figure out where to take it?
I am of the mind of just get started with something. And that's because we are funding companies at such an early stage that we're really funding the companies for the founders and for the attributes of the founders. Do they seem determined? Have they been able to ship something in the past? Do they seem, you know, open minded about things? Are they domain experts? A lot of times they don't get the idea right the very first time they might be in the general vicinity of being right.
But then they have to adjust their idea.
Some founders totally fail with their idea and have to have to change completely. But I think it's more important to get started with something, build it, because your ideas are always going to evolve. I mean, every andbe is like to me, one of the most famous examples of an idea that has evolved. Right. Right.
It came to us with their idea, which was at the time renting out air beds in your home while you were there during conferences like that's pretty focused. Right.
And then they they said, OK, now we're going to rent out earbuds in your home, but not during conferences. Then it was renting out your own home.
So it more than all of that morphine happened during the y'see program.
No, it did not happen. Specific only to take.
I think I want to say it took about a year. I'm not 100 percent certain, but I remember what happened specifically was every M.B. was always very strict about the host being home so that they could provide breakfast.
Right. Because there was a bed and breakfast, Stanekzai. And then the famous story is that there are urban bees. One of their hosts was Barry Mentalists drummer, and he had this great place in New York City. And he contacted them and said, Hey, Barry's going on tour, I'm going to be gone. Can I just rent out my my apartment while I'm not there?
And like the air, me and bees were like, oh, that doesn't really fit.
That's how they it out. That's how they figured out how to, like, rent out the whole spaces. And to this day. I think that that's like the majority of their business. But it took something like that to get them to even consider doing it.
Could you tell the story of what you thought the first time you met the BMB founders when they came into interview for y'see? I mean, I know they were kind of a rough place. They were totally out of money. Every investor had said no to them. Yes.
We actually did not know what a rough place they were in. I know that now from hearing stories.
But they and this was 2009.
This was actually in the fall of 2008. We did the interviews in November. And for people that weren't around involved 2008, it was really a grim time to be doing a startup in Silicon Valley because the macro economic conditions are collapse. Macro macroeconomic conditions had collapsed. No one knew it was gonna happen. Angels were closing their checkbooks. People were, oh, we're going to hold off on investing. It was really sort of a scary time. And so I I do remember we went into interviews saying we're only going to choose companies that we think could make it to profitability really quickly on their own.
And then they can like live as a coccaro because you just weren't sure they'd be able to raise any money at all.
Right. We weren't sure that that come March at Demo Day, that we had no idea what what investors would be doing.
And so we were really sort of frightened. It would be a disaster if we had this big demo day and none of the startups could get more funding, that would be bad. So we were very strict. So the air b.b.'s came in. They were sort of a last minute addition to the the interview process. I remember Michael Seibel, one of the partners here, said, hey, can you slot these guys in? They're really good least.. come have them come in.
So we said, fine.
And I remember during the interview, Paul tried to change their idea. We thought this idea of like renting out earbuds was a little weird that he tried to change it too.
I don't even remember. It's embarrassing. But he didn't. I know. I know. He but he did try to, like pitch them a new idea. And they're like, no, no. And that's just one of those things.
They knew they were onto something because they themselves were hosts. And that is one of the key things about founders is that like when when you're using your own product or solving your own problem, you have all this like these insights that no one else has.
And the Arabian. These were renting out their their room in their apartment because they couldn't pay their own rent, so they had a lot of insights and it's sort of funny given the current controversy.
A.P.B. The MPB started as an affordable housing company.
You know, it's it's outrageous. So they were using they were using their own product. They had these insights that it was this wonderful experience when someone comes out of town to have hosts that can help them and show them around. And and they they knew they were onto something. So they convinced us that their idea had legs and that their users. You know, the few users, they had loved them. What I remember more about the founders, though, I really liked the founders.
They were very convincing when they spoke. You could tell they had thought about this problem a lot. They didn't have all the answers by any means, but they just seemed like they had thought about this a lot. And I remember also they brought in as a gift the cereal boxes, Obama, Ole's and cat cabin McCains or something. Was the 2008 presidential 2008 presidential election.
And they had made these cereal boxes with like Cheerios and Captain Crunch in them. And which sounds so silly because there's cereal.
But I remember they said, oh, yeah, you know, we design these. And then we went out and got Cheerios and we stuffed them in there and glue gun the boxes together and we've been giving them away. And I thought, oh, my God, these guys are like glue gunning the cereal box. Why were they doing this?
They really were doing this because they were out of money. And this was like a Hail Mary for them and they they did wind up making a lot of money from these. But to us, they were doing it as sort of a fun thing because their urban and they provide breakfast coincided with the presidential elections.
But the original driving reason was just like they couldn't raise any money, they couldn't raise any money, anything they could to survive.
Oh, my God. When you wee again during the interview, we did not know these stories.
But when you hear the stories of the problems that they had trying to fundraise prior to, y'see, it's crazy. They had one investor like leave in the middle of a pitch, just walk out without even saying good goodbye. No one believed this idea was good or certainly would be big.
Did you know at the time that the idea could be great, or was it for you really just a bet on those three guys as founders?
I have to admit it was more of a bet on the three founders. They seemed really good. I did sort of like the idea of of being able to stay in people's homes.
But I have to admit, I was I was not thinking it was going to be huge. Just because that story was so interesting, what was it like when you met the Carlson brothers? I think they were 19 and 17 when they started straight and they came in and said, we're gonna do this crazy thing and we're teenagers and we're going to take on the financial system of the world.
How does that conversation go? Well, I have to admit, we met Patrick years earlier when he was 16 or 17, still living in Ireland because he looked up Paul and we had him over for dinner. So it wasn't like we first met them at a y'see, interview. We we I think Patrick was working on some other idea first or something.
And we had, you know, high regard for him. He certainly was good at building things. And he had like a Wikipedia app. So we knew he was a talented programmer.
He introduced us to his 16 year old brother, 16. He was 16 when we met him.
And I'm trying to remember when they said, oh, we're gonna take on the financial industry. I think we were kind of like, do you realize how hard this is? And like, you don't have connections. But they were intrepid. They're like, well, we don't have connections. We'll find connections. And they just.
That that is actually a really good question that you bring up, because it shows how determined they were and how focused they were. And I mean, you think like the head of a bank is going to take a 19 year old startup founders seriously. It seems pretty implausible, right. But they were good enough that they were able to convince these banks to work with them.
Are there other traits in in in the founders that go on to really change, change the future? Besides determination that separate the very best founders from the mediocre founders. Have you noticed any other traits that kind of. Founders should aspire to really want to have a big impact. Yes. If I had to say the most important traits of the most successful founders I've already mentioned determination that is by far the most important.
More than intelligence, more than intelligence, more than previous success. You know, in school, I mean, remember when we started Y Combinator, our hypothesis was, oh, we'll just fund all the best hackers from M.I.T. and Harvard and they'll turn out to be great startup founders. That is not true. That is absolutely not true. A lot of them are good. And in fact, Patrick was from my take, but it's not true for the most part.
Determination is the most important thing.
Again, sort of understanding your users and building a product with a great user experience is second most important, not being distracted, not getting lured down these paths that aren't going to be important for building.
Building. You're your product. Being flexible minded, I've always felt is very important because you have this idea and you test it out and it doesn't always work the first time. And so you have to be able to say, OK, I thought I was gonna do this, but let's try this. Even though I have like a lot of energy vested in this, let's try this direction. You really have to be open minded and then ultimately you have to be a good leader.
You have to be convincing and a good leader because you are going to be convincing employees to join you. You're gonna be convincing investors to invest in you when you do get to the point where you're doing deals with bigger companies. You have to convince them like your whole world is convincing people. And so you have to be able to communicate your idea and and convince people why they should care about you more than any of the other hundreds of startups out there.
So now I'd like to talk about your startup, Y Combinator, and I started that. Could you tell us the story of starting my company?
Yeah, it was it was very much started in the same way that a startup is started where Paul and I had this idea.
We really felt that that the investment world was broken. If you were an early stage startup and you just wanted to, like test something out, you either had to go to a v.c and get 5 million dollars, which is virtually impossible at that early stage, or you had to know someone who is rich and could give you money. And we thought there could be something better.
We thought there could be like a standardized branded form of funding.
So if you wanted twenty five thousand dollars or whatever, you could come to Y Combinator and we'd make it very easy for you.
So we thought, okay, let's start an investment company. And it was just gonna be Paul and me. And then we sort of lured in his old co-founders, Robert Morris and Trevor Blackwell, to be part of this, even though they were full time on something else. And we said, gosh, none of us know anything about angel investing. Well, let's learn. So how should we do that? Let's fund a whole bunch of companies at once and learn a lot.
So we set up a Web site and we said, come join the Summer Founders program. It was back in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in. It was for the summer of 2005. And we started working on it. Let's just say in January. And we posted an application. We wanted to change a few specific things. We wanted to make it very easy for people to find us and apply. They didn't have to have a connection to us. We had an application of like 20 questions.
We wanted to make it very simple on our side. We're giving you $12000, you know, first startup or eighteen thousand if you had three founders. But it was very specific amount for this amount of stock. And our paperwork is gonna be real straightforward. You can see it in advance and we're gonna make the decision that day. We'll interview you and tell you that night. And that never happened back before us. No one got it. Same day decision for the most part.
So two hundred people applied. They had known about Paul because of his essays. You were one of them. I was came out from Stanford. I remember that interview very well. And we found eight companies to fund that summer. And we learned very, very quickly into the three months that funding startups in a batch was incredibly powerful. And it was powerful in that you could teach them all sort of the same things at once.
And they became colleagues, because starting a startup is one or two people is very lonely and very isolating and. Back then in 2005, there was no information online about early stage startups at all, so no one knew what they were doing. So it was sort of a nice atmosphere. So even my comment was an example of this. Start with an idea. You don't know much about some people want and iterate.
Yes, yes, yes, yes. And we started with small light and started small. Do it lightweight. Start small and evolve. And we realized we had dinners on Tuesday nights, which actually we still have to this day. And we have guest speakers come in. We had paperwork that we gave them. I personally helped everyone incorporate their company. What else did you spend your time on that for? Summer? Oh, my God.
What didn't I spend my time on like? As any startup, there was like too much for everyone to do. Paul spent his time advising the startups on their ideas because I didn't really know that much about startups. I was doing everything to get Y Combinator up and running.
I mean, we had to get it in our office. We had to cook dinners. I was going grocery shopping and Paul was cooking the dinners. We were recruiting speakers to speak that summer.
This is now most people picture doing when they think about starting a really important company.
I think it's good to note that this isn't for, oh my God, there's so much unglamorous work that founders have to do early on and you just have to do it. But I mean, it's delivering air conditioners to different people. We had eight startups in that batch and they were all living scattered around the Harvard Square area. And there was a heat wave and we were like, we can't have our founders not being able to work. So I went to Home Depot and I bought like 10 air conditioners and delivered them to everyone.
When you know, that summer the Y Combinator was going to work.
We had a feeling pretty early on, like first couple of weeks, I would say within the first month. We're like, this is really interesting. And people are working on very interesting ideas. I mean, you were working on location stuff on your phone. I read it was in there. We're very interested and read it. The Justin TV and Twitch guys, Justin and Emmitt were working on a calendar. Unfortunately, Google Calendar launched. That's killed them.
These are these were interesting things.
And so we were very excited about the ideas.
It's a great story about investing in people that it was Justin's third Y Combinator startup. I think that ended up being a billion dollar exit. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I three times. And it worked out on the third and it worked out. The third time's a charm. Yes. I mean, this is again, going back to your funding. The people, Justin and Adam Emmet were a great team. I'll just. This is a bit of a tangent, but it's important to remember they were college roommates and like best friends or growing up.
And so they had known each other for a long time and had this like great trust. And so when they wanted to build something, they were both excellent programmers, you know, and that's as good of a bet as you can make out.
Why is it that co-found to have co-founders at all? And then how important is it that the co-founders have a pre-existing relationship like that?
I think it's critical. I think I think there have been cases of successful startups with one founder, but I'm sure they will tell you it's extremely hard and overwhelming, emotionally draining. You have no peer who you can rely on for moral support and and holding all of that. You know, it's a big burden for people emotionally, I think also at the very early stages.
There's so much to get done that you need more than one person doing it. You know, you can't be out fundraising and building the product at the same time. So, yes, it's important to have a co-founder. It's not impossible. I will say it's critical that you know your co-founder well, because if you don't if you like me to a hackathon and think you ever see that workout, rarely. I'm trying to think of an example off the top of my head.
I can't think of an example of two people who were introduced or sort of bolted onto each other at the last minute ever working. I'm sure there are examples of it has having that work, but I can't think of them. The relationship becomes so stressed as the startup goes on its path.
I mean, you have like if you could get sued and you have to deal with this or you get an acquisition offer, that's really tempting and that can cause friction. You know, so many things can cause friction and tension. It's really like a marriage. And I know we all laugh at how we compare founder relationships to a marriage. But in many ways, it's kind of little answers to that.
Yeah. Yeah. So you said when the first month you called her why she was onto something, but when did you first realize that while she was going to be as big as it has turned out to be? The idea of that that summer, I don't think we had any idea of that that summer, we knew we were onto something. And and after that summer, we knew we had to come out of Silicon Valley. That was an important next decision for us.
We knew that people could easily copy us and we didn't want someone else to be the Y Combinator of Silicon Valley. We wanted to be the Y Combinator, Silicon Valley. And I remember Paul saying, we've got to go out there. And I remember thinking like, we have two months to do this.
Was that really driven by not wanting to be copied? Yeah. Well, we did not want someone else to be the Y Combinator Silicon Valley. You noticed that startups not that they really don't they really hate they're they really hate getting coffee. I think that's an interesting point.
Well, you know, I think no one likes getting coffee. It's it's unpleasant. I'm used to it by now. And you just can't worry about it. You're oh, if you are building something great, you're gonna get copied.
So we came out here and that was also very important for us because we didn't have relationships in Silicon Valley. We didn't know the investors out here. And that's when we started to meet the investors. And that's an incredibly important component of Y Combinator that we have, you know, great relationships with investors. And they they come to our demo days and they invest in our startups because again, we are like first gear for startups. We're helping them get started.
And then we want to introduce them to like wonderful later stage investors.
So once you got to Silicon Valley and started running the program out here, then did you know it was gonna be really?
Not yet. Not yet.
I think I think when we had a feeling that it was gonna be really good was when I, you know, read it got bought. And that was very exciting news for us. But I think, like when Dropbox started getting some traction, then we thought like, well, this could be a contender here. This is, you know, someone doing really, really well. And you were funded and our small companies were sort of flourishing. And that that's when we knew.
I think I think this could be. And what is it like looking back now?
And you know what? Y Combinator has become this is pretty influential thing that has impacted a lot of people in a lot of industries.
Like looking back, is there anything you're like, well, if I knew why she was going to be as important as it's become, I would have done this differently or anything that any lessons that you take away or is it just like, well, this happened and I was only ever looking one step at a time?
You know, there's always things that you do a little bit differently. Possibly we would have hired more partners earlier on so that we could have accomplished more. I mean, for for many years, it was just Paul and me full time. And so there's only so much we could do. So we didn't do much outreach. And we you know, I wish maybe we could have done more of that earlier on.
But, you know, in the grand scheme of things, there's not there's no like massive, massive mistake. I think we sort of grew organically.
And what is it that you did as you were growing organically that has made Lycee work so well? A recent someone recent told me they're not twenty five hundred accelerators around the world. Oh, God. However, all every billion plus dollar company so far ever to come out and accelerate, I think at eleven have have happen. Part of why. I see. So that's a great credit to you and Paul. But what did you do in the early days that set up what I see to do this?
Well, there were a couple things. And, you know, sometimes I would be nervous about sharing some of our secret weapons, but I'm going to share one be great as it would be great if people copied this, but they won't.
One of the most important things is that is that Y Combinator always started to be founder friendly. We were not doing this to make money. We were doing this to see if we could encourage more startups to get started because we felt that would be good for the world. Like more people starting startups, more innovation, that's good for the world.
And so we didn't do it thinking we could make money and we weren't trying to like squeeze out the best deals in every situation. We were always driven by what's best for the founders, what's best for the startups, our terms and our investment paperwork, our very founder, founder friendly. And I think that's attracted good founders who want to be treated fairly and not be taken advantage of.
It's interesting you see that among many of why CEOs, most successful founders, that they want to make a lot of money, but that is far from the primary.
Yes. You cannot be the most successful startup founder if you are driven by money. You have to be driven by a greater purpose.
So why Steve's version of this was just like you'd be good for the world to treat founders better and have a lot more startups.
Yes. Yes. Now, we hoped we made some money because we couldn't keep self-funding for the rest of our lives. We couldn't be self-sustaining if we didn't make some money. And by the way, for many years we didn't make money. It takes.
I remember that people forget people forget how long it takes to to make money as an investor.
So we were always driven by like this benevolence. And I think it's still part of our DNA. I truly believe that.
I think we gave. Great advice. You know, surprisingly hard to get from investors. Yes. Yes. There are some great investors out there that do give great advice. But for the most part, getting really good advice is hard. I think Paul Graham's exceptional at giving startup advice and helping people with their ideas and quite honestly, telling people like, hey, you're doing this, you're doing it wrong.
Don't do it that way in a way that's very straightforward. And and founders can respond to that pretty quickly. What else? What are you know, what are the important things about us? I mean, we've always attracted from the very first batch that you were in. I believe we attracted, you know, talented founders. And they've gone on to be role models and attract other people that are talented, like kind, intelligent founders. And so I think it's just sort of grown organically and spread.
And we've kept a pretty, pretty great community of founders over the years.
So there are a lot of people that have realized startups are really great ways to impact the world and get new technology built and distributed at a young age.
Now people are realizing they may want to start a startup someday.
So if you're an ambitious. You know, a teenager, a college student. What should you spend your time on if you know somebody you want to start a startup? Well, there's a lot of things you can do to prepare yourself to be a startup founder. The first is learn to code. There's a lot of great online courses now if you don't already know how to code. But I would strongly recommend that everyone learn to code. Even if you're not great, you at least know how to do it.
And it helps you sort of judge other programmers, build stuff with people.
It doesn't have to be like the next Facebook, which, by the way, did start out obviously as a little side project when it got started. But just build something that you might like to use. Try to solve your own problem. Work with other people. I mean, especially if you're in college. That is just the best place to meet potential co-founders and get to know people and talk about interesting problems and try to solve them. It does not have to be the next startup.
But it will at least get you thinking about problems.
It will get you like practicing launching something and listening to users and talking to users. And after that, if you're not ready to start a startup right away, go work at an early stage startup. You can learn so much working at an early stage startup that you wouldn't working at a big company.
So that's probably my best advice of what to do to prep to become a startup founder.
Great. OK, last question. Yeah, you are probably the most successful female founder in Silicon Valley at this point. So do you have advice for other female founders or aspiring female founders about what to do?
Well, it's definitely a subject, I think about a lot, because when we first started Y Combinator, there were very few female founders. There were scarce. And I'm pleased that there are more these days and there just continue to be more. And so I've spent a lot of time trying to help the women that we've funded to become more successful so that they can go on to inspire people, because you have to have those role models so that you can think, gosh, maybe I could start a startup, but I will give some advice based on my own experience.
You can't worry too much about what everyone's saying and all the noise and like, oh, it's so much harder as a woman. Yes, it's harder as a woman. I've been discriminated against, you know. But I have always kept focused on my product. And you know what I'm doing and I don't listen. All this stuff going on. And I'm like building a product that people love. And I think that the women we funded would say the same thing.
They're startup founders. You know, they're not like necessarily like female startup founders. They're first and foremost startup founders. And they are caring about their product and their users and they are totally focused on that. And so my advice is like, just do it. Start a company, apply to Y Combinator and, you know, build something people want.
Well, thank you so much for joining us and funny my company and hiring me. Thanks a lot. Thanks, Sam.