Y Combinator partners tell MIT students to steer clear of big-name companies

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the talk, which was in 54-100, not 26-100.

On Thursday evening, over a hundred students gathered in room 54-100 to learn something that is usually not formally taught in MIT classes: how to run a startup.

Leading the discussion were three partners from Y Combinator, one of Silicon Valley’s leading startup accelerators. Several MIT companies, including Dropbox and Stripe, were funded by the accelerator.

“There is no pre-startup like there is pre-med,” said Sam Altman, the 29-year-old president of Y Combinator. He encouraged students to start working on a startup immediately and learn along the way.

For students interested in startups, universities form a great hub of ideas and people, said Altman. “School is the best possible place to meet potential cofounders.”

Altman cautioned people, however, from attempting to do both school and startups at the same time. People who try it often “fail miserably at both,” he said.

Students were also encouraged to steer clear of large companies. It’s easy to always want the next most prestigious title—Andover, MIT, Facebook—said Altman. He argued that small, fast-growing startups offer students more significant roles and fulfillment in their jobs.

Y Combinator visited MIT as part of an annual East Coast tour in which they recruit students for their summer accelerator program. Almost all the students in the audience said they wanted to apply at some point.

Y Combinator usually invests $120 thousand in its startups, but Altman revealed during the Q-and-A that they have plans for helping startups requiring more money. “We have some news coming on that,” he said.

During the Q-and-A, Altman also said the greatest weakness he finds in MIT students who go through Y Combinator is their “unwillingness to go out and actually talk to users.”

Entrepreneurs need to both write code and talk to users, he said. It’s not one or the other.

Students wanted to know which types of startups Y Combinator would fund, asking about everything from nuclear fusion reactors to biotechnology.

According to the partners, any startup is fair game.

One student even posed a non-software project of his that removes ice from airplane wings. Without hesitation, Altman responded, “We’ve actually funded an ice removal company before.”

Anonymous over 9 years ago

The Altman talk was in 54-100, not 26-100.

ogiealcasi over 9 years ago

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Matt Putnam '09 over 9 years ago

In the wake of these recent suicides and the growing conversation about unrealistic expectations placed on students, this headline shows up.

Big-name companies provide great, stable, well-paying jobs. And there's no reason they can't be just as significant, impactful, and fulfilling.

But no, that's not good enough. You're MIT students! You shouldn't settle for being an engineer at a prestigious company! You should be risking everything in some startup! YOU ALWAYS HAVE TO BE DOING MORE, NOTHING YOU EVER DO IS GOOD ENOUGH! Just want a comfy, fun job where you get to work on something you love and don't have to worry about your company going broke? BUT THESE OTHER GUYS OVER HERE MADE A STARTUP AND ARE BETTER THAN YOU, LOSER!

If you want to work for a startup, then great, good for you. But let's stop pressuring people into high-risk situations.

Kris Tuttle over 9 years ago

Unsurprising news from a guy at YCombinator. Their message has always been "don't rush into a corporate job - try a startup now while you have little to lose and might end up with a success."

There's a healthy balance of benefits between doing a startup early and going off and getting real experience at a quality company like GE, IBM, Johnson and Johnson, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, etc. You get access and information that will serve you very well whether you decide to work in the startup space or stay in the corporate world.

I've worked with all types of great people - some relish risk and others would be stressed out if 1 of their compensation was variable.

The pendulum swings back and forth over the years - right now it's very fashionable to do startups when you have the Whatsapp and Snapchat news buzzing in the air.

When the platforms mature and settle down I'd expect that kind of action to become more rare - heck they already call these types of companies "unicorns."

Mark Myers over 9 years ago

Keep in mind that Altman is selling. Big companies are his competition. He is Nature, encouraging more mutation. Most mutants will bite the dust. Bad for individuals, good for Nature.

Seb over 9 years ago

I worked for a startup where the idea was quite exciting and the work was fun, we even got to travel to mountain view to interview with YC (though we didn't get in). However I'm now at one of the big tech companies (Apple, Google, Facebook etc..) and can say I enjoy it a lot more. No more empty promises of better pay when another round of funding comes, no change halfway through of product idea and way more people to socialise with. My startup experience was definitely fun but I'm glad I took the jump. Also I actually feel the work I do has more impact that I could ever do at the start-up.

Todd over 9 years ago

"Pre-Startup", last I checked, is called a "Business Major". It has existed for a very long time now. Do these people think that they are somehow "disrupting" entrepreneurship?