My Brush with Greatness

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I'd like to share with you the story of how I met one of Silicon Valley's greatest entrepreneurs (and a multi-billionaire) who funded my company back in 1992. This isn't just a story about the funding, but is more about the kind of person whom I admire in this technological center of the world.

This story is from back in early 1992, when I was working at a little financial data firm in Los Altos, California. A person came into our office to buy some data, which was unusual in itself, since almost all our sales took place on the telephone. Stranger still, he said he wanted to buy everything we sold, which was something like a $4,000 sale. For a company accustomed to selling data in chunks of about $50, it was pretty cool to have someone come in and just buy everything all at once.

I was curious who this mystery shopper was, and after a little exploration, I came to learn that he worked for a man whom I had never heard of – Andreas von Bechtolsheim or, simply, Andy. Andy was one of the four co-founders of a company I definitely had heard of, Sun Microsystems, which at the time was one of the biggest forces in the Silicon Valley. I tend to be fairly proud of my knowledge of Silicon Valley history and its figures, but Andy (being pretty much the opposite of Donald Trump with respect to self-promotion) was new to me.

0709-sunAndy had made his fortune at Sun, and now he had started a new company to develop an automated trading system. I can tell you Andy wasn’t the first smart person, and definitely won’t be the last, who believed that through sheer engineering prowess, he could develop a system to make money in the financial markets.  And, as a starting point, he had sent one of his guys to my employer to buy up all our data.

The little company I was at had been undergoing some major changes due to a fellow who had purchased the place (which is a story in itself). Like I anticipated, I got fired from that company, just like every other person there, and I went home with no job and no clear idea what I was going to do next. I had casually considered starting up a little business in the same field as the one where I had been working, but I didn’t have the money to start such a thing. And then the phone rang.

Yes, it sounds ridiculous, but Andy Bechtolsheim somehow had divined that I wouldn’t mind starting up my own data firm, and he was calling me to see if I would be interested in him putting money into such a venture. You can imagine my reaction. I didn’t know the words to describe it at the time, but Andy had become my angel investor, and being given the opportunity to finally start a real company felt to me like a visit from a real angel.

The idea what was I was going to do was fairly clear – – like my prior employer, my firm would provide historical financial data and daily updates via modem to individual investors.  But what to name this new thing? Andy offered up some ideas of his own, but his brilliance in engineering did not translate to amazing naming skills. I was pondering the question in front of the Burger King in downtown Palo Alto when the name came to me – Prophet! It had a lot going for it. It was short, easy-to-remember, and was a nice double entendre, suggesting both money and prophecy – that is, the ability to see the future. So Prophet it was.

What’s kind of cool about the name occurring to me in that particular location is that exactly six years later, two other entrepreneurs, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, would walk into that same restaurant to celebrate the funding they just received from their own angel investor. His name? Andy Bechtolsheim. The company? Google.

Never underestimate the value of serendipity. In other words, chance meetings and newfound acquaintances can lead you to some unexpected places. It’s not something you can really plan for or control, but it does tell you that keeping your network of contacts fresh and well-informed can lead to connections that may even mean, as in my case – or Google’s – a new business.

It doesn’t hurt to make your intentions known either. My desire to start something new found its way to Andy through his employee, and if I hadn’t taken the risk of being candid, my life would have been totally different.

Andy made his fortune at Sun, and he could have retired comfortably for the rest of his life. But Andy bears some attributes that I admire in any businessperson:

+ The desire to keep creating, based on sheer force of his intellect and curiousity;

+ A relative disinterest in money; it's nice to have, but it's not the reason for doing things;

+ A desire to encourage and fund other entrepreneurs in whom he believes

Andy also has an astonishing modesty and low-keyness about him. If you watch any of the video below, which was made recently as Andy was inducted into the Stanford Engineering "Heroes" program, this is quite apparent. He's quite tall, so he'll often hunch down a bit in a (failed) effort to make himself seem not-quite-as-big.

I am deeply grateful to Andy for changing my life, and I wanted to share with you a little about a man who has avoided publicity for most of his life and thus is probably unknown to you. He has made billions of dollars from raw genius, an eye for opportunity, and a relentless work ethic. Unlike some of the "entrepreneurs" whom I diss here on Slope (a dissing which appears to puzzle some of you), Andy is the real deal.