Dave McClure: Inspired by Dr. Seuss and Disrupting Venture Capital

[Corrected 3/7/14, 6:45 am. See below.] In the four years since Dave McClure co-founded the venture fund and incubator program 500 Startups, he has acquired a reputation as an outspoken geek, an entrepreneur’s entrepreneur, and an irreverent Silicon Valley insider who invests in Internet startups.

When he came to San Diego last week, McClure was all that and more. He was profane, opinionated, thoughtful, and disruptive. He tossed F-bombs with abandon. When I asked a mildly provocative question during an Xconomy-organized lunch with San Diego tech leaders, McClure stood on his chair to respond. Later that day, he stood barefoot while giving a presentation at UC San Diego, telling an auditorium packed with entrepreneurs that they don’t need an MBA to be successful.

“You can fail at building a startup and still learn a lot,” McClure told the crowd. “I would argue that it’s better to fail at your own startup than to read about someone else succeeding at theirs.”

In the audience, one entrepreneur tweeted:

That kind of reaction is a testament to McClure’s emergence as a leading voice for the latest generation of Web entrepreneurs. At 500 Startups, he is raising capital for a third investment fund, after raising more than $74 million for two previous funds and overseeing more than 700 venture investments. And in the process of disrupting the VC industry, he sometimes reveals a mischievous side that is reminiscent of a Dr. Seuss character.

This is no coincidence.

McClure writes about innovation, startups, and entrepreneurship on a blog he calls “500 Hats,” an allusion to the Dr. Seuss’ book, “The 500 Hats of 500 Hats book coverBartholomew Cubbins.” His Twitter icon is the Cat in the Hat’s hat. In 2007, he marked the occasion of Dr. Seuss’ birthday by writing: “He’s one of my most favorite childhood icons & cultural heroes, along with Marlo Thomas, and Jim Henson. I wouldn’t be who I am today without them, and the wonderful characters they’ve brought into my life.”

Suffice to say, Dave McClure is not your average venture capitalist.

500 Startups Dave McClure

Dave McClure on a chair

There is a distinctly Seussian quality to the way he’s working to disrupt traditional venture funding—as if he’s offering green eggs and ham to an entire industry of Sam-I-Ams. Bear in mind that Dr. Seuss (also known as San Diego’s Theodore Geisel) created The Cat in the Hat in response to a moribund education establishment that could not see how ineffective “Dick and Jane” primers were in teaching kids how to read.

Yet he isn’t going about this in a frivolous way.

“We definitely have a very different strategy than most folks in the market,” McClure says. Instead of investing $5 million in one startup the way VCs did 10 or 15 years ago, McClure says he would rather invest $50,000 in 100 companies.

He’s making lots of little bets and coaching the startup founders to either grow fast or fail fast. He’s looking for entrepreneurs who can develop a minimally viable product, get immediate customer feedback, make quick improvements, and use Internet marketing and distribution to get customers and revenues snowballing.

“Most of venture capital has not figured this out,” McClure says—and he contends that most VC funds are failing.

“Do you know what venture capital is?” McClure rhetorically asked the crowd at UCSD. “It’s overblown mortgage processing. It should be more scientific. There should be FICO scores for entrepreneurs.”

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Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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