A Conversation with Paul Graham - Moderated by Geoff Ralston | Summary and Q&A

August 31, 2018
Y Combinator
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A Conversation with Paul Graham - Moderated by Geoff Ralston


Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, discusses the early days of Y Combinator, the importance of launching early, and the qualities of successful founders.

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Key Insights

  • 🤝 Partnering with notable startup individuals like Paul Graham can bring valuable insights and advice to the startup community.
  • 🌐 The concept of web applications or web apps emerged in the mid-90s as a solution to avoid writing software for Windows. The idea of controlling software through links in a browser instead of writing client software was seen as innovative at the time.
  • 💡 Many groundbreaking startup ideas seem obvious in retrospect, but they often start from a small inkling or curiosity that someone feels compelled to pursue.
  • 💪 Being determined and having the ability to persevere through challenges is more important than being highly intelligent when it comes to startup success.
  • 🚀 Startups should focus on doing things that don't scale in the beginning, such as manually serving early customers, to better understand their needs and iterate on their product.
  • 💰 When determining pricing for a startup product or service, consider what users are willing to pay and be open to adjusting prices based on feedback and market demand.
  • 💼 Finding the right co-founders involves selecting people you trust and who can complement your skills and expertise. Being able to work well together and handle the stresses of a startup is crucial.
  • 👥 When it comes to recruiting co-founders or early employees, it's important to gauge their commitment level and determine if they have the right skills and attitude to contribute to the startup's success.
  • 🚀 Launching a product early, even if it's not perfect, allows startups to gather invaluable feedback from users and iterate quickly to improve their product.
  • 💭 Startups should prioritize customer and user feedback, actively seeking out their needs and desires, and iterating based on that feedback. It's crucial to focus on building a product that users will choose to use and find utility in.
  • 👥 Building a team of talented individuals who are determined, creative, and can work well together is a crucial aspect of startup success. It's important to remember that founding a startup involves both positive and negative traits, and finding a balance is key.
  • 🌱 Encouraging high school students to start a startup may not always be the best path, as it requires a significant commitment and can impact their personal and educational development. It's important to carefully consider the timing and readiness of individuals before pursuing entrepreneurship.


well thank you for coming this morning we are trying something a little bit different this startup school year we are not just having our weekly to lectures but we are having some conversations with notable people and I couldn't be happier to have one of the most notable startup people here he'll get embarrassed when I say anything complimentary so... Read More

Questions & Answers

Q: How did Paul Graham come up with the idea for ViaWeb?

Paul Graham came up with the idea for ViaWeb when he realized that writing software for Windows was not something he wanted to do, so he started exploring the idea of building software that could run on the server and be controlled through the browser.

Q: What is the significance of launching early?

In the video, both Paul Graham and Jeff emphasize the importance of launching early, as it allows start-ups to gather feedback from users and make improvements based on their needs and preferences.

Q: What qualities make a successful start-up founder?

According to Paul Graham, determination is one of the most important qualities for a founder. They need to be able to push through the challenges and setbacks that come with building a start-up. Additionally, the ability to understand users and their needs, as well as being open to feedback and making iterative improvements, is crucial.

Q: How does Y Combinator assist founders in navigating the start-up journey?

Y Combinator provides guidance and support to start-up founders, helping them navigate common challenges and avoid pitfalls. They offer resources and mentorship to help founders make informed decisions and optimize their chances of success.

Q: What is the danger of building what people need versus what people want?

When building a product or service, it is important to consider both what people need and what they want. Sometimes, what people need and what they want may be different, and finding the right balance is crucial. Building a product that solely meets people's needs may not necessarily lead to widespread adoption or success.


Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, discusses various topics related to startups, including the initial idea for web apps, the importance of a good founding team, and the mistakes that founders often make. He emphasizes the need to focus on users, launch early, and be determined.

Questions & Answers

Q: How did Paul come up with the idea for web apps?

Paul came up with the idea for web apps because he wanted to avoid writing software for the Windows operating system. He realized that software could run on the server and be controlled through the browser using HTTP.

Q: Was the idea of web apps innovative at the time?

Yes, the idea of web apps was innovative at the time because most software was written to run on the client, particularly Windows. Paul's idea of using HTTP to update websites without writing software for Windows was considered unconventional.

Q: What was the motivation behind Paul's idea for a web app?

The motivation behind Paul's idea for a web app was his desire to avoid learning how to write software for Windows. He wanted a way to control software through the browser without having to write software for the client.

Q: How did Paul choose his co-founders, Robert and Trevor?

Paul chose Robert and Trevor as co-founders because he had a strong bond with Robert and they had worked together on various projects before. Trevor was recommended by Robert as the smartest person he knew in grad school.

Q: Did Paul know that Robert would be difficult to work with as a co-founder?

Paul knew that Robert could be truculent and not fully committed to the startup, but he believed in his programming skills. He even made a deal with Robert to get an earring if he made a million dollars from the startup.

Q: What did Paul learn about hiring in his first startup?

Paul learned that hiring people who have been working on a project that seems promising, even if they had poor grades, can be a good strategy. He discovered the value of doing things manually for early customers and the importance of direct marketing.

Q: Why are startups counterintuitive?

Startups are counterintuitive because they often require doing things that seem unconventional or contrary to common sense. What works for established companies or in other industries may not work for startups, so founders need to think outside the box and be open to counterintuitive advice.

Q: What makes startups succeed?

Startups succeed when they have a good founding team, preferably with more than one person, who are smart, determined, and can work well together. Being able to think creatively and focusing on users' needs are also crucial to success.

Q: What is the biggest mistake that founders make?

The biggest mistake that founders make is not paying enough attention to users. They often become too focused on their own vision and are hesitant to launch their product due to fear of embarrassment or rejection. Founders need to overcome these barriers and actively seek feedback from users.

Q: Should founders launch before they feel ready?

Yes, founders should launch before they feel ready. If they wait too long, they risk missing out on valuable feedback and opportunities for improvement. Launching early allows them to iterate and make their product better based on real-world user experiences.


Founders should focus on users and not neglect the importance of early feedback. They should launch their product even if it's not perfect and be open to making improvements based on user needs. Determination and a good founding team are also essential for startup success. Avoiding common mistakes, such as not paying attention to users or waiting too long to launch, can significantly impact a startup's growth and potential.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Paul Graham and Jeff discuss their backgrounds and how they got involved with Yahoo and Y Combinator.

  • Paul shares the story behind the creation of ViaWeb, the first web app, and how it led to the founding of Y Combinator.

  • They discuss the importance of launching early and iteratively, as well as the qualities that make a successful start-up founder.

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