Ged Carroll

The Power Law by Sebastian Mallaby

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Reading Time: 5 minutes

The Power Law lays out VC history

The Power Law: Venture Capital and the Art of Disruption does for the technology venture capital industry what Accidental Empires and Where Wizards Stay Up Late did for the technologists that they financed.

The Power Law

About the author Sebastian Mallaby

Prior to reading The Power Law Mallaby wasn’t a familiar name to me. Looking into his background I could see why, Mallaby is a Washington Post columnist and specialises in international economics for the Council of Foreign Relations. A perfect CV for a policy wonk. His previous works have included a biography of Alan Greenspan, the World Bank and a book on hedge funds.

What the book doesn’t cover

The origins of modern venture capital in the pre-second world war era was through the family offices of people like the Wallenbergs and the Rockefellers. The Power Law only picks up the story post-war and has a distinct US bias in its storytelling.

Synopsis of The Power Law

George Doriot

Mallaby starts the story with Georges Frédéric Doriot and the American Research and Development Corporation (ARDC). What’s interesting Doriot is how he was different from today’s VCs with a focus on patriotism. Doriot is most famous for his funding of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), an enterprise computer company whose mini-computers facilitated the early internet and many business computer systems. At the time of DEC, the Boston area seriously rivalled the Bay Area as the technology centre.

Treacherous eight

As the book goes into the story of Arthur Rock and his relationship with the treacherous eight who left Bill Shockley’s lab, this is where many Silicon Valley histories start to coalesce with The Power Law. Mallaby adds a little more, such as the 600x return that both the eight and Rock enjoyed from their investment. At 96, Rock is still alive at the time of writing. He is more recently remembered for his involvement of firing of Steve Jobs from Apple in 1985, a good deal of this came down to his distaste for Jobs informal appearance.

Sandhill Road

Arthur Rock and former Doriot student Bill Draper benefited from being in the right place and at the right time. The US government looked to spur innovation as part of the cold war and the Bay Area was were much of this innovation would happen. Sequoia and Kleiner Perkins followed soon after, these names are now central to the Sandhill Road venture capital ecosystem, but in 1972 they were just starting off with businesses like Atari. Atari wasn’t started by experienced business professionals, but by a twenty something who thought meetings in the hot tub were a good idea. Atari marked a point in time when VCs had to become the adults in room, or as Mallaby put it ‘active investors’.

What I didn’t realise at the time was how early in Kleiner Perkin’s history was their engagement with biotech pioneer Genentech. I didn’t realise that Genentech was funded before Apple and was more a peer of Tandem Computers. Much of the early networking was based on a two-way door between established venture funded firms that were descendants of the treacherous eight and early venture capital firms that employed experienced executives as partners.

Apple was notable for two reasons. Firstly, venture capital firms operated for the first time rather like an insurance syndicate with several funding the business rather than one large investor. Secondly, the returns on Apple seems to have solidified the model and bought niche financing to a wider awareness beyond the geographic pockets of the technology industry. Where many books like Accidental Empires would use this as a jumping off point to tell the story of the PC industry. The Power Law instead talks about computer networking, this makes sense if one thinks of Metcalfe’s Law as the power law that matters the most in the internet age. The early east coast venture capital community were more cautious than their west coast counterparts, partly because the east coast technology corridor had less of a loose network of connections compared to the west coast. I think that the different business culture of the east coast also had an effect.

Connectors

Doerr connected Cypress Semiconductor and Sun Microsystems, two companies that Kleiner Perkins funded so that they would make the SPARC RISC microprocessor. You could put this as the starting point for the golden age of UNIX servers and workstations – which we can trace forward to today’s Mac range and modern Google servers.

Doerr had attempted other alliances before and in this way we see a different way how Metcalfe’s Law was the power law of the title. VCs has access to several nodes that they could connect together to try and build a technical vision. This is different to the idea we’re usually sold of the tech visionary / company founder a la the Google founders, Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs.

Meanwhile Don Valentine of Sequoia Capital usurped the founders of Cisco Systems and brought in a new team to run the business bilking the founders out of much of their money. Part of this was down to one of the original Cisco founders being a woman.

Government money

The VC industry of the early 1990s capitalised on government money. Netscape was a remake of Mosiac which was the first graphic internet browser software developed in the NCSA software design group. This was part of the government-funded National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois. UUNET was a commercial ISP based on the back of the ARPANET email delivery system. As the dotcom boom took off it was the largest ISP and the fastest growing. UUNET eventually became part of MCI WorldCom and then Verizon, where UUNET remains a key part of the Verizon business offering. Both Netscape and UUNET were viewed at VC successes but as The Power Law shows, the reality was more complicated.

Irrational behaviour

I thought that the original dot.com boom was irrational behaviour, but I learned from the account of GO Computers a decade or so earlier that irrational behaviour is very much in the blood of venture capital, which explains how we had WeWork and Uber in the 2010s which is where The Power Law finishes its tale. The funny thing about the irrational behaviour is that both the dot com era and the 2010s Softbank appear to have been an accelerant with their late stage momentum approach to venture capital deals which blew valuations on businesses up far beyond what would be reasonably expected otherwise. Softbank gave birth to ‘growth equity’ as a business model that took in many existing and new VC businesses including Russian Israeli Yuri Milner and his DST Ventures business which invested in Facebook, Stripe and GroupOn.

Paul Graham and Peter Thiel

Paul Graham was a founder of an ad tech business who then moved over to investing and had a reputation for warning startup founders about the nature of VC funding. It fitted neatly into the ‘John Gaunt’ type narrative that played well with some of his peers like Peter Thiel. The impact of these people setting an ideological agenda of sorts for Silicon Valley founders, together with a plethora of other founders providing seed capital to businesses from Google onwards greatly impacted the freedom of VCs to operate using their previous models and left the industry open for the Softbanks of the world to inflate everything.

China off-note

The Power Law offers a largely truimphantist view of the role of VCs such as Sequoia Capital in China. However, this seems to ignore the impact of Chinese VC and angel investors. It also chooses to ignore the negative impact of Xi Jingping.

Conclusion

Mallaby illuminates part of Silicon Valley history that I wasn’t familiar with, in particular VCs strategic role in steering technological change during the 1990s. Time has somewhat outpaced the book. The rise of Xi Jingping and the change in attitude towards safety and innovation amongst young Chinese is likely to make the China section look overly optimistic. The end of easy money, at least for the time being will impact the VC industry globally and growth equity looks like a folly during the present time. But if you want to understand how things were The Power Law is the ideal book for you.