LinkedIn cofounder and chairman Reid Hoffman is one of the most notable figures in Silicon Valley for his unique perspectives on technology and management.
He’s always been as interested in storytelling and philosophy as he was in technology, and a sci-fi novel captured his imagination in a major way as a young man.
Hoffman and fellow billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel met at Stanford as undergraduates in the late ’80s and became close friends. After receiving his master’s in philosophy from Oxford, he returned to California to figure out what he wanted to do with his life.
In a new profile on Hoffman in the New Yorker written by Nicholas Lemann, Thiel tells Lemann that one weekend in 1992 they hung out at Hoffman’s grandparents’ house in Mendocino County and brainstormed career paths.
Thiel said that Hoffman was entranced by “Snow Crash,” a sci-fi novel by Neal Stephenson that was newly published at the time.
It takes place in a dystopian near future where the US has been replaced by corporate microstates and a computer virus is killing programmers.
Within the complex, fun story, Stephenson predicts the rise of online social networks and what would become Google Earth.
Lemann explains why the book entered Hoffman’s life at exactly the right moment:
The term “Internet” was not yet in general circulation, and “social network” was an academic concept that psychologists and sociologists used to derive mathematical formulas that explained people’s patterns of friendships. But Hoffman was playing with a set of ingredients that he had first explored at Stanford, with Thiel and others — fantasy gaming, computer technology, philosophy — and thinking about whether there was a big idea that could enable him to have a major effect on the world, first through a business and then through the creation of an entire social system.
Hoffman decided to enter the internet business, and in 1999 he started his first company, a proto-social network called SocialNet that Thiel once told Bloomberg was “years ahead of its time.” He and Thiel would work together on PayPal and make a fortune after selling PayPal to eBay for $US1.2 billion in 2002. That same year, Hoffman started LinkedIn, which today has a market cap around $US25 billion.
“Snow Crash” didn’t just inspire Hoffman. Google cofounder Sergey Brin told the Academy of Achievement that it’s one of the two books that most influenced him (the other being “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” by Richard P. Feynman), and in 2010 Time named it one of the 100 best novels in the English language published since the magazine’s founding in 1923.
The book “was really 10 years ahead of its time,” Brin said.
“It kind of anticipated what’s going to happen, and I find that really interesting.”
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