Daniel Gross grew up in Jerusalem, Israel, and was accepted to the "Harvard" of Silicon Valley, the start-up incubator Y Combinator, when he was 18 in 2010. As part of the program, he had three months to get a company ready to pitch to high-profile investors during a demo day. For a number of reasons, 48 hours before demo day, he found himself without a company to present.
The Hail Mary business he came up with in those two days went on to raise venture capital and sell to Apple reportedly for over $40 million. He was 23 at the time. He worked for Apple for a few years and now, at 26, Gross is a partner at Y Combinator. He's taken Silicon Valley by storm.
The biggest lesson he had to learn when he arrived? Everyone, even the biggest names in tech, are all normal people when they get started as entrepreneurs, he says, speaking to ReCode executive editor Kara Swisher on her podcast, Recode Decode.
"The day-to-day emotional roller coaster ride is intense. But the thing you need to realize, if you are listening to this and you are outside of Silicon Valley and it all looks hard and unapproachable, is that it is very gradual. And everyone starts out with very, very humble beginnings.
"One of the most important things for me, coming into Silicon Valley, was meeting some of these folks that I thought were titans of the world and thinking to myself, 'You know, you are not that great,' and then realizing that I could do it too," says Gross.
"You need to realize that everything is very gradual and everyone who seems formidable ... started out putting on their pants the same way you do in the morning."
During the discussion, Gross references a famous Steve Jobs quote:
When you grow up, you tend to get told the world is the way it is and you're life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That's a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. The minute you understand you can poke life and … you can change it, you can mold it, that is most the most important thing.
Gross admits that there are probably a select number of people who are more intelligent than he is — like the architects of the San Francisco Golden Gate bridge, he gives as an example — but he doesn't let the exceptions affect his general perception of himself and his own potential.
"I am pretty sure the architects of the bridge behind us is built by somebody smarter than me, but I kind of suppress that and I tell myself I can do whatever I want," says Gross. "Because you do meet a lot of these people when they are small and you do realize they are not that great and so I think it is actually a sad fact that people want to fall in love with heroes."
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is an example. Worth $96 billion, to some Bezos has become a legend rather than a mere mortal. Gross refers to an Instagram post showing Bezos standing atop one of his wind turbines opening a bottle of champagne as an impossible image to measure against, especially for outsiders who don't get to see behind the curtain.
"In Silicon Valley, we have this process where we build everyone up: Everyone is perfect, no one is having a bad day. You know, Jeff Bezos is just crushing it all the time on top of windmills breaking champagne bottles. But, you know, he start[ed] out small and I am sure he has bad days too and it is really important for me to convey this, " says Gross. "It is not as hard as it seems and everyone starts out like you."
Elon Musk, the tech titan running both SpaceX and Tesla, is another one of these larger-than-life heroes that Silicon Valley worships. Musk plays that image up too. He recently announced he would be sending his own cherry red convertible to Mars and he hired famed Hollywood costume designer Jose Fernandez — who has created movie costumes for the likes of Wonder Woman, Batman, Wolverine, Spiderman and X-Men, to name a few — to create the SpaceX spacesuits. (They are, admittedly, very cool.)
There's benefit to having such momentum behind your personal brand, if you happen to be Bezos or Musk, admits Gross: "Elon Musk is doing is what humans respond to best, which is you create a lot of hype and enthusiasm and then occasionally you actually create the future just because of the hype and enthusiasm of it all."
But for Gross, being exposed to the innards, the reality of Silicon Valley changed his life.
"I often wonder, if I had never gotten into Y Combinator, part of me would like to believe that I would have started a company anyways and I would have been formidable, and part of me wonders, I would have probably been in the army, an Orthodox Jew, married with six or seven kids."
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