Why I’m Stopping Out Of Stanford and Applying For The Thiel 20 Under 20 Fellowship

Stanford was my dream school. It had been marked with a big red X for years on my roadmap of life. The first time I applied I got rejectedI wanted it bad enough that I applied again a year later and got in. But by the time I arrived on the farm this fall the honeymoon was over. Stanford and I were no longer right for each other and after a quarter we agreed it was best to part ways. I don’t feel deceived for wanting Stanford for so long. It was a worthy focus of my desires at the time. And I don’t feel cheated for having to leave so quickly. I’m glad Stanford finally accepted me, that we got the chance to know each other, and that I found the courage to separate before we became too settled.

What we need on our journey to get where we want to go is constantly changing as we learn and grow. We can’t become too attached to our dreams. Dreams are the figures dancing on the horizon at the edge of what we can see. But as we move through the valleys and over the mountains and hilltops in pursuit of our dreams, our perspective inevitably changes. When we see the horizon from a new vantage point we can rechart our journey based on our new view of the world or we can cling to the dreams of yesteryear.

A month into Stanford I could tell my current arrangement wasn’t working. I talked it through with my mentors, friends and family, and the administration at Stanford and it became clear I had to make a choice: Enjoy college life or pursue my passion and try to change the world. Framed that way I barely had to blink. For the last 4 years when faced with similar decisions I’d made the choice to forgo present hedonism in pursuit of my larger purpose. Now was no time let up.

Around the same time I made the decision to leave Stanford, Peter Thiel announced his 20 under 20 fellowship, and my inbox was full of friends telling me that when they heard the announcement I was the first person they thought of and that the opportunity was perfect for me. From what I’ve learned so far, I couldn’t agree more. I’m vision aligned with Thiel. I believe the world’s pace of change is accelerating, and the margin for whether we have the best century in human history or the worst is incredibly thin. The unimaginably positive scenario is largely dependent on an accelerating pace of globalization and innovation, so I’ve aimed my efforts at what I believe is one of the biggest leverage points to the tip the scales in our favor.

I believe as the pace of change speeds uplarge corporations will topple faster and faster and the economy will increasingly be dominated by startups doing disruptive innovation. My mission to empower entrepreneurs by uncovering the science of entrepreneurship in order to build an integrated solution stack that entrepreneurs can use to dramatically increase the success of their ventures. I’ve been collaborating closely with Steve Blank, Alex Osterwalder, Janice Fraser and other entrepreneurial thought leaders and I believe we have the beginnings of a solution. I recently co-founded a new company called Black Box to harness this opportunity, and you’ll be hearing more about us soon.

Furthermore, the larger mission of the Thiel Fellowship resonates very strongly with me. It is a huge societal problem that many of the country’s brightest people are funneled into situations that prevent them from taking risky, but potentially world changing bets. I believe the education system as a whole is broken beyond repair, and starting anew via creative destruction is our only hope for system-wide improvement. Since it seems the interests of the education systems are too entrenched for that to happen, the only alternative are efforts like the Thiel Fellowship gaining major support and at least moving the highest potential young people into a new environment where their potential can be nurtured. I’ve been interested in changing the education system for awhile. A little over a year ago I came to the realization that the world’s biggest problem isn’t poverty or climate change, it’s that humanity just doesn’t have enough people working on the world’s biggest problems. I think efforts like 20 Under 20 are a big step in the right direction. If I didn’t believe what I’m working on could have a bigger, more immediate impact, I would still be trying to reinvent education for the 21st century.

The opportunities winning the Thiel Fellowship would create are equally exciting. The most valuable element for me would certainly be the network of people I would be connected with. Making an impact isn’t as much about the resources you possess as it is the people you surround yourself with. Considering my current passion is the science of entrepreneurship, and that Founders Fund and The Paypal Mafia are made up of some of the best entrepreneurs in the world, it’s hard to think of a better community to become a part of. While I believe I could get in touch with these people on my own, formalization is a tremendous accelerant. I also would find the grant highly valuable. While I’m confident I can figure out a way to make ends meet financially, I come from a middle class family and the time and energy it could take to satisfy my financial needs could become a substantial burden that takes my focus away from creating a successful startup. So the money too, would be a significant accelerant.

I particularly like that the two “ringleaders” of the Paypal Mafia, Peter and Reid, both describe themselves as philosophers and entrepreneurs.  For me, philosophy is about trying to describe the future we should build, and entrepreneurship is how that future gets built. Reid has said he planned on becoming an academic but realized academics get little attention and that he could have a much greater impact as an entrepreneur. I arrived at a similar conclusion at 18. I had chosen to immerse myself in the Accelerating Change/Singularity Community a few years earlier, and after a year or two of readingattending events and conferences, and working I felt I had a good sense of where the future was probably headed. I turned my attention to figuring out how I personally would make an impact and entrepreneurship became the clear answer.

The fascinating thing about the evolution of my interests from the Accelerating Change community to the startup community is that there are very few people who are actively involved in both worlds. But Peter Thiel who is arguably one of the most influential people in Silicon Valley, is unquestionably the most important benefactor in the accelerating change community, with a substantial number of organizations largely sustained by his Foundation.

These two communities, which have been the most influential on my life, came together full circle on the first Tuesday evening of December at the Place of Fine Arts. The Thiel Foundation held a showcase to expose the luminaries of Silicon Valley to 8 non-profits working on radical projects with the potential to transform humanity. Missions ranged from ending aging, to the safe creation Artificial Intelligence to revolutionary improvement of global governance by experimenting with floating cities at sea.

The last time I was at the Place of Fine Arts was at the Singularity Summit in September of 2007. It was the first Futurist event I ever attended, and the relationships I formed that day changed my life. Here I was again, more than 3 years later. The last time I was here I knew nobody. This time I was cheering on friends Michael Vassar and Patri Friedman on stage, working the room during the reception to talk with all the entrepreneurs in attendance who had become friends, colleagues and advisors, and talking with Peter Thiel about my work in the context of the program he just launched, which could change my life again.

If you are a friend who would support me in winning this fellowship, I’d appreciate it if you left a word of recommendation in the comments. It would mean a lot. Thanks.

(The two essays I wrote for the fellowship can be found here and here)

  • Kevin Morris
    December 27, 2010

    I think you’re making a great decision, Max. I don’t think it works for everyone, but for some there is no choice. I think with your hunger for learning, you’ll make huge strides outside of Stanford.

  • Anish_Shah
    December 27, 2010

    you’ll kill it Max.

  • David E. Weekly
    December 27, 2010

    This program was made for you.

  • Aleksandra "Sasha" Markova
    December 27, 2010

    Max, your determination and focus in pursuing your goals are impressive. I totally agree with David and other friends – the program was made for you.

  • Lion Isis
    December 27, 2010

    Max, you are by far one of the most intelligent and impressive people I have ever met. Period. The fact that you are only 20 years of age truly puts you in a class all your own. To say the Thiel Fellowship would be lucky to have you is an understatement. It is men like you who will define our future – we need to do whatever we can to support your efforts. If I can be of any additional help in this process, please let me know.

  • Vennie Encheva
    December 27, 2010

    Good luck Max! The world needs more entrepreneurs!

  • Ben Casnocha
    December 27, 2010

    It’s a terrific opportunity and one I think you’d put to good use via your hustle and resourcefulness. Good luck!!

  • Rob Wu
    December 27, 2010

    You’ll be awesome. Good luck!

  • Wtf
    December 27, 2010


  • Michael Vassar
    December 27, 2010

    I think it will be fascinating having you and Tom McCabe working together. Lots of potential for positive synergies there!

  • Anonymous
    December 27, 2010

    I can’t think of anyone who’d do more with this opportunity than Max. If I had a vote for the fellowship, I’d cast my ballot for Max, no questions asked!

  • Aaron Kahn
    December 27, 2010

    Go for it dude. All positive thoughts headed your way.

  • Kosta Grammatis
    December 27, 2010

    ask and ye shall receive.

    You’re halfway there. 🙂

  • rosshill
    December 27, 2010

    I was another one of those guys who thought “Max is in” when I read about Peter’s fund in the headlines. Crush it Max!

  • Jkamin73
    December 27, 2010

    Max, best of luck. Like everyone has been saying in the comments, you definitely are ahead of the pack for your age. Best of luck and I know you will be successful no matter what you do.

  • Taylor
    December 27, 2010

    Max, it was quite impressive to be walking down the street with you as you invented the ‘triangle investment model’ to solve one of the biggest challenges facing startups. You followed through, too, and your idea has already produced big wins for two startups, with more to follow. And I like where you’re going with your modeling work for early stage companies – this kind of thinking will have a big impact for entrepreneurs. No question you’re headed in the right direction. Totally agree with all the great comments.

  • Dan Greenberg
    December 27, 2010

    No doubt you’re perfect for this Max

  • Frederik Fleck
    December 27, 2010

    Great Step! But do not only bet on one horse to fulfill your entrepreneurial dream…

  • Micah Daigle
    December 27, 2010

    Max: There are a lot of smart, dedicated, ambitious young people in the world. What makes you different? As far as I can tell, most who succeed in bringing their dreams into reality are those who understand that dreams are a team project. You’re a powerful nexus of relationships in our corner of the universe because you make it a priority to listen to and activate the people around you. And the universe rewards you for it.

    Looking forward to making the world a better, more connected place with you. 🙂

  • Kuhn Eric
    December 27, 2010

    Oh watch out world. Max is a rising star and going to concur it!

  • Rafe Furst
    December 27, 2010

    I can’t say enough how impressed I am with the confidence, courage and foresight you are displaying to leave Stanford several weeks into your freshman year. But I’m equally confident that it’s the right decision.

    As I commented 2 months ago on TechCrunch (http://techcrunch.com/2010/09/27/peter-thiel-drop-out-of-school/), the world needs for you to have the freedom to catalyze entrepreneurship. And it seems as though Peter’s fellowship is tailor-made for this purpose and tailor-made for you, Max.

  • Johan Ismael
    December 27, 2010

    I started to read your blog only recently but you definitely seem like you were made for this kind of programs ! Good luck !

  • Tyler Emerson
    December 27, 2010

    I remember meeting Max at Singularity Summit 2007. Once in a while you meet someone who you know will do great things. I had that feeling when meeting John Schloendorn and Michael and William Andregg. The same feeling was there with Max. It wasn’t only his passion, intellect and sincerity. It was the passion and support of his Dad. His father’s joy at seeing his son in an intellectual candy store. The pride and excitement in which his Dad spoke about him. Max alone made a lasting impression, but I’ll never forget that feeling of seeing a precocious son being supported unconditionally by his father. Max is already beyond his years. I hope he finds the support that his creative, collaborative gifts merit.

  • Mike Del Ponte
    December 27, 2010

    All of my mentors are older than me, save one. Max Marmer is a thought-leader, risk taker, and serious entrepreneur bent on changing the world. As this blog post shows, he is mature, thoughtful, bold, and respectful. I have seen Max grow rapidly since I first met him. He is constantly learning, trying new things, and surrounding him with this right people. I’ve learned a lot from Max and am excited to see what he accomplishes over the years. He has already had an impact and his career is just starting.

    I founded and led a social venture that identified and invested in young social entrepreneurs. Having met, worked with, or reviewed business plans from hundreds of young innovators, I can say that Max is the best fit for the Thiel Fellowship I have ever encountered. He will leverage it to make a big difference.

  • steve blank
    December 27, 2010

    On an age-to-intelligence ratio Max makes me feel both old and dumb. Pretty impressive.
    Max typifies the “too young to know it can’t be done and brilliant enough to see a better way.”
    I’d like an option on 10% of his future earnings.

    • Rafe Furst
      December 27, 2010

      Get in line 😉

  • Travis D. Wallis
    December 27, 2010

    I met Max a year or so ago, and with passion and vigor, he embarked on a path of discovery around Business Model Innovation. In that time frame, he’s garnered the respect of many people, including Steve Blank & Alexander Osterwalder (which, if you ever look into BMI, you’ll quickly find that they are the leaders within the space).

    From theory to practice, Max Marmer is a machine at getting things done (just ask him about his GTD practice). To second Mike’s comment around Mentorship – he is also my one exception with regard to age. The depth of his knowledge is impressive, he’s a thought-leader, and that he’s only 20 is a bit mind-blowing.

    The mission that Max has embarked upon could very well change how entrepreneurs think in the valley all together. And his career is just starting. It’s doubtful that the impact of awarding the Thiel Fellowship to anyone else will have greater long-term impact. Max is going to shift the paradigm of how people see start-up innovation.

  • Mathias J. Holzmann
    December 28, 2010

    Spent a lot of time with Max both at Palomar5 as well as in San Francisco and I am really proud of his development that he made in the last 1.5 years that I know him and astounded by his ingenuity that he has sharpened even further.

  • Logan Kugler
    December 28, 2010

    As others have said, this opportunity was made for Max. Max is one of the smartest people under 30 that I know and those in charge of choosing the 20 under 20 for the Thiel Fellowship would be remiss not to give Max a long, hard look. He is well beyond his years and would likely be positioned to achieve and do more in the two years by himself than two other candidates combined.

  • Taryn Miller-Stevens
    December 28, 2010

    Max: With or without this fellowship, you will transform the world. If Thiel & Co. want to do it faster, they’ll grab you while they can. You inspire me. Keep being you.

  • Mike Nguyen
    December 28, 2010

    I remember meeting Max before the Summit Series at a pre-event dinner in San Francisco earlier this year. Max reached out to me after someone was kind enough to think I could give him some advise on how to help startups, as we do something similar in the Internet infrastructure space. In hindsight, the suggestion should have been for me to ask Max for advice. I’ve never in my career met someone so focused and singularly determined at achieving his goals. And he’s 20?! Damn, and I thought I’d got an early start…good luck Max, if there is anyone I know who can take full advantage of Peter’s fund and make a difference, it’s you. I’d say the same thing if there was no age limit on this thing.

    • Rafe Furst
      December 28, 2010

      I forgot (until your comment) to mention that one of the first times I spent time with Max was when I asked him to mentor me in organizing my thoughts and “getting things done”. He didn’t disappoint (despite being half my age). Also, Max always introduces me to the most amazing contacts. In fact I’m meeting with one of them in several minutes…

      • Anonymous
        December 29, 2010

        Good point about Max and his intros Rafe. It continually amazes me how much access he has to folks and how willing he is to make connections. Not just blind introductions either but well thought out intros where Max has a clear understanding how either party can benefit from meeting each other. I get ‘connecting fatigue’ easily but Max never puts me in a position to feel that way.

  • Sahil Gujral
    December 28, 2010


    I’m a tough critic of everyone (myself included) and you completely blow me away. You’re a profoundly independent thinker, an incredible listener, resourceful as anyone I’ve ever met, intensely creative, more passionate about entrepreneurship broadly writ than half the people I’ve met who get paid to run centers dedicated to this kind of thing, and you’re already (clearly) succeeding wildly at offering networks, mentoring, thought models, and business strategies to veteran entrepreneurs that exceed what their own experience alone offers them.

    I think as you develop more specific interests and specific domain knowledge you will become highly, informedly selective about which businesses and people you do and do not want to work with. You’ve already quite acutely grasped you can’t get there with “book learnin’ ” alone and you’ve wasted no time jumping into cultivating a life that makes that possible for you. Whether or not you ever return to formal education, you are doing completely the right thing by furthering your education so profoundly through these generative interactions you so fervently work on with entrepreneurs you run into in your day to day life and more formally/structuredly with Blackbox. It’s absolutely amazing to see just how effectively you have ALREADY channeled your authenticity with this, your abundant curiousity, and your sharp smell of what you do and do not believe into mutually, idiosyncratically, and immensely generative interactions with so many different corners of entrepreneurship and innovation throughout the world.

    When you do find the right business/project/domain fit for you (and I know you have already found all of us quite a community in blackbox) you are going to be an even bigger force to be reckoned with than you already are. (And make no mistake you are a force in that respect for a person of any age.)

    So, to be frank (and no doubt I am prejudiced), as a new organization, I think the Thiel Foundation would benefit immensely by even being able to associate with and use an example like your own story and your future ambition. But irrespective of whether or not you become a “Thiel fellow,” the truth of the matter is that people like you — given enough consistency + opportunity + time — are going to be people we’ll all keep coming back to to learn from and read about in progressively more notable ways. Really any incubation program of any kind would be doing nothing short of very smart business for themselves to back someone of your caliber in a project search, (and especially any environment where you would be able to partner with more domain-obsessed cofounders of any kind).

    Thank you for the clarity of vision you have so unabashedly cultivated (and evangelize in so many ways for all of us here.) I wish you good luck with the Thiel fellowship, because in third party awards luck always plays a role. I won’t wish you good luck becoming a transformational entrepreneur because not only is it already happening but luck has had nothing to do with it. I’m proud to be friends with someone like you and to learn from your example, and, as you keep forging ahead with your journey here, please don’t forget to keep writing for the rest of us.


  • Sundeep Ahuja
    December 28, 2010

    I completely second David Weekly’s comment that this program was made for you–heck, it’s like you two were made for each other. Max, from when I met you over 18 months ago you’ve done nothing but push the envelope and defy expectations. You’re smart, you’re ambitious, you’re connected, and you’ve got this mischievous grin that makes you downright dangerous. Go get ’em.

  • Bob Dorf
    December 28, 2010

    If there’s anyone for whom the Thiel fellowship is designed, it’s clearly Max Marmer. I’ve worked with Max for about six months now in a variety of areas surrounding entrepreneurship, education, startups, and software as part of the Steve Blank team. For a guy one-third my age, Max’s knowledge, energy, and tenacity are awe-inspiring. I know he will continue to do great things, make breakthroughs in entrepreneurship, and likely conquer the world along the way. He has vision, the horsepower to translate that vision into products or concepts, and the passion to drive them forward. My favorite Max encounter: when we didn’t leap up and applaud his approach to verticalizing Customer Development, Max quietly went away. 72 hours later, more or less, he returned with the approach/vision “translated” into a software tool that will likely prove immensely helpful to entrepreneurs. The “loss” quickly became a “win,” one of many on Max Marmer’s to-do list!

  • Chris Busch
    December 28, 2010

    Max is one of the most convincing youngsters I’m aware of- as a true Sandboxer, he’s used to push the boundaries, and will excel in his endeavours. I fully support his path, and wish all the best!

  • Tyler Willis
    December 29, 2010

    Max is a rare prodigy in entrepreneurship… he would be a phenomenal choice for this fellowship.

    The caliber of people in this thread is a testament to the potential Max has, this grant should absolutely go to giving him the resources to supercharge and deliver on that potential faster.

  • Kieran
    December 29, 2010

    I’d love to hear more about why Stanford wasn’t right for you.

  • Edward Harran
    January 1, 2011

    Mr Max Marmer,
    Investing in Max is one just an investment in one person, but a whole ecosystem of amazing individuals around the world. Perhaps the smartest, most impressive 20 year old I have ever befriended. I love you brother. CRUSH IT!

  • Dennis Ray Wingo
    January 1, 2011


    Your missive here is excellent and I completely agree that both the educational system is broken and that it is not going to be the megacorps that make the future happen. From the vantage point where I am today, it is risk, the perception of risk, and the availability of money not from the existing power structure (such as in commercial space), that will make this happen!

    Good luck to you and if you are Ames some time, drop by our McDonald’s for a chat.

    Dennis Wingo

  • billehunt
    January 2, 2011

    Good luck, my friend. You’re an ideal candidate for this, bright, driven, entrepreneurial and yearning to change the world.

  • Michelle Cadieux
    January 2, 2011

    good for you to direct your own education

  • Taylor
    January 3, 2011

    If you are a Thiel Fellowship applicant reading this article, please check out thielcommunity.com! I’m trying to form a community of applicants so we can all discuss the Fellowship, keep each other up-to-date,and talk about new innovations and ideas. The site has a social network aspect of it where you can create a “Thiel Applicant Specialized” profile, a forum for community discussions, and a system to share videos, news, and pictures.

    Max, you seem very intelligent and I wish you the best of luck!

  • Kim Scheinberg
    January 3, 2011

    When I first read about the Thiel Fellowship, I had assumed that Peter had just recently met you and was trying to provide extra incentive to get you to drop out of Stanford.

    If Peter doesn’t choose you, I might have to create my own Fellowship Program and make you my first pick.

  • Tom Gruber
    January 3, 2011

    Yup, Max is the ideal candidate for Peter Thiel’s foundation. Not only is he way ahead of his years in his knowledge and understanding of how to create change, his huge ambition is matched with a healthy pragmatism. He is both catalyst and fuel. Start the engine!

  • Fabian Pfortmueller
    January 4, 2011

    Max has everything we’re looking for in a Sandboxer: enormous curiosity paired with the ambition to not just talk about ideas, but actually make them happen. I can’t wait where the experience of the next years will take him and I’m convinced this will be the perfect opportunity for him!! GO MAX, GO !!

  • R. Ponieman
    January 4, 2011

    As a Transmedia Producer I understand your views on a disruptive educational model as an extension of the current trend which, as postulated by Henry Jenkins and others, has to do with media convergence for surfing wired brains of post digital natives. The concept of education without scholls or books.

    Take a look around. It´s already happening

    Best of lucks. If you stay put, you´ll get there.

  • Gagan Biyani
    January 5, 2011

    I’ve gotten to know Max over the last year and have intense respect for his drive, intelligence and level-headedness. He’s surprising calm in the face of adversity (see: the Stanford rejection), yet continually works hard towards his goals. Of all of the young entrepreneurs I’ve met over the last year, Max stands out. To the Thiel Foundation – you should not only consider Max for the fellowship, but you should definitely accept him. He’s on the path to do great things and you’ll be lucky to have him as part of the program.

  • Alex Osterwalder
    January 23, 2011

    If they don’t take you they make a big mistake!

  • Florie Brizel
    February 4, 2011


    As always, your elegant writing inspires me. You possess an extraordinary quality: not only do you never cease asking questions, but you also ask questions which others haven’t considered. Or perhaps don’t take seriously. But you do. It was my delight to spend time with you at Palomar5 and to watch (and continue to watch) as you grow. You are an incredibly deep thinker, and I know your decision to leave Stanford was layered, but I’m glad you made the choice you did because your mind is not one to be confined to conventional spaces. I wholeheartedly endorse your application for the Thiele 20 Under 20 Fellowship. All the comments which precede mine have pretty much covered all the reasons why you are the perfect candidate for this opportunity. You have a very old soul, but you are, indeed, the Future.

  • Teen Biz Coach
    February 21, 2011

    WOW!!! Big Love for you Max . Seems as if you have already ‘sold the dream’ so you are well on your way!!!

    I have been reading through your blog and am inspired by your work and vision. I work with high growth potential teen entrepreneurs (average age of 15.5 years old)….so sorry to say – you are an ‘old’ entrepreneur by today’s standards, haha, jk.

    While I don’t know you personally, my business partner told me he discovered you while he was doing some research on the Valley and had the honor and opportunity to speak to you. He was very moved by your work. Indeed he is also a very visionary and selfless person who has a most profound way of bringing everything and everyone into perspective.

    At any rate Congrats on being accepted to Peter Thiel’s program. That is a very interesting initiative he has going on there and an incredible way to put youth in an immersion based environment that is REAL – best training they can get. He picked the right group too….young motivated people who know everything yet nothing at all, wink, wink. How is that for the ultimate social experiment???

    Best wishes with your endeavors and let us know how we can support you in Latin America.