Grab your ticket for RISE before prices increase this Friday.
–Tony Conrad is the founder and CEO of about.me. He’s a Partner at True Ventures, where he works with some amazingly talented founders from companies like WordPress, MakerBot, HighFidelity, Connectifier, Typekit, Smarterer and Blue Bottle Coffee. He’s a personal investor in the likes of Slack and does heaps more cool things like sitting on the board of the Tony Hawk Foundation. RISE is approaching us quickly. In just three months we will descend upon Hong Kong and hear from some absolutely incredible speakers. One of these, is Tony Conrad. I was lucky enough to grab half an hour to pick his brain before the event.
Tony, looking at what you’ve done- it’s all so impressive. We’re interested to hear from you because you’re a founder and you’re a VC. Does being the two simultaneously allow you to look at things in a different way or is it difficult to balance the two mindsets?Beyond sleep, it’s worked out really well so far. Sometimes the two roles create a little complexity, but I’ve learned over the last decade that the roles, being a Founder and an active Venture Capitalist are incredibly symbiotic. I’ve become a better venture investor because I’m a Founder, and similarly I’ve become a better Founder and entrepreneur because I’m an investor. As a Venture Capitalist, I’ve had the good fortune to work with some inspiring founders and learn a lot. There are different issues that companies deal with and I get the benefit of being part of those discussions in board meetings for companies like WordPress, Blue Bottle or High Fidelity. We talk about best practices around recruiting, growth engineering, online virality, product/market fit, when it’s the right time to hire a CFO and what does a CFO really do? I have learned a lot of these lessons from the founders I work with closely that I’ve applied back to my own startups. Conversely, as a Founder/ entrepreneur being in the flow of FOunders has made me a much better investor. My access and familiarity to top talent are enhanced. Something really interesting happens when you’re an active participant in each ecosystem. You realise that Founder and venture capital circles, while they overlap and interact, are very distinct from each other. There are founder centric events and venture capitalist centric events. On the founder side, there are events like your own event, f.ounders that are focused on entrepreneurs. You sprinkle in a few venture capitalists into the mix, but the primary focus is on bringing founders together. When you’re a card-carrying member of both groups you get invited to both parties. Most investors are 100% focused on investing – while that works brilliantly for most of them, it didn’t for me- when I tried to do that I was mediocre. When I started holding the two roles simultaneously, I became more informed, confident and a better investor.
I had a look at your about.me profile and saw you did stints as a baseball umpire when you were younger. Did exploring different avenues and jobs like this make you better at what you’re doing now?Yes, I’m incredibly proud of those things I did early on in my life. It’s part of what I love about our product about.me- the nature of our product is to enable people to take pride in their personal stories and the journey from where they began, no matter how advantaged or disadvantaged. I grew up in a fairly humble environment, a small farming community in Indiana. I had a nurturing family, and had a very stable childhood. At the same time I didn’t have any unfair advantages. Growing up in a small town, I was driven and curious to see what else was out there. I pushed myself. I wanted to plug into the world, to get involved. I was industrious from a young age. Everything from mowing lawns and bailing hay, to working in a pharmacy, a factory and umpiring. No job was too little for me. I was the right size for every one of those jobs. That taught me a sense of work ethic and humility. It almost makes me well up when I think that I was a janitor in my fraternity in college. You can’t imagine how humbling that was as a young adult. These are all experiences that help to fuel my drive and are foundational to my person today. I try to be gentle, but I also try to be optimistic and push my life forward, walking softly but with purpose. Although most people that know me don’t think I walk all that softly (laughs), I really do try!
About.me had about 4 million profiles when you bought it back from AOL. Less than a year later it jumped massively. What was that journey like- how did you achieve such success?We haven’t had massive success yet. We have a product with an initial value proposition that resonates with a large audience of people. These people want to take back ownership of their public identity by having a simple page that describes them. They point people interested in them to their page to make a first impression- they do this by adding a link in their email signature, from their Twitter bio or their business card, places where they’re making a first impression on people who are interested in learning more about them. If you’re interested to learn more about me, I want you to go to my about.me page. You get more info there about me than you will anywhere else. It’s information that I’ve decided is appropriate for public consumption, a narrative I control that I’m comfortable putting out there. Since we brought the company back we’ve been working hard to help people understand what they can do with their page once they’ve created it, and how that translates into value for them. End of last year we had three big launches. It was like the culmination of our work. The first product we launched was Email Signature. This takes your page and shrinks it down to a thumbnail. It creates a beautiful thumbnail image in your email signature that links directly to your about.me page. Anytime I’m emailing people who don’t know me, they can click that and go directly to my page. They can then go to my Twitter from there. This is logical, versus having to search for me and gather all that info. The second thing we did was enable our users to add a resume to the bottom of their page. This product, “Backstory”, is incredibly popular with millennials, students and non-corporate workers like caterers and photographers. It tethers a resume to their identity. A lot of young people don’t have a great breadth of experience or depth in their accomplishments yet. An About.me page is well suited to them as it allows them to tell their story and take advantage of their best asset; which is themselves. Who they are. This product has proven to be incredibly popular, and the fastest growing of the three. I love it for my children. The third product is my personal favorite – a really simple app called “Intro”. It allows you to take your page and turn it into a digital business card. If I send you one right now you get a link to my page, my cell phone number and email address. I’m excited about this app and am using it all the time. There are so many scenarios where I don’t have business cards with me. I’ll be out running, at the grocery store or just in real life. I run into people that ask me for my information. I always have my phone, our phones are attached to our bodies at this point. I love that I can easily send them my page as a business card.
I guess you’ve answered my next question- how are you driving people back to the product? Rather than having them set up a profile and it becoming stagnant, you guys have released these 3 products to keep people engaged.Yes, I’m really cautious from watching companies that accelerate quickly with unbelievable customer acquisition growth early on. But it’s almost trickery in how they go about doing it, and then the products don’t stick and we don’t talk about them two years later. These companies are high fliers for 90 days, and then go away. What we’re trying to do at about.me is make sure our users know how to use our product featutes in a way that creates value for them while putting in place legitimate hooks to acquire potential new users – a win win scenario. As an example, when you get a digital business card “intro” from me or click on my email signature, you might be compelled to set up a page yourself. I’m more interested in more genuine, slower, real customer growth.
A lot of the companies you’ve invested in have been acquired by the likes of Google, Adobe and Yahoo. What are your passions for investing? Do you pick based on the founders or are you mainly focused on looking at the markets?At True, we look for founders of movements and products that capture our imagination. The thing I’m most passionate about is the founder. You look at my body of investment work and it’s a little bit all over the board. It’s purposefully done that way. Everything from coffee (Blue Bottle) to robotics (MakerBot) to a publishing platform (WordPress) to an identity platform (about.me). I focus first on the founder and make sure they are working on something that I feel is important or of real interest to me. When I find that perfect intersection- a high quality founder who I’m really interested in working with, who is also working in a space or sector that I think is underdeveloped and has potential, that’s the magic formula for me. I love the way True Ventures works- six partners, each one of us with a different approach. We’ve created a partnership that plays to each partner’s strength.
What entrepreneurs are out there at the moment that are sparking movements in your eyes? James Freeman started this Blue Bottle coffee movement. In your eyes is there anyone else out there doing something really cool?Definitely Philip Rosedale from High Fidelity and the work his team is doing around virtual reality. Philip was the founder of Second Life and arguably one of the key people who started the whole virtual reality movement. Now he’s back at it for a second act. I think High Fidelity will blow people away. It’s one of the most exciting things that I’m getting to work on. You mentioned James Freeman- I don’t think there’s anybody who embodies the spirit of being a founder of a movement more than James. He’s exceptional. It’s not just coffee. He has a whole vision and philosophy around why coffee is important, how it intersects with us as human beings, how we should consume it and under what guidelines and principles. He thinks about things like working with people who are growing organic beans and adhering to the highest standards of sustainability. This is putting a fork in the ground and sharing our vision for what a beautiful, delicious coffee experience should be like. He has such strong conviction yet he shares his vision in a gentle way. When you think about these founders of movements I think that’s what they have in common- they walk gently but they have big ideas.
RISE is of course taking place in Hong Kong. How do you see technology in Asia developing? Do you think it’s really the big untapped market?It’s probably not being blown up or hyped up enough! Two thirds of the population live there. There’s a mobile-first adoption there which makes it a massive market because developers are focused on the future in which mobile far outpaces laptop usage. I wake up now and I turn on my phone to read the New York Times. I think, “Wow. I can’t believe I’m doing this.” I’m so old I still have a physical newspaper at my doorstep! I could just roll out of bed, come downstairs and read the paper- it’s right there but I’m reading it on my phone. In our consumer-facing company portfolios, mobile is 40-60% of the traffic across them. This is a big change from two years ago where it was roughly 20% so I’m a big believer in mobile and Asia is ahead of the U.S. in terms of mobile adoption in my opinion. Also, it’s the most dense, urban population on the planet. We’re just starting to understand the difference between rural and urban technology. The first time I really understood this is when I looked at Foursquare. Foursquare started in New York, a mobile environment. I suspect that New York is the largest Uber market. That density is really important. When you think about self-driving cars in urban environments it’s different than thinking about it in a rural environment. It’s hard for me to imagine that we’ll all have self-driving cars, but it won’t surprise me either. If it happens, it will happen first in urban environments where the need is greater due to inefficiencies like traffic jams. I’m really interested in that. I think Asia definitely has a lot of inherent advantages, urbanism can’t be discounted.
Get your ticket for RISE and hear from Tony in-person. See you there.