Code Conference

Bill Gurley's warning for start-up investors

Gurley: There's going to be a culling in Silicon Valley

Venture capitalist Bill Gurley sees a lot of entrepreneurs who get it right — and those who get it wrong. And he has a warning for anyone eyeing a Silicon Valley investment.

"The one thing I would remind anybody who's thinking about getting into late-stage unicorn investing right now: You are the lender of last resort," Gurley told CNBC's "Squawk Alley" Wednesday. "They are coming for you, so pay attention. Caveat emptor."

This is the biggest change to hit start-up investing in years

Gurley, a general partner at Benchmark and prolific blogger, spoke from the Code Conference in Ranchos Palos Verdes, California, where media and start-ups gather yearly to hear big-name technology executives speak. This year's event comes at a time when venture capitalists have noted a chasm forming in the field of the so-called unicorns — start-ups valued at $1 billion or more.

Some have been exposed as not having great business models or unit economics, or have been overly promotional about what they are able to achieve, Gurley said. Others are breaking out.

"I think some of the business practices that were celebrated in Silicon Valley in 2014, 2015, were simply undisciplined and unsustainable, and were leading us in the wrong direction," Gurley said. But, he added: "Almost every moment in time in Silicon Valley, there are great companies that come out of it."

One problem with past business practices, Gurley said, was the macroeconomic environment.

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"Macro has played a part here because of low global interest rates," Gurley said. "There's just money everywhere. And believe it or not, even after some of this stuff has started to blow up, there's still money on the side lines peeking in."

Another issue was naivete on the part of entrepreneurs, who according to Gurley are anxious to move toward platforms like virtual reality and artificial intelligence when there is still work left to do on the smartphone.

What [Jeff] Bezos has done most impressively is not just be entrepreneurial, but proven that he can be entrepreneurial at scale.
Bill Gurley
at Code Conference 2016

"One of the things that makes entrepreneurs so cavalier and carefree is that they don't have a lot of experience and data points," Gurley said. "There are certain technologies that take a very long time to play out, and when the hype builds before the actual play, then you're setting yourselves up for this thing known as the 'trough of disillusionment.'"

Gurley pointed to Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who spoke earlier in the conference, as an entrepreneur who has managed to remain impressive over time.

"What Bezos has done most impressively is not just be entrepreneurial, but proven that he can be entrepreneurial at scale," Gurley said. "I don't think any CEO, maybe other than Steve Jobs, has innovated at this level of scale."