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优秀千亿在创业之初总是显得很傻,为什么?

优秀千亿在创业之初总是显得很傻,为什么?

Lucinda Shen 2020年11月20日
许多千亿日后的成就与创业之初有着天壤之别,应当如何寻找和评估此类投资机会?

2019年5月1日,星期三,美国加利福尼亚州贝弗利山,米尔肯研究所全球高峰会议上的埃拉德·吉尔。图片来源:PATRICK T. FALLON—BLOOMBERG/GETTY IMAGES

埃拉德·吉尔并非在硅谷长大。虽然出身护士和教育心理学学者家庭,但他的童年却像军人家庭的小孩那样“居无定所”,先后在密歇根州、圣迭戈、以色列和亚利桑那州等地生活。

不过吉尔在挑选初创千亿时似乎特别独具慧眼。他所投资的公司中(通常在种子轮融资时就已投资)有约25家成长为了所谓的“独角兽”,其中包括Instacart、Stripe、Coinbase等。

不仅如此,他参与投资的PagerDuty、Square和Pinterest都已经成功上市,爱彼迎(Airbnb)、Wish等更多公司预计也将在今年IPO。

吉尔曾经负责创办谷歌(Google)的移动业务,也曾经帮助推特(Twitter)从一家只有90人的小公司成长为1500人的千亿巨头。他还参与创办了基因检测初创公司Color Genomics。如今,吉尔已经赢得了“创业导师”的美誉,为许多刚刚起步或想要扩大规模的初创千亿提供咨询建议。

作为独立投资者,吉尔会在千亿创业初期对其进行少量投资、扮演天使投资人的角色,不过他同样也是日益兴起的所谓“个体资本家”(solo capitalists)中的一员,会在创业公司的发展后期投入大量资金,与传统风投机构竞争合意的投资标的。

许多千亿日后的成就与创业之初有着天壤之别,应当如何寻找和评估此类投资机会?为什么全球最大、最成功的公司初看之时会显得既愚蠢又低端?近日,《财富》杂志就相关话题采访了埃拉德·吉尔。

访谈内容如下,为简明起见,内容有删改:

《财富》:介绍下自己吧,有这么多事情可以做,为什么选择了做技术投资?

埃拉德·吉尔:我当时正在攻读生物学博士学位,主要研究qy113vip学、癌症、衰老等人类疾病相关问题,读到一半的时候,我意识到,成为一名学者并非我的志向所在,这部分是因为我不喜欢那种在实验室里待着的生活。于是我就开始思考,如何才能对人类产生最大的影响,做一些对人类有用的事情。

此外,我当时对科技也很感兴趣。现在大家可能已经忘了以前做事情有多难。记得读高中时,我对数学家们的qy113vip很感兴趣,我会给他们写信,他们也会把打印出来的论文用黄色信封装着邮寄给我。而现在,突然之间,所有的小孩都可以根据自己的兴趣随意查阅世界上的每一篇数学论文了。

后来,我便搬到了旧金山的湾区,在“互联网繁荣”即将画上句号的时候进入了创投世界。时至今日,我依然牢记着硅谷的传统精神——做对人类有用的事情,给世界带来积极的影响。然而不幸的是,这种精神现已经成为大众媒体取乐的对象,就像电视剧《硅谷》(Silicon Valley)中演绎的那样。

种子期千亿的商业规划可能还不明朗,而你通常会投资这一阶段的初创千亿。那么,你会关注创始人的哪些特质

我认为,市场往往是决定(一家千亿)能否成功的最重要因素。我见过非常非常优秀的团队因为市场低迷而功败垂成,也见过一塌糊涂的团队因为市场行情不错而大获成功。因此,首先我会关心创始人瞄准的市场是否足够大、产品是否有想象空间。

我很少投那些没有想好做什么的团队,我一般会等到创业团队有了实际动作之后才会选择投资,这样更容易判断他们瞄准的市场是否可靠。比如像PagerDuty这样的团队,他们整个职业生涯就是在为不同公司开发相同的产品,然后有一天,他们决定把这种产品单独建成数字基础设施(这时候去投他们就稳妥得多)。

至于创业者瞄准的市场是否足够大、产品是否有想象空间,这件事情其实很难讲。原因很简单,显而易见的机会和市场肯定会吸引很多竞争者往里冲。所以那些做得比较好的初创千亿几乎肯定只能从那些不起眼的市场入手,往那些别人觉得可笑、愚蠢或者非常低端的市场发展,这也是为什么很多千亿在创业时会让人感觉很奇怪,投资者可能也搞不懂你做这件事情的原因。这时候就需要创业者拿出些东西来证明自己了。

你在爱彼迎的投资是否就是这种情况?我记得安德森·霍洛维茨的管理合伙人杰夫·乔丹曾经说过,他在刚听到这个想法时觉得非常疯狂。

如果没有记错的话,我投资爱彼迎的时候他们只有8个人,而且那时候他们还是在布莱恩·切斯基的公寓里千亿。我和他们早就认识,所以他们在A轮融资的时候就找到了我。那时我就觉得他们的想法非常好。

当时看来,种种迹象都表明他们的想法应该行得通。首先,他们的产品已经开始运作了。而且在那之前,我在读本科和研究生时曾经通过一家名为Servas的(旅行)公司旅行过,这家公司诞生于二次世界大战时期的世界语社区,其基本理念就是,如果人们能够在其他国家跟其他国家的民众生活一段时间,彼此建立直接的联系,那么人类就更有可能实现世界和平。要想通过该公司旅行,首先你要完成注册,然后他们会对你进行面试。最后就是出国旅行了,他们会给你提供一份名单,名单上的人会在旅行目的地为你提供免费接待。当然,你也得遵守一些规定,比如你得提前一周或一晚联系名单上的东道主。也就是说,假如你要去罗马,只要给名单上的任意东道主打个电话或者发个邮件,再带上这本小册子就行了。

所以当我看到爱彼迎的时候,就立刻想到了Servas,只是这个项目还可以让我获益。

不过你也很看重创始人本身的特质和性格,对吗?

创始人确实很重要,除了毅力、勇气和道德操守等特质以外,我们还需要了解以下问题:他们是否具有快速学习的能力?是否擅长营销?这里的营销不仅是指他们是否能够把产品卖给新客户,还包括他们是否可以说服他人加入自己的团队,是否能够筹集到资本。创始团队里至少要有部分成员擅长营销,也要有部分成员擅长产品开发,在公司逐渐走向成熟之后,还要有擅长运营的人才。

如果用苹果公司来打比方的话,那就是史蒂夫·沃兹尼亚克能够开发出任何产品,史蒂夫·乔布斯任何产品都可以销售得出去,而蒂姆·库克则是从后端做起,最后承担起了运营和扩展供应链的qy113vip。

“个体资本家”(能够比传统风投机构更快做出投资决策的个人“风投机构”)近来蔚然成风,大家普遍认为你也是其中一员,你觉得“个体资本家”出现的原因是什么?

现在大家所说的“个体资本家”其实由来已久。苹果、英特尔等一批伟大公司的原始投资人亚瑟·洛克便是其中之一。洛克起初是“戴维斯与洛克”(Davis and Rock)两人公司的成员,20世纪80年代,洛克自立门户,此后便一直以我们现在所说的“个体资本家”的身份开展投资活动。

但现在有一批独立投资者不再仅仅将目光投向千亿的种子轮或A轮融资,而是更加积极地参与A、B、C轮及后续投资机会的竞争。

当前,千亿从创办到上市通常需要8到12年,处于私有状态的时间远远长于过往。千亿规模扩大、业务井喷式增长时期往往也是千亿最容易出现问题的时期,此时,创业者可以向运营型投资者寻求帮助,而许多个体资本家恰好能够扮演这种角色。

由于创投网络的重要性愈发突出,所以我也认同这将成为一种趋势。我感觉这种情况大概每五年会发生一次。有些以前很重要的网络现在依然很重要,比如Y-Combinator和谷歌,但其他一些千亿的重要性则大为降低,并且已经被Stripe(一个很重要的创投网络)、Opendoor,Coinbase、Uber等公司所取代。越来越多的创始人(和投资者)从这一波千亿中脱颖而出。

话虽如此,我还是觉得有些传统的后期基金本质上就是个人投资者,我没有打算超越他们(笑),不过有些基金确实只有一位主要的合伙人,其他人不过就是做些很初级的qy113vip。

对初创千亿而言,哪些创投网络不像以前那么重要了?

有些千亿在创投领域确实被边缘化了,很奇怪,它们拥有非常好的基础条件,却从未孵化出任何知名千亿,或者即便有,数量也非常少。

比如从亚马逊、微软或苹果孵化出来的千亿就很少,太奇怪了,不是么?这也是西雅图坐拥大量优秀工程师却在过去20年没有诞生过多少创业公司的部分原因所在。这里也有一些很不错的千亿,但并没有体现出亚马逊、微软作为锚定千亿的作用。

有时有些小千亿反而能够孵化出许多非常值得关注的千亿和动能。以PayPal网络为例:由PayPal前app创办并达到一定规模的千亿,创始人都是该公司的离职高管。不知为何,PayPal的高管团队似乎特别擅长创办具有影响力的大千亿,但普通app在创业方面似乎就有些乏善可陈了(YouTube除外)。这是为什么呢?有可能是因为千亿文化、决策习惯或者吸引到的人才不同,我也不清楚。有些动能让我感觉很奇怪,也不太能理解,不过思考一下还是很有趣的。

你还投资了加密货币交易所Coinbase。该公司的首席qy113vip官布莱恩·阿姆斯特朗最近公开发表了一份颇具争议的备忘录,呼吁app不要参与政治事务。在该公司寻求发展的当下,你认为这会产生怎样的影响?

我觉得这个问题还是直接问Coinbase团队比较好。我没有参与相关决策,对相关情况也不怎么了解。

所以从你的角度来看,这不是一个“应不应该做”的问题,而是他有权利这么做,对吗?

我认为,从根本上说,还是要由公司的创始人或首席qy113vip官来从使命驱动的角度决定希望app专注于哪些事务,而且确定千亿使命这件事应该由创始人在创业初期完成。每家千亿的首席qy113vip官都有权确定公司的重点与使命。如果创业者希望承担宏大的使命,那当然可以,不过如果他们想要更专注地履行一些特定的使命,也没有什么问题。

你现在感兴趣的投资领域有哪些?之前你曾经说过要采取守势,不过你也认为新兴社交媒体千亿还有投资空间,比如你就投了Clubhouse。

大约一年前,我读到一篇关于社交媒体世界会发生哪些有趣变化的博客。首先是技术革新,浏览器中集成了WebRTC、WebGL技术,而借助WebRTC可以传输高清影音,开发者能够使用相关技术开发出非常优秀的视频应用程序。

其二是代际转换,年轻人不想使用与父辈相同的社交媒体网络。我认为,再过5到8年,某些社交媒体网络也会出现“新老交替”,而且我觉得时机其实已经成熟。加上现在受新冠qy113vip影响,大家都对社交非常渴望,也给新平台创造了实验和应用的空间。

在看待这种事情时,我会努力让自己保持开放的心态,因为我从没有预料到会出现Clubhouse这样的产品。我以前也从没有想过仅支持语音功能的格式(会成为下一个主要功能)。有些东西只有上手了才可以发现它的美。所以我一直在搜索网络上那些不甚起眼的功能。我认为,未来肯定会有爆款产品从这些不起眼的地方诞生,比如说浏览器内置VR,不过我要再次强调的是,现在还处于非常早期的阶段。

你是否曾经错过重要的投资机会?

噢,那可多了。比如我就错过了Lyft。原因是我对它的估值及其与Uber的竞争有点担心。当时人们普遍认为,所有的强技术型市场都会是“赢家通吃”,但实际上许多市场后来都变成了寡头市场。我当时对市场结构和估值做出了错误的判断。(财富中文网)

译者:梁宇

审校:夏林

埃拉德·吉尔并非在硅谷长大。虽然出身护士和教育心理学学者家庭,但他的童年却像军人家庭的小孩那样“居无定所”,先后在密歇根州、圣迭戈、以色列和亚利桑那州等地生活。

不过吉尔在挑选初创千亿时似乎特别独具慧眼。他所投资的公司中(通常在种子轮融资时就已投资)有约25家成长为了所谓的“独角兽”,其中包括Instacart、Stripe、Coinbase等。

不仅如此,他参与投资的PagerDuty、Square和Pinterest都已经成功上市,爱彼迎(Airbnb)、Wish等更多公司预计也将在今年IPO。

吉尔曾经负责创办谷歌(Google)的移动业务,也曾经帮助推特(Twitter)从一家只有90人的小公司成长为1500人的千亿巨头。他还参与创办了基因检测初创公司Color Genomics。如今,吉尔已经赢得了“创业导师”的美誉,为许多刚刚起步或想要扩大规模的初创千亿提供咨询建议。

作为独立投资者,吉尔会在千亿创业初期对其进行少量投资、扮演天使投资人的角色,不过他同样也是日益兴起的所谓“个体资本家”(solo capitalists)中的一员,会在创业公司的发展后期投入大量资金,与传统风投机构竞争合意的投资标的。

许多千亿日后的成就与创业之初有着天壤之别,应当如何寻找和评估此类投资机会?为什么全球最大、最成功的公司初看之时会显得既愚蠢又低端?近日,《财富》杂志就相关话题采访了埃拉德·吉尔。

访谈内容如下,为简明起见,内容有删改:

《财富》:介绍下自己吧,有这么多事情可以做,为什么选择了做技术投资?

埃拉德·吉尔:我当时正在攻读生物学博士学位,主要研究qy113vip学、癌症、衰老等人类疾病相关问题,读到一半的时候,我意识到,成为一名学者并非我的志向所在,这部分是因为我不喜欢那种在实验室里待着的生活。于是我就开始思考,如何才能对人类产生最大的影响,做一些对人类有用的事情。

此外,我当时对科技也很感兴趣。现在大家可能已经忘了以前做事情有多难。记得读高中时,我对数学家们的qy113vip很感兴趣,我会给他们写信,他们也会把打印出来的论文用黄色信封装着邮寄给我。而现在,突然之间,所有的小孩都可以根据自己的兴趣随意查阅世界上的每一篇数学论文了。

后来,我便搬到了旧金山的湾区,在“互联网繁荣”即将画上句号的时候进入了创投世界。时至今日,我依然牢记着硅谷的传统精神——做对人类有用的事情,给世界带来积极的影响。然而不幸的是,这种精神现已经成为大众媒体取乐的对象,就像电视剧《硅谷》(Silicon Valley)中演绎的那样。

种子期千亿的商业规划可能还不明朗,而你通常会投资这一阶段的初创千亿。那么,你会关注创始人的哪些特质?

我认为,市场往往是决定(一家千亿)能否成功的最重要因素。我见过非常非常优秀的团队因为市场低迷而功败垂成,也见过一塌糊涂的团队因为市场行情不错而大获成功。因此,首先我会关心创始人瞄准的市场是否足够大、产品是否有想象空间。

我很少投那些没有想好做什么的团队,我一般会等到创业团队有了实际动作之后才会选择投资,这样更容易判断他们瞄准的市场是否可靠。比如像PagerDuty这样的团队,他们整个职业生涯就是在为不同公司开发相同的产品,然后有一天,他们决定把这种产品单独建成数字基础设施(这时候去投他们就稳妥得多)。

至于创业者瞄准的市场是否足够大、产品是否有想象空间,这件事情其实很难讲。原因很简单,显而易见的机会和市场肯定会吸引很多竞争者往里冲。所以那些做得比较好的初创千亿几乎肯定只能从那些不起眼的市场入手,往那些别人觉得可笑、愚蠢或者非常低端的市场发展,这也是为什么很多千亿在创业时会让人感觉很奇怪,投资者可能也搞不懂你做这件事情的原因。这时候就需要创业者拿出些东西来证明自己了。

你在爱彼迎的投资是否就是这种情况?我记得安德森·霍洛维茨的管理合伙人杰夫·乔丹曾经说过,他在刚听到这个想法时觉得非常疯狂。

如果没有记错的话,我投资爱彼迎的时候他们只有8个人,而且那时候他们还是在布莱恩·切斯基的公寓里千亿。我和他们早就认识,所以他们在A轮融资的时候就找到了我。那时我就觉得他们的想法非常好。

当时看来,种种迹象都表明他们的想法应该行得通。首先,他们的产品已经开始运作了。而且在那之前,我在读本科和研究生时曾经通过一家名为Servas的(旅行)公司旅行过,这家公司诞生于二次世界大战时期的世界语社区,其基本理念就是,如果人们能够在其他国家跟其他国家的民众生活一段时间,彼此建立直接的联系,那么人类就更有可能实现世界和平。要想通过该公司旅行,首先你要完成注册,然后他们会对你进行面试。最后就是出国旅行了,他们会给你提供一份名单,名单上的人会在旅行目的地为你提供免费接待。当然,你也得遵守一些规定,比如你得提前一周或一晚联系名单上的东道主。也就是说,假如你要去罗马,只要给名单上的任意东道主打个电话或者发个邮件,再带上这本小册子就行了。

所以当我看到爱彼迎的时候,就立刻想到了Servas,只是这个项目还可以让我获益。

不过你也很看重创始人本身的特质和性格,对吗?

创始人确实很重要,除了毅力、勇气和道德操守等特质以外,我们还需要了解以下问题:他们是否具有快速学习的能力?是否擅长营销?这里的营销不仅是指他们是否能够把产品卖给新客户,还包括他们是否可以说服他人加入自己的团队,是否能够筹集到资本。创始团队里至少要有部分成员擅长营销,也要有部分成员擅长产品开发,在公司逐渐走向成熟之后,还要有擅长运营的人才。

如果用苹果公司来打比方的话,那就是史蒂夫·沃兹尼亚克能够开发出任何产品,史蒂夫·乔布斯任何产品都可以销售得出去,而蒂姆·库克则是从后端做起,最后承担起了运营和扩展供应链的qy113vip。

“个体资本家”(能够比传统风投机构更快做出投资决策的个人“风投机构”)近来蔚然成风,大家普遍认为你也是其中一员,你觉得“个体资本家”出现的原因是什么?

现在大家所说的“个体资本家”其实由来已久。苹果、英特尔等一批伟大公司的原始投资人亚瑟·洛克便是其中之一。洛克起初是“戴维斯与洛克”(Davis and Rock)两人公司的成员,20世纪80年代,洛克自立门户,此后便一直以我们现在所说的“个体资本家”的身份开展投资活动。

但现在有一批独立投资者不再仅仅将目光投向千亿的种子轮或A轮融资,而是更加积极地参与A、B、C轮及后续投资机会的竞争。

当前,千亿从创办到上市通常需要8到12年,处于私有状态的时间远远长于过往。千亿规模扩大、业务井喷式增长时期往往也是千亿最容易出现问题的时期,此时,创业者可以向运营型投资者寻求帮助,而许多个体资本家恰好能够扮演这种角色。

由于创投网络的重要性愈发突出,所以我也认同这将成为一种趋势。我感觉这种情况大概每五年会发生一次。有些以前很重要的网络现在依然很重要,比如Y-Combinator和谷歌,但其他一些千亿的重要性则大为降低,并且已经被Stripe(一个很重要的创投网络)、Opendoor,Coinbase、Uber等公司所取代。越来越多的创始人(和投资者)从这一波千亿中脱颖而出。

话虽如此,我还是觉得有些传统的后期基金本质上就是个人投资者,我没有打算超越他们(笑),不过有些基金确实只有一位主要的合伙人,其他人不过就是做些很初级的qy113vip。

对初创千亿而言,哪些创投网络不像以前那么重要了?

有些千亿在创投领域确实被边缘化了,很奇怪,它们拥有非常好的基础条件,却从未孵化出任何知名千亿,或者即便有,数量也非常少。

比如从亚马逊、微软或苹果孵化出来的千亿就很少,太奇怪了,不是么?这也是西雅图坐拥大量优秀工程师却在过去20年没有诞生过多少创业公司的部分原因所在。这里也有一些很不错的千亿,但并没有体现出亚马逊、微软作为锚定千亿的作用。

有时有些小千亿反而能够孵化出许多非常值得关注的千亿和动能。以PayPal网络为例:由PayPal前app创办并达到一定规模的千亿,创始人都是该公司的离职高管。不知为何,PayPal的高管团队似乎特别擅长创办具有影响力的大千亿,但普通app在创业方面似乎就有些乏善可陈了(YouTube除外)。这是为什么呢?有可能是因为千亿文化、决策习惯或者吸引到的人才不同,我也不清楚。有些动能让我感觉很奇怪,也不太能理解,不过思考一下还是很有趣的。

你还投资了加密货币交易所Coinbase。该公司的首席qy113vip官布莱恩·阿姆斯特朗最近公开发表了一份颇具争议的备忘录,呼吁app不要参与政治事务。在该公司寻求发展的当下,你认为这会产生怎样的影响?

我觉得这个问题还是直接问Coinbase团队比较好。我没有参与相关决策,对相关情况也不怎么了解。

所以从你的角度来看,这不是一个“应不应该做”的问题,而是他有权利这么做,对吗?

我认为,从根本上说,还是要由公司的创始人或首席qy113vip官来从使命驱动的角度决定希望app专注于哪些事务,而且确定千亿使命这件事应该由创始人在创业初期完成。每家千亿的首席qy113vip官都有权确定公司的重点与使命。如果创业者希望承担宏大的使命,那当然可以,不过如果他们想要更专注地履行一些特定的使命,也没有什么问题。

你现在感兴趣的投资领域有哪些?之前你曾经说过要采取守势,不过你也认为新兴社交媒体千亿还有投资空间,比如你就投了Clubhouse。

大约一年前,我读到一篇关于社交媒体世界会发生哪些有趣变化的博客。首先是技术革新,浏览器中集成了WebRTC、WebGL技术,而借助WebRTC可以传输高清影音,开发者能够使用相关技术开发出非常优秀的视频应用程序。

其二是代际转换,年轻人不想使用与父辈相同的社交媒体网络。我认为,再过5到8年,某些社交媒体网络也会出现“新老交替”,而且我觉得时机其实已经成熟。加上现在受新冠qy113vip影响,大家都对社交非常渴望,也给新平台创造了实验和应用的空间。

在看待这种事情时,我会努力让自己保持开放的心态,因为我从没有预料到会出现Clubhouse这样的产品。我以前也从没有想过仅支持语音功能的格式(会成为下一个主要功能)。有些东西只有上手了才可以发现它的美。所以我一直在搜索网络上那些不甚起眼的功能。我认为,未来肯定会有爆款产品从这些不起眼的地方诞生,比如说浏览器内置VR,不过我要再次强调的是,现在还处于非常早期的阶段。

你是否曾经错过重要的投资机会?

噢,那可多了。比如我就错过了Lyft。原因是我对它的估值及其与Uber的竞争有点担心。当时人们普遍认为,所有的强技术型市场都会是“赢家通吃”,但实际上许多市场后来都变成了寡头市场。我当时对市场结构和估值做出了错误的判断。(财富中文网)

译者:梁宇

审校:夏林

Elad Gil didn’t grow up in Silicon Valley. The son of a nurse and an academic studying education psychology, he grew up akin to a military brat, moving between Michigan, San Diego, Israel, and Arizona in his early years.

But he seems to have a golden touch when picking startups that turn into unicorns or decacorns. Gil, who typically makes bets in seed-stage companies, has cut checks to some 25 startups that have since reached the vaunted unicorn status, including Instacart, Stripe, and Coinbase.

And there's more: Other companies in his portfolio such as PagerDuty, Square, and Pinterest are already trading in public markets, while more, such as Airbnb and Wish, are expected to IPO this year.

Now billed as a "startup helper" who advises new companies as they seek to get off the ground or scale, Gil has worked to start Google's mobile efforts and help Twitter scale from 90 employees to 1,500. He also co-founded a genetic testing startup, Color Genomics.

While many individual investors are considered angels that put in small amounts of capital early on, Gil is also often cited as a part of trend dubbed "solo capitalists"—a class of investors who are putting in large checks even in later stages and compete with traditional venture capital shops for highly desirable investments.

Fortune caught up with the investor to discuss how he finds and evaluates investments at a stage when many companies look very different from their final form—and why by definition, the largest and most successful startups seem dumb or low-end at first glance.

Here's our conversation, edited for clarity:

Fortune: Tell me about yourself—how did you end up in tech investing, of all things?

Elad Gil: I was getting a Ph.D in biology—focused on human diseases-related areas, for example virology, cancer, aging—and I realized partway through that I didn’t want to become an academic, partly because you get thrown into a lab for a long time. I was thinking through what is the biggest way to have an impact and do something useful for people.

At the same time, I was interested in technology. I think we forget today how hard it was to do so many things: When I was in high school, I mailed random mathematicians because I was really interested what they were doing, and they would then send back those yellow envelopes with print outs of their papers. Now, oh my gosh, suddenly any kid can go online and read every single mathematics paper that is relevant in the world.

So I moved out to the San Francisco Bay area to join the startup world near the end of the dot-com boom. I still have an old Silicon Valley ethos of wanting to do useful things for people and to impact the world positively—unfortunately that’s become the type of thing that is made fun of in popular media, like Silicon Valley.

You generally invest at seed stage—when a company's business plan may still be unclear. So what do you look for in founders?

I think the biggest determinant of success tends to be the market. I’ve seen really, really good teams in terrible markets get completely crushed. I’ve also seen really bad teams in good markets do really well. So first and foremost, I care about if you’re building something interesting in a market that is large enough.

It’s pretty rare for me to invest in a team without an idea—usually I wait until people are working on something specific so it's easier to validate whether that market makes sense. Sometimes you see teams that have built the same thing over and over again in their career for different companies, and they decide to build it as a piece of infrastructure, like PagerDuty.

On whether you're building something interesting in a market large enough, though—that's really hard to tell a priori because, if a market is big and interesting and obvious, then everyone would already be doing it. So the startups that do best almost by definition have to be in non-obvious markets. People may think it's toyish, or dumb, or super low-end—so often things start off looking weird, and you [as an investor], may wonder, “Why would you really want to do that?” And you need a bit of convincing.

So was that the case for your investment in Airbnb? I remember that Andreessen Horowitz’s Managing Partner Jeff Jordan said he thought the idea was crazy when he first heard of it.

I invested in Airbnb, I think, when it was just eight people, and they were still working out of Brian Chesky’s apartment at the time. I knew them previously, and they pinged me while raising their Series A. It actually seemed like a really good concept and idea.

At the time, I think there were all sorts of signs that something like this should work. One: The product was beginning to work on their side. And before that, when I was in undergrad and a little during grad school, I had travelled through a [travel] service called Servas, a service born out of the Esperanto community in World War II. Their basic belief was that if you could stay with people in a foreign country and learn about them directly and vice versa, we would be more likely to have world peace. So you’d sign up for the service and they’d interview you and make sure you weren’t crazy or anything. Then you’d visit a country and they’d give you a printed booklet with the names of all the people that would host you for free in that country—with rules, of course, around needing to contact them a week or a night ahead. So you could literally show up in Rome with this booklet and just call or email anyone in it to stay with them.

So when I saw Airbnb, I thought: Wow, this is Servas but you can monetize it.

But you do also think the founders and their characteristics are important.

Founders are really important. Beyond signals like perseverance, grit, and ethics, you ask: Are people learning rapidly? Are they good at sales? Not only can they sell to new customers, but also can they convince people to join them and can they raise money? You need at least one part of the founding team to be good at selling, and one part to be good at building, and later in life of the company, you need someone who is good at tight operations.

If I were to use Apple as an analogy: Steve Wozniak could build anything. Steve Jobs could sell anything. Tim Cook really ended up running the operations from the back end and scaling the supply chains.

There seems to be a new trend around "solo capitalists"—single-person “venture firms” that are able to write checks faster than their traditional counterparts. You are considered one of those solo capitalists. Why do you think it is happening?

What people now call "solo capitalists" actually has a pretty long history. Arthur Rock was the original investor in Apple and in a bunch of other great companies including Intel. Originally, he was part of a two-person outfit called Davis and Rock, but he eventually went out on his own in the '80s and was just investing as what we would now call a solo capitalist.

But now there is a set of individuals who are investing and competing more aggressively for Series A, B, C, and beyond—competing later in the life of companies rather than just the seed or the A.

One shift is that companies have stayed private for much longer. Now companies take 8 to 12 years to go public, but founders could still use help from operator investors, which many solo capitalist are, as their companies are scaling and going into growth spurts—which is often when everything is starting to break at a company.

I also think this is a trend because there’s been a sudden shift in which networks are really important. I feel like this happens every five years or so. Some networks that were relevant before are still relevant today, like Y-Combinator or Google. But there are a bunch of companies that aren’t as relevant anymore and are being replaced by, say, Stripe—which is a really important founding network—or Opendoor, Coinbase, Uber, etc. There are more and more founders [and investors] emerging from these next waves of companies.

That said, I do think there are some traditional late-stage funds that are almost late-stage dressing for people acting as solo capitalists—I don’t want to out them (laughs)—but there really are some funds with just one main partner and a bunch of junior people.

What are the networks that are less relevant today for startup formation?

There are some companies that are less central now—and then there are some that have, oddly enough, never spawned anybody, or spawned very few companies.

There’s very few companies, for example, that have come out of Amazon, Microsoft, or Apple. It’s so weird, right? And it’s part of the reason why Seattle, while an interesting city with tons of great engineers, hasn’t created a whole lot of startups in the last twenty years. There are many interesting companies up there, but it’s not reflective of the fact that Amazon and Microsoft are anchor companies.

There are sometimes small companies that have spawned half a dozen interesting companies and other dynamics. Look at the PayPal network: Every single company founded by someone ex-PayPal that hit scale was founded by a former executive. For some reason, the executive team at PayPal was amazing at starting these massive, important companies, but the rank-and-file employees, with the big exception of YouTube, didn't start much. Why is that? It could be the culture, the decision-making, the people they attract—I have no idea why. There are really strange dynamics that I don’t really understand but I think are fascinating to think about.

You are also an investor in Coinbase, the crypto exchange. Its CEO Brian Armstrong recently came out publicly with a divisive memo calling employees to refrain from politics. What is your view on how that could impact the company as it seeks to grow?

I think that question's best directed at the Coinbase team. I wasn’t involved in the decisions around that post and I don’t have insights relevant to it.

So to you, it’s not a question of whether or not he should have posted it, but that he had the right to do so.

I think, fundamentally, it is up to the founder and/or CEO of the company to determine what they want the employees of their company to focus on from a mission-driven perspective. And it is really up to the founders, really early on in the life of the company, to define that mission, and to some extent you define that mission over time. Each CEO has it within their purview to define the focus and mission of the company. And if people want to have a broad mission for their company, they can define it that way. And if they want to have a very narrow mission for their company, they can define it that way too.

What are some of the areas you are interested in investing today? You've previously pointed to defense, but you also think there is space for new social media companies—for example, you invested in Clubhouse.

About a year ago, I read a blog post about interesting things that should happen in the social-media world. Number one, there was a technology shift—so WebRTC and WebGL were baked into the browser—and WebRTC allowed for really crisp audio and video that you can build really great video apps on.

Secondly, you have a generational shift. People don’t want to use their parents' social network, and I think in five to eight years, there will be turnover on certain networks and I think we are ripe for one. And now with COVID, people crave social interactions so you have more room for experimentation and adoption.

I’m trying to keep an open mind on it—because something like Clubhouse I would’ve never predicted. I never a priori would have said an audio-only format [is the next big feature]. Some things aren’t that compelling until you try it. So I’ve been scouring obscure parts of the webs and playing with them. I think there are finally things happening with, say, in-browser VR—but again, it’s very early.

Any big misses in terms of picking out investments?

Oh, a bunch. I missed Lyft. I was a little worried about the valuation at the time and competition with Uber. At the time there was a really strong perception that every strong technology market would be winner-takes-all when in reality, many markets are oligopoly markets. I just misunderstood the market structure and the valuation.

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