Veering Off Topic With General Catalyst’s Larry Bohn

Xconomy Boston — 

Larry Bohn is victim number 10 in my ongoing series of offbeat chats with Boston-area tech leaders.

Bohn is a managing director of venture capital firm General Catalyst Partners, which he joined almost 15 years ago after running two software companies that he took public.

Bohn invests in business software startups, mainly in e-commerce and data analytics. His investments have included HubSpot (NYSE: HUBS), which raised $114 million in a 2014 IPO; Demandware, which went public in 2012 and then was acquired last year by Salesforce (NYSE: CRM) for $2.8 billion; and Kensho, which this month raised a $50 million round at a reported $500 million valuation.

General Catalyst has backed some of the most buzzed-about startups in recent years, including Airbnb, Stripe, Warby Parker, and Snap.

I sat down with Bohn at General Catalyst’s office in Cambridge, MA, on Monday, four days after Snap’s high-profile IPO. Our conversation started there, then quickly veered into his thoughts on an artificial intelligence apocalypse, his stint as a taxi driver years ago, how he makes a mean mac and cheese, and his weak-sauce knowledge about Boston sports teams.

Here are some of the highlights of our conversation:

Xconomy: How are you feeling about the Snap IPO?

Larry Bohn: We can’t talk a lot about it. We’re thrilled. We were investors. It’s a material deal. For us, it’s important because it’s really our first major exit out of the West Coast. We started [a West Coast office] about five years ago. … It’s a very strong signal that we’re doing the right things out West.

X: You’ve invested in several A.I. startups, including Kensho, Semantic Machines, and B12, to name a few. With all the talk lately about robots and software taking over a lot of human jobs in the future, what’s your take on that? Are you actually funding your industry’s eventual demise?

LB: I don’t think you’ll find A.I. doing VC deals directly. You will find A.I. sourcing companies and discovering what companies are really interesting and finding out a ton of stuff about companies so that your perspective on what to invest in will be better. I do believe that.

But ours is a relationship business with entrepreneurs. Even though entrepreneurs are sometimes robotic, they generally want to talk to people. So, there’s a strong human element associated with it.

… I don’t think we’re going to eliminate all the jobs. I don’t think the robots are going to take over. One of the things I always say is when people say, “Well, the robots are going to take over,” I say, “Well, we’ll just unplug them.”

X: So you don’t believe in any Terminator scenario?

LB: No, I don’t.

X: Where do we go from here? It seems that right now there’s a bit of A.I. trying to assist the humans. B12, for example, they’re really big on that concept. Is that a stepping stone to full automation of a lot more jobs, or how do you see things progressing?

LB: I think human-assisted A.I. will be the thing for a while, certainly in most, let’s call it work process stuff, where you need human creativity associated with it. [With] B12, there’s a creative element to designing a website, it’s not just programmatic. I think most work is like that.

I do think that there are some things that A.I. will replace humans. A lot of the statistical stuff that gets done in medicine, [software-as-a-service] programming, et cetera, can literally be automated completely, for good effect.

I see it as more an evolution than a certain revolution. What I’d say is today you see a lot of software companies who put A.I. as a prefix or suffix. And what it really means is they have really good software technology and they do machine learning. I don’t see it as categorically separate from so much else that we see.

X: It seems like this is the year where everyone has to become an A.I. company, whether it is for just branding purposes or—

LB: I think it’s not dissimilar from 20 years ago people saying they were ‘net companies, and then people saying they were cloud companies, and now they’re called A.I. companies.

X: What’s your best tip for spotting startups that are going to go on to success? What has worked for you?

LB: The first thing I look for is a person who has what I call over the horizon radar. Someone who can see into the future, really understand where the world is going based on technology and work process, and they almost live there. It’s almost like they’re living in the future.

And then I look for people who can build a team. It’s one thing to be a great visionary; it’s another to be able to enable others to share in your vision and to follow you.

Those are two key things. And then I also look for people who are really resilient and can recover from failure. … And then, finally, you look for someone who wants to build something bigger than themselves. In other words, they’re on a journey; they’re on a mission.

X: Before graduating from college, your early jobs included grocery deliverer, taxi driver, short-order cook, farm hand, and pool hall manager. Which of those has been most useful as an experience for your current job?

LB: One is being a taxi driver. The thing with being a taxi driver is … Next Page »

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