Sequoia Capital is the new Delphic Oracle
In a belated attempt to educate myself by reading some of the things that many people study in high school, I’m reading The Histories of Herodotus. It’s highly entertaining and easy to read. I read The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides a few years ago and enjoyed that even more. Herodotus is the more colorful, but the speeches and drama in Thucydides are fantastic.
There were lots of oracles in classical Greece, and elsewhere.Of the Greek oracles, the Delphic Oracle was, and still is, the best known. People (kings, dictators, emperors, wannabees) would send questions like “Should I invade Persia?” to the oracle and receive typically ambiguous or cryptic responses. We have a large number of famous oracular replies. Herodotus recounts how Croesus decided to test the various oracles by sending them all the same question, asking what he was doing on a certain day. The oracle at Delphi won hands down. Croesus then immediately put more pressing matters to the Delphic oracle, famously misinterpreted the pronouncements, and was duly wiped out by the Persians.
Imagine yourself in the position of the Delphic oracle. You’ve got all sorts of rulers and aspiring rulers constantly sending you their thoughts and questions, asking what you think. You’re in a unique position, simultaneously privy to the most secret potential plans of many powerful rulers. You really know what’s going on. You know what’s likely to succeed or to fail, and why. You get to give the thumbs up or thumbs down. By virtue of your position and the information flowing through your temple, you can direct traffic; you can shape and create history. You might even be tempted to profit from your knowledge. Your successful accurate pronouncements invariably reap you rich tribute.
OK, you can see where this is leading…
Sequoia Capital, and other well-known venture firms, have a somewhat similar position. They have thousands of leaders and wannabee leaders bringing them their detailed secret plans, proposing to mount armies, found cities, build empires, to attack the modern-day Persians, etc. By virtue of their unusual position they probably have a pretty good idea of what might work, and why. Using this knowledge, but without necessarily revealing sources, they can cryptically but assuredly state “oh, that’ll never work” or they can encourage ideas that are new and which they can see will somehow fit and succeed. If company X has consulted the oracle, disclosing a detailed plan to go left, and company Y plans to attack from the right, well…. why not?
Entrepreneurs beg an audience, get a tiny slice of time to make their pitch, and occasionally receive rare clear endorsements. Much more frequently they are left to scratch their heads over cryptic, ambiguous and unexplained responses (and non-responses). You can bet the Delphic oracle didn’t sign NDAs either.
It’s stretching it too far to seriously claim that Sequoia is the modern-day equivalent of the Delphic oracle. But on the other hand, over 2500 years have elapsed, so you’d expect a few changes.