Advisor, Investor, COO, Exec Coach, Board Member |
Founder and CEO | Strategy and Operations Exec
"Do you want to build this business because it's about you or are you building this business because you want to solve this problem?"
Erik Bullen on how he built his career in the startup and corporate innovation space.
Erik Bullen shared how he built his career in the startup and corporate innovation space. He recounted delivering computers across Virginia and Maryland in his Hyundai, and how this lit the fire inside him to make things work and continue to work through challenges in the startup industry.
Working with startups and corporations to build strategies and execute them, Erik shares what he’s learned over years in the industry and in the corporate world. Furthermore, he stressed the importance of selecting the right people for the team, people who serve as player coaches, who build and develop the team. If anything this pandemic made it clear that grit and conviction are two of the important qualities a CEO should possess.
Mission (Professional): Helping startups, venture/PE firms, and corporate innovators to drive growth, shape the future, and make stuff that matters. I do so by serving as a coach, advisor, consultant, interim executive, board member, or angel investor (or a combination thereof).
Mission (Life): To build a better world for my 7-year-old daughter. I do so through my professional work and by being the best dad and husband ever (aspiring – I’m trying!).
Things to know about me:
1/ The entrepreneurial bug bit me as employee #1 at a startup while going to university.
2/ I have a diverse set of experiences that shape my expertise and opinions including 1) roles as founder, executive, consultant, board member, and investor 2) functions in strategy, innovation, operations, sales, marketing, product, engineering, and customer success 3) working with organizations of all sizes and stages, from pre-seed startups to multi-billion dollar brands, and within a range of industries in the U.S., Europe, and Asia 4) and living at the intersection of tech, strategy, and design.
3/ I’m a strategist and operator. The role I enjoy the most and where I add most value is to partner with CEOs, GMs, and/or other senior execs to make them successful – and their life easier – by being a coach/mentor and by taking their vision and turning it into pragmatic strategy and executable operations. My specialties include building and scaling SaaS, e-commerce, and professional services companies; product strategy and development; sales, marketing, customer success and operations; culture and organization; innovation in theory and practice; fundraising; pitching; storytelling.
4/ Major causes where I give back my time, money and other resources: 1) cancer research/treatment 2) diversity, equity and inclusion in VC and tech 3) children’s education 4) entrepreneurship 5) the environment 6) fixing politics and 7) veterans.
5/ I’m an avid cyclist and fitness enthusiast.
6/ I’m working on my most important startup – my 7-year-old daughter – and aspire to be the world’s greatest dad and husband.
Getting in touch:
I’m very active in the startup and innovation communities and am always willing to help good people. However, if you’d like to connect, please give me context. It’ll help me to help you.
If you’re a founder, startup, venture firm, or enterprise that would like a consultation, let’s schedule an introductory meeting.
I also write and speak…with regular irregularity (see Publications section for sample speaking engagements). Contact me if you’d like me to contribute.
The full #OPNAskAnAngel talk
Erik: Okay, sounds good. Thanks for having me. I’m glad to be here, Jeffery. I’ve been in the startup and corporate innovation space my entire career. I was employed number one at a startup back in the early 90s. Those were back in the nineties when you could actually take components of PCs and sell them, the days of Dell and so on. and we went up against Dell, Apple, CompuServe and others. We sold it to colleges, university students, because everybody at that point needed computers, both typical desktops these days and then eventually laptops as well. so i was employee number one. I saw an ad for an associate essentially at my fraternity. Long story short, I took a 10-mile bike trip in the middle of, which was about 100-degree days, in Virginia. I went to William Mary to go for my interview with the founder, and wore the only seat I had. and i had a beaten-up bike and it went about 10 miles. Eventually, I had the interview and walked into Lee’s office who’s the co-founder and the first thing he said was, ‘hey.’ He looked like he needed a beer. so he goes to this full bridge, and his office is a typical startup founder office. it’s messy and it’s chaotic and so on. So I ended up joining the company. I really loved it. Italy Scruggs and I are still best friends to this day. He’s been my mentor for many years. we see each other usually non-covid years once a year, at least or twice a year, and we’ve been best friends since that time. so that really started me on the journey of really loving to build things and working for startups. For a number of reasons, I did eventually end up leaving the company and moving to the North Virginia, Washington DC area. For family reasons, I needed to move there. I worked for a while as a software engineer with Verizon. I really didn’t care about the corporate environment then. I ended up at a startup, in this case an agency startup, and then three months after joining, I went over to Amsterdam as the first employee to open up the Dutch office. I spent time there. and this is during the height of the internet agencies and eventually we ended up being acquired with 12 other companies with a PE supported company and went public as well. about a year later, I joined another startup in Amsterdam which was the US company based in Boston called Norvar, DNA of McKinsey Accenture, and then some startups as well to really focus on what’s kind of the precursor to design thinking to help companies to innovate. and whether it’s large companies or startups, it joined the company to grow the Dutch office and eventually the internet crash happened. and that’s how i ended up in Boston where i am today. so we went up to HQ and continued to build the company. Although we did close on the European side and then continued working with startups and corporate ventures as part of Norvar, which was eventually acquired by another company, we went through a second acquisition at that point. so fast forward through our career, subsequent to that, I’ve been a founder. I’ve been a board member, offending advisor for a number of different startups. and then also, a few years ago, was the CEO of a digital marketing staff startup. i exited that in august 2018 and then at that point for a number of reasons, including personal, my daughter at that point turned five. I said okay, I want to spend less time on the road. I was a consultant for a while as well. so i spent a lot of time going from Boston to scale and back and forth for about a year. So I also work for a company called Breitcov, which is an online video provider like global services there. So I was responsible globally for APAC in Europe and the US. so i was on the road a lot. and at that point in 2018, i said look, i want to spend more time with my daughter and my family. at the same time, spend more of a portfolio approach to things. Right now, I spend time early on three things. One is, I give back to the community. I mentor at TechStars Mass Challenge and several other accelerators as well. I’m also on the board of directors for an organization called Vent Capital. We provide venture capital training to minorities and women to find entry-level jobs into the VC world. I’m also on the board of advisors for an organization called the Capital Network which provides fundraising training for all founders but also specifically focused on female founders as well. and we have a program running right now. the second bucket of work that i do, i advise pre-seed stage complex directly and occasionally scale-ups as well, either as an advisor or focus on product operations and scaling and customer success. I, also on occasion, play fractional co. so i’m currently a fractional co for two companies. one is “Guidely” which is a marketplace for coaches, mentors and therapists. and also Bit Hoop which is a next-generation search language for b2b. and the third bucket is on the investing side which i think part of what we’re talking about today is i’m an LP. and two funds, Mendoza Ventures which invests in fintech ai and cyber security based here in Boston but has a national scope and also and has invested in companies in Canada both owned by minority and women as well and about right now, i think about 68 of the investments of Mendoza is into underrepresented founder – like companies as well. and then AI Capital which invests in applied AI on the angel side. I’m part of a number of groups. one is a launch of an adventure group which is based here in Boston, more of a traditional angel group with about 150 members, right now high net worth individuals, more of a traditional non-operator, I would say makeup doctors, lawyers, etc. other professionals, some former operators as well. and then TBD Angels which is fairly new, just founded last year in April and up to this point already has 220 members. we’re somewhat biased towards Boston because the founders are based in Boston including David Chang and some others who are serial founders. but we’re national in scope. We have a very diverse membership of about 38 women right now and we invest in a pretty broad range of sectors so we don’t limit ourselves. We think we can get better deals and interesting deals in terms of not limiting ourselves to some sectors or even geographies that some angel groups look at. so we’ll take a look at pretty much anything and as opposed to traditional angel groups which tend to have a cycle of, hey we’re looking to take a look at three or four companies a month. We have continuous deal flow as well. and we’re very technology enabled. so a lot of our communication is done, email, slack, etc. and all the pitches are video recorded. so members can look at them subsequent to that. and then another feature of the group is we only invest if we can at least invest fifty thousand dollars by all members and then we invest by spv, so it’s easier for the founders. Well, one line item on the cap table. since the founding have invested about 3.8 million so far, average about a hundred thousand dollars. i think the maximum deal so far has been about 550 into an ai company. so that’s hopefully somewhat of a background of what i’m doing these days.
Jeffery: amazing. and before we dive into that, one thing about you that nobody would know.
Erik: Yeah, I’ll give you two things. so my history. I’m half German, half American. I was born in Germany, lived there for 12 years. My mom was german. my dad’s American. Although with an English background, and a few years ago we did a trace back our ancestry on the English side, my ancestry actually traces back to Amber Lynn who’s the second wife of Henry VIII. and it’s kind of like she lost her head. so i tried my best to see to it that we don’t get the same fate. but it’s kind of an interesting family history on our side. but Bullen, the name’s been spelled many different ways throughout history. and then I’ll give you the second one. fun fact. I love frozen KitKats. So if I can be bribed with those, I get my KitKats, and put them in the freezer. and it’s my tasty treat.
Jeffery: oh, that’s amazing. My mother does that. I never like putting a lot of things in the freezer, but I’m not a chocolate bar guy. but the kids love them. so it certainly works very well. I guess that way they don’t melt as fast. so they got a bigger crunch. Now, that’s awesome. Well, they kind of take a step back into your journey. you’ve done a lot of amazing things and i think a lot of it starts with that first job that you bike the 10 miles to. How much of that do you think really played into where you are today? that the learning that you went through being that first employee the hands-on doing everything that really kind of structured the learning throughout the way the journey to get to 2015 where you decided, okay, i’m kind of done of doing all these things, i really want to give back and start investing in companies, start doing more in this space but as most people, they don’t just dive into it and say, hey, i’m going to be an investor today. They have some real gradual growth that gets them there. and from all the roles that you’ve played in, it seems like a lot of them built you into learning a lot about this, putting you in the forefront of how the investment works. What’s the point of boards? What’s the point of really how this structure is going to work out and benefit the startup? How much was that first role really beneficial to you?
Erik: yeah, i’d say it was a huge influence on my mind. It was my formative years in many ways. You know I went to Wayne Mary University and I did have a degree in business as well as computer science. so it really fit within what my degree and studies were as well. but it was a nice complement to that. the more, the theoretical aspect of learning and then actually doing as well, and i will always look back at some of the little pieces of stories you kind of tell about nick for instance. It’s one thing I kind of remember also. Lee, as a mentor and as a coach and as the leader of the company, so for instance learning about how to deal with customers and the fact that they’re bad customers and good customers and how to deal with them. For instance, I had an episode with one customer. I was having support and there was some friction in the customer call. Lee is very unhappy about it. So Lee said, hey, you know what, let’s go take a walk. Let’s talk about it. So it’s almost like I’m drawing a line between the walking and talking type which you see more of these days versus having a meeting. Hey, let’s just take a walk and talk about these things right and learn about it. So I learned a lot from Lee about how to deal with customers. and even some of the fun things. like we were a scrappy startup. We had a beaten up van that we used to deliver computers to university students across Virginia, Maryland and Carolina. So one day, we were packing the van. Lee and I went back into the office to get some additional things to start our trip. to i think it was Virginia Tech at that point, and next thing you know, we go back outside and the van is smoking. I think the engine started to speak etc., like oh man, what are we gonna do now? so that the van was shot. so i had a small hyundai hatchback, 90,000 miles we packed everything into that hyundai and next thing you know, lee’s driving six hours to various colleges to deliver computers. so you get these types of fun stories about what it’s like to have a startup and be scrappy and just make things work and to work through your challenges. so it was very formative. I really enjoyed it. it really lit the fire in me in terms of building things, the startup world itself. But at the same time like I said, I’ve spent time on the corporate end and really helping larger corporations to innovate and apply some of those lessons there and at the same time loving being able to go back to a very early stage. you know a few people in the garage if you will write quote unquote and just start building things as well and kind of figuring out product market fit. Why do we have something here that people really love? We can build and grow as well. and taking that experience of getting into the grind and solving problems as they’re happening like the truck being on fire, it kind of reminds me of when my brother and I were building computers and servers in our basement as well. we didn’t know what we’re doing until we were in the thick of it and you kind of sold beyond your means. you sold a lot of things like i don’t even know if i could do this. and then as you started to grind through it, you started to find ways to operationalize it and speed up the process and get better and better until you could almost turn this into a cookie cutter operation. So as you were kind of going through these, were they throwing you into the mix of this? Obviously. you’re fixing by getting the delivery. but you have a background in software engineering and you’re doing a lot of other things. So were you kind of a jack of all trades when it came down to learning about how the investment vehicle is coming through? and are they raising funds? and then you went in and started being more innovative, was that kind of started through that process or did you learn that as you kind of went through all these different companies?
Erik: Yeah, I think it’s a combination of a very early stage about having very many different hats with this particular company. and then building computers, doing software, sales and marketing with a retail arm. At the same time we had early stage e-commerce as well, and we had a direct mail business. So I learned a lot about different aspects of running a business. and then at the same time, i think i kind of found my calling. Even today, I don’t consider myself like the amazingly creative Steve Jobs visionary. I’m more of an operator. I love to take, build strategy, work with founders who are very visionary and then build a strategy and then execute on that. So my analogy sometimes is, being a producer in the music world, you’ve got the creative bands and the singers and so on, but you need a producer to kind of say, this is how we’ll create this amazing song that everybody will love. and i can see the creativity there but we need to create some structure around it. so that’s more my thing at this point. Even today, throughout my career as I was working with different companies, I did spend time on various functions, sales, marketing operations, customer success, leading large and small teams doing innovation strategies. so it’s really given me an appreciation and understanding of various aspects of business. and i’m not an expert at everything. So for instance, if you talk about her or finance and so on, I’ll let other people do that. but in terms of generally going to market, building great teams, scaling companies, that’s more of my thing. and how to execute, how do you build certainty, how do you build structure, process, technology and people around a small thing and then grow that, that’s my thing. That’s why I think I’ve been a CEO before and I certainly enjoyed it. But right now at this point in my life, I enjoy being the CO more because there’s a wide definition of CO. so i’d enjoy being the right hand person to someone and say, okay, you’re the visionary. Let’s figure out how we built this thing and scale it and grow it.
Jeffery: no, i love that because a lot of the times, i think founders or people that are in business, they think that because they have an idea that they have to be the CEO and they have to be the visionary and drive the business and not everybody carries those skills, not everybody is the front man. and i think, like you said, you’ve kind of built through all these skills and what i love about it is that, if you look at where am i going to be the most successful taking the learnings that i’ve gathered, i would rather be that secondary person supporting them knowing that in the back end, i’m running and operating and smoothly scaling this business for that visionary. Let them be the face of the organization but I’m going to take this tool belt that I’ve built over the years where I know what triggers the push and pull that’s going to help this business move and that’s what scaling is and that’s the whole piece to it. and if you don’t have somebody that actually understands all those mechanisms, then you’re siloed and you’ve got marketing sales operations and then it becomes kind of a bit of a cluster because you don’t have that key component that understands all these different elements you have to be a professional at all of them. you just need to have a good solid base of understanding and that’s what’s going to help support that line of business and grow it.
Erik: right. Yeah, and let me just flip that too because it’s an interesting angle in terms of, ‘put my investor back hat back on.’ In terms of what I look for in founders is founders who have conviction about the business. I love founders who deeply understand their sector or their industry and they’re essentially scratching their own niche. One of the companies I’m invested in advising is called Focal Point. It’s a procurement SAS application and the founder has been a procurement exec for more than 25 years. and the problem he’s solving is that, these large major fortune 500s and a lot of middle-level companies are managing billions of dollars to spend on spreadsheets and powerpoints. And he has not been able to find a solution to do that. so a month prior to the pandemic last year, he said, look, i’m going to branch out on my own, I built a solution. nine months later, he’s in the market with paying clients.
Jeffery: That’s a great story.
Erik: He really understands the problem that he’s solving and it’s the problem that needs to be solved. But I think one quality I look for in founders is, kind of going back to what you were saying, founders who understand their strengths and weaknesses, who have conviction but at the same time understand if they are the right person to lead the business. Are you, as a founder building this business, because it’s your own ego, do you want to build this business because it’s about you or are you building this business because you want to solve this problem? And are you willing to step aside and say, you know what, this is my baby. I want this baby to grow and I’m not necessarily the best person at this stage to do that. I’m going to bring in somebody else to help do that. That’s what I want to do. I want to create the best company out there. do the best thing for my clients, my customers, my investors. and it’s okay that i’m not in charge. so that personal ability to understand strengths and weaknesses and acknowledge that, i think that’s really important from an investor perspective to see in founders.
Jeffery: I like that. and it’s kind of interesting. I don’t remember who said this but there was this line where the person posted and said, i’ve never had an imminent sister assistant longer than a year because they always drive harder, faster and better than myself. and i’m always moving them up in the business. and what i like about that idea is that you’re doing the same as that leader and when you’re looking for those leaders, and in my perspective, i always look for a leader that has that fifth gear. I want someone that has that one extra gear that just knows what it takes. I used to call it psychotic. Everybody told me that’s the wrong word. So I’ve gone to the fifth gear and I think that fifth gear is that that’s the visionary side, that’s understanding the team and if you can find that right team member, that CEO or that admin, whoever that person is that’s going to just drive, build and grow, then you’re coaching. you’re literally just sharing ideas. you’re letting them operate it and once they start to do that, you can see you’re elevating their games elevating. and now they’re taking over and running ideally if they do this in the right way. and i’ll use flow as an example. When Nicholas built the company, he got to a point where they were going public and then they brought in an executive who was top tier from Nestle, one of the obviously world dominating water companies and they came in and took it over and he kind of just stepped in and became managing director of it. but he saw that this vision was, ‘i can get it to here, but i know that this is going to go further if i can bring these other people in and bring in the right operating people. bring in the right financial people and then you become that driver. you’re still the face but at the end of the day, it’s again not your ego like you said. it’s about understanding what everybody else’s strengths are and letting the professionals really elevate their game by giving them the time and space to do it.’
Erik: Yeah, absolutely. and i think just in terms of case studies, i don’t know if you heard about Toast, a company that’s based here in Boston. They just went public a few days ago, massive like a debut. and Toast is a very similar story where the founders initially built the company, built the technology and product. and they eventually brought on Chris Camparado who has been the CEO. so far really leading and scaling the company. and Chris is an awesome person, an awesome leader. it’s done some amazing things in terms of growing Toast, and prior to that as well. but he was the right leader to put in at the right time. and you can see the outcome at this point. I think they’ve built a great team. They’ve got great chemistry, as well as a leadership team. and it makes a big difference from all of the interviews we’ve done and all the discussions. probably the top two things that investors look for are teams in there. it’s always in the top two. maybe top five if you’re really diving in early because early stage don’t typically have a big team. but that’s what you’re looking for. so you have to be able to believe that that founder can really structure a lot of good people around them. and that’s what’s going to make this all fly. so having you as that fractional CEO is probably massive for any company to have because again, of that experience and how you can envision where this is going to go and then how you kind of shift everything in and taking your investor and operations hat, man, there’s a lot of things that you’re really bringing into that forefront that any leader would love to have. I would actually step down and just make it a CEO, just make it easier. but it really does make a big difference as a business is growing to find those right people. they can get behind your vision and i think that just again, in terms of qualities, that if you, let’s say your founder, and in terms of building your team, you need to really find people who are player coaches. They can coach the team that can bring in new talent. they can at least, at the same time, be able to grow the talent as well to help them be successful. and at the same time, dive in and do some of that in their own right. but again be the player, be the coach, but at the same time being able to start delegating, not feeling like you’re giving up ownership. and i think one thing that i just recently discussed with another person is, whatever you’re delegating to another person or your team member, they’re never going to do it, more than likely never going to do 100 percent the same as you want it to be done. but as long as you’re doing, let’s say 85 to 90 percent of the time, you ought to be okay with that. if you do it 10, that’s a problem. but you need to be able to say, you know what, it’s not perfect exactly. I can spend it too. but I still need to be able to delegate. I need to give some authority and autonomy to the person that’s doing it. and you know what sometimes, they might do it better than you are or you would. so you need to be able to empower those people and be able to grow your team and be able to empower them to do their job that if they’re hard to do, and you know again, it’s, i look at myself personally. I’m not the best sales person. I would like to hire somebody who’s a hunter. I’m more of a farmer. just looking at it historically, i’m not the best hunter. So for me, if I’m building a company, I want to hire a hunter. We can go out and sell products and build a relationship. so you’ve got to understand your own strengths and weaknesses and acknowledge those.
Jeffery: I love that and I love the player coach mentality because my brain went to slap shots. Reggie Dunlop. he’s the player coach. He’s sitting there, helping everybody, getting the game winning. but maybe not the best analogy. but he’s still awesome. At the end of the day, you really are having to coach everybody. and I think that’s where the CEO eventually has to go. they’re the visionary. they’re the mantle piece, but really they’re empowering everybody and growing them. and just like in the Toast scenario and flow, and all these other great companies. even on our side, we’ve got Laura who’s a great GM. All of this comes down to the operational side of execution. and when you’ve got flawless execution, and if you said it was 90 or 100, your business is going to be that much stronger and have a better ability to survive and grow in the markets. and then you start to build on those other facets, like sales and execution. but it’s certainly crucial to any team. so now kind of, as you’ve been working through this amazing journey that you’re on, one of the things that i really loved about that 2015 turnover, when your daughter was five and he decided i need to start doing stuff with this so she could have us better grow as a child, grow up and be able to get into better companies in the future. you started to focus on businesses that were giving back, impact businesses, women founders and i really love this because i think a lot of people talk but they don’t actually ever get into the game of this. and one stat that you threw out right away at the beginning and maybe you know or don’t know, but you said 30 of them were women based investors, which is another one that’s very tough to get out there. and women investing in companies get this whole segment to open up because there’s the fear of the unknown. If I don’t want to do it, I’m uncomfortable. I’m not going to venture into that space. and i think your numbers are already higher than most angel groups, because the industry has been predominantly male focused, and because of the high risk. but i love the fact that that is something that you’ve kind of dedicated your time to with Mendoza and the other venture firms. With that high focus on it, how much have you seen change? and i think we could debate this one for days on how much uh change that’s happened in the markets in the last five years, specifically in innovation and tech. but even more in POC and in female founders, how much have you seen change since you started working in 2015 to today?
Erik: yeah, i would say that there’s been over the past couple years. so i think there’s been and i would segment people or groups or organizations into two areas, so one is the ones that talk about it. and then two are the ones that talk about and actually take action and kind of put the money where the mouth is. So um, you can’t see both. I mean for instance that the latter one is like Mendoza Venture. so i very much focused on investing in underrepresented founders. Their number of venture funds are quite a few venture funds that have popped up recently that really focus on that. and that’s all they do. If you look at the overarching data at least over the past year and past quarters, the amount of money that’s been invested in the venture industry has been the highest. It’s been for a long time despite covid. but then you look at the percentage share of money that goes to underrepresented and women founders that has pretty much stayed flat. so that’s again on one hand. you’ve got this anecdotal data about more focus on that part of the industry of helping women and minorities. On the other hand, the data still isn’t showing that that’s actually making an influence on the total share pie of the venture fund. so i think right now, it’s still about three percent total. so i wish that would change. Um, but what is encouraging is the focus again of these specific funds, focused on underrepresented founders, also underrepresented. I would say it’s not just about women and minorities. It’s also about other geographies. so other than Silicon Valley, other than Boston, other than Berlin, that’s in Europe, focusing on the middle of the country, Cleveland, Ohio, Pittsburgh, etc., there’s some great companies out there and great founders. they’re just starving for funding to build the company. so i think with covid-19, we have seen more venture funds and angel groups as well to focus on other areas because it’s the future of work. you know you can be anywhere. you don’t have to be in Silicon Valley. you don’t necessarily have to be in Boston. I also see some groups or nvcs that still say very strictly to, hey, you have to be here. we have to be able to see you. and then others would say, you know we don’t care. Well, we’ll start investing in great companies with great potential that are in other geographies and potentially not just the US, but also in Canada, Europe and in APAC as well, so you’re starting to see more US money going into other locations worldwide as well which I think is very encouraging too. The diversification of dollars being pushed across borders is pretty exciting. and you’re right, there’s been a massive amount of dollars that have popped out of nowhere. I don’t know if the bank ball must have been left open overnight or something but it’s been funneling out like crazy which is great. what i have noticed though is that through the messaging of talking about women founders or the bypoc stance, i think what’s what it’s done. it has filtered a lot of dollars into the space, but what it’s also done is that it’s opened up for minorities and women founders to actually decide to open businesses. whereas i think before, you had a very low number of actual people that were in that space. so it was predominantly, we’ll say males. but that’s because in the tech space, it predominantly is males coding or whatever building these companies, engineers, whatever you may say it is. But today, I think what it’s done has enlightened a lot more people to say, I can be in this space. and now i’ve got support. and I think that alone builds so much more confidence. and now we’re seeing like ten years ago, i would say it was less than five percent of founders were female. Today, you’re probably looking at closer to 20 to 25. they may not all be raising funds but there’s a lot more people getting out and risking. and i think that that message is massive and i’m so happy that it’s shifting that way. and i would say in the next 10 years or so, probably an equal balance. and then it’s really how you get those dollars into those companies and that just comes through building. So the more times you build and fail, you’re going to build a really amazing company the second or third time. and you’re going to get all the support you possibly need. and you can see that there’s some massive female run companies, even in the bypoc space. Some people say they don’t like that term. but i guess it tries to cover and encompass everything, from that minority standpoint. There was a company the other day that launched on the markets. It was an indian-based company that was launched in the US. so amazing. and it’s taken off. so there’s a lot more happening. and i think that that covid created a lot of this. It’s created a lot of energy. and it’s opened up a lot more entrepreneurs coming into the market. and i think we’ll start to see a lot more dollars shifting into that space, because there’s some pretty amazing companies that are getting started up in the last year and a half as well. And I think the other angle here is, in terms of additional money going into this, this market right about into private companies, is crowdfunding. And you really see, I would say you look back, let’s say two or three years, as crowdfunding was starting to grow, you occasionally have mixed messages. A company is going on to a crowdfunding platform because they can get venture capital angel investment. but i think that that whole mindset has shifted especially with the past six months and crowdfunding is exploding right now and you’re starting to see more and more companies that are raising both through the traditional channels angel and VC, and parallel are raising on crowdfunding platforms as well. So friends , I’m actually a venture partner at Republic. So we’re really focused on increasing the diversity of capital inflow and increasing the share of investors, especially those that are not high net worth investors. and then at the same time, being able to provide capital to the underrepresented founders as well. So that ‘s one reason why I joined as a VP at republic is because the republic’s mission might be democratizing investing essentially. so we’ve seen a lot. you’ve seen for instance this is kind of a one-off deal with Republic, but Backstage Capital which is a venture capital firm actually raised in Republic and was able to raise in two rounds first. because the rules change. first they could raise a million dollars to roughly about a million dollars, a little bit more and change. and then eventually raised the second one and they could raise up to five million dollars. and they were essentially oversubscribed within a few days. so i think we’ll start seeing more of that as well. I think my funds might start raising through the crowd as well, in addition to just more traditional channels with high network individuals and family offices and so on. I love the decentralization of that for sure. we’ve been looking at it. We’ve actually been working on a partnership with one of the Canadian-based companies, so that when our companies that we bring to market, they will go in both places when they’re raising funds. We look at this as just another avenue to bring on new fans, new investors and you have to look at every dollar as a vehicle into a new customer or into a new investor. and i think it’s wrong to look at it that it’s just where you can’t raise money. but you’re right, when it first started, that’s what it was looked at, is that you’re just going to take village money from people that don’t specifically have a lot. and you’re going to take it from them because you could raise it through the venture side. but i think what that’s done is equal to playing field that you’re now not looking at because you have money that you should know how to pick a good company. that’s nothing to do with that. there’s so much more involved in this stage. and i think a lot more people just like betting on pro lines or anything like that. It takes time to learn to figure it out and become good at it.
Jeffery: I think that’s the same thing with going into all of these SPVs and going into these other venture spaces is that anybody can do it. Everybody should have the right to do it. and once you do, get in there and start playing with it. you eat at your own risk and you can win and at the same time, you can lose. so you have to value how you want to approach that. So now that this market’s really picked up and changed so much, it’s exciting because nowadays, you know you’re getting so much. we’ve got companies coming from Africa, all over the world. there’s just so many players that are now coming to the space opened up globally for all parties. What’s next for you guys on the investment side? Do you start going cross-border? Do you keep feeding in the US? What kind of things are interesting to you today?
Erik: yeah, i think i’ll probably look at the different groups i’m involved with. So let’s say TBD angels, which again we’re not focused on any particular sector, but we definitely have members that are interested in sub sectors, such as cannabis for instance. or more of the non-traditional that some venture funds angels may not want to touch. so we’re definitely looking at that. we’re definitely looking at national reach right now in the US. In terms of going international, I can’t say for certain because there’s certain benefits for investing in US companies for angel investors, tax benefits, etc. versus investing in companies that are outside of the US as well. and then say, you lose your money. you can write things off here in the US for tax reasons essentially. But, I think that doesn’t mean that there’s a number of angels who aren’t willing to go look at Canada or South America or Europe or other places as well. so we’re starting to see companies that are actually a company. I’m just in discussions right now with a healthcare company based in Berlin that’s now flipping to the US. they’re going to have a Delaware entity. They’ll have an office here in Boston and they’ll continue having engineering and production in Germany and then sales and marketing in the US. so i think we’ll start seeing more of that as well. Given the US market and the investment in startups here, I think we’ll continue seeing an inflow of companies in Europe or Asia who are great to have business here. but we need to have a US entity as well to attract US investors. so i think we’ll start seeing more of that and i think the company mentioned is fresh. I think it was Freshworks which went public recently. and i think similar to an India – based but then also US entity as well. and going public in the agreed being US doing that. So yeah, for sure that’s a great segue for this globalization for companies to realize that there’s a lot of opportunities. and the US seems to be always in the mix of global opportunities. So it’s something to always keep in mind when you are looking for venture capital is that you know starting in the US or at least finishing somewhere in the US is going to be beneficial to your business.
Jeffery: I think that’s been an amazing journey you’re on and you’ve worked for a lot of startups. you’re part of a lot of different groups. we’re going to transition into rapid fire questions in a second but before we do that, I’ve got one kind of question that I want to get your heartfelt moment of what it takes to be an entrepreneur. and it could be a personal story as you have many of them. What does it take to be an entrepreneur? and has there been one that just pops in your head that just blows you away that you thought, this business that she or he didn’t have a chance to survive uh they pitched you or you invested and then all of a sudden, they just out of the blue cove, would hit you thought that was it and then boom they turned it around and you know today, they’re running on the Nasdaq? is there some kind of great story that you see that might be worth sharing out to the audience?
Erik: yeah, maybe not Nasdaq yet but um a company that I’m invested in and it’s been advising for several years since 2018. it’s called ‘Reapply’ and what we do is we have a sas platform. We take videos of youth sports, baseball and softball, and provide that to play as coaches and parents. and what we do is we have relationships with tournament providers and facilities that have these major tournaments year-round. and especially in the south of the US. but this is youth sports and parents are absolutely passionate. and this is actually helping their kids get into college and playing baseball in college. so they pay thousands of dollars to go to these tournaments that include the clothing, the equipment, and travel to the sports place as well. and we have relationships with these facilities. So, actually it’s both a hardware and a software place. We have the sas platform. We have the cameras as well to take the video and then we’ll ingest the video and we’re actually using machine learning to start assigning numbers and cutting the plays and so on. and being able to provide individual plays to those players. everything was fine before covid. We had this three-year road map in terms of eventually automating things. and by design we actually were very hands-on. so we hired this temporary labor to operate the cameras to ingest the video to do all the manual work, to eventually automate things. and then, covid-19 you know tournaments shut down. So we were actually lucky that we had investments from both launched by the rental group which I’m part of and some other angels to at least keep us alive. and then also figure out what we are doing at this point. So um a few good things, Justin Reals, the founder and CEO, former baseball player. and again going back to your question of you know founder grit and conviction, Justin’s mentality is, look, if i’m a baseball player and go up to bat most of the time, i’m going to strike out. So i can’t let that weigh on me. he’s got the same mentality in terms of building his startup. he’s going to strike out a lot whether it’s sales, whether it’s things going wrong and so on. he’s going to figure out a way to work it right and figure out a way through the problems that he’s facing and solve those problems. so he’s been a fantastic entrepreneur to work with. and given COVID-19, he’s accelerated the business. He’s accelerated automation. He’s built relationships with the MLB and college sports and other technology companies that provide sports related technologies during COVID-19. and now he’s coming out as we’re coming out of COVID-19 partners to start up and he’s positioned really well to grow and scale the business and he’s been all over the country the past three to four months as things have scaled as tournaments have opened up. he’s got relationships lined up. he’s got a new board member who’s really well connected in the sports industry. so it’s one of those stories where you could have said this company was very close to dying. I mean literally, I was on the call with Justin and he said, we’ve got cash left for about a month. What are we doing? So you know what, should I not do this trip to Wisconsin because it’s going to cost me two thousand dollars and some additional hotel costs? but if i do that, i might be able to build relationships with these providers and potential investors. so we just kind of bet the pharmacy goes out to Wisconsin, bet it all and we’ll see what comes out of it. and it’s worked out well. we’re not at NASA yet but we’re looking to raise a series at the beginning of the year. so it’s been a fantastic story, in terms of resilience, grit and just grinding through it and figuring out ways to make it work despite the challenges.
Jeffery: I love it. Yeah, life is a challenge and if you can’t figure out how to work around it, then you’ll fail. And these guys obviously looked at it and said you know what, there’s so much opportunity here. and i like the little coach. and the push to go all in and make their way to Wisconsin. so that’s pretty cool. great story. Alright. we’re going to jump into the rapid fire questions now. Are you ready? These will be the business ones. so pick one or the other. Alright. and we’ve got lots but we’ll go through them real quick. Alright. founder or co-founder?
Erik: for myself? Is that the question? What would you pick?
Jeffery: Yeah, what would you go with, founder or co-founder?
Jeffery: unit unicorn or four-year ten ten times exit?
Erik: four year ten times exit.
Jeffery: tech or cpg?
Jeffery: brand or tech?
Jeffery: ai or blockchain?
Jeffery: first time founder or second or third time founder?
Erik: second or third time.
Jeffery: first money in or series a?
Erik: first money in.
Jeffery: angel or VC?
Jeffery: Board seat or observer? safe or convertible note?
Erik: either. I’ll be safe.
Jeffery: lead or follow?
Jeffery: equity or interest payments?
Jeffery: favorite part of investing?
Erik: not just the money, but also working with founders, helping, coaching, guiding and helping them scale.
Jeffery: perfect. number of companies invested per year?
Erik: uh, approximately six to seven.
Jeffery: brilliant. any preferred terms?
Erik: uh no. I mean yes, it’s gotta be a win-win for both sides, for both the investors and the founders.
Jeffery: Okay, any verticals that you really like getting into?
Erik: Uh, b2b, sas, and then applied ai as well. and then the third part, i would say what are considered generational attracts, tackling problems for millennials with aging populations. so those three areas are my thing.
Jeffery: Okay, I like the aging population one. That’s good. Uh, what two things do you see or look for that should stand out in a startup? What two things will make you invest in a standout startup?
Erik: yeah, um, the team, founder and co-founder should be coachable, having conviction and a really deep understanding of the industry. So to be productive, it takes more than founder or market fit. that’s one. number two is really having a problem that’s worth solving and having being able to execute. I think it’s less about the idea. It’s more about the ability to execute ideas. You know that there’s so many times where we see starters pitching and saying, we’re the only ones who are solving this problem. and you google it and within five seconds, you have 20 other startups doing the same thing. so it’s definitely people who understand their industry, it’s really important.
Jeffery: agreed. Oh, we’re gonna go on to personal questions now. favorite book?
Erik: oh, my favorite book. Um, well how about I’ll give you two. So, a book I’m reading right now. Um, I’ll show you. this one actually, “Startup CXO” by Matt Bloomberg, whom i actually work for. His company is called Bolster. we provide fractional CXL services, so highly recommend. It’s a good field guide. It just came out about three weeks ago.
Jeffery: so, his name is matt. what’s it? Matt Bloomberg? So is he okay?
Erik: yep and um yes, i highly recommend the book. I’m just finishing that. if you’re a dad um of a daughter, I highly recommend, “Rubber Girls.” there’s my daughter, so say hi. It’s a good book about women entrepreneurs, heroes, etc. throughout history. so she loves the book. I read it every night. It’s called “Rubber Girl.”
Jeffery: Okay, that’s cool. Alright. Um, I’m having it.
Erik: She’s giving editorial comments here right now.
Jeffery: So perfect. She can help coach along.
Erik: That works so great.
Jeffery: um, alright. more rapid fire on the personal side. book or movie?
Erik: uh, book.
Jeffery: Superman or batman?
Jeffery: pizza pop or ice cream bar?
Erik: ice cream bar.
Jeffery: Arsenal or Manchester united?
Erik: oh, Manchester.
Jeffery: uh, i will find an arsenal fan. we’ll find an arsenal fan. big mac or chicken mcnuggets?
Erik: big mac for me.
Jeffery: alright. trophy or money?
Erik: uh, money.
Jeffery: money, i like that. Beer or wine?
Jeffery: alarm clock or mobile phone?
Erik: oh, mobile phone.
Jeffery: hotel or hostel?
Jeffery: ah, you’re the best. first one. king or rich?
Erik: oh, um rich.
Jeffery: concert or amusement park?
Erik: concert amusement.
Jeffery: fortune cookie or birthday cake?
Erik: birthday cake.
Jeffery: Is life boring without trump?
Erik: It’s better.
Jeffery: sports team?
Erik: oh, favorite sports team. Patriots. I’ll give you two Patriots. football and then soccer, Vera Bremen in Germany soccer team.
Jeffery: Yes, very good. Cool. Yeah. Um, the first brand that pops into your mind right now?
Erik: coca-cola, nike.
Jeffery: Nice, nike. alright, the most famous person that pops into your mind right now?
Erik: Einstein frankie. That’s your cat Albert Einstein.
Jeffery: hell, the cat’s good. I like that. That’s good. Um, alright. Uh, what is your favorite movie and what character would you play?
Erik: oh, uh favorite movie, Indiana Jones, the first one. and you would play a rehearsing force character Indiana Jones. Yeah, I just watched that whole series like literally four months ago. So Harry Potter actually didn’t realize it, and watched the last one. It was good.
Jeffery: Okay, last question. What is your superpower?
Erik: um, portraying my cat. Okay, for me is creating certainty from uncertainty. I know you’re getting certainty from uncertainty.
Jeffery: I like that one. but I’m going with hugs. That’s better alright.
Erik: That’s perfectly brilliant.
Jeffery: uh, well, Eric, I want to say thank you very much sir. What’s your daughter’s name? What’s her name? Sydney, she said. Well Eric, it was a pleasure speaking with you and Sydney. I want to thank you very much for all your time today sharing the journey, sharing the questions and the answers. Thank you very much for that. The way we like to end our show is we like to give you the last word. so anything that you want to say to investors or to start up. um i’ll turn it over to you. but thank you again for sharing everything today. Thank you.
Erik: Well, thanks for having me jeffrey. I really appreciate it. Uh, i really enjoyed being on in terms of last word. i think the work with a lot of early stage founders who are either the first summer on the journey, or the second or third time. i think no matter what part of the journey, you’re in. um, you know it’s an exciting time. it’s been an exciting time for starting things up and especially with covid 19 hitting last year, the first few months, no one knew what was going to happen. i think that we’re coming out of this. there’s a lot of good coming out of it, a lot of innovation, a lot of excitement in terms of where we can go post covid 19. i think there’s a huge amount of opportunity. i think part of what the pandemic has done is really accelerated certain sectors as well which is really exciting. i think there’s a lot of exciting stuff happening in fintech. a lot of exciting stuff happening in healthcare and life sciences as well. things have really accelerated e-commerce as well. Uh, so there’s so much opportunity. if you have the opportunity to start something up and find a really meaningful problem to solve it, do it, and go after it. have the conviction and grit to do it, and give it a shot. exciting time to start something up. building something is exciting.
Jeffery: I love it. well said. and you’re right. get out there and make it happen. you’ve got one life so you might as well start today. so build a great company, and there’s lots of people out there. they’re going to want to jump in and help you out. so Erik, again, brilliant. Thank you very much for all your time today. you too Sydney. and uh we’re gonna leave it at that. but thank you very much.
Erik: thanks Jeffery. take care.
Jeffery: Oh that was awesome. I really enjoyed the conversation and I just love the journey that Erik went on and just kind of the learning that you take when you really get into that early stage company. and getting in and being that first employee into a company that’s a startup, the learning that you gather from raising funds to things that you got to fix new problems and being dedicated and focused, i just think that’s phenomenal. and i really enjoyed that you had such a creative journey on learning. all the way through and being able to then jump into investing but then going into the impact side and really trying to make a difference in helping minority founders, as well as feminine female founders raise dollars and build their companies. So kudos Erik for an amazing career and being able to give back and help out and do a lot of great things. Some of the things that he mentioned that they kind of really stand out of course was Reggie Dunlop. but the player coach side is that, when you’re gonna get in there, find people. It can really help you grow your business. and find that clutch second and third person that’s gonna support you and your business. I think it makes a big difference, um that CEO role and just help them grow and help them support and build your company. So uh, big fan again. Thank you very much Erik, brilliant. and of course thank you uh for having your daughter check. and that was great too. Um, well thank you everybody for joining us today. If you enjoyed this conversation, please subscribe to our YouTube channel or follow us on Spotify, Apple Podcast or Stitcher. You can also check us out at supportersfund.com and for other startup events please visit us at opn.ninja. Thank you and have a fantastic day.
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