Angel Chronicles: Lessons from Gmail creator Paul Buchheit

July 21, 2023
Angel investors

Paul Buchheit is a computer programmer, entrepreneur, and investor who has made significant contributions to the tech industry. He is best known for creating Gmail, and his impact on the startup ecosystem goes far beyond that, as he has founded successful startups, invested in many others, and helped launch countless more through his work at Y Combinator.

In today’s edition of Angel Chronicles, we'll take a closer look at who Paul Buchheit is, how he got started in technology and investing, some of his notable exits, and his advice to both investors and founders.

Who is Paul Buchheit?

After graduating in 1988 with a degree in Computer Science, Paul Buchheit worked at Intel and Compaq, before joining Google's early engineering team in 1999. During his time at Google, he played a key role in developing AdSense and the original prototype for Gmail. He left Google in 2006 to start his own company, which eventually became FriendFeed.

FriendFeed was a social networking service that allowed users to share and discuss content with their friends in real time. It was founded by four ex-Google employees, including Paul Buchheit, in 2007. The service aggregated user content from multiple social media and social networking websites, including Flickr, Twitter, Digg, and Facebook, into a single feed that could be viewed by the user's friends.

What are his investments and how did he get started?

As an angel investor, he has advised and invested in 23andMe, Instacart, and Reddit, among others. He got started in investing while he was still working at Google, where he invested in several startups, including the original incarnation of Twitter. He later became an advisor and mentor at Y Combinator, where he helped launch and advise countless startups.

Some of his notable exits

He has been involved in several high-profile exits, including:

  • FriendFeed: A social networking site that he co-founded, which was later acquired by Facebook for $50 million.
  • Dropbox: Went public in 2018 with a valuation of over $12 billion.
  • Airbnb: Went public in 2020 with a valuation of over $100 billion.
  • Stripe: Is now valued at over $100 billion.

His advice to angel investors

Assume that you'll lose your money when investing in startups

This might sound pessimistic, but it's an important mindset to have when investing in startups. By assuming that, you'll be able to manage your expectations and avoid making overly risky investments that could have a negative impact on your portfolio. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't be optimistic or excited about the startups you invest in, but it does mean that you should be prepared for the possibility of losing your investment.

Plan on investing in a large number of companies to diversify your portfolio

Investing in startups is a numbers game, and the more companies you invest in, the better your chances of finding a winner. This is because startup investing follows a power law distribution, where a few high-performing companies drive the majority of returns. By diversifying your portfolio and investing in a large number of companies, you'll be able to minimize your risk and increase your chances of finding a winner.

Conduct thorough due diligence and research on any company you're considering investing in

Before investing in any startup, it's important to conduct thorough due diligence and research. This includes looking at the company's financials, management team, and market potential. It's also a good idea to talk to other investors and industry experts to get a better sense of the company's prospects. By doing your due diligence, you'll be able to make informed decisions about which companies to invest in and avoid potential pitfalls.

Consider your time horizon and make sure it matches your investment strategy

Investing in startups is a long-term game, and it's important to have a timeline that matches your investment strategy. Some investors might be willing to wait 5-10 years or more for a return on their investment, while others might be looking for shorter-term gains. It's important to consider your own investment goals and timeline when deciding which startups to invest in.

Have realistic expectations and be prepared for the ups and downs of startup investing

Not every investment will be a home run, and it's important to have realistic expectations and be prepared for the ups and downs of startup investing. Even the most successful investors have experienced failures and setbacks along the way. By staying patient, committed to your strategy, and focused on the long term, you'll be better equipped to weather the ups and downs of startup investing and ultimately achieve success.

Advice to founders

Get the product in front of users as quickly as possible

Especially for consumer or user-oriented products like Gmail or Friendfeed, it is important to launch the product early and get feedback from users to learn from their experiences and continue refining the product iteratively.

Don't wait until the product is perfect 

Sitting and waiting until the product is perfect can be a mistake, especially for startups. Startups don't have the time to wait, and getting the product out quickly can help in getting feedback from users and making necessary changes.

Be open to changing direction 

People often spend a lot of time building something and then find out that it really wasn't the right product or that they should have been going in a different direction. By testing products sooner and getting feedback from users, it is possible to learn sooner and change direction if necessary.

Fundraising depends on the situation 

Fundraising isn't always the best fit, it depends on various factors like how much money one can raise, the idea, and how long it takes to get to the stage where the product can be released.

Determination is crucial 

Determination is the trait that seems to determine which people are going to succeed and which aren't in many cases. The people who are driven to make their companies and products a success and continue pushing to make them successful, even if they need to change plans, they tend to succeed.

Don't be evil

Paul is credited with coining Google's famous motto "Don't be evil." According to reports, the phrase first came up in a meeting when the company was still a startup and discussed how to differentiate itself from other tech giants who were perceived to be more profit-driven.

Buchheit reportedly suggested that Google adopt the mantra "Don't be evil" as a way to ensure that the company remained committed to doing good in the world. The phrase eventually became an unofficial slogan for the company and was even incorporated into its code of conduct.

The motto has been widely discussed and debated over the years, with some critics arguing that it is hypocritical or overly simplistic, while others praise it as a powerful statement of ethical values.

A conversation with Paul Buchheit on the path to $100 billion

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