clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Founder Institute Opens Palo Alto HQ, Hosts Unicorn Theme Party

And the cupcakes? I can't even.

Nellie Bowles

The theme of last night’s Founder Institute housewarming party was unicorns — specifically, unicorns barfing rainbows — and they really stuck to it.

There were small rubber unicorns by the cheese, larger unicorns hanging on light strands across the garden, rubber-ducky-style unicorns floating among the oysters in the melted ice. There was a large, realistic unicorn head on a table of rainbow lollipops and champagne, like a religious offering. A particularly angry-looking unicorn was suspended above the entrance. The dog had a unicorn horn on his collar. And the cupcakes? I can’t even.

The Founder Institute founder Adeo Ressi, a lanky, gregarious guy with a toothy smile, was leading tours of the new office. The Institute is Silicon Valley’s most aggressive attempt at building international startup incubators. It will have 100 incubators by the end of the year, and often goes where other Silicon Valley investors shy away — they’re in Colombia and Pakistan and three cities in Siberia.

Around 50,000 people have attended FI events since they opened in 2009, and about 6,000 are paying members of the space. This was the opening party for the new flagship Silicon Valley office, a former audio-speakers store on El Camino Real in downtown Palo Alto, Calif.

And it was, in many ways, the official start of a new leaf for Ressi, a colorful character who rose to prominence by encouraging founders to anonymously and often brutally rate venture capitalists with his site TheFunded. Beginning next month, Ressi the critic now becomes Ressi the investor, with a new $100 million fund called Expansive Ventures.

But first, he wanted to show me the office.

“We’re like a shitty startup that’s super big,” Ressi said in his surprisingly deep, sonorous voice. “We’re a startup, and we need to look and feel like a startup. Could we have moved into fancier places? Sure. But I’ve always wanted to show Silicon Valley we have a presence here, but we’re looking elsewhere, which is why we have the signage.”

Except I’ve been in a terrible mood,” he said, still smiling. “Because our signage guy forgot to put on the important part under Founder Institute: ‘Globalizing Silicon Valley.'”

The front of the office will be the venture fund offices; the back, with its giant floor pillows and stacks of sticky notes, will be the incubator.

Entrepreneurs in from Pakistan or Nigeria shouldn’t think about getting too comfortable in the new co-working space, though. “If you’re in the office, you fucked up,” Ressi said. “You should be out meeting Yahoo, meeting Google.”

He showed me two world maps with dots on all their locations, and said his question to founders is always, “What’s motivating you to create a company in Kabul?” Whereas many investors ask entrepreneurs to move to Silicon Valley — the better to be monitored — the mission of the Founder Institute is to help entrepreneurs build where they already are.

The maps were missing about 20 cities because Ressi had run out of dots. “More dots,” he ordered to no one in particular.

He led the way to his new office, where he poured himself some Yamazaki single-malt whiskey from his collection. His desk looked like a chrome airplane wing. His bookshelf was cluttered with items from various trips (a little bicycle made of soda cans, some Japanese toys, an official-looking Malaysian medal). He wore red wire-frame glasses and a large gold belt buckle with an octopus on it (one of many such buckles).

What’s with the unicorn theme?

“Billion-dollar companies are unicorns, they’re rare,” Ressi said. “I was fighting with my team [at Expansive Ventures], and said, if you don’t come up with a logo soon, it’s going to be a unicorn barfing on the world.”

He bought a knitted barfing unicorn on Etsy for good measure.

Aaron Patzer, the buff founder of financial planning site, bumped into Ressi in the kitchen. Patzer had mentored Founder Institute classes in cities like Singapore, Helsinki and Amsterdam. “Here in the Valley, Y Combinator gets all the attention,” Patzer said. “Internationally, FI is untouchable. Colombia allocated $20 or $30 million to entrepreneurship, and says, ‘Ressi, you help?'”

Patzer asked if Ressi was going to the hot tub later, and Ressi seemed to answer in the affirmative. I asked where the hot tub was, and whether it was part of the office. On this, I am still unclear.

Lori Brutten, a senior adviser with the U.S. State Department, also came into the kitchen. “These guys are special,” she said. “They’re the largest idea-stage accelerator in the world. We’re mutually reinforcing.”

Outside, underneath the unicorn heads, Emily Chang, a Founder Institute alum and the co-founder of personalized health-advice site TapGenes, wasn’t too sure about the theme.

“It’s not the perfect analogy, because unicorns are mythical,” she said. “And we actually have Facebook.”

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.