Paul Graham was my role model.
A few years ago, I wrote a love letter to Paul. The day I wrote it, I was attending a Y Combinator demo day in Mountain View, California. Y Combinator is the startup accelerator program that Paul co-founded back in 2005, and it is now considered the most successful of its kind in the world. YC is the program behind the success of companies like Airbnb and Dropbox, which are worth many billions of dollars today.
At Y Combinator demo days, startups pitch to investors. I was there as an investor. On the day of the event, I woke up in the morning and I felt compelled to write a thank you letter to Paul. I wrote it quickly and it undoubtedly contained a few errors, but it came from my heart. I also woke up Paolo Cellini, my friend and business partner, who was with me at the hotel. I asked him to read it during breakfast. We joked about it, as we usually do about most things, we corrected half the errors, and we quickly left the hotel to attend a meeting before the event.
I wanted to give the letter to Paul, but I didn’t manage to. He never showed up. So I left the letter in the hands of Jessica, his lovely wife and business partner. With extraordinary kindness, she said to me: “Marco, thank you so much, I’ll give it to Paul this evening, don’t worry”. This was the letter:
Thanks for “A Plan for Spam”.
Too many years ago, and long before YC, I founded Translated, in Rome, Italy. One of the first internet based translation companies.
At that time, I was receiving thousands of resumes from translators per month. I did not have the money to review all of them, so I created a resume bayesian classifier for initial screening based on your essay “A Plan for Spam”. I think it was 2002.
That was the starting point of our automatic routing technology that we use today to predict who is the best translator for any given text.
Today Translated has become, probably, the world’s largest internet based translation company with over 160.000 translators registered (half of all translators on earth). With the money I made with Translated, 3 years ago I founded Pi Campus a small venture fund to promote startup creation in Italy.
This is the reason why, today, I am attending YC demo day. After 14 years, I hope is not too late to thank you.
As a give back to you and the community I would like to donate the translation of your top 20 essays in the top 10 languages and all the following ones that you will write, until I can afford it.
I hope you will accept. I hope this will help to create a stronger international startup community.
Thank you again
P.S. Please find also a copy of “Internet Economics” a book written by my partner and friend Paolo Cellini that we use to promote internet culture in Italy.
I felt like I had given back to the community, and I thought it was good to say thanks, but Paul never responded. I thought he had forgotten or was too busy to get back to me, so I sent it via email, but again I received no answer. Sigh.
After a few months, I started to feel really disappointed, and I began to think that Paul was no longer my role model. What would I have done if I were in his position? I was upset, and I started looking at some of his provocative essays in a different light. Maybe he wasn’t just playing the role of a provocateur to make a point – perhaps he actually WAS a jerk.
A month later, I love him again and I don’t think he’s a jerk. Deep down, I never really believed he was. Why?
I felt ignored, and I asked myself why he would do such a thing. Maybe it was because of the broken English of my letter, which was not at the level required to communicate my ideas (see his essay on Founders’ Accents). Alternatively, perhaps it was the prejudice linked to my Italian name. We can all agree that there is very little correlation between Italy and successful venture capital; we are better known for good food, design, lifestyle and luxury. Or maybe it was simply the fact that I am not part of his trusted circle.
All these emotions drove me to think more deeply about Silicon Valley, startups, human potential and motivation, and how I want the world that my kids inherit to look.
I also started looking at Paul more critically. I started feeling the need to prove that I can build great things without being a jerk. I also started believing that determination and resilience are more important than location, and that the definition of think big as it is used in California is often linked to users and money and not to widespread and enduring happiness, which in my view should be the ultimate goal of humankind.
I reconsidered the value of enduring beauty, art, quality of life, design, and also indicators of human progress like life expectancy and its direct correlation with positive long-term social relationships. All elements that can be found in abundance where I am in Italy, and more generally across Europe. I realized the value of these elements in life as well as in business, and how they are gradually becoming the main assets of successful companies.
Great mentors help people to do great things. So, Paul: thank you for not responding. As usual, you helped me out. Today, I know that there is a chance that I can create something important, and I have the motivation to do it. I know that this will be very difficult, but it is worth trying.
I am learning from Paul, but I know that I want to try to be better than Paul; I want to help more entrepreneurs than he did. Update: 2 years after my first letter, I wrote to Paul and many other smart people asking for advice on how to set up a new venture fund. Paul was the fastest to reply and his advice was the most helpful to me. Paul is probably one of the most benevolent people in the venture capital community. He replies to requests for help, not to thank you letters. It is funny how a misjudgment motivated me to do all this.
If you want to start a new venture, you need motivation. Motivation is inside you – just find the trick to get it out.