Lessons From Silicon Valley VC Legend Don Valentine

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With all the fuss surrounding the recent “AngelGate” meetings and the tension between angels and super-angels and traditional venture funds, it’s instructive to listen to one of the legends of the Silicon Valley VC business — Sequoia Capital founder Don Valentine — talk about the approach and the thinking that led to his investments in companies like Apple, Cisco, Google, Yahoo and Zappos. In the video embedded below, he talks to a group of students at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business about what matters and what doesn’t.

Valentine says that many people assume that Sequoia has been so successful because the fund backs “the best and brightest, the greatest managers and all that stuff [but] we do not.” The only thing that really matters, he says, is the market.

“We have always focused on the market — the size of the market, the dynamics of the market, the nature of the competition — because our objective always was to build big companies. If you don’t attack a big market, it’s highly unlikely you’re ever going to build a big company.”

As a result, the Sequoia founder says that the fund isn’t really interested in where an entrepreneur went to school, or whether they have any actual business credentials — all Sequoia is interested in is the size of the potential market they are trying to attack, and the potential value of the problem that they are trying to solve.

“We don’t spend a lot of time wondering about where people went to school, how smart they are and all the rest of that. We’re interested in their idea about the market they’re after, the magnitude of the problem they’re solving, and what can happen if the combination of Sequoia and the individuals are correct.”

In some cases — as with Apple — an idea about the potential market can lead to multiple investments in all of the various players in that ecosystem, Valentine says. Apple “had in mind the idea of you all having your own computer,” he tells the graduate class at Stanford, and the implications of that involved the need for memory makers and disk-drive companies and manufacturers of all of the other parts that were needed for personal computers. So Sequoia wound up investing in more than 15 companies in the PC category, including game-maker Electronic Arts, which was created in the Sequoia office.

The Sequoia founder also says that he had an advantage over some other VCs because he “could see the future,” meaning he understood the transformation that personal computers and microprocessors were going to unleash because he worked at Fairchild Semiconductor and co-founded National Semiconductor. For Valentine’s thoughts on Steve Jobs’ marketing abilities, the failure of Sony and Xerox (which he calls “one of my favorite tragedies”), the importance of storytelling and the launch of Cisco, please see the full video embedded here or at YouTube.

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