Notes, Insights and Takeaways of an aspiring college entrepreneur from CS 183: How to start a Startup by Sam Altman

Everything that you’ll be reading in this document are notes taken down from CS183 which is a Stanford course being taught by the President of YCombinator Sam Altman. Moreover, I will be injecting a few of my own insights and insights of other people from my discussion group.

The first UPenn class session was held at the First Round Capital

The first UPenn class session was held at the First Round Capital

As an aspiring entrepreneur and avid journalist, I’ve decided to take notes, write about the experience and the different discussions points from this class and publish it to the public. I hope that people can find these notes and insights as a way to either learn more about the class and entrepreneurship (some people might not have enough time to watch the lecture) or as a way to start discussions about this growing startup culture.

I will be starting out all my posts with 4-6 key takeaways, the overall experience and then the full notes along with discussion points raised in my group.

The lectures for this course are being recorded and are posted on Youtube. You can find the lectures here:

You can read more about the reason behind the class here:

Interestingly, a lot of Universities from all over the world (even all the way back in the Philippines! Shout-out to Jaime Young who is leading the ASES Philippines discussion group for this class!) have decided to start discussion groups and turn it into an actual class where students discuss the content of what is taught afterwards. The University of Pennsylvania recently had its first class lecture video showing on September 25, 2014.

6 Key takeaways:

  1. “You should never start a startup for the sake of doing so.”
  2. “The best companies are always mission oriented.”
  3. “Build something that a few users really really love.”
  4. “Recruit your first set of users by hand/manually and ask for feedback.”
  5. “The life of an entrepreneur isn’t as easy and glamorous as what media portrays it to be.”
  6. “The best reason to start a startup is because YOU CAN’T NOT DO IT.

The Overall Experience

More than the lecture, which I could’ve just watched online in my dorm room, what I really enjoyed from the first session was the community participating in this class. Everyone was just so passionate about startups and entrepreneurship and was eager to learn more. Everyone was really looking deep into the ideas discussed and questioning whether one practice is better than the other. It was honestly really refreshing being in this environment, bouncing off ideas and opinions with one another and simply meeting new people with similar interests and new insights. Definitely can’t wait for the next session!

Four key things for startups: Idea, Product, Team and Team Execution.



People think that “ideas don’t matter” and it has become almost uncool to spend time thinking of it but ideas matter a lot. Most great companies start with a great idea. At the same time, there’s a limit to the things you can predict and think about that great execution is just as important as having a great idea.

When thinking of your idea, you should consider the size and growth of the market, your growth strategy and all the other little details.

The cofounder of Facebook Dustin Moskovitz is a guest lecturer for the class

The cofounder of Facebook Dustin Moskovitz is a guest lecturer for the class

Long-term thinking is a huge advantage. You don’t need to have everything figured out in the start but the exercise of planning is extremely valuable.

The idea comes first before the startup. Come up with an idea that you’re compelled to explore; work on one you think about the most often. The best companies are always MISSION ORIENTED – “the company should feel like an important mission”

Good startups usually take 10 years. You’ll get more support for your projects if you have a mission driven company. Facebook was the 10th social networking company but it had a really good mission to connect university students and it became a really good idea in the long run.

When something seems like a bad idea, sometimes, when you turn it into a startup, it actually turns into a good idea.

You want an idea that turns into a monopoly. Find a small market then quickly expand. You need conviction in your own beliefs and a willingness to ignore other opinions.

If people think your idea is bad, they won’t compete with you. You should be able to tell people, “I know that it sounds like a bad idea but I think it’s a good one because….”

Most founders think that their first product should be really good but this isn’t always the case.

Most investors think of the growth of the startup but they don’t think of the growth of the market. I’d rather invest in a company with a small but growing market versus a big but stagnant one. You can’t create a market that doesn’t exist. So you should do some thinking as to what market you want to target and how its going to grow.

Advantages of being a student entrepreneur

1. You have better intuition as to which markets are going to grow

2. You have so many chances to meet potential cofounders

“More important than starting a startup is getting to know potential cofounders.”

Section 2


Great Idea — Great Product  — Great Company

Work on your product and talk to customers. Start with a great product.

Step 1 – Build something that users love

  • Build a product than make it as good as possible by talking to users
  • Build something that users love
  • “It’s better to build a product that a small number of users love versus a product that a big number like a little bit.”
  • You have a choice as a startup. You need to build something that a lot of people love but then Google and Facebook will probably build something similar as well so its better to start with that small base.
  • It’s easier to expand when you have some people who really love your product because they will be the ones spreading the word about it
  • One way you’ll know that this is working, you’ll get growth by word of mouth; this will lead to organic and long term growth
  • Very few startups die from competition, they die because they fail to make something users love
Your audience is extremely important

Your audience is extremely important

Start with something simple

  • The first version of Facebook was really simple. The first version of Google was super simple and is still simple up to know. Being simple means you’re able to focus on doing one thing really well.

Details matter

  • Founders talk about being fanatical about small details, being fanatical about customer support and all those tiny problems.
  • Founders want to wake up and fix the problems they get. And you need to find these problems from users willing to give feedback

Recruit your first set of users by hand

  • The founder of Pinterest recruited the first users of Pinterest Remember that the goal is to get a small group of people to love your product. Even if you’re building the product yourself, listen to outside users.

Great things about startups: Short Feedback Loops

  • Sales and customer support in the early days is very important
  • Focus on growth metrics like total registration, active users, etc.
The short user feedback loop is something entrepreneurs love

The short user feedback loop is something entrepreneurs love

Section 3



  1. It’s Glamorous –Media has glamorized entrepreneurs and the startup world but what they show isn’t the full story. It’s not as easy as what media makes it to be. You’re usually sitting on your desk dealing with all the different things. It’s actually quite stressful. There is actually a very real thing called: “Founder depression”
  2. You’ll be the Boss – You have a lot of responsibility. You have the fear of failure for yourself and all the people following you
  3. Flexibility – You’re always working. You’re always on call. You’re thinking of your product 24/7. If you take your foot of the gas, your team members will as well.
The ugly side of being a Founder

The ugly side of being a Founder


  1. You can’t NOT do it
  2. PASSION: YOU NEED TO DO IT – You need passion to endure the struggle. You need passion to recruit effectively.
  3. APTITUDE: THE WORLD NEED YOU TO DO IT –The world needs you somewhere. Find that place.


Discussion Group Points:

  1. When do you know when to pursue an idea?
    1. College is the best time because you have lots of resources and time to experiment and learn
    2. Taking a leave of absence to grow your startup is always an option once you have a viable product
  2. How do you know if you’re targeting the right market?
    1. Test it early
    2. Look for a market you can reach easily
    3. Create something you will use or at least you know people who will
  3. How do you turn a good idea into a great idea?
    1. The team is really important
    2. The execution and distribution matters as well
  4. Benefits of working in a startup versus starting one
    1. Less risk of failure if you work for a startup
    2. You’ll learn a lot and gain first hand experience
    3. You’ll learn from the mistakes and you’ll also learn what worked well
  5. Finding your cofounders and teammates. What should you look for in people?
    1. You should start out as friends and really get to know potential cofounders
    2. Find a self-driven and motivated team. These people are the ones who execute and start things without you telling them to – INITIATIVE.
  6. Why aren’t there stories of startups failing?
    1. It’s not as entertaining as success stories
    2. If you think about it, what a lot of successful founders talk about were their experiences with failure.

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