With Valentine's Day just around the corner, love is in the air here at Elevator Pitch. Whom better to profile this week than married venture capitalists Trae and Steve Vassallo?

Trae's a cleantech and consumer software investor at Kleiner Perkins, while Steve's at Foundation Capital -- where he invests in cleantech and consumer software! Does this make for uncomfortable pillow talk? Elevator Pitch tells all.

Q: How'd you get into this racket?

Steve: My parents will tell you my engineering career was somewhat preordained by the Lego truck I built at age 11 with a four-speed transmission and fully articulating suspension. I really started my career as an engineer and product leader at IDEO, where I was fortunate to lead projects including Cisco's now ubiquitous VoIP family of phones (you may have seen them in the headquarters of Jack Bauer's Counter Terrorist Unit on TV).

After IDEO, I led engineering at two companies, Immersion and Ning. My early adventures taught me a lot about the entrepreneur's journey and inspired real admiration for those who are trying to change the world. Eventually it led me to Foundation Capital.

Trae: Following my gut, listening to smart people and taking smart, calculated risks all contributed to where I am today.

I'm grateful to an amazing set of mentors who were key along the way. Dennis Boyle hired me at IDEO, then tasked me with engineering the Palm V. Donna Dubinsky and Jeff Hawkins inspired me to go to business school to become an entrepreneur. Professor Andy Grove introduced me to John Doerr, who introduced me to my co-founders at Good Technology.


Advertisement

John later invited me to join KPCB as an entrepreneur in residence, and I worked my way up over 10 years to general partner.

Q: What kinds of pitches are you looking for now?

Steve: In some cases I invest behind a thesis. Back in 2008, I met two brilliant entrepreneurs who were reinventing the way residential solar systems should be sold. Today, Sunrun is a leading provider of residential "solar as a service," through which they're giving homeowners the power to become their own electric company.

In other cases, I invest more opportunistically. I believe the best investors walk a fine line between having a point of view and having an open mind.

Trae: I particularly enjoy opportunities where I have some unique insight to offer, whether it's my experience in smart connected devices or my point of view as a geeky working mother of three. I love beta testing new technology and have turned our house into a living laboratory. I expect to see the home be dramatically transformed with technology in the coming years. This includes how we manage the diminishing line between work and home.

A few years ago, it was simply too hard to put anything technologically complex into the house, where you have no IT group to fall back on. With today's intelligent devices, the hardest issue is connecting to the network.

Q: What's the biggest mistake entrepreneurs make?

Steve: The first is asking me to forward their business plan to my wife ...

In seriousness, three things come to mind. When it comes to products, it's a mistake to try to do too many things. I've always found that success for startups is about doing one thing 1,000 times better than everyone else.

Entrepreneurs invent the future, so by nature it's hard to get people to see that future. That's why you've got to always be selling: Selling recruits, selling investors, selling customers.

And then perhaps the biggest mistake: choosing the wrong partner. Without partners and investors who have the same value systems and want the same things, your journey is likely to be nasty, brutish and short.

Trae: Great entrepreneurs must be great storytellers. I often meet entrepreneurs who are too literal. For example, when describing their product, they focus on describing key features in great detail. A good entrepreneur needs to inspire. This often means taking a step back and focusing on the bigger picture.

Q: What's the next big thing going to be?

Steve: Everything is up for grabs. Four years ago, who would have predicted that the taxicab experience would be reinvented? So the only honest answer I can give is that I'm optimistic that there is more than one next big thing, and I'm eager to find it (before my wife does).

Trae: The computing revolution is not stopping at the mobile phone. The smartphone technology stack is being further miniaturized, commoditized and embedded into many different important objects in our lives, from smart cameras and thermostats to wearable devices.

Today, I have iPhone apps that give me more control and insight into our cars, our dog, our kids and our house. This trend not only affects the home and family life but also the enterprise. Smart buildings, smart homes, smart cars are becoming a reality.

Q: You guys essentially cover the same investment areas for competing firms. Do you have 'his' and 'hers' secure Wi-Fi networks at home?

Steve: We've got three amazing kids who serve as a terrific forcing function to not talk about work at home.

Trae: That said, this industry is co-opetive: we compete and we cooperate. I was able to source Silver Spring Networks through my relationship with Steve and his team. And we still laugh about competing over Opower; we had a sneaking suspicion that we were both engaged, based on the mystery trips back East.

At any one time, our focus areas tend to be slightly different. Though I did recently reach out to a company to suggest a meeting, and the CEO responded that my husband had just invested.

Q: How did you two meet?

Steve: By the dull glow of the oscilloscope in our electronics lab at Stanford. And then many "dates" to pick up transistors at Fry's. Total nerd love.

Trae: For a recent anniversary, I actually gave Steve one of the exact oscilloscopes from that lab.

Since Stanford, we have had surprisingly similar career trajectories. We both worked at IDEO, then went to Stanford Business School (at different times), and we both helped start companies. We got married and had our first child before either of us ended up in venture.

And while I was in venture first, I did not lure Steve up to see some term sheets.

Contact Peter Delevett at 408-271-3638. Follow him at Twitter.com/mercwiretap.