Venture Capitalist, Tech Entrepreneur Mentor
If the New York tech community has a mensch in its midst, it’s Fred Wilson, the 47-year-old demure managing partner and co-founder of venture capital firm Union Square Ventures. Just don’t call his community by its historical nickname, “Silicon Alley.” “We are not an alley,” he said this summer, pacing on a stage in the basement of the Javits Center. Mr. Wilson was delivering a keynote speech to hundreds of young Internet entrepreneurs from all over the world at the Web 2.0 Expo, just two days after newspaper headlines announced Wall Street’s collapse. “Let’s bury the name ‘Silicon Alley’. I’ve hated it from the minute it first came out. We are one of the largest cities in the world. We’re one of the largest Internet development communities in the world. Let’s drop the name ‘alley’, at least, let’s call ourselves Broadway—or just New York. That’s what we are.”
Mr. Wilson’s popular blog, avc.com, is a live snapshot of the burgeoning start-up scene in New York from a venture capitalist’s point of view. He often offers sage advice for young entrepreneurs and investors in his simple, even prose, peppered with one-liners. He recently wrote about investing during the economic downturn: “Like the lottery, ‘you got to be in it to win it’ and staying on the sidelines is not a wise approach in any market environment.” But he’s not just a daddy figure, either; like the kids he mentors, Mr. Wilson Twitters and Tumblrs (Union Square Ventures invests in both companies), and is known to get personal, writing about his three children and wife (who also blogs as Gotham Gal) and living in the West Village. But even when doing that, he usually works in his experiences as an early adopter of the latest online software, from Last.fm to Boxee, and offline hardware (he’s tried the iPhone and Google’s new G1 phone, but he calls the BlackBerry his “quill pen” because he ends up writing his entries on it so often). He also writes on his company’s blog, telling stories about deal developments and setting an ethical standard for his followers by disclosing connections and friendships. In other words, Mr. Wilson, who tends to shy from the media spotlight, doesn’t just profit from New York’s tech community, he lives it.
Because he has survived Web busts over the last two decades, Mr. Wilson has become one of the tech community’s most trusted figures. In 1987, after studying mechanical engineering at MIT and getting his M.B.A. from Wharton, he became an associate for Euclid Partners, a New York–based early-stage venture capital firm. He co-founded his own investment company, Flatiron Partners, in 1996. He co-founded Union Square Ventures in late 2003, and many of their portfolio companies have made successful deals during difficult economies. In 2005, their Del.icio.us was sold to Yahoo for a reported $30 million. Google bought FeedBurner, an RSS feed service for bloggers, for a reported $100 million in 2007. That same year, AOL bought online ad company Tacoda for a reported $275 million.
On Jan. 4, Mr. Wilson wrote a blog post on a transatlantic flight from Paris to New York, returning from a holiday trip to Europe. “2009 will be a difficult year on many levels,” he wrote. “But I am optimistic because I believe in the work that I do and I believe in the people I work with and the people we’ve backed and the people that we will back this year. Starting companies, particularly technology-based companies, is something we need even more of today in our country and our world and I am proud to be an active participant in the venture capital/startup ecosystem that makes this happen.” Written like a true mensch.
As 2008 limped along to its economically tattered finish line, one industry had at least a little good news: According to The New York Times, ticket sales at North American movie theaters racked up $9.6 billion (down less than 1 percent from 2007). The commonplace thinking is that it was thanks to those big shiny superheroes: that growling, swooping Batman! That oh-so-droll Iron Man! Indiana Jones, James Bond, that impossible-to-escape robot Wall-E, a Kung-Fu Panda and—of course—Will Smith.
And then there’s Errol Morris, a different kind of superhero. In late April, the 60-year-old acclaimed filmmaker released his eighth feature-length documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, a gripping and incredibly disturbing in-depth investigation into the infamous 2003 photographs that depicted American soldiers abusing and torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. Mr. Morris described his film as a “nonfiction horror movie” and so, indeed, it is. As he did before with his riveting probe into a police officer’s murder in The Thin Blue Line and his Oscar-winning look at Robert McNamara and the what-ifs of Vietnam in The Fog of War, this film went there, delving deep and unflinchingly into a deeply uncomfortable subject—in this case, a chapter of our history that many of us would gladly ignore or, worse, forget. The film demonstrates Mr. Morris’s astonishing capacity for detailed research (it’s not for nothing that The Thin Blue Line helped get a man off of death row) as well as his ability to coax seemingly recalcitrant subjects to open up for his camera (the much despised leash-holding-while-giving-a-cheerful-thumbs-up Lynndie England talks bitterly and unselfconsciously of her love affair with a fellow guard gone wrong).
But, also characteristically, Mr. Morris isn’t concerned with who might be the obvious villains and victims. He’s not a polemicist, but a facilitator for information; in Standard Operating Procedure, he deftly illustrates the context and atmosphere that led to such horrific events, and raises rather unsettling questions, particularly: Were these terrified and stir-crazy kids left to torture without supervision, or were they were merely a link in the chain of command of a corrupt and power-hungry post-9/11 U.S. military?
Movies about our current war have been box office poison, and Standard Operating Procedure was no different—it earned a measly total of $229,117 (a Friday night sneeze for The Dark Knight). However, we’re certain that it wasn’t for commercial gain that Mr. Morris made this movie, but a determination to tell important truths and histories that might otherwise fall through the cracks. In the past, Mr. Morris has made controversial subjects entertaining. This time, he went straight for the truth, and made one of the most important movies of 2008.