The Accidental VC: Bringing More Diversity to Entrepreneurship
We are kicking off Black History Month with a profile of William Crowder. William is a successful venture capitalist and one of the few African-Americans in the venture capital industry. He was kind enough to share his thoughts about his journey to the world of investing and some of the key lessons he’s learned along the way.
How did you get into the world of technology?
I learned how to code when I was 11. My father was a music professor at a small HBCU and I spent the summer in the computer lab with a couple of college students. I learned to play games and found I wanted to create my own. They helped me get started and then I taught myself to code. I’ve had a connection to tech ever since. Throughout undergrad and grad school (first stint) I had a hardcore focus on technology. When I decided to attend business school I developed an affinity for finance and now I’ve merged both interests into a daily role.
You never want to be “on the line,” you want to be above it, ALWAYS.
Who has been your most important professional mentor and why?
Ouch! Can’t single out just one. I would say that my family has had the most impact on the type of person I am both professionally and personally. Both sides have always had a strong slant towards service, concern for others, and a desire to improve the life experience of other people. I’ve taken that gene and it shows up in everything I do now on a professional level. In the venture capital arena it takes the form of me wanting to see the entrepreneurs succeed by delivering the best they have to offer to the world. They should be the rock stars and I’ll be happy to know that I had a hand in that.
What has been the most meaningful professional experience you’ve had and why?
I’m having it right now. I consider myself an accidental VC. My arrival to the tech industry with an investor perspective and platform all happened at the ideal time. The current state of affairs with falling costs of tech, changing societal behavior, and changing demographics are creating incredible opportunities for entrepreneurs with big visions of solving big problems with technology.
What is the most difficult professional or personal challenge you’ve had to overcome?
During a time in which the economy was in a major downturn I lost a job. I was good at it, but not great. What I learned at that point in time was that you never want to be “on the line,” you want to be above it, ALWAYS. In business, when tough times appear, the weak are the first ones slaughtered, ALWAYS.
I also learned the importance of handling your business. Leave no doubt about what you do and your value to the team. Make sure you master the foundational aspects of your opportunity before signing up for ancillary endeavors that may appear attractive on the surface but at the end of the day, do little to advance the bottom line.
Ultimately, that experience solidified my desire and commitment to be an entrepreneur, even if it meant becoming a “business of one”. Self-determination is empowering and it’s something I pursue everyday.
The younger you are, the more you believe anything is possible. The truth is, anything is always possible.
What advice do you have for young people of color who are looking to get into technology?
Don’t fall into the consumer’s trap. Keep asking questions such as “What if we could do _____? Life would be so much easier for everyone if we could only _______.” When you can legitimately fill in those blanks you are well on your way to changing the future. The beauty of doing that when you’re young is that you haven’t been tainted with the limitations of experience. The younger you are, the more you believe anything is possible. The truth is, anything is always possible. The limitations only exist in flawed human thinking.
Who is one person you follow on social media who you think others should follow?
My favorite follow for the tech space is Fred Wilson, one of the founding partners of Union Square Ventures.
What news outlets or media sources do you read on a regular basis?
I limit my time with mainstream outlets as much as possible. The world really sucks right now and sensationalist reporting can leave you with a heavy heart and headache for the sake of ratings. In all honesty, I do a quick run through the tech press and blogs in the morning with my favorite newsreader and get the world news update via radio (the old school way) while taking my kids to school. After that, for the rest of the day I just try to make sure I’m not making headlines for the wrong reasons.
I check a number of sources daily:
- I like Fred Wilson’s Blog. It has a robust, engaged tech community. He’s been blogging for so long that much of the content can be used to build a solid understanding of how the VC business works.
- I review the NY Times.
- I get a daily newsletter from StrictlyVC.
- I skim the mainstream tech info sources like TechCrunch, Techmeme to see what’s trending.
- I read Business Insider and AlleyWatch to keep me updated on what’s happening in NYC, my primary investing market.
- I usually follow Twitter to know what’s trending in real-time.
- I save weekends for long form reading from sources known for more in-depth discussion.
The intensity ebbs and flows but never really goes away.
What led you from working with large companies to working with startups?
I find large companies to be stifling environments for me. I gravitate to small, nimble teams within these larger organizations, as they tend to focus on getting stuff done with as little red tape and friction as possible. Working with startups is 100% about moving fast and not being limited by corporate structures when they’re unnecessary. I found that refreshing and completely aligned with the type of person I am.
How do you compare working with an accelerator to working with an early stage venture firm?
Accelerators are an intense experience for a short period of time. We typically work closely with our startups for 3 months and then they “graduate” and move on to the next phase of their evolution. We continue to support them but in many ways that engagement trails off, as some will maintain the connection and many may not. When you’re an early stage investor, you’re signing up for the longer-term marriage. You’re going to be in the trenches with the entrepreneur for the next couple of years or more. The intensity ebbs and flows but never really goes away. You’re always thinking of ways to add value to the company and remove the potential hurdles to their success. Given I actively work with both, I’m still trying to figure out how to switch between the two since they require very different mental perspectives.
What led you to working with DreamIt?
I was running my own strategy and business development firm when I relocated to Philadelphia from the New York area. I spent a year networking with the professional community in Philly, which meant I would cross paths with VCs quite often. I met the Comcast Ventures team during that time and they introduced me to DreamIt. Comcast and DreamIt wanted someone to launch an effort to recruit more startups with founders from more diverse backgrounds. I agreed to do that while continuing to run my company. After a few months DreamIt invited me to join them as a partner working with the Philadelphia and New York programs.
What led you to working with the Comcast Ventures Catalyst Fund?
Shortly after joining DreamIt, Comcast Ventures approached me about taking a lead role for their effort to invest in tech startups with diverse founding teams. I agreed to join them in early 2012 and have been developing the platform ever since. It now has leaders on both coasts and we are actively looking to make new investments across the country.
I am a firm believer that when given a legitimate set of resources and opportunities, incredible things can come from anywhere at any time and from anyone.
What issues are you most passionate about?
From a technology perspective, I love the power it has to impact and transform the way we experience life. We are just scratching the surface in terms of the types of experiences and connections that are possible. I love the fact that I am able to play a role in the realization of that future state everyday.
Socially speaking, I’m passionate about the democratization of opportunity. I’m an advocate of fairness. I am a firm believer that when given a legitimate set of resources and opportunities, incredible things can come from anywhere at any time and from anyone. Ingenuity can’t be contained and it can’t be controlled. The more freely it flows the more likely the outcomes will have a positive impact on our individual lives and our world.
What did you learn at AOL that has helped you at Comcast Ventures? At DreamIt?
I arrived at AOL during a very interesting time in the company’s evolution. It was late summer 2004 and AOL was in the midst of large-scale preparation for the broadband explosion. However, it continued to deal with the fact that the vast majority of its revenue and profit was still derived from dial-up subscribers. Moving a company of that size to anticipate customer needs was extremely difficult. It had legacy cultural challenges as it was part of one of the worst corporate mergers in history (AOL-Time Warner transaction) and the technology landscape around AOL was changing rapidly.
I spent year one working with a team to convince the company it was time to shift away from dial-up. I spent year two building a new growth strategy for the online advertising unit, which was expected to represent the future primary revenue source of the company. In year three I oversaw the implementation of a major portion of that strategy and witnessed massive leadership turnover, while AOL spent over $1 billion acquiring tech companies like TACODA, Quigo, and Third Screen Media that it hoped would modernize the company on the fly.
During this tumultuous time I saw firsthand the impact of disruption on incumbents as Google in seemingly overnight fashion completely threw AOL core advertising business into disarray. That period essentially became my 4-year “real world degree.” I learned more about strategy, operations, and deal making than I had ever experienced at any other company or in any MBA classroom. I saw firsthand how important culture is to any successful company, learned about crisis management techniques, and most importantly evolved my perspective about how to recruit, retain, and reward talent. As a manager (or startup founder), give me the best people in the industry and the resources to maximize their capabilities and I will win every time. Without these your outcome potential is very much in doubt.
From an investing perspective, sitting on the side of the acquirer, I learned about what larger companies are looking for, what drives their decision-making process, and the challenges that come along with integrating the acquisitions into a new culture and new structure. I believe all of these lessons have made me a unique hands-on investor and hopefully a better one than most.
With the portfolio companies I work with at DreamIt and Comcast Ventures I try to bring a different perspective to our discussions where I can leverage what I’ve seen work and fail in similar situations. As a startup founder, building a business is a difficult and complicated process. The road to exit is a long series of decisions, big and small. My goal is to provide founders with as many tools as possible to ensure the decisions they make have the greatest likelihood of success. Hopefully entrepreneurs that choose to work with me see the value I bring and want to leverage my experience to make them better when decision-making time comes.
Diversity in technology has recently become a more popular topic of discussion and you are one of the more thoughtful voices in the discussion. Given your day job, how do you think about the opportunity to invest in diverse entrepreneurs?
As an investor you have to challenge your own thinking and pattern-matching tendencies to account for the changing externalities of the business you’re in. You are in the business of anticipating and recognizing new market trends before they achieve mainstream popularity. It is an undeniable fact that the country is becoming increasingly diverse. Around the year 2040 the minority officially becomes the majority in the US.
That demographic shift along with many others already underway (e.g. economic influence of women, buying power of ethnic groups) foretells where the next wave of entrepreneurs solving our biggest problems will come from. No one will know the problem better than those who’ve been living it all their lives. No one is better suited to authentically connect with the populations they want to serve than those that come from those very communities.
I am bullish on the opportunity to invest early in this trend. Everyday I am engaging with top-notch companies led by entrepreneurs of color with tremendous potential and opportunity ahead of them. I continue to be blown away by the types of problems they want to tackle using technology. I firmly believe the next wave of tech visionaries are in our midst today. As the venture capital community shifts its perspective about who fits the patterns for investment, we are going to be rewarded with incredible products and services that reach a greater swath of the population. We’ll finally reap the benefits of inclusiveness and many will openly wonder why this took so long.