Ping Li has never been an entrepreneur and he is resigned to the fact that he probably won't be one in the future either. But, that's exactly what makes him a successful venture capitalist — he respects the entrepreneurial process.
"The thing that, ultimately, has given me conviction to invest in companies has always been the entrepreneur," Li said. "Their vision, their passion, and their excitement and enthusiasm for a particular space."
Li is a Midas List VC at Accel Partners who manages the firm's big data fund. He focuses on software and data center technologies and he has led investments in companies such as Cloudera, Blue Jeans Network, Nimble Storage, RelateIQ, and Reactivity.
His job is to find the top entrepreneurs and build rapport with them so that they see him as a trusted advisor. Li said that the truly great entrepreneurs can see things that investors cannot see, which is what makes those entrepreneurs so unique. Li likes to get out of the office and "in the wild," where he believes the best ideas are often found. While thoughtfulness and intelligence are key, Li said that it also takes a tremendous work ethic to find good investments.
"Really being there at the forefront and being out there, constantly challenging your assumptions about spaces, technologies and just hustling," Li said. "Constantly pounding the pavement. As soon as you stop pounding the pavement, I think you'll be not effective in this job. You won't be able to help your entrepreneur, you won't know what the latest things are, and you won't be able to intersect the really bright minds."
It's that type of dedication that has led Li to be considered one of the top investors in big data. Li said that the most important calls he gets are the ones that come in at 11:00 p.m., when an entrepreneur is trying to work through a problem he or she is encountering. It also doesn't hurt that he is surrounded by some of the top VCs in the industry. His interest in big data came soon after he joined Accel around ten years ago.
"My personal fascination and Accel's fascination with big data really spawned after our initial investment in Facebook," Li said. "I spent a lot of time at the data center there. It was very clear that the biggest problem that they had was, actually, how to manage and extract value out of all of the data that they had."
Other companies, such as Google and Yahoo had similar problems. Li saw that big data wasn't a theme for just one company, and that it had the potential to be a long lasting interest among tech companies. Data is how they can drive value to their products and add value to their users. It's going to become more important as it gets easier to generate and capture data.
The sheer amount of data that is available, along with the tools to process and analyze the data, means that companies can begin working on solving real problems. Li believes we're becoming a data-driven world and that it will, hopefully, make peoples' lives better.
While some critics of Silicon Valley claim that innovation is slowing, Li actually thinks the innovation cycle is getting faster, not slower. He cites the availability of open source software and platforms as evidence that developers can build better experiences with less money and time. Technology, it seems, also gets adopted faster too, as we are moving away from hardware to software-centric innovations.
"I think we're in, kind of, a Cambrian period of innovation," Li said.
The Cambrian period, or Cambrian explosion, was a period during the Paleozoic Era that marked the appearance of many major animal phyla; meaning a time when a ton of new organisms came about. Li likens this to the advent and explosion of technological advancements in cloud, mobile, and social, among others.
Li notes that seven years ago no one was building anything on cloud platforms such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), and six years ago smartphones weren't the mass phenomenon they are now. These technologies became pervasive in such a short amount of time, complicating life for investors. Driving enthusiasm attracts capital and drives up valuations, so Li said that's to be expected.
However, Li doesn't see high valuations as the major problem in Silicon Valley at the moment. His chief concern is talent shortage and lack of experience. This begs the question, "how do you create great companies if you can't recruit great teams?"
Li grew up in the Cherry Hill area of New Jersey, the son of Taiwanese immigrants. His father was an engineer and always stressed science and math, but technology and the startup scene were not things he routinely thought about. Li attended Harvard University where he played soccer as much as he participated in academics. He also grew up speaking Mandarin, so in the summers he would travel to China to stay connected to the culture and to play soccer.
When Li graduated, he ended up working in investment banking for Goldman Sachs, moving to Hong Kong and Singapore to work in IPOs and mergers and acquisitions. Li later joined Singapore Telecom where he realized that he wanted to build a career in technology.
Li decided to go to business school and ended up at Stanford for his MBA during 1997-1999 — the height of the Dot Com bubble. He recalls many of his classmates dropping out to start new technology companies, but he pushed through and joined Juniper Networks after he graduated. A few years later he received a call from Accel Partners and ended up joining in 2004, and he has been there ever since.
In his own words...
What's the one thing you make sure you do every day?
"I try to spend time with my family. My kids are five, two and a half, and fifteen months; so, pretty much I'm changing at least a diaper every day at this point. It's an important thing that I try to do because I think someone said it well, 'the days are long, but the years are fast' with the kids. It's precious times now when they still want to hang out with you."
What's the best thing you've read lately?
"I grew up playing a lot of soccer and, with the World Cup going on this summer, I took an interest in How Soccer Explains the World. I found it compelling to try to use soccer as a metaphor to explain the complex global political and economic landscape today."
What do you do to unplug?
"The only thing that can distract me from not thinking about work is the kids. In some ways it's crazy, in the other way you have to be 100% focused on them when you're spending time with them because kids demand it. Whether it's because they're about to fall off the stairs, or because they expect it. That's the one time when I can totally unplug from work."
What's one piece of advice you would give to yourself when you were starting your career?
"Seeking out mentors at every stage of your life, at every stage of your career is such an important thing to do. I can now look back and point to mentors who gave me advice at very specific times in my career that really changed the direction of my career."
Conner Forrest has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.