Oct 19, 2016 Pauliina Martikainen
We sat down with Tony Conrad, Partner at True Ventures and Co-founder of about.me and Sphere, to talk about his determined journey to the frontline of tech biz. At his current position, Conrad gets to combine the best of two very different yet symbiotic worlds – working hands-on as a serial entrepreneur and acting in full swing as a VC. Besides shedding light on his daily work, revelations were made on topics such as the ultimate investment thesis and whether there remains something we don’t know about Tony Conrad.
I never thought I’d be a VC. I grew up in a farming community of 5,500 people, yet I always knew that I wasn’t going to live there when I grew up. When moving on to college, I felt so ill prepared through the lack of academic exposure in my early years, that I worked myself into a total panic and ended up with really great grades. Throughout my youth, I was always industrious and able to adapt and learn, and I think that has proven to be the greatest asset in my professional life.
After college, I worked abroad for about 10 years.Yet, what was happening in the Valley in the 1990s intrigued me, so I moved back to the States, started investing, and like a lot of people that time, I got lucky. I went through the boom and eventual bust period of that time. In 2003 I got introduced to the most important company I’ve ever been involved with in a lot of ways. It was called Oddpost, and it was one of the early startups leveraging AJAX. They built a webmail client, and they were doing it for so little money that this little light bulb that went off in my head that was like, “Oh my gosh, this Moore’s Law concept of the cost structure going down is actually happening”. So I invested in Oddpost, it ended up getting acquired by Yahoo in 2004, and it runs all of Yahoo Mail today.
After that experience, I thought, why couldn’t I start one of those companies myself?
The thing that I always knew, was that I liked autonomous, entrepreneurial environments. I was an expatriate and what that means is you have a lot of autonomy and it’s really your responsibility to figure things out without a lot of guidance.
I love how the two roles are symbiotic, yet they’re so profoundly different. As you get older, and you have a little more success, you become more balanced and introspective. When I get to work with a founder that I feel particularly in synch with, I feel like I can be the best steward of their agenda possible. I love that role of just being a good partner and mentor, and simultaneously learning myself. My advantage is that I get to go apply best of those learnings to my own company.
Being a founder, other founders look at you differently than they look at VCs. I’m one of them. As symbiotic as the roles need to be, and as the communities need to be, they’re very distinct groups of people. If you drew a venn diagram there’s definitely an overlap, yet founders hang out with other founders, and VCs hang out with other investors. So I love how the two work together yet are very different pieces of the equation.
We at True Ventures have a very consistent thesis of wanting to be the first institutional investor in the company, since that allows us to maximize both the amount of risk we take and the opportunity for us. We are ownership sensitive, 20% is our goal. Our thesis puts us in a position where we can be supportive of the founders, around the DNA of the company.
Given that we’re investing so early, I really over index on the founder, and I think doing that very well differs us from others. The thing I spend an inordinate amount of time digging into is the “why?” – Why do you need to do this? What’s driving you crazy? I think you ultimately have to walk away from every conversation and be excited by the passion of the founder, the depth of their thinking, the quality of their early team, but you also do have to go back and double check in your brain, “Does this make sense?”
And, for us, this opens up the possibility of investing in stuff that we would never targeted and said, “This is going to be my thesis for the next year.” Often, the markets actually don’t exist for the most disruptive companies. That’s where we’re taking maximum risk with maximum upside.
I love being a part of the early stage technology community and it’s purely fun for me to connect with other entrepreneurs. I’m really looking forward to checking out the tech movement in your part of the world.
Hahaha, I think it’s all online at this point. We live very public lives at this point. Just to make sure, you can check out my page about.me/tonyconrad , which I think captures most of what you need to know about me!
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