Brad Feld Goes Off the Grid
Brad Feld is still learning. The MIT alum has kickstarted an impressive number of tech companies in the past 20-plus years. But he says he's still striving to perfect a web of systems, from how to effectively fund start-ups to how to spend time with his wife to how to mentor across generations.
Four years ago Feld co-founded the TechStars program in Boulder, Colorado, with entrepreneur David Cohen, in order to help small start-ups grow into healthy companies. Its formula: Choose 10 teams with ideas. Give them each up to $18,000 in seed money. Throw in support from mentors for three months. The result: A whole bevy of fine-tuned and fast-growing young businesses. TechStars has since expanded to Seattle, Boston, and New York. Feld and Cohen's new book, Do More Faster: TechStars Lessons to Accelerate Your Startup, uses first-person stories from entrepreneurs and mentors who participated in the program to explore themes such as fundraising and product development.
Currently Feld is based at Foundry Group, a venture capital firm in Boulder he cofounded that makes early-stage investments in software, Internet, and IT start-ups from a $225 million fund raised in 2007. Foundry Group has made about 30 investments in the last four years, including one in Zynga, the company behind social networking games FarmVille and Mafia Wars. About to turn 45, Feld says he's working 80-hour weeks and loving it. He recently took a moment away from his whirlwind schedule to talk with Inc. about work-life algorithms, start-up lessons, and what it's like to work at The Bunker.
What is something you'd want first-time entrepreneurs to know?
You hear entrepreneurs on the notion that work-life balance is stupid, that you have to be completely obsessed with your entrepreneurial journey at the expense of everything else in your world. At the end of our book, we explore this notion from a different perspective. As somebody who has been through that cycle and continues to work extremely hard, I think that being an entrepreneur is a very intense experience that requires unbelievable focus, but there are ways to inject balance.
How do you create a balance?
I married my high school girlfriend and that ended in divorce a couple of years later. Some of that was work, some of that was other things. I was very focused on my business. Almost a decade ago my wife Amy had been together almost 10 years and I struggled with how to deal with the level of intense focus on my work. I took an engineer's approach, which is "give me some rules." We came up with rules and 10 years later we follow most of them. They're fun rules, but I have an algorithm so when I get out of whack I have something to test against.
What are the fun rules in your algorithm?
Amy and I have a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual rhythm. Every month on the first of the month we go out to dinner together, something called "life dinner." It doesn"t have to be fancy. We give each other a gift, ranging from nice jewelry or a piece of art at one end of the spectrum to one time she gave me a remote-controlled fart machine. Those evenings we reflect on the previous month and look forward to the next month. It's not structured. We've done that for the last 10 years.
The quarterly rhythm is a week "off the grid." When we leave on Saturday, I give Amy my cell phone and when I return, usually on a Saturday, she gives it back to me. During that week I don't do email, I don't do telephone calls. My assistant knows how to find me if something comes up. If I know something is going on, an acquisition, I tell Amy that in advance and as long as it's predefined it's OK.
It used to take me two or three days to settle into it. Now I settle into it about a minute after I put my seatbelt on, on the plane. What happens is you get this really intense weeklong vacation with each other and you remember why you're together as a couple. That quarterly rhythm is incredibly powerful for us. Seven out of eight of them are successes.
What would be a failure?
A failure is I somehow convince myself that I'm only going to check email for the first day or two. Or I'm only going to work on this one thing. And it's always a disaster. We had a fail in Phoenix. By the third day of the fail, she's getting angry at me and we're starting to talk about our relationship, which is the worst thing you can do while you're on vacation. By day six, the Cold War is over and we're back to a good place, but we have maybe one happy day together. It's actually useful to have those because it puts it in perspective.
We also try to do four minutes every morning of sitting and saying good morning, having a cup of coffee together, not running around. If we're not together because we're traveling we do the same thing with a Skype call.
You're based here in Boulder, Colorado. What is the business community like here?
The entrepreneurial scene here is extraordinary. It takes 20 years to build a sustainable entrepreneurial community and I think Boulder is 15 years into that. You have a lot of experienced entrepreneurs as well as a steady stream of first-time entrepreneurs that come here through programs like TechStars, or through the university. The community is big enough to be interesting but small enough to quickly get into.
The Bunker is down the block, in the basement. It's where TechStars Boulder started and it's about a 10,000 square-foot space that used to be an old health club. We cleaned it up. [TechStars cofounder] David [Cohen] and a couple others painted it fun colors. It's where the really early-stage entrepreneurial activity happens. All the TechStars companies are here during the program in the summer.
One of the neat things about being in downtown Boulder is you're literally walking from start-up to start-up, versus getting in your car and driving to the next office park where the startup is on the seventh floor in the corner. The Bunker is right in the center.
You've got a treadmill in your office — what's that about?
The keyboard is connected to my computer so I can just move between the two. I walk on my treadputer while I work. I can do email or a conference call. Usually if I'm in town in the office I'll walk a couple of hours each day. This is one I bought. Five years ago I built one from scratch before it became a product. At two miles an hour you can really walk, and type, and work, and fully engage.
What motivates you?
The main driver for me is to learn. I prefer constructive feedback. If there's something I could have done better or if I missed a point somewhere. I want to hear that because I want to learn from it. If somebody is intrinsically motivated and you keep heaping praise on them, but they never learn anything and it's not a satisfying experience for them, they will lose interest. In contrast, if someone is extrinsically motivated and they never get any praise, even if what they're doing is important, they will be dissatisfied. You have to get that right.
What have you learned by watching TechStars companies go through the start-up process?
There is an endless evolution of how people think generationally. As somebody who is now in my mid-40s, spending time with people in their 20s and 30s when they're going through the process of starting a company for the first time is different than my experience when I was that age. The TechStars founders are constantly on the front edge of new tooling, new technologies, new ideas. They're not constrained by their past.