Alex Banayan has been called a “Rising Star in Silicon Valley”, was reported by Fortune Magazine as the “World’s Youngest Venture Capitalist”, has been named to the Forbes “30 Under 30”, and is the youngest business author ever signed to Crown/Random House. His forthcoming book shares stories from the trenches of some of the biggest names in business and entertainment including Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg, and Lady Gaga. Told through Banayan’s five-year quest to track them down, the story is a personal journey with universal resonance. Banayan sat down with us to talk about the project and what he’s discovered about success in the process.
What is the premise behind the book and what drove you to write it?
When I got to college I was the pre-med of pre-med and I remember looking at my biology books on my desk feeling like they were sucking the life out of me. I started going through the “what do I want to do with my life?” crisis, which evolved into asking “how did all the people that I look up to do it when they were at my stage?” How did Bill Gates start selling software out of his dorm room when nobody knew his name? I started going to the library and reading a bunch of books looking for answers, but I was left empty-handed.
That was when my 18-year-old thinking kicked in. If no one was going to write the book I needed, I might as well write it myself. I thought I would just call up Bill Gates, interview him, interview everyone else, I’d be done in a couple of months, and now it’s seven years later.
What is a piece of advice you received that was unexpected?
I roll my eyes whenever I see all the books with the ‘one key to success’ or the ‘silver bullet for X’ on the cover, but after doing all of these interviews there has been a common melody to every conversation. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about Maya Angelou, who grew up in Stamps, Arkansas, or Bill Gates, who was the son of a wealthy lawyer in Seattle. No matter who they are, they all treated life, business, and success in the exact same way.
The analogy that came to me is that their method was pretty similar to a nightclub. There is the first door where 99% of people wait in line hoping to get in. Then there’s the second door, the VIP entrance that billionaires and celebrities and those born into it go through. What I realized is that there is always a third door. You have to jump out of line, run down the alley, bang on the door a hundred times, crack open a window, and go through the kitchen, but there is always a way in.
How does finding alternative paths to success change the ways in which we define success?
I was waiting for Steve Wozniak (Co-Founder of Apple) and a couple of minutes before the interview my phone rang and it was one of my best friends. When I told him what I was doing his reaction was, “Really? The Woz?,” and before I could respond my friend said, “Maybe it’s good that you’re interviewing Woz. Find out why he wasn’t as successful as Steve Jobs.”
I had never met someone as happy as Steve Wozniak. He talked about everything with a kind of love and enthusiasm that I had never seen before and when we had paid the bill and he was cracking a fortune cookie and laughing and smiling, my friends words came back into my head and my only thought was “Who’s to say Steve Jobs was more successful?”
Whether you’re writing a book or building a business, it can be difficult to remind yourself that you’re going somewhere, especially when the people around you may doubt you. I’m wondering what it is like for you to see it finally coming to fruition?
I actually got this great piece of advice once from Richard Saul Wurman, the Founder of TED. Thousands of people could say that you’re making a mistake, but if the voice inside your head has complete confidence in your path then it doesn’t matter what they say. The opposite can also be true. You could have thousands of people cheering you on and saying that you’re wonderful, but if the voice inside your head thinks you’re a fraud, those cheers make no difference.
The moments that I’m most proud of myself are the moments where I was terrified yet still stepped forward because of the possibility that perhaps this crazy dream of mine could come true.
And, by stepping forward, he found the third door. Learn more about Alex Banayan and his forthcoming book or watch his keynote speech at IBM.
*Condensed for length and edited for clarity.