Every time an engineer joins Google, a startup dies

VC returns over the last decade have been poor. The cause is widely agreed to be an excess of venture capital dollars to worthy startups. Observers seem to universally assume that the solution is for the VC industry to downsize.

For example, Fred Wilson says about VC:

You cannot invest $25bn per year and generate the kinds of returns investors seek from the asset class. If $100bn per year in exits is a steady state number, then we need to work back from that and determine how much the asset class can manage…. I think “back to the future” is the answer to most of the venture capital asset class problems. Less capital in the asset class, smaller fund sizes, smaller partnerships, smaller deals, and smaller exits

Similarly, Bill Gurley writes:

There are many reasons to believe that a reduction in the size of the VC industry will be healthy for the industry overall and should lead to above average returns in the future.

All of these analyses start with the assumption that aggregate venture-backed exits (acquisition and IPOs) will remain roughly constant. I don’t see why we need to accept that assumption. The aggregate value of venture-backed startups, like all valuations, is a function of profits generated (or predicted to be generated). In technology, profits are driven by innovation. I don’t see any reason we should assume venture-backed innovation can’t be dramatically increased.

For example, innovation has varied widely across times and places – the most innovative region in the world for the last 50 years being Silicon Valley. What if, say, Steve Jobs hadn’t grown up in Silicon Valley? What if he had gone to work for another company? Does anyone really think Apple – and all the innovation and wealth it created – would exist if Jobs hadn’t happened to grow up in a culture that was so startup friendly? Jobs is obviously a remarkable person, but there are probably 100 Steve Jobs born every year. The vast majority just never have a chance or give a thought to starting a revolutionary new company.

Some people blame our education system, or assume that there is some fixed number of entrepreneurs born every year. I think the problem is cultural. As much as we like to think of our culture as being entrepreneurial, the reality is 99% of our top talent doesn’t seriously contemplate starting companies. Colleges crank out tons of extremely smart and well-educated kids every year. The vast majority go into “administrative” careers that don’t really produce anything – law, banking and consulting. Most of the rest join big companies. As I’ve argued many times before, big companies (with a few notable exceptions) aren’t nearly as successful as startups at creating new products.  The bigger the company, the more likely it suffers from agency issues, strategy taxes, and myopia. But most of all: nothing is more motivating and inspiring than the sense of ownership and self-direction only a startup can provide.

Whenever I see a brilliant kid decide to join Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, or Google, I think to myself: a startup just died, and as a result our world is a little less wealthy, innovative, and interesting.

4 thoughts on “Every time an engineer joins Google, a startup dies

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