The Most Important Thing I Learned During Y Combinator

Tuesday “dinners” were a big part of the YC experience. An opportunity to take a break from the grind, share notes and compare progress with fellow batchmates. 

But the highlight of the evening was always an off-the-record talk by an experienced startup founder who was, more often than not, also YC alumnus. During my batch (Winter 2018), we had the opportunity to hear from no less than Drew Houston (Dropbox), Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia (Airbnb), and Emmit Shear and Justin Kan (Twitch), to name a few. 

The talk that I’ve thought back to the most was Sam Altman, former President of YC’s, opening address on “How to Succeed”.

Anyone who has heard Sam speak knows that he has a knack for information-dense communication. Paul Graham refers to him as one of the smartest people he knows and the person with the most profound insight into startup success. The journey of helping to grow Quit Genius from 6 to 50+ people has only confirmed this for me.

Amongst the many gems was the counterintuitive insight on how it has become easier to do a hard thing than to do an easy thing. Let me explain.

The easy thing about hard things

In a knowledge economy, the ability to attract and retain the best talent is your greatest competitive advantage. It turns out that highly ambitious and talented people also want to positively impact the world. 

In one survey, millennials, who make up the biggest share of the workforce, reported being attracted to purpose-driven organizations and in the vast majority of cases will take a pay cut to work for them.

As a startup founder, your first employees join you for the sense of adventure, touch of anarchy, and meaningful equity. Ask yourself why a founder-quality person will join as your twentieth hire? 

It is so much more difficult to stand out when you’re just another photo-sharing app competing in the same talent pool as companies building supersonic jets or self-driving cars

If I look at the organizations I most admire, such as Neuralink, SpaceX, and Open AI, they are working to solve large intractable problems for the betterment of society, from creating a brain-computer interface to colonizing Mars or building the first beneficial artificial general intelligence.

That thinking has guided my own approach at Quit Genius. Early on, we set the audacious goal of helping 100 million people quit their substance addiction. Having been personally involved in hiring dozens of employees, it is clear to me that offering the opportunity to have a profoundly positive societal impact is a big selling point to prospective candidates. 

Going one step further, thinking big from the start acts as a forcing function to design scale into our products, make deep investments in our technology, and think in global terms. 

Mission and culture trumps metrics

There is a famous Peter Drucker quote that goes “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. The same logic applies to the world of early-stage startups. While metrics shouldn’t be ignored, the reality is that today’s KPIs may be irrelevant tomorrow. 

Mission-driven founders who set out to do the difficult thing will invariably also create a strong company culture and talent-dense team. This enables them to move decisively, maintain momentum, and iterate endlessly to achieve growth. 

By contrast, money-driven founders will often focus on incremental improvement, which rarely works out. They are far more likely to give up when the going gets tough.

As Elon Musk puts it, starting a company is like chewing glass and staring into the abyss. It’s not for the faint of heart, but if you reach for the stars, you might land on the moon (or Mars in Elon’s case).

No Spam. No Fluff. No Noise.