What Nikola Tesla vs. VCs video says about the state of Silicon Valley

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Nikola Tesla. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Last night I tweeted a link to this video, about the legendary scientist Nikola Tesla pitching Silicon Valley venture capitalists, and commented that the truth is sometimes funnier that comedy. And I was surprised by the sheer number of people who agreed with that sentiment. I went to sleep thinking about that reaction, and also thinking about it in the context of the decline of long-term thinking in our society.

If Tesla (I assume you know who he is) did indeed walk into a VC meeting, he wouldn’t get the attention or the money for his idea because it wouldn’t fit the time-scale of what venture-capital investments have become. Having followed the business of technology for a long time, I have seen that time-scale get shorter and shorter. I guess it’s the price to be paid for the excesses of the internet bubble of the 1990s.

The Bubble After Effects

During that time the business changed from funding innovation to funding concepts and eventually to projects. The fallout of the internet bubble was that venture-capital firms shifted focus. This shifting time-frame is one of the main reasons we are seeing fewer and fewer investments in hardcore technologies and more of the dollars being shifted to the softer aspects of technology.

Yes, bloggers like me like to harp on the fact that many investors are infected by short-termism. But let’s not forget that some of these folks have taken big risks, and sometimes have failed big, too.

Cleantech has ruined many reputations and resulted in billion dollar loses. Yes, there are a couple rare big bet successes that will come out of cleantech, like Tesla Motors and Nest, but the overall trend has been losses.

Now many of the investors that aggressively backed cleantech are trying to find a more cautious approach to cleantech that more closely aligns with the traditional short VC time frame. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Beyers, which lead the charge on cleantech investments only to be left wounded, has recently changed tack in many ways, and in particular to go after social so it can get back into the quick returns on its investments.

That’s the trend that all investors, in some respects are, moving toward. They’re all looking for the next Facebook or the next Twitter, but no one wants to look for the next Juniper or the next Intel or even the next ARM. I am not saying Facebook and Twitter are not great companies and have not scaled dramatically and impacted the world. What I am pointing to is the fact that Silicon Valley funds fewer and fewer silicon companies.

Why are we assuming that we are all done with developing new kinds of chips for uses that we are not even imagining yet? Are we done inventing the routing technologies of the future?

It’s hard to invest in the future

Think of it this way: Had Vinod Khosla not backed Pradeep Sindhu to work on Juniper, we would all be living in Cisco’s vision of the internet future and using its hardware, which it would have made and sold at its own pace and at its own prices. Today, if you need to build a big company like that, you need to have deep pockets. Luckily Andy Bechtolsteim has those and that is why Arista Networks exists and is proving to be a major disrupter.

The point is not to just rant, but to note that there is a lot more innovation to be done. All of today’s stars — from Dropbox to SnapChat to every little hot company that pops up — is built on those basic building blocks, and we have to continue to make better, cheaper and beefier building blocks.

Yes, I understand that there is a chill around chip stocks, and Wall Street investors are showing more interest in pokes than petabyte speeds. I don’t necessarily think that this kind of rational thinking is bad for the investors, but when it comes to fundamental innovation, it points to a a real challenge ahead. And forget what Wall Street thinks, isn’t venture capital really risk capital? Risk, unfortunately, is a four-letter word around these parts these days.

Failure is an option

Elon Musk in front of the frunk

Elon Musk in front of the frunk

Forget chip startups, does anyone think that the Sand Hill Road firmament could have funded Amazon Web Services, a disruptive economic force, if they had a chance? Probably not. How about the iPhone? The same story. If you look at those two examples, and add Google’s self-driving car, Google Glass and what companies like Tesla are doing, you understand that patience is a virtue. Unfortunately, patience is in short supply in the Valley these days.

I wrote this on the first anniversary of Steve Jobs’ death, and I want to resurface it:

A dear friend put it best when he said that Jobs allowed himself the freedom to dream big and most of us need to learn from him and supersize our dreams. While that is true of everyone, the Silicon Valley of 2012 needs to pay heed. Silicon Valley of quick flips, petty jealousies and rampant short-termism needs to remind itself of a greater purpose than a public offering. Change is more than a headline. It takes patience. It is more profound. And it is thinking about more than just us.

Maybe this video is a reminder to all of us that while we might be living in great times, the future is still to be invented.

More about the video: The video is in support of a Kickstarter campaign that hopes to collect enough money to build a statue of Nikola Tesla. While to many Tesla might be a car, in reality Tesla was a scientist who worked on difficult things. As an aside, we at GigaOM are fortunate that our New York offices are in the Radio Wave Building, the very building where Nikola Tesla lived.

Updated on May 29 at 12 noon: A new Nikola Tesla in Silicon Valley video has emerged. Here it is for your pleasure.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DFk-mBghdTI

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