Mediocre V.C.s want to see that your company has traction. The top V.C.s want you to show them you can invent the future.

On a bright October morning, Suhail Doshi drove to Silicon Valley in his parents’ Honda Civic, carrying a laptop with a twelve-slide presentation that was surely worth at least fifty million dollars. Doshi, the twenty-six-year-old C.E.O. of a data-analytics startup called Mixpanel, had come from San Francisco to Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park, where many of the world’s most prestigious venture-capital firms cluster, to pitch Andreessen Horowitz, the road’s newest and most unusual firm. Inside the offices, he stood at the head of a massive beechwood conference table to address the firm’s deal team and its seven general partners—the men who venture the money, take a seat on the board, and fire the entrepreneur if things go wrong.

Marc Andreessen, the firm’s co-founder, fixed his gaze on Doshi as he disinfected his germless hands with a sanitizing wipe. Andreessen is forty-three years old and six feet five inches tall, with a cranium so large, bald, and oblong that you can’t help but think of words like “jumbo” and “Grade A.” Two decades ago, he was the animating spirit of Netscape, the Web browser that launched the Internet boom. In many respects, he is the quintessential Silicon Valley venture capitalist: an imposing, fortyish, long-celebrated white man. (Forbess Midas List of the top hundred V.C.s includes just five women.) But, whereas most V.C.s maintain a casual-Friday vibe, Andreessen seethes with beliefs. He’s an evangelist for the church of technology, afire to reorder life as we know it. He believes that tech products will soon erase such primitive behaviors as paying cash (Bitcoin), eating cooked food (Soylent), and enduring a world unimproved by virtual reality (Oculus VR). He believes that Silicon Valley is mission control for mankind, which is therefore on a steep trajectory toward perfection. And when he so argues, fire-hosing you with syllogisms and data points and pre-refuting every potential rebuttal, he’s very persuasive.

Doshi, lean and quizzical in a maroon T-shirt and jeans, began his pitch by declaring, “Most of the world will make decisions by either guessing or using their gut. They will be either lucky or wrong.” Far better to apply Mixpanel’s analytics, which enable mobile-based companies to know exactly who their customers are and how they use their apps. Doshi rapidly escalated to rhetoric—“We want to do data science for every single market in the world”—that would sound bumptious anywhere but on Sand Hill Road, where the young guy in jeans is obligated to astound the middle-aged guys in cashmere V-necks. “Mediocre V.C.s want to see that your company has traction,” Doshi told me. “The top V.C.s want you to show them you can invent the future.”

If you have a crackerjack idea, one of your stops on Sand Hill Road will be Andreessen Horowitz, often referred to by its alphanumeric URL, a16z. (There are sixteen letters between the “a” in Andreessen and the “z” in Horowitz.) Since the firm was launched, six years ago, it has vaulted into the top echelon of venture concerns. Competing V.C.s, disturbed by its speed and its power and the lavish prices it paid for deals, gave it another nickname: AHo. Each year, three thousand startups approach a16z with a “warm intro” from someone the firm knows. A16z invests in fifteen. Of those, at least ten will fold, three or four will prosper, and one might soar to be worth more than a billion dollars—a “unicorn,” in the local parlance. With great luck, once a decade that unicorn will become a Google or a Facebook and return the V.C.’s money a thousand times over: the storied 1,000x. There are eight hundred and three V.C. firms in the U.S., and last year they spent forty-eight billion dollars chasing that dream.

Doshi had run the gantlet before. In 2012, he tracked down Andreessen and his equally if less splendidly bald co-founder, Ben Horowitz, at a Ritz-Carlton near Tucson. Then he pitched them in the lobby (having made sure that his parents’ Honda, which contained his father, was well out of sight). Doshi mentioned that he’d become so dissatisfied with the incumbent database software that he’d built his own. Andreessen later told me that this “was like a cub reporter saying, ‘I need to write the Great American Novel before I can really file this story.’ ” A16z gave Doshi ten million dollars, and he gave it twenty-five per cent of his company.

Now he was back for more. He zipped through his slides: hundred-per-cent growth rate; head count doubling every six to nine months; and he still had all the money he’d raised last time. As Andreessen drank an iced tea in two gulps and began to roam the room, Doshi called up a slide that showed his competitors—Localytics, Amplitude, Google Analytics—grouped into quadrants. Then he explained how he’d crush each quadrant. “I want to buy a machine-learning team, I want to buy cutting-edge server hardware,” he said. Indicating his all-but-obliterated competitors, he added, “I want to buy stuff no one here can afford.” He jammed his hands in his pockets: questions?

While entrepreneurs attack with historiography—“The great-man view of history is correct, and I am that great man!”—V.C.s defend with doubletalk. “You’re definitely going to get funded!” means “But not by us.” “Who else is in?” means “Besides not us.” And “I’m not sure I would ever use your product myself” means “So long!” But the best V.C.s test the entrepreneur’s mettle as well as their own assumptions. Andreessen gripped the back of his chair. “So one way to describe what you’re doing is a network effect,” he said. “More data gives you more customers, which allows you to build more services, which gives you more data, which allows you to get more customers, and you just turn the crank.” Doshi thought this over and said, “Sure!” Andreessen grinned: he’s a systems thinker, and he’d grasped how Mixpanel fit into the system. After the pitch, he told me that Mixpanel is “a picks-and-shovels business right in the middle of the gold rush.”


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