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Being There

Marc Andreessen is the Chauncey Gardiner of the tech world, and has managed to juggle being there at the invention of the first browser into billions. But let’s not confuse luck with smarts, as Felix Salmon says (in a long-winded way):

The problem with Marc Andreessen - Felix Salmon via Reuters

It’s easy to admire Andreessen, a man whose disarming and engaging blog was a must-read during the financial crisis, when he would provide some very smart perspective from the point of view of a wealthy man, thousands of miles away from the epicenters of the crisis, who had some very sharp insights into what was going on. He then launched Andreessen Horowitz, and the blog became more of a public seminar in how to be senior management, which is great if you like that sort of thing. And it’s true that the five big ideas in the interview are all pretty revolutionary things, although I don’t think he actually had them all first.

But Andreessen has never really been a public intellectual. His single greatest achievement — the creation of the world’s first web browser, Mosaic — took place under the auspices of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois. But ever since then he’s been a red-blooded capitalist, founding and funding a long series of for-profit companies, and becoming one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Silicon Valley in the process.

And when you look at Marc the capitalist, rather than at Marc the ideas guy, the hero-worship becomes a bit more difficult. I certainly like the way that he’s dragging Silicon Valley into the world of philanthropy, where it’s historically been very weak. But a lot of my own Wired story, last month, can be read as a push back against the IPO culture which Andreessen, almost more than anybody else, has managed to create.

“Silicon Valley is full of venture capitalists who have become dynastically wealthy off the backs of companies that no longer exist,” I wrote in that piece, and Andreessen is Exhibit A if you want to look for such a person. His first company, Netscape, lost the Browser Wars and ended up getting sold to AOL. His second company, Loudcloud, was (to be charitable) too far ahead of its time, so it “pivoted” into something called Opsware; eventually Andreessen managed to sell it off to HP. His third company, Ning, was even less successful, and ended up buried somewhere in Glam Media. None of them exist today in any recognizable form; none of them ever made much money; and none of them even really made it as far as building anything approaching a permanent income stream.

Salmon takes his time dismembering Andreessen’s mystique:

Andreessen Horowitz does provide a bit of expert advice and name recognition, but at heart it doesn’t make anything at all; its sole predictable income stream is the management fee it skims off while investing other people’s money.

[…]

I’ve never met anybody who thought that Netscape was a good acquisition for AOL, or that HP gained much from buying Opsware beyond getting Andreessen to sit on its famously-dysfunctional board.

[…]

While Andreessen is very good at making money, then, he’s much less good at creating lasting value for the long-term shareholders of his companies. In his world, buy-and-hold public shareholders are the patsies, the people left holding the bag when the fast money has long since departed. He’s smart; the rest of us are chumps. I guess it makes perfect sense that he’s recruited Larry Summers as a Special Advisor.

Salmon suggests that we read Chris O’Brien’s 2009 piece sparked by the launch of Andreessen Horowitz, and I agree, because even more than Felix, Chris makes a compelling case that Andreessen’s mystique says more about the Silicon Valley mindset than Andreessen:

Innovation can’t be sustained by creating a venture-backed Ponzi scheme where one money-losing start-up is sold to another, which is then sold to another. 

Losing money indefinitely isn’t just a financial failure. It represents a failure to truly understand how a service or product is creating value for a customer, how to communicate that value, and how to persuade the customer to pay above and beyond for that value.

That, all too often, is where the valley still falls short: Failing to innovate around the business to same degree it innovates around the technology.

This isn’t Andreessen’s fault. But his ascension as the valley’s leading light embodies that ideal. And that shows the valley is no where near ready to change its ways.

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