How Did I Get Here by Cyan Banister (Founders Fund) | Disrupt SF (Day 1)
4:39PM Sep 5, 2018
Okay with that, please welcome to the stage. This is a really amazing presentation. So please give her your full attention. Founders Fund partner Cyan Bannister. Big round of applause.
Good morning, everyone. There's nothing like a 9am rave. I love the music.
trying to figure out where my slides are here.
When I was 15 years old, I was homeless. And I never imagined I would ever be up here on this stage talking to you right now because I didn't think that far into my future. My priorities were getting enough money
for bagels. And if I was extra lucky,
Whoops. Can I go back? Cream cheese.
My goal is to make you very hungry this morning.
My clothes I found at donation centers. Books, necklaces I made if I had to. Spare changing and begging strangers on the street for money. And 25 cents made a huge difference in my life. If I had a dollar six it meant I could have a hamburger at Burger King. That was a big deal.
I slept under bridges. In abandoned lots. I squatted unused sheds and attempted hitchhiking from Phoenix, Arizona to New York, because why not? I heard it was amazing there. Rhe land of opportunity. The streets were paved with gold.
I didn't make it, but I made it as far as Hemis Springs, New Mexico, where I lived in a commune digging ditches to earn my stay in the middle of winter. It looked a lot like this. You know, I don't have enough time to talk today about how I became homeless because I think there's just too much to go into there of the reasons why, but I think it's more important to talk about how I got out.
Pretty much you know, I've often wondered, and so have others. Like, how against pretty much all odds did I make it up here on the stage. If you don't know me, I'm Cyan Banister. I'm a venture capitalist at Founders Fund. It's one of the top venture firms in the world. I've invested in companies in my career, such as Uber, SpaceX, Postmates, Thumbtack, Carta, Niantic right here, and more.
It's difficult to give a short answer as to how I made it here. But if I were forced to say it would be these five things, I've tried to distill it down into these exact points.
So let's start with incrementalism. A lot of people tend to think that incrementalism is a bad thing. But how do you go from nothing to something at all. It doesn't happen overnight. Suggesting it does I think is irresponsible and it's out of touch with the realities that a lot of people face. I look at every day as a new day, every moment as a new moment, every conversations an opportunity to learn more.
Little by little I improved, but I still didn't look far into the future. I looked to the next day, to the evening, I set constant goals for myself, tiny achievements. When I was homeless, it was the bagel. It was getting a shower. It was my personal safety. It was getting better at all of those things. When I had a home and worked it was about becoming better at every aspect of that job, and striving to make more money constantly. The more money I was making was a reflection of the skills I picked up and the knowledge that I obtained.
I turned everything into my life. Can we go back a slide, sorry, I turned everything into my life and a game of leveling up.
It's easy to judge that making life a game sounds gross. But it was a difference at one point for me between life and death.
When I was I became a ward of the state of Arizona.
I was picked up by my favorite police officer, Officer Pratt. We'd become good friends, we were accustomed to these sorts of encounters. By then usually I ended up in a group home a detention center, or my mother would take me back for a short period of time, but this day was different. Officer Pratt took me to Dairy Queen. He got me some ice cream. Then he took me to the courthouse where he got me a plate of spaghetti.
He let me sit where the judge sits while I ate. And then after some time passed, I finished, a woman came in and told me she was my public defender. I had no idea what that meant. I wasn't sure why I needed to be defended from the public.
It was kind of strange, but she explained that the judge was coming in and so was my mother. My mother would stand on one side of the room, when the judge spoke to me, I was to address them as your honor.
My only response to all of this was okay. It all happened so fast. The judge asked me some questions. And then the judge asked my mom if she wanted me anymore, and she said, No,
she didn't look at me. The judge rambled. Some stuff told me I was officially a ward of the state to be released to my probation officer, my new parents, my new parents told me, I had hours to find a place to live, or I'd be placed in a girl's home, having lived in those places before I knew I never wanted to go back.
I had to continue to go to school. I had to get a job and I had to have a gallon of milk in my fridge. Yeah, that was a requirement. It's really strange. No, lactose intolerance doesn't matter to be grown up. You have to have milk. There's no boys in my house. I had to submit to random drug testing. And I had to be home by every night.
I'll never forget the smell of the air and the sun and my face. As I walked out of the courtroom. That day,
I was free ish. I never had to go back to my family. But I had 48 hours to figure out adults. I didn't have a phone, I didn't have a home. I didn't have a car, just the shoes and the clothes on my body.
I didn't have a job. I had nothing. I sat on the corner and collected my thoughts and went through all of my options. I had one friend who was an adult who lived on her own, so I walked her place. Luckily, she was home she let me stay. And bonus. She told me she was moving out soon, and I could have her place which meant I needed to get a real job.
Up until this point, I had my hustle some under the table illegal jobs. My first job was singing mashed potatoes at first cafeteria,
it's a hot spot for elderly people tearing route by Megabus
from that point on, just like the hour time limit I treated each day as a game in which I would try my hardest to level up on something. Anything I set weird goals for myself, I didn't always win the game. But every day I would get up I'd start over I played games like figuring out how to make cents more an hour how to use a cash register, what all the skills were that I needed to become my boss, anywhere that I worked.
When I found I could no longer the plane game where I was, I moved on I worked elsewhere, I was obsessed with making more money, because that was the measure of success in my game.
The game is called capitalism and it actually saved my life.
So like a lot of young people who care about other people. I started out as a socialist, and I thought corporations were completely evil.
And eventually, I realized that corporations and capitalism's were the key to my freedom and ultimate success in this world. I started listening to the lyrics and the punk music that I jammed out to more and I realized that everything that I actually believed was wrong.
I moved to electronic music like you are listening to earlier, I tried to avoid words in my music. I tried to figure out what I believed I eventually shed every bit of clothing with a brand anything associated with me with a tribe. I didn't want people to send me up in one look, and I wanted to keep people guessing
individualism. There was more to me, I started reading business books, I started my first business making and selling t shirts.
My life started improving for the first time and I started dreaming about a future a future in which was a business person. It didn't really matter at that point, what kind of business
I started to form my own identity. I was a person I was cyan, I was capable of things. I had food in my fridge,
I still had to put things back at the cash register. But I wasn't hungry. All of the time, individually, is something I work on to this day. Because we aren't defined by labels or groups. We are multifaceted and a combination of a lot of things. I am not a woman, I am not a Democrat. I am not a Republican, we can all be part of a group, but we are always who we are. And we are all capable of independent thought,
mentorship and technology.
You know, there were a lot of amazing people on my journey, who taught me that I could be more than what I was they didn't make me successful, but they told me that I could be
when I was homeless. I looked like one of those street kids. You see an upper Haight with the piercings, patches, and a dog spare changing, I was what me might refer to now as a gutter punk or a crusty kid, I met one of my best friends to this day, walking down the street wearing something that I made the feeling of seeing somebody wearing something you created, it's just not described. Bubble, your startup founders, you probably know and you see your logo out there,
I stopped this person. And we geek out on making stuff which led to an invitation to hang out and his phone number. We eventually did hang out. And he had something magical with him a laptop
up into this point computers or something that were not for me. They were unobtainable, they were expensive, I would just break it. I had no use for one. But when I saw him sitting there in the cafe in the dark, I knew I had every use for one, I could feel myself yearning for it. And I asked him,
can you get in line with that? What else can you do? He showed me all of his art, the stuff he was coding at work, and he took me to a place where we could dial up together the sound of that modem
and if you've never heard a modem in your life recommend that you listen to it was like the wind on my face, stepping out of that court room again. And before I knew it, I was on a thing called IRC, internet Relay Chat, chatting with people all over the world. I was reading about things I was curious about. And I was absolutely hooked. I didn't want to do anything else. I suddenly knew my future and it had something, anything to do with that thing. And the internet.
Chris exposed me to a world I never knew was possible. He brought me to my first DEF CON years ago, which is a hacker conference, he introduced me to hacker culture, and suddenly my brain was fully engaged. For the first time in my life.
My friends encouraged me to get a tech job. I didn't know how so they told me if I start at the very bottom, I can work my way up. I like this. It sounded like a new game I could play so we decided on telephone tech support for dial up. We role played for a few days. This was the windows era with the clouds on sign colored background. And when they were satisfied that I knew enough about TCP IP DNS trumpet windsock I set off to interview for a job.
I landed my first tech support job working at a place called extreme internet. I was on cloud nine. I had a desk, a computer, a chair of phone, and I had a pager I was growing up, I thought I'd finally arrived. And for a short period of time I became complacent. How could I possibly want anything more I had a damn chair.
So in between calls, I registered domain names. They were free then. And when they were no longer for you could register them until the hundred dollar bill came in the mail.
And then you know, it was yours for 90 days. Regardless,
the co founder of extreme internet, this is him. Lee Burton came over instead over me one day, and I looked up at him as he plopped a book on my desk. thud. He took his fingers, and he tapped on it. He said, You're far too smart to be sitting here registering domain names. You should read this instead. How do you know I'm registering domain names? Read the book, you'll figure it out
creepy. When he walked away. I toss the book in the corner. Who the hell is he to tell me I wasn't going to read that stupid book. What's wrong with registering domains? Nothing.
A few months later, I looked over at the book, which was collecting dust, and I cracked it open. And I read about or so pages and I'm one of the pages that changed my life trajectory. It was a page about the power of route on a Unix operating system. And the book was called The Essential Guide to System Administration.
On that page, it went through great details to explain that one should be super careful with root access, and went through the ways that people make common mistakes that allow people who shouldn't have access habit, the thing that stuck out to me with something called a shell escape. Basically, if you run a script that executes a command as if it were route you can escape out of the script when it's running and gain root access. I thought about all the scripts, we use that extreme internet and which one I should try it on,
you know, it password resets for her dial up users. So I ran the script, I escaped out. Then I had to read the book more to figure out what to do next, I finally typed Who am I and the shell responded route. I jumped out of my chair, I couldn't believe it. I next figured out if I had the password if I had a password root must have a password to. So what do you do when you are in a situation? Well, you change the root password.
So I did. I carefully wrote the password on a little piece of paper, hardly able to contain myself. I walked into my boss's office, I slammed the piece of paper down in front of him. What's that? He asked your new password. I said proudly. That book you gave me is amazing. He looked puzzle at me and said impossible.
So I told me to try it. His old password didn't work. Because new password did. After a walkthrough of how I did it. He said, You know what, Simon, go grab a chair, come sit with me. You're now a system administrator.
He gave me a promotion that day, I became his pattern. And a lot of situations like this, I think people would be fired. Leon the other hand, saw what I was capable of. And he nurtured it. He taught me all about Linux, BSD, how the internet actually works, how to set up routers, DNS servers, email servers, he trained me for two years, I went from making an hour to an hour, which was a truly life changing event.
A lot of my friends who are in the tech industry in Arizona,
during this period of time, started moving here to Silicon Valley,
a friend of mine one day, emailed me a link to Google and told me to try it out
saw the I'm feeling lucky button. And I don't know if you guys remember that. But you type in something, and it would give you some random website and maybe had something to do with your search term. Maybe it didn't.
It was then that I realized because of this button that everything magical I wanted to be a part of was here in San Francisco. I told me I had to leave. It was time for a new pattern. Juan. He promoted in trading, my friend Jessica, who now because of his knowledge and opportunity is a software engineer.
I threw everything on my car in and I moved here and I didn't have much of a plan. There was this guy I was seeing on Craigslist. That was my plan. The guy and I broke up. So then there's just Craigslist. I landed my first job. And I went from an hour to which in San Francisco is probably about the same as what I was making in Arizona. As far as it gets you for rent.
I played the game some more many jobs, learning how to code for going a lot of friend time and late nights until I finally broke six figures in
because of pat Peterson and Scott Weiss from iron port. Scott Weiss was the CEO and one of the founders. He was the first person that I confessed to that not only did I not go to college, I was also a high school dropout. They both gave me promotions and enough stock over the years there based on my performance that eventually once we sold a Cisco years later, I had more money than I ever thought I would ever have in my life.
So towards the end of my career at iron port, I started dating and eventually married that guy
that Scott Bannister.
I had this windfall from my equity. I didn't know what to do with it. I turned to Scott for advice, should I buy property stock market? He says, Well, you can do what I do, and put it into incredibly risky startups. Scott had identified that I was a super user and early adopter pretty much everything he'd been angel investing for years. And before I joined him, he noticed that I was using every product. He was getting interest two months ahead of time. So he started asking me for advice about things like Twitter, but honestly, you couldn't ask for a better mentors. And Scott,
my first Angel check went into SpaceX.
I was terrified, but it was exciting. I was literally blowing up my money on launch pads money, I'd slept under my desk making years and years of working super hard into rocket ships. I became addicted. My husband and I figured out that our division of labor worked really well for us. I like giving talks like this and going to events and taking first meetings. And well, he likes to sit on the couch, he's introverted. He prefers to work at home and meet very, very few people.
And then there's this guy Bryan Singer man,
he was on the board of a company that I started, he had just joined founders fun. He started off as an associate and is now a general partner at our fund. We often get together and make bets on companies talk about the world of investing. One day, he invited me to get coffee with him. I thought it was just another one of those days. And then he said, saying, how would you like to join Founders Fund,
they just closed their six fun and they needed another person and they needed to help expand the team. This is a question I thought I would never get.
I was on the shortlist of people they thought would be a good fit. Brian told me at the table that my track record and the deals I've done, qualified me for a role, a role I didn't think I would ever have. And then he believed that someday I'd be one of the greatest venture capitalists in the world.
I'm still working on that. I still had to interview after days of interviewing. Here I am. And when I found out I landed the role, I felt that wind on my face again,
I have a chance to play in a new arena. And it stretched myself intellectually.
I'm always searching for the wind. And somehow I'm here
again, just about against all odds, I'm hearing it. He asked me how I did it. I can only tell you that I was endlessly curious. I surrounded myself with people smarter and more capable than me. I played the game every day, I still do and nobody was around a pat my back.
I learned how to give myself props and believe in myself. Also, I can tell you that mentorship isn't something that needs to be formal. Lean knew he was mentoring me, but some of the most profound things that happened to me, we're not formal arrangements. For example, at TC in a room, this is the first disrupt very small, you know, Mike Arrington put me on stage, because he found that I had something important to say, was the first person who believed in me, or Jason Calacanis. For one time I was getting on stage stop me just before I got on stage, and he said, you know, knock them dead, earned this, you can do this,
you can help people without spending much time at all. It's all about how you approach life and who you give opportunities to, if in a position to do so. And face it. Every single person in this room is in a position to give someone help and advice. Tell someone great work,
you can do this, we can be our own worst enemies. I made my own luck by simply waking up every morning and telling myself I could do anything. But getting out there and meeting people and simply showing up, I created opportunities, and sometimes I failed miserably. But we don't get perfect scores. In any game. We play, we stomp around we scream our fists at the sky. We take a deep breath and then once again, we press Start
best in the biz. That's her not talking about myself. But I will do that plenty. Don't worry.
As we learned through science talk. And as I'm sure many of you know, the world we live in is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. reality can be a real be word. I'm going to try to censor myself as much as possible throughout the show. But our next guest is working to build a new reality and augmented reality, so to speak. You guys aren't really enjoying me yet, but you will. Well we'll get there.