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So You Want To Write About Venture Capitalists?

Speaking of the NYT's Gary Rivlin and his penchant for spilling blood, his story today about "tourist VCs" is just such an example of blood-letting. He uses three people as his sample, Stewart Alsop, Mitch Kapor and David Beirne. He begins his tale with the "washed out" Alsop.

We agree with Fred Wilson's criticism. The story falls short on some of its reasoning.

Rivlin's debarks with a summary paragraph that includes the following line: a hot topic among the Silicon Valley cognoscenti has been the exodus of "tourist V.C.'s," as people from nonfinancial backgrounds are known here.

Hmmm, what cognoscenti is he referring to? He doesn't say...

Whoever they are, they must be pretty slow. This story could have been written three years ago. Beirne and Kapor left a few years ago (before the recent two-year timeframe in which the story contends there's been a drop-off in VC professionals), and Alsop left last year. Meanwhile, we at the Mercury News and elsewhere were writing about the exodus through much of 2002 and 2003.

Lower down in the story we find that the best VCs are people without financial backgrounds, Michael Moritz (a journalist like Alsop) and John Doerr (engineer, sales). So why the reference to non-financial backgrounds up top? It's a Silicon Valley truism that you have to have operating experience, i.e., worked at a real start-up or other fast-growing company, to succeed as a great venture capitalist. In fact, you could argue it was the young ibankers -- precisely the guys with a modicum of finance background -- who became the fly-by-night VCs.

Coupla other things: Guys like Alsop and Kapor aren't tourists. They're pretty serious guys, and will likely be around tech, and tech investing, for a while. Here we find that Kapor has been investing for 20 years. Why doesn't Kapor's phenomenal investment in UUNet count? (If the story wants to limit Kapor's record to his stint as an institutional VC investor, that's a different story.) Alsop is more than "considering" a new venture firm. It has a name: Agenda Capital. And if Beirne has returned a billion to investors, how does that fit in?

Finally, the online version of the NYT story leaves off a graphic chart that was in the newspaper: the one showing there's been only a minor drop in overall professionals entering VC over the past year or so, and that the total number has actually increased since the bubble burst in 2000. Then you throw in the angel investors out there, and you may have no drop off at all, even recently. The real story may be: Why are all these VCs still around?


I think the focus is shifting from IT/hardware/software to life sciences, biotech, nanotechnology, and other emerging technologies. This is where the focus seems to be, in my opinion.

Niraj on May 23, 2005 10:12 AM
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The focus is unquestionably in biotech-nanotech-infotech (as defined by Steve Jurvetson). However, even "continental drifts" are not happening in linear "shifts" - but in "earthquakes". The emergence and conquest of disruptive technologies over sustained technologies is best studied by Christiansen's "The Innovator's Dilemma".

In "biotech", the best example is that "Gene discovery" was a huge field while the "one gene, one disease, one billion dollar pill" reigned in Big Pharma. (It was dead by about 2002).

However, since there is only 1.3% of the DNA (in human) that are "Genes" (the rest is Regulatory DNA, maiden name "JunkDNA"), rather than talking about "shifts" investment might favor "paradigm change" - e.g. mapping out the Regulatory DNA by microarrays, as soon as deploying algorithmic approaches (see the generalized Gene; FractoGene) instead of "brute force". More in the blog http://helixometry.blogspot.com .

Dr. Andras J. Pellionisz on May 23, 2005 10:30 AM
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What's Rivlin talking about with respect to turnover at Kleiner Perkins? The only person there who "downshifted" there was Vinod Khosla, it is hard to believe that they are letting him go?

Solomon on May 23, 2005 12:56 PM
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