A Roundtable Interview with:
Tom Alberg, J.D.
Managing Director and Cofounder, Madrona Venture Group
Chief Executive Officer, General Atlantic
Partner, Bessemer Venture Partners
Chief Investment Officer, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation
In April 2008, Kauffman Foundation Chief Investment Officer Harold Bradley
sat down with investment leaders from three established and respected venture
capital firms who manage money for the Foundation's endowment. The discussion
ranged over a number of issues facing the venture industry. Is there sufficient
alignment between venture partnerships and their investors? Do entrepreneurs
need the help of venture capitalists to build businesses? Are universities
making or breaking new business leaders? The participants represent firms that
invest along the entire growth spectrum.
Bradley: What is it that drives the idea culture of an
Alberg: I think most people in our business have a passion for
what they do, and particularly in my case, a passion for innovation, new
technologies, and new ideas. In 1994, at McCaw and Lin Broadcasting, I was
having our financial people prepare projections of all the revenues we were
going to get from wireless data. Well, those revenues are just becoming
meaningful to the carriers—fifteen years later. We were just a little early.
Belief in ideas, whether they are our own or someone else's, makes the culture.
When we started at Madrona looking for deals in Seattle in 1995, suddenly these
entrepreneurs started walking in the door; Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon.com)
walks in with a business plan. We've invested in more than eighty companies
since '95 and now we have what Silicon Valley has—serial entrepreneurs. We not
only have this innovation coming from bigger places like Microsoft and Amazon
and a bunch of others, but also an entire ecosystem of smaller companies.
Importantly, Seattle has many entrepreneurs trying to find the next big, new
Levine: I don't think my grandparents were born when Bessemer's
roots were first laid into the ground, when Henry Phipps, Andrew Carnegie, and
Henry Frick built Carnegie Steel. When they sold the steel business, Phipps
decided to take his proceeds and invest into other, new technologies. We have
obviously evolved considerably. In the early days, the high-tech companies of
the time were manufacturing technologies, and it's hard to name a company from
1920 to 1960 that was a manufacturing startup that still exists. Bessemer
encourages people to go out on their own and pursue their individual, creative
ideas, even if they're considerably different from what everybody else in the
firm is thinking. We use a roadmap process that involves daydreaming about how
the world is going to change or may change. It might be a demographic shift. It
might be a new technology emerging. It might be something in the very early
stages where we're trolling university labs. If you end up getting the roadmaps
right, your investments tend to do very well. If you decided to build the
roadmap around pen computing in the '80s, you didn't do very well, although a
lot of people talked about pen computing. So the second step of the process is
to pressure-test the roadmap, in part by speaking with entrepreneurs,
executives, and academics. When everyone tells you you're wrong, sometimes it's
good to listen to them.
Ford: Chuck Feeney, our first capital partner, was a passionate
believer in entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs. He wanted his capital to be
directed to the entrepreneurial process of building great companies without
confining our investment activities to any particular industry or region. In
fact, he espoused a very global view of business opportunities. In our first
roughly ten to fifteen years, we were focused on U.S. investing in the software
industry where we saw tremendous growth. We zeroed in on mainframe system
software, became expert at it, and invested aggressively there. Then I think the
exciting thing for General Atlantic, beginning in the mid-'90s, was to globalize
the business. We followed our software roots internationally. We started to
identify software companies and entrepreneurs outside the United States who were
doing many of the same things as the executives and entrepreneurs here. Our
first investment in 1994 was in a software company called Baan, based in The
Netherlands. They were one of the first to embrace client-server technology.
What I think now seems obvious, but what surprised us then, is that a Dutch
company had the same global aspirations as a Silicon Valley venture-backed
startup. Now we broadly focus across industries and globally to invest in and
actively assist growth companies to expand.
Bradley: We often hear from entrepreneurs: "What do VCs do for
me?" How would you answer that?
Alberg: We've helped young companies hire five or six of their
top executives through our contacts, and we have provided industry contacts for
sales calls and pilot projects. We also concentrate on helping build our
regional ecosystem, whether it's the University of Washington, or the
entrepreneurial community, or angel investing.
Ford: What's primary is the relationship that gets formed by the
individual partner and the entrepreneur. That working relationship, that
chemistry, is essential. We also are continuing to build out our global
organization so when a company here in the United States needs to outsource to
India, for example, I can arrange for the company executives to meet with our
partners there, travel to India, and help open up a number of relationships.
That's a direct way of adding value to their efforts.
Levine: We have a young company that needs to scale its sales
operation. It is great on the product side of things but has no experience
building telesales. Rather than replace the leader of the business, we want to
complement the entrepreneur and get him that help. That said, we don't look to
invest in companies that need our help. We look to invest in great companies. In
fact, the irony is that the less help the company needs, the better the
Bradley: Warren Buffet says he would always bet on the horse
first and then get new jockeys if he needs to.
Alberg: We bet on the people and their ideas. It is difficult to
say which is more important—both are equally important to me. Often, a founder
grows into being a great CEO. When a change is necessary, it is usually obvious.
Ford: There's some alchemy that goes on between a great
executive entrepreneur/founder and the business that leads to its success. It's
sort of the Bible around our place that the riskiest thing you do in this
business is change management.
Levine: Certainly one of the biggest challenges many
entrepreneurs face, especially as they grow their businesses, is bringing other
people on board who will share the passion and the vision, appreciate the magic
in the bottle that the entrepreneur has without trying to wreck it and
bureaucratize it, and who also bring other skills to the table. If you shake the
magic in the bottle too hard, the magic goes away.
Tom Alberg is managing director and cofounder of
thirteen-year-old Madrona Venture Group (madronagroup.com) in Seattle. The
partnership invests mostly in seed and early-stage companies in the Pacific
Northwest. Madrona has helped spin out more than ten companies from the
University of Washington Computer Science and Engineering Department and the
Electrical Engineering Department. Alberg has served as president of Lin
Broadcasting Corp. and as executive vice president of McCaw Cellular
Communications. He was an initial investor in Amazon.com and today serves on the
Bill Ford is chief executive officer of General Atlantic
(generalatlantic.com), a twenty-eight-year-old global growth equity firm.
General Atlantic manages $17 billion and invests between $1 billion and $2
billion in growth companies globally. For its first decade, the company managed
capital provided by Chuck Feeney, founder of Duty Free Shoppers; today,
twenty-eight capital partners participate in the firm’s evergreen capital
structure. General Atlantic has been a major catalyst in the growth of
for-profit stock and commodity exchanges around the world. Ford sits on the
board of NYMEX Holdings, NYSE Group, and GETCO, and formerly served on the
boards of a number of other GA portfolio companies, including E*Trade,
Priceline, SSA Global Technologies, Zagat Survey, and Computershare.
Jeremy Levine is a partner at one of the world’s oldest venture
capital partnerships, Bessemer Venture Partners (bvp.com). The firm both seeds
and incubates new companies and invests in later-stage companies, as well. In
2007, the partnership welcomed a handful of new limited partners when it raised
$1.3 billion to invest globally, with a focus on India. Levine writes the
investment blog, "Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained." His investments include
notable growth companies such as Gerson Lehrman Group, Gracenote (acquired by
Sony), Parallels, and Yelp.
Bradley: Can entrepreneurs be created through development and
Levine: Entrepreneurs get inspired to take the risk and start a
company at some point in their career. I think the likelihood of being inspired
goes up significantly when you're in an environment where you see others who got
inspired and are successful. A couple of decades ago, almost all venture
investments were in the backyard of the venture capitalists. Now, with
communications so cheap and prevalent because of the Internet, entrepreneurs in
Estonia are being inspired by what's happening in Silicon Valley and starting
super-high-growth, exciting companies.
Alberg: Often, our entrepreneurs are young and not experienced.
We hold sessions for our CEOs about how to work with a board. How does a
twenty-nine-year-old CEO, dealing with very sophisticated board members, learn
how to do this? What's good board interaction? Sometimes there are very
explosive issues, and I think we can help.
Bradley: Does the credit crisis threaten macro themes of
positive pro-growth regulation and unimpeded capital flows around the world?
Alberg: It is disruptive, but less so for early-stage companies
than for more developed companies that are really trying to scale. There are
probably not going to be a lot of IPOs in the next twelve months.
Ford: But think about how far we've come in good and bad markets
in terms of access to capital. The Apple IPO was in 1980. Doing the Apple IPO
was a monumental decision for Morgan Stanley. Now growth companies, at a very
early stage in their development, can access significant capital privately, even
when public markets are less robust. Some tend to talk about entrepreneurialism
as zealous startup guys without recognizing that over the last thirty years,
they are major contributors to industry transformation as well as to world
Bradley: Do American business schools inspire or destroy
Alberg: Most of our entrepreneurs did not go to business school.
In fact, I would be surprised if more than 20 percent did.
Ford: I would bet it was below 20 percent. That said, business
schools have fed a lot of management talent into these growth companies.
Levine: Occasionally there will be that special sort of melting
mix where someone from the engineering school and someone from the business
school get together. We've backed some of those companies, and they've been very
successful. It's a rare thing, but phenomenal entrepreneurs are a rare thing.
Bradley: What can Kauffman do to help entrepreneurs?
Alberg: Bringing together a group of young CEOs who are now two
years into it could be very valuable in and of itself. Kauffman could even do
seminars on things like team-building—a lot of these people are not, frankly,
good at team-building.
Ford: Entrepreneurs consistently underestimate the importance of
building a team around them, evaluating talent, hiring talent, developing
talent, because they have been individualists. They have wanted to do things
themselves. I think if we could accelerate the understanding of the importance
of building great teams, it would be a real contribution to the whole process.
Levine: When I'm trying to explain that there are other ways to
succeed that are maybe a little different from how they've succeeded in the
past, I'll often try to do it through another entrepreneur, because that person
has more credibility than I do in communicating the message. Kauffman could
invite lots of entrepreneurs who have gone through the transition of their
businesses to tell their stories. That would give more inspiration to the young
entrepreneur who sees all the "no's" in front of him. He has to ignore most of
that but also know where to veer off a little bit here or there to get help.
Alberg: I wouldn't underestimate Kauffman's abilities to play at
the university level. This whole issue of technology transfer departments needs
Bradley: Do tech transfer offices work?
Ford: I think one of the problems is that tech transfer offices
tend to separate the entrepreneur from the intellectual property; they take the
intellectual property from the individual producer and say, "Now we're going to
license it to somebody else." That somebody else has to have the same
entrepreneurial zeal, vision, and idea. The offices get in this mode of OK, I've
got this thing, and if I can get someone to license it and pay half a million
dollars up-front for it, hallelujah. I'm being successful in the context of the
university. That's not really going to stimulate the kind of entrepreneurial
activity we're talking about.
Levine: I think that gets to this idea that if I can walk away,
as a university, with 1 percent or a half percent, of equity in fifty startups,
that's a much better university business model than trying to get $100,000 or
$500,000 payments every time.
Alberg: Our experience is that it's most effective at the
departmental level, and even at the professor level. Part of it is cultural.
Having a couple of successful examples within a department does wonders to get
others thinking along those lines. Many tech transfer offices don't understand
the whole process of putting the patents in a company with a professor, and some
licensing, and some equity. I think we find considerable barriers to that. To
us, if a professor gets motivated enough, he can break down those barriers.
Bradley: So how valuable are patents?
Levine: When I think about our portfolio of companies, it's a
relatively small percent whose businesses truly depend on potential intellectual
property. It's the execution of businesses around ideas that creates the real
Ford: Patent protection is a speed bump, not a barrier. It is
the execution of the idea that matters the most. Predatory litigation and
predatory activity by the legal system are different ideas. It's not just
relevant to the patent area. It's in every part of the business process and has
raised the cost of doing business. It's even alienated a lot of entrepreneurs
who don't want to do business here. Patent trolling is just one symptom.
Alberg: The very same companies that want to sue to protect
their patents also want to be part of patent pools so that they don't get sued.
Some of the biggest technology companies are on both sides of these issues. The
problem for a small company is it's both very difficult to defend the lawsuit,
and they aren't very smart if they bring one (because of the associated