I’ve seen a lot in my career. Over the last 40 years, I’ve been a professor, advisor to companies and the government, executive, author of marketing books, investor on my own, and a partner for dozens of early-stage entrepreneurs. Everything I’ve learned in the process has only further convinced me that entrepreneurship is the most noble and exciting pursuit on the planet. And I regularly draw on past experiences to advise the founders I work with today.
My path to First Round was unexpected. After starting Renaissance Technologies venture fund, and running it through the eighties, I turned to personal angel investing in 1990. Through my personal fund, Arca Group, I had the great benefit of working and succeeding with the same talented founder twice — fortunately it was Josh Kopelman. And when he told me he was interested in focusing solely on the seed-stage segment of the market, I knew he was on to something. So we joined forces, and the firm’s thesis has remained the same since — essentially that the right community, advice and support at the very beginning can make a tremendous difference in a company’s journey. That’s what we seek to supply.
There are a lot of ways I like to help companies. As a former computer science professor, I have a lot of technical knowledge, and love working with deeply technical founders. But I also have worked with so many companies that have made it to the public markets, and such a wide variety of management styles that I feel uniquely positioned to help companies sidestep the many common pitfalls on their way there.
Most of these problems have to do with keeping the best people engaged, and with hiring and firing decisions. It’s very hard to change people, but that doesn’t mean we don’t try to help them learn and grow where possible. This is where I can offer a lot of insight from the sheer number of co-founder and employee relationships I’ve observed.
I admire founders who are willing to recognize and embrace these uncomfortable realities. To start something in the first place, you have to eschew cushy opportunities to take huge risks, and frankly, to endure a lot of pain. You do this because you can’t shake the idea. I can always tell a founder who has the passion it takes to win. They can’t contain their excitement when they talk about what they want to do. It’s clearly driving their thoughts and actions.
I’ve had the chance to work with a lot of brilliant people — as Professor of Decision Sciences and Computer Science at Wharton and the University of Pennsylvania, at Cornell, Caltech and Harvard Business School, where I was on the faculty, at Renaissance Technologies, and through angel investing during the 1990s. Now, at First Round, I see and work with outstanding entrepreneurial talent all the time, with the great support of the First Round team to amplify and speed their success.
Working with these types of people is exhilarating. And giving them a piece of advice that truly makes a difference is what my career is about. I see my role as part coach, part cheerleader, and part conduit, connecting brilliant people with the resources they need. But at the end of the day, I know I’m not the one building the company. And I don’t try to be. I might be sitting in the car, but the entrepreneur is always the one driving.