What We Look for in Founders

Want to start a startup? Get funded by Y Combinator.

Aug 2022

There are certain kinds of work where you may be tempted to be as independent-minded as possible. Consider an artist in the 21st century—she may think that, in order to stand out from the crowd, she has to create something that is both bold and original. It's not enough to be good, she thinks. You have to tear down the very fabric of what it means for good art to exist, and forge your own new style of artwork.

The same is true in the startup world. When reading YCombinator applications, I would often see startups trying to tackle aggressively new problems—startups that often had just one or two full-time employees. Akin to a ten-year-old child believing that his scribbles are the mark of a future Picasso, we would admire the boldness of the applicants, but prefer to do work with someone more passively conventional-minded.

Indeed, we can continue with the Picasso example. In order to become well-known, Picasso first had to draw thousands of conventional art pieces. You don't get good at art by being aggressively independent-minded—you get good by learning from the masters. This is why occupations that are important on an everyday basis, like plumbers and electricians, almost invariably start out as apprentices—nobody wants an avant-garde toilet.

Since good taste exists—and therefore good art—there is objective value to being a better artist than a worse one, and you become better by being more conventional. In the startup world, this is even easier to see, since we don't need to depend on relatively abstract concepts, like taste. Rather, there is a much more unforgiving evaluation function—the growth rate. Unlike art, where you may only become famous posthumously, if your startup doesn't make something people want, you will find out in the span of months.

In my essay on conformism, I describe how the distribution of people among the quadrants is not uniform. There are more passive people than aggressive ones, and far more conventional-minded people than independent-minded ones. So the passively conventional-minded are the largest group, and the aggressively independent-minded the smallest. If your startup's modus operandi is make something people want, then which market offers the most growth?

As a consequence, the question "what kind of people come up with the best ideas" can be equivalently reformulated as "what kind of people have ideas that appeal the most to the conventional-minded". Just like a Star Wars movie doesn't make money by appealing to a thin sliver of independent-minded critics, neither does a startup make money by appealing to originality or creativity. The best startup founders are not the ones trying to bring about the Neo-Cubismisation of the economy, but the ones watching TV and thinking, "I'm tired of seeing these commercials!"

Often, it might seem like the aggressively independent-minded get all the advantages from our institutions—every college wants to know how you're unique, how you take initiative, in what ways you're diverse. Therefore, thousands of promising startup founders each year are siphoned off into empty fields like philosophy, physics, and art. But I'm hopeful in the long term. The conventional-minded are good at protecting themselves. If existing institutions are compromised, they'll wait it out. That may require some patience. But disinclination to change is, after all, their specialty.

Thanks to Jessica Livingston and Chris Steiner for reading drafts of this.