📖 Naval Ravikant's origin story

A review of Naval Ravikant’s early years and the skills he developed before turning 30 that led to his success

Welcome to Origin Stories. In this newsletter, we review the stories of successful people to unpack the skills they cultivated before they turned 30 that prepared them for success.

You’ll learn the what (what skills set them apart), the how (how they developed these skills at a young age) and - most importantly - how you can develop these skills, too.

- JR

Today, we're diving into the story of Naval Ravikant, an entrepreneur, investor, and modern-day philosopher. He is the co-founder, chairman and former CEO of AngelList. Naval is also an investor in more than 100 companies, including mega-successes such as Twitter, Uber, Notion, Opendoor, and Postmates.

Naval’s millions of Twitter followers (@Naval) remain enthralled by his tweets on startups, investing, crypto, wealth, and happiness.


Born in New Delhi in 1974, Naval lived in India until the age of nine, when he, along with his older brother and mother, moved to join his father in Queens, New York. Naval's father had emigrated to America when Naval was four, and Naval didn’t see much of him growing up as his father left the family shortly after they joined him in America.

To support their family, Naval’s mother worked “a menial job by day” followed by night-classes, forcing Naval to become independent from a young age.

“As far as I recall being conscious, I think I’ve been pretty self-sufficient,” Naval says, “I don’t have any concept of someone older in your life telling you what to do. That doesn’t exist for me”.

Naval and his brother Kamal “were latchkey kids” left to develop and learn on their own. Naval doesn’t speak of his childhood often, because, as he says, “it wasn’t that great.



While a young boy, Naval explained that he “didn’t have many friends” and wasn’t very confident; his only real friends were books. This proved instrumental to developing Naval’s superpower - his love of reading. 

While it made for a difficult childhood, Naval realizes the importance of being ‘different’; “Everyone that ends up becoming an extreme winner in society starts off as a loser. If you're a popular kid, good looking, and have money, then you're just going to party and date a lot. Why would you stay inside and do pushups or read books? Make incredible art? To create anything great takes some suffering. And a bad hand early in life can turn out to be a good hand later on."

Raised in “the back streets of Queen's” - a dangerous part of New York City - with a mother busy working, Naval had an unusual after school routine. As the bell signalled freedom, Naval headed to the library where he remained until it closed.

Inside his “after-school center,” Naval passed time by reading everything he could get his hands on. His reading journey “began with comic books and sci-fi”, later graduating to history and news, with his intellectual curiosity leading him into psychology, popular science, technology.

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Acceptance into Stuyvesant

Naval’s early “big break” came after passing the entrance exam for Stuyvesant High School, a tuition-free, accelerated academic school in New York. Acceptance into Stuyvesant “saved [his] life.

While in high school, Naval delivered Indian food for an “illegal catering company" to pay for college. One day, he had to serve at a birthday party of a classmate, which “was incredibly embarrassing" to be seen working while his peers celebrated - Naval “wanted to hide away and die right there.”

Naval mentions this situation as “kicking off [his] obsession with wealth" as he was envious that the other kids could enjoy the party while he had to work. In 1991, Naval graduated from Stuyvesant, leveraging the school’s prestige and his strong grades into acceptance to an Ivy League college, Dartmouth.


Naval the lawyer?

To afford life at Dartmouth, Naval washed dishes in the college cafeteria. One day, when he became sick of cafeteria work, Naval talked his way into a teaching assistant job for a computer science professor, even though he was “completely unqualified." This role forced him to learn computer algorithms to effectively teach the course, and continues to pay dividends.

Naval considered studying English and history at Dartmouth, and seriously contemplated becoming a lawyer, even taking an internship at a prestigious law firm in New York City. While at the law firm, Naval considered himself “an overpaid intern wearing a suit and tie” who would “make photocopies when lawyers needed them.”

He realized that the lawyers expected him to sit around a conference room with a newspaper. But ”they wouldn’t allow me to read the newspaper— I just [had] to sit there attentively in case somebody needed photocopies or binding or whatever."

"After three months I was completely insubordinate. I would be showing up late, I wouldn’t be wearing the proper clothes, and I was reading message boards on Usenet, the old Internet. It was a bad fit for me.” The lawyers “got mad and said, ‘That’s rude. That’s misbehavior.’ I got called up and reprimanded a bunch of times.”

His dreams of becoming a lawyer were soon crushed (partially due to Naval’s love of reading): He was eventually terminated for surfing Usenet, which hosted online newsgroups, as it was the only thing keeping Naval from “being completely bored." He had been "sent home in shame from my prestigious internship, destroying my chance to go to law school.”

Initially, Naval was disappointed, but this lasted “for all of an hour." Looking back, Naval views this "failure" as “one of the best things that ever happened” to him, for otherwise he would have become a lawyer, something that’s “not what [he] was meant to do.” After the ill-fated internship, Naval remained on campus until he was 22.


Education in computers

During his remaining time at Dartmouth, Naval threw himself into computer science courses and became a habitué of the computer lab. There, he landed his first tech job providing computer support and database management for Dartmouth Alumni Magazine as part of the College’s work-study program. “It was great because it was my first flexible-hours job, which was a new concept. You just got paid and you told them how many hours you worked and you did it whenever you wanted. It was my dream job,” Naval said in an interview with the school.

Graduating with degrees in computer science and economics in 1996, Naval was enthralled by tech. But before entering the booming tech biz, Naval briefly took a position in Boston at the prestigious Boston Consulting Group, serving as a consultant in their high-tech practice area. While at the consulting firm, Naval was best known for teaching staff “how to hijack the fax line for dial-up.”


Moving to the startup capital

At 22, Naval left for Silicon Valley where he took a position at the @Home Network. @Home was a high-speed cable Internet service provider with subscribers worldwide. While working for @Home, Naval told everyone - his boss, coworkers, friends - that he was at @Home temporarily, that he’s "an entrepreneur" who was going to start a company. He didn’t. It was 1996, and the proposition to start a company then was “much scarier, more difficult.”

But his boasts provided the push he needed. As Naval explained, “Sure enough, everyone started coming up to me and said, what are you still doing here? I thought you were leaving to start a company. Wow, you’re still here. That was a while ago you said that. Then I was literally embarrassed into starting my own company.

After leaving @Home, Naval co-founded his first company making “linearized optical amplifiers'' after meeting “some scientists coming out of Lawrence Livermore.” Lacking the scientific expertise of his peers, Naval contributed by translating their science into a business plan. He then “helped do the same thing with a 3D graphics team” at Intrinsic graphics. Intrinsic graphics was eventually purchased by Google, where they created what is now Google Earth.

After changing several workplaces in a short period of time, Naval realized he needed to do something on his own. Enter, Epinions.


Naval is considered "radioactive mud"

In 1999, still only 25, Naval and four others co-founded Epinions, an online review network for restaurants and movies which predated Yelp and Rotten Tomatoes. Epinions was a forum where users asked questions and posted opinions. Naval’s startup became a dot-com star and merged with Dealtime, a free service to shoppers who were comparing products and prices on the Internet. Dealtime changed its name to Shopping.com and went public in 2004, finishing its first day at a value of $750 million.

But this was not a fairytale exit for Naval. 

It was a resounding success, except for one issue: Ravikant and three of his co-founders saw none of the money. $0. Nada. Nilch.

The four later argued in a lawsuit that, during the merger, another cofounder and select venture funders conspired to hide the company’s true value. In January 2005, Ravikant and three of his co-founders filed a lawsuit against Benchmark, August Capital, and their co-founder Nirav Tolia claiming that to get approval for the merger, Naval and co. were misled to believe that (at the time of the merger), the company was worth "$23 million to $38 million", which was less than the $45 million that they had raised in outside capital, thereby making their shares worthless.

“It feels like being hit by a truck when you realize the company you founded is going public and you aren’t making any money. People are calling to congratulate you on the IPO, and you’ve got nothing.”

Thanks to the lawsuit, Naval’s reputation in Silicon Valley suffered tremendously; he was referred to as “radioactive mud” by the venture capital community as commentators thought it would open venture capitalists to future suits. Naval’s brother Kamal went to live with Naval during this difficult period.

The case was settled privately in 2005. "I am legally bound not to talk about it," Ravikant said. "And frankly I want to put it all behind me. What I will say is I came out of it with a very wide-eyed understanding of just how inefficient the venture fund-raising process is..."


A blog & a company

As is common with other successful icons, this difficult period in Naval’s life was instrumental to his later success. The legal-battle opened his eyes to the power imbalance between entrepreneurs and venture capitalists while providing a deep-rooted understanding of the venture capital space. In 2007 - two years after being termed “radioactive mud” - Naval re-entered the venture capital arena through Venture Hacks, a blog about the ins and outs of raising funds through venture capital. Cofounded with Babak Nivi, a fellow tech entrepreneur, Venture Hacks “laid bare the game theory of venture capital to entrepreneurs who were raising money.”

The blog covered negotiating term sheets and other important venture capital questions Naval himself had faced. The blog also touched on the important lessons learned from his previous lawsuit, such as scenarios where “you may own more than half of the company but that doesn’t mean it’s your company.”

Things really went uphill after starting his blog. By 2009, Naval’s blog had grown tremendously in popularity. He then started a fund called The Hit Forge.

A defining moment in his life - and the inception of Angel List - came from a chance encounter. At roughly 35 years old, Naval ran into an investor friend who offered Naval a deal saying, “let’s do this deal before anyone else finds out, I don’t think it’s hit the market yet.” A light-bulb flashed in Naval’s mind, as he realized not all investors were aware of the start-ups seeking capital, and vice-e-versa. Again partnering with Babak Nivi, they made a list of 25 investors with whom they kept updated about start-up investing opportunities.

This eventually grew to two lists – AngelList and StartupList. In 2010, with a list of 50 Angel Investors willing to invest $80 million in start-ups, Naval launched AngelList.

His biggest success to date, AngelList allows startups to transparently raise money from angel investors free of charge. AngelList established Naval among the most influential names in Silicon Valley, as hundreds of thousands of investors and early founders have connected on the platform since 2015. Per their LinkedIn page, AngelList has “more than 20 unicorns in the portfolio, supported millions of job-seekers in their search, and helped makers launch over 100,000 products that will define the future of tech."

Looking back at his struggles, Naval summarizes them as “all part of the plan. It’s all part of the motivation. If [they] didn’t happen, I probably wouldn’t be as motivated or as successful.”

Reading == Success

Naval cites reading as the most important component to his success. In an interview with Tim Ferriss, Naval explained that he values no other way of learning more than reading prolifically, a habit he's cultivated since he was a child. In another interview, Naval was asked the following: If you had to pass down to your kids one or two principles, what would they be? His answer: Read.

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