Nick Hanauer, a “High-Functioning Contrarian,” on How to Think About Breakthroughs in Business and Society (Part 2)

Yesterday, we ran the first part of a sit-down interview with Nick Hanauer, a noted entrepreneur, investor, and co-founder of Seattle-based Second Avenue Partners. Hanauer, who has been involved in the early stages of such prominent companies as Amazon, aQuantive, and Insitu, spoke about the importance of new metaphors in recognizing and understanding breakthrough ideas; why venture capitalists don’t take enough risks; and the challenges of healthcare reform.

In what follows, Hanauer talks quite a bit more about Amazon, Insitu, and how to think about solving the biggest problems in business and society (hint: don’t conform). He also touches on why he’s generally bored with the online advertising sector (except for Seattle-based Marchex), and the one key area in which he would seek omniscient advice.

Here is part two of our interview:

Xconomy: What are the prospects for another big tech company like Amazon to come out of the Seattle area?

Nick Hanauer: I think the prospects are very good. It’s a very dynamic, creative, and risk-tolerant business culture here. There’s a fabulous ecosystem of people who understand technology in all sorts of ways. There’s software, Internet, biotech, aerospace. Insitu, as an example, is a big company now. And in 10 years, that could be a huge company. I think they employ 600-700 people now. We [Second Avenue Partners] don’t own it anymore, Boeing owns it, sadly. We have as good a shot at creating more big technology companies as almost any place on planet Earth. Probably not as good as Silicon Valley, but better than most places.

X: Tell me more about Second Avenue’s involvement with Bingen, WA-based Insitu, and when you first invested in it. (This company makes unmanned aircraft systems for surveillance and intelligence applications.)

NH: It wasn’t the first round of financing, but they were a teeny tiny company, employed half a dozen people. We looked at it in June or July 2001, and they were like, “Fishing, we’re going to find tuna with cool planes.” We thought it was really interesting technology. [CEO] Steve Sliwa was so good. We got that if they could pull off this technology in this domain, there are an infinite number of applications. And then [September 11, 2001] hit. And we said, oh. The military’s going to buy a lot of these. OK, we’re in. We led that round, and kept on backing them. I’m sad that we sold it, because it was such a civic achievement; it made such a difference in the lives of so many people. It’s maybe the single biggest thing to happen to that region of Washington and Oregon economically in decades. We were very lucky [with the Boeing sale], there was this incredible global bidding war going.

X: How should one learn to think about solving big problems in business and society?

NH: I think the capacity to think creatively isn’t gated by your intellectual abilities so much as your psychological ability to not conform to what other people want you to believe about … Next Page »

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