Brainstorm HealthBrainstorm DesignBrainstorm TechMost Powerful WomenCEO Initiative

Silicon Valley investing legend Ron Conway on the lessons learned from Napster

December 2, 2020, 11:27 PM UTC

Ron Conway is a Silicon Valley legend. He was an early angel investor in Google, Airbnb, Square, and Pinterest, earning the moniker of one of tech’s “super angels.” But he’s had his fair share of misses, too, and he’ll be the first to admit it.

“It’s definitely a hits-driven business,” Conway said on Wednesday, speaking on a panel at Fortune’s virtual Brainstorm Tech conference. “About 60% of all the companies we invest in go out of business; we don’t make a nickel. Another 30% of them, maybe we will get our money back. And it’s that slight balance, 10% to 20%, that you make more than you put in, and it’s enough to pay for all the ones that went out of business.”

Despite the frequent losses, Conway said, it’s the businesses that don’t succeed that end up providing the most illuminating lessons. A favorite example of his? The infamous music download giant Napster.

“In the day, it was the most well-known tech company on earth…Napster was the most disruptive company, but because of egos at the record company labels and egos at the investor level of the company, the company went down in flames,” Conway said. “However, coming out of the flames are all the streaming services. Spotify is a company that Sean Parker, the cofounder of Napster, went over and took another swing at. Now streaming is an everyday thing.”

Conway considers Google his most successful investment to date, and the firm he cofounded, SV Angel, has invested in Facebook, Twitter, and Snap, as well. The key to his success, he said, has been networking.

“How you build the network is having a good reputation,” he said. “The first company I invested in, I stood by those founders, and then those founders recommended me to other founders.

“The founder network is kind of like the Mafia,” Conway added. “They all talk to each other, and they tell each other who the value-adding investors are, and that’s been very good for SV Angel. We keep our nose to the grindstone. Our moniker is ‘Advocates for founders.’”

Conway is also a noted philanthropist and said he’s currently focusing his efforts on the COVID crisis and addressing racial inequity. “We need to make sure there’s an environment for founders of color to build huge companies,” he said. “There’s a whole new pond of great companies waiting to be fished with founders of color leading them. We need to go harvest that pond.”

Asked about the most exciting trend he’s looking at right now, Conway pointed to Faire, the three-year-old online wholesale marketplace.

“They could be a contender for Amazon someday. [It’s] amazing, through the pandemic, the amount of deal flow has not reduced at all,” he said. “All of the angel investors are as busy as ever, and founders are starting new companies at the very same pace. I thought there would be a slowdown, but there has not been. Founders never sleep.”