As Sam Altman walks into Y Combinator’s dining room on Tuesday night, he is confronted with a scene that seems almost surreal. The converted warehouse, with vaulted wooden ceilings and the sort of long wooden tables one might find in an Ivy League dining hall, is filled with 300 of the most ambitious tech entrepreneurs in the world. They have come here–many from the Bay Area of course, but others from China, Colombia, Argentina, and France–to participate in a three-month long development program for startups.
It’s Altman’s first Y Combinator dinner of 2015, and the second dinner for the current batch of 114 startups. (He’d missed last Tuesday’s dinner because of a family vacation.) Altman quickly says hello and then introduces the guest speakers, Teespring founders Walker Williams and Evan Stites-Clayton, who had entered YC as unknown entrepreneurs just two years earlier and now run a rocket ship of a company that recently raised $35 million. Their meteoric rise mirrors that of YC itself.
“It’s pretty crazy,” Altman tells me a few minutes before taking the stage. “In my mind I still think of it as us sitting around and Paul making us dinner, when no one thought YC was a good idea.”
That wasn’t that long ago: Paul, as in cofounder Paul Graham, created YC as an experiment in 2005 to test his then-radical ideas about how to start a startup. The organization, which has been described (somewhat unsatisfactorily) as an incubator, a bootcamp, and investment firm, had a few early successes but was widely seen as a proving ground for piddling companies. Graham’s investments were too small, the thinking went, to lead to real innovation; pursuing so-called “ramen profitability” was a surefire recipe for irrelevance (not to mention malnutrition). Graham, in counseling companies and in his blog, advocated some very strange-sounding notions: Starting a company with less money would be an advantage to entrepreneurs; founders should essentially forget about making money; founders should do things that don’t scale; and small software ideas could produce giant companies.
These ideas sounded kooky . . . until Y Combinator gave birth to Dropbox, which is now valued at $10 billion; Airbnb ($13 billion); and dozens of other companies whose valuations exceed $100 million. Last year, YC celebrated its first portfolio company to score a billion-dollar exit when Twitch, whose roots were in the lifeblogging video startup Justin.tv, was acquired by Amazon.
Impressive as that has been, Altman, who took over for Graham as YC’s president last year, is aiming higher, adding partners and creating new systems to try to expand YC’s domain beyond software startups to include ambitious companies in energy, biotech, and transportation, with the goal, as he puts it to me, of creating “more net innovation than Google.”
Despite such grand pronouncements, what I find when I arrive in YC’s Mountain View, California, headquarters on Tuesday morning is eerie quiet. At 10:15 a.m., I have apparently beat Altman and all of YC’s other partners to the office. Of course, this pacing is by design. Unlike traditional incubators, YC does not provide shared office space to its portfolio companies. Startups, which each sell a small percentage of their company to YC in exchange for $120,000 in funding and access to its network of partners and alums, do most of their work from home.
This all changes on Tuesday afternoons, when the group convenes for office hours, during which founders are expected to share their progress with partners and fellow entrepreneurs. The main event is the Tuesday-night dinner. Since 2005, when Graham did the cooking himself (generally chili, or something similarly cheap and hearty) YC has provided a hot meal to its founders, along with a chance to share war stories and tips with one another.
The founders, generally in teams of two or three, begin trickling in and parking themselves at the long tables around 2 p.m. By 6 p.m., the room is packed, and the group lines up to fill bowls with rice, chicken stew, and cornbread. A few founders sip beers, but most stay sober.
They look at once giddy and terrified. Although they have only been part of YC for a week, many already seem sleep deprived, and although just being here put them in elite company–5,600 startups applied this year, meaning that the acceptance rate was 2%–that doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. Billion-dollar companies are now called “unicorns” in Silicon Valley for a reason. Statistically speaking, only one of the current crop of 114 companies will eventually be worth $1 billion or more.
“At first when you get into YC, you’re like, Yeah, I made it,” says Aarthi Ramamurthy, the founder of Lumoid, and a graduate of YC’s Spring 2013 class. Though her company has won praise (and more than $1 million in investor funds) for a service that allows customers to rent high-end photo equipment and wearable devices, she says that she immediately felt like she’d fallen behind once the program started. “You’re not eating, you’re not sleeping,” she says. “You’re just scared.”
The founders I meet on Tuesday night put on a brave front, offering grand plans for Demo Day, when they’ll be expected to present their work to investors and the press. By 10 p.m. the crowd has thinned out. Some founders are headed to an after-party in Palo Alto. Some move toward bed. But most of them are planning on doing a few more hours of work.