BANGALORE, India--Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems and a renowned venture capitalist in the Silicon Valley, is no Simon Cowell, the talent show judge known for his blunt criticisms hovering on sheer insults and reducing several participants to tears.
Watching the former general partner of the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and the current founder of his own firm, Khosla Ventures, in action while he was interviewing start-ups in a private session at the recently held Nasscom Product Conclave held here in Bangalore was an interesting show indeed. Never rude, always polite even while conveying the fact that some ideas wouldn’t work unless the business model was changed.
Sitting throughout a two-hour session (each startup was given 10 minute to present their business plans) and observing him interact with a few selected startups, was an eye-opener for a journalist who has been covering the technology beat for almost a decade. You hear of startups stories and you write about VCs but seeing the VC interact with startups (which they do always behind closed doors) and asking razor sharp questions was a riveting experience.
And it was more so for these young CEOs and founders of startups, too. Forget about the fact that he may not invest in any of these startups at all, just the fact that he was actually giving them quality time and telling what the pitfalls would be in their business was enough to make them feel on top of the world.
When I managed to get a ringside view of that "invitation only" session, which certainly didn’t include journalists, I was on the lookout for a startup story. I was curious to see who the start-ups were and what they were going to present to the veteran VC of the Silicon Valley.
But the startup story was nothing compared to the story that was unfolding before me, layer by layer, question by question—all from Khosla’s side.
The questions he asked without delving into anything except his memory was a fascinating study by itself. Seeing him in action, it's no surprise that he attained the status of a legend in the VC industry globally. (Interestingly, sources close to him said that he had not heard of these startups earlier and that none of the presentations were sent to him prior to the interaction).
There were about 10 startups that were handpicked by a jury to present their business plans to him. They formed an interesting mosaic—from mobility space to clean tech to education and software architecture and even experiential travel.
And Khosla never faltered in punching the right button with the key question—whether it was for the mobile app or a biogas startup.
Invariably his leading question would be "Do users know you are there?"
The startups may have complex technology and many man hours invested into the back end of their websites, but that's not what Kholsa wanted to hear about. The key issue for him was visibility—the user/consumer should know that the startup exists.
The next question was how much traffic their website generates. For instance, there was a startup called Mobstac, which allows website owners (publishers) to create mobile friendly sites and monetize them. He compared the site to Storify and a similar service from Google, Rumor. "There are similar sites and different models, but what you have to do is make sure your model works for the user/consumer," he said.