As he opened the annual CED Tech Venture Conference this afternoon, investor and Carbon co-founder Steve Nelson wasn’t shy about revealing the magnitude of his noteworthy stage partner.
It was the first time the prolific Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers investor John Doerr had spoken publicly in North Carolina about his illustrious career in venture capital.
Doerr is known in the global tech community for funding some of the world’s leading tech companies in their earliest stages—particularly Symantec, Amazon, Intuit and Google.
Colloquially, Doerr is a Silicon Valley founding father of sorts. His career was born at Intel during the emerging computer hardware technology era, just as it was gaining traction in the 1970s. He moved up the ladder through the company’s engineering, marketing, management and sales divisions.
Doerr joined Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in 1980, and established early relationships with now-bigwig entrepreneurs like Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Alphabet exec Eric Schmidt, Amazon Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, and Intuit’s Scott Cook and Bill Campbell.
In Nelson’s introduction, he regarded Doerr as “a true legend and national treasure.”
Doerr’s time on stage provided a flood of actionable advice for entrepreneurs, which we’re summing up in five key takeaways below.
1. Invest in AI, the next wave of innovation.
History has proven that major technological shifts tend to happen every 15 years, with fine-tuning and advancements throughout the duration of the period before the next big tech boom takes place.
Doerr remembers the advent of the microchip and personal computer in 1995. Then, when the internet came along, there was another 15-year boom before the third, “mobile” wave of 2000-2015 when Apple became the most valuable company in the world.
When asked for his thoughts on the next wave, from 2015-2030, Doerr responded, “While I’m not sure, I do have an opinion: it’s AI and IA,” encouraging entrepreneurs to explore artificial intelligence or intelligence augmentation as they build their companies.
Using AI is a necessary skill to compete, he said, and if companies don’t adopt it, they’ll fall further and further behind.
2. Persistently recruit a diverse workforce until you can make no more progress.
Doerr said the very virtue of diversity should extend to business, and benefits of embracing diversity are great if companies gear up their efforts.
“The data is clear—Diverse groups make better decisions and execute better,” he said. “When your team reflects the world you want to live in, you’ll be more successful.”
Acknowledging glass ceilings and hidden bias, Doerr cited the statistic that only around six percent of venture capitalists are women, adding a call to the business community to “recruit like crazy until you can make no more progress…start early and work hard.”
Though more than a third of the founders he works with are female, Doerr said that’s not enough: “As soon as the VC world is 50-50, the better we’re going to be.”
3. Talk to policy makers, educate them on your business and innovation.
When questioned about the impact of regulation on the innovation economy, Doerr mentioned that DARPA and the internet were first created using federal tax dollars. In the same way, self-driving car innovators will need to work with legislators in order for their inventions to come to fruition and achieve widespread use.
“The right way to handle this as an entrepreneur,” advised Doerr, “is to band together with fellow entrepreneurs to talk with policy-makers on how to regulate and compete.”
This also extends to other tech sectors like healthcare, where the regulatory approval process becomes extra tricky.
Doerr mentioned a great way to partner with policy makers in the healthcare arena is to “lock arms with your local university president and go to Washington DC,” to make a case for research and development support for products all citizens in North Carolina can benefit from.
4. Consider healthcare as a target market.
Healthcare was a recurring point of discussion throughout the fireside chat. At one point, Doerr pointed out that the sector is roughly 50 times bigger than that of major tech companies like Google and Facebook.
But Doerr believes that’s going to change. It’s only a matter of time before tech giants jump into healthcare-focused technology, and companies should be thinking about how to expand their products into the space early in the game.
He said the one master tool to define the future of healthcare technology is data, noting that healthcare data is “the most rapidly growing part of the data universe.”
Presently, it’s owned by insurance companies and hospitals, rather than patients. But Doerr believes if companies find a way to combine data with payment models, they can bridge that gap quickly and effectively.
He provided a hypothetical example: Entrepreneurs can go to hospitals or the Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina and pitch their products and services, asking for the data sets they’ll need for research in return.
He referred to the opportunity through the lens of his portfolio companies. Logistically, he said, Amazon could be a good healthcare company, especially in important steps like moving healthcare data to the cloud.
Google, Doerr added, already has some health care efforts including projects like the Google Brain testing/research arm and Deep Mind, an artificial intelligence company it acquired in 2014. Doerr noted that one out of every 20 searches on Google is a healthcare question, and Alphabet is taking advantage of the demand by looking for new ways to apply digital technology to healthcare.
Doerr is optimistic about Google’s health research initiatives and how they can impact society. He added, “I can’t wait to see what happens as these companies with so much human talent turn their attention [to] this part of our society that matters the most.”
5. Be willing to reimagine the world. Think more ahead than anyone else, but also execute.
A common theme among the founders Doerr has invested in is that they imagine a world that’s more ahead than anyone else can imagine, as he puts it.
He recalled a conversation he had last weekend with Jeff Bezos, who said Amazon “got a seven-year head start because people thought it was such a weird idea.”
Entrepreneurs like Bezos have a vision of the world very beyond and different from his, Doerr noted. And at Google, there’s an entire culture of being willing to reimagine the world, “sometimes out of naivety—they don’t know any other way to do it.”
“Both are enormously inventive companies,” Doerr added. “I call them ‘internet treasures.’”
Doerr also recalled the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs, and his way of “anticipating products we didn’t know we needed, but we lusted for them once they were announced.”
He remembers a moment with Jobs in the early days of the 8GB iPhone. Doerr was impressed with its promise as a potential platform for entrepreneurs, suggesting Apple should build a fund to initiate that effort. Jobs comically replied, “I don’t want my product polluted by third-party apps.”
But eight months later, Jobs came back to Doerr and asked how much he would be willing to commit to fund the APIs and App Store. That was the start of the iPhone’s software development kit, funded by the $100 million iFund in 2008.
The lesson there, Doerr said, is to be opportunistic while being focused, and seize the great opportunities before you.
At the same time, Doerr added that it’s also important to be realistic about how far ahead you are from others in solving the problem. “Innovation without execution is hallucination,” he declared.