Bill Tai: The Kite Guy of Silicon Valley
By Paul Lang and Ryan Riccitelli
Originally Published in the October 2009 Issue of The Kiteboarder Magazine
Like many kiteboarders out there, Bill Tai is passionate about the sport. He was one of the early regulars at Third Avenue in San Francisco Bay, a spot famous for its proximity to Silicon Valley. His enthusiasm for the sport has attracted many of his friends and colleagues to kiteboarding and he has introduced hundreds of kiteboarders to the sport through his annual kite camps in Maui that he organizes with Susi Mai. All in all, Bill is just like the rest of us addicts, kiting every possible opportunity and talking about the sport enough that some know him the “Kite Guy” in Silicon Valley, but what separates Bill from most of the rest of us kite bums is what he does for a living.
Bill is a partner at Charles River Ventures. He is a VC, which stands for Venture Capitalist. This means that Bill looks for people with great ideas and helps them build those ideas into companies that make lots of money. Many of the people that he has introduced to the sport are executives or founders of Silicon Valley companies. Mai Tai kite camps are not only about kiteboarding, but they are also about networking for the aspiring kiteboarders, many of whom also work in the high-tech industry. His story is a great example of one of the reasons kiteboarding is so great: The interesting mix of people doing the sport. On any given day at Third Avenue, you might be sharing a session with someone who lives in his van and someone like Bill who has been involved in 16 startups that have gone on to become publicly listed companies. It goes to show that a sport like kiteboarding can bring together a wide range of people who become friends because they all have one thing in common: Their love for the sport.
Can you tell us a little bit about who Bill Tai was growing up?
I was a typical tech-geek when I was young. I was taking apart TVs in fourth grade and by junior high I was stripping radio shack kits to build circuit boards to fool pay phones with signal tones to make free calls. I loved physics and chemistry and was captain of my high school Mathletes team. Somehow I also managed to be involved in sports year round and was always known as a good athlete even though I was a science geek. I ended up majoring in Electrical Engineering and graduated with honors from the University of Illinois before going on to Harvard for a Masters in Business.
What led you to get into kiteboarding and how has your life changed since?
Other water activities led me to kiteboarding. I started sailing in the mid 80s; Later on a visit to Maui I saw guys doing loops off waves on windsurfers and said to my friend, “Hey, how awesome is that! We can do that!” and converted to windsurfing on that trip. It took me another ten years to get good at it! I saw kites for the first time on a wave sailing trip in 2000 to Punta San Carlos, Baja. Aaron Gershenberg of Silicon Valley Bank got me to go on a trip where Sierra Emory and Ricker Alford (then owner of Extreme Sports Maui) brought two-line Wipika Kites. When I saw them ride I had the same reaction – “How awesome is that! We should be doing that!” That winter a kite found its way to me. It was a 9.5 Naish AR5, one of the first four-line kites on the market. It had belonged to Laird Hamilton, who passed it on to a friend in Los Angeles, who passed it on to a mutual friend in San Francisco named John Murray (an investment banker I windsurfed with), who passed it on to me. In April 2001 I was launching that kite on a field at Coyote Point to teach myself to kite. Since then, as the sport’s popularity has increased over time, kiteboarding has helped me stand out in the tech community in Silicon Valley. While I was definitely not the first kiter in the valley, I was lucky to have been in the early wave of folks to try kiting here.
Many people in kiteboarding only know your name because of the Mai Tai Kite Camps you organize. Can you briefly describe what you do for a living?
While I started my career as a chip designer, I’ve been a venture capitalist for the past 18 years. What I do for a living today is quite fun. I work with creative, passionate people every day to help them start technology-based startup companies. I provide funding to help entrepreneurs start, launch, build, and scale their ideas into sustainable enterprises if there is a chance to build one. Sometimes they don’t work out, but I’ve been fortunate to have been doing this long enough that over a dozen startup projects I’ve touched have grown to a point that they could become publicly listed companies on Nasdaq.
If you find out that the head of a company you are looking at is also a kiteboarder, does that increase their chances of doing business with your firm?
It definitely increases the probability of a first meeting. Thereafter the people and ideas have to stand on their own merits, but the fact that someone kites or is willing and interested to learn tells me something positive about that person’s personality. Anyone willing to kite is likely going to be high energy, confident about their ability to handle complex environments, and not afraid to take calculated risks. If they have been kiteboarding for a while, they are likely folks that are well balanced and have learned not to take stupid risks either, as we all know what happens when you do that!
Do you get many fellow kiteboarders pitching business ideas to you at the beach because they know you are a VC?
Absolutely. Much of the networking that happens in the Valley occurs in informal venues. Open, continuous discussion and testing of ideas are seminal part of the culture of Silicon Valley. There are very few secrets here and as a result, ideas get vetted pretty well before, during, and after they are put to practice. There’s no way to put dozens of passionate tech people within 100 feet of each other and not have people constantly testing ideas out on one another. The continuous dialog, entrepreneur to entrepreneur, entrepreneur to VC, and vice versa is part of what keeps the Valley competitive, fresh, and leading edge.
How does kiteboarding fit into your schedule? Do you get to kite more or less because of your job?
A super good week for me is probably two hours on the water – a Friday afternoon hour session and an hour on either Saturday or Sunday during the windy season. It probably only adds up to around 30 hours a year on the water at Third Avenue. In addition to that, I almost always hit a warm, windy location during vacation and will snow kite a weekend or two in the winter.
Do the thrills you get in the business world rival the ones you get on the water?
The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat feel similar in many ways but they differ in timeframe and scope. The company building process is a super long cycle where feedback from the market is measured in months or years. In kiting you get instant feedback on whether or not you are making real progress. The thing that is common to both is that they are constantly evolving – nothing stays static in either world so they both keep you on your toes. You can never get too comfortable or cocky in either or you will get something handed to you for sure.
You are based in the San Francisco Bay area. What was it like learning to kiteboard there? How does the kiting there compare to other places you have traveled?
I suppose if I had not been windsurfing in the cold currents of the Bay Area first, it would have been more difficult in the sport’s earlier years when the gear was not as conducive to easy relaunching and staying upwind. Now that the gear is so user friendly, kiting in the Bay Area is not that different than warm water places so long as you own a comfy wetsuit. If there are key differences, I’d say that the variety here is tremendous compared to most places. Within a reasonable drive are flattish areas to jump and practice tricks like Third Avenue, wave riding at Waddell, and super interesting and variable conditions at Crissy Field and Ocean Beach among other spots.
I’d also say that the while kiting communities are fun and interesting everywhere I have been, the Bay Area kiting community is unusual in its composition. It’s very reflective of the population base in the Silicon Valley – full of people from all over the world that have dropped everything in life to move to a place where they can most easily pursue their passion and vision around innovation and technology based businesses. People who pursue startups or kiteboard are usually interesting people that are full of passion and persistence, and who have a willingness to step forward into the unknown and unproven with vigor. Kiting and startups appeal to a distinct personality type.
Third Ave. is unique because there is an interesting mix of people who ride there, from the average kite-bum living in his car to the wealthy founders of Silicon Valley tech companies. Does this mix create any tension, or does everyone get along because of their passion for the sport?
Silicon Valley is too expensive a place for true kite bums to live out of a car for very long! But seriously, this question highlights another similarity between kiting and the culture of Silicon Valley. They are both very egalitarian, probably for different reasons, but they share an ethos. The opportunity set the Valley presents can turn any regular tech geek into a financial success overnight, so class lines, if they exist, are very blurred. People here are not necessarily judged by the size of their savings. Rather, they are judged by their thought processes and their ability to lead or contribute to a group’s success. Kiting fits this ethos very well because it is so community driven. Kiting builds community because kiters are dependent on one another in a way that participants in other sports are not. Three years ago, it was not uncommon for me to have to speed dial a dozen people on my way to Third, hoping to convince a single person to kite at the same time so that we could both have someone else there to launch and land. That need at Third is high because it is a narrow spot surrounded by rocks. Compared to other ‘extreme’ sports, there is no other activity that requires you to befriend as many people. If you kite, you need as many friends as possible to get that twelve seconds of help when you launch or land. Without that, the experience is more difficult and much more dangerous as we all know. With help, and with the bonding that occurs in getting to know people that help each other out, life is just richer.
Is it true that you are responsible for getting a number of high-ranking Silicon Valley executives into kiting?
I have definitely become a facilitator for many people that have wanted to learn, including founders and executives from high profile tech companies. I have always been super enthusiastic about the sport and in my earlier years would get dozens of people to give it a try every season. Over time that energy institutionalized itself in my annual camp with Susi Mai. There have probably been several hundred folks from around the world that have come to experience kiting and learn to kiteboard with Susi and me.
Where did the idea come from to start the Mai Tai camp on Maui?
Mai Tai evolved very organically. It grew out of an annual windsurfing trip I did on Maui with a number of tech execs. A group of us would windsurf out of Ken Goldman’s place at Sugar Cove. Once I converted to kiting with Aaron Gershenberg, one by one I got the whole crew to try kiting. Over several years, others from the Valley would come because the trip became known as “the trip” to give kiting a try and to network with interesting folks from Silicon Valley. In 2002 or so, I had introduced a very successful tech startup founder to kiting named Bill Lee, who went on to set up Extreme Hotels in the Dominican Republic as a side hobby. When my Maui trip became too large for me to handle on my own he connected me with instructors and professional riders like Susi, and Mai Tai as we know it was born. He had always wanted me to meet Susi because our names really are “Mai” and “Tai.”
The Mai Tai Kite Camps have been featured on CNN, MSNBC, and Forbes.com. Why do you think the media is so curious about what you are doing?
Kiteboarding is an insanely interesting sport with great visual appeal. Lots of folks that see kiting are drawn to it immediately and can imagine themselves doing it. Similarly, successful tech startups have universal appeal to the business press. Almost everyone has the dream of being in the role of a super successful entrepreneur who has beaten conventional wisdom with the power of innovative thinking to launch a successful breakaway company. They are similar in that respect and massively appealing to the overlap of those communities as a result. I think that because of the subject matter and the types of people that come on our trip, many of whom come from high profile startups, that the business press sees an appealing story that needs to be told.
Describe your dream session on your dream set-up.
Winds in the mid 20’s with a Cabrinha Switchblade or Naish Cult and my 130 cm twin tip from Cabarete Kiteboards. Solid, steady, boosty wind and warm, clear water in a lagoon or river mouth opening up to an ocean with waves.
Anyone that hangs out with you can’t help but feel your genuine excitement or “stoke” for kiteboarding. What is it about this sport that really flicks your switch?
I believe that people feel the most alive when they are learning something new and pushing themselves forward mentally, physically, and emotionally. Kiteboarding is a sport that constantly gives you a sense of growth if you want to stay on that curve. In addition to that, variety is the spice of life. Kiting never gets boring because every day is different, even if you kite in the same spot from day to day. There are so many variables it never really gets routine and it’s forever stimulating. It’s hard to find any sport that can make you feel as alive on a consistent basis.
What is the best advice you can give anyone who is thinking about getting into this sport?
Stop thinking about it and give it a shot, NOW! It’s an amazing sport filled with really interesting people. There’s a great sense of community around the sport as well. The shared sets of experiences you will feel with others who kite will bring out parts of your personality that are good for you. Your empathy for others will increase, as will your selflessness whenever you see someone who needs help. Also, it’s not as hard as it looks, but definitely take lessons from a qualified instructor because you will save yourself a lot of time and avoid a lot of mistakes.
What do you think the kiteboarding industry could learn from looking at Silicon Valley businesses?
I don’t know that there is much to learn there, but the pace of innovation in the kiteboarding industry at this point mirrors the Valley for sure. Silicon Valley businesses are primarily known for their ability to move ahead rapidly to disrupt older businesses with new technology. There is a huge amount of innovation that occurs constantly and some of it works and some of it doesn’t. People are not afraid to experiment. The kiteboarding industry is similar – constant innovation and lots of excitement. I hope it lasts!
Would you ever consider investing in a kiteboarding business?
Historically I have invested in technology from the ‘ground up’ so to speak. Computer chips, leading to systems level hardware, to the software that runs on hardware, to internet infrastructure, and lately consumer web. If there has been a constant, it’s been technology based businesses that are horizontal in nature – meaning applications of technology that might become super high volume in usage. If any segments that touch kiteboarding can fit that model, it’s not out of the range of possibilities.
Originally Published in the October 2009 Issue of The Kiteboarder Magazine