Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham gives a lot of great startup advice, and he shared some of it with Inc.'s Issie Lapowsky in a recent interview. But one quote about startup founders with accents sent the tech world spinning.
The interview starts out fine, with Graham's usual level of spunk and insight. "One thing I know about startups is that, internally, they are all train wrecks," Graham said.
And later: "Maybe half a percent of people have the brains and sheer determination to do this kind of thing. Start-ups are hard but doable, in the way that running a five-minute mile is hard but doable."
But when asked how he can predict a startup's success or failure, Graham stumbled.
I'm fascinated by how the media regularly denounces people for not being boring enough.
"One quality that's a really bad indication is a CEO with a strong foreign accent," Inc. quotes Graham as saying. "I'm not sure why."
He goes on to say that it's difficult to communicate if you have a strong accent and that "anyone with half a brain would realize you're going to be more successful if you speak idiomatic English, so they must just be clueless if they haven't gotten rid of their strong accent."
Henry Kissinger must not have half a brain ... Different people have different capabilities for changing their accents. I knew an Indian who arrived in the U.S. at about age 20 and somehow taught himself to speak like Jack Nicholson. His American bosses found him cool and quickly promoted him to Executive Vice President. But the accent-changing window tends to close rapidly around puberty. (Dr. Kissinger's two-year younger brother, a business tycoon, has an American accent. "I am the Kissinger who listens," he explains.) But the typical H-1B visa coder doesn't have much chance of becoming a Silicon Valley sensation.
The implication that founders are less successful – or worse, "clueless" – if they haven't ditched their accents created an uproar on Twitter. Graham, who's a big supporter of the immigration reform initiative FWD.us, found himself the lead story on Gawker's Valleywag. ...
The problem is not having an accent per se. A lot of the most successful founders we've funded have accents. The problem is having an accent so strong that people have a hard time understanding you. Empirically, those founders do worse. I'm not sure exactly why, but it doesn't seem a stretch to imagine ways that could be a problem for a startup.
A lot of what a startup CEO does is selling. Not just in the literal sense of selling to customers, but also selling the vision to current and future employees, investors, and the press. Often the "sale" hinges on some subtle distinction, so any difficulty in communicating is going to be a significant problem. That's why for example people prefer to have these conversations in person if they can.
In other words, Zuckerberg's FWD.us billionaires are less interested in importing new rivals for themselves than in importing low salary workers for themselves.