Hallucination vs. Vision, Selling Your Art in the Real World: Brian Koppelman Interviews Marc Andreessen

Brian Koppelman and Marc Andreessen

Editor’s note: This recent podcast interview of Marc Andreessen was conducted by Brian Koppelman, writer (Rounders, Ocean’s Thirteen, etc.), director, and showrunner (with David Levien) of Billions. The full Q&A is transcribed below, but you can also listen to this episode of “The Moment with Brian Koppelman” here

Brian: Hey, this is “The Moment.” I’m Brian Koppelman. Thanks for listening. I’m sitting here — my guest today is the brilliant Marc Andreessen — if you’re using the internet, you pretty much have him to thank; Marc invented Mosaic and Netscape, and is also among the leading VCs in the world at his company, Andreessen Horowitz. And someone I’ve become, I’ve been lucky enough to become quite friendly with over the last few years, and has been very helpful behind the scenes with “Billions”. So, Marc Andreessen, thanks for being here.

Marc: It’s an honor.

Brian: “Here”, being your office, by the way! Thanks for being in your office, on a Saturday, to talk to me.

So, I was just with a bunch of VCs over the last few days, and the highest-thinking compliment that I saw people give was that somebody was an abstract thinker, that they understood systems. And that’s something they said about you in The New Yorker article that was written about you. Can you talk a little bit about what it means to be a systems thinker?

Marc: Yah, so maybe let’s try to make it…start with concrete, and maybe make that concept itself more abstract.

Brian: That’d be great.

Marc: So just think about it through the lens of a new tech product, which is kind of the center of what we do. Which is, if you’re not a systems thinker, basically you say, I’m gonna build a really great product, right? And then it’s, I’m gonna have a really great product, and then it’s gonna be great, because it’s a really great product. Right?

You know, the systems thinking mode is like, hey, that’s just the first step — because it’s not just about the product. It’s about, okay, now, the product is going to enter into the marketplace, right? And then there are going to be customers that are gonna have a point of view on your product. And there are gonna be competitors that are gonna be trying to take you out with a better product. And there are going to be, you know, retail…you put your product in retail, and the retailers are gonna try to gouge you on price and make your product uneconomic to manufacture. And the press is going to write, you know, a review of your product, and maybe the reviewer’s gonna have a really bad day and he’s gonna say horrible things. And, you know, your employees are hard at work, they build the first product and you assume they’re gonna be there with you to build the second product. And maybe they will, maybe they won’t, because maybe somebody else will hire them.

And so …basically with any kind of creative endeavor, anything that we do in our world — and this is, you know, for products or for companies — they’re launching into technically, what’s called a…there’s actually a mathematical term, “complex adaptive system”. The world is a complex adaptive system. And it’s sort of inherently…it’s not a predictable system. It’s not a linear system. It doesn’t behave in ways that you can expect. And that, by definition, so they say, is “complex” because it’s just, you know, many, many, many dimensions and variables, and then “adaptive”, like, it changes. Like, things change. The introduction of new product changes the system, and then the system recalibrates around the product.

And so, as a consequence, like, you just…you have to launch a new type product and have it succeed. You have to have a keen awareness of all of the different elements of the system. You have to have a willingness to engage in the entire system. You know, it’s a gigantic problem generally if you’re in denial about that, right, if you’re not willing to think in systems terms, right? And so that’d be the starting point to at least understand what this means in our world.

Brian: When do you think… So, for artists, because we’ve talked a lot about how there are many similarities between what people in your world do and people in my world do. When do you wanna let that stuff… I have two questions: One is how does someone train themselves to become a systems thinker. But two is, and I guess reverse it, that’s the second one. The first one is, when should a creator, an ideater, begin thinking of all of those potential impediments, or how to flip those impediments to a strength; and when should they be trying just to ideate?

Marc: Right. So you may know, there’s actually been a lot of work done on actually analyzing the source and sort of causes and effects of creative achievement, creative success. There’s been a whole bunch of interesting sort of things that have come out of that, sort of a subfield of psychology and sociology. And there was just a study that just was on Twitter in the last week… The claim of the study was — and this is art as in like fine art; so it’s like painting as an example, of very pure version of art, let’s say — but even for like paintings, it’s creative achievement and creative success, creative success of creative work. Is it caused more by the quality of the work itself or by the social network of the artist?

Brian: I saw that study.

Marc: Is that right? The friends of the artist. And, what you find is a lot of pure creatives will, will think about that question and they’ll find it offensive. Because the whole point of being a creative, a creator, is I have a vision and I create. And it’s sort of a, you know, it just seems kind of self-evident: Obviously, the world is going to appreciate what I create (like, you know, if it’s a sufficient quality level)… Like, if the world does not appreciate it, it’s the world’s fault.

The more pragmatic view is that art — even just pure art — art is in the mind of both the creator and the viewer. What is the creative value of a painting if nobody sees it? Or, if when people see it, they don’t like it. And so the pure creative would like to believe that’s the viewer’s fault, right?, that’s the audience’s fault. And you know people like this–

Brian: Or the timing is wrong.

Marc: Well, timing is a gigantic “complexifier”, to use Jeff Bezos’ new favorite word.

Brian: Yes!

Marc: Timing is a giant X-factor — and we should talk about timing, because that’s a giant X-factor in the way these systems work — but fundamentally, … when I was a creator — in the form of when I was building software, or now that I’m more in the role of funding and supporting creators — I just view it as creativity is a collaborative exercise between the creator and the audience.

The more pragmatic view is that art is in the mind of both the creator and the viewer. What is the creative value of a painting if nobody sees it?

And I think that’s very natural, I think it’s a systems –, it’s a human system, right? And so therefore, it’s the responsibility in my view, it’s the responsibility of the artist to be willing to engage in that, and willing to be practical about that, and willing to think hard about that, and willing to do things required to get… work in front of people.

And so, it’s easier for me to have an opinion about that for painters — and that’s not my field. and so I’m just…that’s just kind of random opinion — I will tell you in tech, this is a really big difference between success and failure. Right? For what we do. For an entrepreneur who expects the market to just automatically appreciate the product — it’s the classic, if I build a better mousetrap the world will beat a path to my door, is the old cliché — it’s like, well, no, they won’t!

Like, the world is busy. People already have stuff going on. <Right!> People don’t wake up in the morning and say, “God, I can’t wait until I find out what this person I’ve never heard of in California has invented. Like, that’s not how the world works — you have to inject yourself into the world. And so in our world, the successful people are the ones who are able to do the creating and are able to then kind of push into the world — Steve Jobs put a ding in the universe — the people who are actually willing to carry the idea forward, and proselytize it, and evangelize it, and argue it, and advocate for it, and make sure people see it, and make sure it succeeds.

The world is busy. You have to inject yourself into the world!

Brian: And so either you have to be able to do that or you have to find somebody who could do it with you or for you. Irving Azoff for Don Henley and Glenn Frey or Albert Grossman for Dylan, although Dylan’s a complicated question — But when you look at… So when artists… like, when Hemingway would mythologize, you know, if you read “A Moveable Feast,” I guess he was in the salon with all these people but who then recognized…

Marc: He was in the middle of a network.

Brian: He was in the middle of a network, though he wouldn’t have thought of it that way, probably. So, do you think that some people are just instinctively do that as part of their art,  is the broadcasting of their art?

Marc: So, Brian Eno has a term, you may have heard, called “scenius”, have you heard this term?

Brian: No, but I love Eno’s work.

Marc: Okay. So Brian Eno has this term called sceners. Kevin Kelly and Stewart Brand and others have talked about this at length and I think it’s right, which is, it’s this… Let’s start with it is it’s an amazing coincidence. It’s an amazing coincidence how when there’s a major new artistic movement, it’s an amazing how there’s a scene. There’s quite literally a scene. And so Hemingway was part of a scene… There’s an example —

Brian: Patti Smith’s book talks about this, right? “Just Kids” talks about it in a great way, being in New York at that time.

Marc: I mean, one great example, you know, I’ve spent a lot of time with our friend Michael Ovitz over the years understanding kind of how this has worked and how creativity works in entertainment, and he says, basically, he says 100% of the time it’s a scene. So for example, he cites the great scene in comedy, when he was coming up was “Saturday Night Live”, you know, The Second City/ Saturday Night Live phenomenon in the mid 70s. And it was it was this, you know, Saturday Night Live shows up on TV in, you know, 1975 and people are like, Oh my… you know, this is like a brand new thing. Like, where did this come from? And it turns out, it was all these people. It was, you know, Chevy Chase, and Gilda Radner, and Bill Murray, and, you know, John Belushi, and all these… Lorne Michaels —

Brian: And the Canadians, the SCTV scene —

Marc: Yes, the Canadians, the SCTV scene, exactly right. And like, they all knew each other; they all knew each other coming up. And basically you find this — like, comedy is actually a great example of this, you just see this — inevitably, like, there was the Judd Apatow scene, like, there was a set of those people; there’s like the Seth Rogen, you know, kind of they’re at the center of these networks. And then these people then spin off and they do their own work and they became become very successful. Um you know, most recently like the Tina Fey, Amy Poehler kind of thing was a scene. <Brian: Sure. Absolutely.> Upright Citizens Brigade [Theater] and Second City. And so, it’s this… these are clearly creative geniuses on their own, but like, they weren’t out in the wilderness somewhere.

Brian: Well, what I took from the article — I didn’t read the study but I saw the Times article about it — was that artists will recognize other… Part of what happens, this amplifying effect is that, if you’re good… if you’re really good at this stuff, don’t necessarily think about people, always think about the buyer. People are always like, “How can I get an agent? How can I get a buyer?” As opposed to, “How can I show my work to other artists who can help platform it?”

And that’s what I took from that article was that, there are, that in fact, … The best way to get an agent is to have some artist who thinks you’re great, who’s represented by that agent, tell that agent, right? Do you think systems thinking — because like, if you look at Dylan as an example, just to try to put it in my world a bit, right — he did come here, come to New York and then enter and take over this scene that existed. Do you think someone has to calculate that stuff… or do you think there are people who just naturally do it?

Marc: So I think it’s a complex adaptive system. It has feedback loops, what are called feedback loops. You know, and some people get in the position of the feedback loop starts to hit. It’s almost a little bit… feedback loops are funny things… There’s this concept in economics actually derived from something out of the Christian Bible called the Matthew Effect, right? It’s sort of like, in a lot of these fields, recognition begets recognition, success begets success, reputation begets reputation, right? So it’s a positive feedback loop. And you see this when kind of people are on the rise in their careers, right?

Brian: I was with people from Twitter the other day and they were talking about this too, about one of the challenges at Twitter in terms of growing it, right, is that the people who are verified and have a good following are able to very quickly make their following bigger. <Marc: Yah> But for someone who’s just starting, it’s really hard now to amass an audience.

Marc: Just like, by the way, it’s very hard to become a new recognized painter, it’s very hard to write a screenplay that gets made, right? It’s a… these are so-called nonlinear dynamical systems, technically, and they have these feedback loops.

And a lot of this goes back to kind of the human attitude of the people involved in doing the work, it’s like, there’s two ways to look at that. One is, oh my god, life isn’t fair. And like, this is just fundamentally, you know, horrible. And we should figure out a way to, like, reform these systems so there’s a much more equal distribution of, you know, returns and results. Another way to look at it is, it os the human system, it is humanity, it is how… we are social animals, we do care what other people think. To your point, we care what the other experts think. We do care what our friends think. And we respond to those things. And part of what makes a creative project valuable is the fact that people appreciate it. And, just the nature of it is people are gonna tend to appreciate the things that other people are appreciating.

And so it is what it is, and therefore, if you’re going to be a creative professional, you should lean into that you should. You should take that seriously and you should consider that part of the challenge. Because I think that… the alternate path is bitterness. And we see this in the Valley, one of these billion programmers. They’ve been working for 10 years on some project and like they’ve got the code running. It’s all working and like nobody — you know, it’s not out there, nobody appreciates it, it’s sitting on a shelf in a lab somewhere — and they’re just furious, right?

And it’s like, “Well, what have you done to try to inject this into the world?” “Well, nothing.” “Why not?” “Well, because my work is genius and people should appreciate it. And it’s their fault if they don’t.” As an individual, that will poison you, right?, <Yes!> that will destroy you.

And so that’s… why you have to be really careful in these things whether you’re talking about society or whether you’re talking about the individual. Because from a societal standpoint, you can level all kinds of accusations about unfairness. From an individual level, you really want, in my view… individually, you wanna think, “I can do this. I can go change the world. I can go affect things.” It’s going it be real —

Brian: And you’re saying, you shouldn’t just rely on the fact that your work alone privately will do it, you should be proactive in trying to get it out there.

Marc: And part of it is you should get into a scene. So this is part of it. By the way, this also goes to another kind of view of unfairness right now which is like, okay, why do all the great movies and TV shows get made… why do the vast majority get made in LA.? Like, that’s so unfair to people. There are people who, like, try to make movies in San Francisco, and they’ll tell you like, “It’s so unfair. Like, it’s just so much easier to do this in LA. Like, it should be easy to do this…” We get this in the startup world, like, why are a disproportionate number of startups built in Silicon Valley? Isn’t it unfair that you don’t have equal odds of doing this if you’re in Topeka?

Well, that’s one way of looking at it. The other way of looking at it is, if I’m the indiv– you know, I grew up in rural Wisconsin — like, if the job is to get enmeshed into the system, right, into the network, then basically, what you wanna do as an individual is you wanna get yourself into the scene.

Brian: Yah Tony Hsieh calls them “collision spaces”.

Marc: Yeah. You gotta get in the mix, right. And if you’re not willing to get in the mix, it’s not their fault. It’s your fault, right? Again, as an individual, that’s the —

Brian: Because we’re talking about is people who… what did… other than Van Gogh get to paint those paintings and feel that feeling, but his inability to talk to people — the work ultimately, it did him some good, but not nearly the good it could have done him, right? …Emily Dickinson, the same thing.

Marc: Yeah. Look, I’m completely open to the idea that there’s an alternate-universe Brian Koppelman, let’s call him “Krian Boppelman” <Yes!>, who’s a machinist in Albany, New York, who’s got a whole bunch of genius screenplays on the shelf. And, you know, someday he’s gonna die and his kids are goona discover and publish them and we’ll be like, “Oh my god. Look at all these great TV shows that never got made.” Because the world wasn’t enlightened enough to be able to go seek him out. I’m open to the possibility that that person exists… [but] I don’t know what to do with that?

Brian: Right, right. So you gotta find — what you’re saying that you have to find a way to present yourself… But the challenge is, as you know, oftentimes, the approach that people make has the opposite effect of what they hope, right, when they have a product. Someone has an idea and they see you in a mall and they come– right? So that’s another piece of it, is how do you manage that.

Marc: Ahh… So that’s the other thing. So there’s a great — in our world, there was a great Dilbert strip where the pony-haired boss says, “You know, I have a great idea for a startup. All I need is for, you know, somebody to actually, like, write the code and do all the work.” And Dilbert says, “The technical term for what you have is, ‘nothing’” <laughs> … right? Right?

And so this is the other side — at least in my world, I suspect in your world — but at least in my world, you actually see this a lot. You’ll see people say, like, “I have an idea, but it’s such a good idea, I can’t tell anybody about it, because they’ll steal my idea”. And at least in our world, like, literally it is, therefore, what you now have is nothing… There’s another great — I forget who said it, there’s another great line somebody said that — “If you have a really, really great idea, like, you can shout it to the rafters and like, still nobody’s gonna take it seriously.”

Like, the world is filled with ideas. Like, there is actually no idea shortage. And in fact, by the way, many people actually have the same ideas. And by the way, many of the ideas are actually reasonably obvious. Like, you know, the iPhone. We’re all carrying around these… Like, what a genius idea was the iPhone. Well, hey, how about a computer you can hold in your hand. Like, how about a computer that you don’t have to carry in a briefcase, you can hold in your hand.

Brian: I mean, between William Gibson and… I mean, everybody’s had the…

Marc: “Star Trek,” freakin “Star Trek”! They had them on “Star Trek” in 1966. Like, yeah, I want a computer I can hold in my hand. Like, the idea alone didn’t get Steve Jobs anywhere. It was everything else that he did to make the idea a reality — and actually get it into people’s hands — that mattered. And…by the way, we get this all the time, you get pitched, you know, I’m a founder with an idea, it doesn’t mean anything; like, you know, we’ve got an unlimited number of those. We can generate as many of those as we want.

Brian: But I guess what I’m asking is, how do you learn to — Do you think one can learn to do both things? To be a creator, founder/creator, and the salesman of your own work? Like, how does one learn to do that?

Marc: Yes. Well, so first of all… put it this way — this is, again, where I think systems thinking is actually helpful — ao, actually, we have a lot of this, so we have a lot of sort of founders who are like classical engineers, and they’re sort of classical introverts and the idea of having to go, kind of, you know, sell is like anathema, like, the idea. You know, they’ve got these kind of, I would say, misperceptions of the salesman as somebody who’s wearing a shiny suit <Brian: Yes, perfect!> selling somebody something that they don’t need.

And so, we have a couple of responses to that. We have a specific response to that, which is actually the role of sales is (at least in our industry) is not to sell something you don’t need — it’s actually to help somebody buy what they actually do need. And we can have a long conversation about that. The really good sales people in Silicon Valley who make a lot of money become very personally bonded to their customers; they end up going to their customers’, you know, weddings, to their kids’ weddings — like, they become like, very close allies to the careers of their customers. We can have a long conversation about that. It’s a real form of value-add to the customer.

The role of sales is not to sell something they don’t need — it’s actually to help somebody buy what they actually do need.

But even deeper than that. The thing I tell the engineers is, look, dealing with customers, it’s another systems problem. Like, you are the master of solving a systems problem, which is how to get the computer to do what you want. Like, people aren’t computers, they’re different, but there is a system for dealing people. You can engineer a system for dealing with people. And actually, when you work with top-end sales people, what you find is they have incredibly elaborate, like, very real systems. Like, very, very, very thought-through kind of abstract systems of how they basically run like, a large-scale sales campaign and how they deal with the customer. So for example, there’s a process in sales for qualification which is you’re basically trying to gauge like, is the customer ever going to buy? —

Brian: Can they buy?

Marc: Can they buy. And that’s a very, there’s actually orchestrated multi-step processes, there’s entire software packages that get sold just to be able to track and manage that process. And so I always tell engineers, actually, put your engineer hat on and think about it as an engineering problem, and you’ll be able to figure it out. And by the way, it’s not as hard as building an operating system… Like, you can figure this stuff out. Now, you have to want to.

Brian: No, you have to want to. But it’s because the typical approach both to you and to me is, hey, will you read my screenplay; my screenplay is really good — but in fact, you said something brilliant when you pointed us to that piece about artists talking to artists because I won’t read anything that anybody sends me randomly, right? when someone contacts me online — “Please read my screenplay” it’s like, no, but…

Marc: And why not?

Brian: Well, for a variety of reasons. One, there’s nothing that’s enticed me to read it that makes it seem– they haven’t enticed me by who they are yet, right? Now, if they’re on Twitter and I’m on Twitter, and somebody I know has put them in my life, and they have some sort of credibility because of some kind of social proof, then that might get me to have a conversation where I guide them into what they could do to put themselves in a position that someone will read their stuff.

But, if one of my writer friends, or a producer friend, or an agent says, “Uh, you gotta check this thing out, here’s the reasons why” — I’m immediately gonna check it out. Because it’s become elevated to a place that it’s worth engaging with. <Marc: Right> Also I don’t wanna get sued. I don’t wanna get sued. That’s the other thing. I can’t read stuff because you read stuff and you get sued. I mean, that’s–

Marc: If you were to have that same idea in some project later on down the road–

Brian: Someone could just sue you and there’s nothing that you can do about it. So you do think this all can be taught, which is that’s encouraging.

Marc: You have to want to learn how to do it. And then at some point, look, you do have to have, at some point, you have to have the kind of personality. Like, if you’re gonna hate it, like, there are founders where they could actually totally understand the process of sales and they’re gonna be so introverted as an example, that they’re just gonna hate the interaction and they’re just gonna, you know, can’t wait until they stop talking to these people. In that case, then you start talking about building the team.

Brian: How do you talk to people though who have that chip on their shoulder, like, they look at someone like Elon as like, “Well, hey, that guy’s just as a showman!” Do you know what I mean? Like, not him specifically, but they almost feel like it cheapens what they do; like…

Marc: Oh, this is actually interesting. Elon actually used to tell us, it’s the Edison vs. Tesla thing.

So actually, in Edison’s day — so, you know, Edison is credited for phonograph, indoor lighting, all this stuff; and then Tesla was this guy, had all these super genius, like, there’s this huge debate over AC vs DC electricity, and there’s an ultimate power grid that we could have that runs a DC that’s much better, and Tesla had that idea — and there’s this whole thing.

And so there’s this kind of engineer archetype of like Edison was the showman, he was a mediocre engineer but he was the showman. And Tesla was the unappreciated genius. And it’s a perfect example of this. It’s like, okay, well, whose fault was that?

Brian: Right. Right… you’re saying it was Tesla’s fault.

Marc: Like, what kept Nikola Tesla from like — I mean, the stuff Edison did to go promote his stuff, like, it wasn’t that — it’s the same thing; it wasn’t that hard to figure out. There were lots of people in that era that wanted to finance, you know, as an example, Edison raised all this money. There were lots of people who wanted to finance electricity. I mean, talk about like a growth market.

Brian: And you take this into account <Yup> in terms of who you’re gonna invest in.

Marc: Yeah, for sure.

Brian: Part of what you’re taking into account is the Messianic abilities that the person has, right?

Marc: Absolutely. As I say, the world is busy. There are 7 billion people on planet Earth whose time is already fully allocated. Right? And so there has to be something about — now, the work has to speak for itself, we can talk more about that — but then, somebody has got to pick up the flag and carry it into the world and make…

Brian: We’ll talk about the work needs to stand for itself.

Marc: Well, there’s the other side of this which is, none of this is an excuse for having the work not be good, right? <Brian: Yes.> And so, the best, the line I use all the time, the book I always recommended is Steve Martin’s book, Born Standing Up

Brian: It’s a spectacular book.

Marc: Which is one of the best books I’ve ever read. And it’s a thin little book, basically… So how did Steve Martin succeed in comedy (it’s a pretty interesting topic because he was a gigantic success first in standup, and then later in film and other things), and the thing is, it’s very straightforward. In the book he says, “Be so good, they can’t ignore you”. Right?

Brian: I often say, when people complain to me on Twitter, I often say, “Well, this is unfair.” So this is where you and I have a lot of similarity, and it is one of the areas, which is: I say, It’s unfair. If you’re a woman of color wanting to make it as a screenwriter, it’s really hard; the deck is stacked against you because of who the buyers are.

However, once it’s unfair, once we acknowledge that, all you can do is write an undeniable script. That’s the only thing you can do, is write something undeniable, that breaks through it — now, that’s unfair.

Marc: Well, I would say that’s one thing you can do. The other thing you can do is you can get yourself into a scene.

Brian: Sure. So find a scene. Yes…

Marc: Those are the two things.

Brian: And what I like about this is, and this is a new perspective on this podcast because… partially because of my own life experience, which Dave and I wrote this thing in a basement, as you know (as we just talked about on your podcast). But your idea — and I know you said it’s Brian Eno’s thought, but it is really, as you’re saying it to me, it is smart, it makes a lot of sense — that you should consciously get into a scene —

Marc: Well another way to think about it is, would you rather be a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond? And then the small fish has the best product anybody’s ever seen. That’s the formula.

Brian: Have you read Just Kids, the Patti Smith book?

Marc: No.

Brian: Oh, you’d love it; it’s a great audio book. But Patti Smith comes to New York and meets Robert Mapplethorpe the first day that she’s in New York and then the two of them end up in the world that Warhol and those people were all in. <Yah> And they just lived at the Chelsea Hotel, and they bounced around with those people. Patti had to do the genius work… but then when she did, people were there to appreciate it.

Marc: And by the way, you know, most people who are like in this… most people who love the art of what they do, want there to be more great art. And they want there to be more great artists. <Brian: Yes.> They wanna be the kind of person who’s able to go find other great artists and talk to the great artist.

And then most people, by the way, you know, in the financing business, like, we are dying to finance the next great startup. Like, people talk about like venture capitalists; it’s you gotta run on these gauntlets to do it or like it’s so, you know, they fund all this…you know, we’re dying to fund the next Google. Like, we can’t wait. So just for god’s sake, figure out a way to build it and bring it to us. Please!

Brian: Right. Though, to get to you, somebody has to be credibly recommended to you.

Marc: Okay, so then this gets to a concept that I talked… So this goes directly what we’re talking about. So you described the process of getting you to read somebody’s screenplay. And basically it’s they have to be a referral. There should be some sort of warm referral.

Brian: Either a referral, or the only other way is over a period of time, you’ve impressed me somehow yourself.

Marc: Yeah, exactly right, independent of this specific thing that you’re trying to create. So, it’s sort of a very similar thing in venture, which is, I mean, there are certain people where it’s just like, the reputation precedes them, and they want to come in to pitch us, we’re gonna take the pitch. And some of those people, by the way, you discover on Twitter. Like, so that’s a real thing.

But more generally, it’s a referral business. And I figured this out early on, when we were starting, I talked to friends of mine at one of the top firms in the industry that’s now a 50-year-old venture firm, one of these legendary firms and they said, in the entire history of the venture firm, they funded exactly one startup pitch that came in cold, right, over 50 years. Now, they funded like a thousand that came in warm and they funded one that came in cold.

And so anyway, so that’s like, okay, well, again, isn’t that unfair? Like, okay.

So that’s why I get into what I call the test, with a capital T, The Test. And The Test is basically, the test to get to us, to get into VC is can you get one warm introduction? Just one. And in our world, you know, your world is agents or whatever or other creatives — in our world it’s an angel investor, it’s a seed funder, it’s a professor, it’s a manager at one of the big existing tech companies, right?

Brian: Someone you think is smart.

Marc: Yeah, somebody I think is smart.

Brian: And knows people.

Marc: But there are thousands of those people out there who I will take that call for.

Brian: Like, I could call you and tell you, but somebody… By the way, I won’t. Let me just say, clearly, I will not!! <laughs> But you have this world…

Marc: You could. Somebody, like, if a director of — I don’t know, there’s like, 1,000 executives at Facebook; Facebook is like a 40,000-person company, it has like, 1,000 executives at Facebook in decision-making capacity — if any one of the thousand calls up and says, “I got this kid I think you should meet.” It’s like, “Yes, I’ll take that meeting.” So it’s like, and again, it’s just one, right?

And so the test is, can you get one person to refer you, right? And it’s like, okay, like… think of the number of ways you could get one person to refer you, you could go get a job and you could go impress a manager and then that manager makes the call.

Brian: That is an incredibly good test, by the way.

Marc: And if you can’t pass the test, The Test, to get a warm inbound referral into a venture firm, then what that indicates is, you are gonna have a hell of a time as an entrepreneur. You are gonna hate being an entrepreneur because guess what you have to do, once you raise money. We’re the easy — I always say like, we’re the easy part of the process.

Once you raise money from us is when the pain begins. And the pain is trying to get other people to say yes to you. The pain specifically is trying to get people to work for you. And they all have choices, right? And so you got to convince them to come work for instead of somebody else; to try to get a customer to buy a product, and the customers are overwhelmed with new products they could buy… and so to actually sell something to somebody. And then at some point, you’re gonna have to raise money again, right? And you raise money from new people each round. At some point you’re gonna have to go get somebody else to say yes.

And so, if you can’t get a warm inbound to us, how are you possibly going to be able to function in the environment in which you’re now gonna be operating, where you’re gonna have to get all these other people to do stuff for you. And so that’s the thing. And so that’s why there basically, there are no — For all intents and purposes, again, I’m open to the idea that there’s the undiscovered genius out there.

Brian: How many cold ones have you funded?

Marc: Never. I mean, zero —

Brian: Zero cold, from an elevator, from someone walking up to you —

Marc: For me, yeah.

Because what you find…if you find yourself face to face, what you find is the reason that they can’t pass the test is because they have the chip on the shoulder. And I’m pro chips-on-shoulders. A lot–

Brian: We both have a chip on our shoulder.

Marc: Yes! There’s a giant advantage of a chip on the shoulder. But there’s a very dysfunctional version of the chip on the shoulder, which is: I should be appreciated. I should be appreciated for who I am.

Brian: I shouldn’t have to stoop.

Marc: I should not have to stoop to do this stuff, right? I shouldn’t have to get the warm introduction.

Brian: But of course to sell in the world, you have to be willing to walk into a room… and do the thing.

Marc: Raising venture — I always say this — is the beginning of the pain of having to deal with people… to do stuff for you.

Brian: Makes total sense. But just in case people don’t know, who are listening to this podcast, you know, Marc, you didn’t come from wealth and you didn’t come — nobody like, sort of handed all this to you. And when I sort of glibly at the beginning of the podcast said, if you’re using the internet, it’s because of Marc, I mean, I’m not being hyperbolic, you invented the first available browser that allowed people to browse the internet. You invented Mosaic, and then you invented Netscape, which became the most widely used browser and everything that’s happened since. You came up with an interface that people could use to surf the internet.

How did you find a way to get your — well, I guess first I wanna know, when did you start to realize that you thought differently than most of your peers? And like, you know what I mean? How do we know that we’re right or we’re delusional? What I’m interested in is: When you realized you saw the world differently, how did you stay sane about it?

Marc: I mean the answer to the question is I went to work.

Brian: What do you mean?

Marc: So after college, I immediately got a job and I just… I’d worked all through high school and so I just I knew I wanted to have a job that makes money. So I sat down with the “U.S. News & World Report” — they used to do the print magazine where they ranked all the colleges, universities, they ranked all the degree programs in the country, and then they ranked the starting salaries for each level — and so I literally got to the page where it was like, uh, for people with bachelor’s degrees coming out of American universities (because I didn’t wanna stay in school longer than I had to), what was the salary range?

Top salary on down for the degrees. And the top one was EE. And I was like, okay, EE. Sounds good. And then I went to the EE page. And I was like, ok, what are the top EE schools? And it was like MIT, Stanford. Well, those are obviously out of reach for people where I come from.

Brian: You mean, you just decided that that was out of reach?

Marc: Nobody where I come from goes to Stanford, MIT.

Brian: You didn’t think you could?

Marc: Of course not. No. No chance.

Brian: Amazing.

Marc: No possibility whatsoever. And nobody ever has. And it’s not a possibility. And so #3 was University of Illinois, which I was like, oh, interesting. Like, I was in Wisconsin, and so Illinois, it’s actually, like, it’s across the border and it’s about six hours away; and it’s a state school, and so I’d have to pay out-of-state tuition, but it was, you know, much cheaper than, you know, the sort of, the full private schools. And I was like, it’s #3 in the country, right, for EE, and I was like, this is great. So I went and applied and they love out of state students, because they pay full load, right?

So then I showed up and got a job. And the job I got was — and I was into coding — and so I got a job in a software lab and I just like absolutely loved it. It was my kind of first time I was getting like, actually paid to like write code and work on things. In the Physics Department at Illinois. And then that ultimately led to an internship at IBM, and then that ultimately led to a job at NCSA, which is the center where we did all the work on Mosaic.

And, so, part, you know, there was a big — I don’t know, luck or timing or whatever component to it — which is like, it’s so happened that when I got to Illinois, there was this environment… with all this federal funding to be able to do, you know, we basically had the modern internet at Illinois. There were four universities in the U.S. that had gotten funded in the 80s to basically effectively build — there were super computer centers. Supercomputers cost $25 million, so there was that. And then they basically built what they called the NSFNET, which was basically the internet. And so it was Cornell, San Diego, Illinois, and Pittsburgh. They were actually — three of the four were state schools.

And so we basically had on campus, we had actually the modern — we didn’t have the web yet, but we had like the modern internet. Like, we had high speed broadband, including even in some of the dorms. You know, there were supercomputers, there were all these graphical workstations, which at the time was a big deal. And so there was a part of that, it was a scene. It was a scene.

Brian: Yeah, sure. It was a scene.

Marc: It was a fertile environment with people who were interested in this and then there was some set of resources…

Brian: Did you have the notion in your head that you were going to change the world?

Marc: No, of course, not.

Brian: You really didn’t?

Marc: No. Yah.

Brian: Your ambition — this is important for like, I think people who wanna do creative work — like, the sort of how grand can the thoughts be? Like, for real, were you trying to just solve a specific problem, or did you have a sense that if we do this work, we might actually be able to influence the world?

Marc: So it was like — I didn’t have the vocabulary then, but I have it now — so it was a complex adaptive system problem. And it was as follows, which is because of all this federal funding for the supercomputer centers, we had a lot of the modern internet running at Illinois; the students could use, the faculty used it, the researchers used it. All my work there, it was in this environment.

The assumption was, the assumption was that you would use it while you were there. And then when you leave, you would stop using it. Right? So you would be on email, it was literally the assumption was email at the time. You’d be on email–

Brian: Oh, we’re on the university email, but you then you won’t have use for it even when you’re gone?

Marc: Who would you email in the real world?! Like, it was an inconceivable concept, right? And so literally, you would graduate and you would go buy a PC in the store when you graduate or have a PC assigned to you in your job and it wouldn’t be hooked up to the internet, because, why would you hook up to the internet? Like, there was no point to it, right?

So the overwhelming assumption was you’d use it here, and then you wouldn’t use it in the real world. And this was part of the cultural divide at the time between like, you know, it was part of the — you know, sort of the nerd culture, the academic culture, and then the quote-unquote “real world” And so there was just this massive, my favorite (Sonal who’s with us will appreciate it, as a former Wired editor, will appreciate) — so I was working on Mosaic, it was in the middle of the night working on Mosaic and I go to a little corner store, fight my way through the blizzard most nights in the plains of Illinois and go to the corner store to get something to eat at like 2:00 in the morning.

And I’d check the newsstand, check it out, and there’s, you know, the first issue of Wired magazine, right? And so I’m like, “Oh, this is, you know, wow. This is like, finally somebody made a magazine for me.” Like, yeah, somebody made a magazine that takes like, computer seriously. Like, how about that as an idea for a magazine? Right? So it’s like 1992, ’93. It was ’93, I think ’93. Yeah, ’93. So I’m like, okay, great. I’ll buy it. And I’m like, okay, it’s pretty good. So I’d buy my food, I go back to my little office in the basement in the lab and I’m reading the magazine. It’s going on and on about interactive TV and the information superhighway and this and that, digital tsunami, and this and that, and the whole… the manifesto, the whole thing. Didn’t mention the internet. There was no mention of the internet in the magazine.

Brian: It was all virtual reality then.

Marc: Virtual reality and “The Lawnmower Man” and like…

Brian: I remember the beginning of Wired.

Marc: There was no internet. The internet did not even merit a mention.

Brian: AOL was around in ’94, right? ’93?

Marc: AOL was not connected to the internet. AOL was not connected to the internet.

Brian: So, how did AOL work back then?

Marc: It was entirely a self — it was the so-called walled garden. It was a self-contained environment.

Brian: I mean, so you would get on the internet to reach… If I was at home and my modem, where was my modem dialing in to?

Marc: Just AOL.

Brian: Only their office, like, their servers?

Marc: Yeah, yeah. Their servers, their content.

Brian: And everything happened within that world?

Marc: Within AOL, yeah.

Brian: So even if we thought that was the internet, it wasn’t.

Marc: Yeah. You didn’t have access. So you would not have thought it was the internet, because you would not have thought–

Brian: What would I have thought?

Marc: You would have thought you were on AOL. So AOL was an advanced version of what was called a bulletin board system. A BBS.

Brian: Yes, it was a bulletin board, that’s right. I remember.

Marc: But remember the BBSs were all self-contained. Remember, in the early BBS days you would log into each BBS separately.

Brian: I remember.

Marc: There was no connectivity between the BBSs. There was no — so you had AOL at the time, you had AOL, CompuServe, and Prodigy, they were the three big ones. And you couldn’t even connect between those.

Brian: So that’s where you were then? When you were working in the middle of the night — I had this question to ask you; I’m so glad you said that — like, what kind of like, how adrenalized were you when you were building Mosaic? I’m talking about the creative part of this; like how adrenalized were you when this was happening?

Marc: Well, not really — this is the thing is the conventional wisdom was so against, it was a little bit — This is why I tell the story of the magazine, it’s just like, I just like I read the magazine and I’m just like, okay, my work doesn’t, I mean, not my; nobody knew who I was, but like, the entire domain in which I’m operating does not matter, does not even merit a mention. Like, it’s just like, okay, and I’m just like, I don’t know what, like, I’m just a kid.

Like, I don’t know what else… so I just go back to work. Like, I can’t do any of this other stuff. I’m not at Time Warner building, you know, I don’t know, interactive TV. I’m not at Viacom building whatever VR thing they were doing. Like, I just, I’m working on this internet thing. And even though they don’t respect it, it’s the thing I can work on. So I’ll just work on it. And so, you know, we just went back to work.

I didn’t know what else… so I just go back to work. Like, I can’t do any of this other stuff.

We didn’t really start to get positive feedback until, you know, sort of spring ’93 — the feedback cycles, so what we did get is, we did get a positive feedback cycle going quickly — and the positive feedback cycle basically was not surprising. But like the more people who had browsers, then the more people who would put up web pages. The more people would put up web pages, the more people would want to have browsers.

Brian: You started realizing that?

Marc: Yeah, we started seeing that.

Brian: And did that get exciting to you personally?

Marc: Well, guess how I started to experience that?

Brian: How?

Marc: Customer support emails.

Brian: Oh, that’s awesome, complaints!

Marc: Right. Guess who got all the complaints? <laughs>

Brian: That’s fantastic. So the complaints actually let you — now, were you, when you got the complaints, were you able to actually (and this might be one of the gifts you have) — were you able to immediately go like, “Ooh, this is good.”

Marc: Yeah, sure. Of course. People care.

Brian: Most of us would just crumble.

Marc: People care. Well, people care. Okay, so here’s the funny part about it. This whole thing as being operated on a, it’s kind of a little bit of a rogue project, but it was funded under NSF grant, that R&D grant. So it was relevant enough to the grant that we’d gotten that we kind of were able to do that, that the center had gotten.

So then literally, it starts to work and it starts to get adopted, and, so you know, it’s like, okay, this interesting. We start to get all these customer support emails and I’m like, I’ve got a choice. I can either like, answer all the emails or I can write more code. And so we actually wrote a grant application to the NSF to be able to hire a customer service team to be able to actually, like, help people get on the internet and do all this stuff. And guess what the reception was for that grant application?

Brian: I can imagine.


Brian: Yeah, of course it was denied. Because how are you gonna really explain —

Marc: Well, and the NSF is not in the business of funding a customer support operation? Like, that’s something that —

Brian: So did you rephrase it?

Marc: No, no, no. They just flat out shot us down. And so I just worked more.

Brian: So this is like, you just kept going.

Marc: Yeah, I just kept going. And, you know, at some point — but then it took, right, and then this is the feedback loop thing, positive feedback loop took. So then the weirdest thing happened, which was people started writing books about it. And this is actually really significant because the PCs at the time didn’t actually have internet connectivity built into them. PCs and Macs at the time. You bought them out of the box. They didn’t have the software required to get on the internet, so. But there was enough demand that the book publishers started to write books about “how to internet” — and those books would have a floppy disk in the back of the book and the floppy disk had the software you needed to load in your PC so that you could get online. And so that took some of the load off the — finally, I could just say you should go read, you know, Internet for Dummies. And so that helped…

Brian: And were you still like in college during all that?

Marc: Yeah. Still in college, yeah.

Brian: Still in college as it started to take off.

Marc: Yeah, as it started to go.

Brian: So here’s a question — and you can answer this as how you thought or what you’ve noticed in entrepreneurs — because it ties into the way, in a very small way, how I think, what I’ve experienced as a storyteller.

And that is like, what does it feel like to hold two versions of the world in your head at the same time? That is, the way the world is and the way that it’s going to be. You know, because you’re kind of living in two different worlds at the same time. <Yup.> How have you seen that manifest, and how did it manifest for you?

Marc: Yeah. So this is the line we use is the difference between a vision and a hallucination?

Brian: Yes, talk about that please!

Marc: And what’s the difference between a vision and a hallucination? Is other people can see the vision.

Brian: When, though?

Marc: Well, that’s the question, right?

Brian: So what’s the time horizon?

Marc: Well, that’s the thing. And so the way we think about this, the abstract way we think about this is, the best entrepreneurs, they really do live in the future.

It’s actually, I think a little bit like the best artists. The best entrepreneurs live in the future, they actually can already envision, like, at some point — they maybe don’t have it at the very, very beginning, because you often start to scratch your own itch just to start — but like, at some point, you’re like, okay, like, I’m gonna put this thing out, everybody’s gonna like it. Like, everybody’s gonna use it. Like, at some point, it’s gonna take. And I can start to, and we didn’t start to develop this over time, you start to feel like, okay, this could be something that could really matter. This could be really big — and you start to kind of live in the world in which it’s sort of already happened.

The best entrepreneurs and artists, they really do live in the future…

Brian: Yes, that’s what I mean, about you’re living in two realities at the same time!

Marc: Yeah, right. But then you have to come back to, you know, you wake up every morning and the world in which it hasn’t yet happened —

Brian: Yah, eat your oatmean or whatever.

Marc: You know, wake up, put your pants on.

Brian: Did you find it distracting, inspiring?

Marc: Inspiring. I mean, I think for the good… it’s almost always… well, let’s put it this way: It’s inspiring when it works. It’s very frustrating when it doesn’t.

Brian: Yes. Because then it’s almost like a whole world has died in a way.

Marc: Yeah, this whole future that you were able to envision. And by the way, every entrepreneur views that like they’re doing something to make the world better. People don’t go through the effort…

Brian: And you did that when you were building the web browser, you decided, you did, some part of you thought…

Marc: Nobody does a creative endeavor thinking, “Boy, this is gonna make the world worse. I can’t wait to see how bad I can make the world.”

Brian: Well, can you talk about the difference between having a dream and having a, like, sort of chasing your personal passion — and then personal contribution. Like, deciding that your dream has utility beyond yourself?

Marc: Yeah, so this is something where Ben — Ben actually gave a commencement speech (where he and I developed this jointly, but he did the speech and riled a bunch of people up) — so basically, our view is that the “follow your passion” thing is like an incredibly destructive meme that sort of flows out of the kind of hippie movement of the 60s–

Brian: You have to define “passion” for me because —

Marc: So, I have a internalized view of myself, and what I am on planet earth to do. I have to express myself as a — take your pick: a musician, an author, a writer, a programmer, a basket weaver, a whatever it happens to be, an organic farmer — like, whatever the thing, that’s my passion. And that’s my passion.

And my passion, it’s about me. This is our view, that it’s a self-centered view of the world. This is what’s going to make ME happy. This is what MY calling is. This is the thing that’s gonna actualize me. And if I can follow my passion, then I will be validated, right, and I will be a success within my own psyche. And if I can’t, I’ll be frustrated and angry and bitter, and all the rest of it. And the problem is, is that like, so the problem is like, it goes back to our earlier discussion. Like, if take is given, the rest of the world’s gonna appreciate your passion, right? And like I said, like, the rest of the world is busy. Like, maybe they will, maybe they won’t.

And so the way we always encourage people to think about it is, basically, follow the area in which you can make a contribution. So it’s not about you, it’s about other people.

It’s the non-selfish version of it. The non-selfish version of it is, what can I do that’s gonna make other people’s lives better, what can I do that’s gonna be of service and value to them? And then the question is, okay, well, then how am I gonna know? Well, because they’re gonna actually, they’re gonna buy it. Like, how about that? They’re gonna pay money for it.

Brian: Yeah, you’re not saying don’t try your passion. You’re saying measure — it sounds to me you’re saying measure?

Marc: Well, I don’t think, I think ”your passion” is inherently a self-centric view and I think that’s —

Brian: You think it’s destructive to the individual to think about it as scratching a passion?

Marc: Yes. I think it leads–

Brian: But aren’t the best engineers dissatisfied by something and then they have to try to make it better?

Marc: Yeah, but that’s the difference. Making it better is not just I wrote the code. Making it better is everybody now uses the code.

And maybe that sounds obvious — especially for people who are already highly successful, it sounds like those are the same thing. You get this thing in the advice industry, right, in which you get a lot of self-selected advice; you know, a lot of the how-to succeed books it’s like, step one, be successful, right?

Making it better is not just I wrote the code. Making it better is everybody now uses the code.

Brian: It goes back to Steve Martin. How can I be a millionaire and never pay taxes? Step one, get a million dollars. That’s he says <laughs>, right, step one, get a million dollars.

Marc: Right. And so anyway, the point being like, it’s just, what I just find with a lot of people, it’s not that there’s nothing to the passion idea, it’s just with a lot of people, it leads to — If they exercise their passion, if the world does not then automatically appreciate their passion it leads to bitterness, and resentment, and envy, and anger, and it just leads people to, it’s very sabotaging.

And philosophically, I would say, of course it’s sabotaging because it’s self-centric because we’re not islands. Like, the world is not just a bunch of disassociated individuals. Like, we are a society.

Brian: No, it is a loop. Writing Billions made me incredibly happy and I do say, in the writing alone or with Dave, but in the writing, that is in a way the happiest that it gets. <Okay.> But then that’s the one sort of, that’s the just purely sort of pure emotion and you’re right, it’s selfish. But the fact that it’s then — I get the feedback — that it’s making people happy, really is what elevates.

Marc: People watch it, they love it. They’re watching it in the numbers. And it’s like– and then by the way, then that’s how you get the money and then the money is what you use to do more of what you… And there’s like, not only is there nothing wrong with that, there’s something really right about that.

Brian: I mean, I do encourage people to chase their passion because I think if they don’t they also become better. But again, these things are all like — what does Ferriss call it? um, “minimum effective dose” — and so, the minimum effective dose might be, keep your job, do your thing, and you work a half hour a day to figure out if your passion is gonna lead to this contribution.

Marc: I guess I’d say, I think — I find it natural, maybe this is the Midwestern in me — I always found it natural to say like, look, my creative output, it is right and appropriate and proper for it to be evaluated by other people. I would like to know what other people think of it. I would like to know that they appreciate it. I would like to see that they use it. I would like to see that it has an effect on their lives–

Brian: But how does that square with the fact that you hold– like, how does that square with willingness to make bets that go against what the majority think?

Marc: Oh!

Brian: So can you talk about those, right? Because you’re actually not ceding power to those people.

Marc: That’s right… Quite the opposite.

Brian: Talk about that bit.

Marc: We talk about this a lot. So this is the old — this is the old Steve Jobs thing. Nobody ever asked for a Macintosh. <Right!> So this is the thing. This is actually another kind of dysfunction you see among some startup founders. Big companies often have this dysfunction, which is (I actually saw this when I was at IBM, they had this problem in the 90s) — it was, we’re gonna do what the customer wants. We’re a customer-centric organization.

Brian: That’s not what you’re saying.

Marc: It’s not what I’m saying it all! Because the customers don’t know what they want. Like, nobody ever asked for a Macintosh. Nobody ever asked for a car. I mean, people were on horses, and they thought they were fine. Nobody asked for an automobile. Nobody asked for, I can tell you, nobody asked for the internet. Like, they didn’t know. They didn’t know. Why didn’t they know? It’s not their job to know.

As I said, people are busy. And I think this is very much is a human nature thing. People are busy, people have their own lives, they got their own priorities, they got their own things. They’re not sitting around dreaming up new product ideas that they hope somebody else builds. They’re just not doing it. And so you have to invent it, and you have to bring it to them. But without the attitude of, you know, I now get to dictate to you how you receive it, right?

Brian: So how does that square with this idea of people evaluating it? Like, how do you know that, right, ‘cause I guess it’s easier language for somebody internally — I have a feeling, and I’m gonna exercise my passion — than it is to have the belief in their ability to contribute. So how do you square those things?

Marc: Well, the ability to contribute is, it’s just like, it’s almost like a spirit of generosity. <Brian: That’s great.> Can I envision that there are people, who are otherwise busy, can I envision — you know, for you, I can envision there are people who are like TV fans and they’re watching TV shows and they really like TV shows, and can I envision that I might be able to make a TV show that they might enjoy more than the ones they’re already watching — and would that make their life… And the answer is like, yeah, they probably would.

Brian: But when you do something that there is no analog for previously. In the beginning, I’m sure you’ve seen most people collect many rejections.

Marc: Ohh yah…

Brian: So talk a little bit about this, right? Because how does someone — I don’t want someone to misinterpret what you’re saying as, hey, if you poke your head out and someone takes a whack at it, you are in the wrong line of work, right?

So how do you balance those ideas? How do you square this idea that, you’re gonna run through a lot of rejections before success; with, hey, make sure you check the market to make sure you’re getting some positive reinforcement. How do those things square?

Marc: So Sean Parker says — for tech startups — the thing about tech startups is they’re like chewing glass. Eventually, you start to like the taste of your own blood, right? Right, like there’s a marketing of like tech startups is like a glamorous thing. And I actually don’t agree with that for the most part. They are actually brutally, brutally difficult.

And it goes back to the Test that we talked about. You are, every single day as a startup founder, you’re trying to get employees to join you who have many other options. Most of them are telling you no. You’re trying to get customers to test your product or buy your products, they’re busy, they have other stuff going on. Most of them tell you no. You’re trying to raise money, most of the, you know, VCs tell you no. Like, generally, it’s just all day long as a tech founder is, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.

Brian: And what do you have to tell yourself? What do you have to tell yourself, eventually, they’ll see that I am contributing?

Marc: Yeah. Yeah, basically. Yeah. I mean… they’re wrong. Well, it’s actually sort of an interesting thing, there has to be a part, this is where the chip on the shoulder comes in handy. There has to be a thing of like, basically, screw them. Like, I know I’m right and I know they’re wrong. Or at least I have a strong idea in that direction and I’m willing to fight my way through it. And by the way, it’s like, you know, it’s like, at some point, you realize the nos aren’t killing you, right?

Brian: Yes. Yes!

Marc: Right? And that’s like a big… You know, this is kind of, it’s also why, by the way, it’s really good for engineers to learn sales, is because sales people hear “no” for a living, right? A friend of mine is absolutely fearless, he’s a VC now, but he’s a fearless kind of sales-oriented personality, and I figured out what happened. He got a job in high school selling steak knives door to door and he did that, you know, for two years.

Brian: And the best that ever is second prize as you know.

Marc: Exactly. But it’s like 99 out of 100 times he gets the door slammed in his face, because like, who wants to buy steak knives in the middle of the afternoon from like, a 16- year-old kid. But, you know, every once in a while, he would sell a set. Any other challenge he put in front of himself is really easy because it doesn’t have that level of rejection. And so at some point, you get comfortable with rejection.

So that’s like an attitudinal thing. And then the other thing is, look, you do get feedback; like, sometimes, you know, sometimes it isn’t quite right, right? And, you know, because there’s two sides to it: The customer didn’t ask for a Macintosh, but once they got their hands on a Macintosh, they had lots of feedback. Like, the thing is too slow, is too expensive. It’s this, it’s that, the screen share…

Brian: And you can take that feedback.

Marc: You can take the feedback, right? And again, it’s the spirit of generosity. Like, if they’re giving you the feedback in the spirit of, okay, this is very promising, but it’s not quite right for me yet because of X, Y, Z. Like, that’s generosity on their part to give you the feedback.

Brian: Did you have to train yourself to handle the criticism, or you were just naturally good at processing it? Because some people crumble. Like, I know I had to train myself.

Marc: I think it was the Wired thing. It was soo universally accepted — it was even when I actually even got out here even in ’94, it was so universally accepted — that the internet was not going to be a thing, that I kind of had gotten used to it. And it wasn’t even so much that I — so, okay, so I’ll tell you another story on this.

So I come out here, you know, one of my great kind of strokes of luck in my life was meeting my partner, Jim Clark. And so he was a legendary founder at the time. And so he and I decided to start a company and it became Netscape. You might think, oh, it’s obvious idea, browser company, like, most obvious thing in the world. It’s like, no, that wasn’t what happened at all because we knew the internet wasn’t gonna be a big deal because, you know, this is like, not just Wired magazine, this is Time magazine, this is New York Times, and it’s the endless litany of experts, and politicians, and everybody, and big company executives.

Brian: Yeah. Microsoft–

Marc: Microsoft and Oracle and all these companies were just like, this thing’s a joke. Like, this thing’s absurd. And it’s gonna be these other things. And so we actually tried to start, at the time, version one, we tried to start an interactive TV software company because everybody, all the experts said that was gonna be the thing. And Jim’s previous company was actually building a lot of these interactive TV systems. And so we tried to start a company to do that. We actually, that took us kind of in contact with the actual market; we then went out and kind of did a market survey of like, okay, how many interactive TV systems are actually alive? How many of them are actually working? And the answer was zero.

So we were like, okay, wait. Like, hold on a second. Like, this is not actually — Peter Thiel talks about the concept of a secret, this is like, the thing that you believe that’s correct that nobody else believes — and like the secret actually turned out to be interactive TV was not a thing. There’s an ocean of marketing —

Brian: I love that. Tony Gilroy talks about the secret thing too in my side of the street. But yeah, having a special secret. When you have it, when you know your idea is worth doing. It’s what it feels like, it’s the special secret that you have, and everyone’s gonna freak out when it shows up. <Right. Yup.> He talks about that.

Marc: Yeah, and it’s often — it’s not even so much you’re right about something everybody else is wrong about — it’s more like they can’t even possibly believe. Like, it’s inconceivable that it could be true. Like, a lot of these things are actually sitting there in plain sight. It’s just the conventional wisdom becomes so strong, it’s sort of bucking the conventional wisdom and kind of the right way. So we concluded, like, that wasn’t gonna happen.

Then we basically had the idea of — we were not the only ones — we had the idea for what today might be called Xbox Live, or Playstation Network, sort of, you know, interactive gaming. And Nintendo was coming out with this great new Nintendo 64, which was like a real computer for gaming console for the first time. And so we said, let’s build an interactive gaming network, an online service for Nintendo 64. Then we looked at that, and then Nintendo 64 wasn’t gonna come out for two years, and then who even knew if it was gonna work. And so that was not gonna be a thing. And so we actually used process of elimination to work our way back to like, I guess it’s gonna have to be the internet.

Like, the internet is the only thing that’s actually working. Like, it’s the only thing that’s actually working; it’s the only thing that actually has people using it; it’s the only thing that actually is growing; it’s the only thing that actually has people building content for it. And it’s being completely dismissed by the establishment, but it’s actually working. And that’s actually one of the great themes of our time in venture capital, which was like, the best case scenario for us is the thing that’s working that everybody’s laughing at, like, that’s our catnip.

Brian: Right. And even if it’s a small —

Marc: Yeah. It doesn’t have to be big.

Brian: What you’re saying is, so the industry is saying no, but if you get little blips, you can take your encouragement in very micro doses.

Marc: Well — yes, that’s correct — in particular, what you’re looking for is in that case, you’re looking for the feedback loop.

Brian: Yes. Engagement.

Marc: Engagement. So you’re looking one user’s recommend the next, recommend to the next, recommend to the next, recommend to the next. Or you’re looking for the two-way feedback loop which we have with the browser and web server. Computers had this in the old days, you knew the Mac was gonna work when every time somebody bought a Mac, it made it more likely somebody would build a piece of software for the Mac, every new piece of software made it more likely somebody would buy a Mac. So it’s called the network effect of an operating system.

Brian: Seth Godin talks about it ratcheting up, ratcheting up.

Marc: Yeah. Exactly. Virtuous cycle, kind of thing. And so, to be fair, just because you see them early doesn’t mean they all get big. Like, that’s not how the world works. They don’t all get there, but all of the ones that got big started with that kind of small initial, as you say, micro dosing of the feedback. And then in our business, you know, there’s asymmetric risk/ return. And so basically, you wanna find the thing where you do have some evidence — you have early evidence that it’s gonna have that kind of phenomenon — and then everybody laughing at it is awesome, because that means it’s out of consensus, right? And that means it’s like, people literally do not believe in it. And then as a consequence, like, if it does work, if it keeps growing, there will be an inversion at some point, and all of a sudden, the entire world will go, Oh! And at that point, it becomes like immediately gigantically valuable.

Brian: Well, this is one of my favorite Hollywood quotes ever. Do you know the Jack Nicholson quote when he saw this agent? Do you know it, where they said to him, “We might not need you but when we need you, we’re gonna need your really badly.” <laughs> We’re really gonna need you. Like, you’re gonna be completely not hirable, and then suddenly you’re gonna be the biggest movie star in the world. And that must repeat is…

Just a couple more things, you once told me (I think like the first time we met), that you love to be proven wrong, that one of the things you love is to have a core convinced ideology about something and then to be able to accept in a flash that — Can you talk a little bit about that? About why that’s valuable, and about how you either trained yourself, or just were that way, and what the gains are of living that way?

Marc: So I’ll start with saying it’s aspirational.

Brian: <laughs> Yes, sure.

Marc: So I’ve actually tried to figure out why this is. So people treat their ideas like their children. And I’ve actually tried, gone back, I’ve been reading, doing a lot of reading in like psychology and neurology.

Brian: Well, a lot of behavioral economics is about this idea that we fall in love with the — we get wed to this, thing.

Marc: Yeah. So I think… I finally figured out why this is the case. I think it literally is, it seems like we’re treating our ideas like our children. I think we’re literally treating our ideas like they’re our children. So I think it’s an evolutionary thing.

People treat their ideas like their children. And then anytime that idea gets challenged, you get the threat response.

I think in the evolutionary context in which our genetics were developed, right, because our genetics are unchanged over the last 50,000 years, effectively. Fifty thousand years ago, there weren’t really ideas. There were just children! <laughs> Like, you’re not sitting around the campfire speculating on, like, abstract theories of life. You’re like trying to get through the freakin’ day and then you’ve got this infant and you’re desperately trying to keep the infant alive. And so we’ve got this like, there’s something —

Brian: The territorial protectiveness.

Marc: Yeah. Like, this is my thing. This is my offspring. This is my legacy. This is everything valuable and important to me, is like right here in my hands and it’s gonna die without me and like, my god, I have to like emotionally lock in. And I have to do all these irrational things, you know, to protect it. You know, anybody that’s had kids, like, your entire priority ordering like, neurologically changes when you have kids.

And so basically, I think literally what happened is, like, literally, now we live in a world of ideas — we weren’t like, you know, it’s weird, like, the whole concept of ideas comes from kind of rationality which somehow showed up on our wiring — but like, we still have this kind of legacy wiring and the legacy wiring basically says, okay, now this idea is my kid. Like, this is the thing I believe in, I wanna protect, I wanna foster, I wanna nurture, I wanna grow, it’s part of my passion.

And then anytime that idea gets challenged, you get the threat response. So somebody is challenging your kid, you feel it. You feel it in your like, limbic system is like; your pulse rises; your back, you know, gets up; you know, you flush. You know, people get defensive, you get the defensive reaction. It’s like, why are you defending an abstract idea? Like, nothing’s going to happen to you.

Brian: Right. But you’re right about what it feels.

Marc: But yet, you act like it.

Brian: So, how do you go look for that then?

Marc: So here’s the problem: most of your ideas are wrong. Like, let’s say especially if you’re in my business. And let’s even say especially if you’re me! Like, most of the ideas are wrong.

And so at some point, the thing I figured, I started doing the backtest, in finance, we call the “backtests”, which is basically — okay, I’m gonna take whatever algorithm or system I have for trying to figure out what’s gonna happen in the future, whatever set of rules I’ve derived on kind of how the world works and how to predict things — let me go back and backtest. I’m gonna imagine, you know, I’m gonna imagine Larry Page and Sergey Brin walk in the door and they pitch Google. And this is difficult because at the surface level you’re gonna be like, Google, obvious, whatever. But it actually turns out there were a bunch of VCs, very smart VCs who turned down Google. And I know that —

Brian: And can I just historically, was AltaVista already a thing?

Marc: Oh yeah.

Brian: So AltaVista was the default and Ask Jeeves, were those the two?

Marc: And all these… Google was like number 35.

Brian: Okay. And Yahoo, I guess.

Marc: So there were two things everybody knew about search engines.

Brian: Explain.

Marc: Two things everybody knew. One is they all suck. Like, there’s no way to make a good one, right, because the internet —

Brian: And that was a core rule that everyone believed.

Marc: Yeah, yeah. They are all trash. Like, they just, they don’t work because the internet’s messy and so you just can’t organize like, you know, there’s all this weird stuff out there and you just can’t — like, it doesn’t work. And then even if it works, there’s no way to make money on it. It’s not possibly gonna be a business. There’s just no way.

And so the view of search at the time was literally, search at the time, there was actually — the business model was it was a loss leader for the portal business. And it was literally a loss leader, and you actually had to spend money to provide a search engine that you lost money on.

Brian: Because they weren’t advertising on search?

Marc: Well, there was advertising, it was like a banner ad. But they didn’t have the AdWords, the AdWords model didn’t exist yet, right? And so it hadn’t yet been invented. And so literally, like, and I have friends who, like, I have friends who were very successful VCs who passed on Google and part of it was, there’s no business model. Like, this thing is just gonna burn money forever, it’s never gonna make any money. And the guys had no theory on how to make money when they started this thing. And so the backtest is like, okay, apply all your fancy theories today how you value businesses, and then congratulations, you just missed Google. Like, you know, give yourself a pat on the back, well done.

Brian: And the purpose of the backtest is to make you be open to having your assumptions questioned… Is that correct?

Marc: Yeah, 100%. Really, it’s the limits of your knowledge, like, how much can you actually know? Like, what’s your basic operating model. Well, I would take it so far as to say, I don’t know that there actually are VCs that can predict whether any given thing is gonna succeed or fail. Period. Full stop. Including us. Like, I’m not even sure that’s actually part of the value we provide. I actually think that might literally be zero of our contribution to the entire process. And I say that of like, we have no sure —

Brian: That’s what you make decision — isn’t that what you make a decision based on?

Marc: Well, no… Maybe not. Maybe not. Maybe not. Maybe not.

Brian: Talk a little more about that.

Marc: Maybe we’re actually in the people business as opposed to the ideas business. And maybe what we should be trying to sniff out are the people. And maybe the point of sniffing out the people is the people are gonna be the ones who are gonna go figure all this stuff out. Right. So I read a paper that also…

Maybe we’re actually in the people business as opposed to the ideas business.

Brian: Power to the people. Marc Andreessen.

Marc: Exactly. There’s a great VC, there’s a legendary VC, Arthur Rock, from the 60s through the 90s, who funded Intel and Apple and like he was like one of the main, he was like a hugely important figure of the era and still is a highly respected person. He wrote a paper at the end of his venture career and he analyzed his results.

And there’s two ways to make mistakes in venture capital. There’s the I fund something that fails and then there’s the I don’t fund something that succeeds, right? And it actually turns out the asymmetry of risk return, I fund something that fails is really not a problem. I don’t fund something that succeeds really is a problem. Right, and so he analyzed his returns and he concluded after 30 years of venture, he concluded he would have had better results had he shredded all the business plans upon receipt and never read them, and only worked against the resumes.

Brian: Only worked…

Marc: …against the resumes. I guess the people. <Right.> If he had just purely been evaluating the people, he would have been much better.

Brian: That makes sense to me actually.

Marc: Of course, that begs the whole question of how do you evaluate the people? But the point is like, it may not be a predictive model against the ideas. I’ll give you another one, eBay. Like, a lot of people believe they could have funded eBay. Well, it’s like, okay, you need to picture 1995, right? You’ve got, how about we do this? How about somebody wants to buy something on the internet so badly that they go to the post office and they buy a money order, which is the only way to pay for things on eBay when it got venture funded. And then let’s imagine somebody wants to buy something SO much, that they’re gonna send the money order to the person who claims to be selling it and then that person is actually going to send the thing.

Brian: I remember eBay seemed crazy to — I remember being really nervous to use eBay the first time I used it. I remember being really nervous about it. Like, wait, I don’t understand, I did; I remember being like, this seems nuts!

Marc: One of the jokes of the internet industry today is basically the internet — the internet, they’re all things that adults always told you not to do. Like, do not get in a car with strangers. Right? Lyft and Uber, right? Do not like, stay at a stranger’s house overnight. Airbnb, right? Do not send people money in the mail without knowing whether–

Brian: When someone makes the eye-crossing app then we’re really gonna kill it. <laughs>

Marc: Exactly. By the way, for sure, don’t go on a date with somebody you meet online because that’s just —

Brian: That’s terrible.

Marc: So anyway, so the point of the backtest basically is like, okay, test your own bullshit of like, okay, I now have all these rules. Okay. So now apply the backtest. And the backtest basically says, is like, these rules– like, they’re only so useful and there’s only so much you can assume. And so therefore, but at the same time, so that’s part one, at the same time, you can’t just then go into a mode of like, okay, everything’s ambiguous, I don’t know and you just shrug and everything, right? You can’t have NO point of view because then you won’t be able to differentiate between anything.

And so where we’ve come out is what we call it is we call it “strong views, weekly held”. So it’s like, let’s have a very strong point of view of this kind of guide our search kind of through the landscape and tell us kind of what to focus on based on some theory that we’ve developed. But then let’s be really open to the disconfirming evidence that basically says that and then let’s be willing to do a complete 180.

Brian: And then the other side, the people piece, and we can talking about this is, I guess when those companies — what’s the term you guys, when someone starts a company that’s supposed to do something, and then they realize it’s supposed to be something else?

Marc: These days is called “the pivot”.

Brian: Right. The pivot.

Marc: In my era, it was called “the fuck up”.

Brian: Right. The pivot. So but like, Slack, it was a different business, right? <That’s right.> So is that an example we’re betting on the person, is that one of the things that you go, well, we were totally wrong about the business, but we were totally right that Stewart was gonna figure it.

Marc: Yeah, that’s right. So this is part of the payoff of betting on the best people if you can figure out who they are. Part of the path is they will get you to the promised land.

Not always, but they’ll have a pretty good chance. You know, they’re injecting into the complex adaptive system that is the world, they are gonna get all kinds of feedback including your ideas, dominant is never gonna work. Like, genuinely isn’t gonna work, which is the feedback Stewart got, which we could talk about. And then they’re going to have the wherewithal, psychology, motivation, all the rest of it to be able to scale, talent, leadership ability, right? Because they gotta bring people with them, right? To be able to get to the other thing.

Brian: Okay. Oh, this is really good. And we can — because I have no idea how this would work — So you’ve witnessed a part of it. You know, you’ve led a group of people, you’ve raised money and you’ve made the assault, and then you look up and, you know, the arrows are through everybody’s chest.

How, how do you counsel people? And how does the pivot actually — because all of us can, it ties into this emotional connection to our idea — how do you teach and talk about, to a founder, who you still think, a founder who’s actually in the failure proven to you, they still have it? How do you talk about what it means to pivot? And what inner resources are required to pivot? And then what do you see your role as in helping them pivot.

Marc: Right. So I would say there’s a couple different situations. Every once in a while you work with a founder who just gives up too quick and then you got to encourage them to keep going because it’s just too early. We try to keep them going because you know, we’re not big into this fail fest. So we think failing, first of all, is failing and we think failing is horrible. So we don’t like that part of it. So generally, we don’t generally have that problem. Sometimes the easy case is you have somebody who’ll come to you and say like, “I think we got feedback from market, I think it’s not gonna work. Help me figure out.”

Brian: Help me figure out with the tools we have, what else we can pick?

Marc: Yeah. How to get there. And then usually, they’re asking us like, will you support us through this process? And the answer is usually yes. If they’ve comported themselves well, right, if they’ve been honest and ethical and, you know, all the rest of the things you expect from a professional then generally we’ll let them go take a second or third swing, you know, for as long as the money lasts.

And then there’s kind of the hardest case which is, um, and we’ve had these, where it’s like, it’s like year four, your five, year six, the thing’s not working and they don’t wanna quit. They don’t wanna give up. And they really should. And the reason they really should is because fundamentally, the reason they really should, they’re not gonna be able to hold the team. Like, best case, they’re gonna be out there by themselves still pursuing this thing. These are team sports. And so they’re not gonna able to hold the people. And so basically you’ve got a practicing start — you got four or five years in practice to get one of the things to work and it doesn’t work after that.

Brian: How did the Slack pivot happen?

Marc: So Slack, part of it is Stewart had done it before. So this was his second time doing it. His first big success was called Flickr. Flickr was another one of these where it was, Flickr was a pivot. So part of it is Stewart’s actually a world expert.

Brian: In pivoting.

Marc: He’s now done this twice. He’s a world expert on the topic. His technique, I would say we supported him doing it, but he deserves all the credit. He uses the bottle of Irish whiskey strategy, which is… He’s Irish and so he literally like shows up with the team. And he’s like, gets out the bottle of whiskey and pours everybody shots.

Brian: <laughs> That’s state change.

Marc: Yeah, yeah. It’s like, I’m gonna tell you the truth. And the truth of that point was we built this desktop video game called Glitch that was completely dependent on this technology called Flash, and the reality is Steve Jobs just decided to put a bullet in Flash. He’s not gonna support the iPhone, like, it’s done. And the reality is like, all this work we put into it for the last, you know, three years or whatever, like, it’s for nothing. It’s for zero. Like, bad news, here, have another drink.

And then basically, we now have a choice. You know, we are a tribe, right? –nNow, there’s a Paleolithic component to this — our hunting party now has a choice. You know, do we quit? Do we give up and all disperse and go to different things and join different tribes? Or, you know, do we think we have an idea and the motivation to pursue something different? And it turns out, they had this, in both of his pivots, they had the core of the new thing figured out. They had developed the Slack collaboration system as a way to help them all work together… it was an internal tool.

Brian: That was an internal thing? For themselves. And then did he come to you and show you that?

Marc: Yeah, yeah. Well, it wasn’t so much even to show us, it was more just like, I have this idea. I mean, yeah, he showed, but fundamentally it was like, I have an idea. I think this could be a thing.

Brian: And you guys were just still willing to bet on him.

Marc: Yeah, yeah. Well, so there’s a famous case, there’s actually a famous case. So this is where Twitter came from, by the way, the same thing. So Twitter was not a startup. The startup was called Odeo. And Odeo actually was podcasting. So, the story of a podcasting app called Odeo that went to market 10 years before podcasting became a big deal. And nobody — this is like pre-iPhone, pre-Bluetooth headset, like, pre-4G and 5G networks. Like, download the podcast on your mp3 player. It was just too early for the podcast.

So Ev Williams, and Jack Dorsey, and these people created this thing called Odeo. It flatlined. They worked and worked and worked, and then they had this little idea on the side of Twttr. T-W-T-T-R, based on Jack’s experience as a bicycle messenger of all things — basically short messaging, what’s in computer science called publish-subscribe messaging; it was a known computer science idea but it had never been built into a consumer service before — and so they had this thing on the side.

And so Ev was the CEO, he went back to his VCs and he said, you know, “You have a choice, I’ll give you your money back — I’ll give you the remaining money back — or you can roll it into this new thing called Twttr.” And the legend is one of the venture firm said, Yes, let’s roll it. The other venture firm took their money back. You know, which turned into a…

Brian: And how did that end?

Marc: Today, that’s like a $5 billion difference in outcomes. Just for that venture firm.

Brian: Did the other firm survive?

Marc: Uh, yah, they’re still alive. Now look, everybody makes mistakes. The only moral of the story there was, look, if you’ve got an Ev Williams, if you got a Stewart Butterfield, and we’re not talking about half a billion dollars —

Brian: Were you evaluating someone, when Stewart came to you — just to end this — when Stewart came to you, are you and Ben and your team, hey, the thing we all signed on to do isn’t working. I have this new idea. How much of your time is spent crunching the idea versus how much of it is, right. So, it’s all just you went, “yes, Stewart, keep going”.

Marc: Well, I mean, the idea made sense. So the idea made — so, part of it is just the idea is right in the center of how we, the idea is right in the center of our idea universe. It’s a collaborative messaging service. And Ben and I, Netscape, we built — like, I’ve been working on those for a long time. So, we kind of knew that general. It was a plausible idea. It wasn’t cold fusion. It was a totally plausible idea.

And then Stewart just at that point had become a very known quantity. And it wasn’t even so much — part of it was, we thought Stewart had acquitted himself very well, including the fact that he was willing to make this change.

Brian: To come to you and say it’s over.

Marc: Yeah. And he was very clear with us, right? And was very respectful of us. And so he was great. But also we knew him from Flickr. So we have the concept of game film, right? The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior and we knew that he had actually been through this exact situation before. He’d came out the other end with Flickr which was a great achievement. And so it was like of all — that was the easy one because of all the people in the world to bet on to do this, Stewart’s the obvious one.

Brian: Well, Marc, I’m so grateful that you spent this time. Thank you, man. Great talk to you. And Marc is on Twitter, but the most you’re gonna get is to see things that he likes. That’s it.

Marc: Not anymore, man. Total stealth mode.

Brian: You don’t even like things anymore?

Marc: I am the Soviet nuclear submarine.

Brian: There’s that, even the guy who constantly says what you like, he’s had to stop?

Marc: Under the Arctic Circle. Yeah. The pmarca-likes bot is in…

Brian: That’s done?

Marc: He’s on hiatus.

Brian: I would always crack up when I would get one of them, if you’d like one of my tweets and then suddenly I would see this, and I was like, “What is this bot?” So you can’t find Marc online, sorry. But you can read about him in books and maybe if he makes another podcast appearance somewhere… in his own podcast.

Marc: a16z.com!

Brian: And what’s your podcast?

Marc: The “a16z podcast”.

Brian: Which I’m on.

Marc: Available on every podcast player. Yes.

Brian: I’ll be on next Saturday. So this is gonna go up Tuesday, that should be up on Saturday, me on Marc’s — the podcast he does with Sonal. So, all right, everybody, you can find me @BrianKoppelman. You can write me at themomentbk@gmail.com. Do not send me a proposal to get to Marc Andreessen. I will throw it out. And don’t send me a screenplay ‘cause I’ll also throw that out. But if you’re friends with any like, screenwriters or VCs, maybe we’ll be able to do something. All right, everybody. Thanks. See you next time. Bye.

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