Bill Joy, 51, has played Silicon Valley’s intellectual bad boy ever since he helped create Sun Microsystems in 1982. Brilliant, sometimes churlish, and mostly right, he’s now a partner at venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Joy told Fast Company where he’s placing his bets.
Fast Company: How has the environment for startups changed in Silicon Valley since you cofounded Sun?
Joy: The breadth and depth of technical expertise has increased dramatically. There’s nowhere comparable at this moment. The number of things you can get made overnight, the ability to call on people in different disciplines to help you. It’s possible to get things done incredibly quickly, get your problems solved, get answers, and build teams to do really difficult things.
FC: More so than in, say, Bangalore or Shanghai?
Joy: We have companies with employees in both those locations. But if they’re going to solve the really difficult problems, the Valley is the strong preference. To break out of patterns and make whole new markets, you need the best coaches and the best mentors and the best staff. You want to be able to bring in a great network of people. The infrastructure of the Valley gives it a strong geographic advantage.
FC: You’re interested in investing in energy companies. Will an energy startup become the next Netscape or Google?
Joy: I don’t think there will be one energy company that’s as significant as a Netscape. [But] there may be more than a couple as significant as Google. There’s an enormous opportunity for new ventures in the energy field based on new science and new technology. Beyond energy, nanoscale engineering and new chemistry, physics, and biology offer the opportunity to invent new materials we haven’t seen before that can do amazing things.
FC: Ultimately, the world is going to run out of oil. We know today there’s so much more that can be done with alternative energy, but we have an established structure that’s so heavily invested in perpetuating the way that things have always been done. How do you create change in that situation?
Joy: If you hope to make a significant change, you need to find technology that’s better and compelling. Historically, the price of oil hasn’t reflected the true social cost of all its impacts. So it sent a bad price signal. When the first oil shock hit in the 1970s, people did smart things for a while. Then the price of oil went down, and people stopped doing such smart things. Now that oil has stayed reasonably high for a while, people recognize that you have to do some smarter things. In the auto industry today, some manufacturers are in a panic because Toyota is way ahead with hybrid fuel technology. That puts on some transformative pressure. The competition is a good thing.
FC: What’s your career advice to people who want to start out in the tech business?
Joy: Understand the technology, even if you’re in management. And before you go to business school, get a feel for what it’s like in a company of moderate size, where you can really see what the processes are. If you want to start a company, you should do it because it’s an idea that you’re very passionate about, without any financial expectations. You’re not anticipating failure, but you have to accept that if it’s worth doing, and it’s hard, you can’t be guaranteed of success. You have to be doing it for the right reasons.