In the spring of 2005 I attended a speech at the Harvard Computer Club by a guy I knew named Paul Graham. I’d worked for at his tech startup, Viaweb, and I knew he was a smart, generous, and entertaining guy so the speech would be worth attending.
The room was, surprising to me, packed with attendees. Because I knew what Paul looked like I could pick him out from the crowd. I approached him and wished him luck. He said with a laugh, “Ah! You’re here. Now I know I can’t exaggerate anything or make stuff up.”
He then took the stage and gave a speech that killed, the audience hung on his every word. His presentation was a good one not only because he was a skilled writer and speaker, it was effective because he intuited the reason students were there to see him – they wanted to learn how to become rich like him.
Paul was, at this point, worth several millions of dollars from the sale of his company to Yahoo and from his single year working there. He was wealthy but also a member of the Harvard Computer Club’s tribe. His words resonated because he spoke the language of computer nerds.
But Paul didn’t limit himself to just programming, as many do, he could speak equally well about literature and art (as his book “Hackers and Painters” attests). He was as comfortable discussing the works of Emily Bronte as recursive functions in Python, which looks something like this:
n! = n * (n-1)!, if n > 1 and f(1) = 1
Like I said, a smart guy.
But Paul didn’t talk about recursion, instead he gave the audience what they wanted – a review of how he made millions creating a software company. It had a lot of insight and was a good guideline for aspiring tech entrepreneurs. He later posted it online and it’s worth a read.
I’ll admit, parts of it were nice for me, a former employee of his, to hear. In particular the part “Almost everyone who worked for us [at Viaweb] was an animal at what they did.” Viaweb had an extraordinary workforce, being an employee there sometimes felt like being a member of the Navy SEALS. Like the recently sainted Steve Jobs, Paul had a way of attracting the most talented and fostering innovative thinking among us.
After the speech, I cut through the mob that had assembled around him and told him it was great. He smiled and said, “Did you like the part about Linda Wilk?” I did because I knew exactly who he was talking about when he said, “The woman in charge of sales was so tenacious that I used to feel sorry for potential customers on the phone with her.”
As I turned to leave, another took my place and said to Paul, “I took a train from Virginia just to speak with you.” Later I would learn this was Alexis Ohanian, then a nobody college student at the University of Virginia and now known as the creator of Reddit, the first company Paul funded.
The small investment that Paul provided for Reddit eventually expanded and grew into something called Y Combinator. It put together a string of successes, including Reddit, Airbnb, and Dropbox. It’s now known as “The Harvard of Startup Schools” because entry into its program is about as prestigious and difficult. Companies in its portfolio have a combined value of $65 billion.
And, unwittingly, I attended the speech and witnessed the conversation that sparked its creation. Interesting things happen when you break convention, get off the couch and go somewhere. Tonight, go to a speech or a show and talk to people. I guarantee something cool will happen.