Q & A
Q: Aren’t you just trying to make a lot of money and then claiming you are doing good? Is this serious? You even invest in financial companies… this seems like a bunch of self-serving nonsense.
A: It is likely that some people will think this; ultimately it may come down to your intuition and politics and personal views, and it will be hard to change many people’s minds. We don’t see anything wrong with making money, and that in many cases we believe it is aligned with doing great work.
When our team looks at the world and what we believe enables progress — what enables the biggest positive impact and improvement of the global human condition for the future — making these critical global industries work in smarter and more efficient ways is at the top of our list.
Education and healthcare are obvious to everyone, and they are critical, but perhaps it sounds abstract to make finance work better. Some people not familiar with this industry might not realize that there are for instance a couple million people employed doing various forms of data entry and that processes that should involve algorithms are often poorly designed and use people as middleware instead, or to reconcile the bugs. They might also not be aware that information doesn’t always flow cleanly between tens of thousands of financial organizations, so you end up with a lack of transparency that enables huge amounts of fraud — or that stops innovations that would leverage data to streamline finance instead of letting ‘rent’ be captured by entrenched interests. What this means in practice in our view is that parts of the financial industry absorb tens or even hundreds of billions dollars a year unnecessarily.
Imagine what we could accomplish for our society if those people’s time and that wealth unnecessarily “taxed” by the financial system at many levels was better directed to causes and goals each of us cared about? In art, in education, in health, in improving inner cities or curing diseases, or whatever else that wealth and human effort could be doing instead is huge. We only get there if we fix the systems.
The same is true of most big industries today. The ways that we could be running most of the global businesses has changed thanks to the mobile ecosystem and advances in big data and machine learning and the Internet, but these processes have not yet been applied, because doing so is very hard and institutions have a lot of inertia against change. It takes truly great entrepreneurs with a lot of help from an awesome community to overcome these challenges. We’ve written about this a lot in other places — applying these new processes is going to be really important for the world, and every year counts. The investors and mentors in our community are excited to be helping ambitious entrepreneurs to achieve these sorts of missions, and we believe they are both profitable and critical for the world.
From my point of view, I already have more wealth than I would spend on myself or my family. I don’t think anybody needs to wait to do what they feel is important, but as you become more successful, it becomes even easier to fully prioritize your values and beliefs — to me, I would argue one is not really wealthy if she can’t spend her day doing something she feels is important. Fixing these industries is very important for humanity.
Q: You talk about philanthropy here. How are you building it into the fund? And where do those examples come from?
A: The examples towards the end of the essay come from a lot of Palantir’s philanthropy work, some of which was done with the Clinton Global Initiative (at https://www.palantir.com/philanthropy-engineering/); as well as an anti-child exploitation group we help with called Thorn run by Ashton Kutcher and a great team (at https://www.wearethorn.org/), and a few other missions including groups like Bayes Impact (www.bayesimpact.org) and others.
Not every philanthropy we believe in needs to employ technology like the ones above, but we engage in those because that’s where we feel our unique skillset allows us to have the biggest impact.
Philanthropy is built into the fund in a couple ways — each of our advisors gets a good amount of upside, but when they earn the upside from carry they can choose to donate it to philanthropy and I will match them 1:1. Our employees also have this option with part of their upside, and we’re planning to start a series of events around this later to discuss and debate how we’re using our philanthropic dollars and what missions we think are most important. We’re also advised by the ONE HOPE WINE Foundation, a group I work with that combines business success and philanthropy — and we’re still exploring what else we can do with our companies to weave philanthropy further into our community. We’d love your input.
Q: You talk a lot about values but don’t give many examples. How can a VC investor be bad, and what does it mean to strive to operate with “good values for the ecosystem”?
A: This is controversial as many people see it differently, but we have a handful of principles.
* First of all in VC we should only be getting involved where we truly believe we or our community might add value — we are an entrepreneurial group and are here to help, we’re not here to be low-end bankers who just find places for money. Our money is part of our help but if it’s nearly all of our help, this isn’t where we should be investing — firms like this end up in a negative sum game simply competing for access and deals and giving nothing back in return.
* There are many times when an action that might benefit a firm in the short term is bad for your company and the general function of the ecosystem. For example, a firm might have a right to approve the next round. A perfectly good investor might be leading the round, and the firm with approval is allowed their pro rata — but they might be angry they couldn’t lead the round themselves and insist on holding it up. Maybe they notice that the money in the company’s bank is low, so that if they hold it up and don’t approve by going slow for a few weeks, then they have a lot of leverage to get to put more in the round. Even worse, the firm could put out a negative rumor that the new investor hears to try to get them to back off so that they can lead themselves. These are all examples of actions that we have seen firms do, but that we should not ever engage in — and we try not to work with firms who act like this.
* In another example we saw this year, a firm (let’s call them “C”) had a partner that fought to lead a round in a hot company, and sent several engineers over noting that he could help recruit. Then when the round took a little longer and we were negotiating how much each of us could put into the company, he had the engineers call up the CEO and say that they would only do the next round of interviews if they were able to give C their full desired position in the round. The CEO and us both thought this sort of strong-arm tactic was completely out of line and had no place along with recruiting in our ecosystem, and decided not only not to give C the extra amount but not to work with C at all.
* Another firm, let’s call them “Q”, has a reputation for being extremely aggressive in kicking out other investors and getting their share. One of our friends was helping a great company that is important in cancer-detection and the CEO told him he could invest into the Series A, but then Q insisted he get 0 allocation so that they could get their full amount. It’s important for our LPs that we get a large ownership stake when we lead rounds, but in this same situation, for an investor who is adding value, for the sake of the company and working with great people in our ecosystem we’d be willing to be a little flexible and take for example 18 or 19% ownership instead of 20% ownership in order to encourage others to keep helping and to be friends for next time.
* We’ve been really impressed with how a few firms such as a16z treat entrepreneurs with great respect in a variety of detailed ways, and get back promptly to entrepreneurs rather than leaving them hanging, and do our best to do the same. It’s theoretically sometimes in a firm’s interest to have more optionality and take awhile even if you probably aren’t going to do a deal, in case you learn something new or because you aren’t sure, but the right way to handle it is to decide as soon as you can, and let them know immediately, and not waste a ton of their time. Some firms will be disorganized and do huge numbers of meetings with a company and waste tons of time and then cancel last minute on firms or only turn them down after months of dilly dallying and wavering, which is a bad way to do things. In general, respecting entrepreneurs as much as possible and treating them in a high-status way is key.
* There are so many other practices that are good vs inappropriate in our ecosystem that it’s hard to keep track, but we are constantly learning and discussing what we stand for as partners. Speaking badly about others to kill a deal or to try to win in almost any case is wrong unless you’d say it to their face. And meeting with a competitor of one of your portfolio companies without telling them about the conflict in order to learn more is also wrong. We can’t always know a company is going to be competitive to something we are doing, but in meetings when I realize something is going into territory that may be competitive, I will stop them and inform them and let them decide if they want to keep going. At 8VC, we have a rule that angel deals we are in don’t always preclude us from the space, but any sizable investment we are in does preclude us from investing into a competitor, because we are working closely with all of our main investments and can’t be honestly and fully coaching opposing teams at the same time.
The high-level answer is that there is a lot to do to help companies and to make money in the right way as an investor, and it’s important to do so and to encourage others to do so by rewarding good behavior and avoiding firms that violate these norms whenever possible.
Q: I / my cousin Rupert / my aunt Olga / my client has a great startup. How should I contact you?
A: If we know you from our work together in the technology community, please send it over! If we haven’t already worked with you, ideally there is somebody in our network who believes in what you’re doing. We don’t usually respond to cold inbound notes because we have to triage, and it is a good first screen to see if somebody can figure out how to get a warm introduction. When you’re doing BD for your startup later on you’ll often need to figure out how to get at least a couple positive references to speak to a client for you before they are ready to chat, so this is an important skill.