VC:VC The Long Now

In his wonderful book, The Clock of the Long Now, Stuart Brand explores the work of Danny Hillis towards building a clock that will tick once a year, chime once a century, cuckoo once a millennium, and run for 10,000 years.

The notion is that we do not spend enough time thinking about time, and when we do, we think about now, the short now. If pushed we will think as far into the past as the birth of our grandparents, and as long into the future as the lifetimes of our grandchildren... altogether a span of around 200 years. Fashion provides an ephemeral now that is gone before we fully recognize it. Societal change frames a decade or a half century, and our own lifespan is optimistically set at a hundred years. Civilizational cycles occur over centuries, and religion allows us to think in terms of a few millennia. Only those concerned with geology and paleontology, or perhaps astronomy and cosmology, think in truly long timeframes.

Hillis, as reported in Brand's book, is seeking to expand how we think about time. Our impact on this planet now spans millennia, as exemplified by our creation of nuclear waste which must be disposed of in a way that will be safe over huge stretches of time. By creating a clock that lasts 10,000 years we might learn to think about energy sources that renew on their own, mechanisms that are self-healing, effectively forever, in the face of friction and wear, climate and human action.

The book is a great read because it is entertaining and thought-provoking. It is also a great context for thinking about venture cycling and venture capital.

Even as many think of cycling as a simple "back to nature" kind of transportation, that 10,000 year clock, makes me realize how mechanically sensitive a bicycle is (remember my 5th gear problems, and Hannah's mechanical problems at the start of the Hazon NY ride?). A bike is actually as much about the short now as it is about the long now. A bike is a great way to live in the present, smell the roses, stop rushing forward. Obviously admiring nature brings us to longer view issues around caring for the environment, too, but I am just as likely to be wondering if I will be fit enough to ride in 30 years, as about any concern for 3,000 years (or more) in the future.

In the early stage venture capital world we take the long view. The trouble is that we are being compared to many other kinds of investors for whom the longest practical timeframe is a calendar quarter, and more often the issue is about price movements today, or this minute.

An entrepreneur's fear is that venture capitalists want an "exit" within a couple of years. The long view that we espouse at Sigma is that we understand companies take five or even seven years to develop. Our funds are structured with ten year lifespans, and only the first three or four years are concerned with starting investments. The balance of the time is for the companies to mature and grow.

When people ask me, as many do, whether the current stock market news is good or bad, I always reply, "ask me in ten years." This is my way of saying that at least I don't worry about current stock market price movements. Our work is about growing companies over five years or more, and although a good stock market can help with that, we need to show we can build value in companies even if the stockmarket is not a rising tide, lifting all boats. This is long term thinking for most investment professionals, but it does pale in comparison with 10,000 years.

John Maynard Keynes said "in the long run we are all dead". Yes, we are, but our descendants are not, and if we have any sense of responsibility or stewardship for the world in which we live, we should spend at least some of our time thinking about the long now.

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