A Conversation with Fred Wilson


Fred Wilson
Managing Partner, Union Square Ventures


David Kirkpatrick
Founder and CEO, Techonomy

An interview between David Kirkpatrick and Fred Wilson, Managing Partner at Union Square Ventures. Below is an excerpt from their conversation. You can download the full transcript here.

Kirkpatrick: Let me quickly introduce Fred. Fred is the most eminent venture capitalist in New York and I was thinking about Fred’s work and his role in the industry. In a way, you’re the most successful VC of the second generation of the Internet. You funded Twitter and Tumbler, and a bunch of others, Etsy, MeetUp, and Kickstarter—so many great companies. It’s really interesting because you’re often sort of grouped in with, from a slightly earlier generation, John Doerr and—what’s his name, from Benchmark. Well, Gurley of course is a little closer to your generation.

Wilson: He’s younger than me, actually.

Kirkpatrick: You’ve served on boards with him, I think, haven’t you? But anyway, the fact is that you’re one of the only ones – maybe Gurley would fall in this category too, and that’s why we had him talking about it in November actually, who has never really participated in the founding of one of the giant colossi that is now sort of looming over society with such sort of overbearingness. So maybe we should start with—since I already mentioned it. That did come an awful lot yesterday. We even had somebody from Facebook here and from my perspective as a tech journalist, the role of Facebook, Google, Amazon in particular; but also Apple and Microsoft is increasingly the environmental question that doesn’t affect just the industry and its opportunities but society as a whole. I’d be curious to hear your perspective on how you think about those companies in our lives and in our societies.

Wilson: I think that what happened to Microsoft back in the late ’90s will happen to them, I just don’t know when.

Kirkpatrick: Do you mean tending towards at least short-term irrelevance?

Wilson: No, they are optimizing around an attention-driven business model. Somebody will create a new business model that is not attention-driven the way that the attention-driven business model disrupted the enterprise software business model and they won’t be able to react to it quickly enough and they will get disrupted.

Kirkpatrick: Do you mean like a social network that you have to pay for or something like that?

Wilson: No, I think probably the most disruptive business model is the token model that we’re seeing emerge in the blockchain, which is really a native business model for the open source, creative commons type of—you think of something like Wikipedia or something like Linux. We’re talking about systems that are decentralized, open and community-powered. We never had a business model that could power those things so they’ve been free. Linux is free, Wikipedia is free. They run a little campaign once a year like NPR and we give them all a bunch of money, but it’s not really a business model.

The idea of a token is that we all use those tokens to participate in those systems and the people who create the value in the systems get rewarded with the tokens. People who participate in the systems spend the tokens and the tokens increase in value in the way that a stock price would increase in value as the impacts of the system grow and it’s a very native, elegant business model for these community powered systems. I think that it’s very disruptive to the attention based business model, and I think that there are going to be very, very large companies that will be built from the ground up based on those business models.

Kirkpatrick: They wouldn’t be “social networks” most likely, right?

Wilson: I don’t know what they’ll be, they could be—

Kirkpatrick: But why is it so disruptive to the attention based business model? I could see those things succeeding, but why would that disrupt Facebook’s ability to monetize attention with advertising on a global scale?

Wilson: Because people walked out of Facebook because they realized that what they’re doing is they’re basically giving Facebook all their data so Facebook can run advertising against them. A lot of people are already opting out of Facebook.

Kirkpatrick: He’s always been a lot more negative about Facebook than me, by the way.

Wilson: We had a gathering of the CEOs of all of our portfolio companies. We do it once a year. We had it last week. At the beginning of the day we go around a room just like this and people talk about the thing that has changed the most for them personally as they run their companies in the past year. The thing that came out, surprisingly, was that people are not using social media anymore. The CEOs of these companies are not using social media anymore other than to promote themselves and their companies. They’ve unfollowed everybody and they’re just using it as a broadcast mechanism. They’re not consuming anymore.

I think a lot of us feel that way. I mean, the minute that Trump got elected, I muted that word on Twitter. I don’t follow Trump, I don’t listen to anything about him. I have opted out of that.


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