From Craigslist to Unicorns: Wesley Chan's Remarkable Journey to Venture Capital Stardom

Knowing where and when to jump on a unicorn – the term used for startups valued at more than $1 billion – is a skill, and an art. Wesley Chan wears his trademark buffalo hat often. He also owns 20-plus unicorns. These venture capital (VC) babies include Canva, Flexport, Robinhood: companies now valued at more than $1 billion. If VC is a rocket ship to the Moon, Chan is no astronaut, he’s a rocket scientist. His foray into venture capital is a tale of perseverance and leaps of faith, of resourcefulness, grit – and in some cases, washing lab beakers. It is a tale that began with a Craigslist ad.

A Tale of Immigrant Hardship and Unwavering Determination

Growing Up With Purpose

The story of Wesley Chan seems like a classic American tale. A son of immigrants, his parents, who emigrated to the US without a penny from Hong Kong in the 1970s, showed their two children the raw, red-blooded effort that it takes to make a way in a hostile world. Even if your starting point is a shoebox under the BQE in Brooklyn, with drive and hard work, Chan’s mother taught him, you can find a way to succeed. ‘Drive and hard work – it’s something my mom always preached to me,’ he says. ‘Everyone has potential, but it’s also about your adaptability, your ability to be a good problem-solver.’ He also saw that, in business, this was key.

Chan’s early recognition that he had to hide in plain sight in different environments has also shaped his venture capital methodology to identify undervalued opportunities. His ability to see candidates for venture capital beyond the visible qualities of the startup and the founders to the potential and commitment underlying them has been his recipe for success. These have been the qualities that have made him a venture capital pillar in the way this investment class has become an integral part of the US economy.

The Catalyst: A Craigslist Gig Turns into a Golden Ticket to MIT

An Unconventional Path to Prestige

But Chan’s own path to MIT – which meandered from failing in English and mathematics to washing beakers in a biology lab at the California Institute of Technology (also known as Caltech) to a job on Craigslist – reminds us that predicting a life arc is an exercise in futility. The stint washing beakers in a biology lab led to an internship, which set him on a path to research, and then to academic acclaim. Courtesy Caltech Chan’s life and career are home to an overarching theme about the source of opportunity and the readiness to embrace the opportunistic.

Embracing the Outsider Perspective in Venture Capital

Venture Capital Through the Lens of Grit and Resilience

It’s understandable, then, that Chan’s venture capital philosophy reveals as much about himself and his upbringing as it does the flavour of his firm. Far from sounding the familiar notes of a tech utopianism espoused by his Silicon Valley counterparts – which mines the myth of the virgin entrepreneur, an angelic, post-racial and club-member ideal empowered by a never-ending capitalist gush of innovation – Chan prefers to hunt down the scrappers and scramblers of society. ‘I respect people who fight their asses off,’ he says. ‘The people I identify with are the ones who had to work harder to get here.’ He describes his investment rendering thus: ‘Ten per cent is about merit, 10 per cent is about need, and 80 per cent is about giving those who are not the chosen ones a good shot.’ Chan likes to invest in the underdog.

GOOGLE: A Stepping Stone to Visionary Success

In his years at Google from building products such as the Google toolbar and Analytics to his time at Google Ventures, Chan honed his technical and business skills while affirming in his mind that he could, and should, support crazy ideas and entrepreneurs who are willing to step outside of convention.

Breaking Barriers and Building a Venture Capital Firm for the Future

FPV Ventures: A Venture Capital Firm with a Heart

FPV Ventures is the venture capital firm he and Pegah Ebrahimi have built from the ground up to speak to founders ‘in a way that means more than just looking flashy’. To support underrepresented minorities and women, and to fund charities and foundations, is not just to support startups: it is to seed a more equal and more diverse tech industry.

The Essence of Wesley Chan's Story: Insight, Inclusion, and Innovation

Chan’s rise from a Craigslist gig of washing lab beakers to spotting and investing in several of the biggest venture capital unicorns in recent history is an inspirational saga of grit, savvy and rugged optimisation. His story shows that, with a little sensory deprivation and a lot of blood, sweat and tears, it’s possible not only to survive but to thrive.

About Google

This spacefaring expedition was also made possible by the fact that, before he was an angel investor, Chan was Google itself, a way station on the path to his venture capital dreams. A Silicon Valley legend regarding the search giant’s culture of creative play is that ‘don’t be evil’ was more than just a motto – it was an operating principle. Google was meant as a place where creative people could be left to their own devices – or, at least, freed from the shackles of a bossy boss to let their creative spirit soar. Chan, as it turned out, was hornswoggled into a career in venture capital. What the Googlers actually acquired was someone who had never learned to stop, but had instead become adept at spotting trends and figuring out where to funnel their money. In licensing technology to the rest of the world, it is a way to redraw the map of possibilities For Google, Chan developed the open-source browser Google Chrome and Google Analytics, a tool that allows users to track the traffic patterns of websites they own. The point is that, as one of the largest technology companies in the world, Google was a place that nourished people like Chan, people who probably never would have become thing-makers, or smart-money managers, in the absence of the unlimited resources of the Mountain View mothership. In an indirect way, companies such as Google affect the rest of the world not just by changing technology, but by changing the people they employ.

Jun 03, 2024
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