PODCAST: Silicon Valley’s founding father

Sanford “Sandy” Robertson isn’t your textbook venture capitalist. One could guess he doesn’t own a Patagonia vest, pricey sneakers or Apple AirPods.

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But perhaps most interestingly, he also doesn’t have a millennial birth date.

"Pick the right person … It’s a little bit oversimplified but it’s really the people that make these things go at the beginning.” – Sandy Robertson

At 87 years old, Robertson brings more than half a century of experience to his current roles as Lead Director at San Francisco-based cloud-based software company Salesforce and co-founder of technology-leaning private equity firm, Francisco Partners.

Off the back of becoming a co-investor with ANZ in New Zealand based fintech Aider, Robertson spoke to bluenotes about his humble beginnings, what five decades of venture capital have taught him and the trends he believes are here to stay.

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Pictured: Sanford "Sandy" Robertson

Sandy describes how he found his home in Silicon Valley while working in the Chicago office of Smith Barney.

“I was assistant manager of the Chicago office and overnight they fired the partner in San Francisco and so with four hours’ notice I came to the west coast,” he explains. “I really got turned on by the people I met in Silicon Valley: the entrepreneurs and the scientists and the engineers."

"They were really interesting people. It was a lot more fun calling on them and talking about their business than going to Chevron and talking to the treasurer about his next bond deal.”

However, upon arrival in San Francisco Robertson was often met with dismissal and at times ridicule, when he suggested the economic base of the city was moving south to technology start-ups in Silicon Valley.

Robertson says he remembers precisely the moment that “sent him over the line” and made the reasons for starting his own firm clear.

“We did a private placement for a company called Spectre Physics. It had 70 per cent of the world’s laser market and this was before lasers were being used for barcodes for checking out at the supermarket,” he recalls. “The company was a marvellous company, they had a Nobel laureate who had won the prize for laser on the board and I did a private placement for them … and I go back to New York and my partners would use their fingers like pointing a gun at me and say ‘how’s our ray guy company doing?’ And I thought ‘uh oh, I’m never going to teach these guys, so I better do it myself’.”

Choosing the right investment can become, quite literally, a billion-dollar question, but Robertson says his investment principles have remained constant throughout his career.

“You always look at the people involved. I always facetiously say that venture capital is a one question decision. And that’s pick the right person … It’s a little bit oversimplified but it’s really the people that make these things go at the beginning,” he says. “They’re the ones that also have the best ideas. And that hasn’t changed at all in 50 years.”

When conversation turns to the future and the potential for retirement, Robertson says he has no plans to slow down: “to me business is a lot more fun than playing golf.”

You can listen to the full conversation in the podcast above.

Andrew Cornell is managing editor of bluenotes

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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