Back in the arena: the beginning of data.world

It has been a long time since I wrote anything on my Lucky7 blog and there is good reason for that.  Back in June, I started to brainstorm my next big idea with long-time friends Jon Loyens and Matt Laessig (both of whom were amazing at Bazaarvoice and had moved on to HomeAway).  Bryon Jacob (a 10-year veteran at HomeAway) soon got involved as an idea he had been thinking about was better than anything we came up with and one thing led to another until we founded data.world.

It may feel curious to my regular readers that I would jump back into the arena as the CEO of a company built from scratch.  After all, our investments in startups and venture capital funds have been performing well, including a recent exit with Deep Eddy Vodka being acquired (and us subsequently investing in Clayton Christopher’s VC fund, CAVU).  There are many factors that led to this calling for me:

1. Our 11-year old daughter, who I involved in different startup competitions as a co-judge and at different pitch meetings at our home and Lola Savannah, kept asking me when I was going to start another business.  I thought deep and hard about that - wasn’t she already seeing how I was helping startups and staying very active in our community?  And then it hit me.  Some of the most formative years of her childhood had been visiting Bazaarvoice, such as attending our All-Hands meetings at the Alamo Draft House or our Client Summits.  Those early years at Bazaarvoice truly felt magical - it was an electric environment, you could literally feel the energy in the air just walking around the office and at those events.  She must have felt that and it just isn’t the same to her with me being an investor or coach/advisor.  She was just six-months old when I founded Bazaarvoice with Brant Barton.  Now at almost age 44 (my birthday is on Valentine’s Day), I realized that our six-year old son hadn’t seen the same.  Abraham Lincoln said, "There is just one way to bring up a child in the way he should go and that is to travel that way yourself.” 

2. I’m only (almost) 44-years old.  I think I would have felt differently about this if our children were grown but that remains to be seen as I get older.  There is no doubt that entrepreneurship is in my blood - my parents were entrepreneurs as well.  Getting “good” at being an investor and an entrepreneurial advisor basically taught me that I can do that at any time.  I had achieved a level of comfort and that in a way gives you a hall pass to move on to your next calling.  And there will always be more entrepreneurs to help, more businesses to be started, and more money that will be needed to fuel them - a return to that would be “easy”.  But at this age, I feel like I’m in my prime.  I’ve seen 1,100 pitches in the last three years, gotten involved with 40 startups and 10 venture funds, and it is time to put that level of knowledge back to use.  Frankly, I felt like a caged tiger in some ways, ready to be unleashed again into the arena.  There were some huge influences in my life last year as well, such as becoming a Henry Crown Fellow (thanks again to Josh Baer for nominating me), and going through our first week of discussing some incredibly influential leadership readings together (with some of the best leaders I've ever been around), as well as joining the Conscious Capitalism Board of Directors and attending the Conscious Capitalism CEO Summit.  In both of these mediums, surrounded by truly extraordinary people and discussing capitalism as a major force for good (when best applied), I couldn’t help but be incredibly inspired to get back in there and continue to help create our future directly vs. indirectly.

3. Most importantly, the mission is worth fighting for and the people at data.world are worth doing it with (truly the best of the best).  I look forward to telling you all about our business as our story unfolds.  Right now we are mostly in stealth (we’ve been in stealth to the point that we didn’t disclose our name until just recently).  With the skills and network I’ve acquired and worked hard for over the years, this was a mission that I literally felt pulled to pursue.  data.world has the potential to do so much good for the world - and I happen to be very uniquely qualified to lead it (the same is true for my co-founders, Bryon, Jon, and Matt).  This is a quote that inspired us:  

If the universe of data were suddenly made available, it would unleash the creativity of problem-solvers to combine different data sets – public and private – to develop innovative solutions to innumerable challenges.

Mikael Hagstrom, former Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Data-Driven Development

For now, feel free to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and sign up for early news about our venture on our site.  We would love your support and encouragement.

Looking back at my few posts for 2015, I feel compelled to reconcile a few things (if not for you, at least for me - as my blog is also a kind of living journal or diary).  When I gave the commencement speech to the 2015 MSTC graduates at U.T. Austin, I was already thinking about getting back into the arena and what an amazing time we live in.  I had written about The Golden Age of Technology in a series in 2014 and the timing for something as ambitious as data.world only got better in 2015.  When I wrote about my 42nd year and how it was the answer to my life, the universe, and everything (a Hitchhiker’s Guide reference, for you Douglas Adams fans), it is true that I absolutely love helping entrepreneurs as an investor and advisor.  I now understand why the great VCs and executive coaches (like Kirk Dando) love it so much.  And when I wrote about big life transitions, I left it open that I could indeed step back into the arena at one point.  What I didn’t realize when I wrote that is that the mission had to be worth fighting for and it had to be with the right people.  data.world was too important of a calling not to pursue.

So how does it feel to get back into the arena after three years of helping entrepreneurs and practicing entrepreneurship indirectly instead of directly?  Damn good.  I’ve had three years to reflect on my experience at Bazaarvoice, learn from many entrepreneurs and VCs, and spend a lot of time with my family and travel the world.  I feel not just completely recharged but I feel like I got another advanced degree - one in life management as well as advanced entrepreneurial studies!  I find myself loving my drive into work and looking forward to our morning Founders Standup meeting (Jon Loyen’s idea, we do it daily and I highly recommend it).  We’ve been listening to the book Exponential Organizations on our drive in - it describes the type of business we are aspiring to build.  I highly recommend it as well.  And I’ve been loving applying so much of what I’ve learned from my five previous startups as well as the amazing past three years of life and entrepreneurial lessons into data.world.  

I wrote about Viktor Frankl, the famous author and Holocaust survivor, in my effort to help middle-aged entrepreneurs (including those joining startups for the first time, instead of starting a company themselves).  The big point in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, is that a mission in life is what matters most.  This is becoming more and more of the norm of what you read today (and it is something that Millennials especially care about) but back when Frankl wrote his book, it was a pretty unique way of thinking about life and happiness.  I’m proud to write that I’m onto a huge mission with data.world - I truly feel pulled to do this.  I’ll do my best to share lessons along the way here at Lucky7 but as you can see, I’ve been really busy since June, so no promises!  With this being my sixth startup as a founder, I’m under no illusions about how much energy and focus this really takes.  And I’m having a blast.


My commencement speech for the 2015 MSTC graduates at U.T. Austin

It was an honor on Saturday to be the commencement speaker for the Class of 2015 MSTC (Masters of Science in Technology Commercialization) graduates at the University of Texas at Austin. One of the graduates, Rainya Mosher was kind enough to summarize her takeaways from my speech in her blog post and the full text of the speech follows:

Was 42 the answer to my life, universe, and everything?

Was 42 the answer to my life, universe, and everything?

Today is my 43rd birthday. As I think about the last year, my good friend and CEO coach, Kirk Dando, comes to mind. On page 141 of his excellent book Predictive Leadership, Kirk writes:

Why big life transitions are so hard and why it is so worth it to keep at it

Why big life transitions are so hard and why it is so worth it to keep at it

Life is like a record album, composed of songs to form the whole. From age 24 to 40, I had been playing the song "entrepreneur". I set a goal when I was 25 to one day found a tech company and take it public - by the time I was 40. Fifteen years later, I achieved that goal (my ultimate BHAG - "Big Hairy Audacious Goal"). Society didn't know about this very personal BHAG (only a few friends, my parents, and my wife did), and they expected me to keep playing the same song over and over again. This was natural, expected even. But as I wrote about in my "time is money or is money time" post, I was determined to step back and think deeply about my next move post being the CEO of Bazaarvoice. I didn't want to just set the same goal all over again (i.e., "now I'll found a sixth company and take it public again"). I knew I wanted to help entrepreneurs - I had always enjoyed doing so while I was at Bazaarvoice or Coremetrics but I had done so very sparingly due to the time constraints that I had (managing high-growth ventures takes a lot of time). I had love in my heart for Austin and thought I should do my part, along with many others like Josh Baer of Capital Factory, to help our scene evolve. So I jumped into that part of the arena - but in a more "grandfatherly" role as opposed to being the actual "man in the arena" (a nod to Theodore Roosevelt's powerful speech in 1910). As far as becoming an entrepreneur again and going back to that song, I had to think very deeply about it.

What I love about angel investing

What I love about angel investing

Today is my 43rd birthday (you can read about what I learned over the past year inmy Lucky7 post about age 42). Looking back on my last year, I've grown to really love angel investing. My wife, Debra, and I run a family office that we call Hurt Family Investments. She takes the lead on philanthropic projects, and I take the lead on startup investing. For the past two years, we've invested the same financial amount in non-profits as we have in startups. We always agree on what to invest in - she has to meet the entrepreneurs before we make a decision - and that leverages the best of both of us. Debra is a contrarian thinker and was also born to entrepreneur parents. We both learned a lot about entrepreneurship growing up, and we actually started Coremetrics, my fourth business, together. She has terrific entrepreneurial instincts and there are a number of companies that I haven't started because I listened to her (thankfully), when I was playing the song "entrepreneur" on my record of life. Now, we are involved in 34 startups (mostly in Austin) and multiple VC funds that give us exposure to at least as many additional startups (you can see our portfolio here).

Facebook made the most epic tech company pivot of this decade, and on pivots in general

Facebook made the most epic tech company pivot of this decade, and on pivots in general

Pivots are gut wrenching. The more eyes there are on the company, the tougher they are. Therefore, public-company pivots are usually the most gut wrenching. Many public companies of the past ceased to stay public because their leaders couldn't face the pivot (change is a bitch - who moved my cheese?!), their business radically declined, and they eventually got delisted from NASDAQ or the NYSE.

Investing in natural network effects in SaaS

Sometimes startups we meet with (I've personally seen over 1,000 pitches in the last two years) talk about their network effect in a hopeful way. But most of the time it is just that - hope, and hope is not a strategy. But Bazaarvoice actually has a working network effect that benefits all participants: retailers, brands that sell through those retailers, consumers that shop at those brands and retailers, and Bazaarvoice and some of its partners. In other words, the more participants that are on the Bazaarvoice network, the great the effect of that network for the benefit of all. I wrote about this in detail in my first annual shareholders letter after Bazaarvoice became a public company.

Why B2C is so hard to get funded in Austin

Why B2C is so hard to get funded in Austin

My good friend and the founder of Capital Factory, Josh Baer, wrote a post last year saying that he will invest in your B2C startup. Well, so will we. We wrote the first check for ROIKOI, which went on to raise well over $1 million, and also made investments in Bigwig GamesBlue AvocadoDeep Eddy VodkaDropoff, and Threadover the past two years. We were also one of the first checks for Wisecrack, but that is based in Los Angeles, and invested in the Series A for talklocal, based in DC. And we are investors in several venture capital funds, including Lead Edge Capital, which holds early positions in Alibaba Group, BlaBlaCar, and other large-outcome B2C companies but these are not in Austin so I guess I'm diverging from my point of this post. In any case, that is a total of eight B2C company investments (if you include Wisecrack and talklocal) out of a total of 33 startups we are involved with, representing 24% of our portfolio (and 18% if you exclude Wisecrack and talklocal).Real Massive also has a kind of B2C dynamic, even though it is B2B, so maybe I should count them too as they are Austin-based. But our primary focus is SaaS, for which we have holdings in 19 startups (57% of our portfolio). Both Bazaarvoice and Coremetrics were/are SaaS businesses and we have the most experience to bring to that category. SaaS is also far less risky than B2C, and that brings me to the real point of this post.

Observations on the Austin startup scene with Jason Seats, Managing Director of Techstars Austin

Observations on the Austin startup scene with Jason Seats, Managing Director of Techstars Austin

Techstars has become quite a force for startups, recently surpassing $1 billion in capital raised for the startups that have graduated from various Techstars program (see the stats breakdown). That is a staggering figure, to say the least. So I decided to kick off the New Year with an interview of our own Jason Seats, Mananging Director of Techstars Austin. I've been proud to be a Mentor of this great program since it launched.

What I learned from my top three Lucky7 posts in 2014

December 5th marked my second year of blogging personally (I had previously been a corporate blogger for 7 years at Bazaarvoice as our CEO). I began blogging primarily as a service to entrepreneurs - a form of giving back to the community that I believe is the greatest force for change. If you are wondering why my blog is named Lucky7, it is as a tribute to my amazing mother, who passed away two years ago. Myfirst Lucky7 post on December 5, 2012 was a revisit of my manifesto written to the Bootstrap Austin community on March 15, 2005, months prior to starting Bazaarvoice. Much has changed in the nine years since and it wasn't unusual at all for Austin startups to raise seed capital vs. bootstrapping in 2014.