Rob Coneybeer
Tom Keighley

Member Article

Darwinism for devices with the Silicon Valley investor

Silicon Valley has almost become a metonym for the technology industry, not just in the States, but worldwide. Bdaily recently spoke to veteran Valley venture capitalist, Rob Coneybeer, about life on the technology frontier and how the UK shapes up.

It’s 8am California time and Rob answers his mobile while driving the commute into Shasta Ventures, the company he co-founded in 2004.

“On a daily basis I work with companies that we’ve already invested with to look at strategy, recruiting, and so on. They are the board and portfolio responsibilities,” says Rob.

“I also spend a fair amount of time getting to know new companies. The other significant chunk of my time is spent getting to know new areas, and the smartest people in those areas.”

Rob developed his career as an engineer, testing materials used in spacecraft for Baltimore firm, Martin Marietta. His technical background lead him to his particular brand of product-focussed, functionality-lead venture capitalism.

Shasta has made a number of investments in groundbreaking products such as Nest, an intelligent thermostat, and TaskRabbit, a community outsourcing platform for small household jobs.

His forte is “the internet of things,” the intersection between internet-based technology and life, and the extension of the internet beyond PCs and smartphones.

The firm’s interests are focussed on the sharing economy and processes of collaborative consumption. Hence, the investment in an idea like TaskRabbit, and the likes of RelayRides, another community platform for car-sharing.

So what type of entrepreneur excites Rob? He says: “Someone who has unique vision of market, really understands their customers, and is really good at recruiting the right team to make their idea work.

“It’s really about people who are passionate about making a product or service that people completely love - whether that’s consumers or enterprise customers.”

Rob is keen to extol the virtues of Nest, as an example. The self-programming thermostat sits in the home and “learns” from the householder’s behaviour.

“We’re entering this age that I think of as ‘Darwin for devices.’ In the past you would buy a device that would degrade over time. With this new breed of devices, because they’re connected to the interest, they actually get better with time and evolve,” adds Rob.

“They get to know you, and the algorithms get better. It’s a complete shift. Think about buying a PC a long time ago. You’d buy it and think it was great, and then some weeks down the line you’d begin to think it wasn’t so much.

“Products like Nest push out software updates over the internet. Between learning from the user and learning from all the other Nest devices out there, it gets better at no extra cost. We call it ‘machine competence.’”

Rob sees these advancements as competence of products, over mere consciousness. The self driving car will be in the next wave of examples, he suggests.

The factors holding these types of technologies back, Rob refers to as “choke points,” and that is where he focuses his energies.

When he’s not networking in the US, Rob is often travelling to other technology hubs in search of the right people and ideas.

The main difference in Silicon Valley and the rest of world, as Rob sees it, is the culture of entrepreneurship.

He says: “Entrepreneurship is everywhere, it’s an ecosystem. If you’re taking your kids to school, at the coffee shop, you will bump into someone who is involved in startup, or people involved in tech in larger companies.

“When I go to places like Shanghai, Berlin or London, I find those places have very strong business cultures but startups are just a much smaller proportion of it.

“There’s something about having a critical mass that makes it easier to build core teams and get businesses started. Other places have equally impressive ideas, but it’s difficult to build the depth so rapidly as it is in Silicon Valley.”

This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by Tom Keighley .

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