Daniel Gross (DG) on success: I think a lot of people define success with a fiscal sense in mind, like I have $10 million; $100 million; $5 billion in the bank. For me success is more about self-definition and feeling that you’ve accomplished something. Money is a commodity; it comes and goes; it won’t make you happy. I think that’s pretty clear. We can talk about that for a while; you can jump into it if you want. It’s more about feeling that you’ve accomplished something in your life and that’s why start up is really interesting, because you have an opportunity relatively easily to build your own company and really feel you’ve built something, and hopefully even improved someone’s life.
HK: Then let me ask you about money. You said money is a commodity, it comes and goes, but it is also necessary to measure your success in terms of business, in terms of business, right? Tell me your thoughts on money more deeply.
DG: Money comes and goes. You need money to survive, because obviously you have to eat and live. I more mean large amounts of money beyond what you need for your day to day life. You can work at any software company – take your pick – and you can make $100,000, $120,000, $80,000 a year, whatever, and that will get you by fairly easily. That’s probably much more than what the average person on the planet gets.
People get obsessed about very large amounts of money: about $5, $10, $100 million and I think that’s less interesting to me actually. It’s probably very greedy to say this, but let’s put it this way: a large number of the people who want to get a job and in the specific tech industry that we’re in, I don’t really know about other industries, but in the tech industry there’s a very high demand for jobs, so it’s fairly easy to get by.
Success for me, or money for me, it’s a function. I have to work so I can get a salary. I’m not obsessed with getting the $5, $10, $20 million paycheck; I am obsessed with in 20 years from now looking back and saying, here is the company I built; here is something I did that made a small dent in the world.
HK: Cool. Let me ask you the reason why you became an entrepreneur? In addition to that, you came from Israel, right?
HK: Why did you come to Silicon Valley?
DG: That’s actually a very good question, because if you look at start-ups per capita, I think Israel is second place in the world after the Valley, so it’s an odd place to leave to go to the number one place, so I didn’t make an active decision to become an entrepreneur. Here’s my back story very quickly.
When I was 18, which was three months ago. I was in Israel at the time and in Israel there’s mandatory army service and I was about to draft and I got into Y Combinator, so I deferred my service. I didn’t really know what to expect when I got here: I just knew that I had nothing to lose. They pay for your expenses and it turned out to be a really interesting journey. I built a lot of different things; some of them worked. The more interesting ones are the ones that didn’t work. I try to figure out why they didn’t work and tried to fix it in the next revision, and then launched three or four different things at Y Combinator.
You’re encouraged to build stuff very quickly and launch it and see how people respond, and if they like it, continue; if not, trash it. So I did a few different things until I landed on Greplin, what I’m doing now, and actually the project that I was working on right before Greplin, I was very confident about: people really liked it, but it got shut down by Amazon for various reasons. At the end of Y Combinator, there’s this day where you get to stand on stage and present to everyone in the Valley and literally they’ve calculated the time of all of those people combined, per hour, is about $5 a minute. These are the Who’s Who. In that room there’s a combined value of probably over $2 billion, and what I’d built had just gone and shut down by Amazon, and that was very… I don’t know. It kind of sucked.
I built Greplin a very, very scratched down basic demo that didn’t really work at Greplin and I presented it and I fundraised afterwards: fundraised during the day and built the product at night. It sounds very heroic, but it was mostly just sitting at Coupa Cafe, what we’re doing now, and drinking coffee and trying to convince people to give me money.
That worked fairly well. I raised $750 000 from great people, like the number two guy at Facebook is invested. We have the guy who made gmail has invested. We have Christina, and also Ron Conway who’s godfather to the Valley, so that turned out fairly well. I brought on Robby. He sold his company to Google already. He did his thing, and now he’s left Google again. So things turned fairly well.
HK: Tell me the key thing to convince people, who usually don’t get impression that much.
DG: Right. Interestingly enough, people like seeing deltas. What I mean is people love seeing the difference between where you were yesterday and where you are today, so my product was at a very early stage and it wasn’t really functional, but I was able to come to a meeting and a great question to ask someone is not what they like about your product, but I think a better question is what they don’t like. And you try to figure out what people don’t like and then if you can come to the next meeting and somehow fix that, sometimes you can’t. Sometimes I just hate it and you can’t fit it.
But sometimes it’s oh; if you just did this, it would be so much cooler. And then if you can go to the next meeting and the product looks like an entirely different thing, people get very excited by seeing the difference, because in their mind they think well, it’s early stage now, but if you moved so many points from today till Thursday, hopefully from Thursday to next Thursday you move more, and they get to see your pace. To sum it up, the difference between meetings is probably what made people most accept it.
HK: What was the biggest lesson?
DG: That’s a really good question. The biggest lesson in the Valley was not to get caught up in the Valley. I think it’s really easy to do, because there’s a lot of really cool people out here and they’re doing really cool things. Sometimes you get caught up a little bit in the Valleyness of things. This is a quick example.
We were negotiating the valuation for our company and the negation was we reached a certain number, and then I realized I could have got slightly more. The guys told me after the negotiation that they would have gone slightly more higher up and I got really let down by that and then you realize holy shit: you’re in Silicon Valley; you’re raising money for your company; you’re 19 years old: who gives a crap about $500 000 plus or minus in company valuation?
It’s really helpful for me to remember because I was an Israeli and I see all my friends now in the army and they’re doing amazing things. I look at myself every day and I try to think if I’m not doing something really cool, what the hell am I doing here? Like my friend’s flying a fucking F-16. So it helps to remember not to get caught up in the BS of the Valley.
HK: Yeah sure. You should do the hell better things than your friends are doing now in Israel. Ok, let me ask what you want to do in your life.
DG: I would like to very much be the guy who runs a company, comes in at 8 am, turns on the lights – I know this is an old-fashioned view of things – but lets in people; works for the day, builds a product that people love, use every day and enjoy using, and then at nine, ten, 1am whatever, shuts down the lights and goes home. I want to be that guy. It’s not that I really work that way, because you come to the office at 11 am and leave at 4 am, but I would really like to grow with my company and have a brand name, like people should know Greplin as the search product for their stuff: that’d be my dream.
HK: What are the advantages and disadvantages of young boys?
DG: Young boys… I asked this question to Mike Zuckerberg actually, from Facebook, and I said to Greg McAdoo as well, who’s a partner at Sequoia.
HK: Oh, nice.
DG: And they didn’t really say anything special. I know I light up to it as if they told me something cool, but they didn’t say anything special.
HK: [Laugh] Do you say Zuckerberg is “only” the CEO of Facebook?
DG: No, but I thought they would say here’s five great advantages! or anything like that.
I think the advantage is that it’s possible, and this is the only industry on the planet that I can think of where, if you’re 18 or 19 you can start a company and people really don’t care about your age and they don’t judge you for it.
The answer to your question is when you’re young, in my opinion, you’re not weighed down by a lot of the things that you are when you’re older in life probably. I know it’s actually illegal to say this when you’re hiring people, but I feel like there are a lot of things I can do now because I don’t owe anyone a responsibility besides myself. If I had kids to care for, or a wife to care for, I couldn’t work till 4 am last night, so there’s a lot to be said for not being young.
There’s a lot of experience that comes with age and I’ve made a lot of mistakes because of my age, but probably the best thing you get when you’re young is you’ve nothing left to lose. The company doesn’t work out; no big deal, you go back to school; you didn’t lose anything. Whereas if you’re married with kids, the company doesn’t work out, now you’re in debt like there’s a lot of shit to take care, so that’s probably the largest advantage.
HK: It’s interesting where you said people don’t judge you by age. You’re right; it’s true. Because people don’t care about your age, but people care about what you’ve done, right?
DG: Right. It’s definitely not linear. Whatever age you are, they’ll come and accept you. Be correct, the right thing to say is people will agree to judge you, so I think if you’re a heart surgeon and you’re 19 and you’re going to open your own practice and say, I’m going to do heart surgery on people. I read a few books about it, it looks cool; no one will give you the time of day. Here at least you have the chance, so you definitely have to prove that you’re not going to party and act like a normal or, I don’t know, like a frat boy 19 year-old. You definitely have to prove that you’re mature and that you’re capable of making the right decisions. But it’s probably the only industry where you’re even given that chance. In any other place, people will be like no, screw you; let’s see you after ten years of college. That’s part of the main difference.
HK: The final question. To be fair I wouldn’t say you’ve already achieved a lot of success. Maybe you will though. But at the moment, what would be your advice to achieve success?
DG: To sharpen your point, I didn’t achieve any success. All I did so far is give people promises and I have yet to deliver on any of that. I’ve managed to take a lot of promises: I will do this, and then we’ll do this. A lot of people wanted to find that a success, because it looks maybe a little bit glorifying, but it’s really not. And like I was saying before, it’s important to stay humble to that.
The advice – and this feels really sketchy because I really didn’t do anything – probably the best advice I could give to people is to be careful when they take advice. I think that there is a lot to be said when people give advice at the end of the day it’s built on their experiences and how they led their life and that might very well not work for you at all. So I would say try to get advice, try to get as many data points as you can in your life.
Don’t take, or do, anything because someone told you to. You should only do things after you’ve thought them through and you’ve concluded that it’s probably the right thing to do. Every time in my life, literally every time, that I’ve never done something because it’s been forced on me and because I didn’t want to do it but someone said I should, it’s been either neutral or bad; it hasn’t been good. And I’m talking now obviously now when you’re five and your parents say go to sleep and you don’t want to, but at a certain age whenever you feel like you’ve reached maturity – for some people that’s 50 and for some people that’s 45 – be aware of your own opinion on this.
Daniel Gross is the Founder and CEO of Greplin.