During the Q&A following a talk with the a16z investor and Netscape inventor Marc Andreessen at Stanford Graduate School of Business (54 minute-long video recording here, very worth watching), a student sitting in the audience asked the Silicon Valley mastermind about his advice for people who have big ideas that might be very capital intensive. The questioner managed to score some laughter after quoting Elon Musk who – according to him – answered the same question a few years ago with the recommendation to “become an internet billionaire first”.
That’s witty. But it is also the truth. Musk used money he had earned from various deals in the online industry (including his biggest exit PayPal, which was acquired for $1.5 billion and made him a 9-digit sum in USD) to fund the initial stages of both his electrical car company Tesla and his rocket company SpaceX – to the point at which he literally ran out of cash. Without the dotcom companies that the South Africa-born serial entrepreneur did launch and sell before he took on the really big problems, Tesla and SpaceX might not exist.
A few days ago, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos announced that he’ll sell about $1 billion of Amazon stock a year and use it to invest in his very own spaceflight company Blue Origin. While Bezos today is much wealthier than Musk was during the early 2000s and won’t likely risk personal bankruptcy for Blue Origin, the playbook sounds familiar: Becoming rich thanks to the internet and then using that money to fund extraordinary expensive and risky, but also potentially ground-breaking endeavors.
With this in mind, the old wisdom that the internet is changing the world actually gets a secondary meaning: Aside from the direct effects of global connectivity, the rise of the internet enabled a few individuals with bold visions to quickly accumulate the necessary means and credibility to turn their capital-intensive ideas into reality, offering them a good shot at changing the course of history once more.
Seen through this lens, the internet is no goal in itself but a necessary requirement on a path towards a much bigger goal. That rings true in any case considering the various problems the world is facing. But it still adds a fascinating additional layer to the technological evolution that we are witnessing. Presumably this is what technology wants: to free humanity from the limitations of planet Earth. And it won’t give up until that has been accomplished.
Now, let’s see what Mark Zuckerberg does next.
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