Brad has been an early-stage investor and entrepreneur for over twenty years. Prior to co-founding Foundry Group, he co-founded Mobius Venture Capital and, prior to that, founded Intensity Ventures. Brad is also a co-founder of TechStars.
→ How did he get a reputation for hating marketing
→ His specific thinking about the labeled as marketing he’s against
→ How he encourages people to engage with him
→ The story behind his book Startup Communities
→ What are the purpose and importance of that kind of thing in the dialog
→ How to be effective top leaders do understanding themselves well
→ How does he engage customers to help him to build products
→ His strategy on how and then becoming a thought leader
→ And a whole lot more
Bronson: Welcome to another episode of Growth Hacker TV. I’m Bronson Taylor and today I have Brad filled with us. Brad, thank you so much for coming on the program.
Brad: My pleasure.
Bronson: Absolutely. I’m seriously excited to have you on here. I’m a fan of so much of what you do. But for the people watching or listening. Let me go through a list of some of the things you’re involved in. You’re the managing director at Foundry Group. You’re the co-founder of Techstars. You’re the author of numerous books written for the startup community. And you do a million other things besides that that are on the top of the list. That sounds about right.
Brad: Yeah. Close enough.
Bronson: Close enough, right. Any big things? I missed.
Brad: You guys.
Bronson: There you go. So, you know, there’s so much we could talk about in this interview because you are involved in so much. But given that this is a program really center on growth, I want to start with a blog post that you wrote about a year and a half ago, and it was called I Don’t Hate Marketing. So that should be interesting to people watching this. So first, tell us, how did you get a reputation for hating marketing that you needed to post something like that?
Brad: Well, I got the reputation by saying over and over again that I hated marketing and I thought that most, most marketing activities were dumb or ineffective. And, you know, that was a function of sort of describing things in a very one dimensional way. So, you know, it would come up over and over again. I’d often say things like, you know, whenever I hear the word marketing actually drop a little in my mouth. And that became something that I repeated over and over again. Well before the idea of throwing up a little in your mouth became trendy, which is circumspect. And anyway, the blog post was an important one in that a close friend of mine, Chris Moody, called me out on this this notion around marketing, and he really segmented marketing into different categories and was clear with me that I was a huge believer in thought leadership, which I am, and thought leadership in the context of a marketing function is very powerful. What I don’t like is I don’t like what I would call classical marketing that has no connection with value to the user or the customer. And so the idea that as a company, you’re trying to convince somebody why they should care about your thing has never been appealing to me. And there’s a huge amount of activities that go around that I think are just a colossal waste of money. But this idea of thought, leadership and being authentic and articulating clearly what you’re trying to do and engaging with your customers or your users or whoever your audiences are, that element of marketing is incredibly powerful. So I think there’s this sort of segmentation of thought leadership versus, you know, classical demand generation, you know, where it’s abstracted away in some weird way. Like I totally get the machine automated phenomenon and we’re investors in lots of companies in that universe, but that’s different than the actual marketing function within a company. And, you know, this idea that thought leadership was so much more powerful approach.
Bronson: Yeah, well, do us a favor and break it down even further. You know what? What are the specific activities that make you throw up a little in her mouth? Like, what do you have in mind when you say that? Because I’m sure you have specific things you’re actually thinking about that you labeled as marketing that you’re against?
Brad: Yeah. So I mean, I’ll just give some examples of things historically that have made me a little nuts. I was once an investor in a company that did a multimillion dollar physical ad campaign. Right. So they did ads in a bunch of magazines, full page ads for the product. And that was fine. I mean, that was a classical marketing approach. It was very expensive. It was hard to measure. It was unclear whether it was effective or not ultimately. And that company ultimately failed. So clearly it wasn’t a factor. But as part of that, the VP of Marketing sent around wall sized framed posters of the advertisements. And when I looked, when I actually looked at the advertisement, I didn’t really understand what the company was doing or why anybody should care about the advertisement. And the person was and the CEO was so proud of these colorful ads that talked about the company and the company logo. But it was so disconnected from any sort of value, including the idea that as an investor, I’d want one of these things hanging on my wall so that, you know, I could give you a long list of things in that category. Another one is, is the classical mark on function of which, you know, much of the PR mechanics are just total bullshit at this point, you know, yet another press release from yet another PR and talking about the awesomeness of some thing that nobody knows about to try to generate interest versus, you know, a real function around a product where you get the product into hands of people that are actually going to give you feedback on the product and review the product. Can actually use the product the so you know that for push based marketing that is generic which you know is kind of market function. Now another another example which is fascinating is the endless field of marketing that you have to refresh your image. It’s the refresh of the name and the brand and the image that all of the energy associated with that and all the conversation around it. Yeah, there’s tactical stuff, especially around product launch. There’s occasionally a relaunch of a company with a totally new name. That’s fine. That’s functional marketing. But it’s it’s been six months and we need to change the website to look a little different with some different colors. And that generates a whole bunch of activity with some different. I know like you should be checking the website daily, you should be, you know, doing it in a content driven way. You should be doing it in a way that engages your actual users. Oh, well, we have a physical product, not a web based product. That’s fine. Engage your users in the physical world with the digital world. That’s so much more of a powerful function than a generic. Well, you know, we just need to change the font again.
Bronson: Yeah. Now, those are great examples to really help us understand what you mean by it. So that’s awesome. Now, you did you did say that you are very much in favor of thought, leadership and anyone who follows your work online, they’re well aware of that. I mean, you are the thought leader for so many startups and so many start communities, especially in your blog. I’ve noticed you broke down thought leadership into a couple of bullet points and different places. I want you to walk us through this a little bit. One of the first ones I found was instead of telling people to look at you, encourage people to engage with you. What do you mean by that? And give us some maybe examples where you’ve done it or you’ve seen companies do that well.
Brad: Well, I’ll give you an example from the venture capital perspective that I think anybody that’s an entrepreneur that’s dealt with VCs will be able to respond to. If I say to you as an entrepreneur, I’m a value added venture capitalist, I’m really good at helping you be successful. I’m, you know, I’m I’m on whether it’s me asserting stuff to you. I thought leadership that’s just like it’s bullshit, but it’s it’s not anything that’s experiential instead. What I, what one should be doing is actually engaging, actually doing things, actually helping within you as the receiver of that. Think, Wow, that’s really helpful to me. That’s really good at these things. It’s not that helpful over there. I’ll stop spending time with him on that stuff. But man, it’s really great at this. And then you amplify that through your conversation with your peers that say that have run into me or that want to get engaged. Yes, you want to engage with Brad. Here’s the best way to get the most value out of them versus just the other way around. So that’s an example of that. And you start with with companies over and over again. Right. Our product is blah. Mm hmm. Versus a whole bunch of users saying, wow, this thing is unbelievable. It’s changed my life. Thought leadership is creating the context for that. Or partners. You have a bunch of partners in your business and you’re there reselling your product or integrating with your product or using your product. Those partners saying, wow, company X is product is amazing versus company X saying, you know, we’re great and here’s our product. It’s that sort of all of the dynamic versus you pushing it, people a message over and over again, which, you know, always starts off sounding somewhat hollow but then becomes increasingly powerful.
Bronson: Yeah. One of the ways I’ve heard that said before is don’t tell people you’re funny. Tell them a joke. You know, like. Like, give them the actual value. Don’t always have the value hidden behind, you know, something else. Like just give them the value and they’ll figure it out for themselves in a lot of cases.
Brad: I would say that part of that for me is something I’ve internalized in terms of how I how I work and how I think about life is I tell a lot of stories and many of those stories are from my own experience. And there are examples and they’re examples that are intended to support an idea or an assertion to do that rather than simply make the assertion. A lot of the point. A lot of times the assertion is not actually correct. It’s not quite right. But there’s information in the story that the person hearing the story can incorporate in the context of an assertion. And on the receiving end of that, if somebody says, you know, do this, 50% of people will go do it, and 50% of the people will go do the opposite because they want to prove that you’re wrong. So it’s the same kind of dynamic as in sort of the context of thought leadership. If you tell people what they should be doing around your product or your company, some percentage of people will respond to it. But an awful lot of people won’t. It’s so much more powerful to tell a story and to give people a sense of what they could do with your product and let them internalize it themselves. You capture so much more imagination and they’ll take it so much further.
Bronson: Absolutely. Well, I think about your new book, Startup Communities, and it’s filled with a story of Boulder. It’s filled with the story of how things have actually worked and what you’re doing and what the results are. It’s not just a list of go do this, it’s it’s a story. I get to see kind of what you’re involved with and it inspires and those kind of things.
Brad: I think that’s really important and well said, right, in the context of the book. The book is not called. Boulder is an amazing startup community. It’s not the book, nor do I assert over and over again in the book Startup Communities, that Boulder is an amazing startup community. I happen to think Boulder is an amazing startup community. I think a lot of other people think that too, and it’s talked about a lot. But what I do in startup communities is not assert that and say, here are the 12 things that you need to do to to create your amazing startup community also. What I do is I give you a I give the reader a frame of reference product or principles that I’ve come up with that are very broad. But then I support with stories over and over again what’s actually happened. So as you read it, you can say, Oh, that applies to me and that doesn’t I’m not sure I understand that. And let me go deeper on it. Like, it gives you a way to think about the problem as a perceiver of the information versus yet another advice book, yet another self-help book, yet another venture capitalist who tells me how to do shit, yet another bloviating person who is asserting that this is the answer. People don’t respond well to that.
Bronson: Yeah, you know, people have always responded to stories. I mean, you know, cavemen around campfires. I mean, it’s it’s the oldest thing that humanity does. And it still taps into something so deep within the human psyche. When we hear a story or tell a story, I think you’re on to something there. Absolutely. You know, one of the second things you kind of talked about in terms of thought leadership and this is one I think you do uniquely well as opposed to others, which is focus on the purpose and importance of your mission and talk to them about why you are doing what you do. So often we hear the why is to make money, which is important, but that’s the only why I think you go much further beyond that. Talk to us about purpose and importance and those kind of things on the dialog.
Brad: Well, I’m a very deep believer in the word why. And, you know, the idea of the five whys as a process which people are not familiar with five whys, describe Wikipedia and Type five whys and there’s a good you can take. It describes it many times when somebody says something or talks about why they’re doing something, it’s not really the reason. The reason is often multiple levels deep, and I’ve often been able to determine that by just continuing to ask the question, why not? You know, not saying, I don’t, I don’t believe you tell me the real reason, but trying to, you know, describe what’s going on or kind of keep getting to the next level. I also think that sort. This philosophy that I’ve always carried around around motivation is that you can’t actually motivate other people. You can only create a context in which people are motivated. So I believe motivation is an internal phenomenon, not an externally imposed phenomena. But you can, as a leader, create a context in which people have that their own motivational dynamics brought to the fore. People are motivated by very different things and I talk about it on my blog. I’ve done a lot, but I’ve also talked about in the book Startup Life, which is the next book in the series and startup community is and in Startup Life, my wife Amy Batchelor, and I talk about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation and I’ll define it quickly. Extrinsic motivation is you’re motivated by getting awards and pats on the back and public recognition and people say how awesome you are and winning things and having sort of the visibility of public visibility for winning things. Intrinsic motivation is driven by something else, something that is internal to you. So, for example, I’m very intrinsically motivated by learning. If I’m learning a lot and I’m very motivated to keep learning, it turns out that teaching is also something that I’m intrinsically motivated by. So learning and teaching here are two bookends of that. But I want to get Teacher of the Year award. Right? Just the mere act of doing it is motivating to me. So if learning I don’t have to get Best Student of the Year award, just the fact that I feel like I’m continually learning things is motivating me. So there’s a spectrum and people aren’t at either end. There’s a range and you’re motivated in different contexts by different, you know, your sort of place on that range is different based on what you’re doing. Understanding that and trying to provide a context in which people can be motivated in whatever way they want to be is so important. But leadership actually is part of that. If you’re a thought leader, you’re creating a context for people who want to engage with that context can then engage with that context, and they can do it in a way that is most motivating to them. If somebody is motivated by being, you know, best. Startup Community Event Organizer of the Year. That’s fine. If it’s motivated by really understanding how something new works and making it their own, that’s fine. Right. There’s so many different ways, as long as you create this frame of reference for people to be motivated.
Bronson: Yeah. And do you think that most people that are thought leaders ask the Y question over and over? They kind of do the five whys, the people that are really into being thought leaders have thought deeply about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it personally.
Brad: I think that many people who are very effective, top leaders, do understand themselves well, recognizing that understanding yourself well is not static. Mm hmm. Right. As you go through life, lots of things change, and the Y changes. And it’s not like you discover it at 21. And when they put you in the ground, it’s the same. You know, it shifts over time based on your environment, based on what’s happened, based on the experiences you’ve had, based on your body chemistry, based on the relationships. So being able to be introspective and continually ask yourself why you’re doing things is important. Mm hmm. If you want to continue to have, you know, essentially maximize, you know, your own sense of self and purpose, I think people can be very successful and have no clue of why they’re doing something. I think there are a lot of people who are very successful who don’t really go very deep on the Y. So the Y is a very surface level thing. Mm hmm. And in a lot of cases, when they achieve that, they’re very unhappy or unsatisfied because they didn’t really get to the essence of what they were going after. So I think for somebody who’s an entrepreneur, who’s a leader, who’s trying to have an amazing experience on this planet, digging deeper into why you do things is important. I have a good friend, a guy a guy named Dave Seaman who wrote a book called How Different, the company called Low End. And how is another important word that we don’t ask ourselves enough? And the reason it’s so important is that why and how are linked? Mm hmm. Like how we want to be perceived, how we want to do things, how we want to accomplish what our goals are, is directly linked to the Y. It’s one or the other. Right. You really need them both. And I think a lot of people, especially that have been successful, lose sight of the how. And this is one of the challenges with society. You know, it’s a challenge of politics, the challenge of the companies, the challenge with people who let their their ego get in the way of what they’re actually doing. Mm hmm. And the Y and the how often get jumbled up. And from the outside looking in, we see it over and over again. You know, it’s inconceivable to us that this powerful politician who has all of this. Owns and is successful can do things that are you know, it has, for example, this deep family values orientation can have an affair.
Brad: Like that that person’s how is totally messed up. They just don’t match. And you could go down a list over and over again in business context and in any kind of context. And some of it is people’s own self-destructive behavior. Some of it is that you lose sight of what you’re doing. A lot of it is you don’t know the why. Right. And you’ve got you’ve lost or you’ve lost sight of the why or it’s changed. Yeah. Somehow you’re dealing with that. And I know I gave an example that’s more morality related and everybody can have their own judgment on that. But it’s not just morality related. It’s about the whole spectrum. It’s about, you know, money. It’s about who you spend time with. It’s about what what you spend your time doing. It’s about how you spend your time. Mm hmm. Your own internal value system, which is not dictated by somebody else, but actually something that develops over your life. Digging into that is so important. And if you think about sort of tied all the way back to the conversation about marketing. Mm hmm. So much of marketing is inauthentic, right? It’s not about how or why. And that’s why I had historically this very negative reaction to it and thought leadership for leadership as a version of marketing is really saying, I understand what my why is, I understand what my how is. And now articulating it on a consistent basis so that I am interacting with and if they don’t like my frame of reference, they don’t have to engage or agree or they can argue with me, but if they like my line of reference, it gives them a perspective for how they can operate within this context that I’m trying to create and build.
Bronson: Yeah, that’s incredible advice. Thank you for going into that deeper. That’s going to be so helpful to a lot of people, I think, you know, at a startup level, but it’s just a human level. That’s good advice. So thank you. You know, another thing is that you say that engaged customers will help you build great products. And obviously thought leadership can bring you engaged customers, not just customers. How do engaged customers actually help you build great products? You know, to connect the dots for us, how do those things actually come together?
Brad: Well, in in my world view, engage customers want your product to do what what works for them. Those Engage customers will give you lots of feedback if you participate with them and actually hear their feedback and validate that you’ve heard their feedback. It doesn’t mean that you have to do what they’ve told you to do because a lot of times they’re not going to be right or what they’re suggesting is something that they haven’t thought all the way through or doesn’t fit within the context of what you’re doing with your product. But the mere fact of giving them a feedback loop and the feedback loop is not open. It’s not a web page. It says, put your information about what you like or don’t like about our product, or give us a rating from 1 to 5. Okay, fine. Whatever. Right. But what it is, is it’s when somebody says, I’m having a shitty experience with your product. Somebody that’s a human being in response to them, an engagement with that. Or when somebody says, Wow, it’s so awesome that your product does this, but I really want to do this. Also saying Thank you. I’ve heard that we’re adding it to the list. Not so helpful, but the email from a human that says, Wow, that’s interesting. We hadn’t thought about that before. What about if it did this instead of what you’re describing, or what if we only did a subset of it where you’re actually having that interaction? And it’s not just sort of the the noise level interaction of which, you know, social, social media and social marketing, all that stuff is helpful and it’s additive. It’s going a level deeper. It’s allowing your customers to participate with you. We have several great examples of that in our own portfolio. One of our favorites is a company called Beta Brand, which is Beta Brand dot com is an online clothing company and they actually use their users to help them determine which products to make. And they have, you know, in addition, you know, very, very broad social activity. They have something called model citizen where model citizens take pictures of themselves wearing beta brand clothing posted to the beta brand website and then, you know, you get a discount code for doing that. But what you have is you have some of these model citizens who who become incredible brand ambassadors and product ambassadors, but part of it is because they feel like they have a say in the product. Right. It was just you get this discount for wearing this company’s clothing. Okay, that’s fine. That’s nice. But I get this discount for wearing this company’s clothing and I get to tell them what I want and they actually hear me because boom, there is there is that thing that I said, I want it, and now I have it. Now I’m wearing it. Look. Yeah, right. So there’s that phenomena of a real closed loop. So many companies try to do this, but the loop is open. It’s customer can give them feedback. It ends up being in the category of. Customer service. Yeah. And customer service is important. My products not working. Have you tried this? I tried out. It did. Didn’t work. Have you tried this? I tried that. It didn’t work. Have you tried this? Oh, that made it work. Thank you. Nope. That didn’t work either. Hmm. What’s your address? I’ll send you another one. Right. That’s closed loop customer service. That’s good. And that’s a necessary part of that. That’s different than the person saying, I’m trying to get the product to do this and it doesn’t do this. The person says, Have you tried this? Have you tried this? Have you tried this? I will send you another one when the real answer is the product doesn’t actually do that. Tell me more about why you want to do that. So we can think about that in our product development cycle. Yeah, right. So separate those two streams is really important.
Bronson: Now, that’s great. It almost sounds like what you’re doing is just not watering down the definition of engage because it’s thrown around right now. We’re going to engage in social media. That means we’re going to tweeted somebody or receive a tweet. That’s not really engagement at the deep human level. And so we can use those tools. Like you said, they’re additive. They’re not necessarily bad. But to really engage and not just as a buzz word, could do so much for the product, just like you outlined. So that’s awesome. Let me ask you this, Brad. Did you consciously start becoming a thought leader as a strategy, or was it just something that kind of arose naturally from something deeper within you? Was it you answering the hi in the why and how and then becoming a thought leader? Or was it more of a tactic? Hey, I’m going to do this because it’s going to help build it.
Brad: Yeah, it’s most definitely not a tactic and not something I thought about deliberately. And if you if you sort of trace it back in terms of I’ll do one thread of the, the, the lifecycle of it because there’s many different layers, right? So when you talk about being a thought leader, if you said, Brad, do you consider yourself a follower? My reaction is, I don’t know. Ask other people. Right. I guess it’s not mine. Like I can wear a T-shirt that says I’m a solider, whatever. It’s the same kind of, you know, you get the self-referential problem there. I started blogging in 2005 or 24. I can’t remember now when I started, I think it was the end of 2004, beginning of 2005. I started blogging not to be a failure. I started blogging because I wanted to understand a particular type of technology which was RSS and user generated content. I had this instinct and the user, Gary Content, had been around on the Internet for a long time and the commercial and I started investing in commercial Internet in 1994. So from that point, you’d had this notion of of user generated content, although it wasn’t really well understood and articulated. And, you know, the big visible examples of of the first wave of that were things like Geocities. And it was interesting to me in that sort of 20, 40,005 period just at the beginning of blogging, which was started well before that, but really had this very visible rise, you know, at the beginning of the Web 2.0 phenomenon. I was really intrigued with two technologies, RSS and UGC. And, you know, I wanted to understand the tools. I wanted to understand how people consume the tools. I wanted to understand people how to consume the content, how people use the tools. And my approach, again, knowing that I’m intrinsically motivated by learning, was just to start doing stuff. So they just started blogging in that context and I realized that to do that, the best way to be effective was to be authentic, transparent, open, whatever word you want to label it with. And the words all seem relatively trite, but even in 2004, 2005, they were not you know, they had not become sort of this generic marketing blah. Like we talked about transparency in two, four people. So what do you mean by that? I define that. And so in this beginning, I started doing this. And early on in that curve, one of the things that annoyed me was that entrepreneurs still really had no understanding of how term sheets work. Every time I did a deal, I had to go through this painful process with lawyers of negotiating a term sheet and having to deal with all of this stuff. Some which mattered, some which didn’t. And as a result, I thought, Oh, it’ll be interesting to write a bunch of blog posts that demystify the term sheet. So I did that with my partner, Jason Mendelson, and it turned out really the first people that did it in a way that was human versus lawyer ask and in a way that was very accessible and very clear. And I think it was about 30 posts. And, you know, that was another layer of you could look back at and say, thought leadership. But it wasn’t a tactic. We didn’t say, oh, let’s write a bunch of posts on this because I don’t get us more deal flow or write a bunch of posts on this because, you know, that would generate stature for me as a father. It was driven by this is stupid that people don’t have this information out there. Let me use this tool of, you know, user generated content and let me use this technology that I’m fascinated with where even at that point, RSS is a mechanism for consuming that stuff was the key way people thought about it, which. To show how important RSS is at one level and how invisible it is at another level. The wiring of all this stuff. Yeah. And all of those things. You know, if you wanted to. 2013, they’re all cumulative. Right. It’s the same reason why, you know, I’ve been very active on Twitter. It’s the same reason I’m very active on Foursquare. It’s very you know, I’m trying to understand how these things impact how those there are life, because I’m trying to understand the next layer down of investments, which is where we like to invest. I’m not trying to do it to say, hey, look at me. And if the side effect is that people look at me or want to interact with me or get some value out of it, and they’re attracted to engaging with me because of that. Awesome. But that’s not the drive. That’s not the why. Yeah. Underlies it all.
Bronson: Now, that’s great. And I’ve actually, you know, been the beneficiary of some of your transparency. I remember reading those blog post about term sheets and actually, you know, bought the e-book of venture deals and, you know, read that how my brother read it as we’re getting ready to look at term sheets. And so it came all very genuine. Know I think the tagline of it is be smarter than your VCE and your lawyer or something like that, you know, and I get that feel reading your stuff, like you’re really just trying to be open and expose data, expose information, be helpful. And I think that’s where the best thought leaders come from when it’s not a strategy. But I wanted to ask anyway just to see, because if it was a strategy, you’ve done it really well. How do you go ahead?
Brad: What? Well, content and I talk about this a lot in startup communities. I’ve lived my life this way as a business. I live my business life this way for as long as I can remember, which is to use in constructive gift before you get and I probably live this way in my non business life too, like it’s a pretty consistent way that I think about it. But if you just take this the business slice, people talk about the phrase pay it forward, which is somebody did something for me, so I’m going to pay it forward and do something for somebody else and that’s a cousin. So the notion of of get before you get get before you get is I’m going to put an energy into this person, this thing, this community without any any expectation, a priority of what I’m going to get back. It’s not altruism. I expect to get something back. I just don’t know what it’s going to be and what form over what period of time. And so instead of me defining a transactional relationship on the front end, I enter into the relationship non transaction. And I let the relationship or the engagement evolve. And a lot of times the thing that comes back a value is from an unexpected place completely differently than I would have expected. I would have gotten it if I had to find a transaction on the front end. Exactly. I don’t have a stuff like this. Like, you know, I could say, you know, if you remember interaction, I don’t remember our initial interaction. I think you asked me to do this and I said, sure, I’m happy to do it. I didn’t say how big your audience what are you paying me? How many pages will I get from it? Is it worth my time? You know, I didn’t need that transactional definition on the front and I was happy to do it because, okay, I do this a lot. I allocate a certain amount of my time each week to doing interviews like this. It doesn’t overwhelm. And, you know, I’m so cool. I’m, you know, I don’t know what the value will be that comes back, but I hope there will be some. And oh, by the way, it doesn’t come back from this one. It might come back tenfold from a different interview that I got. Yeah, but if I define them transaction against each of them, I wouldn’t have ended up winning.
Bronson: You know, it’s so interesting you actually bring up the example of this program because last night I was talking to my wife and I told her all the stuff you done. I told her what a fan I was of yours. I went through some of your books with her and then she said, Well, then why is he coming on your program? And I said, Well, let me tell you about something else about him. He gives before he gives, and I think that’s the only reason why. So that was actually our dialog in the kitchen, you know, last night. So it’s so great that you bring that up. When you look to invest in entrepreneurs, do you look for entrepreneurs that have this ability, the ability to inspire and educate, be thought leaders, or is it okay if they’re more transactional? Is it okay if they’re more traditional marketing? How do you view it as an investor?
Brad: Well, I I’ve I’ve invested in a wide spectrum of entrepreneurs, so I’m not looking for an entrepreneur to be typecast a certain way. And in fact, I think that many of the things I’ve learned over time from engaging with different entrepreneurs is because I’ve had to be stretched and think about it versus having a prototype cookie cutter approach. I would like to believe that everyone that I work with has a couple of characteristics, right? One characteristic is that they’re obsessed about the product or technology or the company they’re trying to build. They’re obsessed about that, and that obsession drives them on a continual basis. And that obsession is really important to me. I, I have to be interested in what they’re doing. I don’t have to be obsessed and I should be as I don’t need to be as obsessed as they are. And if they’re not as obsessed as I am, there’s a problem. Yeah. Or is it has to be somebody that I want to work with for a long time and they want to work with me for a long period of time. So it has to be a two. A partnership. I’m not. I’m not interested in investing in investing in people who don’t want to have a long term relationship with me. I know that there may be a variety of reasons why somebody would want to take my money but not have a long term, deep, engaged relationship with me. And that’s fine. And plenty of other people for them to take money from it, to have as investors. And the opposite is true, too. There are plenty of great entrepreneurs who I could invest in, but if I’m not really excited about working with them over a long period of time, I don’t want to do it. And so those two characteristics are dominant for me. And a lot of times they sort of get you to the next level, right? Like as you’re interacting with somebody and trying to decide whether or not you want to work with them long term and also seeing whether they want to work with you long term. A lot shakes out in all of those other functional areas about how they approach things and how they think about things and what they do. And if I if I inverted that and said, well, I actually just care about these characteristics, does the person have these yes or no chat, check, check, check. Okay. They got three of the four. Therefore I’ll invest. But it’s not somebody I want to work with and they’re not obsessed about the product. Why did I just do that? Right. So I turn it upside down and use that as the starting point. I still care about a lot of those things, but I let myself be open about what the actual characteristics are.
Bronson: Yeah, I know. That’s great to bring about to marketing a little bit. You know, before a year and a half ago when you had that post, I don’t hate marketing. One of the things that you would tell people is to focus on the product that was kind of your way of like, you know, making them not focus on traditional marketing was focus on the product or think about the product. So I want you to help us to kind of demystify that word product. Okay. I haven’t asked any of the other guests on the show to do this, but I want to ask you to do this. You’ve thought about product probably as much as anyone. What are the components of a great product? Because you think philosophically, you don’t think, oh, it needs an orange button. You think bigger than that. So what are the components of a great product?
Brad: I think you have to start from the perspective of where you are in the lifecycle of the company. At the very beginning of the lifecycle, the company, the product is that first thing that you are building and it could be virtual or physical that people are going to interact with. As you get that product out there, you go from a position of a specific set of features and functionality to a whole product. And the whole product includes this sort of this closed loop engagement dynamic. It includes the way your company interacts with the customer around the whole technology. A great example of that that I tweeted about, because I just continue to be amazed with it every time. And I appreciate the blog post because of the overall experience that I had over the weekend, I unpacked and set up two new products. One was an Apple iMac 27 inch and one was a Cisco iPhone SE, a 5 to 5 G Cisco IP phone as a 5 to 5 G. Just me saying those two things tells you the different priorities. All the. I’m at 27 minutes. I could remember it. And the other is I had to read the very dark data in the corner of the phone to see what it was. The iMac that I unbox and set up the experience was unbelievable. It was what you would expect from an Apple product, but you take it out. There’s a couple of things in the box. Their packaging exactly the right place. They’re easy to get out of their packaging. You stick it on the desk, you plug it in. Stuff starts happening. It ask you a few questions. You have pictures that show you exactly what to do. You click on it and literally in 5 minutes it’s working. I took the box, I closed the box up and I threw it away. Like, think about a second time, the phone. I open up the box, much smaller box, a great cardboard box rather than a beautiful box. The cardboard box is corrugated on the end. I actually cut my finger opening the box. Now you know that talk, right? I take the stuff out of the box and it’s in pieces wrapped in plastic. So I rip the plastic off of all the pieces. I have a user manual that’s just like laying in the box that I missed the first time. So I take the Israelis off and I figure out if I got to do anything with it. Anyway, I put the phone together. Okay, eventually. That’s fine. I plug it in. It took me actually longer to get the phone out of the box than it took to get the computer out of the box and set up. Right. I was done with. The computer was done. And I was still like putting the phone pieces together and trying to figure out exactly what to do next. It’s it’s wireless. It’s an IP fan. I then proceeded to spend the next 45 minutes trying to get the wireless IP phone configured so that it would work and it still doesn’t work. It’s a couple of days later I’ve been using my iMac very happily and you know, I couldn’t figure it out. I didn’t have time. It was on, it was on Monday over Labor Day. So I was intrigued to call. I served on the Web for a while. I found some support things I. And, you know, no support things where we’re right in the chat rooms. We’re not quite right. And I when I looked at what kind of router I had, I realized it didn’t have the log in from my daughter because somebody else had that. So I had to send an email to someone to get the log in my router to see if you know, actually. Right. But eventually I liked it and I just did my phone calls with my Mac. Yeah, right. Okay. But I wasn’t sure that that is the difference in whole product. Mm hmm. Right. And it turns out that the reason my phone doesn’t work is that I’ve got the wrong kind of wet key on my router configured that this phone doesn’t support a particular flavor of a web key. So I have to change my work here. Maybe it’s a packet. Who the fuck cares? Right. I just want to turn my phone on and if I can turn my Mac on and the Mac to somehow find this stuff and work, why can’t my phone do that? Yeah. Right. That’s. That’s whole product. And then as you continue to advance on the spectrum of company, the company becomes the product. So over time, a great entrepreneur starts thinking about his or her company as the product. And rather than the individual product, because there’s so many pieces of the product. Mm hmm. So my hope is that somebody like, you know, Larry Page or Tim Cook are thinking about Apple or Google as the product. Mm hmm. And it’s awesomely working on that. And not like you have to get to that stage. You don’t have to be a, you know, $100 million company or more to get to that point. Probably the point that you’re thinking about the company is the product is a CEO is when you get to be, you know, 500 people or 200 or 500 people, you get into this part to your job now is much more about the overall company rather than the individual product. Now you may have interaction engaging with the products, but your obsession now should be about the whole company. That’s the that’s the transition.
Bronson: That’s a great I’m so glad you laid that out for us. Let me ask you this. You’ve seen startups become good whole products. You’ve seen whole products become good, whole businesses where the business is the product. Does the path to get there from one to 2 to 3, however you cut it, is are moments when they look like Cisco at times. Is there a moment when you’re cutting your finger on the cardboard or is it they do something small very well and add something else to it very well? And it’s strength and a strength. What does it look like actually seeing that process?
Brad: I believe that a path to glory is a process of a continual set of failures and fuck ups. So the idea from the outside looking in that these are sort of straight lines, are clean things is just false. This incredibly chaotic, messy phenomena. We’re about the only dimension that you don’t go backwards on is time. Mm hmm. Right. Time continues to march forward, but everything else, you make progress. You go backwards. You things work. Things don’t work. It’s a mess. And the key to great entrepreneurs and great leaders is that you learn from your mistakes over and over again. And sometimes that mistakes can be fatal. Lots of companies fail that arc that you’re on as an entrepreneur. If a particular company fails, you know, while it sucks, it’s okay. As long as you’re learning and extracting whatever you can from that on a more long term continual arc. So people talk about, you know, the cliche fail fast, comes up over and over again. And, you know, there’s this endless debate about do you mean you fail fast? Like, my company’s not working, I should fail fast and shut it down ourselves fast as I should fail fast on the specific, you know, things I tried. I believe that you should fail fast on an endless stream of experiments over the course of your life. Just keep running experiments and to experiment works do more. If the experiment doesn’t work, stop the experiment. Learn from it. From the data you’ve collected, try another experiment. If the experiment works really well, do a lot more of it. And that’s the path. So it’s not that you start with something amazing and you never have this bad moment. And of course, you know, Cisco’s a very successful company. So it’s one thing for me to bitch about, you know, their out of the box experience, right? You know, they have we have other products from Cisco in our in our office that are very complex, you know, technical products. You know, the new switch we have is IP switch. And, you know, my partner, Ryan, who, you know, is playing around with this amazing product and it’s got some issues with it. Like, you know, we were having some connectivity problems and it turns out that it’s actually very finicky about the density of the cabling for some reason. Oh, right. But you learn those things. That’s okay, because the actual product itself is a pretty amazing product. Yeah, the whole company. Some of the things about, you know, the whole company are incredible. Some aren’t. Same with Apple. I mean, we can talk about how magical Apple is as a company, but it does plenty of things that are stupid. And we have things that are better. You know, you just want to, you know, smash your head against a wall. And many of those things are experiments that were failed experiments. Right. Many of those things are things that they continue to iterate on and try to get better and better. Yeah. That’s the nature of a dynamic system. Yeah, that’s right.
Bronson: Let me ask you kind of a philosophical question for a second. You know, you talk about how at first it’s the Web app, the product is the product, and then it becomes the business at some point. Is the human? Are you a startup yourself? Running experiments week after week and optimizing for yourself? Do you ever view yourself that way?
Brad: Well, I personally think the best way to extract the most you can out of life is to have continual experiments on yourself. You know, this is around trying new things and this is around, you know, the Y. But you also have to be very sensitive to the context that you create. In other words, you know, I’ve been married for 20 with Amy for 22 years. I’ve been married for for 17 of them. You know, we’re committed to each other. You know, it wouldn’t make any sense for me to go run experiments where I start sleeping with other people.
Bronson: Is that right?
Brad: That’s not part of the text that I’ve created and the commitment that I made in terms of of what I’m doing. And so your own experiments on yourself as a human being are ones to think about. I’m giving the example of an experiment that I decided not to do again in the current context, but that I learned a generous amount from. I run marathons. I’ve run 23 marathons. I’m running a marathon in every state. That’s one of my goals. I used to be have the goal of doing it by the time I’m 50. I’m now 47 and time was not on my side. So I relaxed the constraint of doing it by the time I’m 50 and just said I’ll do it and I do it. In that I decided I wanted to have the experience of running an ultra marathon, so I decided to run a 5060 mile race, potentially on a path to doing 100 mile trek. And I trained for it and I ran it and it was an amazing experience. And so I actually wrote a blog post near the end of the training saying 50 miles is too much. And, you know, I had a weekend near like the third or fourth week before the race where literally I had four runs over the weekend and I ran 40 miles over the course of four different runs. And my whole weekend was running, eating, sleeping, writing, eating, sleeping, running, eating, sleeping at the end of the week. And I’m like too much. Plus, the the race was incredible, incredible experience. And then it took me six weeks to recover emotionally. It only took me about four or five days to recover physically. But I was really up and down emotionally manic, depressed, manic, depressed all over the place for the better part of the next six, six weeks. And I decided in that that given the pace of my work life, the way I worked and what I had is other things that I was doing that while it was fine to run marathons, another Ultra was too much interesting. Like I had a very tough, a tough cycle and the last six months I’ve been very public about it. The depressive episode I went through there never really started. The root cause was in September when had a bike accident. Bunch of things happened. I really start acknowledging I was depressed in October and it wasn’t until about three or four weeks ago that I felt like it was finally lifting. And now I feel good again. Like I feel like it’s lifted. I feel kind of my normal self and I’m being cautious about it. I’m being thoughtful, you know, in terms of perhaps like, okay, yeah, let’s go back to what got me there. What caused me as part of my own experience was, well, there were a bunch of things that led to this depression. I’m going to change some stuff because I don’t want to keep repeating these things. One of them was travel where I you know, for the last 20 years of my life, I’ve traveled 75% of the time, sometimes usually more than 50% time. And I really was worn out physically and emotionally. I decided to change that dynamic. Amy made the observation to me, you know, six weeks ago that I never really emotionally recovered from that 50 mile run, and I hadn’t put that together. But that 50 mile run was in April, and I really didn’t settle down until the end of May, beginning of June. And then I had a great summer, but then I had this bike accident, September. So it’s entirely possible that some of the impact emotionally from that 50 mile run played into this latest episode. Those are just experiments, right? If I learn from the data, I can have a better, more rich life. If I say, okay, I’m going to go run another 50 mile run and I’ll be better this time. Or no, I’m driven by people saying, Wow, that was so great. Bradshaw ran 50 miles when he got around 100. I couldn’t care less about that. That’s not what motivates me to do it. And I understand that. Right. Do you sort of figure out that arc through it? And that is a very powerful way, I think, as a human to experience life, knowing that lots of things will be exciting, satisfying and work well, and lots of things will be a mess. And it’s important to keep running. Those experiments decide deciding not to do something is just as powerful. Many times as deciding to do something sometimes is more powerful. That’s not right.
Bronson: Now. That’s great advice. Well, Brad, this has been an awesome interview. Let me ask just a couple of final questions here to close out. One that I’m kind of personally curious about is that founder group. You guys are known for investing in certain themes. You’re very public about that. You write about these. Seems, you know, human computer interaction protocol, marketplace glue, that kind of stuff. What themes are you personally really excited about right now? Maybe it’s one you haven’t even talked about before.
Brad: Yeah, I would say the two that I’m probably deepest in in terms of engagement is HCI, which includes companies like or Biotics and MakerBot and Oblong and sit there and all. And so, I mean, a lot of these are physical products that have a heavy software component. I like to talk about it as software wrapped in plastic, but they are changing the way that we as humans interact with computing. The other one is a theme called glue, which, you know, is our word for what would in the 1980s have been called middleware. And it’s that software layer that glues together software on the Internet and on the Web. And we have a number of really powerful companies that touch on that and then are also in a category or a theme called protocol, which are technologies built around protocols like SendGrid for S&P or Urban Airship for push notifications. Protocol and glue are pretty close to each other because many of those companies are, you know, SAS based recurring revenue companies. They play in an infrastructure level, but software infrastructure rather than hardware infrastructure. A lot of those companies have very deep integration with other product. And those companies, when they’re successful, have very long term relationships with their their customers. So I like those kinds of things. So those are probably the two themes that I personally am deep among the four of us. My other three partners and I all work across the entire portfolio together. So it’s not though I’ve carved out those teams and I’ve got partners have carved out other things. For example, Occipital, which I mentioned, my partner Jason’s on the border. SendGrid, my partner Ryan’s on the board for Urban Airship. My partner Jason’s on the board. So there’s we’re all different in terms of what we spend time on and work on. We all kind of cross all of the seams.
Bronson: Yeah, that’s great. Last question. It’s a high level question. You can take it any direction you want, but what’s the best advice you have for anyone who’s trying to grow a startup?
Brad: Try to spend the least amount of time on things that don’t matter.
Bronson: Well said. Brad, thank you so much for coming on growth after TV.
Brad: All right.
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