Ted Serbinski is an early stage software VC, successful tech entrepreneur, open source hacker, and knowledgable mentor. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential, emerging venture technology partners in the Midwest and a key player leading the startup renaissance in Detroit. In 2011, he relocated to Detroit from San Francisco, joining Detroit Venture Partners as Partner, after having co-founded and sold ParentsClick to Lifetime Television in 2008. He has been a founding or 1st institutional investor in more than a dozen startups, nearly always getting involved at the company inception phase. He is also internationally recognized web architect that has been building websites for 15+ years, including 8 years as a lead, open source developer for Drupal. Currently, he sits on the boards of Are You a Human, Detroit Labs, Marxent Labs, Sociocast, UpTo, Chalkfly, and TechTown and is an advisor to the Brandery and the Frankel Commercialization Fund at University of Michigan.
You can read his 52 Startup Lessons blog here.
EB: What is the ‘why’ behind everything that you do? I know you’ve been a lead developer for Drupal for a long time and have been building websites even longer. Now you’re a VC. What inspires you to do what you do?
Ted: What inspires me to do what I do is a couple of different things. The first thing is that I really like helping people. I naturally like to help people; I like to mentor them and really help them succeed. I also love to build things. Growing up, as a kid I loved playing with Legos and building things. I loved playing games. SimCity was one of my favourite games where I could build a city. The natural progression would have been to become an architect and build real buildings.
Instead I went down the software engineering path where I can build massive websites with a lot of components. In my head, building an architectural building is very similar to building a software website. They have very similar architectural principles, so for me the love of building things and the love of helping people are what really drive me at the end of the day.
EB: You’ve been a part of this open source hacking venture for a long time. By hacking I mean working around a problem in a very smart way. What are some of the values or ethics that you have developed throughout your career to make sure you don’t go off track?
Ted: Things that keep me on track when I look at coding and hacking and those kinds of things are to always be enthusiastic and passionate about what I’m doing and there’s a great saying online of David Seta’s. It’s “build, ship, mentor and share.” The concept is that there are these four steps to every process. You want to learn about something new, you want to build, and then you want to share with others. When that pattern cools off, I know it’s time to learn the next technology or maybe build the next website.
My first phase was when I was going through this open source framework called Drupal. I was learning and playing with it. I really loved building things, and then I took it to the next level where I was building much bigger websites. When I got good at that I wanted to tell others. I wanted to share through podcasts and writings about how they could do the same. After that phase I went into building a real website, and that took about two years. We sold the company, and I started to blog and share about it.
Now I’ve been on the VC side for about two years. I’ve been building things, evaluating how I look at companies, how I invest, and tools. I’ve been learning a lot of new things, and I’ve just launched my new blog where I’m trying to share everything I’ve learned. For me, it’s always continuing that pattern as I look at new technologies and new things to do.
EB: Can you give us some insights into open source development?
Ted: Open source development has been one of the most amazing experiences I’ve stumbled into. I got started in Drupal back in 2004, almost nine years ago. It almost happened by chance. I had a lot of day to day work managing websites, and I worked in a small company. I was the only developer in charge of everything, so I didn’t have a lot of peers to chat with and learn from. Open source taught me all about that. My peers were online; my peers were in IRC chat rooms. I was learning different techniques; I was becoming a substantially better coder. I felt like I was part of a much bigger company even though I was the single tech person at my company.
When I met these people at conferences and various talks, it became real and I felt like a part of something much larger. Open source has been a pivotal piece of my entire career, and something I always encourage people to do and learn from. When you are really active in the community you can learn so much from other people. You really step out of your own organisation.
EB: Can you tell us what it is that fascinates you about programming?
Ted: What became fascinating about programming is learning new things and building cool things. I generally tend to be very analytical and procedural; I like things in order. I really like building cool things to play with. If I have an idea, if I want a website to do something, I can just go build it. I don’t have to hire someone or figure out what to do; I can just build what I want. I can make my own life better; I can make a better tool for myself. Programming is a very hands on tool that allows me to build things and actually use them myself instead of relying on others.
EB: What do you look for before you invest in a start-up?
Ted: When I’m investing in start-up, the biggest question is how do you judge start-up one from start-up two? What’s the real difference? There are two fundamentally different things. The first thing is the team behind the start-up. The second thing is how they’re actually executing. Notice that I’m not saying anything about their idea and I’ll show the reason for that in this example. When someone says, “I have the best idea and it’s going to change the world,” I say, “Let me tell you about my idea.”
My idea is that I’m going to rent out a big space. It’s going to be on a busy street corner and it’s going to have about 10,000 square feet of space. I’m going to put down tables and chairs and have a menu of food. It’s a restaurant. There are millions of restaurants in the world, but they’re all completely different from the décor to the type of food, the type of service, the cost. But they’re all fundamentally exactly the same idea, so when an entrepreneur comes to me and says they have a great idea I tell them, “I don’t care so much about your idea as how you are going to execute. What is going to be your cost? What is going to be the way you’re different? How good is your food or your product going to be? What kind of icon, what kind of colors? Those are the things that will really differentiate you.”
That’s tightly correlated to the people founding the company, the team behind it. They are the ones that are actually thinking about how to implement and how to build it. That combination of how you’re executing and the team behind it are two of the biggest things I look for.
EB: Who are your mentors and what are the important lessons you have learned from them?
Ted: My biggest mentors have been my parents. Growing up, they taught me a lot about a great work ethic and I was constantly learning. Things weren’t handed down to me, and we had to work for everything. It really taught me the quality of good work and attention to detail. My father in particular is very detail oriented. When he starts a project he makes sure all the details are right and the craftsmanship is as good as it can be without cutting corners. That’s something I carry with me in every project that I do – paying attention to detail and always delivering on my promise and following through. So growing up, they were the biggest mentors to me.
The other thing that has been a mentor is not anyone in particular, but the general open source community, specifically the Drupal community. What’s very inspirational is having people all over the U.S working at different projects, all different backgrounds, and with different things that they have to work through. It’s very inspiring to see.
Now that I’m on the VC side, Jason Mendelson is a founder who has been a great mentor of mine. He’s really helped me with questions like how do you get good deals, how do you be a great entrepreneur and VC at the same time? He’s been very inspirational to work with.
Also, I direct box Josh Linkner who is the managing partner of Detroit Venture Partners. He’s been a great mentor to me, helping me to become a better speaker, be more confident about things, and be more on top of my approach to these entrepreneurs. He’s been a great resource and I love doing work with him.
EB: What are some of your memorable moments or significant things that have happened to you in your career when you look back?
Ted: I still remember the first website I built. It was probably 1997 and it was on Geocities. I still remember this day so clearly. I could upload a picture to Geocities but back then you had to code it yourself. I remember making an HTML document, saving it and uploading it, and thinking why is it just X? It wasn’t rendering. That’s when I learned about the coding of file types and I thought that’s not an HTML file, it’s an X file. When I got that first image to render online on Geocities, I was amazed. I thought, oh my gosh this is online. My parents were a little worried. They said to be careful putting things online, it’s a scary world out there. I was just so involved with it. That was a great moment.
Another great moment was when I actually discovered Drupal. I was still very new at it and one of the top contributors at this time was Chx. We were chatting and I asked him a question, and he gave me a good response. I said, “I’m going to be one of the top Drupal developers in the next year or two. He just laughed and pushed me aside and said, “We’ll see.” That next year or two, I started contributing more and more and actually leading development on Drupal, leading a lot of CSS and Java Script changes. I really became an entrepreneur instead of an apprentice and it was a fundamental moment. Someone said I could do it.
Another memorable moment is when we sold the company I co-founded and was the CTO of. We sold it to Lifetime TV. I just remember a month before we sold we had some plugs and we had an issue where we almost accidentally emailed thousands of people with thousands of emails and I thought that that was the worst timing. Going through that whole process and finally reaching the end of a very long arduous journey where we were out of money and bootstrapped. It felt so reassuring that I could accomplish things being determined.
The next couple memorable moments were after we got Lifetime; A&E television acquired it. All of my work and passion for the last five years was suddenly shut down. Everything was completely closed and it was a sad moment that all the things I ever worked for went away. It made me realise that what didn’t go away was my passion for building things and sharing them with people, and helping make their lives better. Even though that product’s gone I carry that attitude of doing my best to help new entrepreneurs.
EB: I’m sure you do a lot of things every day. What are some of your productivity hacks that you can share with us?
Ted: I’m a fanatic about productivity, and I try out all kinds of tools. I’m a big fan of the GTD philosophy. It’s by David Allen, Getting Things Done. It’s a great book to help you think about organising things but it’s not too effective in terms of trying to apply it to a real active goal.
What I have found that works well for me is an app called WorkFlowy, and it is a very simple outline tool. You can make a list of things and you can make sublists. What I’ve found works well is having my home life and work life. Under my work life, I put different companies that I’m looking to invest in, different companies that I’ve already invested in, and different projects I’m working on. Then I’ll organise it by the next actionable step that I need to do. It’s something that’s very clear. I need to email this person. I need to call this person. I need to look at a cap table. There’s no vagueness such as “get the project done.” It’s very clear. I like to have a next step for each one of those and hence a clear way to measure the effectiveness. Is it done or not?
There’s a framework I use, it’s a management tool called Objective Key Results. It’s a very simple measurement tool, but I like it for different projects – what’s the objective, what do I want to achieve at a high level, and three ways I measure success in. They have to be things that are highly measurable. When I start adding those and measuring my projects’ success, things that are manageable become better. You notice what’s working and what’s not. So the act of very simply managing something on a simple keynote can make a huge difference. I use that combination of WorkFlowy and figuring out what I need to do. A simple tool or simple spreadsheet to manage if things are getting better or worse each week, keeps me on track.
EB: What’s one idea that you want to share with us?
Ted: The biggest thing I can say to take away is to always be passionate about what you’re doing. As soon as the passion subsides you need to change it up. You either need to change jobs, change projects, or change your perspective. I know it’s easier said than done to keep that passion alive. I keep my passion alive by constantly reading things. I either read the news, or I try to read one book every month. I want new perspectives on things. I’m constantly learning and constantly changing my perspective. I’m always challenging myself. How can I do it better? How can I improve it? I want to make sure the passion’s alive.
It’s not perfect. There was definitely a period after we sold our company where my passion drained. I dreaded going in to work. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was depressed and in a lull. I’m now so passionate about rebuilding Detroit, Michigan from an entrepreneurial perspective and from a community perspective. I’m passionate about investing in start-ups and helping them. I’ve really found a nice alignment with my natural personality and my job. Every day I love coming to work. Like I said, I try to read one book a month and it’s always giving me new ideas and new insights. It always keeps me on my toes and I never get bored.
Thank you for sharing with us your passion for building things and helping people Ted. We wish you all the best in your efforts to rebuilding Detroit.
Real leaders team.