"DFJ invests in visionaries who create the future" is the way the venerable Silicon Valley venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson describes what it does, a phrase that nicely sums up conventional venture capital.
At the Minneapolis firm Loup Ventures, formally launched this week by former securities analyst Gene Munster and two partners, the founders have basically turned that idea on its head. Instead of looking for visionaries to back, savvy entrepreneurs should come looking for them, as they are the ones with the confident vision of the future. They are so confident that they are publishing a 27-page manifesto with the title "The Future Perfect: Rediscovering Utopia."
Maybe it goes without saying that venture capital firms don't usually publish manifestos, but doing something different from the competition is a time-honored business strategy. Doing something different in venture capital while predicting a coming utopia, on the other hand, is a fascinating idea that's maybe never been tried.
It only makes sense that Munster and two of his old colleagues from Piper Jaffray Companies, Doug Clinton and Andrew Murphy, want to keep publishing the kind of research that established their reputations. Munster once described their work as "real research," asking questions and observing people closely to figure out precisely what users actually wanted from their technology products.
There are four interrelated technological concepts they are hoping to see rapidly develop, including artificial intelligence and virtual reality, but it's really just the one big idea — that computing power will migrate from the desktop and the smartphone to become so ubiquitous that it shapes almost everything in our lives.
Munster has shown he's well worth listening to. His celebrity as a stock analyst can be traced to once predicting, now more than a dozen years ago, that a niche-oriented computer company named Apple would richly reward investors as it turned innovations like a new online music store into a very big business. At the time he said it, that seemed to be a bit of a stretch, too.
News of Munster jumping into venture capital leaked last month. Munster gently pushed off questions until he and Clinton could wrap up their work at Piper Jaffray, which is based in Minneapolis. Murphy, the third Loup co-founder, had worked in research at Piper, too, although most recently he's been doing marketing at St. Paul-based Ecolab.
The opportunity to think about trends that maybe take years to develop was part of the appeal of venture capital, Munster explained when we sat down. As an analyst following the stocks of publicly held technology companies, so many of his conversations with investors had to be about what was happening in the short term, maybe no farther out than the end of the current quarter.
It also occurred to the partners that exciting innovations were increasingly getting done by smaller, privately held companies. Investors and others would be keenly interested in hearing from them about what these companies were up to.
Munster in 21 years of history at Piper did a lot more than write research notes about Apple, popping up in the business media just in the past few months explaining his optimistic views on the likes of Google's parent, Alphabet, and Amazon.com.
It's the research work, asking questions of leaders of companies like Alphabet, that has helped to shape the team's thoughts about how close we are to seeing things like augmented reality and artificial intelligence become mainstream technologies. As Munster put it, "The five largest tech companies believe" in the same vision they do, and "they have large budgets."
Their profile in the venture capital market seems likely to dwarf the impact they can make investing, at least right away, as they are only seeking to raise a $20 million first fund. That's not much money in venture capital, certainly when compared to a high-profile Silicon Valley venture firm like Andreessen Horowitz, with its new $1.5 billion fund.
Andreessen Horowitz co-founder Marc Andreessen isn't shy about sharing his thoughts, but the business strategy of his firm entails providing lots of hands-on help to the companies they have invested in, everything from recruiting staff to drumming up press attention.
The companies that Loup invests in will have to look to other investors for that kind of operational support. Loup is too small to offer much help on operations even if it wanted to, instead hoping to compete for the best investment opportunities by being sought out for what they have learned in their research about markets, trends and technologies.
"Most successful VCs won't typically let other people see their work," Murphy said. "We are going to show our work."
Munster said he intends to serve the firm primarily by researching and writing, with Clinton playing the lead role in actually making investments. It was Clinton, as analyst and writer, who Loup listed as the lead author of the Loup Ventures manifesto.
This document is infused from the very beginning with nothing but optimism about gee-whiz technologies enriching all of our lives. From what they described, it's easy to imagine football fans soon being thrilled when, from their couch, they can see and hear the Chicago Bears' middle linebacker exactly as he appears to the Vikings' quarterback across the line of scrimmage.
It may take decades, but the Loup partners imagine us all luxuriating in a worry-free virtual reality while letting ever smarter robots do most of the things that we now call work. As the report put it: "In the Future Perfect, it's always the weekend."
They anticipated skeptics reading through their manifesto and pausing to wonder if they could possibly be serious. That's why they included an observation from the futurist and writer Arthur Clarke: "If what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I'll have failed completely."
Based upon that characterization of success, Loup Ventures seems off to a very good start.