From founding to funding: real talk advice from Sam Altman, Kim-Mai Cutler, and our co-founders

The work you choose could have a significant impact on the direction that [technology] will go. The decisions you make now matter. We do these events because we hope that we can empower you by giving you more information to make better choices and learn from our mistakes.

collage1 copyWe love hosting events here at Asana, almost as much as we love sharing ideas and exchanging knowledge. So every summer, when the Bay Area experiences an influx of interns in the tech industry, we like to bring a bunch of interns (including our own) to our office for an evening of learning and fun. This year we invited 100 Bay Area-based interns, and we asked them to set the agenda by submitting questions for our panelists, Asana co-founders Dustin Moskovitz and Justin Rosenstein, Y-Combinator President Sam Altman, and TechCrunch reporter Kim-Mai Cutler. We received hundreds of questions that we weeded down to a handful and last week, our panelists sat on stage and talked about everything from founding to funding, what really motivates entrepreneurs, mistakes and regrets, and how to approach choosing what you’ll work on.

We’ll be sharing video clips from the event soon but in the meantime, here are some of the most inspiring, surprising, and motivating sound bites from last week’s event.

Q&A Collage.jpg copyWhat are the biggest, most high-impact problems you feel the next generation of entrepreneurs should be solving?

“I like to flip this question on its head a bit and instead of talking about problems, talk about opportunities: we’re at a moment in time where there’s a ton of leverage for us as teams to get a lot of results. I like to ask, what can we do to be a force multiplier? That leads to meta problems, like communication and education. If you can help everybody get the right skills early on and accelerate their pace, you can really improve the economy across all sectors.” – Dustin Moskovitz

What do you think are the deepest intentions of most entrepreneurs? How much is motivated by greed vs. helping humanity thrive?

“I think most young entrepreneurs start out going after fame and riches — in that order — but quickly realize that neither of those things is fulfilling and switch to a mission-oriented focus.” – Sam Altman

How should we choose what to work on?

Don’t do the thing that everybody else is doing.This is one of the hardest things to learn. Original thought is one of the hardest skills to develop, and the sooner you learn how to think for yourself and not do what your peers are doing, the better off you will be personally and professionally.” – Sam Altman

“I think the most important way to choose projects is to focus on people: are they amazing people? are they ethical? do they have a vision? Some may choose to solve specific problems, but usually their ideas end up evolving. The caliber of the people and whether they’re inspiring and have integrity is why you should choose to work with them.” – Kim-Mai Cutler

What is one mistake you made during your career that you would change?

When I got out of college I picked a job based on external, superficial characteristics, like being overseas, working for a prestigious brand, etc., but none of that made me happy. Since then, I’ve chosen projects and jobs based on how satisfying they are day-to-day.” – Kim-Mai Cutler

Should I start my own company?

“I can speak to this because I had started a company and then I joined one, and then I was thinking of starting one before going to work at YC. Looking back, I’m really happy, because I think the progress I’ve been able to make with the organization in the last two years has been far more impactful on the world than any company that I could have gone to start. And so I’m really happy with my decision to not go start something.” – Sam Altman

Early on in someone’s career, should a person specialize or focus on gaining a breadth of knowledge?

“Breadth. For a couple of reasons: 1. You don’t know yet what you’re going to like, and it’s easy to get trapped. 2. The technology also changes a lot. You need to learn this meta skill of learning new technologies and being able to onboard really quickly. I think that learning multiple skills really helps with that.” – Dustin Moskovitz

“I would encourage you to start early with breadth and decide later to focus on what you’re good at and where the future seems to be going.” – Sam Altman

What was your biggest misconception about Silicon Valley?

“I definitely thought when I started in this industry that the programmers were programming, designers were designing, leaders were leading or figuring out strategy. It turned out a lot of it was people skills: figuring out how to work with people, talk to people in the right way, build consensus, get everyone on the same page—all soft skills. At the time it was disappointing, but now it feels more exciting. Regardless of your role, whether you’re a CEO or individual contributor, the leadership elements of being able to work with people well matter so much more than I imagined: they’re on par with your other abilities.” – Justin Rosenstein

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