With our bodies hemmed in, our minds have only the cloud — and it is the cloud that has become the destination for an extraordinary mental exodus.
These are the words of Balaji Srinivasan, one of the entrepreneurs and thinkers I most admire.
Growing up in Sparta (yes, that Sparta) and the capital, Athens, it was technology that attracted my curiosity. I studied Computer Science and the brightest of my fellow students headed into academia, while the rest drifted into engineering or management gigs at frankly uninspiring local companies.
I had no interest in spending my life in the ivory tower of a university department. But I wasn’t pulled towards a corporate career either. The prevailing culture at the time wasn’t about creativity it was about gaming the system: taking grants or public sector projects. Back in 2005, while my fellow students started their working lives I felt stuck.
Before the Internet, your perspective was constrained by where you lived. What you perceived as a market opportunity in San Francisco or London was different than what you saw in Krakow, Sao Paulo or Cairo. For most of the people I knew in Athens running a successful café or a bricks-and-mortar store was an entrepreneurial success. The internet seemed to transcend this limited horizon.
My coding skills were improving and I had already created my first company. I didn’t think of it as a startup because the term was still new to me. When I found some like-minded people through a new series of meet-ups called Open Coffee, I quickly realized I’d reached a turning point. All my future business partners came from this nascent community. I got the startup bug.
It started to dawn on me that I had more in common with techies in the rest of the world than with my old friends, my neighbors or my schoolmates. The Cloud was rewiring my brain and powering a new form of homophily — the human tendency to bond with the like-minded.
I was bouncing between freelance gigs and fragile startups. They were short lived and badly managed but, damn, it was fun. It was both challenging and rewarding to build and launch products globally. After a few startup gigs, I decided to partner with one of the best engineers I’d met and have a go ourselves.
We thought we knew the playbook. It was now widely available via blogs, books, and online communities. BugSense was born and our first users were a few clicks away. We learned from fellow entrepreneurs on Reddit — we even renamed our company thanks to their feedback. We pretty much solved all our bugs thanks to StackOverflow and more importantly, a single question on the site resulted in 7,000 sign-ups for our service! Within a few short years, our little startup was acquired by big data behemoth Splunk.
There were two things that made us proud: First, we did it from an unlikely starting place, Greece. We weren’t Stanford alumni or early Facebook employees. We had to learn everything the hard way. Second, we made an impact on our community. Our team built a world-class product and most importantly struck a path that others could follow.
Zero sum outcomes are deeply rooted in the old world, the world we’d grown up in. The acquisition of BugSense was something new, a win-win outcome for all parties involved: founders, employees, advisors, investors. Our success wasn’t at anyone else’s expense. In fact, showed others what could be done and people in our community take notice.
Splunk relocated our team to its headquarters in San Francisco, the modern-day El Dorado. Life in the Bay Area was good. Fat paychecks, leafy suburbs, hip restaurants, vegan cafes and chit chat about the impact of self-driving cars with the Silicon Valley cognoscenti.
Back when I’d been a raw graduate in Greece I hadn’t want to climb the corporate ladder. Now after a few months working in a red hot US corporation, the same feeling came back. Kudos to my younger self!
But there was an antidote to my corporate boredom: Talking with founders. In my new life though I had the luxury of being able to offer two things: not just advice but backing that with cash where I saw a real opportunity.
I was lucky enough to meet and work with some great founders in the Bay Area. But there was another group of founders that needed my help a lot more.
Alexandros, Yannis, and John, founders at Resin.io, Sunshine and Pollfish for example, had the same starting point with me. We come from the same place, speak the same language, went to the same schools. We all worshiped Github and Hacker News. The Cloud gave us perspective and opportunity. Our common heritage helped us to forge a sense of shared identity and drive.
I studied a lot, spent time reading about how our brains think, how the Internet affects our mind, why the world is getting better even if it doesn’t always look like it and what makes Silicon Valley successful. This time was one of my most effective investments. I learned to observe my thinking and understand if I was taking decisions based on reason or emotion. The book Tribe was influential:
We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding — “tribes.” This tribal connection has been largely lost in modern society, but regaining it may be the key to our psychological survival.
My tribe lies in the intersection of my new world, up in the cloud, tech entrepreneurs & my old world, on the land, Greece. Greek founders are my tribe.
James Dale Davidson and William Rees-Mogg in their 1996 book The Sovereign Individual make the case that people will return to nationalism as they are left behind by the fast-paced worlds of technology and capital markets. I made my fortune thanks to technology and access to world markets.
We see indeed that many people are yearning for the comfort of nation states, partly as a defense against feeling left behind by global markets and technological advance. What I want to do is harness the confidence and outward-looking aspects of globalism and bring it home where I think it can do the most good.
When George approached me to partner with him in his new fund it resonated instantly. Working with Greek founders was already my passion and something where I knew I could have real impact. Then came the anxious pause. Why was I going back just as so many others were trying to leave? My friends and family back in Greece were striving to see a positive future.
Aversion to loss is hard-coded into humans but the challenge of improving our future is also what drives us. The arguments in favor of return were complicated but I had already built conviction.
In the last ten years what was a tiny startup ecosystem has evolved into one which has delivered several multi-million dollar exits. Looking ahead we’re better networked, more mature and have the resources to succeed. The only reason to look back is to see how far we have come and how quickly.
The pieces are now in place. The dream of connecting the talent in this land to the possibilities in the Cloud is something we are making into a reality.
Also published on Medium.