Fred Wilson on Technology and Venture Capital
Fred Wilson began his career in venture capital in 1987. He has focused exclusively on information technology investments for the past 17 years. From 1987 to 1996, Fred was first an Associate and then a General Partner at Euclid Partners, a New York based, early stage, venture capital firm founded in 1970. At Euclid Partners, Fred was responsible for a number of investments, including Freeloader, Multex, PowerCenter Systems and UCA&L. In 1996, Fred co-founded Flatiron Partners. While at Flatiron, Fred was responsible for 14 investments including, ITXC, Patagon, Starmedia, TheStreet.com and Yoyodyne. Fred currently serves on the boards of Alacra, Comscore, iBiquity, Return Path, Instant Information and Tacoda Systems. Fred has a Bachelors degree in Mechanical Engineering from MIT and an MBA from The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. Fred is married with three kids and lives in New York City.
Wilson: I am Fred Wilson and I am the managing partner of Union Square Ventures. We back entrepreneurs who have great ideas about starting businesses. That’s a generic term, generic statement about what a VC does. There are different kinds of VCs, all shapes and sizes as you might imagine and we do at [IB] for me in Union Square Ventures, we invest only in web applications and services, but there are VCs who invest in Clean Tech, Biotech, Material Science, hardware, software, all sorts of things. Question: How has mobilizing technology changed venture capital? Wilson: Well, it’s… It’s been changing the way I work for the past 15 years and I see it as an evolution, not really a revolution, so I think every year there are two or three new things that I use as part of my daily life that I wasn’t using a year before, and, you know, I think social media whether it’ll be blogging or social networking or things that are intersection of blogging and social networking like Twittering and so on and so forth, these are becoming more and more valuable to me as business tools when they were two or three years ago. I use the phone less and less everyday. I use to say that when I got into the business in the mid-80s, the phone was the way that I did 80% of my work. By the mid-90s, e-mail had become the dominant form of the way I did most of my work and the phone had gone down substantially. Now, socio-media and blogging and Twittering and things like that have become the highest form of the way I do my work. E-mail has come down relatively speaking in value and the phone is almost completely gone from the tools that I used to get stuff done. Now, face-to-face interaction has been a constant, so I see… I don’t that has changed one bit, you know. Going to a board meeting or having a face-to-face meeting with an entrepreneur in order to decide whether we wanna make an investment is as valuable as or more valuable today than it was 20 or 30 years ago. So, that hasn’t lost any value but the phone has come way, way down and, now, I see e-mail coming down a lot too. Question: What is the most profound way digital technology affects the way we do business? Wilson: Profoundly. I think that several things are going on. I think that this generation is going to be a very different kind of workforce than the workforce that businesses have known in the past. I think they will be a lot less loyal to businesses. They will be interested in maximizing the value of their career as opposed to the value of the stock of the company that they’re working for unless they control that stock or own a big piece of it. And so, I think that we’re looking at very much a mercenary workforce. We’ve already seen that in the technology business for the past 10 years particularly amongst software developers. In Silicon Valley, you know, there’s, you know, the best software engineers are constantly getting poached from company to company to company and getting better and better deals along the way in the same way that a film star or a music recording star would be constantly being offered a better and better contract to go work for somebody new, same thing is happening with software engineers. And I think that that kind of mindset about talent is what this younger generation is all about, and so they’re all gonna be about building their own personal brand and their own personal career, their own personal portfolio of what they can do, and then making themselves available to the market to the highest bidder. Question: Is geography still a factor in hiring top talent? Wilson: Well, so for us, the biggest impact in the companies that we’ve backed is that we can hire somebody who is the best person for the job if they’re not necessarily willing to locate, say, here in New York City. So, we have companies in New York City that have software engineers all over the world. We have people in New York City that have product managers or a whole customer service organization in another location. You can put your high labor cost workforce somewhere else than where your headquarters is and make it work. I mean, this has obviously been going on for a long time but this is a trend that will continue for… forever, probably. Question: How is mobilizing technology changing our personal interactions? Wilson: So, I have been profoundly affected by this. I read a web blog that is read by about 100,000 people a month and, within that group, I’d say there are probably about 20,000 people who are sort of the most hardcore, you know, committed participants in that community and I really mean community. These people do meet-ups. They comment on my blog. They have offline conversations with each other. They meet each other. They go and do start-ups together, so it’s a community that exists. I consider probably at least a thousand of these people friends and yet I have met advisors, right? And I’ve maybe met 100 or 200 of them, but I’ll get e-mails from people who I think communicating with and dialoging with for three or four years saying, “You know, you need to go visit this company. I saw what they were doing yesterday and it’s absolutely revolutionary.” And I’ll go do it even though I’d never met this person because I know who they are. I’d been able to develop a relationship with them online. I’ve had conversations with them and discussions and debates, and that’s brand new. I mean, that has never existed in the world of business and we are leveraging that in our business and I think lots of people are leveraging it in all different kinds of businesses. Businesses are starting to engage with their customers using these tools in ways that they have never done before and they’re starting to get feedback from their customers in terms of what’s working and what’s not working, what products are good and what products are not good, what people and their organizations are good, and what people and their organizations are not good. And, people are starting to develop a level of trust around this kind of blind or anonymous or semi-anonymous kind of communication but they didn’t trust 5 or 10 years ago ‘cause it was so new. But now, people are saying, yeah, I can trust that kind of feedback even though I’m not getting it in a traditional way. Question: Are you now able to collaborate globally? Wilson: Well, it’s been going on a long time. Programmers have been using something they call IRC which is Internet Relay Chat, an [IB] sort of form your own chatrooms. And so what programming teams have done for a better part of 10 or 15, maybe 20 years is they all come in in the morning and one person is in, you know, Vancouver, Canada and one person is in New York City and one person is in Buenos Aires and another person is in Bangalore, they all come in to this IRC chatroom and they’re writing code and talking to each other at the same time, and they’re saying, yeah, how do I hit this database, what’s the courier I need to use, and the person who is a database guy in Bangladesh and so will write this courier, this way, and so they’re collaborating using these online tools. So, that’s been going on for a long time. Now, for, you know, marketing organization that’s not as geeky, you know, that’s not a good way for them to work, but they can use a [Wiki] which is basically a website that exist inside the firewalls or outside the firewall and they can post questions to it, that’s happening. And there even companies that are using Facebook groups, you know, which is a kind of a public group but people are using that even, you know, for businesses, so there are hundreds if not thousands of different tools that exist for businesses to do these kinds of things and more are being developed everyday.
Wilson, Managing Partner of Union Square Ventures talks about how technologies has helped his venture capital firm work globally.
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