Silicon Valley’s Mega Investor Tells All

Silicon Valley’s Mega Investor Tells All

By James Watkins & Leslie Nguyen-Okwu


Because he’s the Michael Jordan of investing.

By James Watkins & Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

Silicon Valley has long enjoyed smooth sailing with the White House — Washington imported its top talent for years while Obama helped inch self-driving cars and artificial intelligence further up the political agenda. But with President Trump and his new administration in tow, the sun-dappled promised land of tech is now facing choppier waters. The causes for concern? Disagreements on immigration, trade and globalization — meaty issues that form the core of the Valley’s thriving tech industry.

Few are better positioned to survey the scene than the godfather of Silicon Valley investing, Ron Conway. If you’ve heard of it, he invested in it before anyone else: Google, PayPal, Facebook, Snapchat, Airbnb, Pinterest and OZY. We spoke with Conway about the future of the tech industry under a Trump presidency, and how else Silicon Valley might change in the years ahead. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What are unexpected ways that Donald Trump might impact Silicon Valley?

Ron Conway: If you look at what’s happening right now with the travel ban, I’ve never seen archrival competitors work more closely together. The Trump effect is having a positive impact in that it’s galvanizing the Silicon Valley worker base, and they’re aligned with the manager base. Everyone’s working together. A year ago … that wasn’t even possible. And here we are, everyone’s working together.

How important is immigration in the relationship between Washington and Silicon Valley?

Conway: It’s an absolute deal breaker. When I say that, I mean comprehensive immigration reform — not just being selfish and saying, “We want more H1B visas.” The stand of Silicon Valley, especially by [a group founded by Mark Zuckerberg and backed by other Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to lobby for immigration reform], is that part of the package should be that DACA [an Obama-era policy granting certain undocumented immigrants deferred action from deportation] survives and the DREAMers [those who immigrated to the U.S. as minors and are currently protected by DACA] are not threatened. Those in Silicon Valley are in favor of comprehensive immigration reform.

If you have a problem, who do you call?

Conway: It depends on the issue, but if it’s financial, it would be Mark Casey. If it’s an investment issue, I would call another investor, like a Marc Andreessen, Peter Fenton, Matt Cohler or Roelof Botha. Those are the people I like to collaborate and problem-solve with.

You’re not a big techie yourself, so how do you still make good investment calls?

Conway: Right? I can hardly get the phone to work! It’s because I zero in on the founder and what makes them tick. Do they have a good vision? Are they focused on the product? So I focus on the human side of [technology]. I don’t get into how many lines of code it takes. You can tell a lot about a founder based on their personal characteristics. And the fact that I’m successful proves that you don’t have to be an engineer to invest in engineers.

What makes for a bad founder? 

Conway: Somebody who’s self-centered and thinks that it’s all about them — they invented it, and they don’t need a team in order to build a big company. That’s going to be a founder who’s not going to succeed. You’ve got to build a whole team around you, and that’s not easy. It’s a whole different skill set to inventing something.

My biggest failure was We could have invested in there but it was right as the bubble was bursting, and we thought the valuation was too high. And now, it’s a $60 billion market cap company doing really well. The other vivid example is Napster [one he did invest in], which failed because of people’s egos — the egos of the investors in Napster and the egos of the record label executives. 

What do you think Silicon Valley will look like in 10 or 20 years?

Conway: In 20 years, driverless cars will have had a massive impact that nobody can even predict. With parking garages not being needed and huge swaths of real estate now becoming available, they could solve the catastrophic housing crisis in the Bay Area. I think self-driving cars could be a huge contribution to the solution, as well as to the problems of congestion and pollution.

What are other areas in which Silicon Valley still needs to change?

Conway: I think diversity is really important, and it’s got to start in the education system. The sooner that happens, the sooner it’ll ripple into every corporation. I also think it’s important for the tech community to get civically engaged and involved, including locally. Until 100 percent of eligible voters are registered to vote, studying the issues, voting and participating at the city level, we are at a catastrophic deficit. We’re a long ways away from that when you look at voter turnouts.