Leadership & Team Management

Sam Altman: The One Trait that Successful Founders Share

Sam Altman reveals the crucial element behind billion-dollar startups. Learn the art of rapid execution, focused decision-making, and the moral imperative driving Y Combinator's success.

In a startup landscape where most companies fail within their first two years, Y Combinator president Sam Altman attests that execution is everything.

During a fireside chat at the Startup Grind Global 2015 conference, Altman summed up the one quality he believes to be preeminent among the types of startup founders that go on to create billion-dollar companies: “The best founders execute so quickly.”



The Quickest Building & Scaling Stories at Y Combinator

Altman cites the tenacity of the Airbnb founders who, despite today having a company valued at over $25 billion, owe their initial success to the steady, methodical execution of a singular goal.

Altman explains, “The Airbnb guys used to draw a graph they wanted to hit — a forward-looking projection graph — and they would put it up on the mirror in their bathroom and on their fridge door, and every week, they were just trying to grow 10%. Our best startups do this…it is this function shapes the company.”



Sam Altman, Man Behind the Mission at Y Combinator

In the startup world, becoming distracted from a single goal is easy. There are speaking gigs, meetups, investor calls, social media, coffee chats, and a million other possible ways to derail your core focus, even if each one seems independently valuable. For Altman, the most successful founders simply know when to say “no” (hint: it’s almost always).

Altman admits that he has found much more success in his life running Y Combinator when he pares down his distracting influences.

“One thing I’ve got good at is…saying no to things that aren’t a good use of my time. That’s been this incredibly freeing thing, and I’ve had to figure out the highest impact things I can do.”

For Altman, a “good” use of his time consists of anything that lets him grow YC. That includes finding the best people in the world as partners, encouraging the best companies to apply, and ensuring that the YC network remains strong enough to raise genuinely important companies to their maximum potential.

Start with Innovation, Lead with Values

Altman’s efforts seem to work, as Y Combinator is one of the only accelerators to have produced and supported multiple billion-dollar “unicorn” startups.

Altman believes that YC has a unique focus on helping founders, even when it’s seemingly at the expense of the fund itself. Putting founders first is one of their core values.

There is one additional value within Y Combinator that Altman espouses. When asked whether YC may one day go public, Altman gives an immediate ‘no’: “I don’t want to have some random hedge fund or bank calling me saying, ‘You’ve missed your quarterly earnings by a penny! This is the end of YC!’” Thus, while regular, measured growth and execution may be a critical component of founder success, the metrics shift in the case of being the accelerator that supports the founders.

What’s more important to Altman is not that YC grows by 10% but rather that it supports the companies that can fundamentally change the world.

For Altman, supporting startups isn’t just a job or a numbers game. It’s a moral imperative: “The only thing at this point that’s going to drive growth [in this country] is innovation, and the only thing that seems to be driving innovation…is gonna be startups…so I think there is this moral imperative to make startups happen.”

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