You’d think that through Y Combinator‘s many initiatives — in person and online — the popular accelerator program would have its bases covered when it comes to creating and growing a talent network. Yet the organization’s president, Sam Altman, doesn’t see it that way. He’d far prefer that YC get to know the world’s brainiacs earlier in their lives, before they’re thinking about the kind of startup they might like to someday launch.
Enter Altman’s newest idea, a kind of annual weekend getaway for nerds in picturesque Boulder, Colorado. Called the YC120, the idea is bring together 120 people for a couple of days in April to mostly just hang out and, hopefully, stay in touch afterward, both with fellow attendees, as well as with YC, which is paying for lodging, travel, and food. The idea is to help create connections.
Naturally, this being YC, the weekend isn’t open to just anyone looking for a free weekend in the mountains. YC is looking for people who with an eye on the future, whether that means they are “interested in gene editing,” or “nuclear fusion” or “building a space colony,” says Altman in a new post about the initiative. We caught up with him yesterday morning to learn more in a chat that’s been lightly edited for length below.
TC: So two days in Boulder in the spring. What will take place there, exactly?
SA: There will be a little bit of content, but it’s mostly unstructured time for attendees to hang out and meet other people. I rarely go to events anymore; the few that I go to and get value out of are [those] that [provide attendees with] time to spend with interesting people to go hiking or whatever.
TC: One hundred of the people you are welcoming will be people you’ve never met. Another 20 will be people who are already at the top of their fields. Do you know who these 20 people are? Is there anyone we can mention?
SA: We’ve made lists but we haven’t specifically invited anyone just yet.
TC: Do attendees have to have a budding company idea? Would you prefer that they not have a startup idea?
SA: In fact, they don’t. YC is good at many things, including identifying raw talent, but we’d like to get to know people earlier. If we get to know them now and five years from now they have a startup idea, [we want them to think of us]. [The weekend] is open to people who have startups, by the way, but it’s not a requirement in any way. We don’t want to dissuade anyone from applying.
TC: I guess, too, that anyone with venture funding has a bit more of a network in place already.
SA: Probably, though I think we bring together something special.
TC: You are asking applicants to submit one-minute long videos that answer three questions: ‘What are you interested in and what are you working on?’ ‘What have you done so far that shows your potential for greatness, adjusted for whatever life circumstances you were born into?’ And ‘In a best-case scenario, what do you want your obituary to say?’
How can you discern enough from a short video to know who to choose of the thousands of people who might reach out? What if you have three likable teams from Ivy League schools who want to build space colonies, for example?
SA: You can’t get it perfectly, to be very clear. We’ll make mistakes, I’m 100 percent sure. But when YC first started, we didn’t ask for video, then we made it optional, then a couple of years later, we made it required because although it’s not as good as talking with people in person, which is how we make YC investing decisions, it’s surprisingly helpful. [You can get] 25 to 30 percent of the experience [from video] that you’d get from sitting across the table from someone, based on how someone comes across and their level of passion. Hopefully, we picked pretty good questions, too.
TC: The part about life circumstances is curious. We all know great founders who’ve come from nothing and great founders who’ve come from comfortable backgrounds. Why are someone’s circumstances of particular interest?
SA: A key skill for an entrepreneur is the ability to make the best of whatever situation you have in front of you, whether you were born into privilege or you weren’t. We’re looking for people who, whatever their situation was, did the absolute most possible. We can supply a lot of things — capital, a network– but we’re ultimately looking for raw talent.
TC: Given that you’re asking applicants about what their obituary would say in the best case scenario, we naturally have to ask you what you’d want yours to say.
SA: [Here, Altman answers but does so off the record, explaining in a non-obnoxious way that if we publish what he says, YC will begin to see the same wording in future applications as nascent founders wittingly and otherwise model his behavior.]
TC: Does YC really need yet another program to see some of the world’s best and brightest?
SA: It’s been a surprising lesson for me in my own life and my experience running YC that the most important thing for ambitious people — more than even resources or basically anything else — is a network of like-minded, super-talented people to network with and to help you, and that’s so hard to get in the world, and so easy for YC to create. And if we can do this well, we can unlock much more human potential.
TC: Do you ever worry about steering too many people into creating startups, when they could perhaps be enjoying financial stability and maybe better mental health, working for someone else?
SA: I think entrepreneurship is wrong for almost everyone. When I speak at college campuses, I try to put out a really big disclaimer first that starting a company and becoming a successful company founder is a miserable life that’s good in only a small number of ways. I explain first why not do it, and why for most people, it’s a terrible idea.
I expect one thing I’ll do is discourage [YC120 attendees] from starting a company right away and to be patient. If you’re 18, you have a long time horizon.