This is part one of a two-part e27 exclusive with Bill Tai
Legendary Silicon Valley venture capitalist Bill Tai, who established the West Coast office of Charles River Ventures in 2002 and whose firm seeded Twitter as it was just forming, was in Hong Kong last week for the OzAPP Awards Road Show.
e27 had an opportunity to sit down with Tai for an exclusive conversation. Here are the excerpts:
What’s your involvement with the OzAPP Awards?
The basic idea is that we’re in an era, as well all know, where companies like Facebook can get started in a dorm room. If you think about Mark Zuckerberg in that era, his only point of friction was trying to pay for hosting. He had to get a job with the Winklevoss twins to try to do that, and it has haunted him for a number of years.
With the OzAPP competition, what we want to do is empower the next generation of folks like that with free hosting and capital to develop their product. So young entrepreneurs can complete their product, run it at no cost and surround themselves with advisors and mentors such that if the product finds a market that it fits, they get help to turn their product into a company.
We’ve involved people like Lars Rasmussen, the inventor of Google Maps; Young Sohn, the President of Samsung’s Strategy and Innovation Centre; folks like myself that have funded a hundred odd companies; and others that can help mentor a company through the process of building itself into a successful enterprise. It’s about how do you build a network around a company.
Can you tell us a little about your MaiTai community?
It’s a community of amazing entrepreneurs that help each other in anything they’re doing to basically build their businesses. I started as an entrepreneur myself and ended up going into the venture capital arena 23 years ago.
Through the cycles, I managed to have a company that got public and took some time off around the year 2000 to learn to kiteboard.
As kiteboarding started to get popular in the tech crowd when folks like Sergey Brin and Larry Page started to kiteboard around the 2003 timeframe, a lot of people in the Valley wanted to learn the sport and they would come to me.
That turned into a community of pretty high profile entrepreneurs that learned to kiteboard, whether it’s guys like Elon Musk or the founder of Tango, Voxer, and we all kind of banded together in this group called MaiTai. It’s a community that uses my name and Susi Mai who’s a Red Bull athlete and pro kiteboarder.
The two of us ended up building a series of events that are entrepreneur summits that include folks like Sir Richard Branson who also kiteboards. It’s turned into a community of support and a funding network for startups.
How do you intend to grow the OzAPP Awards?
It started as a regional competition in Western Australia… as more of an experiment. About four years ago, I came out to Perth to kiteboard and ended up affiliating with Curtin University, which has 55,000 students. As an experiment, I wanted to see if there were any developers in that community or student body that had products.
So we announced the competition as I described with some free hosting and capital, and lo and behold, 100 students came out of the woodwork across four universities, 20 of whom had products they had already submitted to the iPhone Store. I learned that developer communities were really worldwide and products were coming from everywhere.
The following year it became more of a national competition across Australia, and the year after that regional competitions took place.
Apart from this, I’ve established something called Extreme Tech Challenge, which is a competition that includes both the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which is the world’s largest consumer technology show, and Richard.
We’re funnelling right now a group of 1,800 companies that we’ll shortlist to 10 that will present on stage at CES, and we’ll then select three that will present to Richard at his home on Necker Island, along with a judging panel of the same folks: Lars Rasmussen, Young Sohn, Felix Baumgartner — the guy who jumped from outer space, and then Richard.
As we grow OzAPP in future years, we’re going to kind of dovetail those together, so that there’s some sort of a feeder into the final contest with Richard.
What books would you recommend for anyone involved in a startup?
I read a lot of books, but they tend not to be about startups. To mention a couple of books that I’ve really enjoyed, Freakonomics is fantastic — though it’s a little bit old. It’s kind of a practical view of economics by a guy from the University of Chicago.
The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb is an interesting read. It’s like an out-of-the-world experience — how do you find the thing that shouldn’t really exist but it exists and how does that impact your world.
There’s a great, great book called Fire In The Valley and it’s about the early days of the Homebrew Computer Club, which is a little community of — at the time — young people that would meet at an auditorium in Stanford to swap ideas on microcomputer designs. The early attendees of that group went on to form a bunch of companies. They were folks like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Scott McNeally — the guys who founded Sun Microsystems and Seagate.
It’s just a fascinating description on how a community and the sharing of information on a wave of technology created opportunities for all these people to create these monster companies. It’s a very inspiring read and it brings people back to the formation of Silicon Valley.
You say we’re in the fourth wave of technology. Can you talk about the fifth wave?
We’re basically in an era where we see waves repeating themselves over and over. It’s different technology every time, but the same kind of things happen over and over. We are deep into the fourth wave, heading into the fifth. The fifth wave is a data science wave.
There was a first wave that gave Silicon Valley it’s name, and it was about silicon. It was companies that formed to take raw physics and put it in plastic packages so that you could use technology. Semiconductor companies came out of that wave.
The second wave was the integration of those little lego blocks into systems, whether they’re computer systems or communication systems — companies such as Cisco, Juniper, Apple or Compaq.
The third wave was the integration of those boxes into the LAN and the LAN into the internet. So kind of the service provider wave.
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The fourth wave is where we are now, which is kind of a user interface wave. So we’re basically in a period where people are putting a UI to data coming off the cloud, which expresses itself as a Facebook or a Twitter or a LinkedIn. They’re all really UI companies.
So the fifth wave is the use of the technologies that really define who won in those waves, and that’s the data science wave. They will be companies that have a good handle on what their data means, and are taking data science out to other businesses. So there’s infrastructure companies like Tableau and Splunk that are worth billions of dollars and went public recently. They’re effectively visualisation of data and the guts of data science. In the enterprise, it’s Splunk. Tableau was the first one in visualisation.
Then there are companies like Uber and Airbnb that are effectively data science companies where the end-points are not a browser, but they might be a vehicle or a car. So it’s kind of the efficiency of resources. I think those are kind of wave five.
I think there’s another wave just forming now which is kind of applied data science into verticals like Genomix. I don’t know if it’s a sixth wave or not, might be more of an extension of the fifth wave. It’s about how do you take data science and apply it to other verticals other than just the web.
This e27 exclusive with Bill Tai continues in part two.