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The History of Computing

199 EpisodesProduced by Charles EdgeWebsite

Computers touch all most every aspect of our lives today. We take the way they work for granted and the unsung heroes who built the technology, protocols, philosophies, and circuit boards, patched them all together - and sometimes willed amazingness out of nothing. Not in this podcast. Welcome to th… read more

30:14

How Venture Capital Funded The Computing Industry

Investors have pumped capital into emerging markets since the beginning of civilization. Egyptians explored basic mathematics and used their findings to build larger structures and even granaries to allow merchants to store food and serve larger and larger cities. Greek philosophers expanded on those learnings and applied math to learn the orbits of planets, the size of the moon, and the size of the earth. Their merchants used the astrolabe to expand trade routes. They studied engineering and so learned how to leverage the six simple machines to automate human effort, developing mills and cranes to construct even larger buildings. The Romans developed modern plumbing and aqueducts and gave us concrete and arches and radiant heating and bound books and the postal system. 

Some of these discoveries were state sponsored; others from wealthy financiers. Many an early investment was into trade routes, which fueled humanities ability to understand the world beyond their little piece of it and improve the flow of knowledge and mix found knowledge from culture to culture. 

As we covered in the episode on clockworks and the series on science through the ages, many a scientific breakthrough was funded by religion as a means of wowing the people. And then autocrats and families who’d made their wealth from those trade routes. Over the centuries of civilizations we got institutions who could help finance industry. 

Banks loan money using an interest rate that matches the risk of their investment. It’s illegal, going back to the Bible to overcharge on interest. That’s called usury, something the Romans realized during their own cycles of too many goods driving down costs and too few fueling inflation. And yet, innovation is an engine of economic growth - and so needs to be nurtured. 

The rise of capitalism meant more and more research was done privately and so needed to be funded. And the rise of intellectual property as a good. Yet banks have never embraced startups. 

The early days of the British Royal Academy were filled with researchers from the elite. They could self-fund their research and the more doing research, the more discoveries we made as a society. Early American inventors tinkered in their spare time as well. But the pace of innovation has advanced because of financiers as much as the hard work and long hours. Companies like DuPont helped fuel the rise of plastics with dedicated research teams. Railroads were built by raising funds. Trade grew. Markets grew. And people like JP Morgan knew those markets when they invested in new fields and were able to grow wealth and inspire new generations of investors. And emerging industries ended up dominating the places that merchants once held in the public financial markets. 

Going back to the Venetians, public markets have required regulation. As banking became more a necessity for scalable societies it too required regulation - especially after the Great Depression. And yet we needed new companies willing to take risks to keep innovation moving ahead., as we do today And so the emergence of the modern venture capital market came in those years with a few people willing to take on the risk of investing in the future.

John Hay “Jock” Whitney was an old money type who also started a firm. We might think of it more as a family office these days but he had acquired 15% in Technicolor and then went on to get more professional and invest. Jock’s partner in the adventure was fellow Delta Kappa Epsilon from out at the University of Texas chapter, Benno Schmidt. Schmidt coined the term venture capital and they helped pivot Spencer Chemicals from a musicians plant to fertilizer - they’re both nitrates, right? They helped bring us Minute Maid. and more recently have been in and out of Herbalife, Joe’s Crab Shack, Igloo coolers, and many others. But again it was mostly Whitney money and while we tend to think of venture capital funds as having more than one investor funding new and enterprising companies. 

And one of those venture capitalists stands out above the rest. Georges Doriot moved to the United States from France to get his MBA from Harvard. He became a professor at Harvard and a shrewd business mind led to him being tapped as the Director of the Military Planning Division for the Quartermaster General. He would be promoted to brigadier general following a number of massive successes in the research and development as part of the pre-World War II military industrial academic buildup. 

After the war Doriot created the American Research and Development Corporation or ARDC with the former president of MIT, Karl Compton, and engineer-turned Senator Ralph Flanders - all of them wrote books about finance, banking, and innovation. They proved that the R&D for innovation could be capitalized to great return. The best example of their success was Digital Equipment Corporation, who they invested $70,000 in in 1957 and turned that into over $350 million in 1968 when DEC went public, netting over 100% a year of return. Unlike Whitney, ARDC took outside money and so Doriot became known as the first true venture capitalist.

Those post-war years led to a level of patriotism we arguably haven’t seen since. John D. Rockefeller had inherited a fortune from his father, who built Standard Oil. To oversimplify, that company was broken up into a variety of companies including what we now think of as Exxon, Mobil, Amoco, and Chevron. But the family was one of the wealthiest in the world and the five brothers who survived John Jr built an investment firm they called the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

We might think of the fund as a social good investment fund these days. Following the war in 1951, John D Rockefeller Jr endowed the fund with $58 million and in 1956, deep in the Cold War, the fund president Nelson Rockefeller financed a study and hired Henry Kissinger to dig into the challenges of the United States. And then came Sputnik in 1957 and a failed run for the presidency of the United States by Nelson in 1960. 

Meanwhile, the fund was helping do a lot of good but also helping to research companies Venrock would capitalize. The family had been investing since the 30s but Laurance Rockefeller had setup Venrock, a mashup of venture and Rockefeller. In Venrock, the five brothers, their sister, MIT’s Ted Walkowicz, and Harper Woodward banded together to sprinkle funding into now over 400 companies that include Apple, Intel, PGP, CheckPoint, 3Com, DoubleClick and the list goes on. Over 125 public companies have come out of the fund today with an unimaginable amount of progress pushing the world forward.

The government was still doing a lot of basic research in those post-war years that led to standards and patents and pushing innovation forward in private industry. ARDC caught the attention of a number of other people who had money they needed to put to work. Some were family offices increasingly willing to make aggressive investments. Some were started by ARDC alumni such as Charlie Waite and Bill Elfers who with Dan Gregory founded Greylock Partners. Greylock has invested in everyone from Red Hat to Staples to LinkedIn to Workday to Palo Alto Networks to Drobo to Facebook to Zipcar to Nextdoor to OpenDNS to Redfin to ServiceNow to Airbnb to Groupon to Tumblr to Zenprise to Dropbox to IFTTT to Instagram to Firebase to Wandera to Sumo Logic to Okta to Arista to Wealthfront to Domo to Lookout to SmartThings to Docker to Medium to GoFundMe to Discord to Houseparty to Roblox to Figma. Going on 800 investments just since the 90s they are arguably one of the greatest venture capital firms of all time. 

Other firms came out of pure security analyst work. Hayden, Stone, & Co was co-founded by another MIT grad, Charles Hayden, who made his name mining copper to help wire up the world in what he expected to be an increasingly electrified world. Stone was a Wall Street tycoon and the two of them founded a firm that employed Joe Kennedy, the family patriarch, Frank Zarb, a Chairman of the NASDAQ and they gave us one of the great venture capitalists to fund technology companies, Arthur Rock. 

Rock has often been portrayed as the bad guy in Steve Jobs movies but was the one who helped the “Traitorous 8” leave Shockley Semiconductor and after their dad (who had an account at Hayden Stone) mentioned they needed funding, got serial entrepreneur Sherman Fairchild to fund Fairchild Semiconductor. He developed tech for the Apollo missions, flashes, spy satellite photography - but that semiconductor business grew to 12,000 people and was a bedrock of forming what we now call Silicon Valley. Rock ended up moving to the area and investing. Parlaying success in an investment in Fairchild to invest in Intel when Moore and Noyce left Fairchild to co-found it. 

Venture Capital firms raise money from institutional investors that we call limited partners and invest that money. After moving to San Francisco, Rock setup Davis and Rock, got some limited partners, including friends from his time at Harvard and invested in 15 companies, including Teledyne and Scientific Data Systems, which got acquired by Xerox, taking their $257,000 investment to a $4.6 million dollar valuation in 1970 and got him on the board of Xerox. He dialed for dollars for Intel and raised another $2.5 million in a couple of hours, and became the first chair of their board. He made all of his LPs a lot of money.

One of those Intel employees who became a millionaire retired young. Mike Markulla invested some of his money and Rock put in $57,000 - growing it to $14 million and went on to launch or invest in companies and make billions of dollars in the process. 

Another firm that came out of the Fairchild Semiconductor days was Kleiner Perkins. They started in 1972, by founding partners Eugene Kleiner, Tom Perkins, Frank Caufield, and Brook Byers. Kleiner was the leader of those Traitorous 8 who left William Shockley and founded Fairchild Semiconductor. He later hooked up with former HP head of Research and Development and yet another MIT and Harvard grad, Bill Perkins. Perkins would help Corning, Philips, Compaq, and Genentech - serving on boards and helping them grow. 

Caufield came out of West Point and got his MBA from Harvard as well. He’d go on to work with Quantum, AOL, Wyse, Verifone, Time Warner, and others.  Byers came to the firm shortly after getting his MBA from Stanford and started four biotech companies that were incubated at Kleiner Perkins - netting the firm over $8 Billion dollars. And they taught future generations of venture capitalists. People like John Doerr - who was a great seller at Intel but by 1980 graduated into venture capital bringing in deals with Sun, Netscape, Amazon, Intuit, Macromedia, and one of the best gambles of all time - Google. And his reward is a net worth of over $11 billion dollars. But more importantly to help drive innovation and shape the world we live in today. 

Kleiner Perkins was the first to move into Sand Hill Road. From there, they’ve invested in nearly a thousand companies that include pretty much every household name in technology. From there, we got the rise of the dot coms and sky-high rent, on par with Manhattan. Why? Because dozens of venture capital firms opened offices on that road, including Lightspeed, Highland, Blackstone, Accel-KKR, Silver Lake, Redpoint, Sequoia, and Andreesen Horowitz.

Sequoia also started in the 70s, by Don Valentine and then acquired by Doug Leone and Michael Moritz in the 90s. Valentine did sales for Raytheon before joining National Semiconductor, which had been founded by a few Sperry Rand traitors and brought in some execs from Fairchild. They were venture backed and his background in sales helped propel some of their earlier investments in Apple, Atari, Electronic Arts, LSI, Cisco, and Oracle to success. And that allowed them to invest in a thousand other companies including Yahoo!, PayPal, GitHub, Nvidia, Instagram, Google, YouTube, Zoom, and many others. 

So far, most of the firms have been in the US. But venture capital is a global trend. 

Masayoshi Son founded Softbank in 1981 to sell software and then published some magazines and grew the circulation to the point that they were Japan’s largest technology publisher by the end of the 80s and then went public in 1994. They bought Ziff Davis publishing, COMDEX, and seeing so much technology and the money in technology, Son inked a deal with Yahoo! to create Yahoo! Japan. They pumped $20 million into Alibaba in 2000 and by 2014 that investment was worth $60 billion. In that time they became more aggressive with where they put their money to work. They bought Vodafone Japan, took over competitors, and then the big one - they bought Sprint, which they merged with T-Mobile and now own a quarter of the combined companies. An important aspect of venture capital and private equity is multiple expansion. The market capitalization of Sprint more than doubled with shares shooting up over 10%. They bought Arm Limited, the semiconductor company that designs the chips in so many a modern phone, IoT device, tablet and even computer now.

As with other financial firms, not all investments can go great. SoftBank pumped nearly $5 billion into WeWork. Wag failed. 2020 saw many in staff reductions. They had to sell tens of billions in assets  to weather the pandemic. And yet with some high profile losses, they sold ARM for a huge profit, Coupang went public and investors in their Vision Funds are seeing phenomenal returns across over 200 companies in the portfolios.

Most of the venture capitalists we mentioned so far invested as early as possible and stuck with the company until an exit - be it an IPO, acquisition, or even a move into private equity. Most got a seat on the board in exchange for not only their seed capital, or the money to take products to market, but also their advice. In many a company the advice was worth more than the funding. For example, Randy Komisar, now at Kleiner Perkins, famously recommended TiVo sell monthly subscriptions, the growth hack they needed to get profitable.

As the venture capital industry grew and more and more money was being pumped into fueling innovation, different accredited and institutional investors emerged to have different tolerances for risk and different skills to bring to the table. Someone who built an enterprise SaaS company and sold within three years might be better served to invest in and advise another company doing the same thing. Just as someone who had spent 20 years running companies that were at later stages and taking them to IPO was better at advising later stage startups who maybe weren’t startups any more.

Here’s a fairly common startup story. After finishing a book on Lisp, Paul Graham decides to found a company with Robert Morris. That was Viaweb in 1995 and one of the earliest SaaS startups that hosted online stores - similar to a Shopify today. Viaweb had an investor named Julian Weber, who invested $10,000 in exchange for 10% of the company. Weber gave them invaluable advice and they were acquired by Yahoo! for about $50 million in stock in 1998, becoming the Yahoo Store. 

Here’s where the story gets different. 2005 and Graham decides to start doing seed funding for startups, following the model that Weber had established with Viaweb. He and Viaweb co-founders Robert Morris (the guy that wrote the Morris worm) and Trevor Blackwell start Y Combinator, along with Jessica Livingston. They put in $200,000 to invest in companies and with successful investments grew to a few dozen companies a year. They’re different because they pick a lot of technical founders (like themselves) and help the founders find product market fit, finish their solutions, and launch. And doing so helped them bring us Airbnb, Doordash, Reddit, Stripe, Dropbox and countless others.

Notice that many of these firms have funded the same companies. This is because multiple funds investing in the same company helps distribute risk. But also because in an era where we’ve put everything from cars to education to healthcare to innovation on an assembly line, we have an assembly line in companies. We have thousands of angel investors, or humans who put capital to work by investing in companies they find through friends, family, and now portals that connect angels with companies. 

We also have incubators, a trend that began in the late 50s in New York when Jo Mancuso opened a warehouse up for small tenants after buying a warehouse to help the town of Batavia. The Batavia Industrial Center provided office supplies, equipment, secretaries, a line of credit, and most importantly advice on building a business. They had made plenty of money on chicken coops and though that maybe helping companies start was a lot like incubating chickens and so incubators were born. 

Others started incubating. The concept expanded from local entrepreneurs helping other entrepreneurs and now cities, think tanks, companies, and even universities, offer incubation in their walls. Keep in mind many a University owns a lot of patents developed there and plenty of companies have sprung up to commercialize the intellectual property incubated there. Seeing that and how technology companies needed to move faster we got  accelerators like Techstars, founded by David Cohen, Brad Feld, David Brown, and Jared Polis in 2006 out of Boulder, Colorado. They have worked with over 2,500 companies and run a couple of dozen programs. Some of the companies fail by the end of their cohort and yet many like Outreach and Sendgrid grow and become great organizations or get acquired.

The line between incubator and accelerator can be pretty slim today. Many of the earlier companies mentioned are now the more mature venture capital firms. Many have moved to a focus on later stage companies with YC and Techstars investing earlier. They attend the demos of companies being accelerated and invest. And the fact that founding companies and innovating is now on an assembly line, the companies that invest in an A round of funding, which might come after an accelerator, will look to exit in a B round, C round, etc. Or may elect to continue their risk all the way to an acquisition or IPO. 

And we have a bevy of investing companies focusing on the much later stages. We have private equity firms and family offices that look to outright own, expand, and either harvest dividends from or sell an asset, or company. We have traditional institutional lenders who provide capital but also invest in companies. We have hedge funds who hedge puts and calls or other derivatives on a variety of asset classes. Each has their sweet spot even if most will opportunistically invest in diverse assets.

Think of the investments made as horizons. The Angel investor might have their shares acquired in order to clean up the cap table, or who owns which parts of a company, in later rounds. This simplifies the shareholder structure as the company is taking on larger institutional investors to sprint towards and IPO or an acquisition.

People like Arthur Rock, Tommy Davis, Tom Perkins, Eugene Kleiner, Doerr, Masayoshi Son, and so many other has proven that they could pick winners. Or did they prove they could help build winners? Let’s remember that investing knowledge and operating experience were as valuable as their capital. Especially when the investments were adjacent to other successes they’d found.

Venture capitalists invested more than $10 billion in 1997. $600 million of that found its way to early-stage startups. But most went to preparing a startup with a product to take it to mass market. Today we pump more money than ever into R&D - and our tax systems support doing so more than ever. And so more than ever, venture money plays a critical role in the life cycle of innovation. Or does venture money play a critical role in the commercialization of innovation? Seed accelerators, startup studios, venture builders, public incubators, venture capital firms, hedge funds, banks - they’d all have a different answer. And they should. Few would stick with an investment like Digital Equipment for as long as ARDC did. And yet few provide over 100% annualized returns like they did. 

As we said in the beginning of this episode, wealthy patrons from Pharaohs to governments to industrialists to now venture capitalists have long helped to propel innovation, technology, trade, and intellectual property. We often focus on the technology itself in computing - but without the money the innovation either wouldn’t have been developed or if developed wouldn’t have made it to the mass market and so wouldn’t have had an impact into our productivity or quality of life. 

The knowledge that comes with those who provide the money can be seen with irreverence. Taking an innovation to market means market-ing. And sales. Most generations see the previous generations as almost comedic, as we can see in the HBO show Silicon Valley when the cookie cutter industrialized approach goes too far. We can also end up with founders who learn to sell to investors rather than raising capital in the best way possible, selling to paying customers.

But there’s wisdom from previous generations when offered and taken appropriately. A coachable founder with a vision that matches the coaching and a great product that can scale is the best investment that can be made. Because that’s where innovation can change the world.

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