Uber-angel Ron Conway: Silicon Valley is stronger than ever

Known as one of the savviest tech investors, the founder of SV Angel has picked a slew of winners including Twitter, Groupon, Dropbox, Square, and Airbnb. He shares some thoughts with CNET.

Ron Conway of SV Angel is seen by many as one of the most important technology investors in the world. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--Talk to just about any entrepreneur in Silicon Valley these days, and there's a better than average chance one name will come up: Ron Conway.

The founder of SV Angel, an investment firm that has its fingers in dozens of the biggest names in technology today, Conway is known by many to be among the savviest investors around. His portfolio is a who's who of the best and brightest in tech--Twitter, Airbnb, Dropbox, Groupon, and dozens of others. He's not only successful, he's also prolific.

In a recent profile in Fortune, Conway explained that he only offers his portfolio founders help at "inflection" points, meaning when they need the most help. But if you're one of those people and you make that phone call? Conway's on it in just minutes.

As an angel investor, Conway puts small chunks of money into a wide variety of companies, mostly in the five- or low six-figure range. But that doesn't mean his influence is small. At a Twitter event last year, the hit social network's leaders lit up when Conway entered the room--just his presence seemed to imply that the event was worthwhile.

Yesterday, Conway was among a group of the digerati elite who made their way to the annual TechFellow Awards. There, he spoke with CNET about his thoughts on the state of the tech economy, the hottest companies around (hint: he touted those in his own portfolio), and why New York is a great place for startups--but not as good as Silicon Valley.

Q: You must be pretty busy. Why are you at the TechFellow Awards?
Ron Conway: Well, I think the TechFellow Awards is a celebration of innovation for the whole country. We have award winners from all over the country, and it's an honor to circulate in the room with the award winners, and there's a lot of competition because there's so many great entrepreneurs in technology right now.

How much of your time do you put into the awards?
Conway: I'm on the nomination committee, so a couple of hours. We nominate the companies and then we screen them down to the winners.

I'm sure you get asked to explain why the Silicon Valley economy is doing so well compared to the economy in the rest of the country and the world. What do you say when you're asked that?
Conway: It's because the tech community in the Bay Area has been building on itself for 15 years now. You have entrepreneurs like Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker who are starting their fifth and their seventh company, so that infrastructure that exists for building companies is more mature in the Bay Area, and that's why the Bay Area is thriving. That does not mean New York is not exploding, because the New York tech scene is not going to catch up with the Bay Area, but it's growing at a very, very rapid pace, and there's great defining companies in New York as well.

You mentioned Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, and I was reading about Caterina Fake and her new company Pinwheel , and an investor was saying she was someone who you'd invest in because of what's she's done in the past.
Conway: Caterina is a great example of a serial entrepreneur that has been successful more than once.

How would you characterize the funding environment for early stage startups right now?
Conway: I think the funding environment is better than ever. Valuations are creeping up a little, but that doesn't mean anybody should be gun-shy about investing, because the quality of the companies today is better than ever.

How important is it that a startup can get off the ground for a couple hundred thousand dollars today versus millions in the first dot-com boom?
Conway: The fact that you can start a company with less money is even better because you can focus on building a great team of co-founders and not worry as much about raising the money.

Is there one or two things in tech right now that has you very excited than anything else?
Conway: Right now, we think Pinterest is a great company, and Square. These companies are growing like weeds, and they're run by what we call defining entrepreneurs. Airbnb is a great company.

What do you like about them, specifically?
Conway: They're great business models, satisfying brand new markets with great new founders.

Airbnb got slammed in the press for the infamous ransacking incident. What impressed you about how they came back from that?
Conway: The ransacking was a very isolated incident, and it's very, very rare that it happens. But the Airbnb founders learned a lot from that and introduced all kinds of new policies to prevent that from happening again.

What are biggest dangers facing new entrepreneurs right now?
Conway: It's hard to hire engineers.

 

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