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Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham
Paul Graham

SAN FRANCISCO–When Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham took the stage at the Launch Festival in San Francisco, he had a lot of advice for startup founders. As the head of the famous incubator, which has spawned Dropbox, Reddit, Airbnb and a number of other successful companies, he’s seen more than 600 startups come and go.

Here are four tips that Graham shared with the audience, based on his experience from 9 years as YC’s head:

1. Founders need to get along.

“If the founders hate each other, you’re in big trouble,” Graham said.

If one founder is rolling their eyes when the other is presenting–something Graham actually saw during a YC interview–it’s a bad sign for the future of the company. If the founders are on the rocks, that means they’ll be spending time fighting with one another rather than making their product work.

2. Each founder should have their own area of expertise inside the company.

Graham pointed to the example of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak at Apple as a good example of splitting responsibilities inside a company. While Woz was interested in tackling engineering problems but hated having to deal with business, Jobs was perfectly happy to get out there and sell Apple products. “In a good startup, each co-founder is king of his own domain,” Graham said.

One of the advantages of splitting up responsibilities among the founders is that it helps keep the founding team from stepping on one another’s toes, he said. While that didn’t save Woz and Jobs, it’s been a boon for other teams.

3. Intelligence is no substitute for being effective.

In the early days of Y Combinator, Graham said that they placed a significant value on having intelligent founders. What they found, though, is a founder’s intelligence doesn’t necessarily indicate how well they can go and execute. “You can be surprisingly stupid if you’re sufficiently determined,” Graham said.

4. Founders need to be working on the most important thing.

When it’s critically important for a founder to be working on developing their product, Graham said that they shouldn’t be spending time getting coffee with an investor. Especially since founders are frequently getting pulled in a number of different directions, it’s important for them to learn how to focus on what’s important.

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