Invention and Timing


In a lot of ways, the key to what we do as investors is timing. I think the ideas are often obvious. I think actually the ideas are often tried many times in a row before they ultimately work.

Take pen computing. When I got to the Valley all the VCs had just gotten their heads handed to them on pen computing, including Apple with the Newton. The Newton in 1989 and the iPad in 2009 are essentially the same product just 20 years later, with 20 years of advances in software and hardware, but the same basic product.

A lot of very smart people though the Newton was going to be it. They thought the time was right in 1989, and a lot of people were super-skeptical as a result in 2009 when it came around again. But the idea was obvious.

In fact, Apple took a Newton TV commercial from 1989, it was sort of an inside joke at Apple, and re-shot it frame for frame, word for word for an iPad commercial 20 years later. It’s the same thing. You knew the tablet was coming, people knew the smartphone was coming for a very long time. AI (artificial intelligence) people knew machine learning was going to take hold, social networking research has been going on for decades. In my own work, the web drew on 30 years of work in interactive computing, hypertext and online libraries.

I think most of the big breakthroughs in the next 20 years already exist, they are already running in labs. You watch that all evolve, you watch people try and fail to commercialize it and fail. And you try to zero-in on a few things:

– When is the really right time for this thing to happen?

– When has the technology really reached the point where it actually works?

– And there is a sociological component, which is, when is the world ready for the new idea?

– And the psychological component, what will the reaction of customer No. 1 actually be? Either, “Wow, this is great!” or “I thought this would work, but I am actually going to throw this in my closet.” Like everyone did with the Newton.

– There is the people question of course, who is going to be the person and the team that are going to catalyze the company and bring the idea into the form of a commercial product?

And again, using these signals, this data, you try and figure out the timing, which is the key to the success or failure of almost all this stuff.

I am firmly convinced that invention in something that happens over long periods of time, by lots of very smart people, playing each others’ ideas against each other. I think there are very few eureka moments, very few genuinely new ideas.

It’s the process of combination of lots and lots of smart people working the field over a very long period of time. And then it catalyzes, and that is where the magic is, and where the most fun part of this is. That magic moment when it all comes together.

And the great thing about being in the venture capital is, if it fails, we’ll try the same thing five years later. Almost certainly with new people, because the previous people will be too traumatized to try it again.