I had an interesting chat the other day with a former venture capitalist who is now doing private equity (i.e. managing larger funds than ever before). He has given up on venture capital. Too difficult to make money, he said.
He observed that the technology industry has matured. Just look at a company like Oracle. Are they innovating or have they turned into another Computer Associates? Hard to believe that not long ago Larry Ellison used to make fun of CA for not innovating but growing by acquiring maintenance revenue streams. We also talked about the semiconductor and EDA industries. Very grim. Cadence is now trading at far below 1x revenues, yet the technical problems they have to solve are getting even harder as geometries continue to shrink.
One of the characteristics of mature industries is that it takes a lot of capital to start new businesses. For example, you cannot bootstrap a new auto company. It could take hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars. In our own back yard, Tesla Motors is learning that lesson now (Tesla recently asked for $400 million from the government).
So, since the technology industry is maturing, his new investment thesis is that the only way to make the big bucks in high tech is to write big checks. That certainly fits well with his larger fund size that allows him to invest a lot in each company. It helps justify bigger management fees too.
That whole discussion reminded me of a quote from 1899 attributed to Charles Duell, the former commissioner of the U.S. patent office, who said "everything that can be invented has been invented" (actually, the quote is part of an urban myth. The story has been told so many times that even Ronald Reagan once used it in a speech).
I know that we are living through some difficult times, yet I remain optimistic about our future - the technology industry, entrepreneurship and venture capital. Before talking about the future, let's step back for a moment into the past.
Once upon a time, the railroad industry was thought to be "high tech." In the 1830's, rail road entrepreneurs in the U.K. were followed around by the media much as Larry and Sergey are followed around now (or Marc, Meg and Jeff during the Internet bubble).
Many decades later, the auto industry was thought to be "high tech"...and then there was the aerospace industry...the "electronics" industry...these thing called UNIVACs and Mainframes, etc.
Who would have thought that a college drop-out with no funding would hobble (if not topple) IBM, once the most admired company in America? IBM was so powerful that the U.S. government tried for years to break it up, just as it tried to do with Microsoft. It may try it with Google at some point too.
Sometimes, it doesn't even take a high tech wave to create enormous new companies. UPS and Wal-Mart are examples of companies that would require massive amounts of capital to compete against today (they are the two largest employers in America, not counting the government). They were both bootstrapped companies. Neither company raised any outside capital to get going and to reach profitability. They had modest beginnings...but kept growing for decades and rode various technology waves along the way.
The common theme is that entrepreneurs, over hundreds of years, have defined and re-defined what is - and what is not - the latest and greatest. "High tech" or not, entrepreneurs change the rules of the game. They help create waves (or just ride them) to help topple once dominant corporations.
It seems that great companies of every era get toppled by the next generation. Typically, the next gen seem to rise out of nowhere because they start very small, often without much fanfare. They are too small to notice - until it's too late for the incumbents. It takes less time for the average Fortune 500 company to drop off the list than it takes to grow big enough to make the list.
Destruction is all around us these days. Even companies well established for decades are dying right before our eyes, sometimes evaporating in a matter of days. We are also seeing once great, fast growing industries and once innovative, entrepreneurial companies stagnating, perhaps dying slowly. However, this doesn't mean that we're at the end.
Entrepreneurs, even those with venture funding, can't possibly match the resources of large corporations. Yet, entrepreneurs always seem to figure out ways to do the what conventional wisdom thought was impossible. I'm more optimistic about the future than ever because, as venture capitalists, we see exciting developments all around us. Let me provide a few examples.
I'm on the board of a company which saw an announcement that had strategic implications late last week. On a Friday night, the team got together and hashed out a strategy. They came up with new specs for a product. About 48 hours later, the CTO came up with a new product release (apparently, he doesn't sleep). Unbelievable. Such a thing would not be possible without the Internet infrastructure and the innovations that have come before us. A few years ago, even a team of engineers spending months may not have been able to do what a single engineer can do now in a matter of days.
Another example is a company which is using Amazon's cloud services. As they closed major deals, they were concerned about scalability. They had great software engineers who knew little about configuring routers or managing large farms of servers. Now, a software engineer can put out a new release without leaving his bedroom. The company has increased its ability to scale by 1,000x with less work than ever before. An added bonus was that this required no more up-front capital - which really helps in today's environment.
I have so many more examples. It is easier than ever to bootstrap companies. Salaries are coming down. It is easier to find people. Real-estate is getting cheaper by the week (we've seen office rental rates drop 30-50% in the past 2 months alone). In a meeting with Kanwal Rekhi this morning, he told me that the "fear of God is back. This will lead to better companies. More cost conscious. More disciplined."
I continue to be utterly amazed at what a few good engineers can produce these days. But there's more. It's not just about technology. We are seeing unexpected innovations in business models. New revenue and cost models are being created that were not possible even a few years ago (this should be a topic for a future blog post).
The bottom line is this. The pace of innovation is quickening, not slowing down. It's getting cheaper, not more expensive. Yes, if you want to start a new oil company, it will be expensive. A new auto company? Forget about it. A new ERP company? Workday is finding out that it's pretty expensive. Such ventures are not for us because we bet on entrepreneurs who bootstrap. By necessity, they don't go after opportunities that huge competitors with deep pockets go after.
As long as I'm a venture capitalist, I will continue to bet on entrepreneurs who can do a lot with very little. They surprise us every day. They are our heroes.
The entrepreneurs we see all around us are very hungry. They will struggle - but they will not stop dreaming. They will not stop innovating. They believe. They will endure.