Silicon Valley's Hottest Innovation

"What I really love is an idea that could take down a big icon"

Legendary venture capitalist Tim Draper of Draper Fisher Jurvetson on creating superheroes

Photographs by Dawid Bilski

Batman, the caped crusader, was Timothy Draper’s superhero in his early years. Draper felt Batman was fearless, determined and a total man of action — no barrier too high, no challenge too great. Besides, the Batcave and the Batmobile only added to his cool quotient. Later in life, on his 21st birthday to be precise, Draper discovered Spiderman and loved his sense of humour. Of late, this third-generation venture capitalist feels the world is running out of superheroes. So the 54-year-old decided to create some of his own at the Draper University. The charismatic Valley veteran tells us about how he hopes to create entrepreneurial heroes and some of the common mistakes entrepreneurs make. If he were a superhero, what powers would he like to possess? Draper’s reply: power to get all things done and still have time for his family and friends. Superheroes are only human, after all.

Why did you start Draper University?

I think the world needs more heroes because we are in an environment that stifles people from doing something extraordinary. There is too much security, too much safety and not enough freedom. I was worried about that. I figured out that if we can manage to produce 45-50 new heroes every quarter, that might just be enough to turn the tide. The idea is to build more entrepreneurial businesses, bring revolutionary changes in a bad government and create more leaders who are willing to try new things and who can actually make a positive impact on the world.

So, how do you create your heroes?

That has been our ongoing challenge. They come here as ordinary people. Actually, a little bit more than rdinary because we are an exclusive school. Whatis it that heroes do? They are willing to take long odds to create extraordinary outcomes. At Draper University, we first try to get the entrepreneurs to start thinking about extraordinary outcomes. We don’t teach them history. We help them envisage the future. Then we have the business section — it is dynamic because we have 50 different speakers. They all have different perspectives. One section might be focused on bitcoins, another might be focused on 3D printing, another section on viral marketing or social media, and some other on various aspects of finance. So there is a greater variety available.

All of our speakers are really trying to point towards what they think might be the next big thing. Some of them are old stories about how these chaps built something. Then, we do a lot of simulation and also have a team structure. The team idea really works because there have been people who have come to me and said, “If it were just for me, I wouldn’t have done any of this stuff. But I didn’t want to let down my team. So I did.” We need to realise that in real life, too, we have to work in teams.

Then we have something called survival training, which is both urban and rural. The urban survival involves activities such as cold calling, getting a job offer within four hours and going to conferences and getting as many business cards as you can. In rural survival training, we send them out in the wilderness. I have a ranch where they go and practise something that’s a mix of military and civilian survival. It is a hard challenge.

At the end of the programme, they have to do a twoman presentation to venture capitalists. We teach them whatever we can.Hopefully, after some six to eight weeks they will have some tools they can use 10 years or 20 years from now.

Have the previous three batches fulfilled these requirements? Have they lived up to what they learned each year?

Many of them have started the businesses that they came up with here. Many have gone back to school. They have improved their grades. The other things they do, it is a little like they were seeing in black and white and now they are seeing in colour. So, they are seeing the world in a different light, from the point of view of a hero. They go through life thinking, “What is that heroic act that I need to do in order for this thing to happen? Where do I have to go to get to that thing?”

How was the curriculum designed? What was the thought that went into it?

It is still evolving. Every experience is going to be different from the previous one and that is the real goal. We don’t want to get the system tied down but want each batch to try out something different. The world changes pretty fast. If you were excited about your car phone, the next day you have an iPhone with all these applications in it and then one day soon you will have Google Glass or some other experience. So, what is important for the entrepreneurs to learn is not what is happening now but what will happen next year or sometime in the near future. This quarter, for instance, has been strong on 3D printing. The curriculum is aimed at making them see things and try them out. The good thing about being an international school is that everyone learns from each other.In fact, I think they learn more from each other than they do from our curriculum.

Timothy DraperWe also have an online model that is currently being tested. We have taken all the concepts from the university and put it online. So, for instance, if we get a whole bunch of people in Chennai, we can actually simulate this whole experience on a Saturday or weekend where everybody can go to the local Starbucks or other hangout and we can get them to train as a team. It is interesting because I think the online experience will have a bigger impact. So, maybe, we will get more heroes out of this exercise than we had originally planned.

How do you teach your entrepreneurs to cope with failure?

They are not only taught to deal with failure but everyday, they recite the Superhero Oath, where they promise, “I will fail, and fail again till I succeed.” That is the only way you can get over the fear of failure. We want to see you fail, but do something. Throw yourself into the pool and you will learn to swim. Most entrepreneurs are limited by the fact that they are afraid to fail.

You have funded so many entrepreneurs over the years. How is entrepreneurship evolving?

It is getting to be more of a science and less of an art. I think that is great because they are getting the system down. That is one of my goals, trying to systematise the whole thing. I am trying to be a part of that big change. There are many things going on such as crowd funding, angel investors, incubators etc. I think there are some interesting opportunities to figure out a real smooth way to get an idea to a business. You can get rid of all the details and focus on customers and the products and not on whether you meet all the governmental rules and regulations. What I want is that the process from idea to implementation becomes smooth.

What are some of the common mistakes that entrepreneurs make?

Thinking that raising money is tied to whether they get something done. They shouldn’t think, “If I do this I will get more money.” Money is like a swinging pendulum. Sometimes it is there and sometimes it is not. If it is there, take the money. If you have taken the money, don’t spend it all at once because money keeps the business alive. You want the business to stay alive much longer than you think. When you start a business, you think, “It is enough if the money will keep me alive for a year. Then the product will be launched and everything will be great.” It turns out that it doesn’t quite happen that fast. The product comes a little later than you think. Customers are not so happy with it and you have to try and fix it up. So, you need to be prepared for all that.

What kind of businesses do you seek to invest in?

The business has to be unique. It doesn’t have to be global but, in general, it is better if it is since world markets are growing in importance. I want to go after fundamental human problems or opportunities. What I really love is when they come up with an idea that could take down a big icon. And so the big icon gets his monopoly broken.

For instance, people used to think of the post office as something that will always be there and will always be government run. Then, all of a sudden, a Hotmail comes along and it eliminates the need for all those aircraft and paper. I always thought the phone service would never change. You dial a number and it has all those plugs and that was the way phones would be forever. Then, Skype comes along and dialling becomes free and you can dial anybody in the world. Tesla Motors did the same thing to the car. You drive a Tesla and you never want to go back. It’s over. The big car companies don’t understand this yet, but it is over. Well, some of them do because they are starting to build electric cars.

Timothy Draper’s superheroI think that competition is good for us. In a competitive environment a chair maker could build a chair better and cheaper than his peers. But in a monopoly if there is only one chair maker in town, he could charge you whatever he wants. So then, the question to ask is: why are all of our government monopolies? Perhaps you can start creating competitive governments in India. You could say, “This government is not working. Let’s go and pay taxes to another government and see if they can do a better job.” Then they would all have to compete. People think that no matter what, things are always going to be this way. But they are not. And what is great is that we are all communicating. So if there is a good idea it is going to spread.

In the case of entrepreneurs, we like people who are early and saying things before anybody ever knows and say things that nine out of 10 people will say is crazy or doesn’t really make sense. So, they should be willing to be called crazy. There should be a certain level of openness because the world is changing and we need to adapt. In other words, they should be willing to be on the edge.

Which company in your current portfolio has got you excited?

We don’t have any stalwarts. There is this company founded by a Stanford graduate and she is going to reinvent healthcare. In the normal course, there are risks of misplacing samples and in some cases you get results back that you are not 100% sure of. The company in our portfolio has created a novel method that involves just a pin prick and two drops of your blood. The blood then goes into this machine, which is the size of an iPhone, and with the help of a reader you get the results in two-three hours. Any other test would have taken five days, now it will just take three hours. That is what I am most excited about. In the case of Boost [incubator] there is this company that trades in bitcoins through instant messaging. Then there is another company that is making a promising 3D printer-scanner. So, there are some great companies that have come out of the incubator.

Are there any companies that you missed out on and feel you should have invested in?

Google. We had funded six search engines before Google came along. I got outbid for Facebook. There was a war and I lost the bid because I thought it was too expensive. In the more recent ones I don’t know whether I missed on Square, but I really like what they are doing.

Which areas do you see as most promising?

I like bitcoins and think they are great. It opens up a whole new opportunity. It is really interesting that you have a competitive currency to your government.

I like 3D drawing and printing. There should also be a private Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) that it is something people can trust. Somebody could make a fortune on an approval for a new drug. They could do the work that the FDA says it does. They can do it without filling forms that will fill up an entire room. Perhaps it could be more personalised too. We are not making much progress in this sector, at least in the US because of government constraints.

When a proposal comes to you, what do you look for? Is it the idea or the person behind it?

When I am looking at a business model, I am just looking to see if it is innovative and bold. That is it. And when I meet people, they have got to be enthusiastic.

How does a wannabe investor get the attention of a venture capitalist?

We evaluate a list of proposals and decide whom to meet and whom to avoid. That is our system. There are other ways to meet venture capitalists as well. You can bump into them on a street or at an airport. When I get to the airport, I usually get two business proposals right from when I check in to the security gate. But I don’t think hunting venture capitalists down is a good thing — I haven’t invested in any of those proposals. If an entrepreneur is good enough, VCs will find you. As an entrepreneur you have to get out there. Make sure that you are applying to an incubator that really works. Then the venture capitalist knows where to find you.

We have got an incubator [Boost] across the University where we move some of our extraordinary students and entrepreneurs. It is great for international entrepreneurs who want to move in here. We have different entrepreneurs coming through in three-six month shifts. So, this becomes a real centre for entrepreneurial activity. People come into the school and get a decent grade, and those who want to run a business have to go across the street [to the incubator]. It all works out pretty well.

What will drive entrepreneurship in India?

Let people start businesses in India and get the government out of their hair. The government has no business being in business. If you get a better bankruptcy law for companies, that would be great. People were all excited about investing in India some 10 years ago. Now no one even wants to touch it. That is because your government is a mess. Transparency, honesty, rule of law and a good bankruptcy law. That is all you need. You just need to get investors back. There is a reason they left; we have invested a lot in India and so I know why they left. If you get more transparency, more rule of law and more trust in the system, I think you are going to get more cards to get investors. India could do well. With the advent of social media and digital cameras, it is going to be harder for corruption to exist.