Mr. Tell, you are one of the most famous investors in Silicon Valley. What have been your greatest successes and failures in business and politics?
Well, I’m not someone who thinks you should always go against the prevailing opinion. But one of the places I think it’s good to be against is Silicon Valley. There is what might be called a cult of failure. People there always talk about how many times they failed before they succeeded. There is almost a form of failure in pornography. Conversely, I think it doesn’t help to think too much about failure. I don’t think there is much to learn from them. For example, when I was in my mid-20s, I was studying law at Stanford University and applying for an internship at the US Supreme Court, where nine judges select four staff members each year. And I was about to get it, but then I didn’t get it. That was a very painful failure for me, I didn’t have a midlife crisis, but a quarter life crisis.
How did you get out of it?
In a way, I was a very traditional person. In eighth grade, a friend of mine wrote in my high school yearbook, I know you’ll be going to Stanford in four years. Four years later I went to Stanford, then Stanford Law School, and these were all standard things. Sometime in my mid-20s, I realized that these career paths, which I wouldn’t say didn’t work out at all, weren’t working as well as they seemed. So if you don’t get a clerical job on the Supreme Court, there may still be a good career as a lawyer. But it doesn’t seem enough to sell your soul for something like that. I ended up in a large law firm in Manhattan, one of those weird places that everyone outside wanted to get in and everyone wanted out.
Then I became an entrepreneur.
I wouldn’t say I became an entrepreneur, but this internet revolution happened in the mid-90s. Perhaps the only lucky thing about going to Stanford is the proximity to Silicon Valley. In 1999 there was a crazy dot-com bubble. A large part of it exploded. However, the basic phenomenon was very important: there were many opportunities for people to do completely new things. It was a true frontier situation in a western world where there wasn’t much unexplored terrain. So there was a lot to do. Through Stanford University, I knew a number of people who did, as in the gold rush. And maybe that drowned me out a bit and took it with me. We created PayPal, became an investor after selling it in 2002 and have invested in a number of companies over the past two decades.
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