As cofounder of startup accelerator Y Combinator, Paul Graham could be considered the godfather of over 450 startups, including Reddit, Dropbox, and Airbnb. So he knows a talented entrepreneur, a billion-dollar idea, and a solid co-founding team when he sees them.

Now Graham is sharing his wisdom with an even wider audience. Y Combinator, under president Sam Altman, has its own class at Stanford, and Altman invited Graham to give a guest lecture on September 30. His topic: all the advice Graham says he is saving for when his own children grow old enough to understand it.

"Startups are very counterintuitive. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's just because knowledge about them hasn't permeated our culture yet," Graham said during the lecture, which he called "Before the Startup." "But whatever the reason, starting a startup is a task where you can't always trust your instincts."

Here are Graham's six pieces of advice for potential startup founders:

Don't trust your impulses on business.

"Startups are so weird that if you trust your instincts, you'll make a lot of mistakes. If you know nothing more than this, you may at least pause before making them," Graham says. He jokes that Y Combinator's function is to give advice to founders that they will ignore because "that's the thing about counterintuitive ideas: they contradict your intuitions. They seem wrong. So of course your first impulse is to disregard them," he says.

Trust your instincts about people.

Hiring a bad employee, taking the wrong investor, or linking your business with the wrong co-founder can undermine all your hard work. "You can, however, trust your instincts about people. And in fact one of the most common mistakes young founders make is not to do that enough," he says. "They get involved with people who seem impressive, but about whom they feel some misgivings personally. Later when things blow up they say 'I knew there was something off about him, but I ignored it because he seemed so impressive.'"

He continues: "If someone seems slippery, or bogus, or a jerk, don't ignore it." Be self-indulgent: Work with people you've known long enough and genuinely like.

If nothing else, be an expert on your users.

"The way to succeed in a startup is not to be an expert on startups, but to be an expert on your users and the problem you're solving for them. Mark Zuckerberg didn't succeed because he was an expert on startups. He succeeded despite being a complete noob at startups, because he understood his users really well," Graham says. "If you don't know anything about, say, how to raise an angel round, don't feel bad on that account. That sort of thing you can learn when you need to, and forget after you've done it."

The one golden rule is to make sure you're alway "making something people want." Graham says you can raise money, hire smart people, and rent the cool office, but if you don't know your customers and can't make something they want, you'll "gradually realize how completely fucked" you are.

Don't game the system.

Graham says he has seen this over and over--founders know the checklist and how to run through all of the tasks on it. He compares it to smart kids gaming high school to get into college: do the work, ace tests by studying test questions (not mastering material), do extracurricular activities, and you're in.

"It's not surprising that after being trained for their whole lives to play such games, young founders' first impulse on starting a startup is to try to figure out the tricks for winning at this new game," Graham says, adding that you need to stop looking for the "trick."

"Starting a startup is where gaming the system stops working," he says. "There is no boss to trick, only users, and all users care about is whether your product does what they want. Startups are as impersonal as physics. You have to make something people want, and you prosper only to the extent you do."

Startups are all consuming.

Being the founder of a successful startup never gets easier. "If you start a startup, it will take over your life to a degree you cannot imagine," Graham said. "And if your startup succeeds, it will take over your life for a long time: for several years at the very least, maybe for a decade, maybe for the rest of your working life. So there is a real opportunity cost here."

When you're a student, focus on being a student.

Graham suggests to be a kid, "bum around foreign a foreign country," and enjoy being a student while in college. Once you push that startup button and launch, it's like having kids. "Facebook is running him as much as he's running Facebook. And while it can be very cool to be in the grip of a project you consider your life's work, there are advantages to serendipity too, especially early in life," he says.

"There are only two things you need initially: an idea and cofounders," he says. But if you think the way to get a billion-dollar idea is to sit with a note pad and brainstorm all the ideas out of your head, you're wrong. "The way to get startup ideas is not to try to think of startup ideas," he says.

"There are only two things you need initially: an idea and cofounders," he says. But if you think the way to get a billion-dollar idea is to sit with a note pad and brainstorm all the ideas out of your head, you're wrong. "The way to get startup ideas is not to try to think of startup ideas," he says.

Here's how to think of a brilliant startup idea: "(1) Learn a lot about things that matter, then (2) work on problems that interest you (3) with people you like and respect," he says. "The third part, incidentally, is how you get cofounders at the same time as the idea."

The ultimate startup advice for any young, motivated person is encapsulated in two words: "Just learn," he says.

Published on: Oct 3, 2014