You Only Have To Be Right Once: The Rise of the Instant Billionaires Behind Spotify, Airbnb, WhatsApp, and 13 Other Amazing Startups

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9780241246986: You Only Have To Be Right Once: The Rise of the Instant Billionaires Behind Spotify, Airbnb, WhatsApp, and 13 Other Amazing Startups

The ultimate insider look at the newest titans of tech—and what you can learn from their success

In 2007, twenty-one-year old David Karp launched Tumblr, a simple micro-blogging platform, on a whim. By 2012, it had become one of the top ten online destinations, drawing 170 million visitors. By 2013, Yahoo had acquired Tumblr for over $1 billion. Just like that, a kid who hadn’t even earned his high school diploma was worth over a quarter billion dollars. And he’s not the only one . . .

Silicon Valley’s newest billionaires represent a unique and unconventional breed of entrepreneur: young, bold, and taking the world by storm with their extreme speed, insatiable hunger, and progressive leadership. These whiz kids (and, to be fair, a few adults) have the hottest companies in the world. They are all turning just one brilliant insight or hook into money at a rate never before seen in human history—creating companies that, even with no revenue, garner insane valuations.

With unique insider access to the world’s most influential and wealthy entrepreneurs, Forbes has dug in to find what these super-entrepreneurs say about their own success. This book, introduced, edited, and updated by Forbes editor Randall Lane, is the first comprehensive look at who these instant tech billionaires are and how they achieved their quick wins. With sixteen illuminating pieces, including two never-before published features, we get behind-the-scenes examinations of the founders of Spotify, Airbnb, Tumblr, Twitter, and more, including:

  • Elon Musk: The billionaire founder of Paypal, electric carmaker Tesla, and private space company SpaceX. His extreme ambition is matched by his preternatural engineering mind; no wonder he was the model for Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Iron Man.
  • Evan Spiegel: The twenty-three-year old declined a $3 billion cash offer from Mark Zuckerberg, after making the mountain come to Mohammed (Snapchat’s HQ is in Los Angeles) —an unheard of request from a young gun to one of the biggest players in Silicon Valley. The story of Snapchat’s origin is even wilder than Facebook’s, but Spiegel’s ability to parlay infamy and popularity into revenue is still up in the air, even as Snapchat’s valuation continues to grow.
  • Alex Karp: An eccentric philosopher with almost no tech background turned a Peter Thiel backed venture, Palantir, into a data-mining champion, with clients like the NSA, the FBI, and the CIA. Amid heated privacy concerns, Karp continues to grow Palantir like crazy, to $196 million in funding and an estimated $1 billion in contracts in 2014.

You Only Have to Be Right Once is the definitive collection of everything we can learn from these incredible game changers and what their next moves spell for the future of business.

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About the Author:

RANDALL LANE is the editor of Forbes and the author of The Zeroes: My Misadventures in the Decade Wall Street Went Insane.

Since 1917, FORBES has provided leaders with strategic insight and information. The largest business magazine in the world, Forbes has 6.1 million readers in the United States and more than thirty international editions.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

“I know exactly who you are,” Parker responded, quickly parrying with a short history of my personal background, Forbes’s position in the marketplace, and my stated goals for the magazine. He then explained his (typical) obsessiveness with a soliloquy that can be summed up in two words: Thank you.

It’s not that the Forbes cover had been a valentine: It revealed the polymath who had helped shape Napster, Facebook, and Spotify with all his quirks and faults. But until that story—viewed more than 700,000 times online and by millions more who saw the print magazine version—the world equated him with the villainous character portrayed by Justin Timberlake in David Fincher’s movie The Social Network. Even Mark Zuckerberg conceded the movie did Parker factual injustice. Reduced to an evil-businessman caricature, Parker had barricaded himself in LA’s Peninsula Hotel for two months, where he’d gained thirty pounds.

His twenty-two-year-old fiancée had helped him ditch the depression, and the weight. And so Parker stood before me, himself again, as a brash actor in a story that has only a little to do with Facebook and feels one hundred times bigger: how a handful of young digital swashbucklers shrugged off the Great Recession to transform how industries operate and fortunes get made.

The day after my conversation with Parker, Steve Jobs passed away. Jobs had epitomized the old new guard, one of a trinity of tech entrepreneurs—with Bill Gates and Michael Dell—who two generations earlier, while themselves in their twenties, proved the disruptive power of technology. Now Jobs was dead. Gates had become a full-time philanthropist. And Dell’s company, as with Apple and Microsoft, was viewed by this new generation as the bloated prey rather than the hungry predator.

This narrative isn’t new. The first half century of the American computer age has seen perennial waves of the young taking on the old. During my first go-around at Forbes, just out of college in the early nineties, I chronicled tech-savvy Generation X, which valued entrepreneurship over the corporate ladder and fueled the original dotcom boom and bust, carving out a handful of huge winners, notably Google and eBay, in the process.

In this round, however, the underlying drivers have accelerated exponentially. This new model of Young Turk isn’t merely comfortable with technology—he can’t remember a world without the Internet. Accordingly, he’s no longer content merely conquering the technology space—every industry is now the technology space, whether hotels or music or transportation. And thus ripe for pillaging.

Then there’s the cash. History will determine whether this proves to be yet another financial bubble—when a five-year-old taxi-sharing app, Uber, raises venture money at a $17 billion valuation, it’s hard to bet against that. But what’s undeniable is that we’re witnessing the most prodigious wealth machine in human history. Zuckerberg, worth some $30 billion on his thirtieth birthday, may be the poster boy for this new breed, but he’s far from an outlier. Almost a dozen Americans, ineligible by dint of age to serve as president, became self-made billionaires over the past five years. What’s more, no one in this cohort finds that particularly unusual—they pretty much feel entitled to it.

Youth, meanwhile, has officially ceased to be a disadvantage, upending pretty much the entirety of civilized history. Previously, whether you were a blacksmith or a lawyer, wisdom and experience rendered you more valuable as years went on. No longer. For the past twenty years, if your computer broke, you’d prefer that the twenty-five-year-old fix it rather than the fifty-five-year-old. For ten years, venture capitalists favored young “digital natives” over industry veterans, as long as the former got paired with an operational “adult.” We’ve now skipped the adult requirement. The kids are fully running the show.

And unlike the hedge fund managers of the previous decade, who were rightly perceived to have conjured their billions without actually creating anything (other than the complicated financial structures that wound up collapsing everything else), no one resents them for it. Quite the contrary, they glide across the country in their chartered Gulfstreams like folk heroes.

The white hats stem from the perception of meritocracy. The high stakes put a premium on ideas and technical execution, rather than connections and salesmanship. As you turn the pages of this book, there’s a far higher correlation between financial success and a stint as a teen hacker than having daddy’s name on a building at Harvard. The engineers have trumped the salesmen. Sexism remains embedded in the coder-boy set (it’s not by choice that this book is chock-a-block with guys; very few women have launched major tech-enabled start-ups). But just ask Jan Koum or Pejman Nozad or Daniel Ek—the American Dream has never been more vivid. The only nepotism, as best as I can tell, comes from being the catalyst’s roommate, buddy, or frat brother. (In the 2010s, there’s no sweeter title than “co-founder.”) It’s hard to resent someone when you had the same shot at the brass ring.

To me, however, the ultimate commonality across all these chapters, the one that lets them reap adulation, boils down to individualism. The post-meltdown recovery has proven among the most tepid in national history, especially the job market. Where others see a paralysis-inducing world, these guys see a gold rush, and they take action. They’d all rather regret the things they did than what they didn’t do. Jobs and Gates and Dell made dropping out acceptable; among this group, it’s cool, a badge of honor. (Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel dropped out of Stanford in the middle of a class, a month before graduation . . . on principle.)

Failure is an acceptable option. There’s hardly anyone in this book who hasn’t tasted it. Venture capitalists, in fact, view failure as an asset, and fund based on whether you’ve had the good fortune to make mistakes on someone else’s dime. The entire VC ecosystem is based on flops: the idea that a one-in-ten success ratio is fine, as long as that success is a blockbuster. You only have to be right once. The greatest successes come when people aren’t afraid to fail—a decidedly American outlook that explains why almost every innovation of the Internet era has sprung from this country.

Credit belongs to the Forbes writers and researchers who brought forward—and home—this endless parade of digital robber barons: George Anders, Victoria Barrett, Jeff Bercovici, Steve Bertoni, Abram Brown, J. J. Colao, Hannah Elliott, David Ewalt, Tomio Geron, Andy Greenberg, Ryan Mac, Parmy Olson, and Eric Savitz. This book, to a large degree, is yours. Thanks at Penguin’s Portfolio imprint go to Adrian Zackheim, Natalie Horbachevsky, and Will Weisser, who instantly grasped the power and importance of what we’d assembled, and scrambled with the speed of a start-up to get this to market. At Forbes, two people deserve a special call-out: Lewis D’Vorkin, Forbes’s chief product officer, whose return to Forbes four years ago brought a refocus on chronicling people-based entrepreneurial capitalism—he set the stage for the stories that infuse this book; and Bruce Upbin, who as managing editor oversees Forbes’s technology coverage—he was at the genesis of almost all of these profiles.

For the past three years, my job has provided the perfect perch to see the waves swell, as Forbes, scorekeepers of capitalism, emerged as the preferred venue to introduce (or reintroduce) yourself to the world. The large majority of these chapters were born from Forbes magazine features, and the majority of those were cover stories. The facts in every chapter have been updated, resulting in an accurate snapshot of what was going on as we went to press in the summer of 2014. I ordered them in roughly sequential order, based on when the companies began taking off. Even across just three years of profiles, while the core traits remain consistent, you’ll see the numbers swell ever-larger.

Which brings us back to my party pal Sean Parker. The most famous line attributed to him in The Social Network, of course, was his advice to Zuckerberg on their first meeting: A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars. It was, he told me, complete Hollywood fiction. He never said it. And even if he had, as you progress though these chapters, you’ll recognize a second level of folly. In the land of the young tech elite, a billion isn’t cool anymore. Ten billion is.

—Randall Lane, August 2014

@RandallLane

  CHAPTER 1  

The evolution of the Internet, from unfettered hacker toy to unlimited wealth machine, comes embodied in one Sean Parker. As the teenage cofounder of Napster, the music piracy site that nearly crippled the recording industry, he gained notoriety, even as he flirted with bankruptcy and jail. As the twentysomething president of Facebook, entrusted with giving Mark Zuckerberg some adult supervision, he cemented his digital bad boy reputation, even as he made himself a few billion dollars. But when Steven Bertoni tried to track down the mercurial Parker in 2011, he found proof of the adage about wealth’s ability to buy happiness. Parker, recovering from surgery and a freshly branded villain of the tech world, courtesy of David Fincher’s movie The Social Network, devolved into a hermit, holing up in the Peninsula Hotel in Los Angeles for two months, a digital Howard Hughes. When he emerged, he invited Bertoni for what was supposed to be a relatively brief sit-down in his new $20 million townhouse in New York’s Greenwich Village. That meeting turned into a meticulously chosen sushi dinner, and after two bottles of expensive sake, a trip to the West Coast, via rented Gulfstream, where Parker pinballed around various interests. His passion at the time: Airtime, a video-sharing service that he zealously kept under wraps—and eventually flopped. No big deal. This is a guy adept at identifying problems, and at peace if not every solution works out. He also backed Spotify, a legal reincarnation of Napster—by 2014, it was valued at more than $4 billion.

 

Pointed toward his eighteen-acre compound in Marin County, Sean Parker ripped through the night fog on the Golden Gate Bridge in a stealthy Audi S6 that masks a Lamborghini engine, one pale hand on the wheel, the other toggling through thousands of songs uploaded on the car’s sound system.

Facebook’s former president had endured a typically busy day. Over the last ten hours he’d interviewed two potential VPs for his new video startup, answered hours’ worth of e-mails about the music platform he was backing, Spotify, and met with a potential CEO for his Facebook charity app, Causes. He had also booked bands and wrangled vendors for his engagement party, scheduled in New Jersey the same night Hurricane Irene hammered the Northeast (with Lenny Kravitz grounded in North Carolina, he eventually subbed in the Cold War Kids). Later, he broke from work to dine with Jack Dorsey, the chief of Facebook rival Twitter and payment service Square. After dinner, at the restaurant bar, he interviewed another potential boss for Causes. By the time he dropped me off at my hotel, it was 11:30 p.m. Parker’s day was about half done.

For the next six hours Parker fired off e-mails, then turned to his private Facebook page. The previous afternoon—or earlier the same day, if you’re on Parker’s body clock—the world had learned that Steve Jobs resigned from Apple. Around 6:00 a.m., Parker posted this Schopenhauer quote: “We can come to look upon the deaths of our enemies with as much regret as we feel for those of our friends, namely, when we miss their existence as witnesses to our success.” It immediately leaked. Gossip site Gawker accused him of dancing on Jobs’s grave. He e-mailed Gawker that the quote was a tribute to Jobs—his longtime idol and more recent rival (iTunes versus Spotify). Just before 7:00 a.m. he went to bed.

Four hours later he was up, ready to do it all again.

Flighty, manic, and unpredictable, Parker grates on investors—he’s been jettisoned from the three companies he helped create, soon after they lifted off. “He’s seen as an unknown quantity, and VCs love for things to be very much in control,” said Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz. But VCs also love big ideas, and Parker has those in spades—LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman calls him a “big-ass visionary.” And in terms of boardroom scheming, he’s nothing like his fictional portrayal in The Social Network. “The movie needed an antagonist, but that’s not what he was,” said former Facebook growth chief Chamath Palihapitiya. “He’s really the exact opposite of his portrayal in the film.”

Boiled down, Sean Parker is a human accelerant, an idea catalyst who, when combined with the right people, has fueled some of the most disruptive companies of the last two decades. At just nineteen he blew up the record industry as the cofounder of the music-sharing site Napster. Two years later his address book service, Plaxo, demonstrated the potency of digital propagation, something he took a step further as the twenty-four-year-old president of Facebook, helping the social network become the most important Internet company since, well, maybe ever. Yes, all three companies eventually bounced him, but not before, by thirty-one, he tucked away enough equity to boast a fortune of more than $2 billion. And he was just getting started.

By 2011 he was out to upend music distribution again, bringing the Swedish music platform Spotify to America—and masterminding how the service would work with Facebook’s music efforts. He was also hunting new startups as general partner at venture firm Founders Fund and reuniting with Napster’s Shawn Fanning to create Airtime, a live video site.

Parker’s personal network is astounding, a combination of foresight and fate. Starting as a teenager, when he interned for Mark Pincus (now Zynga’s chairman) Parker has teamed, in one way or another, with the men who now control the modern Internet: Mark Zuckerberg, Mike Moritz, Peter Thiel, Reid Hoffman, Yuri Milner, Dustin Moskovitz, Adam D’Angelo, Daniel Ek, Ron Conway, Ram Shriram, and Jim Breyer.

“He can see things most people won’t be able to see for a year or two,” said Palihapitiya. As Shervin Pishevar of Menlo Ventures describes it: “Parker has access to trends and signals that are invisible to many people. For him it’s like hearing a dog whistle.” Parker didn’t disagree: “I find a lot of things relevant that aren’t necessarily relevant to the world when I’m thinking about them.” Parker is drawn to big, universal problems and spends years looking for them. “Most of us kind of agree on the thrust of history. The key is to understand how we get there,” said the young billionaire as he rolled his desk chair closer to me in the office of his recently purchased $20 million Manhattan townhouse. “The transition strategies are more important than understanding what the outcome state will be.”

By focusing on problem selection, rath...

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