Startups / Venture Capital
Investing in the Next 1,000 Engineer-Founders
My journey into founding, supporting and funding engineer-led startups
It was late 2010 and I had jumped on a flight from NYC to SF. Though I had made the trip many times before, this time my ticket was one-way.
In the air, I remembered I didn’t have a place to stay that night, so I opened my laptop mid-flight and jumped on Airbnb to see what types of listings were available in SF. Earlier that day I had turned over the keys for my NYC apartment to a nice couple from Germany — my first experience as an Airbnb host. “Why not complete the loop the same day and become a guest, too,” I thought. In ten minutes I had found and successfully booked a small place in a central neighborhood of SF that I could afford using the revenue from my rented NYC place. Founder arbitrage FTW!
As any startup founder will recognize, I was in full hustle mode. This one-way trip to SF was to take a final swing at saving my second startup, an early cloud-based API management & security product that seemed to be ahead of its time. As a security-minded engineer who had conceived of the idea, I was convinced that security was a crucial, yet oft-overlooked, aspect of modern application and API development. This, I reasoned, coupled with the birth of the cloud, was creating an entirely new set of vectors for attackers.
But so far, my baby company had struggled. While we had successfully built our product, we had been having a hard time finding early customers and investors in NYC. I hoped that by spending several months in SF and pounding the pavement in person, I might be able to find more innovative partners ready to try our solution and become customers, or network with a more savvy group of tech-minded investors to extend our runway.
Helping Engineers Thrive
My experience as an engineer-founder struggling to bring a product to market (and even moving to the Bay Area to do it) might be familiar to other engineers who have found themselves in a similar situation. In the years of starting my own companies, as well as coaching hundreds of other engineer-founders, I’ve discovered that technical people like myself, while having strong engineering skills and product development sensibilities, sometimes agonize when it comes to other aspects of getting their startup off the ground — namely with sales, marketing and pitching (customers OR investors), and sometimes with softer skills like communication or team building & leadership.
I don’t want to let that happen, because I strongly believe that the keys to the most significant innovations in our future are held by deeply technical founders, especially those who are harnessing and manipulating data in new and significant ways — including software engineers, data scientists and AI researchers. But perhaps unsurprisingly, these are also the same types of professionals who seem unlikely to apply to business school or risk stepping away from the fast-developing engineering & AI world to get an MBA lest their technical skills become outdated and eclipsed by someone else. So what is the solution to this “geeks vs. suits” conundrum?
My own path to helping engineer-founders successfully start companies started shortly after my fateful flight to SF in 2010. Even though that particular startup didn’t succeed, I came out of the fire with a whole new set of experiences; I had first-hand lessons about mistakes to avoid, as well as a clearer head around what had worked. Because you can’t learn them in a book, it turns out those lessons in the startup world are actually like gems.
What happened next was remarkable — based on my insights I quickly discovered ample opportunity to share key advice with technical friends regarding their startups. And I was thrilled to see how they benefited from it when they raised their first round of funding, made early product strategy decisions, or shared the story of their startup to successfully close new hires.
Soon, the opportunity to work with more founders grew, and in addition to offering mentorship to dozens of founding teams, I found myself occasionally writing small checks into the earliest stages of their startups. I had become an advisor and angel investor. And that was just the beginning.
Over the past several years, in support of other engineer-founders, I’ve quietly made 50+ investments in deeply technical startups founded by amazing engineers. I’ve been fortunate enough to support them both with time and with capital, and I’ve discovered my calling for the second half of my career.
Passion + Experience = Mission
Why take things to the next level now? There are 3 reasons:
- After more than 20 years of being both an engineer & repeat founder, I fully accepted my passion for innovation via early stage, engineering-led startups and clearly established one of my life goals: to help 1,000 engineers start companies.
- I also realized that as a founder who had figured out many things about startups the hard way, I had a lot of helpful advice to share with other engineer-founders about starting & building their companies.
- Finally, Data Council, the event & community for data engineers, scientists and AI researchers that I founded in 2015, was producing thousands of connections with top technical people who were rapidly launching data-oriented startups thanks to their unique expertise. I had, almost unwittingly, created a community to discover the best data startups at scale even before they started.
So, in the spirit of “pouring gasoline on what’s working” I decided to honor what was already working and moved forward to crystalize the advantages I had discovered in both finding and helping the earliest-stage engineering-led data-oriented startups.
New Vehicle, Same Values
As such, I’m excited to announce the launch of my first venture fund, the Data Community Fund. Backed by a “who’s who” list of data executives, technical founders and enterprise VCs, DCF is a micro-fund dedicated to helping the earliest stage (pre-product, pre-revenue) engineering-led B2B startups that have significant differentiation via applications of innovative data technology. This includes all manner of data infrastructure, tooling for data science/machine learning/deep learning/data analytics, as well as applications of AI to specific business verticals (healthcare, manufacturing, insurance, finance, etc.).
Via our deeply-technical community, we are focused not just on offering advice and capital, but also true support and company-building help to engineers launching companies at the earliest stages of their startup journey. Specifically, we help with finding a co-founder, hiring, connections to technical experts, finding & speaking with early customers, go-to-market strategy, pitching VCs/fundraising. And with our deep experience in the data ecosystem we have a unique perspective on promoting and commercializing open-source projects.
We rank high on the “helpfulness” side of the “Check Size to Helpfulness” ratio — meaning that because we’re founders and operators first we always have our founders’ backs, and offer them extraordinary support during the earliest stages of their company launch and building.
The Data Community Fund invests in 15–20 companies/year across North America and the E.U., sourced from the network of deals we discover thanks to our community, co-investor relationships and referrals from industry & personal networks.
Gearing up for 2021
I personally couldn’t be more excited to share a positive update with the community near the end of 2020. Though it’s been a challenging year for us all globally, inspiration and innovation will always find ways to break through.
And for all the engineers reading this who are thinking about starting companies, I urge you to tell me about your vision and to tap into the immense network of support available to you. Gone are the days where engineers need to feel like they’re fighting alone to bring the earliest versions of their data-oriented innovations to life.