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Sequoia Capital / Pass It Down

1 Menlo Park, CA, United States
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Back when I was still writing, I had a side job at Sequoia Capital in Palo Alto. Back in those days the firm put out a newsletter that was mostly passed from person to person throughout the Bay Area. Sequoia is so powerful that when it prints something, people want to read it. I remember someone telling me that they saw a copy in a coffee shop in Berlin. I can't tell you if the story is true, but it sounds plausible enough to me.

I was on contract because I was working on my novel, and mostly I went around to small firms that Sequoia had thrown a bit of money that we'd feature in a section called "Future Leaders". Of course everything had to be nice and positive, given that we'd made the choice of giving money to all of these people. I did this for about a year until I needed more money and took a full-time job elsewhere. I'd given up writing the novel by then.

I remember once visiting this firm called PassItDown, with all the words mashed together like that. Since that's how you typed the name into a Web browser, I supposed it made sense. But if I'd have had a say I'd have told them to come up with a new name.

But the thing about this place was that it was run by this young fellow by the name of Ambrose who was from Cleveland and told me that he'd been planning to come to California his entire life. This is when we were sitting down and I was taking notes for the article. "I had a map on my wall in my bedroom as far back as I can remember, " he told me. "I know it sounds trite. But it's true."

"I'm not sure I can write about that anyway, " I said. "It sounds a bit obsessive. We don't want to scare off any future shareholders, right?"

Ambrose wore a dress shirt and tie even though the rest of his employees were more casual. His hair was cut close along his scalp. "I didn't realize my childhood was so unorthodox, " he said.

"We just have to be careful, " I told him. And then I put my notebook down. "This isn't the greatest job. I have to tell you. But there's a certain mandate. They tell me that they have a vision for the newsletter. That's code for telling me that it can't be too oddball. They know that I'm working on a novel right now."

Ambrose leaned back in his executive chair. "What's your novel about?" he said.

"I hate that question, " I said. "No offence."

"None taken, " Ambrose said. "But I am curious."

"I have a grandfather who grew up in France, " I said. "He was there during the war years and came here soon after. Not that long ago we paid for him to go back and revisit his hometown. He went with his wife, who was still alive back then. And the thing ended in disaster. Apparently he lost it soon after they got there. What I mean is that he was running around screaming or having panic attacks, or something like that. We never got the whole story. My sister went out there when they checked him into the hospital. He had these bouts where he'd rant on and on in French about things that nobody could understand. Not that any of us can speak French. Not even his wife. The doctors tried to figure out what was wrong. They recited bits and pieces of what he was saying. But none of it made any sense."

"That's a terrible story, " Ambrose said.

"It gets worse, " I told him. "He had a stroke about a month into this, and died a few days later. His wife was overcome with grief. My grandmother, I guess I should say. I don't know why I keep calling her his wife. She was my grandmother. Anyway, she died within the year."

"That happens, " Ambrose said. "One dies, and the other gives up living."

"That's what people always tell us, " I said. "Anyway, my novel is sort of related to those events. I'm trying to get the perspective of my sister. But I'm using a male protagonist, since I feel more comfortable with that."

"How does she feel about you using all this for a story?" Ambrose asked.

"It's hard to get information out of her sometimes, " I said. "But she thinks it's a good idea. Most of the time, anyway. You know, nobody else came out when my grandfather got sick. That's the craziest thing. Not even my parents. I don't know why."

"Some things look strange in retrospect, but make perfect sense at the time, " Ambrose told me.

"Maybe that's true, " I said.

Ambrose took me around the small office they had rented in a building in San Jose. "We like to be close to downtown, " he told me. "Your employers don't like it. But we want to project a certain image."

"Then you should move to San Francisco, " I said. "There's no image to be projected from San Jose."

PassItDown was a small operation. There was a main work area with desks arranged in groups of four, with no walls dividing them. The place was half-empty. "We like to have an open work area, " Ambrose said.

"Everyone does, " I said. "I might skip that part of the story. Every article I've written lately seems to include a bit about some kind of high-concept office design."

"We have a lot of people working from home, anyway, as you can see, " Ambrose told me. "Our product is still in pieces. Everyone can do their bit on their own."

"You're going to have to explain this 'ladder' idea to me, " I said. "They briefed me at the office. But I still don't quite understand."

"Everyone gets an account and puts their favourite links on what we call a 'link ladder', " he said. "The link ladder is the key to everything."

"And there's sharing between end users, " I said. "They told me that. They said sharing was the key to everything."

"You can move your links up and down the ladder, " he said. "You can take a link from one of your rungs and drop it into one of your friends' ladders. So, yes, sharing is important. But that goes without saying. People interacting with one another online isn't the key idea in the sense that everyone is doing that. Our approach is what's important."

"I'll take some stuff from your marketing materials, if you don't mind, " I said. "I won't be lazy. I'll make sure I understand what you're saying. I'll paraphrase."

"It's fine if you don't understand, " Ambrose said. "I know you're just doing this to make a bit of money on the side. I'm not offended."

Ambrose introduced me to some of the other employees, and I took down more notes so I could fill out my story. There were a couple of developers that had come from some of the big players in the area, so I wanted to make sure I included them in the piece. Stuff like that always sounds good for the company. People said nice things about Ambrose. About how he had come up with the whole idea himself. About how he'd developed the first prototype on his parents' computer back in Cleveland when he finished school and was having a hard time finding work. It was a simple story, more or less. Or it seemed that way at first.

We went back to Ambrose's office to wrap things up. "You don't have to write everything they said about me, " Ambrose said.

"Of course I will, " I said. "This is the way things work. The young visionary plugging away in obscurity. The big reward of venture capital. That's what the company wants to hear."

"The prototype was a mess, " he said. "We had some marketers help us with our presentation to spice things up. That's what got us the money. The product itself wouldn't have sold on its own. Not in the condition I had left it in."

I was looking through my notes, trying to make sure I have all the details I need. "There's something missing, " I then said. "You develop this thing back home in Ohio soon after college. Or at least that's how I have it. But you're probably, what, thirty years old now?"

"Nearly thirty, " Ambrose said.

"So there's a gap, " I said.

"There is, " Ambrose told me.

"I guess that's fine, " I said.

Ambrose looked down at his desk. "I had some problem years, " he then said.

"I don't need to know about this, " I said. "Especially if it's something I can't print."

"You know what it's like when you're just not happy with anything?" he said. "I mean that nothing in your life gives you any kind of satisfaction. But it's more than that. It's a sudden realization. You're going about things and there aren't any problems, until suddenly it hits you that everything is wrong. It's all wrong. You don't like one single thing about your life."

I put the notebook on the desk. Obviously I wasn't going to use any of this. "We all have moments like that, " I said.

"I made the PassItDown prototype and was all set to move over here and find the VC money to get going, " he told me. "And then I'm driving home one day and I realize that I can't go home. It's not my parents. We get along fine. It's just that I see my future in a flash and I can't go through with it. So I kept on driving. I went all sorts of places. I begged for money. I mean that I begged for it in the streets. I got beat up pretty bad sometimes. It was a tough time."

"But you've made it through all that, " I said, trying to be encouraging.

"It's not the same now, " he said. "None of it. I was lucky, though. I had some friends who had moved out here who had some good connections. They got me the meeting with your people. My parents chipped in to get me back on my feet."

"It's a big adjustment, " I said. "It would make a great story, to tell you the truth. But not the kind of story that I can print in the newsletter."

"Of course not, " Ambrose said. "I just thought you should know."

That's the funny thing about all this. When Ambrose was telling me about his troubled past, I didn't really relate to what he was talking about. I felt bad for him, I guess, or maybe I understood his story merely on an intellectual level. I suppose it was the same way with my grandfather's life. I thought I could write a novel about it, but that's only because I thought it was great fodder for a novel.

Now that I'm a failure, I understand what Ambrose was telling me, and maybe I even have a better understanding of what my grandfather went through. We think we can control ourselves. We think we can push and pull until everything is set up exactly the way we want it to be. But that's an illusion.

That's not exactly what I mean. We do push and pull. But we think we're acting in our best interests. We think we're in control of ourselves. That's the illusion.

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