Paul Holland: Venture capitalist. Executive producer. Former human search engine.
Image: Foundation Capital
Paul Holland started his career in venture capital three weeks after September 11, 2001. It was a difficult time to go about business as usual. And then, still reeling from the tragedy of that day, he was feeling his way into an industry that was still picking up the pieces from the burst of the dot-com bubble.
However, he found opportunities even at a time when they were scarce. Now, 14 years later, he’s a general partner at the same firm he started with, Foundation Capital, and has since invested in startups such as Coverity, Chegg, MobileIron, and Kik, among others. He was the co-executive producer of Something Ventured, a documentary on the start of the venture capital industry. But, business wasn’t always at the front of his mind.
Holland grew up in Prince George, Virginia—a small town in the greater Richmond metro area. He graduated from James Madison University, and later went on to graduate school at the University of Virginia where he studied foreign affairs.
His girlfriend at the time (now his wife) invited him to visit her parents in California in 1984. While visiting, her parents introduced Holland to people at companies like Intel, Dataquest, and Wells Fargo for informational interviews. It was then that he got connected with the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), where he accepted a job and moved out to California.
He tells his kids that the work he did “was like a human Google.” Long since obviated by search engines, it was cutting edge at the time.
“We would get inquiries through the postal mail from clients around the world and the inquiries were things like ‘Tell me the market for nails in Thailand.'”
So, his team would research the question and send a typed report back to the client. He said it was a great orientation to business and technology, as SRI had a big tech arm back then.
Just as he was finishing up his MBA from UC Berkeley, he got a call from a friend of a friend who needed business help with his new startup. That was Reed Hastings, who would later go on to found Netflix, and Holland eventually joined up with him to help with his new software company Pure Software. Holland led North American sales before moving into the Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) territory. After they took the company public, Holland and his wife went on a sabbatical and traveled the world.
When he finished his sabbatical, he moved to Kana Communications in 1997. The company went public in 1999 and the sales and market cap grew. In 2001, he left Kana and went on to become a partner at Foundation Capital, where he is now.
Throughout his time in technology, Holland has noticed many trends and shifts in the startup landscape. For example, in a recent blog post, Holland noted that the ubiquity and low cost of technology is allowing people to step out as entrepreneurs way earlier in life than they used to.
Another major trend he has noticed is the shift from dreamers to disruptors. The early decades in Silicon Valley were defined by dreamers, people like Gordon Moore with the semiconductor or Nolan Bushnell with video games. However, today’s Silicon Valley has been moving away from that dreamer mentality.
Startups are disrupting the biggest markets on the planet. Holland mentioned Uber and the transportation industry, Airbnb with hospitality, and lending startups disrupting banking.
Another concept this generation is disrupting is the notion of work, Holland said. The availability of technology is beginning to challenge some of the fundamental concepts around business and work we’ve had for decades. And, all these new technologies and concepts are creating problems for IT as well.
“I think this is one of the most challenging times there’s been for an IT professional, because you’ve got this next generation consumer who’s coming in and they want to have access to everything,” he said.
The current generation wants all of their apps, and free access to what they think makes them more productive, because it is what they’ve come to expect. But, issues about privacy, security, and confidentiality continue to grow in the corporate environment. Still, despite the issues that are being raised, there’s no denying the pace at which innovation is charging forward.
In his own words…
What is your main hobby outside of work?
“…One group that I’d probably highlight that we do a lot of work with is a group called Conservation Ambassadors. I also do a lot of work for my alma mater, James Madison University. The Conservation Ambassadors are guys that rescue wild animals and exotic animals that really shouldn’t be here in the first place. There are states in the US that allow you to import any animal you want. If you want a Snow Leopard, you can have a Snow Leopard if you live in Texas, or whatever. People get these things in, and they don’t know how to take care of these animals and, sometimes, within days or weeks, the animals are abandoned, or put up for adoption, or they try to throw them away. Literally, very poignant cases. So, this group, Conservation Ambassadors, actually rescues these animals and works with them to do outreach to schools and educational institutions to help educate people about keeping these animals in the wild and not trying to make them into pets and so forth…”
What’s the best thing you’ve read lately?
“This is not a tech book, per se. I’ve never been a huge fan of the latest tech entrepreneur beating his breast about how great he is. It’s never been a real passion for me from that perspective. The book I’m finishing now is called What the Dog Knows, and it’s totally different but it’s fun in a science sort of way. It’s a lady who becomes a dog trainer and she trains cadaver dogs. There’s an amazing amount of science…”
If you weren’t working in tech, what other profession would you love to try?
“We’d get this question way back when I started my career and it was like ‘What would you want to do that would surprise people?’ I said I always wanted to work with the baby animals at the zoo, and now I’m getting to do that through this group Conservation Ambassadors, kind of helping them out.
“But, if I weren’t working in tech, I had two passions that I didn’t fully realize. At one point, when I was younger, I wanted to be the Secretary of State. I wanted to work in diplomacy. I didn’t succeed in the on-ramping into that process when I was younger, and now that I’m older I don’t really have any interest in politics in that way. The other is just teaching, which I get a chance to pretty often…”
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