There may be no richer Silicon Valley lore: It was 2004, Mark Zuckerberg’s summer of craziness. At 20, he and five buddies had rented a Palo Alto home, where they partied and wrote code for Facebook. One day, as Zuckerberg and the guys were strolling the neighborhood, he saw a familiar face. It was Sean Parker, the co-founder of Napster, the music-sharing service. By coincidence, Parker, at loose ends and contemplating his next move, was staying at his girlfriend’s parents’ house, just up the street from the Facebook pad. The very next week, the big-thinking, smooth-talking Parker moved in with Zuckerberg and began introducing him around Silicon Valley. By the end of the summer, he had paved the way to Facebook’s first big investment — $500,000 from Peter Thiel.
Thiel, who grew up in Silicon Valley and graduated from Stanford, had only recently landed a substantial payday himself. It went back to a providential lecture he delivered in 1998 at Stanford. One of the half dozen or so people present was a 23-year-old Ukrainian immigrant named Max Levchin — not a student, but a newcomer from Illinois who was there mostly to bask in the air conditioning and escape the sweltering summer heat. Afterward, Levchin approached Thiel. After a bit of chatting, Thiel asked why the young man was in town.
“Probably gonna start a company,” Levchin said.
“Oh, great,” Thiel replied, and suggested the two meet up the next day and talk more over smoothies.
Perhaps no phenomenon is more studied, marveled, and desired in the world of high tech and science than the mystery of serendipity.
In 2002, eBay paid $1.5 billion for the resulting startup — Paypal, making the two men and several partners rich. Over the subsequent years, Paypal vets including Thiel, Elon Musk, and Reid Hoffman went on to found YouTube, Tesla, SpaceX, LinkedIn, Yelp, and Palantir.
Perhaps no phenomenon is more studied, marveled, and desired in the world of high tech and science than the mystery of serendipity. In seemingly every industry, CEOs pay millions in consulting, design, and architectural costs to multiply and optimize the number of chance encounters between their most creative employees — and hopefully profit from the blockbuster new products that might result. If only they could engineer the cubicles just so, or the indoor waterfall at the right angle, they might orchestrate providential encounters, or at least load the dice in their favor.
No place on the planet generates more such interest than Silicon Valley. For decades, cities everywhere have tried to replicate the Valley’s record of producing one trend-setting tech giant after another, but none has quite measured up. Like history’s other hubs of outsized accomplishment — Athens in 450 B.C., Hangzhou in the 12th century, and Florence in the 16th century — Silicon Valley has entrenched itself as the world’s centrifugal force for the biggest thing of its age, tech.