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In Conversation: Marc Andreessen

The investor-provocateur could not be more bullish on Silicon Valley—and bullishness.


It’s not hard to coax an opinion out of Marc Andreessen. The tall, bald, spring-loaded venture capitalist, who invented the first mainstream internet browser, co-founded Netscape, then made a fortune as an early investor in Twitter and Facebook, has since become Silicon Valley’s resident philosopher-king. He’s ubiquitous on Twitter, where his machine-gun fusillade of bold, wide-ranging proclamations has attracted an army of acolytes (and gotten him in some very big fights). At a controversial moment for the tech industry, Andreessen is the sector’s biggest cheerleader and a forceful advocate for his peculiar brand of futurism.

I love this moment where you’re meeting Mark Zuckerberg for the first time and he says to you something like, “What was Netscape?”1Mouse over or tap underlined text to read footnotes.

He didn’t know.

He was in middle school when you started Netscape. What’s it like to work in an industry where the turnover is so rapid that ten years can create a whole new collective memory?

I think it’s fantastic. For example, I think there’s sort of two Silicon Valleys right now. There’s the Silicon Valley of the people who were here during the 2000 crash, and there’s the Silicon Valley of the people who weren’t, and the psychology is actually totally different. Those of us who were here in 2000 have, like, scar tissue, because shit went wrong and it sucked.

You came to Silicon Valley in 1994. What was it like?

It was dead. Dead in the water. There had been this PC boom in the ’80s, and it was gigantic—that was Apple and Intel and Microsoft up in Seattle. And then the American economic recession hit—in ’88, ’89—and that was on the heels of the rapid ten-year rise of Japan. Silicon Valley had had this sort of brief shining moment, but Japan was going to take over everything. And that’s when the American economy went straight into a ditch. You’d pick up the newspaper, and it was just endless misery and woe. Technology in the U.S. is dead; economic growth in the U.S. is dead. All of the American kids were Gen-X slackers2—no ambition, never going to do anything.

What did you do?

I just went to college. I did my thing. I came out here in ’94, and Silicon Valley was in hibernation. In high school, I actually thought I was going to have to learn Japanese to work in technology. My big feeling was I just missed it, I missed the whole thing. It had happened in the ’80s, and I got here too late. But then, I’m maybe the most optimistic person I know. I mean, I’m incredibly optimistic. I’m optimistic arguably to a fault, especially in terms of new ideas. My presumptive tendency, when I’m presented with a new idea, is not to ask, “Is it going to work?” It’s, “Well, what if it does work?”

That stance is something I work very hard to maintain, because it’s very easy to slip into the other mode. I remember when eBay came along,3 and I thought, No fucking way. A fucking flea market? How much crap is there in people’s garages? And who would want all that crap? But that was not the relevant question. The eBay guys and the people who invested early, they said, “Let’s forget whether it’ll work or not. What if it does work?” If it does work, then you’ve got a global trading platform for the first time in the world, you’ve got liquidity for products of all kinds, you’re going to have true price discovery.

But clearly you don’t think everything’s going to work.

No. But there are people who are wired to be skeptics and there are people who are wired to be optimists. And I can tell you, at least from the last 20 years, if you bet on the side of the optimists, generally you’re right.

On the other hand, if there’d been a few more skeptics in 1999, people might have kept their retirement money. Isn’t there a role for skepticism in the tech industry?

I don’t know what it buys you. Let me put it this way. If you could point to periods of time in the last hundred years when everything just stabilized and didn’t change, then maybe yes. But that never seems to actually happen. The skeptics are wrong all the time.

These days, Silicon Valley is this cultural institution in a way that Wall Street might have been in the ’80s.

That has its pros and cons. But one of the things you’ll hear from entrepreneurs is it’s better—not necessarily easier—to build companies when there’s a recession because there’s less froth,4 it’s easier to hire people, there are fewer competitors. Entrepreneurs say in an economic boom it’s actually hard to build a company because everybody’s too excited and there is too much money funding too many marginal companies.

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