Man, have you ever really wondered
Like why are we here? What the meaning of all this?
—Outkast, ChurchArtist: Outkast
Album: Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
Label: LaFace, Arista
Since Marc and I founded Andreessen Horowitz three years ago, we have raised $2.7 billion. That statement begs a few questions. The two most obvious are:
- Why did such a new venture capital firm raise so much money?
- How did such a new venture capital firm raise so much money?
To get to the answers, it’s useful to go back to the original motivation for starting Andreessen Horowitz.
After raising our first round of funding for Loudcloud in 1999, we went to visit our new venture capital firm and meet their full team. As founding CEO, I remember being quite excited to meet our financial backers and talk about how we could partner to build a great company. That excitement took a sharp downhill turn when one of the top partners said to me, in front of my co-founders, “When are you going to get a real CEO?”
I was completely stunned—the comment knocked the wind out of me. Our largest investor had basically called me a fake CEO in front of my team. I said, “What do you mean?”—hoping he would revise his statement and enable me to save face. Instead he pressed on: “Someone who has designed a large organization, someone who knows great senior executives and brings prebuilt customer relationships, someone who knows what they are doing.”
I could hardly breathe. It was bad enough that he undermined my standing as CEO, but to make matters worse, I knew that at some level he was right. I didn’t have those skills. I had never done those things. And I did not know those people. I was the founding CEO, not a professional CEO. I could almost hear the clock ticking in the background as my time running the company quickly ran out.
Could I learn the job and build my network fast enough or would I lose the company? That question tortured me for months.
In the years that followed, I remained CEO, for better or worse. I worked incredibly hard to close the gap between what the partner had described and where I was at the start. Thanks to a lot of effort and help from friends and mentors, especially Bill Campbell, the company survived and ultimately became quite successful and valuable.
However, not a day went by when I didn’t think about that interaction. I always wondered how long I had to grow up and how I could find help to build my skills and make the necessary connections along the way.
Marc and I discussed this often. We wondered aloud why as founders we had to prove to our investors beyond a shadow of a doubt that we could run the company, rather than our investors assuming that we would run the company we’d created. This conversation ultimately became the inspiration for Andreessen Horowitz.
Marc and I share a simple belief that became the basis for our new venture capital firm: in general, founding CEOs perform better than professional CEOs over the long term, and a venture capital firm that enables founding CEOs to succeed would help build the best companies and yield superior investment returns.
As we set out to design a venture capital firm that would enable founders to run their own companies, we began by asking: In what ways are professional CEOs superior to founder CEOs?
Professional CEOs bring two core advantages to the table:
- Superior skill set – Being CEO requires vast know-how that is very difficult to gain without extensive experience actually being CEO. Founders with no CEO experience naturally make many critical mistakes during their “on the job training” period. Excellent professional CEOs already have those skills.
- Superior network – Great professional CEOs know lots of outstanding executives and employees. They also know key reporters and analysts, important potential customers and top industry players. Founders tend not to have enough industry experience to know all these people and need to build their networks almost from scratch.
Next, we asked: How might a venture capital firm help close those gaps?
Addressing the skill set issue proved to be difficult because sadly the only way to learn how to be a CEO is to be a CEO. Sure, we might try to teach some skills, but I know from experience that learning to be a CEO through classroom training would be like learning to be an NFL quarterback through classroom training. Even if Peyton Manning and Tom Brady were your instructors, with no experience, you’d get killed the moment you took the field.
We decided that while we would not be able to give a founder CEO all the skills she needed, we would be able to provide the kind of mentorship that would accelerate the learning process. As a result, our first requirement for General Partners is to be an effective mentor for a founder striving to be a CEO. This is why so many of our General Partners are former founders or CEOs or both, and they are all highly focused on helping founders become outstanding CEOs.
Of course, not all founders want to be CEO—there are companies for which the right thing is to bring in a professional CEO. For those companies, we focus on helping the founders identify the right CEO, and then helping the CEO successfully integrate into the company and partner with the founders to retain their unique strengths.
Next, we went after the network.
Existing venture capitalists with whom we had worked with had important industry relationships, but we found them to be lacking in the following ways:
- Siloed – As an entrepreneur, you can often count on the General Partner on your board to introduce you to customers or executives, but you can’t count on the venture capital firm itself. Each General Partner has his own distinct network, and it’s not really feasible or practical to access the other partners’ networks because those partners prioritize their own companies and in practice you will never see them—they are not available to help you. So, there is no firm-wide network you can plug into.
- Hard to access – As CEO it’s always a bit weird to say to your VC, “Please introduce me to some potential customers.” First, it seems like an inconvenience—VCs are clearly busy people with many other things to do. Second, there isn’t any easy process to execute that introduction. Where will this introduction take place? Will the VC set up the meeting? Will you have to fly out to see the prospect? Will the VC come with you? Will the prospect be qualified well enough to do that? If not, then should you even ask? To make matters worse, the need to meet customers is not a one-time event. How do you ask your VC the second, third and tenth times? And at what point does your VC start to judge you as incapable of reaching customers (or partners, distributors, suppliers, investors or acquirers) on your own?
- Incomplete – Finally, VC networks tend to be incomplete. A certain General Partner might know a certain type of customer like telecom carriers, but not others like pharmaceutical companies or government agencies. They may know customers, but not have deep relationships with key reporters. They may know key reporters, but not know executives you would want to hire. They might know executives, but not engineers. As founding CEO, one tends to be busy. If you spend time trying to tap a network and come up empty, you probably won’t bother trying again.
To address these issues, we designed Andreessen Horowitz’s network to be firm-wide, dead simple to access and comprehensive—supported by operating partners who work full-time to develop and manage each branch of the network.
This approach has already lead to some stunning results:
- In 2011, we hosted over 600 portfolio presentations to corporate customers and partners at our office in Menlo Park. These presentations resulted in more than 3,000 introductions between portfolio companies and prospective Fortune 500/Global 2000 senior executives.
- We’ve built relationships with over 4,000 engineers, designers and product managers, and we’ve made more than 1,300 introductions to our portfolio companies, resulting in 130 hires within the portfolio.
- We added over 550 executives to our network in 2011 and made more than 300 executive introductions to our portfolio companies.
- We’ve had nearly 400 interactions with media on behalf of our portfolio companies.
Through these practices, we’ve been able to help founders develop critical CEO skills and wield networks as broad and powerful as the best professional CEOs. And that is why we have become a popular firm among founders.
Our reputation with founders has then enabled us to invest in great entrepreneurs building the great new technology companies. Interestingly, the demand from entrepreneurs has come in all stages and sizes. From seed stage entrepreneurs like JR Rivers at Cumulus Networks to entrepreneurs with fast growing enterprises like Brian Chesky at Airbnb, great founders everywhere want to be the best CEO that they can be and work with us to help them do that.
And that’s both how and why we raised $2.7 billion. We are uniquely positioned to help the greatest technology entrepreneurs in the world build the best technology companies in the world, and that’s just what we’re going to do.