Want VC Cash From This Guy? Don't Talk Like a Foreigner

If you read Nathaniel Rich's half-skeptical orbit around Y Combinator—one of tech's trendier cash camps—there's one important takeaway: the guy in charge really doesn't like foreign accents.

Rich follows a few contenders in the Y Combinator mill, clutching for dear life to their derivative ideas and praying for money. Their prayers won't help though, because "hyperarticulate" YC founder Paul Graham, has been furiously studying his past investments, looking for subtle indicators that'll doom companies and their founders. His latest:

“You have to go far down the list to find a C.E.O. with a strong foreign accent,” Graham told me. “Alarmingly far down — like 100th place.” I asked him to clarify. “You can sound like you’re from Russia,” he said, in the voice of an evil Soviet henchman. “It’s just fine, as long as everyone can understand you.”

But if they can't understand you? Be prepared for Graham to yell at you over something you can't help as you prepare to pitch to investors. Over, and over again. Especially if you're this guy:

This was bad news for Strikingly’s David Chen, who moved in 2005 from Guangzhou to the United States to attend high school at Houghton Academy, in upstate New York. He spoke English fluently but struggled to pronounce words like “build,” “mobile” and, most ominously, “strikingly.”

"One week before Demo Day, Graham told the Strikingly founders that Chen’s accent was too strong."

A co-founder had to step in, presumably one who didn't vocally identify quite so much as Chinese.

"There was a break for lunch before Strikingly’s presentation. Chen encouraged Bao, who was sitting catatonically in his seat. Chen asked if he wanted lunch. Bao didn’t reply. He began mouthing the words of the pitch to himself."

This doesn't work:

“We are Strikingly,” Bao began. “We are the fastest-growing mobile Web-site builder.”

Graham was already beside himself.

“Slower!” he interrupted. Someone laughed anxiously. “Talk slower!”

“Start again!” Livingston said. More nervous laughter. Chen’s head went deeper into his lap.

“Why do our users like Strikingly so much?” Bao said.

“Oh, my God,” Graham interrupted, in disgust. “That was like one syllable! Slow, slow, slow!”

By the time Bao finished, Graham was groaning audibly.

Helpful. One last demeaning bark later on: “You’re talking too fast. You’re turning five syllables into one. And in a foreign accent!” The Chinese founders eventually locked in almost $1.5 million after their presentation, but not before several thorough rounds of accent-shaming. If you'd like an easier stay at YC, try to be a couple white guys from Brown like Walker Williams and Evan Stites-Clayton. Graham loved the pair, who think their company—selling t-shirts on the internet—is worth a billion dollars. The lesson here is clear: the pitch is possibly worth more than what you're pitching— and it's easier to persuade investors that your custom tee firm is worth more than any other college freshman's when you're not hobbled by xenophobia.