I was reading this article on how married co-founders are getting acceptance — and investment — and it’s not a bad thing. And it provoked a memory.
When I worked with the University of California at Berkeley Physics Department, my alma mater, to enhance their fundraising efforts, I developed and field tested with them an instant video production system for alumni. The idea was to not just ask for money, but to ask for experiences, like what was their favorite experiment in 111 Laboratory. These experiences in video were then emailed to a server array which instantly provided correction (sound, video, format, etc) and encased the video into a custom designed template with music and background reflecting the Cal Physics environment. The completed video was then emailed to the Director for approval. All she had to do was say yes, no, or maybe something else. If she liked it, it was automatically posted to a website dedicated to Berkeley Physics. It was cool. I even wrote a paper on the results for the ACM.
At the same time, the Haas Business School launched a business plan competition for Berkeley students, faculty and alumni. So I decided to enter it. This wasn’t my first BBQ, so to speak — I had gotten funding for InterProphet some years earlier, and that was a harder sell given how VCs gave up on hardware investments in the early 2000s and moved to Internet companies. But this *was* an Internet company — a fully developed video production system and mechanism where no one had to learn editing software to make a production-quality video.
Yes, folks said I was ahead of my time. Yes, investors quibbled over why was I doing this with software and not, say, with Chinese or Indian workers manually handling production — they had a massive obsession with using folks instead of using automation then. They questioned whether video would ever become popular on the Internet given latency issues (I was an expert on this BTW, since InterProphet was all about low-latency). This was before YouTube, so it was hard for old-style VCs to get their heads around video on the web.
But the most insulting response I received was not from VCs or angels, but from the Haas Business School at Berkeley. For a university known for progressive insight, the worst response to my business plan was not about TAM or competitive advantage or technology or experience — it was about how the anonymous reviewer would “NEVER” invest in a husband-wife company, as they had been burned once before. It was bigoted. It was unfair. It was vile. And he killed any prospects of working with Berkeley.
Needless to say, this was also offensive to the Berkeley physics Department as well. I was one of their alumni and they worked with me. It was a validated concept. But that Haas Business School reviewer poisoned the waters in the larger investment community, and the company I had labored to move from Zero to One was dead in the water. Silicon Valley is a small community — or at least was small back in 2004.
I’m pleased to see the times they are a-changin’. I hope my struggles paved the way for a new generation of young people to be considered for investment based on their ideas, creativity, perseverance, and character — instead of their gender or race or friendships or “comfort level” (a catch-all for “I don’t like you because your different”). Meritocracy is a lie when it demands you look exactly like the person who backs you. And the last thing we need right now is more lies.