Max Levchin leaves lasting impression


By Luke Vest

As part of the department of computer science’s 50th anniversary celebration, Max Levchin, a University alumnus who helped co-found companies such as PayPal and Yelp, stopped by the Siebel Center for Computer Science last Monday to have a fireside chat with Department Head Rob Rutenbar. As an aspiring computer engineer, I attended the event with hopes of gaining infinite wisdom from the tech giant — and I did. 

The discussion began with Levchin’s reflection on his time at the University. What amazed me was that this man who has formed multi-million dollar companies was once sitting in a classroom setting extremely similar to the ones in which I sit. I have all the available resources he had as a University student, if not more. 

Do I also have the ability to create a company that can have as large an impact as PayPal or Yelp? According to Levchin, the answer is yes, and anyone can do it, but doing so requires passion and resilience. 

When asked to give advice to students interested in forming startup companies, Levchin responded: “The best thing about startups that I learned is that you can only experience it. You can’t be taught how to do it,” and “Don’t worry about failing.” Students interested in starting companies need to stop worrying and start doing.  

The 39-year-old followed with several anecdotes about his own experiences with failure and that he finally realized failure is “not lethal.” Having an idea for a startup rejected can cause a person to give up hope, but truly successful people are able to get back up and start forming new ideas. 

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    Failing an exam is not a good a feeling at all, but it does not fully disable a person; the person can keep working hard to earn a good grade in the class.

    Aside from failure, entrepreneurs looking to start companies also face the issue of finding a problem to address. With all of the technology available today and all of the answers we already have, I think some people struggle to identify a need that requires a solution.

    When asked about this issue, Levchin presented two methods of attack: You can either ask yourself, “What bothers me,” or “What’s a big problem in the world?” 

    The first question addresses problems that you might find yourself challenged with in everyday life. Levchin talked about how he had trouble getting up that particular morning because of jet lag. An entrepreneur might study this issue and try to create a solution through chemistry or computing. 

    The second question leads to a much more time-consuming process, which Levchin prefers. He presented the problem of food shortages in the world and explained that solving the issue would require much more than getting more food; it would require finding and eliminating the root cause of food shortages. 

    If students can identify these larger issues, maybe they can also use these as starting points to organize groups or projects that aim to solve these issues.

    Although a University student might avoid the latter method due to time constraints, I think everyday issues can be easily identified by anyone interested in starting a company.  

    During the fireside chat, Professor Rutenbar asked the audience if anyone was interested in starting a company. Out of about 200 people, nearly half raised their hands, including myself. Levchin stated that if the same question had been asked when he was in college, only about two would have raised their hands. 

    The increase in interest of starting companies is exciting for students at the University because we have access to many of the resources that we need to succeed. All it takes is one big idea to get the ball rolling. If you are interested in starting a company, go do it, and don’t be afraid of failure. 

    I was inspired by Levchin’s humility and willingness to share his wisdom with University students. As a freshman in my first semester, I have few technical skills, but I can now start building my entrepreneurial talents by following the advice of Max Levchin.  

    Knowing that even the most successful people have experienced failure is a reassuring thought that can help me when I execute my own plans in the world of startups, and as I further my education, I will continue to use the excellent resources provided by the University in order to succeed, knowing that even the most successful people were once in my place. 

    Luke is a freshman in Engineering. He can be reached at [email protected].