Home / Tech / New Y Combinator President Geoff Ralston explains why he's so excited about investing in the youngest startups, and his philosophy for helping them to grow (UBER)

New Y Combinator President Geoff Ralston explains why he's so excited about investing in the youngest startups, and his philosophy for helping them to grow (UBER)

Geoff Ralston

  • Silicon Valley startup incubator Y Combinator announced Monday that Geoff Ralston would be named president, replacing former president and chairman Sam Altman.
  • Ralston has been at Y Combinator since 2011 and has known cofounder Paul Graham for 20 years. He most recently led Startup School, Y Combinator’s free online class for potential founders.
  • Ralston says that part of the draw to early-stage investing is “seeing Uber before it’s Uber,” and watching founder teams build an idea into a mutli-billion-dollar business. Y Combinator has helped mentor companies like Airbnb, Dropbox, and Stripe. 
  • He says that he plans to take a hands-on approach to helping the startups in the Y Combinator program be successful.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Y Combinator’s new president isn’t trying to shake things up, but he’s definitely planning on getting a least a little hands-on.

On Monday, the Silicon Valley startup incubator — best known for its early investments in, and mentorship of, companies like Airbnb, Dropbox, and Stripe — named Geoff Ralston to be its new president. 

Ralston will replace Sam Altman, who announced his departure as president in March to dedicate his time to OpenAI, the research organization he co-founded with Elon Musk. With Ralston now at the helm, Altman is also stepping down as chairman, but will remain in an advisory role. 

“Sam and [Y Combinator co-founder] Paul Graham and I and the team here share a vision of YC as this long-term greatest university for startups ever,” Ralston told Business Insider. “If there’s one thing I’d like to do here, it is make sure YC is on a solid ground for the next 10 to 100 years.”

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Ralston is adamant that entrepreneurs coming out of Y Combinator should be a net-positive for the world at large. He points to Uber (not a Y Combinator company, incidentally) as an example, saying even though there are “bumps” drivers striking over low pay, passenger safety issues, problematic leaders it would be hard to imagine the world today without the service. The ability to have that kind of impact is what makes him so passionate about early-stage funding.

“[The] exciting thing about early-stage investing is you get to see Uber before it’s Uber, when it’s just [cofounder] Travis [Kalanick] and a few folks with a crazy idea that seems impossible because there aren’t enough black cars,” Ralston said. “But with a massive change like that, not everyone wins, but when you make something people want, you make a better world. That’s why we do what we do. It’s good for employment, standards of living, and a better world. We wouldn’t do it otherwise.”

Like the Warriors

Over the last several years, Y Combinator has expanded beyond its origins as an early startup incubator program to include later-stage funding, online classes and leadership training, among other new initiatives. In his new role, Ralston will oversee all the separate functions while continuing to play offense.

“I like to use the metaphor of the [Golden State] Warriors when I talk about YC,” Ralston said. “Think of having a team of superstars, even if the coach walked away you’d still have the superstars and I’m sure they’d do fine, but you need the coach’s guiding hand to make it work. I will be a playing coach but to a limited extent. If I help them be more successful, I’ve succeeded.”

He added: “[Warriors Head Coach] Steve Kerr is not giving Steph Curry advice on how to shoot three pointers. I have a team of incredible athletes and I am going to work hard to hold onto their respect and trust so they will depend on me like I depend on them.”

Startups are booming

Ralston has been part of the Y Combinator team since 2011 and has known cofounder Paul Graham for 20 years. The pair met when their startups were acquired by Yahoo! In 1997, Ralston’s Rocketmail was one of the first web-based email companies, and later became Yahoo! Mail; Graham’s Viaweb allowed users to build and host online stores with little technical know-how.

“More people are trying to do more things,” Ralston said. “People believe in the opportunity represented by starting companies. The initial trend [Graham] saw was that early stage investing will make sense in this space and will give value to companies and tech will be the center of that. That’s not going to stop.”

Ralston and Altman worked together to pitch the transition to Graham, who felt Ralston was the natural successor to lead the increasingly complex business, Ralston said. He wouldn’t elaborate on the details of the selection process, but said he is happy Altman is staying on in an advisory role.

“He has been giving me advice since I met him,” Ralston said of Altman. “He’s a really deep thinker, and I lean on him for advice on many things. His counsel is pretty precious to me”

According to Ralston, the promotion was well received within Y Combinator’s internal team of nearly 60 employees during an all-hands meeting on Monday.

“I’m not unknown, but it’s still gratifying that people are psyched,” Ralston told Business Insider.

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