Ben Horowitz: Every breakthrough idea looks stupid

Starting a company, the venture capitalist says, requires intense courage, determination, and the willingness to come across as crazy.

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Paul Sloan is editor in chief of CNET News. Before joining CNET, he had been a San Francisco-based correspondent for Fortune magazine, an editor at large for Business 2.0 magazine, and a senior producer for CNN. When his fingers aren't on a keyboard, they're usually on a guitar. Email him here.
Paul Sloan
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VC Ben Horowitz at Y Combinator's startup school Paul Sloan

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Ben Horowitz, co-founder of Silicon Valley venture firm Andreessen Horowitz, told a crowd at today's Y Combinator startup school that running a company is a nerve-racking experience; that you shouldn't be fooled into thinking everything's been done; and that "every breakthrough idea looks like a stupid idea" at first.

"Sure we look for big markets and blah, blah, blah," Horowitz told some 1,700 entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs packed into Stanford University's Memorial Hall auditorium. "But we're all looking for a breakthrough idea. And by definition, a breakthrough idea looks like a stupid idea. If everybody recognized the idea as a breakthrough idea, it wouldn't be a breakthrough at all."

Moreover, he said, "Breakthrough ideas usually come from guys who look like they're hallucinating."

Such is the challenge, he said, of picking which companies to back amid an ocean of startups: You need to cut a check to someone who looks like they're out of their mind. Of all the U.S. tech companies started in any one year, Horowitz pointed out, only about 15 ever generate $100 million in annual revenue. And those, of course, are the companies that Horowitz -- and every VC, for that matter -- wants to bet on.

Horowitz, who has been a business partner with Marc Andreessen since Netscape days in 1990s, walked the audience through the ups and downs of LoudCloud, the company, later named Opsware, that he steered through the dot-com bust and eventually sold to Hewlett Packard for $1.6 billion.

He then spent some time mocking the people who prematurely said that innovation was dead -- remember Nicholas Carr's "IT doesn't matter" article in Harvard Business Review? -- and told the crowd not to fall prey to such thinking.

"Is innovation dead?" he joked with the crowd. "Has everything been invented? Pinterest is out. Facebook is out. I don't know why you're at startup school. It's over. You should probably go to consulting school or become a lawyer."

That got some laughs, presumably because most people in the audience have had those thoughts. But Horowitz pointed out that over time, "wants become needs," and as a result innovation will go on and on. People didn't know they needed refrigerators, to use an old example, until they were invented. "You may create something that somebody wants that eventually they need, like Facebook." At that, people laughed, and Horowitz remarked, "You know you need Facebook." (Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg had addressed the audience earlier in the day.)

Ultimately, Horowitz said that an entrepreneur needs to have guts to push through an idea. "It all starts with courage," he said.