The Most Optimistic Place on Earth: CEO Camp

Draper Fisher Jurvetson hosted a CEO Conference Monday in Half Moon Bay. Just about all the CEOs in the DFJ portfolio were there, mostly to talk among ourselves about how best to stave off the usual fate, which is to lose a lot of money and then get fired.

Jurvetson's photo of Half Moon Bay

And yet we all went into it with the unfounded optimism peculiar to California: as if we might find a new best friend, or start a religion, or get swept up in an apocalypse (fires, earthquakes, Internet bubbles) that no one could previously have been convinced to take seriously.

I went curious to see what CEOs as a group would be like, as if to see what I might become: I imagined a convocation of X-Men, each with her own freakish flaws and special powers, or of business-casual, bloodlessly suave Agent Smiths.

And there were plenty of both, more than can be described here in any organized way. An Israeli entrepreneur working on a top-secret project with Eastern European X-Box hackers complained that investors in his first business wouldn’t let him use the service he built to run porn. “But this time,” he promised, “lots of porn.”

Tim Draper

In his keynote speech, Tim Draper made a plausible case for colonizing Mars, showed a photo that may have been of himself standing astride a slaughtered elephant, and asked the crowd to sing along to a song that he composed and performed. (When I later asked a DFJ partner about the song, he said, “Oh, I’m the drummer in Tim’s band.”) It made me wonder if every titan of venture capital is really just a camp counselor on steroids, nudging his little charges along on their projects.

I felt bad for the follow-up acts. A Chinese entrepreneur took the stage to boast that his countrymen were “the Jews of Asia.” A banker dusted off “Internet growth” charts from 1999. But then a CEO in a pastel tie and matching pocket square explained how he evaluated job seekers in terms of the way they made people feel, a leap of empathy and insight that it had never occurred to me to consider.

The folks running ad-driven sites clucked that big advertisers still don’t get it. And we all agreed that the real problem was that nobody can beat Google in direct response ads, while for the zillion-dollar branding campaigns, TV and radio still pack a bigger emotional wallop.

We competed to say how little money we spent and how few people we employed, which climaxed when a San Francisco entrepreneur said he rented industrial space in Potrero Hill for $2 a square foot — ten times less than Redfin pays for its truly vile south-of-Market office. On the phone later that night, Redfin’s HR swami talked me out of cutting everyone’s pay.

Mechwarrior!Things went downhill from there. Over drinks, a games entrepreneur boasted of receiving letters from men who lost their wives because they couldn’t stop playing his game, MechWarrior. “You have to believe they might be happier alone,” he said. I misheard a young lady complain about the person who “did her nails” and told her “I’d love to have that nose.”

A guy from Los Angeles in a Thriller-style leather coat told me his creative partner was Ashton Kutcher. An Internet media mogul said he moved to LA so he could feel like part of the entertainment industry but discovered that “down there, the bassist in a third-rate bar-band has more street cred than we do.”

Everyone nodded. We knew all about being nobodies. But then we all went to bed that night in a real hotel — not on some friend’s twingey mattress – kings of ridiculously small, ragtag empires that seemed for the moment as unprecarious and boundless as the sea.

(Thanks to DFJ for hosting the conference).