MIT alumni and venture capitalist, Brad Feld, is intense when he talks about the state of innovation– but not because it’s the next big thing, or some new trend to study. With a 20-year track record as both a tech company leader seeking startup investment and as a VC funding others, Feld knows how critical new ideas are to fueling the economy. He also knows the pitfalls.
An early-stage investor and entrepreneur since 1987, Feld co-founded the Foundry Group, Mobius Venture Capital, and prior to that, Intensity Ventures. He’s also a co-founder of the TechStars venture. Feld rode the dotcom bubble in the late 1990s, and the subsequent bust in the next few years. He has plenty of stories to tell of giant companies going bankrupt, lawsuit filings and fledgling startups that made it big. For him, today’s romance with entrepreneurship is part of a long continuum where ideas, investments and technological ebb and flow over time.
“I’m actually getting tired of word entrepreneurship,” Feld told IDE co-founder, Andrew McAfee, during a fireside chat recently held at MIT. In the world of VCs, “words get co-opted and eventually mean nothing.”
Focusing on Ideas
What really matters, according to Feld, is for developers and business people to focus on their ideas and what they can contribute. “Macroeconomics is not really relevant.”
Even in the lean years of VC funding, Feld said he tried to tune out “macroeconomics and media speculation,” and build a business heads-down. “That’s entrepreneurship, and it happens continually…you can’t label it, and it’s not a new thing.”
At MIT, innovation is “wired into the DNA,” Feld said, “now it’s spreading out into society.” People want to create their own future and startups are a great way to do that. His advice? Entrepreneurs shouldn’t listen to VCs on how to do it; they should listen to data and use history to help them make decisions.
Feld is a maverick in other ways, too. Two decades ago he eschewed both Silicon Valley and Boston tech communities for the slower pace of Boulder, Colo. Location shouldn’t dictate a business, he said; creative communities can thrive in everywhere. “Technology in Dubai isn’t following Silicon Valley processes… The goal is not to replicate, but to build your own special magic anywhere. Each ecosystem grows its own way.”
Four Ways to Make Your Mark; or Not
Although he values individualism, Feld touts four principals—rarely followed, he says– to help innovators get their companies off the ground:
1. Company leaders have to be entrepreneurs themselves to understand what’s really needed.
2. Take a 20-year view; forget what the market is like today or this year. Governments, academia and businesses all are on short-term cycles.
3. Be inclusive; don’t form geeky cliques or you’ll miss out on great collaboration opportunities. Take diversity seriously and you’ll get better outcomes.
4. Be more extroverted. Actually take part in activities and events with everyone. Mix it up on purpose. Hang out with—and welcome–investors, developers, politicians and anyone who can help; especially if they have backgrounds that are different from what you’re used to.
Wanting to walk the walk when it comes to diversity and correcting the gender imbalance in STEM careers, Feld is on the board of the National Center for Women & Information Technology, in Boulder. Among the issues it addresses are structural problems in middle and high schools and unconscious bias in IT workplaces that deter women. “It’s not that women are broken or men are bad. Environments matter.”
While still intense, Feld also advises hard-driven tech leaders to unplug and find ways to balance life and work. In his own career, he’s had to struggle with the pressures of R&D, funding, long hours and his own mental health. He now speaks about ways to “disconnect” and reenergize in order to keep the creativity flowing in a pressure-cooker environment. “You can’t motivate others if you’re exhausted” or if you’re not motivated yourself.
And that’s a life lesson you probably won’t learn in business school.
He holds Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in Management Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is also an art collector and long-distance runner. He has completed 23 marathons as part of his mission to finish a marathon in each of the 50 states.