Google Ventures’ Wesley Chan: From Voice to VC, Speaking at Mobile Madness NW

11/15/11Follow @curtwoodward

As Wesley Chan puts it, he was working at Google when there were still doors for desks, dogs running wild, and tarps covering the computers to ward off leaks from the roof. These days, he’s working on scrappy startups again—but this time, it’s as a partner at Google Ventures, based at the company’s Seattle campus.

In between, Chan has worked on some huge products for Google. He was the lead on both Google Analytics and Google Voice, fostering those projects from early idea through buying the startups that would help push the projects to Google scale in a short period of time. According to “In the Plex” author Steven Levy, Chan was also responsible for an awesome cloak-and-dagger nixing of a possible Google deal to buy Skype.

Wesley Chan

That mix of experience gives Chan a really interesting high-level perspective on where mobile innovation is headed, and that’s why I’m really excited to introduce him as a panelist for Mobile Madness Northwest, our half-day forum Dec. 6 at F5 Networks in Seattle.

The special Early Bird rate expires today, so act now to get the best price on your tickets.

Chan invests in a wide variety of companies today at Google Ventures, ranging from consumer Internet and mobile to life sciences and biofuels. He’s based in Seattle and invests a lot in the San Francisco Bay Area, but “wherever great entrepreneurs are, I’m there.”

In the mobile sector, his investments range from infrastructure companies like Crittercism and Parse to consumer applications like Astrid and Echoecho. But no matter what the startup is tackling, there’s one thing Chan says he looks for in an investment: the strength of the team.

Yes, you hear that all the time these days, particularly since the shortage of technical talent has reached frantic levels. But Chan says that’s always been his approach, dating back to his product days inside Google when he acquired San Diego’s Urchin Software (the foundation of Google Analytics) and Seattle’s GrandCentral Communications (which became Google Voice).

Those projects showed how small groups of talented people with the right backing could do something huge, even when others thought it wouldn’t be possible. Google Analytics, which injected the search company into enterprise software, was developed with only about 10 people. Google Voice, which attacked the carriers by piling up deals from international carriers, was done with about 14 people.

“Amazing teams can do disruptive and brilliant things. It doesn’t matter what area you’re working in,” Chan says. “The goal right now is to find great teams like GrandCentral and Urchin, teams with a lot of potential and a lot of promise.”

Here’s how he breaks down the characteristics of a special team of entrepreneurs:

Technical talent: Chan’s a coder, and went through the famously intense Google hiring process early on, so it’s probably no surprise that he looks for a very strong technical team, with one or more technical co-founders.

“I see a lot of teams come to me as two MBAs or two business guys,” with the technical tasks outsourced to freelancers. “As an engineer myself, I know how important it is to be able to take my idea off a napkin, and build it out, and test it and send it around to people.”

Hustle: An insatiable appetite for building the business can get a lot done with very little resources. Chan says he saw this play out when developing Google Voice, particularly in the person of Grand Central’s Craig Walker.

“He would get on an airplane and go anywhere,” Chan says. “If there was a crisis, if there was an issue, if we had to go and schmooze with a couple of congresspeople who were sort of skittish about our need to have a bunch of phone numbers, we would do it.”

Expertise: Know what you’re talking about—or have the ability and drive (see above) to find out fast. It’s pretty cheap and quick to start a software company these days, but you won’t have success—or at least, you won’t get Chan’s attention—if you’re not deeply involved in the industry your startup is trying to target.

“Massive amounts of connection and domain expertise,” Chan says. “The two guys who come to me saying, ‘We’re going to build the next biofuels company,’ and they know nothing about chemical engineering—I can’t fund that.”

That’s a taste of what you’ll hear Dec. 6 at Mobile Madness Northwest, and there’s plenty more. But you have to buy your tickets now to get the Early Bird rate, so don’t hesitate. And check out this recent interview with Charlie Kindel, a former Microsoftie who’s now tackling his own startup along with angel investing—we’re pairing these two for what should be a really awesome panel discussion.

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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