Startup Class Lecture 3 Notes – Paul Graham

Below are some notes from Lecture 3 of the Startup Class taught my Sam Altman. Paul Graham, the founder of YCombinator, was the guest speaker and spoke about the counterintuitive parts of startups. Paul Graham also posted a wonderful essay based on this talk which I highly recommend.

Also, my notes from the previous lectures (and future lectures) are here.

Startups are counterintuitive, which means you can’t trust your intuition all the time. They are unnatural and there are a number of counterintuitive things you should remember when starting one, outlined below:

1. Startups Are Weird.

The first is that startups are so weird that if you follow your instincts they will lead you astray. If you just remember that, when you’re about to make a mistake, you’ll be able to pause before making it. The one exception is instincts about people, which generally tend to be right.

2. To succeed in startups, you don’t need expertise in startups

What do you need is expertise in your own users. Don’t worry about the mechanisms of starting a startup. in fact, knowing it is dangerous because you might go through the motions of starting a startup, also known as “playing house”. Because young founders have been trained to do this their whole life (extracurriculars need for college admissions and so on), they look for tricks to the game. They tend to measure success and fundraising, so look for tricks to convince investors, which is growth, and so look for tricks for growth, or “Growth Hacks”, which you should hear as bullshit.

3. Starting a startup is where gaming the system stops working

It might work at big companies, but it won’t work at startups. There are no bosses to trick, just users. And users only care about is whether you solve their problem. Dangerously, faking does work on investors to some extent, but is not in your best interests. Stop looking for a trick.

4. Startups are all-consuming

They will take over your life, so come with a large opportunity cost. And they go on for years, decades, maybe the rest of your life. It’s like a sprint that might never end. It also doesn’t get easier with time, though the nature of the problem changes. Because of their all-consuming nature, you can’t choose between starting a startup and being a student. So which should you do? Don’t start a startup in college. Starting a startup could be a good thing to do at some point of time, but 20 is not the optimal. You can do explore different things, travel cheaply. Things that are serendipitous, which has advantages like giving you more things to work you.

“You’re not sacrificing anything if you forego starting a start-up at twenty because you will be more likely to succeed if you wait.”

5. You can tell if you should start a startup

Starting a startup is probably different from anything you’ve done. Which is why it involves estimating what you are and what you can become. And you the ability to answer that question about yourself.

6. The way to get startup ideas is to try not to think about startup ideas

If you make a conscious effort to think of ideas, you’ll come up with bad ideas that sound plausible. Which means you’ll end up wasting a lot of time on them. The better way is to take a step back. And turn your brain into one which thinks of ideas unconsciously. So unconsciously that you didn’t know they were a startup idea. The very best companies tend to start as a side projects because they are such outliers that your conscious mind would reject them as ideas for startups.

How do you think of ideas unconsciously

  • Learn about a lot of things that matter.
  • Work on problems that interest you.
  • Work with people you like and or respect.

“if you’re interested in generally interesting problems, gratifying your interest energetically is the best way to prepare yourself for a startup and probably best way to live.”

What are some generally interesting problems?

If you think of technology as a fractal string, every point on the edge represents an interesting problem. Get yourself on the leading edge of some technology and “live in the future”.

What should you do in college?

  • Learn powerful things and follow your inclinations.
  • Domain expertise matters, and so learning about what you’re passionate about helps.
  • Be genuinely interested in things and don’t do it for the ulterior motive.

“Here is ultimate advice for young would be startup founders reduced to two words: just learn.”