Fwd: Interview with Mitch Kapor

From: Wade T.Smith (wade_smith@harvard.edu)
Date: Mon Mar 04 2002 - 13:51:04 GMT

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    Mitch Kapor

    By Globe Staff, 3/4/2002


    Mitch Kapor, 51, founded Lotus Development Corp. and designed the Lotus
    1-2-3 spreadsheet software that propelled the desktop computer boom. He
    has been a leading figure in the technology revolution for a generation
    as entrepreneur, investor, activist, and philanthropist. Kapor, who
    divides his time between San Francisco and Boston, stepped down last year
    as a partner at Accel Partners, a Palo Alto, Calif., venture capital
    firm, but continues as an angel investor and director at several software
    and Internet companies. He spoke in his Cambridge office recently with
    Globe technology editor Robert Weisman.

    Q. Where is the Internet heading? Do you still think it has a potential
    to foster community and improve society, or will it just be another
    business channel?

    A. It's sort of like the automobile. It's such an integral part of
    everything that it will touch every aspect of life. So it's certainly
    changing, and has changed, how business is done. It's had big effects on
    community, but it hasn't had any real impact towards the utopian ends
    that people, including myself, were looking toward five or 10 years ago.

    Q. It hasn't had any impact? Or it just hasn't realized its potential?

    A. I don't think any technology by itself is going to create social
    change. I think it has to do with what people do with it. I mean
    obviously some technologies are better for some things than others. But
    if we're going to have a better society for whatever definition of better
    you have it will be brought about by people, not by technology. Certainly
    not by technology as an autonomous force, which was sort of the idea back
    then (in the mid-1990s). Any more than a better society would be achieved
    by the invention and popularization of the automobile or of television.

    I think the effects of the Internet are a lot more subtle than that. Some
    things are easier, some things are harder, some things are a function of
    the laws and regulation under which the Internet operates.

    So in terms of community, the idea that there would be some kind of
    Jeffersonian revolution - which I will take some credit and
    responsibility for promoting - what I'm saying is that hasn't happened
    and isn't going to happen. And I think, knowing what I know now, I
    wouldn't have predicted it because I don't think that technology by
    itself is an autonomous force that can just change society.

    That said, there are many ways in which geographically scattered groups
    of people have been highly empowered by the Internet in ways that have
    changed the world. For instance, cancer patients and other people
    suffering life-threatening diseases. The communications network among,
    for instance, people in test protocols is so good now that there's such
    demand for anything that appears effective it's actually bringing drugs
    to market faster. I mean, you could cite dozens of examples.

    Q. There was a time, in the mid-1990s, when people thought the Internet
    could transform or even displace the traditional retail, banking, and
    publishing industries. Now those ideas seem almost embarrassing.

    A. Right. Now fortunately I don't have to take any responsibility for
    saying those things because I wasn't in that crowd. Those things seemed
    foolish at the time, and have proven to be foolish.

    People were very enthusiastic. And I think, in a funny kind of way, there
    is huge potential for e-commerce. But, again, it is not some kind of new
    thing that is going to sweep away the old. It's a new thing that's going
    to be added to what already has existed. And it will change some things
    and not change lots of other things.

    Q. Why did you leave the venture capital world?

    A. It turned out that I just have too much emotional attachment to the
    entrepreneur's point of view, regardless of how well or poorly the
    entrepreneur is performing. That's who I identified with, because I am
    one. And so it became very unnatural to play the role that you really
    have to play as a VC. I found it was just too hard to do ...

    You know, if the entrepreneur screws up, you have to take the corrective
    action to protect the investment. I'm such a softie. My attitude was: Oh,
    give him one more chance. Even when I knew that that at a rational level
    wasn't the right strategy, I wasn't the one who wanted to be in the
    position of being the disciplinarian. I recognize that it's a necessary
    role, and it needs to be done, but it was just emotionally too difficult
    for me. I'm not good at playing the heavy.

    And also I found that I like the very early stage, seed stage of
    companies, even before you begin to seriously worry about the business
    model, when you're trying to invent something new. I'm better at that. I
    like it better.

    And so, with no hard feelings, I just shifted back to doing some angel
    investing, which is of course what I was doing before.

    This story ran on page C1 of the Boston Globe on 3/4/2002. Copyright
    2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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