It was my sophomore year. Everyone was making plans for fall break. What are you going to do? You don't know? There are only 4 days left before break.
Before this particular fall break, I was busy with classes and had thus neglected to make plans. Some students were going skiing, others on class trips, others to homes nearby. Where are you going? I had no idea.
However, around this time, I was reading a lot about California. I read work by entrepreneur and essayist, Paul Graham, in which he says that the San Francisco Bay Area is the best place to start a company. He described the energy, but I couldn't palpate it. If I were to take his word, it's an ethereal, magical place.
That day, James Currier, internet entrepreneur, stood before me and a packed class full of eager students. His eyes were shot open, a purple glaze lit them afire. His wavy hair burst out atop his skinny head. Gaunt and fearless, he embraced the air as he swung his arms widely to make his point.
“Silicon Valley is absolutely the place to be,” he said. “It’s where all technology happens. It’s where Google started, it’s where Apple, Yahoo, Intel, Oracle, and so many other technology companies started. Some of the smartest people in the world lived there at Stanford, Berkeley, and Xerox PARC. It is a magical forever-sunny wonderland where dreams come true and it rains investments and acquisitions.”
He went on to make even more grandiose claims. Startups? Risky? Not at all when you do things right. Moreover, they are nothing compared to the risks of a financial job.
Everyone laughed. This room in Princeton was filled with students who had already accepted offers at investment banks or who would be applying soon. In 2006, finance was booming with big bonuses and strong growth prospects. Derivatives opened up whole new worlds for trading and speculation. Operations research quants donned their glasses in pride. They were respected.
So everyone laughed. He said, "No, really. They can fire you any time. They don't care about you. The market can turn the other way in a heartbeat. You have no job security. Your firm can go bankrupt."
To the students at the time, this all seemed ludicrous. They all envied these corporate finance jobs, nevermind that many would lose their finance jobs less than 2 years later.
He inspired. He didn't have charm so much as hurricane-force energy. He was insightful and learned. He talked about his great times. He talked about his learning moments.
And so he inspired me to see it. I had to see it. What is so special about the Silicon Valley, the San Francisco Bay Area? How can it actually be that great? What exactly gives the air such power to breath life into world-changing tech empires?
I knew what I had to do, but Fall Break was just two days away. How would I fly there without paying outrageous fees? Where would I stay? What would I do there? How would I meet the minds behind these great startups? I was a sophomore from Florida. I had no network in California.
I searched online for cheap tickets, no luck--that is until I noticed an ad for Hotwire. If you have yet to try this site, Hotwire buys leftover seats in bulk, and then sells them to users blind such that they don't know exactly which flight on which airline at what time until they buy. I snagged a very cheap ticket for 3 days later.
Now, where would I stay? I knew exactly three people from my high school in the bay area, 2 at Berkeley, and 1 at Stanford. I sent them all an email and hoped they would get back to me in time. I could always get a hotel somewhere.
Finally, how could I reach the top startups in Silicon Valley and find entrepreneurs who could meet with me on such short notice? I didn’t know any CEO's. How do I hack Silicon Valley itself?
TechCrunch always covers the hottest new funded startups. Every day, they publish dozens of new articles on the latest technology. I should just pick a few of the best and email them. But how do I choose the best? What if they don't get back to me? Will I waste a trip?
I noticed half of all of the articles listed the location of each company. Some in California, some not. So I enumerated every neighborhood in the bay area: Redwood City, Palo Alto, Berkeley, San Francisco, Menlo Park, etc. I wrote a program to crawl all of the Techcrunch archives to find all of the articles about companies in one of these cities. I then parse out the name and URL automatically as well.
I looked through the list of companies and I picked the most interesting. Some invented a new technology, and others just came out of a new incubator called YCombinator.
These days, you can do this easily yourself with Crunchbase, a useful database of every startup in existence.
I wrote another script to send an email to every single one: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, and so on. In each email, I wrote: I am a student who will be graduating soon, and I would be very interested in learning more about your startup since I saw it in Techcrunch and I think your Company is very innovative. I'm from Princeton and I'd be interested in potentially working for your company. I am visiting California next week, can we please meet?
I sent out dozens of emails, and then I waited. Not everyone replied, but many did. I flew in, finished my homework on the plane, and crashed with my friends (all three through through the week).
I met with many CEOs. In startup land the companies are all very small. Everyone in the company has to wear many different hats. Therefore, when you send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, the CEO reads it. Few people realize that you can easily get direct access to startup CEOs.
One company I reached out to was YouOS. YouOS was in the first class of YCombinator. They are incredibly good hackers. We just talked over pizza and they joked about how they've written and rewritten servers from scratch so many times that they can do it in 5 minutes while sleeping. YouOS did not work out, but the founders continued innovating. A couple of them made and then sold Project Wedding. Another went on to create thesixtyone.com and Aweditorium, two of the most innovative music apps in the world.
Walking around Palo Alto, I saw several startups on each block. If you can imagine another planet where the Internet is turned into physical locations with storefronts, with Facebook next to Dropbox next to Shopkick, then you have a pretty good idea of what Silicon Valley looks like.
You see zetok, jlingo, and any conceivable combination of letters plastered everywhere. I noticed a small blue frog in one corner, it looked familiar. I tried the door and walked upstairs. The offices were in fact the offices of Azureus, the Bittorrent app that made torrents popular. I went up to the exhausted man walking hurriedly by the front desk, and I began with: hi. I'm Joseph Perla. I am a student looking for a job. I am visiting just for a week, can I talk to you for just a few minutes?
He was taken aback at first, a little flustered. He said, yes, sure, but not today, I'm a little stressed because I'm signing papers. We’re raising 4 million dollars right now. Can you come tomorrow?
The next day, I spent 3 hours talking to the CEO one-on-one about Azureus, raising money, silicon valley, bittorrent, technology, France (he's French), and the french technology industry.
I ended up meeting with half a dozen other startup founders. I toured the golden gate bridge and many parts of the bay area, Berkeley, and Stanford.
The Valley is very friendly, and everyone does everything they can to help you because, at some point, someone definitely went out of their way to help them succeed. I started building a network from nothing. I directly used the connections I made on my spontaneous trip to start my next company, Labmeeting.
David Tisch, of Techstars NYC, made a great point recently. Startups are very difficult. The odds are against you. Your competitors are twofold. On the one hand you compete with the biggest companies in the world. Even more difficult, you compete with inertia and ignorance and apathy. Everyone in the startup industry knows how hard it is, so we all do what we can to help each other to beat the odds. That's the only way it works at all. That's how we succeed against all odds. Silicon Valley is one big mega-commune of startup capitalists.
Make the most of what you have (friends in new places), trust in people, and find out what the ethos of Silicon Valley is really like. I know scores of startups who would love to have smart students, especially students looking for jobs, visit their offices and see what they have built. I can point you in the right direction. CEO's love to tell their stories more than you like to listen to them! Let me know if you plan to make your own adventure, and please tell me about your trip when you get back.