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Inside the Mind of Tech Guru Marc Andreessen

December 02, 2013 | About:

Marc Andreessen is never short on opinions and never shy about sharing them either. The co-creator of Mosaic, the first commercially used web-browser that he helped evolve into Netscape, he now runs the upstart and uber venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz (with partner Ben Horowitz.) Andreessen serves on the board of Facebook (FB) and HP (HPQ) and has invested in Twitter (TWTR) among myriad other advisory and investment relationships. Now an emblematic figure of Silicon Valley, Andreessen is actually a product of the Midwest, growing up in Cedar Falls, Iowa and New Lisbon, Wisconsin and attending the University of Illinois. He returned to that part of the world to speak at an investor meeting at BDT Capital Partners in Chicago, a merchant bank run by Byron Trott that invests in and advises large family-controlled and closely held companies. The inspiration for this conversation came from an interview of Andreessen I did there. What follows are the highlights.

Serwer: We all understand that the Internet revolution is inevitable at this point, but it's also kind of controversial. There are scads of new jobs at Facebook and Twitter and other places, but what about the ones that are destroyed by the inroads of technology into every industry? Are you actually creating more than you're destroying?

Andreessen: Jobs are critically important, but looking at economic change through the impact on jobs has always been a difficult way to think about economic progress. Let's take a historical example. Once upon a time, 100% of the United States effectively was in agriculture, right? Now it's down to 3%. Productivity in agriculture has exploded. Output has never been higher. The same thing happened in manufacturing 150 years ago or so. It would have been very easy to say, "Stop economic progress because what are all the farmers going to do if they can't farm?" And of course, we didn't stop the progress of mechanization and manufacturing, and our answer instead was the creation of new industries.

And the same story will play out with the Internet?

Right. So the jobs are something that happens in the end. But what happens first are improvements in consumer welfare. This is the part that doesn't get much attention because jobs going away is a much scarier story. Improvements in consumer welfare are more diffuse, and it's hard to specifically call them out. But it's a really big deal. It's a really big deal for people to have a lot more information. It's a really big deal for people to be able to communicate and collaborate. One of the things that's going to be huge in the future is the ability to get educated online. That's a wave that's going to hit in a major way in the next 20 years, and will be a huge improvement to consumer welfare all around the world. And so the gains to anybody with a screen and a network connection are absolutely phenomenal. It's one of those things where everybody's life keeps getting better. But you don't get the creation without the destruction. And so there is a lot of turbulence, and will be a lot of turbulence.

So how should we think about navigating what for many will be a very bumpy ride ahead?

A big part of the answer is the creation of new businesses and industries. Another big part is existing businesses taking advantage of the new technologies. A great example is any small business in the country that has a product or service that is relevant to people outside its local area. Those businesses have always had an enormous problem actually ever reaching consumers, right? Say it's a used bookstore, or an antique store. In the past you would market in the local newspaper and local radio station. Now you go on Google and you buy keyword advertising. You go on Facebook, you buy social advertising. And you can very cost-effectively target people who are in the market for your product from all over the world.

And then for all this to work, a lot of people will have to get retrained, they'll have to develop new skills. Education is going to become even more important. People are going to have to be much more adaptable in this economy. This has been a trend for a long time; the days of lifetime employment are long since over. And the whole system of how everything works—from education to health care and housing—has to adapt to an era in which people are going to have a lot more jobs over the course of their career. When I was growing up in the '70s in Wisconsin, that was a message everybody was drilling into me. Like, "Get ready. You're not just going to have one job in your life." I think at the time the average was seven jobs, and now it is up to 15 or 20.

How many are you up to?

I'm up to like six. So I'm definitely getting there. And of course some people just want this all to stop. Some people just say, "Just let me do what I've been doing, and don't interfere with me." But the counterargument to that is always, "Okay, how much worse off should the rest of us be because you don't want to change?"

How do ever stay up with all this change? I know it's tough for everyone to stay up, but you've got to be that much further ahead than all of us. How do you do it?

I feel like I'm constantly falling behind. I feel like every day I'm out of the office I'm falling behind. At our venture capital firm we only invest in a sort of Silicon Valley–style tech. We see 3,000 inbound deals a year. And those are inbound and coming through our referral network, so those are sort of prequalified. We can do maybe 15 or 20 investments out of the 3,000 a year. So I like to say our day job is crushing entrepreneurs' hopes and dreams. Our main skill is saying no, and getting people to not hate us.

It's absolutely dizzying. But at the same time you have the privilege of seeing an amazing cross-section of innovation. As a consequence, it's very hard not to be very optimistic because you just see so many sharp, bright people, with so many great ideas and with so much enthusiasm and determination to make the world a better place. And to build big, important businesses.

Did you ever imagine it was going to be like this 20-plus years ago when you were writing code for what would become the first web browser?

No. I never heard the term "venture capital" until I got to California. I got a job and landed in Silicon Valley, and I found out about this venture capital thing. And I was dumbstruck. "You mean there are people who will give you money to invent new things and start a company? Really? Seriously? It's like wow! That's really cool!" And of course we got lucky. At Netscape we got funded by John Doerr, one of the legendary venture capitalists of all time, who is incredible to work with. And that's what first got me into the system.

Continue reading: _http://management.fortune.cnn.com/2013/11/21/marc-andreessen/

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