The Tao of Brad

Last week I was on a long mountain bike ride and wound up spending a few hours grinding away on a particular difficult situation one of the CEOs I work with was going through, when some advice Brad Feld gave me years ago popped into my head and I knew it was just what my friend needed to hear. I pulled off the trail, sat down in the dirt and called the CEO. As you’d expect, the idea was well received and I got a call the next day saying he’d already implemented it and how helpful it was.

It struck me how many often I’ve used something I’ve learned from Brad and I began to imagine how many times others have done the same; call it the Brad multiplier effect. I decided to reach out to folks I know who have benefited from a relationship with Brad and see what the most valuable insights they’ve gained from knowing him. What you’ll see here are the responses from a broad spectrum of entrepreneurs, CEOs, angel investors, venture capitalists and friends who’ve spent time with him. I can’t imagine how many more people have similar anecdotes and hope anyone who does will share them in the comments below. 

I’ll start with my own. Years ago, I was wrestling with a significant life decision that while incredibly important to me, didn’t have a sense of urgency attached to it. I reached out to Brad and the next time I saw him we went for a walk (another jewel I’ve learned from him; deep conversations seem to always have more value when away from desks, conference rooms, and other distractions). He listened carefully and when I was finished, he took a deep breath and said “You can’t process when you’re processing.” What he was telling me was that you can’t force a big decision and that the more you let go of it, the clearer it will become to you over time. Of course he was spot on and sure enough, when I stopped squeezing the decision, I ultimately arrived at (in hindsight) one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. I’ve shared this wisdom with so many others over the years and it’s had as big an impact on them as it did for me.

Below, you’ll find all of the responses I received. Instead of giving attribution, I thought it would be more impactful if they were anonymous. Knowing Brad, he’ll have fun trying to connect the dots.

 

As an investor, I’ve learned from Brad that just as you can’t time the public markets, you can’t time the private markets either. I learned from him to invest the same amount of capital year in, year out, in roughly the same number of investments. Ignore the macros. Sometimes you’ll pay too much, sometimes you’ll get a deal and sometimes your investments will be priced fairly. If you do this over a couple of decades, it will all smooth out.

Don’t optimize on price. It never, ever pays off if you’re playing the long game.

Do or do not. There is no try.

I was talking with Brad about angel investing and he shared with me the importance of a portfolio approach and how anyone angel investing should plan for a minimum of 10 investments. “Take the money you have allocated to this asset class and divide by a number 10 or larger.  If you are not going to make at least 10 investments you should make zero.” I took it to heart, made 28 angel investments and have given that same advice dozens of times.

The long game is the only game worth playing

“Give First” — obvious? Yes, but you asked.  This is not something that he has ever said directly to me, but rather it has been my personal true north as it relates to giving first being one of life’s greatest journeys. Brad’s generosity of giving first is fundamental to his personal and professional ethos.  He gives first of himself as a friend, as a mentor, and with his wisdom. He gives first one the most special level philanthropically, not just in dollars, but with time and most tremendous impact.   Brad also gives first by “going first”— in one example, his openness of his own challenges makes him such a special friend in his empathy and understanding. Giving first has become a personal mantra — and it’s through Brad that I’ve fully understood that it’s not a business lesson nor a personal lesson, but a way of being that has created such a fulfilling life. This lesson has had the greatest impact on me in literally every aspect of my life.

Don’t ask me what I’d do. Do what you’d do.

To respond to everyone, no matter who it is or how big or small the ask is because you never know when you may encounter that person again. After 15+ years of working for Brad’s companies, I still don’t know how he does it!

The best advice and insights I’ve received from him came through his use of the Socratic method in our discussions. Two questions he asked me a long time ago still inform my journey in life: “Is this what you want to be doing 5 to 10 years from now?” and “Are you having fun?”

The best advice I have gotten is from simply watching him and I’m lucky to have had so much time with him.

While not advice, I think of the “Dairy Queen Lesson” a lot — one of my favorite things about Brad is how much emphasis he puts on meaningful time and deep dedication to his loved ones.  Meaningful doesn’t equate to big events, hallmark holidays, or occasions, but rather simply investing time with those who are the most important to us, even on the most simple level of sharing an ice cream.  The way he talks about his partnership with Amy and the tremendous respect and love he has for her.  This has helped shaped my own view of marriage and communication with my wife.  I call it the Dairy Queen lesson because of the photos of Brad and his dad through the years, each and always with tremendous smiles and ice cream 1, ice cream 2, and on even ice cream 3 in a day. Those smiles and that mutual love and admiration know no bounds.  This lesson has had a powerful impact on me and have informed my own approach to life as a husband, a father, and a son, a brother, and of course, a friend.

Be intellectually honest with yourself.

So much. However the one that sticks out is right before I became CEO of (xxxxx). I was struggling with maybe it was time to move out of Boulder. I just had my second failure as a CEO and I felt like I needed radical change – and he said “You can move, but that isn’t going to fix your issues – they are inside of you and they will travel with you wherever you go. Stay where you are, get super involved with Techstars and become the most engaged mentor ever and maybe something good will happen when you give more.” Of course I don’t recall his exact words and this is more like my recollection of an entire conversation is summed up in that one quote – but the essence is the same. So far it’s turned out pretty good 🙂

Strangely the best piece of advice I ever got from Brad didn’t actually come from him telling me something.  It came from watching him.  Brad’s willingness to help people without ever expecting anything in return really impacted the way that I think about giving my time to people I don’t know.

I owe my morning routine to advice I got from Brad and it’s had a major impact on me. I’ve found having a routine for getting yourself out of bed is a key part of being able to wake up early. Other wisdom he’s shared with me that I value include establishing a cadence to your life (weekly, quarterly, yearly) and his matrix on cultural fit.

Spend your time with A players if you want to become an A player. Watch them, study them, learn from them.

Doing something for myself on a regular basis. Not my company. Not my wife. Not my kids. Do something that nourishes me or I’ll be useless to everyone else. Took that to heart. Changed my life.  

That’s a hard one Mark – so much good advice from Brad over the years. The best may be something he actually said to someone else, which was the way to best help your community is to do what you’re awesome at (he was responding to someone asking him: “what can I do for you?”).

The good thing about venture capital is you can only lose 1x your money!

So much of the advice that I get from Brad is situation specific. I can’t say that I actually recall him ever giving broad advice vs highly specific advice. One generalization that I will make that I’ve noticed him do often though – when someone will come to him and ask about a tough decision where they are torn between various paths for all these intricate and complex reasons, he’ll cut through the fog and ask some incredibly simple question like “what do you actually want to do?” and then the rest of the discussion is about what if you just did that. He naturally challenges the assumption that these sorts of decisions have to feel heavy, and that’s been a valuable perspective for me to absorb.

To believe in myself.

Hmmmm. I think it’s the concept of taking care of yourself and being healthy; being true to yourself, as well. He’s always been a great supporter of doing what’s best for me even when it’s wicked hard.

Back when I was leaving (xxxxx), I barely knew him, but he took the time to go back and forth with me over email to help me think through some of the things in front of me and I think that email exchange was a big reason I didn’t go do another big corporate exec job. He talked with me about an offer I had at (xxxxx) to move to (xxxxx) and run (xxxxx) and their (xxxxx) business and how I’d spend my time dealing with their legacy tech and fixing old shit that other people broke and how depressing that probably would be, which really resonated with me.  It was the last time I ever considered any sort of bigco exec role.  We talked about viewing opportunities on a disruptive scale. I ended up choosing the “middle path” with that decision and joined (xxxxx), eschewing xxxxx which was on the more disruptive path. Of course, I ultimately joined (xxxxx) to be on the much more disruptive path 🙂

Guilt is a worthless feeling.

The importance of unplugging and being present.  In a fast-paced and sometimes frenetic world, the lesson of unplugging for a digital Sabbath, for time off the grid, and for time with family has been advice Brad has imparted on me.  In one instance, I shared with Brad that I was using social media more than I had wanted to, that I didn’t feel good about it, and I then riffed on a million excuses of why I still did it when I didn’t feel good about being “always on.”  Brad simply said, “why don’t you just stop? Take a break from it for a few months — honestly, what’s going to happen?”  Simple, to the point, and spot on.  The bigger lesson here was being present for our loved ones and for ourselves.  To enjoy life’s special moments. He was right. Stepping away helped me gain an entirely new perspective about letting technology be a tool and not a master.

Don’t get in over your head.  Figure out what you don’t know, and find someone that knows. Don’t fuck it up. Do the thing you love. The simple ones are my favorite.

Nobody stays here by faking reality in any manner whatsoever.

Gosh.  I feel like in so many ways he is another father figure for me. Our interactions over the years have been laden with advice and perspective that I have completely woven into my life. The introduction of the Socratic method into my life is probably the most significant impact he has had. It has changed how I process the world and how I interact with others. He has really shown me how my black/white tendencies can get in the way. Living with buffer around the edges makes things so much better. If you think you can sell something at $10 per unit, yet someone is offering 9.5, stop and think about whether or not a bunch more effort is worth the 0.5; 99% of the time it isn’t, and it’s ego that’s driving you to do silly things just to get exactly what you want. I find his advice is hidden… it rarely comes out as “advice.”

Give first with no expectation for anything in return. Good things always happen.

I have to pick just one? Brad and I went for a walk years ago. I asked him for advice/feedback on trusting myself as an investor. The gist of the advice was “figure out if you even like being an investor before you worry about your performance as one.”

“You would really enjoy mentoring at Techstars.” Brad gave me this advice during the first time we spent time together, on a walk with smoothies through Boulder Creek Park, many years ago.  This suggestion has changed my life in some of the most powerful ways possible. Many programs of mentorship later, I’m so lucky to be part of the Techstars family; from the people, to the companies, to the incredible friendships across the board. For that suggestion, I will be forever grateful to Brad, who plugged me into the Techstars ecosystem.

He told me I was lonely and didn’t seem to realize it. First time it occurred to me that you could be married and lonely.

I actually don’t think it’s anything specific he says but rather how he thinks about the world. He can look at situations intellectually, acknowledging the emotional charge, but not impacted by it. And he can tackle difficult subjects in non-confrontational ways. That’s pure art. He can, more rapidly than anyone I ever met, identify a situation’s biggest asset and also biggest liability, and reorient a path forward around its asset and minimize the liability.  I’ve seen him do this so many times in so many different situations in under 10 minutes. It’s mind blowing. He comes from a place of love and acceptance and generosity. Which is huge given the demands on his time and resources.  He’s probably the least religious person I know who most successfully embodies the teachings of most religions. He’s a philosopher stuck in a VC’s body. He is always asking why, about everything, helping to easily identify what’s important and what’s not. He’s curious about the world, and the space he puts between stimulus and reaction is what enables this curiosity and philosophy. It’s powerful and something I try hard (and often fail at) emulating. He inherently trusts people, which cause them to trust him, which leads to the attainment of their individual highest potential self.  Brad trusts the PERSON, not the outcome. So because he gives them that power of “I’ve got your back” they try risky things, and when combined with his ability to identify the assets and minimize liabilities rapidly, he and a founder is often a winning team. He lives his values. Most people I know speak their value, but act so differently. The hypocrisy has made me so negative on so many levels. But Brad is a breath of fresh air there and gives me faith that people in positions of influence, leadership, and wealth can and do act in the best interests of others. To sum it up, from my perspective, he has transcended the elusive barrier between knowledge and wisdom. I know a lot of smart people. Brad might be the only wise one I know. Wise, but still human. This email was fun to write and think about. If he ever decided to run for office or start a religion, or even start a country, I’d drop everything and support him. And I’m not the groupie type.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Beautiful Continuum

The first time I met Natty Zola was in the old Techstars bunker back in the summer of 2009. He and his co-founder Nate Abbott had recently started a company called Everlater and were going through the Boulder Techstars program. They told me their story about chucking their Wall Street jobs, traveling around the world together and moving back home to Boulder (where they’d been best friends since kindergarten) to start Everlater.

The origin story of Everlater (anagram for Traveler) was that Nate and Natty grew frustrated during their travels that there really wasn’t a good platform to share travel experiences in real time with friends and family back home. They taught themselves how to code, built an elegant site which encapsulated areas for journaling, photos, maps etc., and started building the company.

I knew during our first meeting that I wanted to invest. Their enthusiasm was infectious and Natty & Nate were learning machines. The experience of being involved in building Everlater with these two is one of the truly memorable and gratifying chapters of my career. Ultimately, AOL acquired the company and Nate & Natty took on senior product roles at Mapquest. Here’s a fantastic short video of their journey from inception to acquisition.

 

Two years ago, we were looking for a new Managing Director of our Techstars Boulder program and Natty immediately jumped to mind. He’d been through the gauntlet as an entrepreneur, spent a few years at a large tech company working on product, was born and raised in Boulder and most importantly, he’s an incredible human being with a huge empathy gene. It was the perfect choice and we couldn’t be more thrilled to have Natty running the Techstars program at our original location.

We encourage all of our Managing Directors to become board members or observers at some of the companies that graduate from their classes. As fate would have it, Pana (an incredible on-demand mobile travel agent) went through one of Natty’s classes and recently Natty joined their board of directors. His experience in the travel industry is the perfect fit and Natty’s now in the ideal position to mentor founder Devon Tivona. Where the continuum comes full circle is that Devon was a summer intern at Everlater.

At the 2005 Stanford commencement speech, Steve Jobs said something that’s become my favorite quote of all time.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well worn path.”

When Nate called Natty back in 2008, urging him to quit his high-paying Wall Street job and come join him on the adventure of a lifetime, little did they know where it would take them, but something in their gut told them to trust the universe and just do it. Nate’s gone on to become the Product Manager of Airbnb’s recently announced Trips and together, he and Natty can now look back and connect the dots that brought them to this point in their lives.

Hacking Reference Checking 

We all acknowledge the critical nature of thorough reference checking as it relates to hiring or investing in someone. However, given that most people are reticent to offer a negative reference, most of us struggle with extracting the type of valuable feedback we’re seeking in order to make better decisions. 

Many years ago, a mentor of mine shared a hack for reference checking that I still use today. For me, it still delivers more signal than any other method I’ve come across. Here’s how it works:

Dear Samantha,

I’ve discovered that you worked with Daniel Jones at DKR a few years ago. I’m evaluating an investment in Daniel’s new startup and I’d be grateful if you’d be willing to share some insight with me about your experience working with him. However to be respectful of your time, I’m only asking you to follow up and reply to this email if your experience with him was exceptional. 

Thank you, Mark

We all want to hire or invest in exceptional people. Well, anyone who’s had a terrific experience working with someone will be happy to reply to an email like this, right? Mediocre or less though and they’d probably rather go to the dentist. As you can see, this method allows people to gracefully opt out of those uncomfortable calls while at the same time, delivering the signal you’re looking for. The most important aspect of this approach though is to send at least 10 emails like this, even more if possible. The more data points, the better.

I’m always thrilled when I get a bunch of responses with people telling me that they’d be more than happy to tell me how great someone is and how I’d be foolish not to work with them. On the other hand, a handful of non-responses is a sure sign that I’ve got some more diligence to do. 

Give it a try and let me know how it goes. I’d also love to hear about any other methods people use to make better human capital decisions. 

Why We Invested In Wevorce

Four years ago Michelle Crosby sat down in my office and told me about her plan to completely disrupt the divorce industry. Her story was fascinating: A child who watched her parents go through a brutal divorce becomes a divorce lawyer and winds up going through a divorce herself. She certainly checked the box for domain expertise, didn’t she? The most compelling part of Michelle’s story for me though was the fact that when the law firm she was working for offered her a position as partner, she had an existential crisis and decided to resign instead and that’s when she set out on her mission.

I’ve always been drawn to mission driven entrepreneurs. Folks who lay awake night after night grinding away on how to solve a particular problem. It consumes them and they’re driven by something far greater than money or recognition. Michelle fit the bill to a T. She had grown so disillusioned with an industry extracting obscene amounts of money from people going through a great deal of pain with no other options, that she turned down the brass ring she had been working so hard to earn and set out with not much more than a burning desire to reinvent the very broken process of divorce.

Michelle and her team have built an elegant and easy to use platform designed specifically to keep lawyers from running up bills by playing the middleman and escalating drama instead of avoiding it. Even more importantly, the entire Wevorce experience focuses on the well-being of the children who almost always suffer the most during the divorce process, and it works. Over 98% of the hundreds of Wevorce customers have avoided court and the company’s customer satisfaction metrics are through the roof.

I stayed close with Michelle during the last four years and have enjoyed watching her grow into the amazing entrepreneur she’s become. We participated in the seed capital rounds and when Michelle told me that she was ready to raise her Series A, I didn’t waste any time in getting my partners to spend some time with her. They came away as enthusiastic as I’d hoped they would and we couldn’t be more excited to become the lead investor in such an important company.

Equally gratifying for me is the fact that Wevorce is based here in my hometown of Boise. I’ve been passionate about our startup community for a long time now and I’m thrilled to be joining the board of directors and help Wevorce reach its full potential and become one of Boise’s iconic companies. Michelle has been able to recruit some fantastic talent here and it’s yet another sign that Boise’s rising!

 

Why We Invested In A Circus

Englishman Phillip Astley is credited with creating the first circus in 1768 in England. A war-trained accomplished equestrian, he parlayed his advanced riding skills into a post Seven-Years War career when he opened a riding school where he rode his horses in a circle (a ring) rather than the traditional straight line which allowed him to use centrifugal force to perform advanced trick riding. He later added other riders, musicians, jugglers, clowns, tight rope walkers and acrobats and created the modern day circus. That format stayed largely unchanged for 200 years until contemporary circuses were created in the 1970’s. The most successful of those has been Cirque du Soleil which was created in 1984. 15 million people will see a Cirque show this year and they are approaching $1B in annual revenue.

While obviously wildly successful, it’s been more than thirty years since the Circus was disrupted. This summer, we met a couple of remarkable entrepreneurs who figure it’s time to change that. The moment we met Brent Bushnell and Eric Gradman, we knew instantly that we wanted to be a part of what they were up to and last week we co-led a $6.5M Series A investment (along with our friends at Foundry Group) in Two Bit Circus, the circus of the future. At Techstars, nothing excites us more than meeting mission-driven entrepreneurs and these two define that. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine Brent under the big-top with P.T. Barnum and Eric’s got both the imagination and roboticist chops to make Two Bit’s studio in LA the most amazing ideation lab we’ve ever seen. Most importantly, they’re both crazy enough to believe they can change the world.

Instead of sitting back and watching a circus, Brent and Eric believe that the experience should be completely participatory. Two Bit Circus is a modern tech-driven immersive circus encapsulating many components of the future of tech. Lasers, robots and virtual reality are just a taste of what they’re incorporating into their flagship STEAM Carnival this year which will be held at Pier 48 at AT&T Park in San Francisco next weekend (Nov 6-8). If you’re going to be in town, you don’t want to miss this! Use the coupon code “brent” for a few dollars off. You can get tickets here. I’m flying in for it and bringing my son. Hope to see you at STEAM!

 

 

Communication Breakdown

Over the last few months, I’ve watched three separate episodes of blowups between co-founders or between CEOs and board members. In each case, it’s evident in hindsight that it wasn’t a single act, but historically poor communication which led to pent up anger that ultimately boiled over into fractured relationships. These wrangles have not only caused harm to the individuals, but created collateral damage among the management teams of the companies as well.

During the early years of marriage, many young couples inevitably reach a point where they have to learn to communicate better or watch the foundation of their new relationship begin to crack. Little things like left-open toilet seats, uncapped toothpaste tubes and lights left on foster passive-aggressive behavior until someone explodes over something silly like dirty coffee spoons left on the counter instead of in the sink by their mother-in-law (yup, that was me). Luckily I’m married to Pam, a woman who has patiently taught me to be a better communicator and finally, after more than twenty years together, has been hinting to me lately that her work with me might be nearly completed.

As anyone reading this knows, building startups are indescribably taxing, even among the most functional teams. With everyone moving at warp speed, it’s easy to get frustrated and annoyed by little things that colleagues say and do. As someone who leaned towards passive-aggressive behavior when I was younger, looking back, I know I didn’t always handle these types of situations with patience and understanding. I can think of a couple of valuable relationships in my career that were irreparably harmed through poor communication on both sides. While I’m not big on regret as life is one big learning experience, in hindsight, I’m confident that healthy, open and honest communication would have saved those relationships which mattered a lot to me.

Two years ago, David Cohen told me he wanted to bring in David Brown as our partner to manage the operational growth of Techstars (absolutely brilliant move, he’s an operations ninja). He and David had worked together for almost 25 years across three startups. I soon found myself in a partnership with two people who had been working together since college. The two of them talked like an old married couple while David Brown and I spent the first few months feeling each other out. We certainly had our share of miscommunications (and still do) but we quickly developed a real knack for diffusing them in real-time or shortly thereafter. “Hey, when you said yada yada about that thing this is how it sounded to me” or “Your email to me earlier today felt a little off, is everything ok?” has become the norm between us. It’s fostered an incredible working relationship and a deep mutual respect.

After a couple of decades of being around management teams and boards of startups, it’s clear to me that healthy communication is a big stumbling block for many and causes a good deal of harm not only to the two parties, but the momentum of the company itself. If you see it happening in your company, you might want to consider bringing in a coach like Jerry Colonna and his team at Reeboot.io who can help a team get through these issues.

Halfway through my 50th trip around the sun, I’m far more focused on quality, high-functioning relationships than being right or getting my way these days. As those close to me might attest, I still have my moments, but I’ve learned that being thoughtful, proactive and choosing my words carefully produces much better outcomes than the power play of passive-aggressive behavior or the instant gratification of lashing out.

Past Is Prologue

It’s almost surreal for me to think that exactly twenty years ago, I was a green twenty nine year-old working on the first startup financing of my career and that yesterday, we announced our new $150 million fund at Techstars. Many people have heard Steve Jobs’ famous speech about only being able to connect the dots looking backward and I’ve been reflecting lately on the dots that brought me to this new and exciting chapter in my life.

When I moved to Idaho and co-founded Highway 12 Ventures in 2000, I never could have imagined that it would lead me here to this moment in time. I was a young, brash east-coaster, trying to raise my first small fund ($25M). Pam and I started out living in her mother’s house and had a one-year old daughter with a son on the way. With the dotcom bubble imploding, it was probably the worst time in the last fifty years to try and raise a venture capital fund.

With the help of Jim Hawkins and our terrific partners at Village Ventures (Matt Harris, Bo Peabody & Matt Warta), we somehow raised the fund. Around the same time I met Phil Reed, the amazing partner who’d I’d go on to work side-by-side with for the next dozen years. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have had his mentorship all these years. He’s been part father, part brother to me and his impact on my life has been profound. As Phil enters the twilight of his remarkable career (which included founding or co-founding over a dozen companies including both ComputerLand and BusinessLand), any startup would be lucky to have him as an outside director. His wisdom and kindness is immeasurable.

I’d also like to thank Mike Mers, George Mulhern, Glenn Michael, Decker Rolph and Eric Breon who all made enormous contributions to the success of Highway 12 Ventures along the way. I’m grateful to all of them. The most special thanks go to my amazing assistant Denise, who is currently finishing up kicking cancer’s ass with a grace that’s been an inspiration to everyone who knows her. I could never do what I do without her incredible support. I’m also thrilled that one other person who made a great impact at Highway 12 Ventures has recently joined Techstars. Derek Keller (who cold called me for a summer internship after graduating college 8 years ago) has done an unbelievable job as an associate and then principal at Highway 12, and has now joined Techstars Ventures as a principal.

Connecting the dots to this next chapter, David Cohen wrote a beautiful post yesterday about how it came together and Brad Feld added his perspective in this wonderful piece. I feel so fortunate to be working with 60 absolutely remarkable people at Techstars. We’re empowering entrepreneurs worldwide with the network and resources to build successful businesses wherever they want to live. David Brown wrote a great summary the other day about how we’re doing here.

In his uniquely special way, David Cohen did such a beautiful job in his post recognizing so many people who have contributed to the magic that is Techstars. The Managing Directors, Program Managers, Associates, Hackstars, Staff and Mentors are what make Techstars such a special place for the founders who choose to partner with us.  I echo David’s sentiments about all of the incredible people we get to work with. They make Techstars a community filled with such positive energy that you can’t help feeling fortunate to be a part of.

While David mentioned them all, I’d like to point out a few people by name who have made this such an incredibly rewarding experience for me. Molly Nasky, David Brown, Jason Seats, Nicole Glaros, Ari Newman, Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Words can’t begin to express my gratitude.

Lastly and most importantly, thanks for saving a seat on the train for me David. You inspire me and everyone around you. It’s a helluva ride…

 

 

 

 

Why We’re Excited To Be Investors In Ello

Ello

There’s a good deal of buzz today about our latest Techstars investment in Ello and we’re really excited to be co-leading their Series A financing along with Foundry Group. However, this isn’t our first investment in Ello. We’ve actually been investors since January when we participated in their seed round along with Fresh Tracks Capital, eight months before Ello even launched their private beta. If you’re on Ello, you can read my partner David Cohen’s thoughts on our seed investment here. We invested then for the same two simple reasons we’re re-upping today:

1) We believe that most people want an online social experience free from a continual barrage of ads and the risk of having so much deeply personal data sold to 3rd parties.

2) We’ve gotten to know Paul over the last few years and believe that he’s the type of person Steve Jobs was describing when he narrated this in 1997. Simply put, Paul’s crazy. Crazy enough to believe that he can change the world. For us, he’s the type of entrepreneur we yearn to work with:

Can Ello succeed without selling out to advertisers? That remains to be seen. Will Ello sell out to advertisers? Absolutely not. In fact, we’ve signed and support the Ello charter which expressly prohibits this. Our investment is based 100% in our belief that people are willing to pay for a better online social experience. How that manifests itself will be determined over the months to come. One thing’s for sure: Paul’s been quoted many times saying “We’ll either build a business that doesn’t rely on third party advertising or the selling of user data or we won’t build a business.” As investors, we’ve signed up for that.

Ello has become a lightning rod in the media and social streams the last few weeks. It seems half the people absolutely love it and the other half can’t help scorning it because of its minimalist design and sometimes wonky user experience. One thing’s for sure, everyone’s certainly talking about it! For us, that reinforces the notion that people are hungry for a better online social experience. To those that are questioning the functionality and sparse feature set, remember that today, Ello is still a beta version. The mass exodus from Facebook was unexpected and the team is working feverishly to handle the deluge of new members. There’s a rich and exciting product roadmap driven by feedback from early users and the capital from this financing will allow the company to secure the human and technical resources necessary to roll these out at scale. We’re confident that in the months to come, the Ello experience will reflect what many people are searching for in an online social network.

Our investment will also allow me to work closely again with Seth Levine from Foundry Group. We became great friends when we were on the board of Lijit together and I’m excited to work closely with him again to help bring Paul as many resources as possible in building this exciting company. You can read Seth’s thoughts about Ello here.

I really hope you’ll take some time to come experience Ello. Personally, I really enjoy the simplicity and open space which lends itself to a beautiful visual experience. If you do, I hope you’ll connect with me, I’m @marksolon.

Jukely: The Perfect Way to See Live Bands

I love seeing live music. I’ve got a steady group of friends I go see bands with and we’re always on the lookout to see up and coming artists playing in our town. Generally, we use an email chain to alert each other and drum up a group to see a show, often leaving people off or discovering a show too late.

Earlier this year, I met Bora Celik and Andrew Cornett, co-founders of Jukely when I visited the Techstars NYC program. When I first sat down with them and they told me they were going to change the way people discover and see new bands play live, I was pretty skeptical. Then they showed me the product.

Boom! Jukely has quite simply created the perfect method to discover, share, buy tickets and see live bands with your friends. The product just rocks. Check it out.

Searching For A Technical Co-Founder

  • Yale University
  • Goldman Sachs
  • Navy SEAL Officer and Instructor
  • Harvard Business School
  • Firefighter
  • Personal Trainer
  • Motivational Speaker
  • Startup entrepreneur

Sounds like a pretty amazing career, right? Meet Phil Black. You’re looking at Phil’s bio. Did I mention that he accomplished everything above before the age of 40? I’ve gotten to know Phil pretty well over the last three month as he’s the founder and CEO of FitDeck, one of the 10 companies which recently graduated from the Nike+ Accelerator powered by Techstars. Fitdeck is a series of cards with easy-to-use body-weight exercises that you can do anywhere for a quick and efficient workout.

philblackdemoday

Phil Black talking about FitDeck at the Nike+ Demo Day

The idea for FitDeck is based upon a card game that Phil and his buddies on the Yale Basketball team would play called PUG (short for “push up game”). They’d use a deck of cards and do push ups until based upon the cards drawn until there was only one man standing. When he became a Navy SEAL, he taught the other SEALS the game and they’d play PUG all over the world – on aircraft carriers, battlefields and anywhere else they didn’t have the training equipment to remain in world-class physical shape.

When Phil left the Navy, he created FitDeck and would up selling over $4,000,000 worth of cards from his garage. He then applied to the Nike+ Accelerator with the notion of making Fitdeck digital and mobile – quick, easy to understand body-weight workouts on your smartphone.

As I mentioned earlier, Phil’s just graduated from the top digital fitness accelerator in the world and has a terrific business model to disrupt the mobile fitness industry. About the only thing that Phil lacks is a technical co-founder. He is looking for someone at a VP Engineering level willing to relocate to San Diego (Phil lives there with his wife and four sons – can you imagine how much testosterone is in that household?).  He’s looking for a partner with great product vision, technical skills (mobile and web), architecture background and platform experience who has built a scalable mobile app. Coding in the beginning is important but ultimately he desires someone who would grow into the CTO role over time.

Phil talking to an investor at Nike+ Demo Day

Phil talking to an investor at Nike+ Demo Day

If you’ve got the technical chops described above and are looking for to partner with an terrific founder with great vision to build an important company in the digital health sector, look no further. It won’t take you more than a few minutes with Phil to see what I mean. As you can imagine, I’m incredibly fortunate to meet and get to know a lot of remarkable people through my work at TechStars and Phil’s one of the most extraordinary I’ve come across. If you’d like to talk to him about this, you can reach him at phil at fitdeck dot com.