Brad Feld on venture capital, routines, and Yoda


 

Rohan: The month of May was a wonderful month for Real Leader interviews. I had the opportunity to interview some fantastic people and it has been an absolute pleasure meeting new people with the ‘Real Leaders Interview’ excuse! Brad Feld has been on my daily blog digest for many months now and it was wonderful to have found a slot in his calendar after multiple email exchanges with his wonderful assistant, Kelly.

As always, I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did!

About Brad Feld

Brad has been an early stage investor and entrepreneur since 1987. Prior to co-founding Foundry Group, he co-founded Mobius Venture Capital and, prior to that, founded Intensity Ventures, a company that helped launch and operate software companies. Brad is also a co-founder of TechStars.

Brad currently serves on the board of directors of BigDoor, Cheezburger, Fitbit, Gnip, MakerBot, MobileDay, Oblong, Orbotix, SEOMoz, Standing Cloud, and Yesware for Foundry Group. Previously, Brad was an executive at AmeriData Technologies after it acquired Feld Technologies, a firm he founded in 1987 that specialized in custom software applications.

In addition to his investing efforts, Brad has been active with several non-profit organizations and currently is chair of the National Center for Women & Information Technology, co-chair of Startup Colorado, and on the boards of Startup Weekend and the Application Developers Alliance. Brad is a nationally recognized speaker on the topics of venture capital investing and entrepreneurship and writes the widely read blogs Feld Thoughts and Ask the VC.

Brad holds Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in Management Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Brad is also an avid art collector and long-distance runner. He has completed 21 marathons as part of his mission to run a marathon in each of the 50 states.


Rohan: Would love to get a sense on your story before Foundry group!

Brad: I grew up in Dallas, Texas. My dad was a doctor. My mom was an artist. I was interested in computers at a very young age. For my Bar Mitzvah, I saved money to buy an apple computer! I was always playing around with computers. I went to MIT for college. I lived in Boston starting in 1983.

I had a couple of failed efforts running companies in school. I eventually started my first business with a partner called Feld technologies. We started the company in 1987. It was self funded. We had 10 bucks and that was the money that went into the company! We built a business over 7 years. We had to be cash flow positive as we had no money and we would make money every month. Eventually in 1993 we sold it to a couple of companies. It was a 20 person, 2 million dollar business at that time.

Rohan: What did you do at Feld Technologies?

Brad: It was a software consulting business and we wrote custom software for small and medium sized companies. Some of the companies where in the Boston area and some were across the country. We did PC based applications at that time when client-server concept was still new. We started writing Database applications. People did not know how to build PC based software. So we took a very computer science approach and built some very robust applications, early on in the life of personal computer.

That business was bought by a couple of companies that grew up to be a very large company. We were probably 6th or 7th of 40 odd companies. I worked with this company which was a larger version of my company. The guy that was the CEO of that company ended up running all the consulting business. I worked with 2 co-chairmen on MNA stuff, technology strategy and things like that.

Sometime later, I started to make angel investments. In 1994 when I was still in Boston I invested in a bunch of companies, early on in the life of the commercial Internet.

In 1997 I joined with a couple of guys and started a venture firm that eventually became Mobius Venture Capital. I continued to start companies but also did a lot of investments during that period of time. Eventually Mobius grew and had a lot of success early on! The Internet bubble was very tough on Mobius but we still managed the remaining Mobius portfolio. Today, a number of those companies are still active. My three partners and I started the Foundry group in 2007. We have been investing in early stage software developing companies. Since then we have made around 45 investments all around the US.

 

Rohan: Why the switch from entrepreneur to VC? Both are very different games I would think..

Brad: I was CEO for 7 years and I was probably a pretty good CEO because we built a nice company. But I didn’t love it. When I started investing as an initial investor I had a ton of small investment as an early stage angel investor. I really liked working with CEOs and entrepreneurs and really liked the fact that I was not the one running the company day-to-day. As I did more and more of that, it eventually turned into a venture capital activity.

It took me a while to separate the two constructs. Even when I was doing venture capital I was still starting companies. As the chairman, I was providing a lot of leadership and running companies. It wasn’t until I got to the other side of it – I had to then choose between being an entrepreneur and the investor.

 

Rohan: What have been some of the defining moments through this journey?

Brad: A particular defining moment for me was obviously selling my first company. That was pretty substantial and impactful. We really did not plan on selling our company. It was an accident that somebody found us and bought our company! Later, the two people I worked for were excellent entrepreneurs and had been extraordinary mentors of mine – Len Fassler and Jerry Poch.They are two people I learnt an enormous amount from. That’s been a great relationship.

Another was my move to Boulder. My wife Amy, a couple of months before I turned 30 told me she was moving to Boulder and I could come with her. We did not know anybody here, we just moved randomly. It has ended up being a spectacular place to build a life!

The 1999-2000 time period was on the positive side and the 2001-2002 time period on the negative side were incredibly impactful. They were extraordinarily busy times. On the upside of it, it was very chaotic and fun and invigorating – the downside of it was excruciating. The juxtaposition of these two really enforced me the importance of building substantial companies. It taught me about being in it for a longer view!

I learnt a lot about public markets. I learnt a lot about sentiment of individuals. On the down side of the curve when everybody got crushed, you really learnt many didn’t do it because they were excited about things about building companies and were just in to make a buck. So that was powerful!

Many of the experiences went out of Mobius and went into Foundry. And 2005-2007 formed a lot of the views my partners and I shared. We all worked together in Mobius. We had all had the experiences with different vantage points. One of the things we decided was to create a firm that was just the four of us, focus on doing things that we were great at, doing things we love with the people we enjoy working with and not worrying about too much of the other stuff!

 

Rohan: Why Boulder, of all places? I know you are trying to build a community of entrepreneurs there..

Brad: Boulder was random. I grew up in Dallas. My wife Amy grew up in Alaska. Boston was very good to us but we decided to move somewhere! I spent a lot of time in Seattle and San Francisco and Los Angeles. I did not really want to live in any of those three cities. So we chose a place, which was more connected to a larger city. I also was traveling a lot to the east coast and west coast. So moving to the centre made sense!

We moved to Boulder with the idea that if we did not like it, we would just try something else. We picked a place we thought was a starting point but we did not have any preconceived notion. 6 months in and it was phenomenal!

I look back and I think there was a little bit of thought that went into form the standpoint of looking at places which were high in the mountains or near the ocean or were liberal places. We wanted to move to a place we would be comfortable with. There weren’t that many of that on the west coast or the east coast. We also did not really want to be on either coast. So all that was part of the drive!

 

Rohan: How did you convince all your partners to move with you? Was there a community of entrepreneurs already in Boulder?

Brad: One of my partners Seth had been living here in Boulder for a long time. The other two Ryan and Jason were both living in the bay area. We had long conversations and they made a commitment to move here as part of us forming this firm together. Part of the discussion was that I did not really want to have the distributed organization. I had been in a satellite office for Mobius and had to go to California all the time. It was really hard and I did not want to do that anymore.

It wasn’t that they had to move in to show their commitment but it was a big commitment on their part to make it. They have done so with vigor! They maintain their ties back in the valley as well. My friend Ryan and his wife Katherine they keep a house there as well. But Boulder is also a part of their lives now.
Jason’s loved this town and made his presence here. It was a lot of conversations about how we want to be together and have our families together. We don’t want to be dispersed. That was something that was important to us!

Boulders always had a lot of entrepreneurial activity. The natural food industry was created here. Companies like Celestial Seasonings and Whole Foods were created here. In this area you have always had a lot of storage and telecommunication and lots of data services businesses. So there was a lot of software engineering talent in and around Boulder. It has a very smart community. It’s a college town and 25% of the population is tied with the university. There are a lots of PhDs and hippies here. So, a lot of people live their lives the way they want to live rather than the way somebody thinks they should live!

So all that’s been very satisfying. From that has emerged a real commitment to the community and to doing something that is durable. The software internet community here is extraordinary and that’s a function of many factors, a whole bunch of leadership and a whole bunch of activites.

 

Rohan: Who were your big role models? Who are still?

Brad: A handful of them I guess. My dad is one! I have written about him a lot. My uncle, dad’s brother Charlie Feld has also been a huge mentor of mine and as well as a business partner. He and I have worked on an enormous amount of things. He is a very successful CIO. In his career, he was involved in running large tech infrastructure companies. When I was a teenager, he used to let me come to Boston and expose me to tech companies by including me in meetings!

I mentioned Len Fassler. He and I had worked on a number of companies. Some successful and some not. He’s an incredible mentor, friend and partner in many different activities!

I don’t have a personal relationship but have a lot of emotional and intellectual loyalty towards Warren Buffet. I love the way he articulates about business and how he does things. There are a lot of pieces of things he does that I have deep respect for.

I would say that Yoda is one of the influential non-humans on my arc. I think that the style and character of Yoda, the understated-ness of him and his ability to be a total bad ass with his light saber is amazing. His willingness to continue to invest in the next generation of people/leaders is something I aspire to when I look at my hopefully very long life!

 

Rohan: You mentioned that Foundry manages 45-46 companies and then a few from Mobius. What makes you get up from bed all energized?

Brad: Its very very simple! I love working with people who are creating new things. I love the energy and the process and the exploration of starting with an idea and creating a product from the idea. The product can be software or things like a Sphero, a company that came through Techstars, a ball that you can control with your iPhone (See President Obama playing with Sphero). Bringing that product from idea through concept, creation, them releasing it, manufacturing it and finally getting it to peoples hands is awesome!

Being involved in the company’s growth is amazing. Zynga would be a great example that many people know about. I was involved in Zynga. We made an investment with about 10 people still in the company. They are an incredibly satisfying experience. Its not just the outcome, its the whole process. Being involved with the entrepreneurs and the early people in the company to try to do something special!

That inspires me. Through Foundry and TechStars I have seen hundreds of companies come up. We are very supportive of many other companies and many other people who are not investors. We also try to be available to any entrepreneur that wants to engage with us!

 

Rohan: There’s been so much news about Facebook going public. And then there are companies like GE, which are making real world products. So I know you have a lot of views on this and on Robots.. Where do you think the world is now? What are we going towards?

Brad: I can say this publicly and I believe that the machines have already taken over! I don’t have a post apocalyptic future view. I believe that the humans and machines are interdependent from now. I think the machines are our friends and we should view them as such. Humans have been trying to kill humans ever since the beginning of time. You know the anthropomorphism of machines trying to kill humans erratically is well unfounded. If that happens its okay, because they are probably never going to win.

Lets not worry about that scenario. Lets worry about the scenario that’s a human enhanced computer future and a computer enhanced human future. Lets continue to work and innovate and create amazing things that enhance our lives on this earth. We should recognize that there are some things about us as humans that uniquely are ours. There are things about the machine innovation and its intersection with the humans that we do not understand. Right now there aren’t a lot of biological computers yet. They are starting at a point where interaction between the human physiology and the machine workings is getting deeper.

I think in the next few years the development will be just mind blowing. I think it’s awesome to be in the middle of it all! Communication and governance whether its government or companies are shifting dramatically from hierarchy to network. And that reflects the dynamics of how machines interact with each other. I think the ability for us to have this conversation, for you to report this and broadcast it wherever you want is amazing. I clicked a couple of buttons and now we are talking. Go back 40 years in time, this would have been the science fiction of 40 years ago!

Even today we go ‘Gosh I want to be in front of my computer’ or ‘I have to get to a screen’ or ‘I was late to discuss this because I was in another thing 20 minutes away from here’. I should be able to start the conversation when I just start driving. I should have pressed a button and my car should have driven itself. We should have just had our conversation. So we can see how this will happen in 2050 or if you keep extrapolating from today. We are on that trajectory! More and more amazing companies are going to emerge. I don’t want to be predicting the specific future of all this. But what I do want, is be part of the ecosystem around the creation of all this!

 

Rohan: You have a goal to run marathons in 50 states. How did that happen?

Brad: The stimulus for that was I was fat. I was a skinny kid. I weighed about a 170 later and I slowly got up to the 200s after college. At the peak of Internet bubble I was about 240. I gained a lot of weight and I used to look like Homer Simpson! I looked myself in the mirror every now and then.

The motivation was to integrate fitness into my routine. Changing diets and losing weight created health concerns and I was curing that by taking medicines. I wanted the process to keep going so I came up with a big goal. I ran in high school and later in college. So I came up with this goal of running a marathon on every city. Act of running is substantial but the long hard goal of doing 50 of these was powerful.

I have 21 now. I don’t think you can really master something like a marathon because you have different things you can learn and do. But I understand what it is now. I have done 21 of them I am confident that unless I injure myself I will finish! My wife and I are having a nice time exploring the US as part of this activity. I do it on weekends so I get to explore the city wherever.

I also think running has become a source of meditation for me. It gives me a chance to be alone with my thoughts, to be away from everybody else and to listen to music. I like to run alone and usually not with company. I like to get the emotional/spiritual activity along with the physical activity.

 

Rohan: What are some of these productivity routines that help you keep it sane in all your traveling?

Brad: Some of the routines are tactical and I use them when I am working. The simple ones would be that I try to get up at 5 o clock every morning. On weekends I don’t, but during the week no matter where I am I try to. I usually have 5am-9am unscheduled. I get up, make a cup of coffee, sit in front of my computer and catch up on email from the day before. I write a blog post. I have a daily information routine where I go to a couple of websites and look up whatever I want for the day.

If I go running that day that’s the time I workout. From 9am-6pm my time is very scheduled. I don’t do random phone calls. I very rarely pick up my calls. I tend to run pretty close to the schedule. Sometimes I run 15 minutes off the schedule. I schedule everything in 30-minute increments, so I almost always have a buffer of 30 minutes to use.

I have a lot of 5 or 10-minute phone calls. So I have 15 minutes to catch up and prepare or talk to someone or just sit and catch-up through out the day. In the evenings from 6pm-9pm, I am generally catching up with partners and doing something related to business. I try to get home to go to bed by 9.30 or 10.30 latest.

Amy and I have a routine called ‘4 minutes in the morning’. When she wakes up she and I hangout together for just 4 minutes. I stop whatever I am doing, and we have coffee. Just say good morning. Once a month on the first day of every month we have our ‘life dinner’. Just the two of us, we go to a restaurant we talk about the previous month and the month that is to come!

 

Rohan: What would be your message to the future leaders?

Brad: Try to spend as much time as you can on things you are intensely passionate about! There’s no way you can spend 100% of your time on it. There’s always things to be done, the overhead of life or something else that needs your attention. Work as hard as you can and spend time on things you are incredibly passionate about! Your life is over before you know. If you want to be a leader or an entrepreneur spend a happy life. Be with the people that you want. Sickness, death and unhappiness are all part of life. So spend time on things that you care about!


Thank you Brad, for all those insightful thoughts and stories! We especially love the ‘4 minutes in the morning’ routine. And like you said ‘It’s a wonderful time to be alive!’

Real Leaders Team