Marc Andreessen is a man with his head in the clouds. This isn’t because he’s 6’4, but because he has endless predictions for the future, many of them seemingly farfetched, even frightening. But he is certainly a man worth listening to. There are only six people who have been inducted into the World Wide Web Hall of Fame, and Andreessen is among them. He is a co-author of Mosaic, the first widely used web browser, and co-founder of Netscape, the software company built around Mosaic. Today, he is a co-founder and general partner at Andreessen Horowitz (commonly known as a16z), an eminent venture capital firm in Silicon Valley. Andreessen jokes about his squeaky voice, but when he speaks, everyone in the tech world listens.
The powerful and influential Andreessen lives a fairly quiet life. He has non-tech interests in classical music, philosophy and history, and spends most nights watching television with his wife Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, a lecturer in philanthropy at Stanford University who cites her husband’s bald head as one of his best qualities. Andreessen and his wife hardly go out, rarely travel, and once his wife is asleep, Andreessen works through the night. He describes different stages of his life as operating system versions. He is no longer an imitation of his business partner and former mentor, Jim Clark (Marc 1.0), and past his phase as a refined executive (Marc 2.0). As Marc 3.0, “The goal is not to be elegant but to be blunt enough that there’s no confusion,” explains the venture capitalist, who became a father in March of 2015. What has been consistent, from his days as a misunderstood boy in the rural American Midwest, to his current status as an investor and millionaire, is his fascination with technology and its possibilities.
In an interview with Robert Scoble of Rackspace Studios, Andreessen was asked what gets him out of bed every morning:
“You never know when the next really breakthrough [sic] idea is going to walk through the door… The history of the big breakthrough companies that get built is that they do tend to raise venture capital at some point…they do, by the way, tend to get told “no” an awful lot…they get told “no” by virtually every possible investor, until someone finally says yes, so you literally never know. It’s hard to miss a day at work, because you never know if that’s the day the next Mark Zuckerberg or the next Bill Gates is going to walk through the door. And think about how badly you would kick yourself if you were sleeping that day. For me, that’s motivating.”
Andreessen has said that he and his fellow partners at a16z spend a lot of time saying “no”, but they’ve also said “yes” to a lot of successful startups like AirBnB, Pinterest, Buzzfeed and Slack. He uses a baseball analogy to describe the venture capital business: “It’s not a batting average business, it’s a slugging percentage business. It’s not about how often you’re right, it’s about, when you’re right, how right are you?”
When assessing the three key elements of a startup – team, product and market – Andreessen prioritizes the third as the key factor to a startup’s success. “The market pulls product out of a startup. The market needs to be fulfilled and the market will be fulfilled by the first viable product that comes along,” he explains. Sometimes, the market simply isn’t ready for a product, and Andreessen can relate to this notion personally. In 1999, he co-founded Loudcloud with Jim Clark, with whom he also founded Netscape. Loudcloud was the first company to offer cloud storage, but it wasn’t successful and did not last long; the market wasn’t ready. A good idea was defeated by bad timing. A decade later, cloud computing is ubiquitous.
For all the praise he receives, Andreessen has plenty of critics and challengers. When debating Peter Thiel, co-founder of Paypal and venture capitalist, Thiel challenged Andreessen’s optimism about innovation, suggesting that we have stagnated in recent decades, and most recent innovations – he uses the game Angry Birds as an example – have been trivial. Where Andreessen is happy to make predictions about the near future, Thiel says that since the 1970’s, we’ve been “on the cusp” on big breakthroughs that haven’t occurred yet, like curing cancer. Where Andreessen’s views Twitter as “instant global public messaging, for free” as a massive communications breakthrough, Thiel is skeptical of whether the social network is an important innovation that improves the economy and living standards. After predicting a positive future for the news business due to the increase of journalism entrepreneurship and growing number of people with smartphones, journalists and media professionals rebutted. Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies called his predictions “irrationally exuberant.” John Reinan, a reporter at MinnPost, said that were Andreessen paid to analyze the news business instead of the tech industry, “His bank account would be a lot smaller.”
Andreessen’s bold ideas are polarizing, but some people view him harshly on a more personal level. Bill Gurley, a partner at venture capital firm Benchmark – a firm that a16z aims to be the antithesis of – told Ben Horowitz, cofounder of a16z, to cut Andreessen out of his firm. Horowitz had also been asked by a Benchmark partner when a16z was going to get a “real C.E.O”. “If you’ve seen ‘Seinfeld,’ Bill Gurley is my Newman,” says Andreessen. Carl Icahn, a billionaire investor, is another enemy of Andreessen’s. When Andreessen was on the board of directors at Ebay, Icahn, an activist investor in the company – an investor who uses their stake in the company to influence decisions – accused Andreessen of having a conflict of interest, and wanted him removed from the board. Icahn wanted Ebay to spin off Paypal, which was previously owned by Ebay, and felt that Andreessen’s investments in Ebay’s competitors made him unsuitable to advise the board and likely to prioritize his own interests. The animosity between the two was public and somewhat petulant. Icahn mocked Andreessen’s voice, calling it so squeaky “that only a dog could understand [it],” and Andreessen compared Icahn to an “evil Captain Kirk”. In the end, Icahn won and Andreessen resigned, but the bald businessman left the incident in the past and did what he always does: predict the future.
In an essay for the Wall Street Journal called “Why Software is Eating the World”, Andreessen states:
“More and more major businesses and industries are being run on software and delivered as online services – from movies to agriculture to national defense. Many of the winners are Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurial technology companies that are invading and overturning established industry structures. Over the next 10 years, I expect many more industries to be disrupted by software, with new world-beating Silicon Valley companies doing the disruption in more cases than not.”
A16z’s slogan is also “Software is eating the world”, as the partners seek out the next hungry startup ready to make an impact. Today, books are software based, photography is software based, and various forms of entertainment have been eaten by software. The film on VHS became an option on Netflix; the vinyl disc became an MP3; and the game cartridge became a download on the App Store. All these changes have made products, services and experiences more accessible to the masses, but they come at a cost.
Job automation is a fear that many, especially those in the working class, have. The thought of robots replacing humans en masse and wiping out large sectors of the workforce is unsettling, but Andreessen believes that there is nothing to be afraid of. Quoting the famous economist Milton Freidman, he remarks that “human wants and needs are infinite; there is always more to do”. He argues that the world is full of jobs today that never existed decades ago, and that this pattern will continue. “As consumers, we virtually never resist technological change that provides us with better products/services, even when it costs jobs,” he writes, later claiming that halting technological change stalls quality of life improvements. People will find new jobs and automation will make products and services cheaper, thus improving the lives of everyone:
“Posit a world in which all material needs are provided for free, by robots and material synthesizers… Housing, energy, health care, food, transportation, [all] delivered to everyone for $0, by machines. Zero jobs in those fields remaining… Everyone enjoys a standard of living that kings and Popes could have only dreamed… all human time, labor, energy, ambition, and goals reorient to the intangibles: the big questions, the deep needs. Human nature expresses itself fully, for the first time in history. Without physical need constraints, we will be whoever we want to be.”
The only way we can reach such a world is through disruption theory, which is a concept Andreessen adopted from Clay Christensen, a decorated professor of business administration at Harvard University. Disruption theory is what frightens factory workers, because it disrupts an industry with technological innovation, reducing jobs. “Had the car not disrupted the horse, we would be spending a lot more time on horses,” says Andreessen, in an a16z podcast. Christensen says that “a disruptive innovation gives new consumers access to products historically only available to consumers with a lot of money.” In Andreessen’s ideal world, human necessities are taken care of, hierarchies are flattened, and economic inequalities are reduced. Disruption theory is meant to achieve the same goals as Fordism – a system where factory workers are paid enough to afford what they produce to encourage consumption – but by exactly opposite methods. Instead of raising the wages of workers so they can afford to consume products, disruption theory advocates relieving workers of their jobs to make products cheaper so all people can access them. Andreessen claims that disruption theory places the means of production in the hands of the masses, which makes his vision sound starkly socialist, but he clarifies that he is “talking about democratic capitalism to the nth degree. [I’m not] postulating the end of money or competition or status seeking or will to power, rather the full extrapolation of each of those.”
Andreessen believes three sectors are slow to embrace innovation. Healthcare is one of them, but he sees opportunities for improvement, like the application of Big Data to genomics research. The next sector is education, which has seen little change in decades, but online classes, MOOCs and even virtual reality could shake things up. The third sector is one that Andreessen can see changing more in the next three years than it has in the last twenty. This sector is financial services, and the potential overhaul is led by a recent phenomenon: Bitcoin.
Bitcoin is a payment system that allows for peer-to-peer transfers of the currency without needing an intermediary, like a bank. What really makes bitcoin unique is the blockchain, a distributed database that holds, encrypts and completes transactions of bitcoin. While the blockchain is full of security benefits, its application to a currency can be problematic. Risks include the loss of a bitcoin “wallet” if a hard drive crashes or if a virus corrupts the data and the inability to reverse transactions. In addition, constant market fluctuation and a cap on the number of bitcoins - which could cause deflation - show that the cryptocurrency is far from flawless. For all the potential Andreessen sees in the product, he acknowledges that the market may not be ready. “Bitcoin is a classic venture capital endeavor: It will either work or it won’t. And if it doesn’t work, we will lose all our money. But if it does work, it will work in a spectacular way.”
Some may feel that Andreessen is too cornucopian, too optimistic and too enamoured with technology to realize the supposed flaws in his thinking, but he relies on historical patterns to justify his views. He gives his line of reasoning in an interview with WIRED magazine:
“When the vast majority of the workforce was in agriculture, it was impossible to imagine what all those people would do if they didn’t have agricultural jobs. Then a hundred years later the vast majority of the workforce was in industrial jobs, and we were similarly blind: It was impossible to imagine what workers would do without those jobs. Now the majority are in information jobs. If the computers get smart enough, then what? I’ll tell you: The then what is whatever we invent next.”