Graeme Thickins on Tech

Reflections & analysis about innovation, technology & startups, with a focus on Minnesota, Land of 10,000 Lakes

Brad Feld On When to Quit Your Day Job

(Note: This interview first appeared at MinneInno.com — “Your Source for Local Innovation” in  Minnesota: Innovation, Startups, and Tech.)

Brad Feld, one of the most admired VCs, talking at event

Brad Feld, coauthor, “Startup Opportunities: Know When to Quit Your Day Job”

Few VCs have the success record of Brad Feld of Foundry Group in Boulder, Colorado, and even fewer as many writing credits. That includes several best-selling books. Well, now he’s uncorked another title, this time with coauthor Sean Wise, the subtitle of which addresses that vexing question most every would-be entrepreneur faces: when do I know it’s time to go all in and quit my day job?

I first met Brad in 2007, the year I began attending a tech conference he helped launch in Denver called “Defrag.” (And I reported on it every year for 10 years.) That was also the year Brad cofounded Techstars, and I was lucky enough to sit next to him at dinner and get the download on those plans. I so tried to get Minneapolis to become one of the Techstars cities, but, alas, it wasn’t to be back then. Eventually, of course, the accelerator found its way to Minnesota as our startup community strengthened, launching Techstars+Target and smaller programs at Mayo Clinic and Land O Lakes. Also, after years of encouraging Brad and his partner Seth Levine to look at investing in Minnesota, Foundry Group led a Series A in a startup they discovered called LeadPages, and they continue to watch what’s happening here.

When I got a look at Brad’s new book, and loved it, I immediately wanted to know more.

Q: Brad, were you surprised this book so quickly hit the list of top five best-selling business books on Amazon?

Yes. While I was confident that it would be popular, especially at a discounted price for a short period of time, I was overwhelmed and excited by the number of people who grabbed a copy.

Q: The original version of the book was published in 2014. Why did you and your coauthor decide to publish a second edition?

The first edition was published by FG Press, a publishing company that my partners and I at Foundry Group started. FG Press wasn’t successful so we shut it down, but we were proud of “Startup Opportunities” as a book. I had previously (and am currently) publishing with Wiley. They were enthusiastic about doing a second edition of the book. We added a few chapters, cleaned stuff up, and had Chris Sacca write a foreword.

Q: While the title of book is somewhat bland, the subtitle — “Know When to Quit Your Day Job” — is certainly not. Tell us about that came about, and why.

My coauthor Sean came up with it. He is quick with a one-liner and often talked to his students about the key to starting a new business was to identify the right opportunity. He often said that “friends don’t let friends pursue bad opportunities,” and one day the line “Know When to Quit Your Day Job” popped out.

Q: You make it very clear the book is intended primarily for first-time entrepreneurs. But it’s no secret they have a hard time getting attention from VCs. Is the book your way of trying to help the many thousands you have to say “no” to? I’m of course alluding to your famous blog post in 2009, “Saying No In Less Than 60 Seconds.”

When I look at the hundreds of companies I’ve funded (well over 500 at this point), greater than 50% of them were started by first-time entrepreneurs. However, even if I’ve invested in 300 companies started by first-time entrepreneurs, I’ve probably said no to 10,000 or more. I often get asked for feedback after telling someone no. Given that volume, there is no way to give people deep feedback. So, I thought a book around Startup Opportunities would be helpful to be able to point at.

Q: Of all the things this book tries to teach entrepreneurs — the realities of doing a startup — what’s the one thing you find is the hardest for them to understand or accept?

That the idea is useless. Ideas are cheap. Ideas flow freely. Lots of people have the same idea at the very beginning. The idea is not what matters. It’s what you do with the idea that matters.

Q: Are millennial entrepreneurs different? What would you say about their expectations? Are they coachable?

I work with entrepreneurs born between 1950 and 2000. Everyone – each entrepreneur – is different. I wouldn’t categorize them by the generation they belong to.

Q: Why are early-stage investors so focused on “the team”?

It’s really hard to be a solo entrepreneur. Having a great, effective, and well-functioning founding team makes an enormous difference. And, the greatest killer of startups is team issues.

Q: Knowing you have, in fact, invested in first-time entrepreneurs in your day, have many of those been financial winners? And will you continue to invest in first-time entrepreneurs?

Yes and yes. Many of the successful companies that I’ve been an investor in have been started by first-timers. And, if you look at my last few investments, I think each of them has at least one first-time entrepreneur on the team.

Q: You’ve written or cowritten so many great books for entrepreneurs. How do you keep it up? Do you have a writing schedule? You’re also a prolific blogger. How many hours per week do you devote to writing?

I try to blog daily, but I go through phases where I need a break because I don’t feel like my writing is fresh. I’m in one of those modes now and have taken a few weeks off from blogging and am getting ready to start again. Regarding my books, I go through phases. I’ll have very productive periods where I can write for two or so hours a day. I then have long stretches, often many months, where I don’t work on any books. My general pace right now is about a book a year, but it’s lumpy. I don’t really segment my time carefully, so I don’t really know how much I write each week. And, I spent a ridiculous amount of time writing email – does that count?

Thanks, Brad. The new book is fantastic. Congratulations to you and your coauthor, Sean Wise. We’ll continue here in Minnesota to practice the things you recommend in another of your great books, “Startup Communities.”

Our Times Call for Multiple Careers

I believed it then, and  believe it even more now. It was a poster I first saw in my early working years in the advertising and marketing business, and it hit me hard. I thought, yeah, that totally makes sense — I don’t want to be tied down to one thing for my whole working life, one aspect of this exciting, crazy business. I had already improved my lot quite a bit by moving on to a couple of better-paying jobs after I left college, and I was feeling pretty good about that… buying a house, buying nice cars. I figured I was just getting started! I had way too many interests, too many things I wanted to do, to be tied down to one kind of marketing job, or (God forbid) one company. I had a whole world of options in front of me.

About this time, I had become really interested in design, too (not just writing). I was learning a ton from some smart colleagues I worked closely with, and I loved everything about design. Bought books, read a lot, studied it in my spare time. Wasn’t out to become a designer — just built a really good appreciation for it.

This poster (which I still have hanging in my office) was designed by Milt Glaser, an uber-famous graphic designer in New York whom I had come to admire. (Seriously, click on that link — this guy earned true rockstar-designer status!)  His poster struck me then as having an important message, and it’s continued to inspire me over the years. As in… don’t be pigeon-holed, resist being narrowly defined, always keep learning, keep doing, keep trying new things. And, yes, as the illustration shows, juggle all those options, as many skills as you can acquire, and learn all the tools you can to make yourself invaluable to employers or clients.

Unlike the prevailing wisdom at the time, I could see early in my career that working for the same company one’s whole career was a ticket to nowhere. I knew it wasn’t for me. I learned the only job security was what was between one’s ears. I worked about two years average for a company or agency, then moved on to a bigger challenge and more money. A dozen years into my career, I made the big jump to being a self-employed consultant and never looked back. And that, let me tell you, became the ultimate “multiple-career”… 🙂

The  philosophy encompassed in this simple poster has proven to be right for me, as it has for many others, I’m sure. For me, it’s been about multiple careers within a single discipline (marketing), but for some it can even mean switching disciplines. I’ve managed to keep reinventing myself over and over, in varying degrees. Part of that has been a result of getting myself involved in so many new fields of technology, as I’ve been lucky enough to be out in front of innovation in my chosen field of self-employment — as a consultant to early-stage tech startups. Never a dull moment in this business! Always something new to learn, some new milestone to reach. Never sitting still, forever juggling, constantly reading, always having fun, constantly surfing new waves — and, most importantly, moving the ball, to use another sports analogy (I played football, too!). Net-net: making things happen. It’s a great way to go through life.

How many “careers” have you had? How many will you have? I wish you many!

 

 

The Hottest of the New Hotness in 2017: ‘The #AI 100’

Need a new list for the new year? And I don’t mean a list of predictions — save us from more of those. I mean a list of hot startups, in the hottest space of all this year: Artificial Intelligence.

CB Insights just uncorked “The AI 100” at its Innovation Summit, now going on out in sunny rain-drenched Santa Barbara. (Well, guys, at least you were going to be indoors most of the time, anyway.)

Yes, last year may have been all about Big Data, but this year it’s AI. Note, however, that the former isn’t out of vogue. It’s just that things are… evolving. And sort of blending. The algorithms of AI, which is actually a technology that’s been  studied for decades, hunger for data — huge amounts of it. The more the better, and the higher quality the better. It’s only in recent years that enough good data, and the tools to manipulate and analyze it, have become available to drive advances in AI. And those advances are coming at us in increasing, amazing waves.

So, dig in to The AI 100 PDF. Herewith a couple of screen grabs from the report: a graphic showing the various categories of companies, and an alphabetical listing of the all the lucky chosen. (Most of which have been  well funded, and many of which are already well into revenue stage.) 

 

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