Y Combinator promotes Geoff Ralston to president, while Sam Altman shifts to advisor role

Two months ago, when Sam Altman surprised the industry by stepping away from his post as the president of Y Combinator to become the CEO of OpenAI, an artificial intelligence-focused company, TechCrunch was told there were no plans to replace Altman.

Apparently, there were no immediate plans. This morning, the popular accelerator program and investment firm is announcing that it has promoted longtime partner Geoff Ralston to president.

It’s an unsurprising choice for YC, an organization that employs roughly 60 people, many of whom have been affiliated with it in one way or another for years. When its founders, Paul Graham and Jessica Livingston, first looked for someone to lead the rocket ship they had built, they quickly identified Altman, who was part of the first class of Y Combinator and who later helped them advise YC startups.

Similarly, Graham has known Ralston for 20 years; they met at Yahoo, where both landed through acquisitions. Graham sold his company, Viaweb, a web-based application that allowed users to build and host their own online stores, to Yahoo in 1998. Ralston built RocketMail, one of the first web mail services, which in 1997 became Yahoo Mail.

Ralston later logged time as the CEO of a streaming music service, Lala Media, that sold to Apple in 2009. He then co-founded — with Graham’s help — Imagine K12, an edtech accelerator that funded companies like ClassDojo, among others, before Ralston and Graham decided to merge it into YC in 2016.

We talked with both Ralston and Altman last night about the appointment, and Ralston sounded very enthusiastic. “Following P.G. and Sam is a daunting but incredibly exciting prospect for me. I feel like I was made for this job.”

Slightly more surprising: As part of the announcement, Altman, who was named chairman of YC as he was transitioning out the door a few months ago, tells us now that he will no longer hold that title, that he will instead be an advisor and “available” to YC. He said that his heart now is really with OpenAI (more on that here). He also wants to give Ralston space, saying that “one thing that P.G. did for me was just make it very clear [to everyone] that I was in charge. My shoes aren’t as big to fill, but I want to do the same for Geoff.”

We asked Ralston last night if Altman had given him any advice — or shared horror stories. (“I didn’t shy away from the hard parts, but the good parts are really obvious, including YC’s impact and the quality of people we work with,” said Altman.)

We also asked if there was anything Ralston might want to change about YC straightaway, knowing the organization as well as he does. On this front, both men noted that they have worked closely for years (and known each other for ten), with Ralston adding that under his leadership, “The job should look much the same; so much of YC works incredibly well.”

As for the process involved in selecting Ralston, YC isn’t saying exactly. The broader point, apparently, is that he’s the right person for the job. “The whole partnership was excited about this,” said Altman. “A number of people could do the job [inside of YC]. I think Geoff will be exceptional.”

Ralston has personally invested in more than 100 companies, says YC. He’s also the longest tenured partner, along with Gmail creator Paul Buchheit, who joined YC in 2010.

Most recently, he helped scale YC’s free online program, Startup School. Below is one piece of related programming from last fall, with Ralston talking about fundraising fundamentals.