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What Happened to the Future?

Fund: The Founders Fund

Posted by Anonymous on 2011-08-04

PUBLIC:

The following is a small exert from a longer letter right on the Founders Fund homepage. Interesting.

VC’s Long Nightmare

To understand why VC has done so poorly, it helps to approach the future through the lens of VC portfolios during the industry’s heyday, comparing past portfolios to portfolios as they exist today. In the 1960s, venture closely associated with the emerging semiconductor industry (Intel, e.g., was one of the first – and is still one of the greatest – VC investments). In the 1970s, computer hardware and software companies received funding; the 1980s brought the first waves of biotech, mobility, and networking companies; and the 1990s added the Internet in its various guises. Although success now makes these investments seem blandly sensible, even obvious, the industries and companies backed by venture were actually extraordinarily ambitious for their eras. Although all seemed at least possible, there was no guarantee that any of these technologies could be developed successfully or turned into highly profitable businesses. When H-P developed the pocket calculator in 1967, even H-P itself had serious doubts about the product’s commercial viability and only intervention by the founders saved the calculator. Later, when the heads of major computing corporations (IBM, DEC) openly questioned whether any individual would ever want or need a computer – or even that computers themselves would be smaller than a VW – investment in companies like Microsoft and Apple in the mid-1970s seemed fairly bold. In 1976, when Genentech launched, the field of recombinant DNA technology was less than five years old and no established player expected that insulin or human growth hormone could be cloned or commercially manufactured, much less by a start-up. But VCs backed all these enterprises, in the hope of profiting from a wildly more advanced future. And in exchange for that hope of profit, VC took genuine risks on technological development.

In the late 1990s, venture portfolios began to reflect a different sort of future. Some firms still supported transformational technologies (e. g. , search, mobility), but venture investing shifted away from funding transformational companies and toward companies that solved incremental problems or even fake problems (e. g. , having Kozmo. com messenger Kit-Kats to the office). This model worked for a brief period, thanks to an enormous stock market bubble. Indeed, it was even economically rational for VCs to fund these ultimately worthless companies because they produced extraordinary returns – in fact, the best returns in the industry’s history. And there have been subsequent bubbles – acquisition bubbles, the secondary market, etc. – which have continued to generate excellent returns for VCs lucky enough to tap into them. But these bubbles are narrower and the general market more demanding, so VCs who continue the practices of the late 1990s (a surprising number) tend to produce very weak returns. Along the way, VC has ceased to be the funder of the future, and instead has become a funder of features, widgets, irrelevances. In large part, it also ceased making money, as the bottom half of venture produced flat to negative return for the past decade.

We believe that the shift away from backing transformational technologies and toward more cynical, incrementalist investments broke venture capital. Excusing venture’s nightmare decade as a product of adverse economic conditions ignores the industry’s long history of strong, acyclical returns for its first forty years, as well as the consistently strong performance of the top 20% of the industry. What venture backed changed and that is why returns changed as well.

Not Everything With A Plug Is Technology

Not all technology is created equal: there is a difference between Pong and the Concorde or, less glibly, between Intel and Pets. com. Microprocessing represents real technological development, peddling pet food on-line, less so. Conversely, things that may be dismissed as fake technologies (Amazon and Facebook occasionally receive this critique) often resolve very challenging technological problems. Among its many innovations, Amazon helped develop intelligent customer recommendations and logistical efficiencies that allow you to order almost anything, anytime, and get it the next day; Facebook developed ways to manage large numbers of connections in a computationally efficient way, create an effective developer ecosystem, and to make it pleasurable to administer your on-line relationships. These also deserve attention, of course: though the Internet is no longer the virgin field it once was, we dismiss as bunk the idea that the Internet is tapped out. Web companies that fail are the companies that fail to exploit the true power of the medium.

Over time, the market tends to call out fake technologies and companies, which makes it a risky proposition to invest in them – it’s possible to flip a born loser and make a handsome return, but you need to get lucky with timing (i.e., sell into a bubble). 4 Real technology companies tend to create durable returns, making timing much less important. If you invested in webvan. com, your window of opportunity was measured in months; if you backed Intel, your window of opportunity was measured in decades. Therefore, as investors, we should seek companies developing real technologies.

Are There Any Real Technologies Left?

Have we reached the end of the line, a sort of technological end of history? Once every last retailer migrates onto the Internet, will that be it? Is the developed world really developed, full stop? Again, it may be helpful to revisit previous conceptions of the future to see if there are any areas where VC might yet profitably invest.

In 1958, Ford introduced the Nucleon, an atom-powered, El Camino-shaped concept car. From the perspective of the present, the Nucleon seems audacious to the point of idiocy, but consider at the time Nautilus, the first atomic submarine, had just been launched in 1954 (and that less than ten years after the first atomic bomb). The Nucleon was ambitious – and a marketing gimmick, to be sure – but it was not entirely out of the realm of reason. Ten years later, in 1968, Arthur C. Clarke predicted imminent commercial space travel and genuine (if erratic) artificial intelligences. “2001: A Space Odyssey” was fiction, of course, but again, its future didn’t seem implausible at the time; the Apollo program was ready to put Armstrong on the moon less than a decade after Gagarin, and computers were becoming common place just a few years after Kilby and Noyce dreamed up the integrated circuit. The future envisioned from the perspective of the 1960s was hard to get to, but not impossible, and people were willing to entertain the idea. We now laugh at the Nucleon and Pan Am to the moon while applauding underpowered hybrid cars and Easyjet, and that’s sad. The future that people in the 1960s hoped to see is still the future we’re waiting for today, half a century later. . Instead of Captain Kirk and the USS Enterprise, we got the Priceline Negotiator and a cheap flight to Cabo.

There are major exceptions: as we’ve seen, computers and communication technologies advanced enormously (even if Windows 2000 is a far cry from Hal 9000) and the Internet has evolved into something far more powerful and pervasive than its architects had ever hoped for. But a lot of what seemed futuristic then remains futuristic now, in part because these technologies never received the sustained funding lavished on the electronics industries. Commercializing the technologies that have languished seems as good a place as any to start looking for ideas.

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