Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham gives a lot of great startup advice, and he shared some of it with Inc.’s Issie Lapowsky in a recent interview. But one quote about startup founders with accents sent the tech world spinning.
The interview starts out fine, with Graham’s usual level of spunk and insight. “One thing I know about startups is that, internally, they are all train wrecks,” Graham said.
And later: “Maybe half a per cent of people have the brains and sheer determination to do this kind of thing. Start-ups are hard but doable, in the way that running a five-minute mile is hard but doable.”
But when asked how he can predict a startup’s success or failure, Graham stumbled.
“One quality that’s a really bad indication is a CEO with a strong foreign accent,” Inc. quotes Graham as saying. “I’m not sure why.”
He goes on to say that it’s difficult to communicate if you have a strong accent and that “anyone with half a brain would realise you’re going to be more successful if you speak idiomatic English, so they must just be clueless if they haven’t gotten rid of their strong accent.”
The implication that founders are less successful — or worse, “clueless” — if they haven’t ditched their accents created an uproar on Twitter. Graham, who’s a big supporter of the immigration reform initiative FWD.us, found himself the lead story on Gawker’s Valleywag.
“[An] accent shouldn’t be a gating factor in any decision,” GigaOm founder Om Malik tweeted in response to Inc’s interview. “And as someone who has managed to find his way with [an] accent, I find it a little distressing we have to talk about it.”
Graham expressed on Twitter that the interview was “boiled down from a longer one.”
So how does he really feel about accents and entrepreneurship?
Graham elaborated his stance to Business Insider in an email. A big part of running a successful company is being able to sell it and accurately communicate your mission to others. An accent might get in the way of that.
The problem is not having an accent per se. A lot of the most successful founders we’ve funded have accents. The problem is having an accent so strong that people have a hard time understanding you. Empirically, those founders do worse. I’m not sure exactly why, but it doesn’t seem a stretch to imagine ways that could be a problem for a startup.
A lot of what a startup CEO does is selling. Not just in the literal sense of selling to customers, but also selling the vision to current and future employees, investors, and the press. Often the “sale” hinges on some subtle distinction, so any difficulty in communicating is going to be a significant problem. That’s why for example people prefer to have these conversations in person if they can.