Sequoia Capital / Connections
I worked at Sequoia Capital for about a year back when the economy was still good. This was when I was living in Union City, which seems like ages ago to me now. So much has changed since that time and it's hard for me to even figure out how I got from there to here.
I was a bit player at Sequoia, meeting mostly with people from local start-ups that were looking for money in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. To Sequoia such funding is no big deal. It's practically charity. You spread some cash around to make some of the less talented developers in town feel good about themselves before cold hard reality sets in. That's how I saw my job, anyway. Of course the company would never frame it in quite the same way.
I remember there were this company started up by these two guys who'd gone to college somewhere in Washington. I can't remember the name of the institution. But they'd come down the coast to make their fortune, and they'd rented office space on the second floor of a little shopping centre in San Carlos. They'd been making presentations in and around the Bay Area and the company asked me to go out to see what they were up to. Apparently there were rumors that other VC firms were taking a look at them. Of course I'm willing to bet that they'd started the rumors themselves. But like I said, I was a bit player, and I had to check these things out.
The one guy's name was Ross, and the other was Corbett. I just remembered them now, while I was writing. As I said, it's been a while. I left the west coast behind me and I'll never go back.
Anyway, I drive over to this shopping centre in San Carlos and these guys are on the second floor above a used clothing store. They met me out front and had to take me to a door in back so we could get in. Sometimes you get companies that work this way, since they never really deal with the public in person. But some of the people I worked with would have left as soon as they saw the dingy office space upstairs. The floor sloped this way and that and the walls were cracking and you had to duck to get into the main area where they did most of their work.
"This is the best we could do, " Ross told me, clearly self-consciously. "We're focusing on the product right now."
They were a couple of other developers in the room who didn't pay me any attention when I arrived. "Hard at work, " I said, pointing in their direction
"I can introduce you if you'd like, " Ross said.
"That's fine, " I said.
"We've been bringing people in when we need them, " Corbett told me. "A friend of ours works at a staffing agency. That has made the process easier."
"It helps to have connections, " I said. "How long have you been working on this thing? Probably you've told me, but I can't remember."
"We developed the prototype in college, " Ross told me. "So, I don't know. We've been in town for a little over six months. We were refining it before that, but now of course we've stepped things up quite a bit."
I guess I should tell you now that these guys were trying to make some kind of mobile phone application that would locate you through your phone's GPS system and offer you discounts at local businesses. That is to say, a store might offer a discount on its products for everyone who could make it there within a certain time frame. It was sort of a game for people when they were driving around. You'd get a message telling you about this or that offer and there would be a map showing you were to go. They never managed to launch the application as far as I know, though I suppose I haven't exactly been keeping a close eye on the industry.
Anyway, there was a small room that faced the parking lot out front that was both a makeshift office and meeting room. Ross cleared some binders off of a table they'd set up in there and brought out some folding chairs. Like I said, that's how some of these companies operate.
"We were excited to hear back from Sequoia, " Ross told me.
"Who did you talk to?" I asked him.
"We did a presentation at the wireless conference in San Jose last spring, " he said. "It was Julie Cole who came up to us afterwards."
"I know the name, " I said. "I know someone who worked with her. The two of them had to go out to Dallas and give this talk about the future of venture capital funding. Or something like that. I guess what I'm saying is that they make us do all kinds of pointless presentations as well. So even if you get rich and famous, don't think that that part of your life is going to end."
Both of them laughed like I was their boss. That's a common reaction when people want to get money from you.
"We don't have to get rich and famous, " Corbett said. "We just have a product we believe in."
"You don't have to give me the sales pitch, " I said. "We've already heard it, obviously."
"I don't understand why Ms. Cole isn't here, " Corbett then said.
"Don't worry about Ms. Cole, " I told him. "She filed some report with somebody. But that was way up the chain of command. I got instructions from my own manager to come out here and have a look at things. I work independently from Julie. I suppose she might want to have a look at what I have to say when I do my own write-up. But I can't even guarantee that that will happen."
"But she knows the product, " Corbett said. "I gave her a demonstration."
"I don't need to see a demonstration, if that's what you're getting at."
"That's exactly my point, " Corbett said. "Shouldn't she be here to follow up?"
"I can go if that's what you want, " I said. "But Julie won't be coming. I can guarantee you that."
"We're just trying to understand the process, " Ross said. "Julie told us she would be in touch. Isn't that right?"
"She told us that at the conference, " Corbett said.
"Here's what you need to know about Julie, " I said. "Julie was born and raised in a small town in Vermont. Her parents were both writers, but her mother was much more successful at the trade than her father. This made family life difficult for all of them. Her parents never split up, but Julie wished that they had. She wanted to be one of those people that bounced from one single-parent house to the other. She had friends like that and she wanted to be one of them."
Ross looked over at Corbett, who looked down at the table. "This is the thing, " I told them both. "I could say anything I want about Julie and it wouldn't make any difference at this point. Julie took a job waiting tables in the summer to pay her way through college. On her way home one night she fell asleep at the wheel and drove into the ditch. After that life would never be the same for her. She understood how fragile it was. Does any of this make you feel better?"
Again, there was silence from the other end of the table. "I have more stories if you want to hear them, " I said. "I could go on all afternoon."
"You've made your point, " Ross said.
"I'm only saying all of this because we're wasting time, " I said. "We have a way of doing things. I come here and ask you some questions. We haven't even got to the questions yet. I file a report, and then things move on to the next step."
And then Corbett said something that I'll never forget. "You don't even know anyone in your own company, " he told me.
"How do you figure?" I asked him.
"I'm getting a clearer picture of what's going on here now, " he said. "You string us along for a while. That's what you do for your firm. You make sure that we don't make a commitment to anyone else, at least not for a while. You're here to distract us."
"This isn't an easy business, " I said. "We're not giving money away."
"But you don't even have any control over the money, " Corbett told me. "You don't have control over anything. You get a name and an address and you come over here and you do your thing."
"That's the way we do things, " I said.
"We'll do what we have to do, " Ross said, trying to defuse the situation. "Let's get on with this. We're excited about our product, you know. Maybe we're nervous, and that comes out as well. But mostly, we're excited."
That was the one time that a client ever told me exactly how unimportant I was. Probably some of the others knew, but they didn't say anything. I'll give Corbett credit for being honest.
The thing is that, back then, I thought I didn't care that my job was so lousy, and that my life was so irrelevant. I thought I was fine with the fact that I could disappear off the face of the planet and nobody would really notice. I think I hoped that I could feel that way and be fine with it. If that's true, I certainly recognize now how wrongheaded I was.
I'm still irrelevant, if that's the right word to use. I could still disappear. I did disappear, I suppose, more or less. That is to say, I have developed a well-honed disappearing act. I move somewhere and work for a while. I take odd jobs that pay little and rent rooms in lonely old houses. And when I'm tired of one place, I move on to the next.
Sequoia's still going strong, of course. Someone probably took my spot after I left. I remember the names of a few people I worked with, I believe. I can't say for sure. I don't try to remember these names. I carry them around unwillingly.