Altman, 30, had been a marginal figure in Silicon Valley until February 2014, when he was named president of YC and instantly became a tech celebrity. "There are these surreal moments when people come up to me and ask, ‘What’s it like to run the most powerful startup organization in the world?’ " says Altman, who now receives 400 meeting requests a week from founders and investors. What they want, mostly, is access—an introduction to a current YC–backed hotshot or a YC partner, or a chance to enter the program themselves. Founders who are accepted relocate to the Bay Area for three months, giving Altman’s firm 7% of their companies in exchange for $120,000 and the chance to be advised by a stable of tech bigwigs. The best graduates can expect to attract hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital, to hire the best engineers, to get any meeting they ask for—in short, to be made men and women of Silicon Valley. ... There’s audacity here, and hubris too. Y Combinator was, for years, a one-man show, fueled by the charisma of its founder. Now Altman has to prove he can turn it into an institution.
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The thing to do, Kalanick argued, was to make the service a low-cost accessible luxury. "If Uber is lower-priced, then more people will want it," he explains. "And if more people want it and can afford it, then you have more cars on the road. And if you have more cars on the road, then your pickup times are lower, your reliability is better. The lower-cost product ends up being more luxurious than the high-end one." Kalanick had been resisting Camp’s overtures to become CEO, but it was this insight that got him excited: Uber could be huge. ... All that struggle and setback from his first two startups set up Kalanick almost perfectly for what was to come. "If you looked at everything he’s done, I don’t think there was another human who was more destined to build Uber," says Angelo Sotira. "You had peer-to-peer networks, aggressive dealings, large lawsuits." ... This new, subdued Travis Kalanick who claims he’d never heard of a libertarian seemed to me a significant overcorrection from the badass antigovernment crusader he has played for the past few years—and also just one sliver of his actual personality. That in itself is telling. Kalanick is not the kind of person who clings to beliefs, or even a fixed sense of himself. ... Some Silicon Valley founders pride themselves on being visionaries; Kalanick exults in an ability to read the data, revise, and adapt, likening running Uber to driving a car without a clear destination in sight. ... As of this summer, Uber has cars on the road in 15 Chinese cities with plans to be in 50 next year. The results so far have been astonishing: In just nine months, three Chinese cities (Chengdu, Guangzhou, and Hangzhou) have each already accounted for more rides than New York.
The Airbnb headquarters takes up three floors of a former battery factory in San Francisco’s SoMA neighborhood and houses roughly 1,100 employees, but its secondary function hits you as soon as you walk in: The place is a museum. Chesky, an art school graduate, designed the conference rooms as exact replicas of more than a dozen of the most significant Airbnb listings, including the nearby apartment where he and his cofounder Joe Gebbia were living when they rented out three air mattresses during a design conference to help pay the rent. (Chesky still lives there, periodically offering the couch to travelers for $40 a night.) Dollhouse-like dioramas of well-known listings greet guests near the lobby, and framed artwork lines the walls throughout, accompanied by museum-style didactic panels that offer an interpretation. An entire wall is dedicated to exploring the creative origins of Airbnb’s new logo, and another exhibit attempts to imagine what Airbnb’s flag might look like if the company were a country. One possibility: AIRBNB IS THE NEXT STAGE OF HUMAN EVOLUTION, overlaid on a scientific illustration that shows our progression from apes to cavemen to humans. None of this is done with much of a sense of humor, and as I mull the March of Progress, I wonder if there has ever been a company with such an expansive sense of its own importance. ... This is no exaggeration: During Airbnb’s first year in business, every venture capitalist Chesky pitched turned him down, and few guests were willing to risk staying with people they’d never met. Chesky and his cofounders relied on storytelling to make the idea seem friendly and, crucially, safe. It was a tall order, but Chesky is a gifted storyteller.
If you want to understand Snapchat, the insanely fast-growing and—to people born before 1990—straight-up insane messaging app and media platform, DJ Khaled is your Virgil. If you were one of the 100 million people who logged in to Snapchat each day during Super Bowl weekend, his thick beard and full frame were impossible to miss. You would have seen clips of him at an impromptu concert where he was mobbed by several hundred screaming fans waving giant cardboard keys, or at a raucous party sponsored by PepsiCo, or in a pedicab he hailed after the game. “Ride wit me through the journey [to] more success,” he captioned that last video, as his chauffeur pedaled furiously. ... Its annual revenue is small—perhaps $200 million, according to several press reports—but it has already drawn many big-name advertisers. ... it’s not just an American phenomenon: Snapchat is a top 10 most-downloaded app in about 100 countries ... History suggests that cookie-based media, and Snapchat in general, may be a fad.
In 2013, at age 30, he set out to build a better, more equitable way to assign credit scores to millennials who, in the wake of the recent financial crisis, had never taken out a loan before. All Sims needed to get started was a trove of data from a financial institution. ... When Lending Club went public in late 2014, Sims scraped together about $1,000 to buy stock. “It sounds dumb now,” he said, “but it felt like a chance to participate in history.” He was so taken by Lending Club that he began listening to the company’s earnings calls. “Like a weirdo,” he said. It was on one of these calls, in 2015, that he heard Chief Executive Officer Renaud Laplanche say that 14 percent of Lending Club’s borrowers, or more than 100,000 people, “returned for a second loan.” That struck Sims as curious. He knew that for all the information the company made public about its borrowers—incomes, employment histories, their reasons for borrowing—one thing it didn’t list was repeat customers. ... Sims saw a business opportunity: a research service that would independently rate Lending Club loans the way Morningstar rates mutual funds. Sims asked a data scientist, Allen Grimm, to help design an algorithm to identify loans that seemed to have been taken out by the same person and yet were assigned different rates. They called it the Financial Genome Project. ... Lending Club and its backers don’t deny the self-dealing but say it’s a nonstory. ... Sims has discovered dozens of other loans he suspects were made to company insiders, as well as lending practices that seem to have been designed to push growth above all else.
There are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of influencers making a living this way. Some make a lot more than a living. The most successful demand $10,000 and up for a single Instagram shot. Long-term endorsement deals with well-known Instagrammers, such as Kristina Bazan, who signed with L’Oréal last year, can be worth $1 million or more. Big retailers use influencers, as do fashion brands, food and beverage companies, and media conglomerates. Condé Nast, publisher of the New Yorker and Vogue, recently announced that it would ask IBM’s artificial intelligence service, Watson, to take a break from finding cancer treatments to identify potential influencers. ... The ultimate goal: to persuade someone, somewhere, to pay me cash money for my influence. ... “You sell part of your soul. Because no matter what beautiful moment you enjoy in your life, you’re going to want to take a photo and share it. Distinguishing between when is it my life and when am I creating content is a really big burden.” ... Instagram doesn’t explicitly ban bots, but its terms of service do prohibit sending spam, which, when viewed in a certain light, is exactly what I was doing. On the other hand, except for a single user who somehow had me pegged and accused me of being a bot, nobody with whom I interacted seemed to mind the extra likes or comments. ... I was already verging into “micro-influencer” territory, a hot new field within influencer marketing where, rather than hiring one or two big-time influencers, an ad agency will simply give out free merchandise to 50 small-timers.
Self-driving technology has become a fixation for Kalanick. Developing a driverless car, he’s often said, is “existential” to Uber. If a competitor managed to get there first, it could easily replicate Uber’s core service (shuttling passengers) without its single largest cost (paying drivers). ... According to the legal complaint filed on behalf of Google’s driverless car division—as almost everyone at Waymo still refers to it—the company began investigating Levandowski last summer after learning that Uber had paid about $700 million for his months-old company. Google’s suit, filed in a San Francisco federal court, says its investigators uncovered a trove of digital evidence that hint at an unprecedented theft. According to the suit, Levandowski used his company laptop to download 14,000 design files from Google’s car project. ... At issue is a business that both companies believe will be worth hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars a year. And though both companies like to portray driverless cars as some near-term inevitability, this dispute shows just how messy the race to get there could prove to be.
Founded in 2005, the Brooklyn-based online marketplace hosts 1.8 million small merchants who sell vintage and handmade goods and takes a cut of every transaction. Its sellers traffic in the one-off items usually found in antique stores and boutiques: pineapple-motif throw pillows, succulent-shaped jewelry, tote bags with birds on them. The fast-growing market is often mocked as a kind of twee EBay—TweeBay, if you will. But by early 2015 the company was selling close to $2 billion in merchandise a year and generating revenue of $196 million—figures that had more than doubled from two years earlier. ... Benefit corporations are structured so managers and board members have a legal obligation to worry about more than just their fiduciary duty to shareholders. A public-benefit corporation can get sued for wasting shareholder money just like a normal public company can, but it can also be sued for being a poor steward of the environment or for failing to pay a fair wage.