OpenAI Armageddon is here. The buzzy AI company seemed to cut off its own head as it unexpectedly and dramatically ousted its cofounder and CEO Sam Altman on Friday, setting off a series of dominoes that included a fight with funder Microsoft, a public standoff among the board members, an exodus of senior leadership, and a threat to quit from nearly all of OpenAI’s 770 employees. Through it all, the deposed founder appeared unfazed, revealing little except confidence in his vision until the surprise announcement on Sunday that he would essentially reprise his old role, but at Microsoft.
So who is the visionary startup founder who elevated OpenAI to an $86 billion valuation and holds the loyalty of his fellow executives as well as his hundreds of employees? He’s a college dropout and doomsday prepper from Missouri who likes fast cars.
Altman, 38, grew up in St. Louis. From a young age, he demonstrated his technological prowess, learning how to disassemble an Apple Macintosh at the age of 8, according to The New Yorker. He studied computer science at Stanford University for two years before dropping out in 2005 to work on his first startup: Loopt, a location-sharing app.
The app, which Atlman founded with his then-boyfriend, Nick Sivo, was accepted into the first cohort at startup accelerator Y Combinator, alongside Silicon Valley legends like Reddit. Loopt was less successful than its buzzy classmates—Altman sold it to Green Dot for roughly $43 million in 2012 and told the Intelligencer he walked away “pretty unhappy.”
“Failure always sucks, but failure when you’re trying to prove something really, really sucks,” Altman said. Despite his disappointment, though, he nabbed $5 million from the app’s sale, which he parlayed into his own VC firm, Hydrazine Capital, with the backing of Peter Thiel. Soon after, he caught the eye of Y Combinator’s cofounder Paul Graham, who singled out Altman in a 2008 fundraising post as someone who could succeed with or without investors.
“In a 2008 post on fundraising, Graham singled out Altman and his ability to succeed with or without investors. “”You could parachute him into an island full of cannibals and come back in five years and he’d be the king,” Graham wrote.
In 2014, Graham picked Altman, then 28, to run the tech incubator, which by then had fostered success stories like DropbBox, DoorDash, Airbnb, and financial-technology company Stripe. Altman served as president of Y Combinator for five years—during which he took up hobbies like racing cars and doomsday prepping. He left in 2019, amid a staff shakeup at the incubator, to run OpenAI full-time.
By 2016, he owned five cars, including two McLarens and an old Tesla, he told The New Yorker. He also owns a ranch in Napa and a $27 million home on San Francisco’s Russian Hill, according to the Intelligencer.
As far as preparing for the end of the world goes, “My problem is that when my friends get drunk they talk about the ways the world will end,” Altman told The New Yorker. Possible scenarios they discuss include deadly, man-made viruses and AI uprisings that throw nations into fights over scarce resources, he said.
“But I have guns, gold, potassium iodide, antibiotics, batteries, water, gas masks from the Israeli Defense Force, and a big patch of land in Big Sur I can fly to,” Altman added.
Fear of the power of AI is part of the reason he founded OpenAI in 2015 alongside Elon Musk, Brockman, and Ilya Stuskever (the only one of OpenAI’s founders still at the company). The startup began as a nonprofit with the mission of building safe and powerful AI that wouldwill benefit “all of humanity,” but became a capped for-profit entity shortly after Musk left the company in 2018.
Since taking the helm as CEO four years ago, Altman has transformed OpenAI into a leader in AI innovation with over $13 billion in funding from Microsoft alone. The public launch of its generative AI chatbot, ChatGPT, a year ago rocked the popular imagination and catapulted Altman into mainstream fame.
Where Altman goes from here is anybody’s guess, but one thing is for certain: He won’t lack for job opportunities. Over the weekend he announced plans to join Microsoft’s new AI lab, but there are rumors that he’s holding out to return to OpenAI. Meanwhile, France’s digital minister, Jean-Noel Barrot, has said Altman and his team “are welcome in France if they want to.”
Graham put it best when wrote about Altman in 2009: “There are a few people with such force of will that they’re going to get whatever they want.”