Marc Andreessen on Why Optimism Is Always the Safest Bet
In conversation with the Netscape creator turned Silicon Valley sage.
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?”1Valuation at the end of the first trading day after the IPO in August 1995: $2.2 billion.Mouse 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 slackers2Reality Bites, starring Ethan Hawke and Winona Ryder, and Kevin Smith’s Clerks came out in 1994, the year Andreessen arrived in Silicon Valley.—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,3149 million active buyers and 700 million live listings. 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,4The term became popular after Alan Greenspan used it circa May 2005 to describe the possibility of local bubbles as opposed to one big national bubble: “At a minimum, there’s a little froth in the market.” 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.
There are a few big companies in the tech industry today: Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple. Which of today’s start-ups do you think is going to join them?
All of ours.
You’ve got your hands in so many pies as an investor.
And you have to love all your children equally.
One of the things that you seem to really enjoy, at least on Twitter, is digging up old pessimistic predictions of people like Paul Krugman, saying that the internet’s going to be the next fax machine or something.
This is part of what you experience in the tech industry. And it’s so weird, but it actually goes to the heart of American culture. You’ve read de Tocqueville,5“I cannot help fearing that men may reach a point where they look on every new theory as a danger, every innovation as a toilsome trouble, every social advance as a first step toward revolution, and that they may absolutely refuse to move at all.” right? There’s a paradox at the heart of American culture: In theory, we like change, and then when change actually materializes and presents itself, it gets vast amounts of blowback. We like change in the general case, but we don’t like it in the specific case. With every single thing that anybody here has ever done, there’s always been people saying, “That sucks. That’ll never work. That’s stupid.”
The media has certainly been more skeptical about tech than you are.
There’s more of a cultural criticism that’s kind of developing. I obviously disagree with a lot of it, but I do think it’s a very valid set of topics: Is technology eating all the jobs? And income inequality, and there’s this whole debate on disruption.
I noticed you didn’t much like Jill Lepore’s essay on disruption6“Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. It’s not more than that. It doesn’t explain change. It’s not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity. It makes a very poor prophet.” in The New Yorker.
That was a little bit less of an analysis, a little bit more of a primal scream. But the argument that drives me the most crazy was more common three years ago—that innovation was dead. “The Great Stagnation.”7A book by Tyler Cowen: “Life is better when we have more stuff, but the pace has slowed down compared to what people saw two or three generations ago.” There’s this economist in Chicago, Robert Gordon, who says, “All this new stuff sucks. How could you possibly compare this to the Industrial Revolution? There will be no more economic growth.” Frankly, I’d rather have the criticism that technology is having too big of an effect on the world than that technology is just irrelevant.
In terms of cultural critique, it seems we’re in a moment of peak Silicon Valley—with the eponymous HBO show8Mike Judge has a Silicon Valley insider, Jonathan Dotan, on crew to make sure the show is authentically “start-up.” especially.
I thought that show was incredible.
But it was mocking people like you.
It’s amazing. Accurate satire—we’ve never had anything like that here. I know every single person in that show.
The venture capitalists don’t come off well.
Those people actually exist. That guy, I know.
Who is it?
I’m not going to say. But I know him really well, and I love talking to him. And he’s exactly like that. 9Based on the fictional VC’s advice to skip college and other traits, it’s probably Peter Thiel.
The critique of Silicon Valley is also that it isn’t very diverse. At Twitter, for instance, 90 percent of the tech employees are male and more than 50 percent of them are white.
I think these discussions are totally valid. Now, I disagree with many of the specific points.
What’s your take?
Shall we? Let’s launch right into it. I think the critique that Silicon Valley companies are deliberately, systematically discriminatory is incorrect, and there are two reasons to believe that that’s the case. No. 1, these companies are like the United Nations internally. All the diversity studies say that the engineering population is like 70 percent white and Asian. Let’s dig into that for a second. First, apparently Asian doesn’t count as diverse. And then “white”: When you actually go in these companies, what you find is it’s American people, but it’s also Russians, and Eastern Europeans, and French, and German, and British. And then there are the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Thais, Indonesians, and Vietnamese. All these different countries, all these different cultures. To believe in a systematic pattern of discrimination, you’d have to believe that we’re discriminatory toward certain people without being discriminatory at all toward an extremely broad range of ethnicities and religions. Because of Pakistanis, we’re seeing a higher-than-ever proportion of Muslim employees in a lot of our companies.
No. 2, our companies are desperate for talent. Desperate. Our companies are dying for talent. They’re like lying on the beach gasping because they can’t get enough talented people in for these jobs. The motivation to go find talent wherever it is is unbelievably high.
So what explains the numbers?
There are two fundamental problems that are resulting in what a lot of people believe is discrimination, and these are the problems that I think need to be solved. One is inequality of education. If you come up through a path that’s sort of a stereotypical upper-middle-class American path and you go to Stanford and you get a really great technical education and your professors really care about you, then you come to Silicon Valley and you’ve got the skills and you’re golden.
But, of course, most people in the world—including most people outside the U.S. but also people in the U.S., like where I grew up in rural Wisconsin, or people in the inner city—never have access to that kind of education.
You believe in the meritocratic ideal of Silicon Valley.
Yes. But I believe the ideal is compromised by two things right now: One is educational skills development, and the other is access. This is the critique that I think is actually the most interesting, which is, yeah, the meritocracy works if you know the right people, if you have access to the networks. How do venture capitalists make investment decisions? Well, we get referrals based on people we already know. Well, what if you’re somebody who doesn’t already know anybody, right? What if you don’t know the recruiter at Facebook so you can’t get the job? What if you don’t know the venture capitalist so you can’t raise funding? We think access is broadening out the network so that everybody who could contribute can get access to the network. And that’s the one that we’re working on.
We’re talking now primarily about ethnic diversity. But gender diversity too …
Yeah, same thing.
Yeah, same thing.
So there was no need for Sheryl Sandberg to write that book?
Oh, I thought Sheryl’s book was incredible. I thought it was great.
But it was all about systematic bias.
I will not second-guess Sheryl on anything that she has said. We cite the book all the time. Whenever anybody’s sitting up against the wall we’re, “Lean in, sit at the table.”
It’s become a catchphrase. But I think that the catchphrase is sticking because people recognize it to be true that women in tech have a harder time getting in the door.
Look, I’m a huge fan of Sheryl. She’s completely capable of speaking for herself. But I think the big message of the book is people can take control of their own destiny to a greater extent than they believe. The big part of the book that got her a lot of flak was, “You can do things to inject yourself more into the situation. You can literally come sit at the table.”
And this is my point on desperation. There aren’t enough Stanford graduates to go around. How many science undergrads does Stanford produce a year? Five hundred? Six hundred? And then we go up to Berkeley and it’s like another 2,000. It’s not enough. And you see efforts all over the place. This big thing Google’s doing now, for coding in schools, is aimed at this: Code.org.10The project, co-founded by brothers Ali and Hadi Partovi, enjoys the support of Microsoft and Omidyar Network alongside Google.
You could probably bring in the whole online-education movement. But for me, the question is, who does the best with online schooling? And it’s mostly autodidacts, people who are self-starters. They’ve found that people from low-income communities actually get the least out of it.
It’s way too early to judge, because we’re at the very beginning of the development of the technology. It’s like critiquing dos 1.0 and saying that this will never turn into the Windows PC. We’re still in the prototype experimental phase. We can’t use the old approach to teach the world. We can’t build that many campuses. We don’t have the space. We don’t have money. We don’t have the professors. If you can go to Harvard, go to Harvard. But that’s not the question. The question is for the 14-year-old in Indonesia staring at a life of either, like, subsistence farming or being able to get a Stanford-quality education and being able to go into a profession.
The one other thing that people are really underestimating is the impact of entertainment-industry economics applied to education. Right now, with MOOCS,11Massive open online courses. About one-third of enrollees in the first year of MOOCs offered by Harvard and MIT were from North America. the production values are pretty low: You’ll film the professor in the classroom. But let’s just project forward. In ten years, what if we had Math 101 online, and what if it was well regarded and you got fully accredited and certified? What if we knew that we were going to have a million students per semester? And what if we knew that they were going to be paying $100 per student, right? What if we knew that we’d have $100 million of revenue from that course per semester? What production budget would we be willing to field in order to have that course?
You could hire James Cameron to do it.
You could literally hire James Cameron to make Math 101. Or how about, let’s study the wars of the Roman Empire by actually having a VR [virtual reality] experience walking around the battlefield, and then like flying above the battlefield. And actually the whole course is looking and saying, “Here’s all the maneuvering that took place.” Or how about re-creating original Shakespeare plays in the Globe Theatre?
Let’s talk about politics for a second. Politicians like Rand Paul12Former Oracle CEO Larry Ellison recently hosted a Republican fund-raiser at his Silicon Valley home featuring Rand Paul. are seizing on young people’s embrace of companies like Uber and Lyft and Airbnb that are disrupting heavily regulated industries and saying, “You know, if you’re frustrated about Uber, let me tell you about these other regulations that are terrible.” Are these companies breeding a new generation of libertarians?
I guess I would say the following: If you have been in an Uber car and gotten pulled over and had the car seized out from under the driver when you were like in the middle of a trip that you were otherwise having a good time on, you might be a little bit radicalized. You might all of a sudden think, Wait a minute, what just happened, and why did it happen? And then you might discover what the taxi companies did over the last 50 years to wire up city governments and all the corruption that’s taken place. And you might say, “Wait a minute.” There’s this myth that government regulation is well intentioned and benign, and implemented properly. That’s the myth. And then when people actually run into this in the real world, they’re, “Oh, fuck, I didn’t realize.”
One of my favorite things of all time is George McGovern, who ran for president in ’72 as a hyperliberal. Of course Nixon kicked his ass. And in 1992 he wrote a column for The Wall Street Journal13McGovern sunk most of his savings into the inn, which eventually went out of business, owing in part, he claimed, to “federal, state, and local rules that were all passed with the objective of helping employees, protecting the environment, raising tax dollars for schools, protecting our customers from fire hazards, etc.” which told the story of his life after he left politics, when he bought an inn in Connecticut. And he said, “Oh my God, I didn’t realize.” And the “Oh my God, I didn’t realize” was: I did not realize what a layered impact 50 or 100 years of regulations and laws applied on small-business owners actually meant.
My mom is renting out my childhood room on Airbnb.
There you go. She’s one of the lawless libertarians.
One of the things that I hear a lot from people in Silicon Valley, especially engineers who deal with the concept of friction, is that democracy itself is pretty bad from a friction standpoint.
I hear that a lot in the Valley, and I don’t like it. I completely disagree with it. The specific version of it that you hear a lot is, “China has it all figured out.” If China wants to build a dam and they need to move a million people, they just tell a million people to move, and then they build the dam, and they make progress. And isn’t that better than the American system? We could never build a dam because we’d never get the people to move.
It’s the “China for a day” thing. If you could just be an autocracy for one day, fix all the problems, and then go back to democracy.
This is a long-running view that business has held. And the reason is, if you’re a businessperson, especially a CEO, you actually run a dictatorship. But businesses and governments are different, in my belief. They actually have very little to do with each other. And so I’m actually completely on the other side of that argument. When it comes to government, I am pro-gridlock.
I think the American system is incredibly well developed. I think the founding fathers were geniuses. I think the founding fathers had lived under effective government, and it was called King George, and they did not like it. I mean, they knew what an autocratic government was like. And so they implemented a representative democracy, with the representation layer as a buffer against autocratic change and against mob rule. The other thing I don’t like is direct democracy. This proposition system we have in California is craziness, just lunacy. The last thing you want to do is put the mob in charge.
So if you’re designing a country from scratch, a government from scratch, to ensure rapid change and maximum gains—
I think basically the same as the U.S. is set up now. I would set up a system designed for gridlock. Three branches, two parties, representation, Electoral College, all good. Love it, fantastic, let’s do that again.
You see no problems with the American political system?
There are two biases that I would probably try to figure out how to tweak. One is there’s a bias toward more spending as opposed to less spending because the way politicians cut deals is they fund each other’s projects. And then on the regulatory stuff, the bias in government is just to keep creating laws and regulations.
So you need a spring cleaning once a year.
Somebody made an argument of, basically, for every new law, we should take out an old one. And at first you think that sounds crazy. But how many laws and regulations are there already? And the answer is, like, 100,000, 500,000, a million?
You see those things all the time where it’s “Men in Mississippi aren’t allowed to eat pickles on Tuesdays” or whatever.
And the modern version of that are these big omnibus bills, the Patriot Act and Dodd-Frank14The Wall Street reform bill was 828 pages as passed, but since then, regulators have written more than 14,000 pages as the act has been implemented. and Sarbanes-Oxley, that are these 1,500- or 2,000-page bills, or Obamacare, where they talk to senators and congressmen afterward: “Yeah, I didn’t even read it.” Right, and it’s this elaborate scaffolding of all this stuff. And then years later it’s like we see with Obamacare right now, courts are, like, “What the fuck? How do we even implement this?” So that’s the modern version of “You can’t eat pickles on Tuesday.”
Are there any politicians on the field today who you think share your vision or who come closest to approximating the way that you view the future?
George McGovern. I’m a McGovern libertarian. In the ’90s, the centrist Democrats were pretty close. In the ’90s, Clinton and Gore and, back when he was a Democrat, Joe Lieberman were pretty close. On the right, I mean, there’s a part of conservatives that I don’t like at all, and then there’s a part of conservatives that really understands free-market economics. The American Enterprise Institute, I think, does a lot of good work. Rand Paul—half of what he says, you’re like, “Oh my God, he’s a genius.” And then the other half, you’re just horrified.
The problem is that the people who are the most advanced about the future and getting rid of regulatory barriers are also the people who want to cut the social safety net.
I think you don’t want massive change on these issues. You do not want a massive dismantling of the social safety net. But you also do not want a massive buildup of the social safety net. I call this the Daily Show problem. I love the Daily Show, and I think Jon Stewart is hysterical. But literally the answer to every single problem is “Congress should pass a new law.” It’s this unbelievably optimistic view of, “We can pass a law and then everybody will get along.”
Can we talk a little about robots, one of your favorite subjects?
You’ve said that there will be two types of people in the future: people who are told what to do by computers and people who tell computers what to do.
I have repudiated my former self.
People have worried for decades that automation is going to wreck the economy.
Nobody wants to talk about the old. The old farming jobs were fucking terrible jobs. I mean, farmers wake up at six in the morning and work 14-hour days. Industrial jobs—people would get killed in these factories all the time. Coal miners—people are trying to protect coal-mining jobs. They’re terrible, terrible jobs. The new jobs are better. They’re just better. This is what’s happening throughout China. Now it’s happening in Indonesia and Vietnam. Every time Foxconn15In January, Foxconn was reportedly in talks with several states about building a plant in the United States. opens up a plant, there are literally hundreds of thousands of people who apply for those jobs. In developing countries, everybody’s dying to get into modern factory jobs because the alternative is far worse. What actually ends up happening is through progress, the jobs get better.
But say they invent a machine that cleans hotel rooms. We can turn over hotel rooms more efficiently, hotels can cut their costs. But there are all these maids who are now out of work. Your argument is that they can go retrain themselves to be participants in a different part of the economy?
So this goes back to the libertarian thing—I believe in a safety net. I believe at the individual level, these changes are real and they matter. I grew up in rural Wisconsin in the 1970s. I grew up in farming country. I grew up in industrial country. We lived this. So I believe at the individual level in the safety net.
From an economic standpoint, what you just said is the lump-of-labor fallacy, because maids are not the only jobs at hotels. If you go to a modern hotel in a major city, it turns out the maids are not the whole workforce. It’s all the people who work in the spa, and all the people who work at the health club, and all the people who work at the gourmet restaurant, and all the people who arrange the local tours. It’s all of these new jobs. If you went to a hotel a hundred years ago, none of those jobs existed. That’s the cycle of development that happens. You also climb the ladder of economic growth, which is what produces all the tax revenue that then comes back and pays for the safety net.
See, that’s where I fall off the wagon. The assumption embedded in that is that this money is automatically going to flow into the safety net, that the growth will be captured and will come back in the form of a safety net. That’s a deliberate policy choice that
a lot of people don’t want to make.
I’m not one of those people. We have a very advanced welfare state today.
Let’s take the hotel argument from the other side. Let’s suppose that we’d be better off if the jobs didn’t change. We have this new magic machine that cleans hotel rooms, but we’re not going to use it because we want to keep the maids in business. Well, in the old days there used to be a job at the hotel called the guy who lights the coal fire. Should we get rid of heating systems and bring back the guy who starts the coal fire? Before refrigeration, there was an entire field of people who cut and delivered ice. Should we go back to storing food on ice that’s cut and delivered by hand? If you believe that machines are an enemy, then you should want to go back and unwind, right? If you follow that logic, you would unwind all the way back to where it all started, which was subsistence farming. We’d be better off if we were making our own clothes.
We’d be better off if we were hunter-gatherers.
You say we have an advanced welfare state today, but we also still have millions of people in poverty.
But this is the big story of our time—the elimination of poverty. We have people rising out of poverty at a global level and in the U.S. at unprecedented rates. In 50 years, we’ve gone from hunger being the dominant problem among lower-income people to obesity being the dominant problem. We have people coming out of poverty all over the world at astonishing rates. Bill Gates16“By 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world.” has been talking about this a lot, and he’s exactly right. This is the progress of our time, bringing people up out of poverty.
And yet we have more internal inequality in San Francisco than we do in Rwanda.17This is based on a Gini coefficient, developed by the Italian statistician Corrado Gini to measure income distribution.
So then move to Rwanda and see how that works out for you. I think you just answered your own question.
So you’re not a big believer in Piketty-style arguments18In a nutshell: Capitalist economies tend toward extreme inequality because wealth grows faster than economic output. Governments can implement radical policy—for example, a global tax on wealth—to counter this tendency. about inequality within countries being a problem?
I don’t want to live in a world of lords and serfs any more than anybody else. I just don’t think that’s how the economy’s working. What’s actually happening is we have a reasonably well-functioning capitalist system and then we have a very vigorous safety net. We have very high tax rates. We generate enormous amounts of tax revenue, and we have a very big safety net. There are 15 national nutrition-assistance programs in the U.S. right now. Not one. Fifteen.
And how do you feel about a universal basic income?19Universal basic income is the idea that a citizen or resident of a country receives from the government or some other body a sum of money that is at least enough to survive on.
It is a very interesting idea. There are even libertarians who believe in UBI. They say basically the problem of welfare is you have this massive state apparatus, and you have all this bureaucracy that determines where it goes, and you have all these paternalistic tests by the government to decide what you should be able to, like, eat and what you can buy with food stamps and all this stuff. Forget having that giant government machine. “Just give people the money and let them figure it out on their own” is actually a libertarian argument. Then there is an argument on the other side which is, if you just give people money and they don’t have to work, what percentage of them do you think are actually still going to work? And that depends on your point of view.
Well, let’s talk about the nature of work. Keynes said that when everything is automated, we will essentially have no material needs and no need for work. All our food will be delivered or synthetically printed or something—
We’re working on that. But it’s not that there’s no longer the need for work. Keynes was writing in the ’20s and ’30s, when it was a serious issue whether you were going to have enough food or whether you were going to have heat in your house. But he fell for the same lump-of-labor fallacy these guys keep falling for, which is the assumption that there is a set of needs that, once you’ve reached them, are done. We’ve got food and clothing and housing, and that’s it, and that’s all we’ll want. We won’t want the spa, we won’t want the psychologist, we won’t want the video game, we won’t want the space tourism, we won’t want artificial organs, we won’t want corneal implants for blind people, we won’t want the hundred thousand new things we’ve discovered.
This is the Milton Friedman side of it, which is what I believe. Friedman thought Keynes was wrong20A very brief economic explainer: Central Bank? KEYNES: Yes. FRIEDMAN: No. Government intervention in economic affairs? KEYNES: Yes. FRIEDMAN: No. Free markets? KEYNES: What’s free? FRIEDMAN: Yes, please! on this for the same reason I do, which is: Human wants and needs are endless. We’re never satisfied. Go back to Keynes and tell him that every middle-class parent in the U.S. is going to want their kid to take violin lessons.
I think you’re right in the sense that the acceleration of applied technology has made consumers better off. But for producers, things have gotten tough. I think about this all the time with a company like Amazon. I love Amazon as a customer. I get all kinds of things very cheaply delivered to my door. But as a producer of books that are sold on Amazon, the power that it has scares me. With Spotify, too, we as consumers have more choice than we’ve ever had, but the producers are feeling a squeeze. Part of what worries me about your vision of the future is that it’s treating people as if they’re only consumers and not producers.
No, no, no, no, no. It’s treating people as consumers and producers. The same technology makes people better producers. Are you a better producer today than you would have been without all these new technologies?
Yes, but am I compensated properly if I’m a musician whose song gets a million hits and he gets a check for $6?
That’s when we get down into the sticky situation, which is, is our work actually worth what we think it is?
And what’s the answer?
The answer is, it depends. You look at most of the successful authors now, and they’re doing paid speaking. For musicians, the live-touring business grew four times in the last 15 years. So as digital music has taken reproduction down, as the reproduced version has become abundant, the live experience has become scarce. So touring revenues are way up.
But that’s just the superstar model.
No, even for touring bands, even for regular bands. Look at half the heavy-metal bands21Def Leppard and Kiss toured 42 cities this summer. from, like, the 1980s that in the old days could sell 300,000 albums, they’re touring all over the world and the money’s pouring in. And even the bands that fall completely on hard times, they now go and play at people’s birthday parties, or they play launch events for tech companies. People don’t want to listen to Hootie and the Blowfish anymore, but it turns out it’s pretty cool to have them at a birthday party. And they get paid $25,000.
So the future is superstars doing bar mitzvahs.
That’s a fricking big part. But here’s the thing. You get your speaking engagement to show up and tell everybody how horrible this stuff all is.
Yes, at the National Association of Blacksmiths.
The other thing you could say is that recorded music was an oligopolistic cartel. The only reason why musicians were getting paid what they were getting paid in the 1990s off CDs was because the record labels were price-fixing. CDs didn’t cost $16 because that was the floating market price. They cost $16 because the five record labels got together and fixed prices. And who ate it on that? Consumers. And why did consumers react so positively to digital music when it first came along? Because it broke the cartel. Book publishers are the same thing. Amazon broke that wide open. So would you rather live in that world or would you rather live in this world?
As a consumer, I’d rather live in this world. As a producer, I’m not so sure.
I think you’re going to do just fine. You might have to go on the road a little bit.
You’ve described the middle class of the 20th century as a myth.
There are two middle classes. There’s the historical middle class—which is the bourgeoisie—starting in the, like, 1600s. This was the businesspeople and the traders, the merchants, the butcher, the baker, the general-store manager, the guy who was going off to China to go get silk and bring it back. Businesspeople.
But in the 1940s something really significant happened, which is we bombed the rest of the industrialized world. And so the industrial base of Germany was obliterated. Japan was reduced to rubble. The rest of Continental Europe was bombed. England was bombed. The industrial base of the world was bombed. The one major industrial country that wasn’t bombed was the United States. So the United States became the monopoly producer of industrial goods.
The army bombed the American middle class into existence?
It was an accident of history. We had a window of opportunity which we took full advantage of. We had this window from basically 1945 to 1966, 1968, in which we were basically running unopposed. In that window, all kinds of wonderful things happened. One of the things that happened was the rise of this new idea of the middle class, which there was no historical precedent for, which was college-level wages for high-school-level education. As long as there’s no competition, it’s all well and good. The minute the Japanese show up, the minute the Germans show up, it just all falls apart.
Last night, you tweeted something to the effect of, “The problem with being a billionaire is that no one ever tells you when your dumb ideas are dumb.” Was that autobiographical? I mean, is this something you worry about?
I’m not a billionaire! That’s why I found it so entertaining. Everybody immediately thought I was talking about myself.
But you are in a circle where if I worked for you, I’d be scared to tell you that your dumb idea was dumb.
The problem that I was tweeting about is the billionaires don’t understand that it’s happening to them. They’re the last to know. Because they don’t feel like anything’s changed. They just feel like, I’m who I was before, I’m going around, I’m doing my thing. And it’s very rare that they actually stop and think, Everybody’s nicer to me than they were ten years ago. By the way, this is not limited to billionaires. This applies to presidents, senators, congressmen, mayors, anybody who gets in a position of power.
So how do you, Marc Andreessen, make sure that you are hearing honest feedback?
Every morning, I wake up and several dozen people have explained to me in detail how I’m an idiot on Twitter, which is actually fairly helpful.
Do they ever convince you?
They definitely keep me on my toes, and we’ll see if they’re able to convince me. I mean, part of it is, I love arguing.
The big thing about Twitter for me is it’s just more people to argue with.
Judging by your tweeting patterns, you seem to sleep about three hours a night.
I would say it’s intermittent.
Do you have a bed in your office where you can retreat to during the day?
This is the first time in my life I’ve had an office with a door, and the reason for that was that this was the first time in my life I’ve had a couch in my office. So, I did have a very nice afternoon nap yesterday, as a matter of fact.
What does a venture capitalist do all day? I’m sure you sit in dozens of pitch meetings a week, but what would I learn if I followed you around for 24 hours?
In a sense, we only really make about 15 decisions a year22Some recent decisions: $20 million to Teespring, a custom-apparel company, in January. $90 million to Tanium, an enterprise-security utility, in June. $50 million to BuzzFeed in August. at the firm.
That’s a nice life.
Yeah. Our output at the end of the day is investment return. We’re a fiduciary for investors. They trust us with a lot of money on behalf of other people. The purpose of the firm is to make investments and then return profit from those investments. And we make about 15 primary investments a year. So, those are the big decisions. At the end of the day, what are we most responsible for? It’s making those 15 decisions and the consequences of those decisions. A lot of my time is working with founders and CEOs of the companies in the portfolio. I’m basically permanently on call to all of them.
Switching to leisure time: You’ve talked about love of TV. I know you like Deadwood.23Canceled HBO show by David Milch about prospecting in the Dakotas in the 1870s. Is that still your all-time favorite?
Yeah. All-time favorite so far.
In a sense, it could not be more perfect for a venture capitalist because it’s all about a gold rush and building a society. Do you think you were meant to be a Wild West gold prospector?
Oh, I’m sure I would have been. Deadwood happens to take place in the Dakotas, but obviously California was ground zero as well. So yeah, I have no doubt … My entire life I’ve always been completely fascinated by the concept of the frontier.
Where I see the frontier spirit now is in a lot of the stuff about life extension. I think it annoys a lot of technologists that we haven’t conquered death.
One of the fascinating things on that is, if you just survey Americans and you ask people would they like to live longer, it’s actually surprising how many people say no. It’s, like, something like 70 or 80 percent of people say that they wouldn’t.
Do you sympathize with them?
I think there are two very big downsides that we would have to be very careful about. One is there is a phenomenon—as people get older, they get more resistant to new ideas. Not individually, and there are many exceptions, but collectively, like from a societal standpoint, you can see it happening. Then the other interesting question is inequality. If you give people another 20 or 50 years to compound wealth, the concentration of wealth by age is going to become really remarkable.
I hate the word legacy, but when you’re thinking about your life in aggregate and the things that people are going to know you for, what do you want that to be? Is it Netscape? I mean, Netscape is clearly going to be in the first paragraph of the hypothetical obituary.
You’re supposed to ask the question without using that word.
Do you think your greatest contribution is yet to come?
Oh, God, I don’t even know how to answer that question.
I assume you’re not going to buy a newspaper like Jeff Bezos?24Bought the Washington Post for $250 million. You told the New York Times to stop printing.
They haven’t done that yet. But they may make it, they may make it. Things are looking a lot better. They now say their online business seems to be working better. And actually, the strategy memo25The Times’ “Innovation Report” leaked to the press in May. I thought was very good.
The one by Arthur Gregg Sulzberger26Son of Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. and heir apparent to the Gray Lady.
I mean, they always should have made it, and it seems like they’re going to make it. Obviously The Wall Street Journal will make it. The Financial Times will make it. And I think the strengths of those properties are just outweighing the issues.
Are you going to get the Apple watch?
Invariably, yes. I’m not a good litmus test. My answer is always yes. I have every smartwatch. I buy them all.
One of the themes that I picked up in reading about you is that you don’t have necessarily the warmest bedside manner. I think you said at one point, “I don’t like people.”
I like people in the abstract.
On the individual level?
On the individual level I don’t know. The jury’s out.
*This article appears in the October 20, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.