bailout 2.0

I complained about auto industry bailouts and was chastised.  Thomas Friedman says VCs should get bailed out and VCs say No No No.  Then I realized that No is not enough of an answer.  You have to propose an alternative, preferably one without the government deciding who gets the money.  That’s not how we do it in the S.V., yo. (I kept expecting Sarah Lacy to say that, but since she didn’t, I did.)

There are few who are ideologically strong enough to say that we shouldn’t have any bailout for anyone for any reason.  I’m not one of them.  This crisis is too enormous; adherence to ideology now can only be accomplished through disconnection from reality.  I do think that government bailout funds should go to stimulating the economy.  But as someone with a Silicon Valley belief in economic growth through innovation, I just don’t believe that the federal government will make the wisest choices about how to spend bailout money.

So who should make those choices?  Wait for it . . . wait for it . . .

You should, of course.

That was too easy, but let’s think hard:  Is this any worse an idea than anything that’s on the bailout agenda now?  Web 2.0 may be dead, but the underlying values of participation and collective intelligence are enduring concepts that will continue to pay off in the future.  Sure, the wisdom of crowds has many exceptions and qualifications, but I’ll gladly bet my tax dollars that the crowds are wiser than Washington.

Let’s say the government designates $100 billion for a crowdsourced bailout.  They just have to set up services to collect and analyze the input from all the social nets out there.  Twitter users could nominate worthy recipients with a #crowdbail hashtag.  Mobile camera phone users could use barcode scanners to submit deserving products, and location based services to tag retail stores worth bailing out.  There would be dozens of ways to submit suggested recipients on the web.  In order to limit fraud, the payouts could be in the form of tax credits or “consumer purchase credits” (CPCs).  I just made up CPCs – government credits that a seller can apply to reduce the consumer purchase price of goods.  For example, a business that received $100 in CPCs can take 100 items that are usually sold at $2, and sell these for $1 instead, receiving $1 in cash from the government for each item sold.

Would this work?  Is it too complicated, too stupid, too difficult?  Look, this is just half hour’s worth of musing, but I believe that any objection you can raise can be fixed with further work to at least to this standard:  it’s not worse than the government bailouts going into effect now, and it’s certainly not worse than some being asked for.  Something along these lines is in the spirit of what Silicon Valley can do, and I’d be thrilled to see more serious efforts to design something that fits with the ethos of our region.

For example, I’d bet that the folks at Virgance could come up with something that would make sense, and they’d probably be glad to implement it for less than 1% of that bailout amount.

crushing on Marc

In which I shall argue that Marc Andreessen is the greatest startup blogger of all time, and possibly also the most distinguished tech entrepreneur alive today . . . and why he will probably be a mediocre venture capitalist.

The Case As Greatest Startup Blogger

Have you read Marc’s blog?  (I am not on a first name basis with Mr. A, but I can’t use his last name throughout this post because I keep misspelling it, which drives me nuts.)  I challenge you to find any other blog about tech startups with a higher percentage of incredibly incisive and valuable posts.  He’ll lay out every important guideline for being a competent startup entrepreneur.  He’ll tell you the truth about venture capitalists.  He’ll give you invaluable career planning tips, warn you about entrepreneurial misjudgment, tell you how to hire, and even describe the role of luck and age.  Did you go to business school to learn how to be an entrepreneur?  Well, you should have just flushed $100K down the toilet and read his blog instead.

But wait, maybe he’s not a ”’real blogger”’ – can you be great if you’ve been on hiatus since last August?

I say yes, it’s about quality over quantity, even if you can have quality in high quantity.  I like mystery fiction and consider genre work as legitimate art, so I’ll draw analogy from there.  I prefer Dashiell Hammett over Donald Westlake, even though I think Westlake is just as talented a writer as Hammett if not more so.  Hammett put every beautiful thing in his artistic soul into about a dozen novels and short story collections, while Westlake spread it out over more than 100 volumes, using as many pseudonyms as Hammett had books.  Both were great, but Hammett was the greater artist for the purity of his delivery.  Marc’s blog is pure art compared to the good-quality-high-volume blogging by some venture capitalists and lawyer-turned-blogpreneurists.

And of course, the real authority behind Marc’s blogging about startups is his phenomenal success as an entrepreneur.  You have to listen seriously to someone who’s done it before.  But can he really be considered the greatest living tech entrepreneur?  Let’s turn to that –

The Case As Best Living Tech Entrepreneur

Well what does “most distinguished” or “greatest” or “best” mean anyway?  Here I just mean the one who knows the most about making successful tech startups, the one you should listen to if you want to be in this business.

Yes, I know that Gates and Jobs, Larry and Sergei, Bezos and Omidyar, Ellison and Slim and many others have made much more money in tech.  But sheer wealth does not settle this question.  It’s about how you got there.  I’ll eliminate guys like Carlos Slim because they made their fortunes as investors and financiers, not as the operational guys who built the businesses.  All of the other guys I just mentioned, except one, made the bulk of their entrepreneurial fortune from just one company.  I wouldn’t exactly say “once you’re lucky, twice you’re good” with these guys – they are all way beyond good with what they’ve done for their companies and for tech history – but I would value advice from MarcA over any of them, because he’s both made history and created his fortune across multiple entrepreneurial efforts.  People who have had the vast majority of their success over a single company are just statistically disadvantaged in providing the kind of advice that entrepreneurs need.

Jobs is the one to consider carefully.  Between his first and second acts at Apple, he founded an interesting business in Next and a magical one in Pixar.  But his reputation gives me doubts about whether he is capable of giving advice to entrepreneurs – it’s possible that his own genius gets in the way.  He might be like Magic Johnson:  an incredibly gifted athlete who could not make the transition to coaching because he found it hard to explain the game to people who did not have otherworldly talent.  Of course, all this is just impression from news reports and second-hand sources; it’s possible that Jobs is a great coach.  But the evidence isn’t in the public record or the rumor mill.

And now, let’s look at Andreessen.  He founded one of the key companies of the Internet age in Netscape, becoming the original tech hype poster boyNetscape went public, sold to AOL for billions and was finally crushed by Microsoft.  Marc suffered the hype backlash and doubts, but he got back on the horse and founded Loudcloud, which grew to a $100 million revenue business, went public and then cratered in the dot-com bust.  Marc and his CEO rebuilt the company as Opsware, built up another $100 million revenue business, and then sold for $1.6 billion to HP.

Does anyone have a record like this?  Recap:

What he did What it means
founded a company of true significance in tech history, went public. Knows about making history.
sold to and became senior exec at giant media conglomerate. Knows about selling your soul.
crushed by monopolistic competitor, was treated with disdain and doubt in media. Knows about falling from grace.
founded another tech startup, went public. Knows about redemption.
crushed again in bubble burst, assets sold and restarted. Knows about being a two-time loser.
restart grows to $1+ billion exit. Knows about triumph after they all forgot about you.
best tech blog evah. Shares the wealth of knowledge.

Who is even close to this?  I actually hate giving this much love to someone in public, but this string of experience is so compelling, I had to write it down before I could believe it.

The Case As Mediocre VC

With all the love I just dropped on MarcA, how can I predict anything less than glorious success in his new efforts as a venture capitalist?  I won’t link the posts again, but you can see on his blog that the guy has done his homework and he really understands what he’s getting into here.

Part of my doubt is that I’m just playing the odds.  VC is an industry where luck plays a vast role in success, especially early in the VC career.  If you’re not lucky early, you don’t get to keep trying, because people will not keep giving you money to invest.  This is different from entrepreneurialism, where if you are determined, you will get to keep trying over and over again until you give up – you can make your own luck through repetition.  Again I’m not going to relink, but above I noted that Marc knows how to make the most of luck.  Nevertheless, it’s called luck for a reason, namely that a favorable outcome is against the odds.

More importantly and less sensibly, off the top of my head I’m not aware of any great VC who has the record of entrepreneurialism that Marc has had.  I guess that’s not surprising, since I just spent 500 words explaining that I don’t know of anyone with Marc’s record.  But as many people (including of course MarcA) have noted, there have been great VCs who were lifers in the business as well as great ones who came from operational roles and even former journalists and analysts and lawyers.

But that record of Marc’s is just too entrepreneurial.  It seems to me that guys with that kind of DNA have some difficulties in becoming, essentially, a specialized class of money manager.  Some of them can be great individual investors (investing their own money, which Marc has already done well), but they seem to have some sort of mental discomfort in managing other people’s money.  I don’t know why, but I’ve seen that quite a few times.

Mind you, if I ever got a chance to invest with him, I would take it . . . because it would be worth losing money with him as an investor to get time with him as an entrepreneur.

update 30 Aug 09:  Marc seems to have taken down his archive, which is really too bad.  Fortunately, you can still find his posts by searching the Internet Archive Wayback Machine or seeing this possibly unauthorized copy.