John Doerr: Best Entrepreneurs Attempt the Impossible

The venture capitalist describes the importance of ambition and a thirst for knowledge in driving new ideas.

November 01, 2009

| by Dave Murphy

When asked what makes a great entrepreneur, venture capitalist John Doerr points to ambition and a thirst for knowledge.

“The best entrepreneurs are the ones who really go the distance with their companies, who are always learning,” said Doerr, a partner in Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers who has helped such startups as Netscape, Amazon, and Google. “They don’t know what they don’t know, so they attempt to do the impossible. They often succeed.”


Doerr appeared Nov. 19 as part of the student-sponsored “View From The Top” leadership speaker series, joined by two Kleiner Perkins partners who are alumni of Stanford GSB: Trae Vassallo, MBA ‘00, and Chi-Hua Chien, MBA ‘06.

“Great entrepreneurs are oftentimes great leaders,” Vassallo said. “They are ones who can really inspire others to jump on their mission because when you’re dealing with the early stages of these startup companies, it’s a lot more than just the number of dollars you’re making from a salary that’s motivating you.”

Doerr offered career advice to the students, many of whom expect to become entrepreneurs or at least sole proprietors of firms, urging them to choose their assignments based more on the opportunity to learn and gain experience and less on the size of the paycheck.

“Whatever path you take,” Doerr said, “I believe you’re going to be judged on the following: Your ability to listen actively, think critically, and above everything else to communicate. I think you’re judged by your ability to speak on your feet and debate the merits of issues, and that’s whether you’re in a large group or a small group. That’s for a very fundamental reason: We believe that ideas are easy, execution is everything, and in anything worth doing, it takes a team to win.”

Kleiner Perkins has widened its focus to include green technology in the past several years, now having about $600 million invested in 50 companies, he said.

“Less than 6% of all our energy comes from renewables,” added Vassallo. “We saw a huge opportunity to ramp that up, and we also saw a lot of entrepreneurs who were coming to us with really deep, fundamental innovations in this area.”

Vassallo described Silver Spring Networks, which has PG&E as one of its big partners. “The electric grid is one of the dumbest things out there. It was invented 100 years ago and really has not been updated since. The best way to describe Silver Spring is that it’s really overlaying the internet on top of the electric grid.”

As things stand now, electric companies don’t know about outages unless customers call them, but Vassallo said Silver Spring hopes to change that. “You’re essentially creating two-way communication points between all the nodes on the grid. So now you start to enable whole sets of ecosystems of technologies that no one has ever been able to think about before.”

A key part of Kleiner Perkins’ portfolio has always been technology, and Chien was among the partners who saw the opportunity to capitalize on Apple’s iPhone by supporting applications for it. He named the program the iFund and looked over the thousands of plans that came in.

“We saw several trends evolving simultaneously that got us really excited,” Chien said. “First of all, wireless broadband everywhere, directly into your pocket. Secondly, a company like Apple that had a real consumer brand and was expert at developing great consumer products was coming into this market that had historically been done by handset OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) that didn’t have good consumer experiences.

“A piece of hardware, the iPhone, was fundamentally a computing device first and a phone second. App Store sits on 150 million desktops via iTunes and can deliver new forms of software directly to consumers with no intermediaries. And finally, we saw a software development kit that would enable developers, many of them who are in small, two-, three-person companies, to develop desktop-like software that had historically been impossible on mobile devices.”

The results have been staggering, Chien said. App Store is outselling iTunes over its two-year launch period by a factor of twenty times, which is why Kleiner Perkins is backing some of the developers. “Two billion applications have been downloaded on the App Store in its first eight quarters.”

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