Brad Feld is one of the managing directors at Foundry Group, a venture capital firm that invests in early stage software / Internet companies throughout the United States, including MongoLab. He is also the co-founder of TechStars, a mentor-driven accelerator, author of several books and blogs, and a marathon runner. He is an long-time friend of mine, having invested in a 3D company I co-founded, ThinkFish, way back in 1995 when the Internet was running on sticks, stones and 10Base2. He graciously agreed to an email interview to share his thoughts on infrastructure, art, and life.
Question (Ben Wen): You’ve had a chance to work in the computer industry from when you were young. How would you characterize changes to the computing infrastructure (and especially the database) as impacting the way that you view investments?
Brad Feld: When I first started programming 30 years ago, I used flat file and ISAM databases. I remember the revelation I had when I could use a relational database with more than one index. I used to pay a lot of attention to the data structures underlying the applications I was involved in creating. As an investor, I continued to view the world through a relational lens until around 2005. Suddenly, I didn’t see every data set as a row-column database with indexes. That freed me up a lot to think about a different UI / UX, caused me to feel less constrained around extremely large data sets, and more importantly, caused the database and the application to disconnect from each other once and for all. I continue to understand how important the underlying database is, but as an investor I simply assume that magic can be done and don’t feel constrained by the limitations (functional or cost) of a relational data model.
Wen: Revelations: I agree it is deliciously memorable when some deeper insight arrives. Does investing give you that kind of “aha” dopamine boost at the start of an investment, beyond working with incredible people?
Feld: Not really. It used to, but I’ve made so many investments at this point that I realize the magic comes from the the experience of working with incredible people to build something amazing over time. There are lots of ups and downs along the way, but as long as I get to learn something every day I’m happy.
Wen: How would you say your technical background has most informed your investment intuition?
Feld: I am an extraordinary BASIC programmer, excellent at DataFlex (a 4GL that was never very popular but was surprisingly powerful), pretty good at Scheme/Lisp, ok at Pascal, and able to read C. I never did any production coding in an object-oriented language so the object-method structure isn’t intuitive to me. As a result, I have an appreciation for code but am no longer wrapped up in writing any (ok – I can do some PHP when I need to and – yeah – HTML – but that’s not really code.) Fundamentally, I’m a nerd however and love to play around with stuff so I’m fearless when fiddling around with tech stuff. That lets me get close to what is going on, ask hard questions about product, and stay close to the design layer of things.
Wen: What do you think of when you’re probing a design, both on the surface and deeply?
Feld: I always have an immediate like / dislike reaction (and sometimes love / hate). In the cases where it’s like to love, I keep playing, exploring searching. But in cases where it’s dislike-hate, I usually stop quickly. So – first impressions matter a lot to me – not so much the aesthetic beauty, but whether or not I (a) get what’s going on, (b) care, and (c) want to go deeper. Once I’m in, I’m really in, even if it’s messy and incomplete.
Wen: You work with women entrepreneurs through NCWIT and the Kauffman Foundation, and women in tech is an issue currently. What efforts have you seen be most effective for smaller organizations and startups to incorporate more women.
Feld: Simply engage. Join the NCWIT Entrepreneurial Alliance. Search out great female engineers and then ask them to help recruit their friends. Give technical women a visible role promoting your company. Set examples.
Wen: Solid and straightforward.
You’ve developed a “joy-inducing” portfolio with Sifteo, Orbotix, cheezburger, MakerBot, and of course Zynga. What’s the hook in these investments for you?
Feld: Sifteo, Orbotix, and MakerBot are in our human computer interaction theme (www.foundrygroup.com/themes) and Cheezburger and Zynga are in our distribution theme. I love technology and software that humans can relate to and I’m always searching for stuff that gets closer to our computer-enhanced human future.
Wen: As for a computer-enhanced future, what pop culture version or versions do you like to imagine yourself living in most happily?
Feld: I’ve always loved the Jetsons. The Bionic Man rocked. iRobot. Ironman.
Wen: If you could wake up and suddenly be an up-and-coming artist, what medium would you want to most work in?
Feld: Clay. I’ve always been fascinated with clay. And steel. I love steel.
Wen: I’m visualizing you in old-timey welder’s googles holding a torch and grinning wildly. How are art and entrepreneurship intertwined?
Feld: They are opposite sides of the same coin. They are both about creating something out of nothing, starting with your imagination.
Wen: That is a lovely sentiment. You told me “life is long and the world is round” maybe 16 years ago. It’s probably one of my most re-quoted phrases and dearly held thoughts, even if Friedman thinks the world is flat. Now that we’re a bit older… anything to add?
(PHOTO: Kelly Collins, Foundry Group.)
(update: 2012-06-12 grammar fix)