The Most Networked VC in Tech Shares His Best Advice for Founders & Start-Ups

Bio: Tim Draper is the Founder of leading venture capital firms Draper Associates and DFJ, and the Founder of the global Draper Venture Network. Tim’s original innovation of “viral marketing” allowed web-based email company Hotmail to geometrically spread around the world and has been adopted as a standard marketing technique by thousands of businesses including Yahoo Mail, Gmail and Skype. Venture successes include Skype, Overture, Baidu, Tesla, Parametric Technology, Hotmail, Digidesign, and Twitch.tv. An advocate for entrepreneurs and free markets, Tim is regularly featured as a keynote speaker in entrepreneurial conferences throughout the world, has received numerous awards and honors, and has frequent TV, radio, and headline appearances. He was named the 2015 “Entrepreneur for the World” by the World Entrepreneur Forum. He was ranked #52 on the list of the 100 most influential Harvard Alumni, and #7 on the Forbes Midas List. Tim received a BS in electrical engineering from Stanford and an MBA from the Harvard Business School.

Kumar: We’re curious – what technology sectors are you most bullish on, at the moment?

Tim: The technologies that I’m interested in are marketplaces, because we’re seeing almost every service industry being transformed into a marketplace from hotels, to the legal profession, to venture capital – to whatever. They’re all getting transformed by marketplaces – so, we’re really interested in that. I’ve spent a lot of time and effort thinking about new forms of transportation, so we’re very interested in that. And we’re looking for companies that are challenging industries which have gotten a little fat and lazy.

When an industry’s gotten sort of lazy, and is being run by an oligopoly, then we say that there’s great opportunity for a start-up to come in.

A lot of industries have already been transformed by the internet. Finance is in the process of being transformed – equity is clearly one of those. We’re looking for other industries that are [in that process]. It seems that the ones that are the slowest to be transformed have been the ones that have been [historically] highly regulated. So, companies that are trying to transform healthcare or real estate or insurance – or even government itself, those are the companies that are very attractive to me. That’s kind of what we’re looking for.

We like what the blockchain has done – whether it was through Bitcoin, through keeping track of any kind of data for security purposes [sic]… I think that the technology is a breakthrough.

And then there are a couple of others – like the internet of things, combined with 3D printing, so that anything we can envision can be made right there for us. The new logistics companies we’ve been backing look like they’re changing the whole nature of logistics – and that all started because of Uber. [They] have not just transformed the taxi industry – there are many, many industries that are changing, as a result.

Those are the things that we’re kind of looking at right now.

Kumar: You mentioned Bitcoin and blockchain. As a lot of our readers know, you’re very heavily invested in that technology. Was there a certain moment, or a specific trend that got you excited about Bitcoin and the blockchain, early on? Maybe a pivotal moment, or an epiphany?

Tim: Yeah. When I first heard about it, I thought, “Wow, this is great” – because in 2008, there were [a lot of] countries and people [who] were starting to think that their own countries’ fiat currencies were worthless. There was this panic going on, and I thought, “Wow – that’s very interesting.” And I combined that with the thought that people had digital currency inside of games. So, when Bitcoin came out, I got very excited about it.

But [the moment] when I knew that Bitcoin was going to be a big, huge thing? It was kind of ironic. It was when the Mt. Gox theft happened. When that happened, I thought, “Oh, well – this is the end of Bitcoin.”  But, all [that happened] was the price of Bitcoin dropped by about 20%, based on that news [sic], and I thought, “Oh boy, there is a real need for this, and I am going in with both feet.” I realized that out there in the world – whether it’s in countries where the currency is dropping 30% a year, or countries [under the rule of dictators], or even countries like the U.S., where the dollar loses value every year, just through inflation – people [would] rather hold on to this.

[Bitcoin is] so much easier to move from country to country, or [use to] make investments. And the technology gets more and more interesting every day, because the blockchain is like this perfect ledger – it keeps track of all pieces of data, so you can create tokens on the blockchain, and raise money. You can even use the blockchain to do things like claiming first invention through patents. We have a company called Stampery that is, in effect, a notary – a blockchain notary.

Smart Contracts are also coming from [these advances], and Smart Contracts are allowing people to write up contracts that are indisputable. I think that’s going to be really exciting, down the line.

Kumar: You recently went on the news to talk about Tezos cryptocurrency, what most excites you about it?

Tim: I like the founders and their vision. Where governance of Bitcoin is by the miners, and Etherium is by a benevolent dictatorship, Tezos is governed by the token holders. All three will become standards in the cryptocurrency world, and all three will be able to manage your smart contacts. I expect Tezos will be the most flexible token.

Kumar You’ve invested in several unicorns – including Skype, Tesla, Thumbtack, Twitch, Robinhood – as well as others. When they were nascent, what most compelled you to invest?

Tim: Yeah, sure! We’ve backed something like 25 unicorns. I think the first thing everybody should understand, is that there is no “typical” unicorn. It’s some combination of hard work, good positioning, a little luck, and a team that hangs together through thick and thin – [that’s] what really generates unicorns.

When we backed Hotmail, it was just web-based email. And, then I added the viral marketing component – and it spread to 11 millions users in 18 months. It just took off like a rocket! And then became this extraordinary thing.

My experience with Tesla [happened] because a guy named Ian Wright took me for a ride in his Wrightmobile. He made me strap in, and I had no idea what [was happening], because I thought it was an electric car. The only electric cars I’d been in were golf carts, and cars set up for tree-huggers! The thing ended up taking off like a rocket – and then it stopped on a dime – and I thought, “Wow… so, you don’t have to make sacrifices; in fact, you can get better performance out of an electric car.”

So, I took it upon myself to go to a bunch of hobbyists, and different car shows, and stuff – to [learn about] all the different electric cars. They were all mentioning this guy Martin Eberhardt, at Tesla. [I] got very excited about it, and my partners and I made a small investment [in Tesla]. Car companies are pretty capital intensive… and the company did run out of money. That was when Elon Musk stepped up. [His involvement] built all the confidence we needed. Great things started to happen, and Elon pulled off one of the greatest businesses of all time. He got customers to pay in advance, he got a loan from the government. He bought the Numi plant for pennies on the dollar… he made some extraordinary moves, and he built one of the greatest companies of all time.

The Robinhood guys were just terrific. [They were] dynamic, and [offering a] new platform… and now they are the way for individual investors to invest in stocks. Robinhood has become synonymous with investing in public companies. They’ve just made it so much easier to be an investor…they’re opening it up to all these people who might not have been investors, before.

Skype was interesting… I hunted them down, because I saw that they had gotten out of Kazaa, and I wondered what they were doing with that peer-to-peer technology. And they said, “We’re going to do this loan thing…”, and I said I’d back it. And then they came to me, and they said, “Oh, before you write your check – we’re actually going to use peer-to-peer technology to go after the phone companies, instead.” And I said, “Even better. Let’s try it!”, and we invested.

Kumar: Can you share any founder stories our readers might enjoy?

Tim: There was a time when I got a chance to be the first video Skype user. I had to be in two places at once, and Nicholas Zennström set up [a video conference with me]. I didn’t know it was coming out of the Skype labs – he just went ahead and did that, and it worked perfectly. I was all excited – I said, “Oh my gosh, we’ve got a huge win with video!”, and Nicholas said, “Not so fast, Tim – we had to cut off three hundred thousand audio phone calls in order to get the bandwidth to do this video.”

I thought, “Okay, that’s good – back to the lab!” But, boy – that was exciting.

Kumar: Always On called you “the most networked venture capitalist in tech”. Is that true?

Tim: They [LinkedIn] did a network connection thing on the internet, [which revealed] how all these people are interrelated – how they’re connected, who they’re connected to, and all this stuff. And they ran a huge network model on who was the most networked person in the Silicon Valley… and that’s me.

Kumar: How did you get there?

Tim: Just one good meeting at a time… one good friend at a time. And, slowly but surely – we built out a network of venture funds, called the Draper Venture Network. We connected ourselves not just with people in Silicon Valley, but with people all over the world. And I think that was part of the reason that I became number one.

We also had funded a unicorn in each of three continents – and I think that also had an impact. That, combined with being open and willing to talk to entrepreneurs, wherever – [as well as] speaking at conferences, and that kind of thing. I think it just added up.

Kumar: You advise many different companies, through various milestones of development. To those raising their series A – what types of advice do you give on allocating equity to the executive team, or early employees?

Tim: Even before they get to a series A round, there are a couple of things I recommend – and I recommend putting together a plan for equity. So, I get them thinking that, early. Plan ahead as to who you’re going to hire, and when, and how much equity you’re going to give them. I think that can make all the difference, later on – because the more you’ve thought about it in advance, the easier it is for you to give out the equity, and make your business work the way it was meant to work.

Kumar: Do you have any other advice for those in their early stages of growth?

Tim: I generally want the original entrepreneur to continue running the company, because their vision has to be fully fulfilled before the company really hits on all its cylinders. Having that original vision (and that company history) all in one place becomes very valuable as companies grow bigger and bigger…

 

Oh! And, one more piece of advice – make sure you’ve always got way more cash than you need. Raise the money – don’t spend it.

Kumar: That’s strong advice! I know you also have strong views on IPOs. In a previous interview, you stated that companies with a market capitalization of less than $10 billion shouldn’t even consider it. What do you worry about, as an investor – before the IPO, after the IPO…?

Tim: Yeah… I can’t in good conscience recommend an IPO to anybody. It’s basically saying “go do this thing that might get you a little bit of press, but will cost you $5 million”. The equation doesn’t work anymore. So, there is a real reason for people to think about how to create businesses [in a way] that allows private companies to be tradable. Equidate is one of the great visions for that.

When a client is looking for more money, they can generally go to venture capitalists. They start with angels, they go to venture capitalist[s], then they go to later-stage or growth-stage venture capitalist[s]. Then there’s a point where it’s time for the entrepreneur to be able to cash out a little bit, buy a house, build… to have some sort of benefit from all the work they’ve put in. That used to be the IPO.

It used to be that a company would get to $20, $30, $40 million in revenue – maybe a $100 million in market cap – and then they’d go public. [But] you can’t do that if you know that $5 million a year is going to go after regulators, or the lawyers that make you comply with regulation. So, there has to be a new solution – and, I think that Equidate has that solution. Having some sort of platform from which private company shareholders can trade makes all the difference in the world.

People don’t recognize how incredibly valuable liquidity is. Being able to buy and sell easily is so valuable to a society… the only way I can describe it is this: you’re starving, but you have a house, and somebody else has a farm full of food, but they have no shelter. If the two of you don’t get together and cut a deal – you’re both going to die.

If you have less liquidity, society becomes poorer. And, if you have great liquidity, society becomes richer. Bitcoin adds to the liquidity in society, and it makes us all richer. Equidate adds to liquidity in society, and we become richer. Because we can move assets into money, and money into assets, more easily and quickly because of [companies like Equidate], we become wealthier.

When people complain about regulation, what they’re really saying is “Your regulation hurts my liquidity, and makes me poorer.” Without liquidity, the Uber shareholder who has a billion dollars worth of Uber stock [but can’t sell it] can’t buy a cup of coffee. [Lack of liquidity] creates a huge systemic problem in the [global] capital market – [without it] we become very poor – and that is the beginning of the end of society.

Kumar: Speaking of systemic problems… You have an eye for identifying market gaps – is there a company the world needs, which you would fund tomorrow, if someone built it?

Tim: Yeah. I’m looking for a company that uses the blockchain to transform social security, welfare – all of the redistribution that happens in the country – so that it isn’t subject to corruption, [or] run by individuals who have any kind of decision-making authority.

I am very, very interested in any kind of insurance program run on the blockchain. And anyone who wants to transform the healthcare system. I mean, I’ve backed a lot of those – but there’s a lot more work to be done [in that industry].

I’m also interested in blockchain token businesses, and what they can do for society. And, I’m still looking for better means of transportation. Traffic has gotten to be a huge problem everywhere – and since all the government money seems to be going into the pensions of people who used to work for the government, they have no money for building out our infrastructure. So, we have to invent around that – and I’m looking for new forms of transportation.

Kumar: I see. It sounds like a lot of infrastructure is where you’re heart and mind is at.

Tim: I’d like to see some infrastructure built. And, I’m just looking at industries where the markets are high, and the service is low. Insurance, health care, government, real estate. These are places where we pay high prices, and we get bad service.

Kumar: If you could share one final piece of advice for the founders of early-stage unicorns, what would it be?

Tim: Just keep moving forward toward your mission. You’ll have setbacks. People will tell you [that] you’re stupid. You’ll fail. You’ll keep failing. Eventually, you’ll find your mission. You’ll get there – just keep going.