Last Night with Ben Horowitz

I had the pleasure of listening to Ben Horowitz of Andreessen Horowitz speak to a room full of people last night at FirstMarks’s Data-Driven event. His presence alone was palpable. When he entered the room, the only thing you could hear was people’s jaws dropping to the floor. It’s kind of lame to say, but I haven’t been that star struck since I met Mark Tatum, Deputy Commissioner of the NBA. Ben is a living legend and also sounded like a pretty regular guy all at the same time.

He went on stage to speak with Matt Turck right after the VP of Developer Relations for Google Cloud & former CTO of Cloudera, Amr Awadallah. Amr presented Anthos, a hybrid cloud offering from Google. Since Ben’s a busy guy, he wasn’t able to make Amr’s presentation. Without knowing what the other guests presented, he kind of dissed Hadoop right in front of Amr. Amr wasn’t too happy, but everyone in the audience thought it was kind of funny. Ben later apologized.

Anyway, what I found most entertaining was Ben’s conviction and relentless attitude toward creating an unbiased view of the world. He told story after story about how culture develops in companies, families, and friendships. He spoke about folks being blind to talent in favor of seeing ethnic and groupthink demographics instead. He talked about a16z’s search for a partner to lead the Cultural Leadership Fund.

Here’s a little bit about the CLF:

He told a story about an unnamed person who was leading the search for a new CLF Partner. For some reason, like many funds do, the unnamed a16z employee only looked at candidates with an investment banking background. The CLF was started as a means of connecting black leaders in pop culture with black technologists. Nowhere did Ben say there had to be a bullpen full of ivy league history majors turned IB. After hearing that this guy was only looking for people with an IB background, Ben asked, “since when did anyone like investment bankers, let alone black people with no ties to wall street?”  That’s not to say that there aren’t any cool IBers, or that there aren’t any black IBers, but the CLF didn’t need any DCFs. The CLF needed someone who fit in culturally, someone who could make relationships with some of America’s most influential folks.

After hearing Ben’s response, the guy running the search stumbled and tried to back up his criterion with the fact that IB churned out people who were detail-oriented, quant-minded, boar, boar, boar… In reality,  a16z didn’t need someone who could bang out a pitchbook, or someone who could do an LBO on paper. They needed someone in-tune with pop culture, and someone who could connect with the Kevin Durants, Will Smiths, Beyonce’s of the world. They needed a relationship-driven person who could connect with black leaders the way no IBer ever could. 

In fact, the guy they ended up hiring, Chris Lyons, was previously a music consultant and worked in the restaurant world. At one point, he even worked at the Cheesecake Factory. Cheesecake Factory employees have a quasi-NPS score calculated by total tips/total bill ratio. The higher your ratio, the better you were ranked against your peers. Chris had one of the highest scores in the national Cheesecake Factory franchise. Nobody really likes their waiter, but people loved Chris.

The point is, I imagined that Ben was going to speak about something like whether AI should be a product or as a feature. Instead, we got to listen to something much cooler. He spoke about meeting people halfway and understanding what talent looks like without a preconceived notion or bias in mind. You can’t fit a square peg in a round hole.

My biggest takeaway from the night is that as cliche as it sounds, your virtues are not what you say or think, but they’re what you do. VCs can say they respect entrepreneurs and want to be founder-friendly, but a16z values an entrepreneur’s time so much that they’ll fine their own investors $10 for every minute they’re late to a meeting.

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