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When Venture Capital Was an Adventure

A new documentary film takes a look at the lives of the original rat pack of venture capitalists including Tom Perkins, Arthur Rock, and Don Valentine.
Apple Seeds: Mike Markkula, seen here with Steve Jobs in the early days, is one of the Silicon Valley pioneers interviewed in the new film Something Ventured.

George Doriot, the father of venture capitalism, liked to quip "Someone, somewhere, is making a product that will make your product obsolete." Doriot died in 1987, but his ideas about venture funding can be seen to this day; Intel, Apple, and Cisco (to name a few) are some of the first companies to be funded by venture capitalists. The VCs that followed in his footsteps—including Tom Perkins, Arthur Rock, and Don Valentine—have, through their work, trailblazed a path of American innovation.

Something Ventured, a new documentary film directed by husband-and-wife team Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine, explores the lives of the men who, in the early 1960s when the venture capital industry was just beginning to take shape, risked social status (and their money) to back the companies they truly believed in.

"There was no record of their achievement, so we wanted to document that," says Molly Davis, one of the film's executive producers.

The film features interviews with legendary investors such as Arthur Rock (who funded Fairchild Semiconductor, Intel, Apple and Teledyne), Tom Perkins (founder of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers), Bill Draper (founder of Sutter Hill Ventures). The perspectives of entrepreneurs are portrayed through commentary from Gordon Moore (co-founder of Intel), Robert Campbell (founder of PowerPoint) and Sandy Lerner (co-founder of Cisco).

Like most nascent ideas, venture capital drew plenty of skeptics when it was first introduced. Davis notes that the early venture capitalists struggled with convincing companies to work with them. "They liked to say, 'We called out, and nobody called in.'" she says. "These guys were an unknown option, and so they needed to go out—door to door—and find people with good ideas. It wasn't a concept that was understood."

Times have changed. 

According to the National Venture Capital Association, venture capital-backed companies now employ more than 12 million people and they generated nearly $3 trillion in revenue in 2008. In fact, venture-backed companies represent the equivalent of 21 percent of U.S. GDP. 

Beyond opening their check books, venture capitalists often seed start-ups with other important resources—namely, their leadership, knowledge, and whenever possible, access to their networks. "These pioneers laid the groundwork for our start‐up economy, providing not just capital but guidance to help fledgling companies grow into global powerhouses," noted the filmmakers in a description of the film posted on their website. "Our lives would be completely different without their contributions, from the PC and the Internet to life‐saving drugs.  As Atari creator Nolan Bushnell says in the film, without venture capital, "the future wouldn't happen nearly as quickly."  (Bushnell is also an blogger.)

Davis, who also runs Rainmaker Communications, a Silicon Valley marketing consulting firm, says that one of the major themes to emerge from the documentary was a true sense of hopefulness about business and the American economy. "They all have a really strong sense of optimism," she says. "You just cannot be a pessimistic person and build companies."

Something Ventured was screened at South by Southwest and it is set to appear at a number of the country's independent film festivals this spring and summer, and the producers hope to have it broadcast on TV in 2012. 


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