Brad Feld is an entrepreneur, investor and dinosaur lover. In that spirit, FAKEGRIMLOCK and I banded together to put Brad on the hot seat. While deftly avoiding being eaten by FAKEGRIMLOCK (who consistently mistakes things for bacon), Brad talked to us about startups, marriage and the changing demographics of venture capital.
Allen Gannett: Brad, are you going to invest in the Facebook IPO and why?
“This event was off the charts”
Gary Vaynerchuk was so impressed with TNW Conference 2016 he paused mid-talk to applaud us.
Brad Feld: Uh, I am not because I don’t invest in public stocks.
FAKEGRIMLOCK: BECAUSE HIM SMART! FACEBOOK FAIL! STOCK’S WORTH NOTHING TWO YEARS FROM NOW.
AG: I mean would you invest in Facebook if you did invest in public stocks? Where do you see it going in two or three years?
BF: See that’s a theoretical question that has no validity in my universe.
FG: SCIENCE RULE!
AG: There was this big overdramatic expose on Sequoia’s scout program, where they allocate capital to entrepreneurs who don’t have their own money to invest and allow them to invest Sequoia’s money. What are your thoughts on this? And does Foundry Group do something similar?
BF: We don’t do something similar. I think the only thing that I’ve found particularly weird about it was the secrecy. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, and someone today actually asked me about it, and I hadn’t given it any thought, because it’s so antithetical to the way I approach things and the way my partners and I think about stuff, which is just we’re out in the open about what we do, we try to be as simple minded as we can about the approach, we want people to evaluate us on our own merits.
And, you know, if you start to look at it, the idea that there are people who are working with venture firms and are helping expose them to early deals is something that’s been going on forever. That’s not a neat thing or unique. What’s strange is this sort of secret dynamic around it, and in hindsight it would be interesting to see where the debate is. My guess is that it’s a lot of noise about nothing, as many of these things are in the tech universe, but it does challenge sort of the dynamic of entrepreneurs who you think are behaving in one way may be actually behaving in another way, or maybe they aren’t, and so the media gets to say that they’re behaving a certain way but they’re not really behaving in that way….who knows?
AG: I think FAKEGRIMLOCK would be a really good Foundry Group scout by the way.
FG: ME GRIMLOCK VERY STEALTHY.
BF: Stealthy? I’m afraid you’d eat everybody before we’d have the chance to invest in them and that’s not the point!
FG: IT NOT AWKWARD
BF: Actually there are probably a lot of people he could eat that we would probably not want to meet with anyway, so.
FG: NOW YOU GET IT!
AG: Most efficient email filter ever!
BF: Cuts down noise!
FG: MMM SPAM!
AG: So, why are you a venture capitalist? Why makes you motivated to do what you do?
BF: Well, I love being involved in creating stuff and I hate running things, and I found the kind of role where I can do that and I can work with really awesome people that are interesting and that I can be involved in ways that are useful to them while creating stuff basically from scratch.
I also get to invest in stuff that I’m excited about, rather than work on things I don’t give a shit about, and you know, fundamentally I don’t have anyone reporting to me and I don’t report to anybody so, my partners and I all work together on stuff. It’s an intense way to live, but it’s a way that’s very focused on the creative process rather than a whole bunch of other noise.
FG: SO ME ASK QUESTION…TO SUM UP, YOU SAY: IF YOU AWESOME, AND NOT WANT TO GO INTO MANAGEMENT, BECOME VC ONLY CAREER PATH.
BF: I don’t know that it’s the only career path, but I think that if you don’t want to manage stuff, doing things where you’re the primary creator is a way to avoid managing anything.
So at Foundry Group, we made a conscious decision not to scale, so our first fund was $225 million, our second fund was $225 million and our next fund will be $225 million. We do about a dozen new investments a year. There are only four of us. We’ll never add another partner.
We have no junior people. We just aren’t scaling! So we spend no time on the friction and all the bullshit of trying to deal with the organization, which by the way is very interesting to many people but to us wasn’t, and the end result is we’ve configured our world so we don’t have to. I think you can do that and be a writer, you can be an indie game developer. I think you can be any sort of maker, but you’re fundamentally constraining yourself into a world that doesn’t have scale.
AG: Why is venture capital so dominated by white males?
BF: A couple of us are Jewish, does that count?
AG: But seriously…
BF: A few of us think we’re aliens from outer space.
AG: Or dinosaurs…
BF: Yeah, I mean I think it’s a challenging problem. There’s a long-term arc that exists not just in venture capital but across the entrepreneurial landscape. I’ve been chairman of an organization called National Center for Women in Information Technology, which has been focused on getting more women involved in Computer Science. And it’s a 6-7 year old organization that’s starting to have some real impact. There’s a bunch of anecdotal reasons, and then there are some statistical and historical reasons, and one of the things I believe is that we’re probably still two generations away from gender parity in a lot of things, and time just has to pass. I mean, you see it pass over time.
Women need role models, men need to be progressive role models for these women, but women also need to be role models for each other, and it’s not something that changes overnight when you’re at the level of imbalance that we’re at. But, there are some really incredible women entrepreneurs, there are now some incredible women investing, and over time my sense is that, I don’t know whether it’s 50/50 but the population of women and percentage of women involved on the investing side as well as on the entrepreneur side will continue to increase.
FG: ME SAY MORE AWESOME WOMEN ALWAYS GOOD IDEA!
BF: I would agree.
AG: Totally. What do you think motivates an entrepreneur? Is it the game? Is it the money? Is it the culture status?
BF: I think there are all kinds of reasons. I mean I’ve been involved in this for decades. I’m 46. I’ve been involved in this since I was 19 when I started my first company. I think there’s only one reason to be an entrepreneur, which is you’re completely obsessed with something. You want more than anything to create that thing.
FG: MENTAL ILLNESS GOOD REASON!
BF: Yeah, if you’re not so obsessed, so passionate about…whatever word you want to use, don’t do it. So, people that are focused on “I’m going to be an entrepreneur ’cause I don’t want to work for the man and I want to be independent,” that’s a bad driver. That doesn’t necessarily drive to something significant. People who say they want to make a lot of money. Look there are a lot of ways to make a lot of money and there are probably a lot easier ways to make a lot of money. To be cool…I mean, the last time I’ve checked, I’ve never really understood that, and the last people I knew that were cool were people didn’t talk to me in high school, and that was a long time ago.
I mean the reason to do it is you’re so obsessed and so excited about something and you can’t not think about it, and you want to bring it to fruition, and that thing can be an idea, product, it can be the idea of the company. Many great entrepreneurs over time, as they develop their businesses, the company becomes the product that they’re obsessed about, and that’s really powerful as well. So it’s not just a piece of software or a narrow thing, but it’s the thing that you’re creating.
You know my partners and I are pretty obsessed about what we’re doing at Foundry Group, and part of that obsession, for example, is understanding really well what we think makes a great venture capital firm, how it works and defining our universe that way. I think entrepreneurs should take the same lens. Define what you think is incredible. Define what you think is going to be awesome, and do it! And don’t be passive about it; don’t be driven by other people’s ideas of what’s interesting. Make it your idea.
FG: IT TRUE! IMPORTANT TO SUCCEED IN STARTUP. RELENTLESS. OBSESSED. UNSTOPPABLE. BASICALLY SAME AS SERIAL KILLER, EXCEPT KNOW HOW TO CODE.
AG: That’ll be a t-shirt.
BF: You know entrepreneurs, axe murders, serial killers, all of this makes sense.
AG: So does that mean you’ll be doing Foundry Group until you retire? Is this your forever job?
BF: No. You know, it’s very interesting, I never thought about my forever job, ever. I haven’t ever had a plan, nor do I ever think I will have a plan, nor do I think I ever want to have a plan. I regularly re-evaluate what I’m doing and think about it in the context of a long arc.
I tend to think in 10-year chunks. I learned that from my uncle. So, you know when I look at my life and think about my 20s and my 30s and my 40s and my 50s, they’ll be periods of time. But I don’t believe that 30 or 40 years from now I’ll be great at this, nor will I be passionate about it, nor will I be obsessed about it, so the idea that I do this until they stick me in the ground doesn’t ring true. I actually don’t know when they’re going to stick me in the ground. Hopefully it’s 170 years from now, it could be tomorrow. You just never know. So, my goal is just to live every moment as much as I can between now and whenever that is, and constantly be asking “am I getting the most out of this experience and this planet as I want?” and as long as I have to stay on this planet, then that’s what I’m going to be focused on.
AG: Can you walk us through the arcs of your 20s, 30s, and now 40s? What were those…
FG: ALLEN, STOP INTERRUPTING! ME BUSY THINKING ABOUT DEAD BRAD!
BF: Is he tasty? That’s the question…
FG: ME KNOW BEFORE HAPPEN. ME ARRIVE WITH BARBEQUE SAUCE.
AG: More of a ketchup guy…
BF: I’m from Texas, I like barbeque sauce…
Well in my 20s I was very focused on my first company. I built that company with a partner. We didn’t raise any money. We were in Boston. That company was bought when I was 28. I told my wife that by the time I was 30, we would be out of Boston, because she was from Alaska, and I was from Dallas, and neither of us were Bostonians, and two months before I turned 30 she told me she was moving to Boulder and I could come with her, so I spent my 20’s in Boston and I moved to Boulder right when I turned 30.
I started making angel investments in my late 20s, early 30s, I started doing venture capital in my early 30s. You know, my 30s were basically an insane period because I had the front end of the Internet bubble as things ramped up. I had some amazing successes and then the Internet bubble peaked and I had some unbelievable failures. You know, I had some failures where not only did I fall into a giant pit, but then somebody poured kerosene into the pit and on top of the kerosene they blowtorched it till everything was on fire…
FG: SOUNDS LIKE FUN!
BF: …and I crawled my way out of the giant pit then a helicopter fell out of the sky and knocked me back down into the pit, and it all exploded again. I mean it was just a really tough two years.
FG: ME THINK AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF BRAD FELD DIRECTED BY MICHAEL BAY, EQUALS BEST MOVIE EVER
BF: But I crawled out of that fucking pit and I survived. I spent a lot of time in my 30s thinking about how I wanted to do what I was doing going forward. What I wanted to work with. And part of that was Foundry Group coming together when I was in my late 30s with my partners, and really that’s been what I’ve focused on in my 40s. So, those are the main themes.
In my 30s, I also had a pivotal moment—probably about 35—with my wife Amy, where I really changed my focus on relationships and the dynamics of how our relationship worked. It wasn’t that I didn’t prioritize the relationship, it’s that I really didn’t sort out the boundaries particularly well, and this is a woman I was deeply in love with, have a great time with, love spending time with, and at this peak in my mid-thirties, she told me she was done. Of course, my interpretation was she had a tough week and I had a tough week, and it was time for a weekend. Her interpretation was I was a shitty roommate. And, that caused me to really change the way I thought about a relationship in the context of all the work that I was doing. But that was a painful part of that.
I started writing about age 36-37. So, I made that a real significant part of my life, and that’s been a big part of what I’ve been doing for the last 6-7 years. Writing is another example of something I discovered in my 40s. I started weaving these different things together as I’ve gotten older, but kind of stepping back, and you know really it’s kind of the end of every year looking backwards and saying, “What are the things I’ve started to experience this year that I’ve found intriguing and what do I want to do more of next year?”
And some years I have better success with that than others. I have plenty of times where I look back at the end of the year and say, “That was kind of a fucked up year.” But overall, the broad arc, when I look back in segments of decades, has been really satisfying.
FG: OH. ME TAKE NOTES! GET RICH WHEN YOUNG. IF GET MARRIED, WIFE GET MAD, START RUNNING.
BF: Run from her!
AG: I mean it sounds like you’re talking about adding structured routine?
BF: Yeah, some of it. I mean, I’ve written a couple of blog posts about how I came back from the brink with Amy in terms of our relationship. The starting problem was I said to her, I’m an engineer, I think like an engineer, my brain works like an engineer so just give me some rules. Her reaction was “that sucks. Rules aren’t romantic.”
It turns out that they’re actually quite romantic because it causes me to behave in a way that is very focused. So for example, I usually get up at five AM most of the time. She gets up at about 6:30. We have two dogs, so I hear the dogs rattling around, and whatever time it is, whether it’s 6:25 or 6:35, whether I’m in the middle of a blog post or email or whatever, I stop what I’m doing, go upstairs, and I do what we call “four minutes in the morning” which sometimes leads to another four minutes but often times us just sitting around and saying good morning.
And after we do that I go back downstairs and go back to my thing, but that way she doesn’t come downstairs and her first experience of me in the morning is me sitting on my computer typing away at something. And we have things like this that don’t take that long to build into routines. Maybe it takes, I don’t know, a month. You know, this is an example: If I’m going to be home, and I have work to do, I tell her before I come home. So she knew I was going to be on a conference call tonight, she’s upstairs doing something. She’s not annoyed that I’m home and working, and I didn’t come home and say, “Hey I’ve got to do this thing for a while.” So, I have a call time and when I get done I’m done.
FG: ME SAY BRAD NEED TO WRITE NEW BOOK. ADVICE ON RELATIONSHIPS FOR ENTREPRENEURS. THERE ARE AT LEAST TWO OR THREE THAT GET MARRIED.
BF: And survived…
So, Amy and I are writing a book this summer. I have a book coming out called Startup Communities, which is about building entrepreneur community in your city. I have a belief that you can do it anywhere, and then we have a second book that Amy and I are working on. We were calling it Startup Marriage, but we felt like that was too limiting, so we’re going to call it Startup Life and the subtitle–I’ve learned if you’re going to write books you have to have a subtitle–so the subtitle is How to Survive and Thrive in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur. And you know, some of it is this kind of advice, but an awful lot of it is incorporating stuff we’ve observed from having some of our friends that have had successful relationships and what works for them, because if anything there’s not a formula. You can’t say this is what it’s going to be. You have to start to think about it in your own context. And every entrepreneur and every entrepreneurial couple has had their ups and downs because it’s just a hard thing. And, you know you’re going on fine and all of the sudden a robot dinosaur comes after you. You’ve got to really be on the ball. And..
FG: ME GRIMLOCK FIND ROBOT DINOSAUR GREAT FOR ROMANCE. NOTHING LIKE FEAR OF DEATH, PUT SPARK BACK IN THE LIFE.
AG: So, how do you create a startup hub? Not to bury the point of buying your book, but what’s the…
F: YES! BACK TO FIRST MORE INTERESTING BOOK!
BF: So I think there are four principles for creating a startup community. First, is that the leaders should be entrepreneurs. There’s a whole bunch of other things around the startup community. But if the leaders are not entrepreneurs, it won’t sustain itself.
Second, is that those entrepreneurs need have to have a twenty year view and a really long-term commitment to that community. So, if you’re an entrepreneur and you want to create and be involved in and sustain a startup community, if you don’t have the long-term view, you can participate but you can’t be part of the leadership.
Third, you have to be inclusive of anybody who wants to be engaged in the startup community, including robot dinosaurs and including all the categories of people I call feeders: Government, Universities, big companies and investors. It has to be inclusive. Oh and by the way inclusive of any entrepreneur or wannabe entrepreneur or new person that moves to the community and wants to be involved in entrepreneurship.
You have to view it as this collection of talent continually collecting people, and the leadership has to have that same viewpoint. So it’s not enough that entrepreneurial leadership is static, it’s that there are constantly new people taking different roles in that dynamic and engaging in the startup community.
And then the fourth is you have to do things from top to bottom that engage everybody. So, things like Startup Weekend, things like accelerators, things like TechStars. You can’t just have Chamber of Commerce award dinners and entrepreneur-of-the-year things.
You also have to have rhythm. So, you know, meetups are a good example of having rhythms where everyone gets together once a month. The lean startup movement is another example. You know it’s brought together people across many communities with a common set of themes.
So if you look at those rules: leadership has to be entrepreneurs, they have to take a long term, 20+ year view, they have to be inclusive of everybody, and there have to be things in the startup community that engage everybody from top to bottom; that’s the meat of it, and then there are an enormous amount of tactics that you put around that, but I’ll talk about that in the book.
But, everywhere you look, I mean I hear this over and over again: “Oh, the only place to start a company is in Silicon Valley,” or something like that. It’s all bullshit. I mean you can have a sustainable startup community in virtually any city in the US, and one of the great things about the culture throughout most of the US is that failure is okay, especially within startup communities, so people who want to play for a long period of time and really want to build something meaningful will have their ups and downs, but as long as there’s this notion of inclusiveness it becomes very powerful.
AG: Mark Suster wrote this post about how you shouldn’t have a co-founder if you are worried about dilution and that you should hire a co-founder or CTO after you have proved some traction.
BF: I actually have the exact opposite perspective. I don’t know if that’s Mark’s holistic perspective, but the specific example, I think that it’s incredibly hard to hire your cofounder. It’s also incredibly difficult to be a solo founder. It works. There are cases of it. My experience is that the best teams are 2-4 founders and product leaning. So at least half the people are focused on product. They don’t have to be developers but they are ones spending all their time thinking about product. If you have four founders and three of the founders are not working on product, the poor product guy can’t get anything done because three people don’t have enough to do so they just fuck with him all the time. Then they just sit around and talk about how the product guy can’t get anything done in time. So the mix matters.
I’m not a fan of solo entrepreneur going to hire technical person to build product for them because that person that they hire, it’s not their business too. As a solo founder, you need to be challenged. It’s very lonely. You are going to go through very low cycles. Being alone in that context as a founder makes it that much harder.
There are two separate thoughts. There are solo founders that are bad. When I look back at all the companies I’ve been involved in, the solo founder cases are the hardest path to success. Second, there are many solo founder cases by the way which are not solo founder cases, you just happen to hear about one of the founders because he or she is the noisy one. There are often two or three founders in the back.
FG: YES. NO ONE CARE ABOUT WOZNIAK AND THAT OTHER GUY.
BF: It’s exactly the point. There’s ego sublimation because there is one founder who whether they know it or not is the face of the thing that is happening, or they are the attractor of everybody, or they put up with the public nonsense. But behind-the-scenes you often have two to three people who in the dark room when things are really dismal are sitting shoulder to shoulder trying to figure it out. And those are rarely people who you hired. It can happen. But it’s atypical.
AG: So Foundry Group led SEOmoz’s $18 million, most public round in history….
FG: ARGH! YOU CHANGE SUBJECT TOO FAST ALLEN.
AG: We can go back! This is the power of editing. Did you have a follow-up question FG?
FG: ME NOT EVEN REMEMBER NOW. ME DIZZY. ME HEAD SPIN. WHAT ARE WE TALKING ABOUT. IS BRAD ON YET? ARGH.
BF: We have goats!
AG: Do you want to ask another co-founder question?
BF: We have f-bombs.
FG: THAT LIKE METAPHOR FOR WORD ‘FUCK’
BF: We have gremlins.
FG: THAT METAPHOR FOR NOTHING
BF: Alright, SEOmoz.
AG: Why are you excited about SEOmoz?
BF: A couple simple reasons. One, Rand is awesome. I mean just off the charts awesome and he’s built a company with a bunch of incredible people. The business itself has been built with almost no money, which totally turns me on. And I dig the attitude and approach of SEOmoz, and the culture of the company.
AG: FG doesn’t like their Robot mascot.
FG: ME GRIMLOCK HAVE NO COMMENT
BF: It’s kind of a weeny Robot, but I like Rod. You guys would be friends actually. You’d like Roger. He’s very clever. He’s very funny and very cynical at the same time. You know how some robots get that mix together? Remember, Marvin the paranoid android. He kind of reminds me of Marvin a little bit.
FG: ME SAY NEXT TIME I MEET MARVIN, PUNCH IN FACE AND HE STILL OWE ME FIVE DOLLARS.
AG: Not a threat, just a statement.
BF: Not a threat.
FG: ME GRIMLOCK NEVER THREAT, ONLY PROMISE.
AG: Why do you love Boulder?
BF: I moved here because Amy told me she was moving here.
FG: YOU ALREADY ANSWERED. IT COMPROMISE. IT ONE-HALF ALASKA, ONE-HALF TEXAS. COLD AND MISERABLE, ALSO HAVE GUNS.
BF: C’mon, Boulder is the opposite of cold and miserable. And we don’t have guns, we’re all happy here. There’s a lot of marijuana here, so there is a lot of anti-guns. We moved here and six months in we knew this is where we wanted to be. It’s a relatively small place, it’s beautiful, and it’s a very smart place.
Of the hundred thousand people, there are an incredible percentage of them that are just smart, and people move here because they want to be here. So it’s an opt-in community, and what’s happened over the last 15 or 20 years is there has become this incredible entrepreneurial activity and the density of entrepreneurs in Boulder is incredible. If you take the number of startups and the number of people working for startups over the total working population, and you constrain for geography so you look at downtown Boulder, my guess is that this density is greater than any place else in the country.
So you are surrounded by other people who are working on startups and young companies and even when those companies become 200 or 300 or 500 people they still have the energy of the startup because they are young businesses.
FG: SO STARTUPS + HIPSTERS = FORMULA FOR SUCCESS
BF: Correct. We have some trustifarians here too. Allen, you know what trustafarians are, right?
AG: Star Trek reference?
BF: No. A trustafarian is that rich dude who sits at a coffee shop and plays on his MacBook all day and pretends to be cool but doesn’t actually have anything to do. So that just gives you some local color.
AG: And also shows that I have no idea about anything related to Star Trek.
FG: LOOK BRAD, BETWEEN YOU AND GRIMLOCK, ALLEN NOT VERY NERDY.
AG: I just fake it with the glasses…
BF: We need to get you some tribbles.
FG: YES, ALLEN THIS WEEKEND WE WATCH ENTIRE ORIGINAL SERIES.
AG: And then I get eaten?
FG: OR YOU GET EATEN?
AG: Such a good deal.
FG: THEN WE MOVE ON TO HARDCORE STUFF, LIKE BABYLON 5.
AG: Well…. Brad, thanks so much. We had a lot of fun and FG didn’t eat us thanks to Skype protecting us.
BF: FG, Nice to see you man!
FG: NICE TO SEE YOU. OR ELSE.
Want more? Coming soon: Dinosaur and Human, a very silly web show from Allen and FAKEGRIMLOCK.