Wed · Dec 2

Sam Altman on Founders and the Fear of Rejection

In this episode of Startup School Radio, host and YC partner Aaron Harris sat down with Sam Altman.

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Altman has been the president of Y Combinator since February 2014. Earlier, he was the founder of Loopt, a mobile location technology startup that was founded in 2005 and was acquired by GreenDot in 2012.

Later in this episode, Harris interviewed Aarjav Trivedi, the co-founder and CEO of fleet automation startup RideCell. You can listen to the entire episode in Soundcloud right here, or via iTunes.

One particularly interesting part of the episode was hearing Sam talk about how securing contract agreements with U.S. mobile operators was a key milestone for starting Loopt, and how he went about negotiating those kinds of deals as a young founder. This portion started at around 10:00 in the episode:

Aaron : As a 19-year old, how did you get those kinds of relationships? Mobile carriers are not well-known for doing deals with small companies.

Sam : Well, I was 20 by then. And, you know, you just sort of show up. I think one mistake people make is they tell themselves why they can't do something, rather than letting somebody else tell them no. And sometimes you find out that you can actually do it and the people will do it with you. I think people cut off a huge amount of option value in their lives because they just assume someone is going to not do something. And you may as well find out, because maybe they will do it.

Aaron : It's something that sounds so shockingly simple, but I think in practice, it's really, really hard for a lot of people, because of some combination of ego and not wanting to be turned down. That ability to actually say, "No, I'm just going to keep going..."

Sam : I do think it is not wanting to be turned down. And I actually think this is one of the hardest life skills to learn. I think, unlike most of these other things that are bad with bad entrepreneurs, good entrepreneurs are often particularly sensitive to rejection. They take criticism online very harshly. They are afraid to try to hire a candidate because they might say no. And you really just have to say, "You know what? Sometimes people will say yes."

But I think people, especially first time founders, are just generally extremely insecure and they put a huge value on not even giving somebody else a chance to tell them no or reject them or whatever.

Aaron : How do you advise people to get around that drive for external validation?

Sam : It's this deeply personal thing. I don't think there's any general advice that works. But at some point, people make a decision that, "You know what? I am going to trust myself. I'm going to trust myself to do the right thing. I'm going to decide that I believe in this business and that the haters are going to be wrong and I'm going to get this done."

If you're doing something interesting, the chances that some Internet commenter will say that it's stupid or not going to work is 100%, and the chances that some investor is going to tell you that it's dumb is 100%. And you either decide that's how you're going to live your life, in which case honestly you shouldn't be a founder if you can't get past that, or you just say, "You know what? I have the courage of my convictions here and I'm going to go do this."

It takes people a little while. It takes most of the best founders not very long. It's an intense problem for a while and then it becomes a minor problem over a course of a month or two. But some people are's always an intense problem for some people. Even today I hate reading nasty things about YC, or about me personally. But you just say, "You know what? I'd rather be me than the people writing this." And you move on.

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