Many titans of Silicon Valley have been influenced by Japanese culture. Oracle founder Larry Ellison’s residence outside San Francisco is modeled on a traditional Japanese villa, while Steve Jobs had designer Issey Miyake create his famed black turtleneck. At NEST 2017, another Silicon Valley icon declared his admiration for things Japanese: Ben Horowitz, co-founder of venture capital firm Andreessen-Horowitz.
Horowitz kicked off his keynote by discussing a quote from the 17th century Japanese classic “Code of the Samurai”:
“As long as you keep death in mind at all times, you will fulfill the ways of loyalty and familial duty. You will also avoid myriad evils and calamities, you will be physically sound and healthy, and you will live a long life. What is more, your character will improve and your virtue will grow.”
The passage immediately caught his attention when he first read it, Horowitz explained, but he didn’t quite understand it. “Keep death in mind at all times!? That’s the last thing I’d want to do,” he said. “But then you get into it and realize that if every day is going to be your last day, you make sure it is exceptional. As importantly, it was a lesson for me on how to set a culture… How do you get people to behave the way you want them to when you’re not there? A great technique for doing that is to have a shocking rule.”
For Horowitz, the “Code of the Samurai” quote was that rule, because it forced employees to ask themselves about its meaning. “That’s a very good question, because the answer is powerful,” Horowitz said.
In Japan for NEST and also to celebrate the release of the Japanese edition of his book, “The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers,” Horowitz, whose successful investments have included Facebook, AirBnB, Box, Slack, Twitter and Pinterest, was joined onstage by Rakuten Chairman and CEO Mickey Mikitani. Their wide-ranging conversation covered not only the samurai ethos, but also Horowitz’s thoughts on future innovations.
One of the highlights was hearing Horowitz discuss the industries that currently interest him the most. “The low-cost and availability of genome sequencing and CRISPR technology are game-changers,” he said, “so biotech is probably the single most exciting area. But we also recently invested in an anti-drone company that focuses on taking down drones electronically. Think airports, prisons, and places where you don’t want drones flying.”
Artificial intelligence is one of the biggest buzzwords of late, inspiring hope in some and fear in others. “There are alarmists that say that once we reach the ‘singularity,’ machines will turn on us,” Horowitz acknowledges. “At this point, that is speculative as no AI machine has ever demonstrated will or intent. That said, years ago the alarmists warned of the security issues that we are seeing today, like cyber terror and identify theft. That notwithstanding, we’d still take the internet, even with the problems it creates, right? It’s probably the same with AI.”
Horowitz summed up by pointing out that what we consider science fiction today might be reality in 10-15 years. Considering his remarkable track record in investing in world-changing companies, we are willing to take his word for it. If you are interested in more insight from Ben Horowitz and what to do when you come up against hard questions, it might be worth checking out that book.