Good Entrepreneurs Are Missionaries, Says John Doerr
STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS—What makes a great entrepreneur? According to Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr, the best ones "are missionaries, not mercenaries."
"Mercenaries have a lot of drive, they're opportunistic and always pitching their latest deal," he told a packed house of business students March 3, "whereas missionaries are more passionate and strategic. Mercenaries are sprinting and often have in their organizations an aristocracy of founders, whereas the missionaries are in it for the long run, obsessing on customers, not competition. They try to build a meritocracy—a loud, noisy place where the best ideas can get on the table."
In a wide-ranging View from the Top speech at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Doerr reflected on his own career, which took off at Intel in the mid-1970s just as the company was coming out with its famous "8080" 8-bit microprocessor. Doerr held various engineering, marketing, and management assignments at Intel and was one of its top-ranked sales executives. Then in 1980 he joined the Menlo Park-based venture capital partnership of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, where he showed a talent for picking winners. Among startups he backed that have since become household names: Google, Compaq, Intuit, Netscape, Lotus, Sun Microsystems, Amazon.com, and Symantec.
Pointing to a large biz school-style report card on the overhead screen, Doerr gave himself high marks for his performance as a venture capitalist, for his relationships with family and friends (though he said he wished he had adopted his two children 10 years sooner), and for his recent involvement in public policy initiatives. He is particularly proud of the role he played last year promoting California's successful $3 billion ballot measure to fund embryonic stem cell research.
Doerr also admitted to some "visible failures" along the way, including his first job as a burger chef, and his own chip-design venture—Silicon Compilers—which he co-founded in the early 1980s. The company experienced technical difficulties and Doerr ended up hiring a more qualified executive from Intel to replace himself as CEO. Later the company merged with Silicon Design Labs and then was acquired by Mentor Graphics.
These days, Doerr and his venture capitalist partners are interested in backing health care technology that will enable providers to keep better track of their patients' records and provide more personalized service. For example, Doerr said physicians someday may be able to take tissue samples from women with breast cancer, digitally analyze the DNA, and predict with high confidence which patients would benefit from chemotherapy.
Other areas of interest to the venture capitalists at KPCB include technology to enhance computer processing power and innovations in energy. The partners also are eager to back social policy entrepreneurs who are trying to make a difference in education and global poverty. (Doerr is a particular fan of the ONE Campaign, a movement aimed at fighting AIDS and world hunger.)
For more tips on what makes a young company great, Doerr recommended Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration by Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman. The book's case studies, ranging from the Manhattan Project and Xerox PARC to the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign, have several common threads, Doerr said.
All the groups described in the book started out with strong leaders and talented people who had a sense of mission. They were pragmatic but optimistic. And most important, the leaders were very young. "All typically had their best work done by people under 35," Doerr said. "They didn't know what they didn't know, so they attempted the impossible."
Doerr closed with some "unsolicited advice" to the under-35 crowd in Bishop Auditorium. "Always, always network," he said. Keep business cards. Call somebody you weren't going to call every day and talk for at least 10 minutes. Call your mom once a week whether you need to or not. Take your first assignment based on the opportunity to learn and grow, not on the compensation.
"And please, please, please," he told the students, "in your drive to become great leaders, don't forget the fundamentals: learning about recruiting, hiring, firing, inspiring, managing, developing, and motivating others with the kind of tough love that makes leaders very effective—not this Donald Trump thing, 'You're fired!' There are extra points for humor."