Welcome back to the Great North Ventures newsletter! The big news this month is the closing of Fund II!
We have closed our $40M Fund II! Great North is excited to build on its Fund I success investing in startups from Seed to Series A, with a new, larger fund.
Fund II Snapshot:
- Investment Themes: “Digital Transformation Through AI”, “Community-Driven Applications”, and “Solving Labor Problems”
- Network-driven investing, rooted in Minnesota, spread through the Upper Midwest and beyond
- Innovator Network of successful founders, investors, and experienced Fortune 500 operators
- Fund II’s Venture Studio co-creates and supports ~1 startup/year from ideation through launch and beyond
- View our Fund II Investment Thesis
“Great North Ventures has a strong track record,” said Rob Weber, Founder & Managing Partner. “Our investors have given us a vote of confidence by coming out strong for Fund II, with a 70% increase in fund size, and we are grateful for their continued support as well as the support of new investors. Our strategy as a thematic, network-driven investor focusing on opportunities in underserved markets is resonating, and we see this successful Fund II raise as proof of this theme and our ability to execute.”
Interested Founders can apply for funding consideration immediately. Are you looking for early-stage funding?
Do you fit one of these themes:
Visit our site to view our criteria and to apply.
Need to learn more about early-stage scaling and venture funding? Are you working on scaling and thinking about VC funding? Listen to the latest episode of Execution is King.
It features Eric Martell, Founder of Pear Commerce, former founder of EatStreet, and former Venture Partner at gener8tor. As a successful founder, investor, and now repeat founder, Eric has valuable insight on what it takes to scale and successfully utilize funding. And guess what? He shared it with us.
Like this tidbit on what remaining focused on the problem looks like: “it took some patience and dozens, if not hundreds of customer conversations, and not being super in love with any individual solution to the big problem that we were trying to solve until we found that correct solution. And it’s almost like, you know when you know, because then the business really took off.”
Amulet Launches to Bring Powerful Detection Out of the Lab and Into the Hands of Millions [Allergy Amulet]
OneMedNet Partners with Flywheel to Provide Leading Healthcare Imaging Data and Data Management Solutions
Good Design Awards Highlight Connected Devices [Allergy Amulet]
Omnia Fishing To Simulcast Bassmaster LIVE As Shoppable Feed For Two Elite Series Eve
129 Open Positions
See all open positions on the Great North Ventures careers page
Dispatch is hiring for 49 positions
PrintWithMe is hiring for 19 positions
Parallax is hiring for 4 positions
Branch is hiring for 15 positions
Inhabitr is hiring for 1 positions
NoiseAware is hiring for 5 positions
PartySlate is hiring for 5 positions
Flywheel is hiring for 3 positions
Skillit is hiring for 1 position
NextGem is hiring for 2 positions
Backhouse Brands is hiring for 1 position
Yardstik is hiring for 7 positions
Micruity is hiring for 3 positions
Omnia Fishing is hiring for 8 positions
In this episode, Rob and Josef talk about some Twitter controversy over founder extravagances, and the difference between, say, personal chefs at work used for recruiting, vs. buying a used fishing boat with your profits. This is something we looked into in a piece Rob wrote on BuiltIn, “The Weird and Wonderful Things Midwest Founders Do After They’ve Had a Big Exit“
Jonathan Treble joins and talks about his path from Wharton grad to startup employee to Founder/CEO of PrintWithMe.
He also talks about building his company, and practical milestones he set. He also has valuable advice for founders:
“Optimize for control over valuation” – when negotiating at early stages.
“Validate with the smallest team that you can” – because, really, more money means more problems.
He also talks about team building, which is something Jonathan excels at. They use the “Culture Index” to guarantee culture fit, which is incredibly important. He talks mistakes, onboarding, and recommends two books that created his own foundation for recruiting:
Who does Jonathan see executing? Orazio Buzza of Fooda, Inc.
Welcome to the execution is king podcast. Today we have Jonathan treble founder and CEO of print with me, along with my co host, Rob Weber, managing partner at Great North ventures. Welcome to the podcast, Jonathan.
Thank you. Happy to be here. Thanks for having me.
So Jonathan, I know we first met a little over a couple years ago, I believe, and you were kind of busy starting to really scale your business print with me. Maybe for starters, could you maybe introduce us to how you got to that position, you know, whether it be where you went to school, maybe some of the influences you had from a career standpoint, which sort of led you to print with me?
Definitely. So I started my business journey in undergrad, my undergraduate program was at the Wharton School, I majored in finance. But generally, it was a very well rounded business program. And I went into business school because I knew that I wanted to get involved in business in some way. Even back in high school, I had started a couple companies in high school. And I had the entrepreneurial edge, I think that comes from my parents, and particularly my father got me started with an eBay trading assistant store in high school. And it was so much fun to build the business and see that have some modest success in high school. I went to Wharton, I studied four years of business Warden is very much a finance school and breeding grounds for wall street and specialty services, firms, consulting firms, etc. And so that flavor of education was a little too formal for me. I realized at the time, I was not really going to use a lot of the finance in my career, although it was great background knowledge. And at even at the same time, in college, I had a couple of side businesses going right after college, I joined a startup in New York City that was founded by somebody I had helped in an internship. And that was my first foray into startup land. I immediately loved it and understood why I am meant for startups, right. And that is just the pace, building something out of nothing. The ambiguity that I like working inside of, and I took that job in New York City, and they haven’t quickly moved to Chicago. And the the story there just kind of all worked out well, for me, I guess is that this New York company took a round of investment from light bank, which was the newly named venture organization founded by Eric lefkofsky. And Brad keywell, who are known to be among the best serial entrepreneurs in the whole country, certainly, probably the top and Chicago, because they’ve, they’ve taken public, at least four companies I can think of, and now we’re working on one or two unicorns that are still private. They’re just incredible entrepreneurs. And when I heard that they invested in in my friend startup and that I could join, and then they needed somebody to go to Chicago and liaise with them. I was like, Yeah, that’ll be me, for sure. So I read jumped at that opportunity, moved to Chicago for that, and ended up with that startup for about a year wasn’t really gaining traction, I switched over to another light bank, back startup, and then even another did some consulting. And after about three years, I wanted to try something a bit different. I wanted to get the big startup experience. And what I mean by that is like a larger at scale startup. So I applied for a job at grub hub, I was given the position, I joined as a project manager on the tech team, slash business analysts. So I was essentially in charge of the development work for five engineers. And these engineers were pretty senior, like much, much more accomplished and experienced and knowledgeable than the more junior engineers I was working with at startup land. And I got to really learn how software is delivered at scale grub up at the time was, I mean, calling a startup is definitely an accurate in 2013. It was way along in his journey and actually getting ready for an IPO already. But it still had the startup feel. And so I joined this, this tech organization, the tech org at the time was probably 50 to 100 people. And I was one project manager among many over a certain team. And that was great. His big company experience I guess, to learn how to work on a team within a big company and I was my job as the business analyst there was to liaise with other departments in the company and help build software to meet business needs. And so that actually gave me a lot of insight into other facets of grub up. So other departments, ranging from marketing, to finance to customer support operations, I got to be the person to kind of liaise with a lot of those departments and help them solve problems with software. So I think that that year that I spent doing that full time was among the more important learning opportunities in my then career, because I got to see what a startup would look like, at larger scale. And kind of what, as a founder, a future founder, I should be keeping in mind kind of like setting as a North Star for my own venture down the road. So at this time, I was about 2526, I was dabbling with a couple other business ideas, startup ideas, I even funded myself, I bootstrapped, that a couple people would help write code for me for a couple of these ideas, and we put them out there and we tried to get some traction, and neither of them really took off. It was there were interesting ideas, for sure. But they lacked some, some point of traction. And
I suppose during all that time at grubhub, you know, building products to meet business needs, you kind of built may have built up a backlog of these ideas to try out. It sounds like you tried out more than a couple of them.
Yeah, Funny enough, the ideas I was trying out, didn’t really come from grubhub, I did get a lot of exposure to different parts of grubhub. But the types of problems we’re solving at that scale, weren’t all that. Well, I’ll say some of them were innovative. But a lot of them were just scaling systems. Like, for example, I had, I had the good fortune of being the business analyst who is revamping our accounting system and, like re building out the business logic for like, what activities wound up in which ledger accounts which is mind numbing, but good experience for I think, just just to have that a little bit of that background. And don’t get me wrong, we worked on some innovative things as well. And I was actually I think I, I was involved in some patent application with one of the founders because we came up with a way to track delivery times better through through an interesting system. But you know, by and large, most of my job was was just the nuts and bolts of, of scaling systems, which in itself is interesting stuff. I liked it. It’s intellectually challenging, but it was not exposing me to like a very wide range of ideas. So these other ideas, were just things that I was inspired by in day to day life. And one was like a meetup app, like a spontaneous meetup app, because at the time there was not in this is 2013 meetup.com was very, like planned. And so the a few companies have tried this I I would later discover and that the issue with traction is, I mean, it’s, you know, how do you build a network effect, it’s so hard to acquire those initial users you need. You need like person liquidity, you need a lot of people to be wanting to meet up at once. So it’s, it’s really tough, and then monetizing it as a whole nother very challenging endeavor for that type of app. So this is all setting the stage for how I ended up at print with me, right? So around 2014 I think it was early in the year, I needed to print concert tickets for a concert, right downtown in Chicago. And it was kind of a last minute decision to go to this concert. So it was the weekend. I couldn’t print the tickets at work. I realized I needed to print them somewhere else. And I didn’t own a printer. And I remember having to get into at the time, I think was a cab because early days, I mean Uber Lyft. We’re not quite there yet. And I, I drove about a mile away to a FedEx Office, I printed those tickets, I drove back in the cab. And the whole thing probably cost like 25 bucks between the cab fare and then FedEx Office rates for printing. Just thought, Wow, what an expensive thing to do. Certainly I could have bought a printer at that point and realize I save money in the long run. But I was also moving apartments somewhat frequently. I was in my mid 20s I was embracing the sharing economy. I was thinking, you know, why do I want to own more stuff? And I bet I figured a lot of my peers and people in my cohort felt the same way. And so the idea kind of struck for printing kiosks and it was an interesting idea. It was a kind of like a wacky idea. like okay, who would actually put printers in public places right like It sounds like that’s maybe problematic, like, I could foresee many ways that that would break and how it’d be tough to manage. But the idea really kind of sat with me. And for a few months, I kind of pushed it off. And I was like, I don’t know if this is a great business, and I was working on the other ideas at the time. And then one day, in the middle of the summer, I kind of just had this this moment where I was like, You know what, that idea is still bugging me. And it actually I, I could use that myself. And I bet a lot of people could, and why not just try to build it. So I just decided to go for it, stop the other projects work on this as my key focus. And that’s how I ended up starting it.
Yeah, there’s a lot of good useful lessons and kind of your your origin, how you got print with me off the ground, I think a couple of the things that really resonate with me is just overall, I think, when people see successful founders, they often think that, you know, that they’re, they don’t think of all the background work that went into sort of honing your skills, and they’re just hearing your stories a lot like my own where it was like, I wouldn’t necessarily call them failures. But like, there were a lot of projects that I was gonna tinkering with, you know, before we had kind of our breakout success, which, you know, went on. And I think that’s a really common theme with a lot of entrepreneurs. And I’d say, the other ingredient there was to just working at seeing another company at scale that was, you know, previously a startup, be able to learn from the kind of execution, especially in like a product or product engineering type of team, we’re actually working on the product. And, you know, ideally, probably some exposure proximity to one of the founders, like I think, you know, that is that can be so powerful for people who want to know, they want to be a founder, but they don’t know how to get there. I have a lot of young people who reach out and say, hey, how do I do what you did? How do I become a founder, I think there’s, there’s these like two logical, and you should have both of them. I never had the sort of bigger company experience. But I think that’s like to be able to see the, you know, the startup at scale, alongside your own tinkering projects, that’s got to be super powerful, right?
Yeah, it was definitely powerful is the best education I could have ever wanted or gotten better than a definitely better than like an MBA or an advanced degree. And I actually think you’re right grub hub. That year was very important. It gave me the Northstar for how a scaled business or scaling business needs to look like and how the different departments interact, and how technology can support all that. Very important lessons that I still have with me this day. And a network of people that I still keep in touch with this day, and that have helped out and consulted with me, you know, subject matter experts. But I’d even say going back before grubhub. So there’s three years that I was in startup land, at early stage startups that were still trying to figure out product market fit, and building product. So I was, I started as like a sales rep in the first job for a year. And I switched to Product Manager at the next startup. And I did that for two years, about two years. And those experiences were almost just as valuable. In fact, arguably, maybe more. So I got to see these founders, these early founders, in their process of tinkering and trying to make a product that was in demand and viable. And that was just such an incredible learning experience. And I got to do it on somebody else’s watch or like, on their dime, in a way, right, they were paying my salary, I didn’t have that much risk in it. Certainly I was like earning under market because it was a startup, but I was learning a ton. And so that the combination of all those experiences was super helpful. So that when I went to start print with me, I already had a lay of the land of like, financing fundraising, what, you know, common pitfalls that some of those founders have fallen into with, whether that’s building their product, or dealing with fundraising, and investors, right? So it was four years of incredible learning, you know, from the startup land all the way through grub hub. And I would encourage anybody who wants to eventually become a founder, if you haven’t already to get some sort of experience as an employee at a smaller firm. Right? As as early as you can. I would encourage that. And, yeah, I’ve taken a lot of that with me even to this day.
Yeah, so it’s interesting, Jonathan, I remember if I think back to when we first met, one of the things that really stood out to me was just kind of your, your sort of more pragmatic view on raising capital. If we go a little bit deeper down that path. It certainly like immediately just like kind of clicked for me as a founder who bootstrapped a company you know, some some level of success and I think there’s just like Eat this echo chamber and venture capital and startup laying that it’s sort of like, you get on the train, and you just raise round after round. And it’s sort of like the tech media just celebrates, you know, these markups and these more dilution and more dilution. And I think it’s almost unhealthy in a way of, of, you know, the way the VC industry kind of like, almost like, perpetuates this sort of like myth about building a company. And I think I’ve really respected Can you talk a little bit more about your sort of mindset with how you funded the business, getting it going, and now scaling it?
Yeah, happy to I, I’m very passionate about this topic. As an early employee, pre IPO employee at grubhub, I was given some stock options. So I’ll start there. And that was, I think that was great that the founders still allowed early employees, I was like, employee 500, something. I was definitely not early, but they pre IPO, every employee still had a grant of options. And a year later, I was there on IPO day, I was still full time there. We all were in the money essentially. Right. And, and in a big way, I think the IPO popped. And incredibly the first day, certainly a lot of my peers who had been there many years were way, way better off than I was. But this was a modest, you know, a modest gain for me early in my career. And it is true what they say that when a when a tech darling in a community IPOs or exits and, and it’s a good exit, a meaningful one a big one, a lot, it creates a whole class of new founders, right. And they’re, I know, several who’ve gone on and founded new things after that, and, and so the liquidity was great. Again, I don’t want to overstate this, it was very modest. But for me, it was the working capital for bootstrapping print with me for the first six months, before I started raising some funds from friends, I’ll start with that, I think that’s important to reiterate, like being an early employee, getting those options can actually be life, life altering, I won’t say changing. And then I’d say my philosophy in the early days of Chrome with me, so like your, the first two years was to just raise enough funding to reach certain milestones, right, just enough to kind of keep validating that this is indeed a good business. Because when I first started with me, I went in with eyes very wide open, that this may not work out, this has a high likelihood of failing, actually, and I have no idea if consumers will actually pick up on this. So I said, I told myself, I was like, I’m gonna give this three months, if I don’t see any traction, after putting alpha test printers in a few public places, I’m just cutting the cord and moving on to my next idea, right, I was 26, I had nothing to lose, which is another critical part of being a founder, you really need to be be okay to like not earn any money, or it’s better if you have less to lose or lower lifestyle at that point. And I certainly had a pretty humble lifestyle at that point. And so I just figured it I bootstrapped for four or five months, just paying the developers on my pocket, I’m still working part time at grub hub, right? I luckily, they, they were able to reduce my hours to like 20 hours, which gave me enough money to pay my bills, and invest some of that money into into print with me. And there came a time where we had bought a bunch of printers, we wanted to increase our, our velocity for developers. So I wanted to hire a third developer contractor at the time. And I was like, no, what I should raise some money, I could really use some more more funding here. So I started going to friends first, and a good friend of mine from study abroad, wrote the first check in like December that year, so about five months in. And then another acquaintance from the light bank portfolio wrote another check after that, and another college friend wrote one of my former boss So in the first six months of fundraising, I just raised 50 grand from, you know, on a convertible note, and it was like such a shoddy convertible note that probably had tons of mistakes in it. But we ended up you know, converting that into equity with the first price round about a year and a half later, but that was it 50 grand to just fund more development and more printers. And again, bring me to a milestone where I would decide whether it was gaining enough traction to continue even further, you know, that end up being not very diluted at all, but enough capital how we could prove that. And then, at the same time, I was getting great mentorship from one person in particular comes to mind rasio bouza, who’s the founder and CEO of fouda Buta Inc. in Chicago, they do pop up restaurants in, typically office buildings. And they’ve grown an incredible business. And he’s a light bank veteran as helped two or three of the light band companies go public. And he was telling me early on throughout my early days tinkering with print with me, he was saying, you know, I wouldn’t raise that much money. I try to bootstrap as much as you can retain ownership. Right. And, you know, he didn’t think the print with me was a business that was really set up for venture rounds of funding, like ABCD, etc. And I think he was probably right. And I’m happy that I I raised in dribs and drabs slowly, because I still retain majority ownership today, and majority control. Importantly, and I could have easily gone away had I been enamored with the venture cycle of raising so many rounds, and you know, giving up more board seats losing control, right? That stuff is scary. I mean, you know, I’ll jump forward a little bit to when we did raise our first price round, it was August 2016, that we got the first term sheet. And, to his credit, Jeff meters, network ventures, was one of the only VCs in Chicago that would take a deep look at permits me bear with me scared off most other VC is what a printing company right? As it as I totally understand it would, right. And he got in the numbers, our traction saw, saw the growing revenue that each kiosk was making, like, wow, this is actually a good business, great margins. at scale, it can be a meaningful business, a decent size, exit, you know, medium to large. And he said, you know, I’ll do a term sheet. So we did that. And thankfully, right I, and I’m saying this to help maybe other founders that end up in this position. And, Robin, I know you’re a VC now, so I hope you hope you don’t, don’t mind me like giving some advice the other side of the table, but you’ve been on both sides. So I’m sure you don’t mind. Like I got great mentorship from two of these people that I looked up to when I was reviewing that term sheet. And both rasio and Mike Evans, a co founder of grub hub, when we were reviewing it together, they were like, you, you cannot give up a third board seat right now, right? Like the term sheet initially said, One investor board seat, my board seat, and then an independent third. And this was like a pre seed round. And they were like, No, no, no, you can’t do that. That’s crazy pants. So of course, I pushed back on that. And they, their advice was optimized for control over valuation. So I gave up the point on valuation, it was still a decent valuation for where we were at the time. And I but I was firm on retaining two out of three board seats. And to this day, I have so at I mean, I tell you, five years later, if I had if I hadn’t had that advice, or I’d gone the other way on that I would have many more sleepless nights because, you know, there’s there’s another group of people a board that could technically asked you, whenever, you know, they think that’s that’s the right call. And that can happen and does happen a lot of founders. So you know, I’m very happy for that for that advice. Now on raising capital in dribs and drabs, oh, I’ll continue, I raised that round, it was just 500k in new funding, all the previous notes converted in for equity, the post post money was like 3.1 on that. And then that was enough, again, to kind of validate that I could build an early sales team, we’d continue to get traction, some sales efficiency, get ready for maybe an A, well, we didn’t hit quite all those metrics. In the first year I struggled with hiring I made some poor hiring choices. And nevertheless, we were still growing, we actually tripled that year, but it wasn’t like what I wanted it to be, we’re able to go raise a seed two, which is definitely a thing now. And we’re it was an up around, I think,
an 8 million posts. And, and that, you know, was another I think, in fresh capital that was another like 900 at the time. And I was like, Alright, well, this might all be all we need to really get a sales team in place that can harm and, and prove the model and that ended up being true, I only needed that. It gave me another year and a half of burn, right? hiring and getting getting the team more efficient. And then we we reached profitability a couple years down the road and didn’t really need to raise again and You know, certainly it’s slower. It’s a slower path. It’s not for everybody. It’s not for every business, right? I, you know, the venture path makes sense for a lot of businesses, but not for my business, and certainly not at the time.
So when you’re talking about like raising, and like setting these milestones, you also talked about, like, kind of like a friends and family round going to people, you know, so were you matching up? Were you like setting the milestone first, figuring out what you needed, and then setting the amount? Or were you kind of gauging how much capital you can expect to raise, and then readjusting what milestones you can hit with that capital expectation?
Yeah, that’s a great question. I’m not even sure I can remember exactly what my thought process was. Go back now, five, four years, you know, I think, I think it was, well,
maybe just knowing what you know, now. Like, maybe if you can’t remember, like, instead of the chicken and egg quandary we could get into right now, if you had to devise somebody, what what would you tell them?
Yeah, I think I would advise to go the former route that you described, which is, pick your milestones like, what do you want to validate with, with your funding and figure out what you need? Yeah, figure out, like, what your use of funds will be? Like, do you really need 10 sales reps? Or can you validate with three? Right? All right, well, three is a lot cheaper than hiring 10 sales reps, right? Do you need five engineers or can you get by with to really try to i, in my opinion, validate with a small team as possible, because then you don’t have to raise as much at such a low valuation and dilute as much. But also, like, more money, more problems, right, you raise a $3 million pre seed, you’re going to have a ton of stress trying to hire up to to meet like, the expected burn on that in like six months, you’re, you’re gonna make hiring mistakes, these are gonna feel time pressure, you know, go slow in those early days. Unless, of course, you there are certainly exceptions where like, if you’re really on to something that can be a massive market opportunity, like 10s of billions and like, you know, someone who’s gonna copy right away, or somebody else is going to, or there already are competitors, you gotta go fast, right? And that’s, that’s where raising a lot of money and trying to blitzscale make sense where it’s a winner takes all are most market. And if you don’t act quickly, a competitor will, will take it right. I think that’s where, where you have to, but for a business like mine, where I didn’t see any competitors coming after us. And still, to this day, there really aren’t any, like, I didn’t have that time pressure.
It’s so interesting. And I just love I couldn’t agree more. It’s interesting. So on episode four, we had my new con from Twin Cities bass field nation, which is huge breakout success that the story isn’t very well known because we did this sort of friends and family round with my new Alcon he was sort of my brother’s computer science lab partner at St. Cloud state and central Minnesota. You know, he skipped all the subsequent funding rounds, no seed round, no way around, no, no, maybe not even a B round. And then he raised like 30 million after bootstrapping for seven years. And the weird thing about my news story, in his category, there were several direct competitors that raised far more money and ended up just flaming out. And actually one case, he acquired the company, it was just like, this is why we have the execution is king podcast, not be blitzscale and raise the most money you can podcast, because it very much it speaks exactly to the core of our beliefs, which is, you know, it really execution matters the most. And I think it even matters and even in cases where there are competitors, multiple competitors, even some with a lot more capital, you know, stronger execution with the right strategy will kind of Trump the capital all day long, right? I believe that it definitely is a little more nerve wracking as a founder, when you start, you know, having a more direct competitive pressure and in there, you know, maybe categories where there, there’s just a lot more capital flowing into it. But even then, like, I think my new is a great example. So I think that’s probably why like, this sort of mindset you had is very much aligned with my own, you know, in terms of just capital efficiency. And I think there’s also this being cognizant of the overall competitive landscape like you described, like that. It’s just so important. So I know, obviously, you know, if we fast forward to today, you know, growing the company is gone from like, will the idea work? You know, scaling and scaling, of course, means expanding the team. Can you talk a little bit about, you know, some of your lessons learned in terms of recruiting and building up your team and maybe we can dive into that for the last part of the podcast here?
Oh, absolutely. Yep. And I mentioned it earlier, but I made a bunch of hiring Mistakes after my first like large round of raising and which was 500k. And so it was it was actually the investor, the lead investor Jeff gave me a book on recruiting after that he was like, you should probably read this book. I was like, Okay, great. So I read it. And it was cool by Jeff smart. And that’s like one of the classic recruiting books out there. And about a year later, I picked up another book by Jeff Hyman called recruit Rockstar. So those two books have formed the backbone of our recruiting process, I’ve just taken their processes and kind of melded them together in a way that I think makes sense. And I hate
to interrupt yet, but I don’t want to get too far away from this. You dangle that out there. And I just got to ask without naming any names. What was your worst recruiting mistake?
Worst recruiting mistake? I think so hiring a couple of people at the same time who had fantastic like results on paper in sales roles, but were toxic for culture. So really, like just looking out for themselves to money motivated? Yeah, like all about themselves and not not willing to care about the team or the company. So that was so so I shortcutted the the interview process with those, those two people and it was disastrous for the culture, right, a couple other good people left because they were there and, you know, so that set me back a few months in the middle in the middle of this whole journey. But that was a lesson I you know, definitely learned and avoided that mistake after that. But yeah, that’s a it’s a great question. I made plenty of mistakes, I think I’ve made every recruiting mistake you could possibly make. But that one stands out as the worst in terms of impact on the company. And so I started getting building a process with these books. And and also like, you just build muscle for this right over time, you you get more confident in recruiting and interviewing and, you know, the imposter syndrome goes away a year into it maybe of recruiting and, and so I’ve learned a lot and even even from Jeff hymens podcast recruit rockstars, where he takes he brings on entrepreneurs, and they talk about recruiting, and lessons learned. I mean, I’ve learned so much from there, too. So now I feel like we have a really good process. But it’s so important. Nope, it was a lesson for me. Pretty pretty early on in the entrepreneur journey that I can’t do everything right, I, I find myself to be pretty bright, and like, adept at many different things. I like back in a year into starting print with me. I was like, I had my hands on everything, right? I was leading the tech development, I was leading the operational side I was selling I was like, marketing, I was doing everything. And I loved it, because I like doing a lot of different things. But at a certain point can’t can’t just scale like that. Right? And, and that, and I thought it would be kind of easy to hire people and just have them do the roles. But no, you know, you got to find great people for each role. And that was like, a learning opportunity for me, right? I think it was 28 when we started trying to hire people and at scale, and you know, and so that like learning how to identify strong talent for a role. Also make sure that the talent matches your culture that you’re trying to build for the company. Understanding like the difference between an entrepreneurial employee and somebody who works at a large company that needs so much structure and process around them and just gonna just flounder in your crazy mess of a startup, like, these are hard lessons learned. And I hope founders can avoid those mistakes by being very thoughtful about it and deliberate and listening to other founders who have gone through those same exact problems.
How do you how do you really like, ensure that they have the right personality? How do you how do you go through and like, I mean, it’s not like you give them like the Myers Briggs personality test are, you know, is it just a matter of the interview process and getting a lot of the right people on your team involved with talking to them?
Well, we do actually give a culture survey I’d call it which is a 10 minute questionnaire, and it’s called the culture index. And that is similar to Myers Briggs. It tells us at a high level, where an applicant falls on five or six different spectra of personality. So how driven they are right the competitive atop like seeking risk and autonomy, how socially our extroverted, introverted and in a way, how urgent they are versus more like methodical and Slow, and then how like detail oriented and conscientious they are, it’s been around for a while, it’s a derivative of like the five factor test, and like many people have written about it. And I use it religiously to this day. And so it is one data point among many in the interview process, and helps us get more comfortable with the idea of a person in a role and you figure out what archetypes and patterns you want for each role, and you try to make sure that your applicants match at least match majority of those spectra. So love that test that was introduced to me in 2018 by an investor who literally wrote a check for us to go get trained on it, like a five figure, check. He just wrote it. For me, it was like a gift. I was like, wow. But you know, that has been so game changing for the company that I’m sure he’s he’s, you know, it’s kind of like, he’s was protecting his investment, because he he probably also saw the hiring mistakes I was making. I was like, you gotta you got to go through this training, and use this test.
What What was the name of the test? I wrote down? culture index test. Is that the name of it?
Yeah, the culture index? Yep. Yeah, they’re, they’ve been around for, like 20 years. And there’s a great team at UT Dallas, I’m happy to put any founders that are interested in touch with with their leadership in Dallas. I’ll give my contact info after the show. But you know, it was transformative. I’m a junkie on that now. And it is, it’s really, it gives you a reference point that you you can’t even imagine for assessing candidates versus like the, the traits that you really need in a role. Now, that’s just one thing. You also have to test? Do they vibe with your culture? Like, if you’re trying to build a very Hustle, Hustle, Hustle culture? That’s like 70 hours, 80 hours a week? Well, are they willing to do that? Are they excited by that? Is that is that are they at a point in their career where they can do that, I was never trying to do that with all my employees. Since day one, I’ve expected just 40 hours a week, because we can get a lot done in 40 hours. And we we do I mean, I work I work a little bit more than that. But we’re, we’re still growing exponentially. You know it with a reasonable culture, they’re not not a crazy 7080 hour week culture. But you know, I realize some startups it’s, that’s, that’s what they want. And there’s good reason for it. In some cases.
I think that’s really interesting and kind of macro perspective, you know, our company’s scaled to 170 employees. And my brother Ryan, kind of, we were twin brothers, he ran kind of product engineering team and I, everything else kind of, for periods of time kind of rolled up to me. And so I think back to the way you evolved, your, your entrepreneur, your leadership style, sort of going out, studying the the areas, the best information available on certain processes, you knew you needed to scale your organization, and then bringing that into your business, on your own doing it on your own as an entrepreneur. And it goes something I remember, like in our sales organization, we got to several dozen people in our sales organization in my last company. And I think I read every, there’s all these different methods of selling, there’s like SPIN Selling solution, selling challenger sales, all these different methodologies. And I would just read up on all of them, I go, I think this would work best in our business. So we’re going to implement this. And then the next step was running a sales training workshop. And we’re creating case studies based on the book, you know, for this methodology that is completely built for our business. And it was like, and I thought it worked really well. There’s this sort of attention to detail on scaling, the organization, the onboarding that went into it. And, you know, even down to like an onboarding checklist for like, the first 30 days in an employee. There’s just I know, I was listening to your podcast interview on recruit rockstars. And you talked about, you know, the importance of strong onboarding, I think that’s something many startups, you know, really fail at, quite frankly, though, especially in the positions where, you know, you’re going to add a lot of staff. You know, it’s so critical. The early experience and employee has made me talk a little bit about like, you know, beyond recruiting like the onboarding experience, and some of the things you’ve learned as you guys have been building up the business.
Yeah, sure. So you, you hit the nail on the head. onboarding is very important. We’ve, I learned the hard way I had a couple people that I just kind of threw to the wolves and just said, Hey, can you go figure this stuff out, and that they didn’t last long, and that was my fault, right? But I learned some wisdom from Jeff in his book to take onboarding very seriously. So I started there a couple years back, I built an onboarding checklist of things that I think every employee approved with me should know. And you know, it’s it’s the nuts and bolts of like, systems, getting getting all your tech stuff on boarded obviously that’s going to be There, but also like, how we communicate what are our communication guidelines and standards? And what are our okrs? What does our OKR system look like we do objectives, key results, like the measure what matters, but we have every employee read the measure what matters book. So that’s part of the onboarding checklist. So we we try to be just as good about onboarding people into our culture as we do the nuts and bolts of the systems in the company and also like the knowledge for their specific domain or the role. Both of those things are very important. I we now have the good fortune of having two people in HR lead recruiter and then kind of an HR recruiter hybrid. And now that HR hybrid is onboarding people, and has a checklist and you know, he’s there, buddy, for for onboarding. But early on, it was all me, right? When you’re a 10 person company, you’re the founder, you’re doing everything. But like you said, Rob, I, I would read tons of books, I still, there’s there’s a bookshelf at our office in Chicago, where I dumped all my books before I moved to Denver last year, and it’s like, filled, it was probably 100 books on startups selling marketing, tech development. I mean, you name it, I think that’s another key point for aspiring founders is you have to be a voracious learner. You have to be humble enough to realize you, you don’t know everything yet. Which I, I’m not sure I was quite there at 26, I kind of learned the hard way. I need to level up a lot of skills in my late 20s. But you know, you really can if you’re open to learning and curious and you’re seeking it, you can find so much wisdom in any topic by just reading a book, and then bringing it to your business and saying, alright, this sounds great for my business. The next day, you incorporate it into your process, and you’re able to do that as a founder, right? Like there isn’t red tape, which is great. Your your employees might have whiplash if you’re doing that too much. So you can’t be a book of the week person but you got to, I think there’s a balance you can you could do it reasonably in a way that is beneficial for the org.
One of the other managing partners are great and adventures is Rob’s twin brother Ryan, co hosts other episodes. He is fantastic at producing book recommendations for me, I don’t know how many of his I have behind me on the shelf, but several and the last time I we were in person, I saw Rob and Rob recommended a book to me that I’m actually already currently reading a Clayton Christensen book. It was just fantastic. We are running out of time here though. I want to make sure we get in our last question. I like to ask every one of the guests on our podcast, this question focused, we’re focused on execution. And we like recognizing people who can do that it might not always be the flashiest people who are getting that recognition. So is there somebody, maybe it’s a team or a startup or a single person that’s really executing that maybe they’re flying under the radar, maybe they’re not maybe they’re deservedly, very popular, but someone that you’ve seen or startup that we should be paying attention to.
I’ll say I’m again, I always and I will always say this orazio bouza is probably the best operator I’ve ever met. And I’ve met a lot. And you know, just to give you a sense, so he he’s skilled three or four light band companies and food is is now an awesome success in Chicago. But I think he told me once and he wasn’t trying to brag, but he was just kind of explaining, like how he does budgeting. And he, he had set lot, you know, pretty ambitious projections for fouda in the early days when their fundraising and you know, some investors were passing on on a couple of his rounds, they just didn’t think it was for them. It wasn’t software enough. But then he would go back to them a year later. And he would show them the new projections. And they would see that he actually hit the ambitious projections. And they were like, no one ever does that. No one ever hits their startup rejections, but he actually does and I’ve learned a ton from him. He he, he’s probably the best. I mean, I can’t think of another so he is the best executer that I’ve ever met. So I’m happy to make an intro to try to help you guys get him on the podcast at some point.
Yeah, that’d be cool. Sounds great. Well, thanks a lot, Jonathan for joining us today. It’s been a pleasure.
pleasures all mine. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation. And yeah, good luck. Continuing with the podcast is a great idea.
By Pradip Madan, Ryan Weber, and Rob Weber
In the US, several tech ecosystems have become centers of tech innovation in addition to the much-vaunted Silicon Valley. Silicon Alley is in NYC; Austin is known as Silicon Hills; Silicon Mountain includes Boulder, Colorado Springs, Denver and Fort Collins; Silicon Forest is in the Greater Portland region; and Silicon Prairie covers Omaha, Des Moines, and Kansas City (depending on who you ask). But what about the upper Midwest? Can it rightfully be called “Silicon Lakes”?
The ‘Silicon’ brand has not only spread through the US, but has also found limited purchase overseas, as in Silicon Wadi in Israel. More importantly, the essence of Silicon Valley has become rooted in various international regions, including the thriving tech ecosystems of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Beijing, Cheng-du, and Dalian in China; Bangalore, Pune, and Hyderabad in India; Haifa, Israel; Tsukuba, Japan; Suwon, Korea; and Hsinchu, Taiwan.
On a smaller scale, innovation hubs are also springing up from Barcelona to Buenos Aires and Paris to Johannesburg, and can be found near universities and in buildings repurposed as co-location centers for innovative tech companies.
The “Silicon” Recipe
So, what is the essence of Silicon Valley? How do you define the nature of innovative regions and hubs, beyond the “Silicon” brand? By identifying the nature of particular attributes across these hubs including culture, talent, capital, and collaboration, we can begin to see common characteristics, and what it takes to form a successful innovation hub.
First, you need the right culture. This attribute is best characterized by the culture Intel established in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Key traits include openness, transparency, and optimism combined with discipline, inclusion, talent and meritocracy; clear shared goals with an emphasis on value creation and collaboration; a platform to succeed with a permission to fail, and the resilience and acceptance to repeat despite failure.
At Intel, there are open cubicles for Intel’s rank and file alike, including the CEO. Measurable individual key objectives are shared with colleagues, as is encouragement to push the edge. The employees are a cultural cornucopia, including the best new college graduates (NCGs) hired from the best schools. These employees manifested the culture, and while Intel was not unique in creating it, its powerful brand did a lot to popularize it.
Today, this culture is multiplied across the many unicorns and the thousands of successful tech companies, from startups to mid-sized enterprises, that make up Silicon Valley.
2. Talent and Capital
On a physical level, the proximity of academic centers such as Stanford University and UC-Berkeley provide a fountainhead of talent and ideas in Silicon Valley. Stanford’s contribution to the development of Silicon Valley is particularly well-known and can be characterized as a successful pairing of advanced engineering and commercialization.
Commercialized advancements begat wealth, and now Silicon Valley is decades into significant wealth creation. This wealth and entrepreneurial thinking has led to a ready flow of risk capital, the availability of which is another key attribute of innovation hubs.
Complex problems benefit collaborative thinking, which benefits from diverse experiences. For many years, the complex problems of the human body have required in vitro testing of single molecular pathways for several months, testing in mouse models for 1+ years, and in clinical trials for more than 1-2 years. Realizing the need to accelerate this process by examining multiple variables at the same time, and that computational methods ranging from vertical search to structural biology could accelerate insights, Stanford University established Bio-X in 2003 as a center for interdisciplinary collaboration between the computational and life sciences.
The Innovation Ecosystem as a Rainforest
In his book “The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley”, author Victor Hwang delves into the ingredients for a healthy “innovation ecosystem”. He uses the rainforest as a metaphor to identify the success factors for tech entrepreneurship: a natural eco-system in which abundant species thrive based on autonomy, symbiosis, and survival of the fittest as core principles.
“However, the key to the mystery of Silicon Valley is the software. And that software works like a ‘rainforest’—an ecosystem that thrives because its many elements combine to create new and unexpected flora and fauna. Those elements thrive through rapid mixing, just as they do in a natural biological system.” – Victor Hwang, in Forbes
The Rainforest Thrives in the Valley
The companies in Silicon Valley largely embody the above practices. A hundred miles away in any direction, in Central Valley, in Wine Country, or in Pebble Beach/Monterey, the atmosphere changes tangibly, and the regions are untouched by tech concepts and unicorns. It is not that the communities are deliberately or inalterably different, it’s simply that the awareness of these cultural attributes has not been as powerful or pervasive, or to put it colloquially, it’s not ‘in the air and water’. The same transitions exist around most other “Silicon” ecosystems or innovation hubs.
… But Takes Root in any “Silicon” Soil
What made an impact at Intel was the investments its legendary CEO, Andy Grove, personally made in training, writing books, giving lectures, taking the time to teach new college grad employees, and promoting concepts such as measurable goals, transparency, and constructive confrontation. Similar cultural emphases at companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple help drive innovation today, while the many opportunities to mingle at conferences, meetups and BarCamps, (where like-minded engineers share ideas and solve problems), and the proliferation of open courseware, enable innovation to thrive on a much larger scale.
We instilled these principles in the open workspaces in our own past company, located in three places: St. Cloud, Minneapolis (in the repurposed Grain Exchange), and in San Francisco. Commingling the Midwestern values of the founders with the lessons of Silicon Valley’s success experienced by our Board members, we created a culture of entrepreneurial success.
The open work environment of the co-working space Fueled Collective, in the historic Grain Exchange building, downtown Minneapolis. Where grain was once traded, ideas are currency.
Conversely, is there evidence that policy-based institutions do not have impact? Look around Silicon Valley for unicorns traceable to policy-based cause-and-effect. The city governments of Santa Clara (Intel headquarters), Cupertino (Apple Headquarters), Palo Alto (HP and Tesla headquarters), Mountain View (Google headquarters), or Menlo Park (Facebook headquarters) have not been the agents of change.
So, does that mean policy-driven innovation hubs do not succeed? We believe that policy-based initiatives (ultra-high-speed broadband, net neutrality, etc.) are important enablers, but without entrepreneurial zeal, they are never enough, and ultimately wither. Relatively speaking, regions such as China have benefited from the visible hand of policy initiatives, but in the end, even there, the invisible hand of entrepreneurship has been the necessary ingredient.
The upper Midwest has the culture, the talent, and the capital to be an innovation hub. It has interdisciplinary collaboration – but it can use more. At Great North Labs we are working closely with St. Cloud State University and other local organizations to foster a similar ecosystem of interdisciplinary collaboration. We work with private and corporate LPs to seed startups in the upper Midwest, using the shared knowledge of our advisors and contacts to facilitate their success. We also educate, participate in events, and promote connections in the local tech communities. Our aim is to create a powerful innovation ecosystem in this region and connect it to the larger community of “Silicon” geography around the world. Welcome to Silicon Lakes!