"Follow your instincts" was the terse, three-word suggestion I received 25 years ago from Don Valentine, the Founder of Sequoia Capital. Since then it has been etched in the back of my mind. Don was offering advice about whether we should participate in the seed round for S3, a graphics chipset company in which Sequoia Capital invested in 1989 and where I had been charged with coming up with a recommendation for people who had forgotten more about semiconductors than I was ever going to learn. As always, there were plenty of questions about S3 and enough excuses not to invest. Yet Sequoia Capital became one of S3’s original business partners and everything eventually worked out well.
“Follow your instincts” shouldn’t be confused with "trust your gut", "ignore reality", "rely on your sniffer" or "go for glory". The rough translation is "do your homework well, analyze things carefully, assess the options but eventually trust your judgment and have the courage of your convictions – even if they are unpopular”. This means swimming against the tide and being prepared to feel lonely. It’s an approach that works – especially with venture capital. Applied appropriately, "Follow your instincts" is also a sound lodestar for life – particularly for people all too eager to plot their lives in minute detail or who try to figure out precisely what they want to do ten or twenty years hence. Life doesn’t work like that. Most people are not brave enough to just follow their instincts. Following your instincts isn't easy when familial and social pressures suggest a conventional path or when political pressures within an organization make conformity the comfortable choice.
The advice that set my compass as a young man also happened to be composed of three words. They were, “Go to America”. I received this nugget of wisdom in 1975 from Bill Deedes, then the editor of The Daily Telegraph newspaper in London. I was on the verge of graduating from college and eager to work on Fleet Street – the longtime center of the British newspaper business – but was stymied by rigid Union rules forbidding the best papers from directly hiring university students.
Deedes was a larger than life figure – having been the subject on which Evelyn Waugh had centered his 1930s novel, Scoop – still the best sendup of the wayward ways of journalists. Before he became a newspaper editor, Deedes was a decorated World War II officer, a British cabinet minister in Winston Churchill’s government in the 1950s and a longtime Member of Parliament.
Exasperated by the Britain of the 1970s with its incessant strikes, industrial disruption and coal and electricity shortages, Deedes, the quintessential Englishman, was unequivocal that life would be better in the United States. He delivered this advice on a wintry day in his office overlooking Fleet Street – or as Private Eye, the British satirical magazine, calls it to this day, "The Street of Shame". I’m glad I heeded it because otherwise I would never have obtained the greatest ticket in the world – U.S. citizenship. (Deedes worked as a journalist until a few months before his death in 2007, aged 94.)
Both these bits of advice were more helpful than the suggestion I received from my latin teacher at a Welsh high school when I was thirteen. It probably isn’t a coincidence that his less than useful advice required far more than three words. This teacher was of the mind that, “All a man needs to be successful is to have a short haircut, own a strong pair of walking boots and learn how to ballroom dance” – none of which are particularly germane in the age of two day stubble, sneakers and hip hop.
Photo: Courtesy of Sequoia Capital