"Brains to Ventures" Dinner & Panel

"Brains to Ventures" Dinner & Panel

I was invited by the awesome connector Shai Goldman of Silicon Valley Bank to the "Brains to Ventures" dinner and panel.  B-to-V is group of European entrepreneurs and investors.  The dinner was arranged while they were touring Silicon Valley.  On the panel were:

  • Jan Bomholt, moderator - partner at B-to-V
  • Gunnar Piening, European entrepreneur and partner at ECONA AG
  • Bill Tai - partner at Charles River Ventures
  • Matt Cohler - General partner at Benchmark Capital (also early at LinkedIn and Facebook)
  • Bernd Hardes - with OSTE Investment GmbH and previously CEO at the German company Entertainment Shopping AG

Here are my highlights (in "live blog" format) from the event, with a video of the event below.

Bill Tai & Matt Cohler: Be disruptive... And profitable if you can... But profitable without being disruptive is not interesting to Silicon Valley... Bernd Hardes disagreed, said predictable is better for him.

Matt Cohler: "It's best to figure out how to be good at being lucky"

Bill Tai: "Disruptive ideas come from disruptive people"

Jan Bomholt: European entrepreneurs start with technology while us entrepreneurs start with business problem.... Matt Cohler disagrees, saying that all entrepreneurs from anywhere in the world start with a problem to be solved  Matt: "there's China... And then the rest of the Internet"  Silicon valley VCs don't like to invest in companies they can't drive to... or some would say "bike to"

Gunnar Piening: Advice to European entrepreneurs: "I realized that to get traction in the US, I would need somebody on the board with a vested interest in the company"... He found that with August Capital... its investment didn't change the company, but changed the pace at which the company wad growing... His was the first company August Capital invested in outside of the US (then jokingly said "outside of California" even)... Some fund rules would not even allow investments outside us...

Bill Tai has done 16 IPOs (as investor)... One on Hong Kong exchange, the rest are in the US... "but remember, I started in '91... with a stellar exit environment for a decade"... Now potential IPO activity is a function of how the capital markets behave... CRV is mostly invested in the US, with 65% of its portfolio companies in California... Chinese companies only in Internet space... "There are some business models in China that would never work in the US."

Matt Cohler: "Focus on maximizing your upside, not protecting your downside" ... Silicon valley is the place in the world that "maximizes your ceiling" in terms of technology companies... It's "usually the right answer" to move to Silicon Valley as an entrepreneur.

Matt Cohler:  Hollywood & silicon valley - "we are like studio executives" ... Look at a script and see who the lead actor is... Silicon Valley is the nucleus of the labor pool... jut like movies in LA, having this pool of talent allows entrepreneurs & investors to "put it together quickly"... "If you want to amass a company with an employee pool like Facebook or google, this is the place."

Bernd Hardes on Berlin as center of entrepreneurial activity... "take everything you just said (about Silicon Valley), divide it by 10, and you're there"

Jan  talking about Aydin Senkut and Jeff Clavier... "They can move fast because they only have $15mm under management..."

Bernd Hardes says he is "looking to play it safe... to take old ideas like web portals and make them work better... 30% to 40% improvement per year is OK... don't need a 10x return like Silicon Valley does."   Berlin is very hip, so all the "cool guys are going there", and because there are so few tech companies, salaries are 1000 to 2000 Euros per month.

The UK is beating France and Germany on investments & capital... "If Berlin is so great, why is UK winning?"  Matt cohler says that historically, Internet startups based in Germany are addressing German market in German.... but In the UK, products are in English addressing a potentially global market, so that's one reason for the UK's dominance in Europe... Also institutional investors in Germany are reluctant to invest in early stage companies... And exit chances in Germany are limited... Bill tai says the history of the UK is to finance things globally for centuries; that plays a part too... "The UK has penchant for risk and risk capital"

Matt Cohler says "the entrepreneur is fantastic" and talks about Researchgate (a professional network for scientists)... it's a German based company that Benchmark invested in... Matt commented  "it's a little like dating... You know pretty quickly"... when he went to coffee w/ the Researchgate CEO he wasn't planning on investing, but "I left the meeting saying "I'm going to invest in this company""

Bernd Hardes on "The next big thing": "I Have no clue, and if I did, I wouldn't tell you" ... I'm not trying to find the next big thing; I'm trying to male sure the next big thing finds me."

CRV was the first institutional investor in Twitter, and it happened "almost by accident, with Odeo needing funding". " I thought it was a very interesting tool" said Bill Tai... but "none of us knew it was the phenomenon that it became."

Matt cohler (an early Facebook employee): "One person saw how big Facebook could be, and that was Mark [Zukerberg]"... It was very rare and very special...

Jan, as moderator: "Everyone says Facebook will kill foursquare... Why do you believe Facebook won't kill Twitter?" ... Bill Tai answering: "Facebook is the instantiation of your true network on the web, centered around photos... Twitter is a way to broadcast what is on your mind... Like microblogging... so they're very different'

Matt Cohler: Facebook and MySpace are very different... In 2003 people who made social networks were very hesitant to ask users to put your real name... Linkedin was one of the first to do that... Facebook did the same thing... That little thing was very significant... On MySpace, you don't always know the person's real name... "One of the things I remember Mark saying early on was "we are not trying to keep Facebook cool... We are trying to make Facebook useful" ... [Facebook] took MySpace and made it useful.

Bill Tai, on predicting the "next big thing": The web has become pervasive and is bringing out the authenticity in people - this is the difference between MySpace and Facebook - Facebook is the real person, MySpace is the "LA version"... The virtualization of yourself will overshoot the actual person... Lots of interesting things about what identity is...

Question from audience: "Are Americans more open to "opening their kimono?" than Europeans?" Matt Cohler: At a high level, the while world is moving to openness... the legal environment in Europe around privacy and information sharing in Germany is very strict...

Question from audience: "How important is operational experience to being a VC?": Matt Cohler - it's important ... There are various ways to do that... No right or wrong way to become a vc... "I don't know".

Here's a video of the panel: