I started working at Sequoia Capital a little over a year ago, when the company was experimenting with a new type of fund that was intended to attract investors that were willing to contribute small amounts to low-risk start-ups. That is to say, we needed people who could chip in a bit of money to companies that were almost guaranteed to succeed. You know how people were talking back then, as if another Great Depression was about to descend upon us. We had to get creative to survive the times.
I'd just moved to the Bay Area from the Kansas City area, where I'd lived my entire life. I remember thinking it was colder than I was expecting for California, though plenty of people warned me that it could get quite cool there in the middle of winter. I arrived at the end of January. I packed everything I could into a van and made the trip in a about a day and a half. I spent a night in a motel off of Interstate 80 in Nevada near the border with Utah. I had the continental breakfast there the next day and was eating at a little table by myself in the corner when a tall, thin fellow in a dark suit came and introduced himself as Casey. "Do you mind if I join you?" he asked.
I cleared off a spot for him on the other side of the table, dropping the newspaper I was reading on the floor. "I don't like eating alone when I'm on the road, " he continued. "Though some people do, so if you want me to leave you alone, just say so."
"I'm fine either way, " I said.
"Where are you coming from?" he asked me.
"Kansas City, " I said. "Independence, I should say. But some people haven't heard of it."
"I've been to Independence, " he told me. "For a real estate conference a while back. That was years ago, though. I'm sure it looks a lot different."
"It's probably about the same, " I said. "At least the parts of it I know. Probably I'm just not paying enough attention. You're probably right."
"I had some money in a development out there, " Casey said. "I sold it off before the market started to go bad."
"The good old days, " I said.
"Some people say things are going to get better now, " Casey told me. "But don't believe them. I know people who are up to their necks in this thing and they tell me that it's only going to get worse. They don't even know how bad it's going to get."
"So are you still into real estate?" I asked him.
"Among other things, " he said. "But that's why I'm out here, actually. I'm looking at an investment opportunity that's come up in the area."
"I find that hard to believe, " I said. "We're in the middle of nowhere. I don't even know the name of the town we're in."
"It's going to be built from the ground-up, " he said. "It's sort of a resort type idea. Except that we're going to have people living there permanently."
"Is this a new casino, then?" I asked him.
"We'll probably have a casino, because this is Nevada and people expect you to have a casino, " he said. "But that's not the main focus of this thing. What we're trying to promote is the idea of escape."
"Escaping what?" I asked. "The world?"
"That's one way of putting it, " I said. "We're looking for people that want to live simply. That's one of the main aspects of this. You won't need a lot of money to invest in one of our properties. And there will be opportunities to cut down on living expenses. We'll give people a discount on solar power equipment. That's what actually spurred this whole idea. One of my partners managed to get a company that sells this stuff to give us a big discount if we can buy in bulk. They're a small outfit in Vegas that's just getting off the ground, so they could use the publicity we give them."
"So this is one of those off the grid kind of things, " I said. "I've heard about those."
"Not quite, " Casey told me. "We're not promoting ourselves that way, anyway. The idea is that the times are uncertain, but we'll be a safe haven. You know, come join our community and feel safe."
"So how are these people going to find work all the way out here?" I asked him. "Or is this a sort of retirement community?"
"We'll go after the senior market for sure, " Casey told me. "But we'd like to get a nice collection of people who are self-employed. You know, folks who can work anywhere. I have a friend who runs a hedge fund and spend most of his time in Croatia just because he likes the place. And there are writers and programmers and people like that. And we'll have office space for small businesses."
"The world hasn't changed as much as people think it has, " I said. "I think you still need to live in a real place to make a living."
"That's where you're wrong, friend, " Casey said. "Times are changing. That's what people don't understand. They look at this economic crisis and they think either that's it's going to go away or that the whole country's going to collapse. But they're wrong on both counts. The fact is that this is the future. People living modestly and making a good living and getting away from the cities and towns that are no longer relevant. You want to move to New York? Have fun with that. You'll commute two hours to work for some company that was founded a hundred and fifty years ago and behaves accordingly. But all of that is going to be wiped away. You watch. Remember it was me that told this to you."
"I will, " I said, getting up from the table. "Good luck with everything."
Casey shook my hand. "Be safe, " he said.
I've heard since that encounter that Nevada is filled with people like Casey. It's that kind of place.
The thing is that I was reminded of that conversation a few months into my job, when I was out in Santa Clara talking to the manager of the head of an investment firm that had partnered up with Sequoia several times before getting skittish when the economy started to sour. His name was Daley and he wasn't too happy to see me when I arrived at his office. "I only agreed to this meeting because you people wouldn't leave me alone, " he said.
Daley was in his fifties, and had been running his firm for about a decade. He had framed prints of various paintings of Venice by Canaletto on his walls. "I went to Venice after I finished college, " I told him, hoping to get on his good side. "I remember it was paintings like these that really made me want to see the place. I didn't spend that much time in Italy, overall, but I was in Venice for nearly a week."
"Interesting place, " Daley said. "Though the more I read about it the less I like it. It was quite an elitist city, you know, especially when it started on its long decline. You couldn't get anything done unless you were from an important family and had connections."
"You can't idealize the past, I suppose, " I said.
"That's right, " Daley said. "And the present isn't looking too good, either."
"That's why we're changing things up at Sequoia, " I told him. "We understand that these are difficult times."
"I've had people come in here day after day giving me speeches like this, " Daley said. "As if I'm supposed to be impressed that you understand that these are 'difficult times', as you put it. Isn't it you job to understand what the times are like?"
"I'm new at this, " I told him. "I'll admit it."
"How long have you been at Sequoia?" he asked me.
"Only a few months, " I said.
Daley shook his head. "You want my money and you send a newcomer to try to sweet talk me, " he said. "I don't mean to sound insulting. But doesn't that sound a little strange to you? I've been dealing with your firm for years, and this is how they try to win my business back?"
"There was supposed to be someone else here with me, " I said. "Someone with more experience. But they had to go on another assignment at the last minute."
"So there's someone with even more money that you've sent him off to, " Daley said.
"It wasn't my choice, " I told him.
"Of course it wasn't, " Daley said. "I know I'm not exactly making things pleasant for you. You have to understand how this looks from my end. I mean, where did you even come from?"
"Independence, Missouri, " I said. "I was in marketing. I mostly wrote promotional materials. I didn't do this sort of thing often. Meeting with clients, I mean."
"You're not so good at it, " Daley said. "Again, I'm only trying to be honest."
"Maybe I can leave you with some of the information I've brought with me, " I said.
"So you're trying to make your escape now, " Daley said.
"We obviously got off on the wrong foot, " I said. "I can put you in touch with someone else at the firm."
"They used to send this guy out here, " Daley said. "His name was Brandon. Do you know him?"
"I don't know many people, " I said. "I'm on the road a lot."
"Brandon was the guy they sent here for years, " Daley said. "He'd always come here with lunch that he'd get from one takeout place or another. You know, he'd just come in and show up with all this food in brown paper bags. And it was different place each time. I knew that if I had a meeting with him that I wouldn't have to bring a lunch that day. I don't know what he was thinking. It made no difference one way or the other if he brought food. I invest when and where I want to invest. But we were going a lot of business in those days, and I think Brandon thought that these offerings were greasing the wheels. I never told him otherwise, of course. I'm not going to turn down a free meal."
"Maybe he was on to something, though, " I said. "I didn't bring food and look how well this meeting is going."
"I'm just not interested in putting up seed money at the moment, " Daley said. "I know that you're repackaged your funds to make it easier for me to do so. Someone gave me the sales pitch before they even sent you out here."
"I didn't know that, " I said.
"That's the way things work at Sequoia, " he told me. "You'll learn that. The thing is that these are crazy times. Crazy times. Do you understand that?"
"People keep telling me that, " I said. "I had a conversation with this real estate investor on my way here. On my way to California, I mean. He was trying to build this development in the middle of nowhere out in Nevada. He said that people were going to move there because they'd want to escape from the world. He thought he could build a new society out there in the desert."
"Maybe he was right, " Daley said. "You shouldn't be so dismissive of people like that."
"I suppose not, " I said.
"There is something happening, " Daley said. "Who can say what? But you better watch out. Because things will change quickly at some point. They'll change before you even know what's going on."
"I'll remember that, " I said.
"Please do so, " Daley said. "Now you can go."
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.
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.