According to OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, This Is The Skill That Entrepreneurs Must Absolutely Have To Ensure Their Success Altman shared his thoughts at an event hosted by Abu Dhabi-based Hub71 earlier this week.

By Megha Merani

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OpenAI CEO Sam Altman

A startup founder requires many skills, but what tops the list for Sam Altman is resilience- a trait he has observed as a common factor among thousands of successful founders over the course of a decade.

Speaking at an event hosted by Abu Dhabi-based Hub71 earlier this week, the founder and CEO of OpenAI, the company that created the artificial intelligence (AI)-powered large language model chatbot ChatGPT, said that he spent a lot of time trying to observe the abilities that make entrepreneurs stand out during his time as the President of Y Combinator (YC).

For the uninitiated, YC is the American technology startup accelerator that has helped launch more than 4,000 companies, including Airbnb, Coinbase, Cruise, DoorDash, Dropbox, Instacart, Quora, Reddit, and Stripe.

"There's all of the obvious ones, like you need to be really smart, you need a good idea– I'll leave all of those off because they're all over the internet," Altman said. "The things I observed that were less obvious– number one, you need to be very resilient."

According to the American Psychological Association, resilience refers to both the process and the outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences. It's having the mental, emotional, and behavioral flexibility and ability to adjust to internal and external circumstances.

Altman said that the majority of people give up during a crisis, making the ability to bounce back critical for entrepreneurship.

"The whole experience of the beginning of a startup is quite miserable," he said. "It has moments of fun, but on the whole, stuff is going wrong, no one believes in you, you kind of can't get anything to quite work, and it's a long way ahead, and most people just give up."

The CEO, who learned to code at the age of eight and studied computer science at Stanford University for two years before he dropped out to work on building a mobile app with a few classmates, said he believes that resilience can be learned.

"One of the things we learnt at YC is you actually can teach people to be resilient– at least you can cultivate it," he said. "And that is super valuable. Another [closely related trait] is the spirit of like, 'Whatever problem comes my way, I'll figure it out, even if I don't know how to figure it out right now.' And that's a combination of self-belief and adaptability and resilience. It's very important."

Related: Making It Big: Four Tactics That Enabled UAE-Born Startup Ziina To Make It To Y Combinator

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Image courtesy Hub71.

Having superior communication skills is also a major factor for founder success– particularly for potentially groundbreaking ideas ahead of their time, Altman said.

"You have to be at least a very good -and ideally, a great- communicator," Altman said. "Your job ends up being like chief evangelist. When we started OpenAI, most people thought we were crazy at best. Many of them probably thought we were like full on running a scam. And to be able to convince people that, hey, this is unlikely, but let's try, it's so valuable if it works, it's not prevented by the laws of physics, there's these promising things– getting the energy together to do that requires a lot of good communication. That's a skill that doesn't get talked about, but it's quite important."

Altman co-founded OpenAI with Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, in 2015, with no plans for profit. Their goal at the time for the company was to create AI that would be beneficial to humanity. However, the company became a for-profit company in 2019. At an event in 2019 when Altman was asked how OpenAI planned to make a profit, he said: "The honest answer is we have no idea." OpenAI has not yet monetized ChatGPT on a big scale.

Altman also told his audience at Abu Dhabi that founders need to have "a very long-term orientation."

"I think most people are like, 'What can I get done in a few years?'" he said. "[But] if you are willing to say, 'What can I get done in a few decades, even if I have to be totally misunderstood for the next few years?', that is a very powerful skill."

Time, Altman added, is a resource that he takes very seriously. "Just the ability to get a lot of stuff done in a day, I think is also a teachable skill," he said. "Some combination of decisiveness, willfulness, prioritization, but a lot of productivity per unit time really rewards."

The audience for Sam Altman's talk in Abu Dhabi. Image courtesy Hub71.

The UAE was one of Altman's many stops on a global tour advocating for a global coalition to regulate the development and use of AI around the world. Regulators worldwide have been scrutinizing the safety and privacy implications of AI and struggling to play catch up to its pace of development.

Earlier this year, an online letter signed by technology leaders including Elon Musk and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak called for a six-month "pause" on giant AI experiments, to buy time for regulators to develop safety protocols

However, Altman commended the UAE's "desire, commitment and willingness" to advance in the field of AI, adding that the UAE "has been talking about AI since before it was cool."

Related: The Open Letter Asking To Pause Artificial Intelligence Development Misses The Mark. Here's Why.

Megha Merani

Independent Journalist

Megha Merani is an independent journalist based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Her stories have made headlines across a number of publications including Reuters, Associated Press, Entrepreneur Middle EastBloomberg Middle East, Arabian Gulf Business Insight, Arabian Business, and former local daily 7DAYS.

Megha also produces editorial for government platforms including the World Government Summit and World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting of the Global Future Councils. She has been a grant winner of the Thomson Reuters Foundation and The Global Initiative Against Organized Crime funded by the government of Norway to report on the online trade in illegal wildlife.

Megha is also an Associate Fellow (AFHEA) at Murdoch University in Dubai and leads its Digital Newsroom course unit. In addition, Megha serves as a United Nations Women mentor to support equal opportunities for women entrepreneurs, and supports various other programs including TIE Women, 60 Day Startups, and the Watt Inc. Business Incubator.

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