This post is an adapted excerpt from “The Entrepreneur’s Faces: How Makers, Visionaries and Outsiders Succeed,” (Snowball Narrative) by Jonathan Littman and Susanna Camp.
What does it take to grow into a leader? For Allan Young, a native of San Francisco’s Chinatown, it was discovering a path to dedication. His parents were hard-working Chinese immigrants. They brought a strong work ethic, but he wasn’t inspired. Allan was a screw-up. “I’d cut school,” he said. “Go shoot hoops, or hang out at the public library.” He did, however, have an early fascination with business. Allan stole Forbes magazines to read about storied investors like Warren Buffett. Cutting class one day, Allan wandered into a downtown hotel. Captivated by a keynote speaker finishing up his talk, he called out, “How can I be like you?”
The speaker quizzed Allan on his terrible grades, and had terse advice. Learn discipline. Study leaders. “You should join the military.”
Allan enlisted in the Marines and studied his superiors, earning the respect of his fellow recruits. When his mother fell ill with tuberculosis, he took an honorable discharge to care for her, and soon began college. Allan promptly joined student government and was elected student body president. “I wanted to practice leadership,” he said. “How to organize people and show that I cared for them.”
Allan transferred to Brigham Young in Utah, and became fascinated by the tech industry, on the rebound after the recent dotcom crash. He searched for a business club to join and found one an hour away at the University of Utah, and “ended up cutting school the first few weeks to spend time with them.” The club members began cold-calling VC firms, volunteering for research projects. A few said yes, and their first projects were due diligence for technology venture funds. Allan researched music startups, voting startups, bio-tech, bioterrorism, Voice Over IP. He analyzed job boards for shifts in demand, sized up markets, gauged competition, and studied prior art patents.
“We started a fund,” he recalled. Leaders don’t ask for permission. They just do. Said Allan: “We didn’t know that we weren’t supposed to do it.”
Allan’s group was rejected a hundred times. Then one notable VC who wished to remain anonymous wrote a check for $1 million. Buoyed by that investment, Allan pitched Merrill Lynch in Salt Lake City and New York. Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs made significant capital contributions.
And then there was Warren Buffett. The team reached out to the Oracle of Omaha, and astonishingly were invited to visit. The students flew out to Nebraska, spending the day with Buffett. “He had more questions for us than we did for him,” recalled Allan. “Our selection criteria. How we thought about tech investing.” The visit would reinforce Allan’s emergent thinking. “He had a barren, mundane office. It’s all about simplicity and efficiency,” said Allan. “The minimization of environmental noise. Designed so you can think in peace.”
Buffett did not invest. No matter. The college kids raised nearly $20 million and scouted investments. “I was so excited,” said Allan. “I started reading as much news as I could.” He quickly discovered Omniture, a web analytics firm in nearby Provo, and spotted an opportunity.
All told, the students invested in 15 companies in Series A and B rounds in $250,000 to $500,000 increments. Allan and his fellow student venture capitalists gained tremendous experience while sitting in on their portfolio companies’ board meetings as observers. Omniture, Allan’s deal, went public in 2006, raising almost $70 million for a $300 million valuation. Four of the 15 companies went public, and the fund generated extraordinary returns.
Allan wasn’t done seeking to learn from other leaders. He was one of just nine accepted into Seth Godin’s altMBA program (among hundreds of applicants) studying under the marketing guru for nine months. Next, Allan joined a startup accepted into the world’s most famous incubator, Y Combinator. Thrilled by that experience, he aspired to create his own school for startups. He leased an entire floor in the Twitter building, found ample backers from his own network, and launched the highly successful Runway incubator in 2013. Runway was soon brimming with 80 startups, many of them bound for major exits. It was just one of three successful incubators Allan created during the San Francisco tech startup boom. He’s now a successful tech investor and venture partner at a private equity firm.
Allan Young, the near college dropout, had come a long way by studying — and practicing leadership.
Jonathan Littman and Susanna Camp are co-authors of “The Entrepreneur’s Faces: How Makers, Visionaries and Outsiders Succeed.”
Littman collaborated with IDEO on the best-sellers “The Art of Innovation” and “The Ten Faces of Innovation” (more than 650,000 copies sold worldwide in 12 languages). The author of ten books, five of his works have been optioned for films. His award-winning journalism has appeared in Playboy, the Los Angeles Times and Forbes. Camp is the editor-in-chief of SmartUp.life. A journalist specializing in emerging technology, she was an early team leader at Wired magazine and has also been on the staff of Macworld, PCWorld and Outside magazines.