The business secrets of Silicon Valley icon Saeed Amidi

Ritu Jha–

Saeed Amidi, founder of Plug and Play, an accelerator platform in Silicon Valley, is also an angel investor and a successful entrepreneur. He was an opening Keynote speaker at CATEALYZE 2023, organized by American Tamil Entrepreneurs’ Association (ATEA).

Saeed Amidi. Photo: Ritu Jha

He shared his inspiring journey with the Indian American engineers, venture capitalists, and startup founders on how, and what took him from being a spoilt youngster to a Silicon Valley icon.

He told indica in an interview that he plans to open five offices in India in the next 18 months. “I have about 700 colleagues at Plug and Play, and we have 54 offices around the world. Suddenly I realized I have only four offices in the US. So, as of March, I decided to open 20 offices in the US, Texas, Florida, Arizona, and New York, so we can help more startups,” Amidi said.

Amidi plans to launch more operational bases close to universities. Here’s why: “When Mercedes asked us to open an office in Stuttgart (Germany), we opened it at the Stuttgart University campus. The synergy has been magic.”

He said, “The result is evident — when I do 80 startups here in the US, 20 of them are from Stuttgart University and the Regent. But I import 60 of them from 10 different countries — India, Israel, the US, and Canada. Now, one of my choices is to have Plug and Play on the campus or very close to the university. Again, by coincidence, in Beijing, our office, which is very successful, is at Peking University, right on campus.”

The idea of working close to academic centers comes from his association with Stanford. “I’ve been working with the Entrepreneurship Association at Stanford University for 20 years. Every university does this — they have a business plan competition. We come in after that, we connect that entrepreneur to funding and to 550 corporate partners.”

Amidi has invested in over 30 unicorns including Dropbox, Honey, and PayPal. He financed PayPal when it had only two employees. He also supported Logitech, Powerset (now Bing), Shopify, and many other successful Silicon Valley startups.

While speaking at the event, he confessed that he “was an incredibly spoiled kid”. “I was more worried about which vacation I could schedule next. I studied business administration at Menlo College here in Menlo Park,” he said.

“From being incredibly comfortable, and spoiled 19-year-old, we lost everything in Iran. Any challenge in life gives you an opportunity. As far as I’m concerned, it was the best thing that could have happened to me at age 19 and I must give a lot of respect to my father. He arrived at the house on Sandhill Circle, Menlo Park. My father was kind enough to say, you can live here and we will pay your tuition, but you have to earn your pocket money. Till then, I was not planning to work till I was 25 or 26. But, that was a wake-up call. Interestingly enough, my father also opened a door for me. He said that if I assisted him in the summer for three months, he would buy a Mercedes convertible for me. I worked for three months and I learned a few things from him,” Amidi added.

By the third month, the icon of Silicon Valley had started a company called Alps American Liquid Packaging System.

“My father gave me $5,000 a month for six months when I started this import-export company specializing in packaged bottled water. But I didn’t make any money after the first six months, and he suggested that I should get a job. At that juncture, my brother, who had a small company in Pennsylvania, said he could afford $5,000 every month for my venture for another six months. I was lucky enough to do a transaction within the next three months with a gentleman called Adil Fakieh in Saudi Arabia. He owned a company called Savola Saudi Vegetable Oil and Company. And that was the beginning of my journey,” he recounted.

“I got into the bottled water business because I was supplying packaging material for edible oil, milk, and Coke and all of those businesses were growing 3% a year. But the bottled water business was growing at 100% a year. So, I said maybe I should take bottled water more seriously. Today that company does around $800 million a year and we employ 3000 people. Specifically in Sri Lanka, I have a bottled water company called American Premium. My biggest company and the one I’m most proud of is Aquaservis in Spain. We are the first bottled water or beverage company in Europe to become carbon neutral.”

Another turning point came when people’s reaction to his choice of business pushed him towards a new avenue. “As I was going about my life doing real estate business, bottled water business, and packaging business, everybody who came to University Avenue and heard what I was doing, used to laugh at me. They said you’re in the center of technology by Stanford and you’re doing bottled water business. I told them it’s a good business and I’m making money, and growing. Anyhow, I felt left out. So about 30 years ago me and my brother decided to set up Angel Investment. When I made a little money, I bought a building where I started my business on University Avenue. When I started the ALPS in a 400 sq.ft office, my next-door neighbor was Perez Luigi Zapacasta, and he started Logitech. He brought Logitech from Geneva, Switzerland to here and he raised money, he took the company public.”

“When I bought the building, Peter Thiel (German-American billionaire entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and political activist) rented office space from us. Peter paid $200,000 rent in advance and we took half of that rent, and invested it in PayPal. We sold too early, but it gave a $7 million return. Then I thought that this is better than the water business. And so, we began doing five investments per year.”

These days, Amid helps 2500 startups per year. That means they actually join one of our vertical fintech insurers and we help them with fundraising, we help them with client acquisition, especially its B-to-B business. And everything for the startup is free. We don’t make them give away part of the company for $100,000, but during the process, we choose to invest in the company and help them grow,” he added.

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