Brad Feld and Esther Dyson are two of technology’s greats: Founding software and investment businesses early in the Internet age, they have been learning and building technology ventures since the 1980s, right as the U.S. transitioned to a connected PC in nearly every home.
Brad (born December 1, 1965, Arkansas, air force base) is a serial founder of technology companies, now based in Boulder, CO, bringing his experience into the investing world as founder of the Foundry Group and Techstars.
Esther (born July 14, 1951, Zurich, Switzerland) is a New York City-based writer, entrepreneur, investor, and philanthropist, focusing on investment in healthcare, government, digital technology, biotechnology, and space. She’s the founder of the Health Initiative Coordinating Council (HICCup), whose first initiative, The Way to Wellville, is helping communities understand how to help themselves be healthier.
These busy folks were kind enough to answer a few questions recently about how they are using their time and the projects they are currently tackling.
Who Is Brad Feld?
Brad was raised in Dallas, Texas. He’s the first of two sons of well-read, curious parents. Though raised in the Bronx, Brad’s parents are Texans at heart, bringing the family back to Dallas after moving around for the Air Force during the Vietnam war. After his father finished his medical residency in Boston, Dallas became the family’s new home.
Brad went to MIT and quickly learned he could make some real money writing software. By 1993 he sold the development shop he started (self funded) while still in college. A Silicon Valley-based director of a “Big Eight” firm had first introduced Brad and I by email for a telephone interview for a publication I wrote. Brad had one foot in Boston and the other headed West for Boulder, Colorado. For the next twenty years we would speak or email on different topics for articles I was covering from time to time. He divorced, fell in love, remarried, learned to balance life, and then threw himself into the startup community in Boulder. He helped David Cohen found TechStars , a global startup accelerator and support network.
Brad got an enormous amount of experience as a founder and investor, both from his huge wins and, during the .Com bubble bust, enormous losses. Pushing the limits of social media, he channeled this experience, and the emotional roller coaster it came with, into a public discussion about the nature of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and founder depression. We have never met in person.
What is your job? What keeps you going?
I’m a partner at Foundry Group, an early stage venture capital firm. I’ve been investing in startups since the mid-1990s, something I started doing shortly after I sold my first company. I’m deeply intrinsically motivated by learning and teaching, so as long as I’m doing one or the other I’m in a happy place.
What do you do during the course of your day that you enjoy most? What has the most impact?
I love to work on things that stretch my mind and make me think hard about new things. I spend a lot of my time in real time interactions so I particularly treasure time alone to work on what I want.
What would you focus efforts on if you did something other that live/think between the present and future?
I wouldn’t change a thing about how I spend my time and what I work on. It’s endlessly stimulating to me.
What does being at the edge of innovation feel like? What is the closest you have been – a snapshot in time.
I don’t feel like I’m at the edge of innovation, but rather subsumed by an endless maelstrom of things that are constantly changing. The exogenous chaos swirls around and while I’m often caught up in it, I spend plenty of time in the calm in the middle of it – similar to the eye of a hurricane.
Which historical figures inspire you?
Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Warren Buffett.
Any advice to your younger self?
Travel a lot more – throughout the world.
What’s it going to take to get TechStars to the Washington DC Metro area?
I’m a fan of 1776 and an investor in the 1776 Venture Fund. I think it’s pretty awesome.
Techstars prioritizes geographic expansion based on a number of different factors. Most of it is “pull” from a particular geography – specific leaders in the startup community and certain companies that want to work with us. Take a look at our programs to get a feel for it.
Any hard-earned guidance for new entrepreneurs?
Spend time on things you care about. Avoid things you don’t.
Thank you for caring enough to spend time answering these questions, Brad.
Who is Esther Dyson?
Esther is a formidable, impact-driven doer. I met Esther last year when she was in DC to give a fireside chat at Healthcare Datapalooza about her Health Initiative Coordinating Council’s (HICCup’s) latest initiative, The Way to Wellville. We share a passion for health and data and I had invited her to meet at the GeoHealth.us booth, but missed her. Heading home, I was about to step onto the Metro’s down escalator when to my delight she came up on the other side. In my iPhone I was carrying the PDF I wanted to share of an interview I had conducted with her father, respected physicist, Freeman Dyson, over 20 years ago.
Like Brad, Esther loves to learn and teach. One of three children of a Swiss mathematician, Verena Huber-Dyson and British-born American physicist, Freeman Dyson, Esther graduated from Harvard with a BA in economics. She started out at Forbes as a fact checker, quickly becoming a writer and researcher covering software companies for other employers. Her own company, EDventure Holdings, published a monthly newsletter about the effect of emerging technologies and markets as illustrated in the most interesting tech companies and projects of the time. She sold it to CNET Networks in 2004 and left CNET in 2007. In 2008 she paid Space Adventures to train as backup “spaceflight participant” for Charles Simonyi’s trip to the International Space Station aboard the Soyuz TMAK-14 mission.
Esther actively follows space-related innovation and has also branched out to health. She has personally taken on answering the question: “What does it take for a community to be a place that produces health rather than erodes it?” Though not a perfect pilot study, activities around Way to Wellville are a great way to test, measure, and implement routines and best practices for maintaining healthier communities. The critical need is to establish accountability for delivering the services and creating the environment.
What do you do? Is Way to Wellville top priority? Why?
Way to Wellville takes 100 percent of my time and attention (and money). And then I spend the other 50 percent on startup investing/mentoring, especially outside the US (Africa, Russia, Asia and then the usual places in Europe.)
If you weren’t working on The Way to Wellville: A Healthy Challenge to Create the Healthiest Communities, what else would you be doing?
Honestly, right now I can’t imagine doing anything else. This is a moment in history; people are beginning to understand the value of investing in health, rather than paying the costs of repair through health care. Our mission with Wellville is to show how to do (and to fund) that – and to demonstrate the positive impact.
So, to answer your question, I’d do the same thing in a different way. Perhaps I’d start an advocacy group to subtract the costs of health care from GDP, and to add the costs of health production (good food, mental health support, walkable communities, etc. etc.) to our capital budget instead of to spending (as we should also do for education, bridges, roads, and other infrastructure).
Who is your favorite entrepreneur, living or deceased?
I can’t tell you my favorites – it’s like asking someone to select their favorite child. As for dead ones…. Steve Jobs, for all his flaws, inspired millions of people with his products (not so much with the man himself, which I think is an important distinction). To me, people should focus on doing things, not on being a particular kind of person — the ends versus the means.
What makes you happy?
Well, two days ago I was flying in an ICON Aircraft A5, totally stable at 50 MPH, landing in Lake Berryessa and taking off again. What will *really* make me happy is to be the pilot, not just a passenger. Coming soon.
Neither of these folks will answer a question about what they want their legacy to be – and I’ve tried so save it. Virtue is its own reward, and it’s making things that each of them is after, and on a larger scale than most. For this work, I admire them and their efforts in building what is valuable, useful, and meaningful.
Interestingly, neither one of these folks has ever lived in Silicon Valley.
A different version of this post appeared in StartupGrind.com.