Interview by Howie Rhee '04, with contributions by Coco Chen. Added June 3, 2016
Studying at Duke was a fantastic experience, and one I wish I could go live again knowing everything I do now (just a few short years later). It’s an incredible environment to learn and grow, 4 years isn’t enough to experience it all.
I was a Psychology major (with a focus on Social Psychology) with minors in both Economics and Environmental Science and Policy. I played on the Club Soccer and Club Rugby teams and was a semi-transient member of a number of clubs (Nourish International Advertising Chair, Group of Duke Independents Secretary, House Council Rep for Wilson Dorm, Duke Marking Club member, Referee for Intramural Sports, etc.). Unfortunately, I didn’t catch the entrepreneurial bug until I was about to graduate (besides a brief failed attempt freshman year to start a new fraternity), but I am hoping to get more involved with the Duke I&E Initiative now!!
You worked at a startup and then at EMC after graduating. Tell us about that experience.
Two completely different worlds, but both offered tremendous learning platforms (one obviously a little more structured than the other).
I joined MineralTree (newly founded B2B Payment automation startup in Cambridge, MA) as an Intern in-between Junior and Senior year. The company was still in stealth-mode at the time, consisted of the CEO, 4 senior developers building the MVP, a part time-CFO/Accounting Manager, and me as the “founding intern”. It was a fantastic summer doing market research and sales research helping shape the early product features and building out our target sales pipeline. I was hooked at that point, loved the startup culture and knew that’s the world I wanted to be in after graduating. I went back to Duke for Senior year (still doing some work projects part time) and decided to graduate a semester early to go back to work for MineralTree full time. It was an incredible experience, every day was different, and I was fortunate to have great mentorship from the CEO and team there who afforded me a lot of responsibility and a # of different positions (customer support representative à sales engineer à project manager à customer success representative à account manager à inside sales representative à sales operations lead à just about any other title I could think up for the day’s activities)
I never planned to work for a big company (i.e. EMC), but at MineralTree I became really focused on inside sales and wanted to go somewhere I could perfect that art. I was considering a few later stage startups with well-developed sales orgs, but ultimately ended up settling on EMC based on the reputation of their inside sales department and training program. I looked at the opportunity as a Sales MBA that I’d get paid to complete, and once I went through it for a few years I could take my learnings and bring them back to the startup world. Joining a large company at an entry level position, I had much less variability in my day-to-day work, but it really taught me the benefit of process, organization, and what it takes to effectively manage a large organization (just through observation…no actual mgmt. experience there myself).
To say I just stumbled in the role wouldn’t be fair, but if feels like that’s what happened given I wasn’t out trying to get in to Venture Capital. I had gotten to know the .406 Ventures team very well from working at one of their startups (MineralTree). As an intern at MineralTree I was presenting at board meetings and when we were just starting out we got to work out of the .406 office for a bit. I was always very impressed with the team here at .406 and had already learned a ton from the partners. When they had a role open up on the investment team they asked me to come in and interview for it I knew it was an opportunity I didn’t want to pass up. Long story short, things worked out in the interview process and now I’m here.
The company has done well and you have been in business for almost ten years. Tell us what your business is like these days. What do you spend your time on, and who is your target customer?
.406 Ventures hit the 10 year mark this year, 2016, which we are quite proud of as not all venture firms survive and continue to raise funds. As a firm, we’ve raised 4 funds and now have about $650M under management, which is an accomplishment we owe to the focus we’ve maintained over the years and the great entrepreneurs we’ve chosen to work with. Everyone on the investment team comes from an operating background, and this is a big part of the value we try to deliver to the entrepreneurs we back. That’s why we’ll only invest in areas where we have true experience/expertise and scar tissue from all the things we did wrong so we can help entrepreneurs avoid those same mistakes. Because of this thesis and investment focus, our “customers” are startups offering a B2B enterprise IT solution, vertically focused in one of 4 key areas: cybersecurity, healthcare IT, data & analytics, and cloud infrastructure. I spend time across all areas of the investment cycle (and post-investment) ranging from sourcing new deals, evaluating companies through the diligence process, and then serving as an advisor/free labor to our portfolio companies after we invest.
As you reflect back on the years since you've started, what are some of the things you've learned that you wished you'd known when you were starting.
People want you to take initiative and experiment with new things. If you follow your set job description and the tasks you get handed, you’ll still be a very appreciated and contributing member of a team, but people really respect and notice when you take it upon yourself to find a project, make it your own, and improve something that otherwise wouldn’t have been improved. Be creative in your job and how you approach things…but still always make sure you get the core work done, that comes first! The other big thing I wish I had done more is take advantage of all the great potential mentors around me to learn more about every aspect of a business not just what I was doing. Everyone is always “super busy”, but people love sharing their knowledge and are always willing to talk to a colleague. Take your head of marketing, or head of engineering, or head of product mgmt. out for coffee/a drink and just learn they types of things they think about and deal with every day.
Thinking back to when you were a student, were there things you wished you'd done differently to prepare for being an entrepreneur? And what did you do as a student that you are glad you did?
The thing I wish I did differently and the thing I’m glad I did are one in the same. Constantly network and talk to everyone. I can’t stress enough how important it is to push yourself out of your comfort zone, to go experience new things, to go meet new people, to go join new groups, etc. I was involved in a lot of things, but there is always more out there and I didn’t take advantage of all the great entrepreneurial resources/faculty/like-minded students I could have. Being on campus is a great place to do this and it’s such an easy thing to do. Everyone in this community wants to chat and wants to help out whoever they can, so I strongly encourage students to get their name out there and get really plugged in to everything even remotely related your interests. The more you see the more you’ll begin to learn what you like and where you want to spend time, and this will give you a much bigger foundation from which to launch a company. Network is huge when you’re just starting out as an entrepreneur, so go meet new people!
For students that are thinking of starting a company, but thinking about getting work experience first, how would you help them analyze that decision?
There is no better way to learn than to do. If you’re passionate about an idea and have the motivation to dump the majority of your life in to it, there’s no need to wait to start your own venture until you’ve worked somewhere else. Especially if you’re still in school, this is time to start something…and if things end up going south it’s a much safer place to fail and take those learnings on to your next things as you graduate. If you know you eventually want to start a company, but aren’t really sure what that is going to be, joining another startup at a very early stage is an incredible way to learn and get exposure in to everything that makes a company tick.
A lot of students get stuck on the idea they need to do something incredibly high tech like create the next Google or Facebook. And a lot of them think they need to keep their idea a secret. They might look at a business like yours and say "it's not a technology innovation" and say "if I tell someone my idea, why don't they just steal it and do it themselves?". How do you advise students that are thinking in this way?
Your idea will never be a success unless you get it out in the world and get some feedback that it’s something worthwhile. Find people you trust to share the idea with, and have them find you more people that they trust who could be true subject matter experts. Make sure they are good/helpful people before sharing the idea, get their feedback, and then use it to shape your path. No matter what idea you have and company you build, chances are that there will be a competitor out there doing the same thing (this is actually some good validation for the problem you’re solving and the competitor can help you build/educate the market). Your background and experience should make you the ideal candidate to knock this out of the park, even if there is another competitor that pops up along the way. The next Google and the next Facebook aren’t an everyday thing, so if you sit around waiting until you have that idea, you’ll fall behind thousands of other entrepreneurs who are out there starting great companies that have a real impact on the world today. Find what you’re passionate about and start that.
Tell us what types of things your role entails. What are you responsible for?
An investing role in venture capital is quite different from any other role I’ve had in my operating career. This line of work involves going a mile wide in to a ton of different things, but only an inch deep. Compare this to a highly focused startup where you are only an inch wide, but are a mile deep in your specific field. My role entails finding and helping great entrepreneurs make their idea a success. At the front end of this cycle it involves getting plugged in to the tech community by attending events, taking people out for coffee, participating in meetups, joining groups in an area I’m focused on, etc. Out of building this network comes a flowing list of companies that we would consider investing in. I work with these companies through the diligence cycle evaluating a number of different things including the product, the market, the problem they’re solving, the team, their financial plan, the competitive landscape, etc. If things line up for both the entrepreneur and for us, we make the investment and are very involved after that. Our stated goal is to be a true operational partner to everyone we invest in, not just a financial partner, so at least half of my time is spent helping our current portfolio companies. This can be anything from helping them find and recruit new employees, to thinking through go to market strategy, to setting up an inside sales organization, to introducing them to potential customers. Outside of the investment side of things, I also help out with all the operational things it takes to make .406 itself run as a company.
Tell us what it’s like to live in Boston. What’s the vibe like out there for a young alum?
I may be a little biased because I grew up right outside of Boston and am partial to the east coast…but it really is a fantastic city for young professionals and one of the best places you can come for entrepreneurship. It’s a hard working culture that also likes to have fun, and you’re surrounded by smart, motivated people and a ton of innovation going on across the board. A startup incubator in Washington DC (1776) recently named Boston as the top (#1) city for fostering entrepreneurial growth, based not only on the number of startups/investment dollars but also more importantly based on the collaborative nature of the city that really fosters cooperative development over competition…which kept some other contenders from the #1 spot (*cough*cough*Silicon Valley*). Besides that, it’s a beautiful city, easy to get around, has a ton of history, tons to do, and if you like sports there is never a dull season here.
Anything else you would like to share with students?
I’m always open to chat and help out the Duke community, so never be shy about reaching out. If you are an entrepreneur that is still in school, we offer an awesome program designed to help students build upon the academic entrepreneurial experiences offered through school, with the real-world skills and networks needed to start successful companies. It’s called the .406 Ventures Student Fellows Program and we’re always looking for great student entrepreneurs to be a part of it. We’ve had one fellow from UNC (booo!), but none yet for Duke so I want to change that!