If we had to sum up our investment approach in one word, it would be non-incremental. Venture capital is a power law game: the vast majority of venture returns come only from a few investments. We believe we have to have the chance to hit a grand slam on every investment we make. Therefore, we look for great teams doing something a little more out there than most. Things like brain-computer interface, or connected fabrics, or creating the future of retail. And we actually think that investing in non-incremental businesses is safer than investing in incremental ones.
Before we get to why, let’s define the difference between incremental and non-incremental.
Incremental companies build for obvious or established markets. They create products and services that are 10% or 50% or even 100% better than what’s on the market now, but they don’t create products that are 10x better. They don’t create products that transform industries and change how consumers interact with the world. And that’s ok! Incremental businesses are important to the progress of the overall ecosystem and see good exits all the time.
Non-incremental companies create products and experiences that are 10x better; those that revolutionize, not merely improve. They establish new markets that are obvious only in hindsight. They create entire ecosystems of companies trying to play in the sandbox they built. It takes a founder with a big vision and a dedicated team to build something non-incremental.
With that distinction in mind, we see three reasons why investing in non-incremental companies is safer than investing in incremental ones:
First, it’s just as hard to create a great non-incremental company as a great incremental company. Either way, the entrepreneur has to convince talented people to take a risk and come work for him or her. The entrepreneur has to retain that talent as other companies come calling with better offers. The entrepreneur has to convince skeptical customers to use his or her new product. The entrepreneur has to persevere through the rollercoaster of survival as a new business. We think that last point is the death knell for most incremental companies: the entrepreneur is beaten into submission and loses interest in the business. It’s easier to stay engaged working on non-incremental ideas than incremental ones.
Second, non-incremental companies tend to have less relative competition than incremental ones. It’s red ocean/blue ocean strategy. Since incremental companies are attacking obvious problems, the market will be full of other businesses trying to solve the same thing. A non-incremental company will have less direct competition because they’re focused on something less obvious. This means that non-incremental markets look smaller than incremental ones at first, but the early non-incremental markets tend to morph into new markets that encompass larger legacy markets over time. Airbnb is an example. Air mattresses on a stranger’s floor is a weird, non-incremental market, but a platform to rent unused housing space competes with the legacy hospitality market.
Third, non-incremental companies tend to develop things that the world needs most. What’s truly valuable about the 5th food delivery company? Or the 10th ride sharing company? Or the 100th photo sharing app? Yes, there are great potential markets there, but they’re obvious markets with lots of competition and, for the most part, undifferentiated technology that creates modest incremental value. We believe that companies tend to get rewarded in proportion to the value they create in the long term. This means that some companies can be overly rewarded in the short term (see many social plays). These short-term wins are harder to predict and are more driven by luck through rapid user adoption than true value creation. Investing in things the world really needs gives us a tangible reason for future reward.
Our downside is still zero when we invest in non-incremental businesses, but the probability of zero is lower for the three reasons mentioned above, and the potential for a unicorn-sized return is greater. Even better, and cliché as it might sound, non-incremental companies are the ones that actually change the world and shape it in our vision of the future. That’s why we swing for grand slams.
Disclaimer: We actively write about the themes in which we invest: artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, and augmented reality. From time to time, we will write about companies that are in our portfolio. Content on this site including opinions on specific themes in technology, market estimates, and estimates and commentary regarding publicly traded or private companies is not intended for use in making investment decisions. We hold no obligation to update any of our projections. We express no warranties about any estimates or opinions we make.