When 14-year-old app developer Saroush Ghodsi cold-called famed Silicon Valley entrepreneur Sam Altman on a Friday night in January, he had no idea that he and his friend Stefan Stokic, then 16, would go on to become the youngest founders in Y Combinator history.
At the time, Ghodsi and Stokic were just high school sophomores in Waterloo, Canada, and Jackson, Mississippi, respectively. They had become friends online and in 2016 decided to partner up on building a startup called Slik.
Slik is an enterprise software system that allows salespeople to more effectively generate leads. The product began as a simple browser extension to collect email addresses, but when Ghodsi and Stokic realized how valuable their tool was to salespeople, they decided to build the product into what they hope will become a full-fledged Salesforce competitor.
The call that started it all
When Ghodsi and Stokic first began working on Slik, they were doing it all after school and on weekends. But after several months of work, the two realized that in order to scale, they’d need to garner a round of venture capital investment or enter an accelerator program.
Ghodsi and Stokic were already somewhat connected in the industry. Months before collaborating on the browser extension, Stokic messaged Chris Sacca on Twitter with a link to a job board he had created for Sacca’s venture capital firm, Lowercase. Sacca offered Stokic an internship at Lowercase in winter of 2016, and Stokic was soon hobnobbing online with other elite VCs, such as Homebrew’s Hunter Walk and Haystack’s Semil Shah.
In order to drum up interest, the two teens put together a list of top VCs and entrepreneurs to cold-call and ask for a meeting.
“I was in Canada and Stefan was in Mississippi,” Ghodsi said. “So we didn’t talk about it much ahead of time. We were both just finding a bunch of people’s numbers and calling as many as we could to try to set up meetings.”
Ghodsi did some digging and found Sam Altman’s personal cell phone number. Altman, a Silicon Valley “kingmaker” and President of Y Combinator, an elite Silicon Valley startup incubator, is an icon in Silicon Valley; many startup founders might be reluctant to cold-call him lest they start out on the wrong foot. Ghodsi, however, decided to give him a ring.
Altman was in the middle of dinner, but he answered the phone. Ghodsi spent over a full minute apologizing and explaining that he was just a kid, he said, before pitching Altman on Slik. To Ghodsi’s surprise, Altman said he’d fly Ghodsi and Stokic out to San Francisco to tell him more about their product.
“I think people overestimate the downside risk of doing something like that,” Ghodsi said. “The worst is that they’re mad. Like, ‘I’m spending time with my family! Stop bothering me.’ That has happened to me, but you can’t let it stop you from trying.”
“I think it’s easier for investors or people to hear from a 14-year-old calling you than a grown man,” said Stokic. “People are more open to that and you can tell.”
Not long after the meeting in San Francisco, the two were accepted to Y Combinator’s summer class; in May they moved out of their parents’ houses and into a shared San Francisco home to begin work.
Life as a teen startup founder
Though Ghodsi and Stokic have the type of freedom most teens can only dream of, life as a teen startup founder in San Francisco is anything but glamorous.
Just to get there, Ghodsi needed six pages of legal papers to cross the border from Canada, and they both needed full permission from their parents and schools.
Because they’re so young, Ghodsi and Stokic also can’t sign certain documents or establish contracts. They don’t have their own debit cards or credit history yet, so they pay for everything in cash.
But since they’ve gotten settled, Ghodsi and Stokic live pretty low-key lives. Their combined four parents rotate visits, and the two boys rarely leave the house. “We all live upstairs, then we go into the basement every day to work,” Stokic said.
And their work schedule is punishing. “On a typical day, we wake up, get dressed, do email (my morning ritual is to get to inbox zero), answer work requests, eat, work, then go to bed,” Ghodsi said. “Sometimes we might have dinner with someone or go to a YC event, but we’re not in San Francisco to socialize. We want to take advantage of this time to focus everything on the business. We don’t have a personal life.”
“We’re not in San Francisco to socialize. We don’t have a personal life.”
The pair have made friends — mostly other YC founders 10 to 20 years their senior. They both said that there’s a lot of camaraderie within their class and that it’s helpful to talk to others who can relate to the stress of building a business, no matter what age they are.
Ghodsi said being so young has given them somewhat of a competitive edge.
“A lot of younger people reach out to us and want to work with us,” Ghodsi said. “We have a whole network of young devs and designers [who] want to work with us and will do it for much cheaper than grown-ups doing that job. We had someone do our site that cost a 20th of what it would cost normally, for instance, because the guy was only 14 years old. A lot of teens feel like they’re not being taken seriously, so when they see what we’re doing they want to be part of it.”
“We had someone do our site that cost a 20th of what it would cost normally, for instance, because the guy was only 14 years old.”
The college question
Ghodsi and Stokic said that one of the biggest challenges they faced when raising money was the fact that many investors simply wouldn’t consider their business because of their age. Many ask what the pair will do when it comes time for college.
The two say that when it comes to a traditional degree, it’s all up in the air. “We get the high school question often,” said Ghodsi. “Like, ‘Are you guys gonna finish high school?’ ‘Are you going to college?’ ‘Do you think college is good?’ There’s a trend in the valley where they discourage others from going to college. I actually think there’s merit to going to college … but right now we’re focusing on our business.”
“Living in San Francisco is fun,” he added. “You have to do all this stuff you never think of, like buy groceries, wash dishes ... It’s a new experience to live in the city alone.”
“Living in San Francisco is fun. You have to do all this stuff you never think of, like buy groceries, wash dishes ...”
“The whole experience is different from anything else for us,” Stokic said. “You get used to living away from home after a while and doing regular stuff. It’s a pretty normal path; we just started doing it a little earlier.”
But to Altman, Stokic and Ghodsi are just two regular startup founders. “I think the focus on age gets taken too far,” he said in a phone call Saturday. “I don’t think anyone should get special credit or recognition based on age, if they build something good they build something good, it doesn’t matter how old they are.”