I touched down in San Francisco, where the dry air welcomed me, providing a pleasant contrast to the humidity of Japan. I gazed up at California’s blue skies as I waited for a taxi, and the feeling hit me that I had really arrived in Silicon Valley.
The taxi took me to my hotel in Palo Alto, along a relatively empty Route 101. We got off the highway and on Embarcadero Road, turned right at the entrance of Stanford University, and proceeded up another Spanish street, El Camino Real. The hotel was just past the crossing at Sand Hill Road, the mecca of venture capital.
I had come all this way for just one reason: to learn about the latest trends in high-tech U.S. ventures. I wouldn’t be meeting investors or giving speeches at business schools, nor would I be visiting companies in which we have invested. I was exclusively here to learn.
People travel every year from Silicon Valley to learn about the latest venture trends in Japan at the New Industry Leaders Summit. I was now going in the opposite position. A capitalist colleague of mine once saw Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos participating at this conference. Apparently, he’d sat right in the front row and was very eager to learn. Hearing this reminded me of the importance of learning with a sense of humility.
I checked in at the hotel, changed, and went straight for a swim. This was the day after the Japan Masters, so I was still a bit weary. I would take it easy today and save my energy for learning, starting tomorrow.
The next morning, I got up and walked over to the conference site at Stanford University’s Alumni Center. Strolling around the grounds with a map made me really feel the enormity of this place. It also made me think about the future shape of GLOBIS University.
I registered and picked up my conference packet. Just as you would expect from California, the bag it was in was shaped like a rucksack rather than a shoulder bagーit even contained beach sandals. Glancing out the window, I saw participants casually enjoying breakfast on the lawn. I hurried outside to the garden, picked up a croissant and Appletiser and sat down at a table, where I bumped into the fellow who had organized my speech here two years ago. Since completing his MBA at Stanford, he has been working in venture capital in Silicon Valley. We soon started exchanging information.
Volunteer staff ushered us into the venue. There was a presentation fully utilizing video and music, and then the main organizer of the conference, Mr. Tony Perkins, appeared on stage. Perkins is what you might call a charismatic editor. He founded Red Herring magazine and in 1999 authored a book entitled, The Internet Bubble. Since selling off Red Herring, he has been presiding over an online information portal, AlwaysOn (AO). AO organized this year’s conference.
The first session then kicked off. First was a remote teleconference moderated by Perkins involving Niklas Zennström, the CEO and founder of IP telephone software company Skype Technologies, and venture capitalist Tim Draper. The images of the two panelists were projected onto a large screen that stretched from left to right. Skype’s board meeting was being held in Estonia at exactly the same time, so the two men were virtually together for this session by connecting the venue and Estonia via Skype.
An online chat session was projected on the right side of the screen, and the session was broadcast as a real-time webcast. Industry experts were able to simultaneously exchange views as the session took place and could also ask questions over the net. Moderators and the audience could see all this taking place and join in themselves.
Chairs had been provided for about 300 people. One row at the front and three at the back had been equipped with desks for bloggers who had been invited as journalists and were transmitting news online as it happened.
The session with the Skype CEO started. Some 160 million people have already downloaded Skype, which has more than 40 million members. There were two phrases that the Skype CEO used a lot: “create an ecosystem” and “please your customers.”
“Creating an ecosystem” is also prominent in the English version of the GLOBIS vision. We intend to create ecosystems with Skype at the center linking portals, blogs, social-networking sites, and hardware companies.
When it came to “pleasing your customers,” the Skype representatives explained how the service is basically free, and they are not intending to load it with ads. Instead, they want to simply keep their customers happy. If they are successful at this, more people will sign on and pay for peripheral services.
Tim Draper was on fire. Spurred on by his exuberant spirit, he has really come into his own, more so than John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. At the end of the session, Draper put on a CD that he produced himself, introduced his daughter in a Skype T-shirt, and sang and danced around the middle of the screen. Everyone onsite was a little overwhelmed by this exuberant display, and no one seemed particularly amused. Of course, participants watching over Skype Video had no sense of this mood.
The second session asked the question, “Are Tech IPOs Dead?” Every year, AO releases its “AO100” list of the top 100 technology companies. The year before last, 15 of the companies listed had successful IPOs, but for some reason, only 4 did last year. The ensuing discussion examined why there were so few IPOs this time around. The panelists provided some explanations:
- Due to the newly enacted Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the cost of IPOs and the risk of litigation were too high.
- Investment trust funds have gotten bigger, and their bottom lines are as high as 50 billion yen, so IPOs are no longer an easy option for small companies.
- From the perspective of venture capitalists, given the time and effort for an IPO, trade sales produce cash in a much shorter period of time and, therefore, are much more attractive.
- Specialist IPO boutique investment banks like H&Q Asia Pacific, Alex Brown, Robertson Stephens have merged with major banks.
- Many technology companies are now well into their mature stage.
Sessions continued all day long. When it was all over, I caught a ride with a friend back to the hotel and went swimming. As I was doing the backstroke, I looked up and caught a glimpse through my goggles of the blue California sky. Something resembling a bird came into view. I stopped, removed my goggles, and saw a plane flying high above.