Your Career in Venture Investments

I have invested in 15 companies that later went public. So I am frequently asked how one’s career in venture investment begins. I seldom give the same answer twice. I took such a circuitous route that each time I try to recall my path, I remember a different landmark along the way.

I suppose the story probably began before my birth. I must have been genetically disposed to entrepreneurship. Both of my parents were descended from horse traders. I also suspect that my environment had something to do with my disposition to create companies the way that some people create paintings or write novels. My environment as a child was a little out of the ordinary.

Something in that mix freed me from the normal imperatives to grow up and get a job. I chose to invent my own work instead.

Starting Agora (which has grown to be a great success in the publishing field and many allied businesses) has to rank as one of the better investments decisions I’ve made. Which reminds me of one of the (apparently) stupidest investments I ever made: the launch of a flimsy science magazine, ultimately known as Frontiers of Science.

It cost me a fortune in direct losses. But its ultimate impact was more complicated, in several ways. It shows that, sometimes, bad investments can compound your fortune.

How? For one thing, the personal financial crisis occasioned by the losses associated with Frontiers of Science led to Agora’s being reorganized. My holding in the company plunged as a result from an 80% majority to a minority position. On a simple-minded basis, this could have been a disaster. But it was probably to my benefit. Bill Bonner took over and has done a fabulous job, making millions in which I have shared to some degree. If I had retained control, I probably would have run the company into the ground years ago.

It is comforting to know that you have a piece of a well-run company that is generating profits while you sleep.

I also benefited in another unexpected way from my apparently disastrous investment in Frontiers of Science: I fell into what seemed a charmed circle of scientists and “technology freaks” organized under the leadership of the late Bernard M. (Barney) Oliver, renowned scientist, inventor of the pocket calculator, and sometimes fellow of All Souls College, Oxford.

When I met him while doing graduate work at Oxford, he not only was well-connected academically, he was also a living legend in Silicon Valley — having become director of research at Hewlett-Packard in 1952. Although his name wasn’t in headlines, he held a vast fortune in Hewlett-Packard stock. He was certainly the richest don at Oxford.

Barney made his money the hard way. He held over 50 patents to reflect his continuous flow of creative ideas. My connection with Frontiers of Science earned me an introduction, which ultimately led to a seat at the table during gracious dinners and lunches that he hosted at Oxford. These meals were not only a blessed relief from the dreary food served in Pembroke College; they were intellectual feasts as well.

I am sure I sat slack-jawed while Barney and his brilliant friends enthusiastically analyzed and mapped the future of science and technology. When I found myself listening to such conversation, my education took an important turn.

I had studied literature and art history as an undergraduate and then shifted to PPE (politics, philosophy, and economics) at Oxford. Nothing in my academic career would have seemed to prepare me for a career in venture-capital investment. I never took a business course and studied little science. What I had studied had always been too punk to open my eyes to the exciting parts. But Barney’s group had the exciting parts at the tips of their tongues, which were only slightly the worse for having imbibed glass after glass of first-growth Bordeaux.

This made a deep impression on me and informed my ambitions in venture capital. I came to understand, as I hadn’t previously, the pregnant implications of technology and the rapid-fire change it was igniting.

In short, I learned a lot from an apparently disastrous investment in Frontiers of Science. It taught me that I, too, wanted to start great technology companies and make so many millions that I could afford to spend splendid moments hosting dinners as delicious and stimulating as those to which Barney Oliver treated me.

I doubt he realized how much influence he was having on an impressionable country boy, but he taught me to dream on a grand scale.

As you might expect, I quickly realized I was too late to invent the pocket calculator. But I knew I could still explore the potential for converting other peoples’ inventive ideas into innovations. I also saw the chance to turn a necessity into an advantage. The advantage of being the entrepreneur, not the technologist, arises from the fact that it is a heck of a lot easier to incorporate a company than it is to invent the pocket calculator.

So I have proceeded with my eyes open, looking for opportunity.

(James Davidson has enjoyed astounding personal success founding new companies in a variety of industries. A graduate of Oxford University, Davidson is a renowned author and venture capitalist who sits on the boards of over 20 thriving, technology-driven companies.)