One of my favorite aspects of the tech industry is that behind the noise, the tweets, the press headlines, there’s a depth of operator-founders who build amazing, lasting and valuable companies. My friend Russ Fradin is one of those people and my bet is that most of the folks who read my blog don’t know Russ. He’s currently cofounder/CEO of Dynamic Signal which helps companies involve their employees in enterprise social media – he calls it an “OS for advocacy.”
Hunter: You’ve founded and/or been a key executive at companies which total more than $4b of valuation and while you’re well-networked, you stay out of press headlines. Intentional strategy?
Russ Fradin: I wouldn’t say I try to avoid press. I just don’t generally start / work at the kinds of companies that get a ton of press and I don’t particularly prioritize it. I also tend to avoid networking events so I probably do not have as many good friends in the press as others who have been at it as long as I. For some reason I have always been turned off by the self-promotion founders do in an effort to get coverage. I generally try to get press coverage around our company and the success our clients have with our products.
I am extremely proud of what we have built at Dynamic Signal. We have invented a category and are the clear leader in it. We have amazing blue chip clients who love our service and over time we will get more and more press around that. It’s the same thing we did at Adify. I think TechCrunch only covered Adify once and it was the day we sold the company. comScore was similar, nobody wrote about us for YEARS. comScore had the great advantage of data as a product so over time we were able to foster amazing relationships with the press thanks to the data.
Any reporters who want to write about a really nice guy who starts enterprise companies that have been successful, has a great wife and great kids feel free to reachout, I promise not to avoid you!
HW: “Serial entrepreneur” gets thrown around the valley a lot but often applied to people who’ve founded lots of companies without any meaningful exists. Do we celebrate ‘starts’ too much without regard for putting in the time it takes to build and lead at scale?
RF: I’m not sure we really celebrate starts vs long term success and execution, I simply think there is a need to create content in the blogging / twitter world and there is always something new starting. There’s nothing more exciting than when you hear a great idea from someone early on. The vision for how they plan to change the world is amazing and worthy of some coverage. Of course most things fail and things that succeed take forever. People know that and that’s why as much as there is a ton of coverage around serial entrepreneurs who keep starting things, you rarely see someone get a lot of long term coverage who hasn’t actually built one (or more) companies that were truly successful.
HW: Dynamic Signal is the 3rd company you’ve founded. Do you get better each time as a founder? What are some examples of things you’re doing differently this time around?
RF: I hope so! Before I was founder / CEO, I was lucky enough to be a really early member and senior executive of two companies that were ultimately each worth >$1B so it was wonderful to have a lot of learning before starting anything myself. One of the things I am fond of saying is that companies mostly fail for a variety of boring reasons. The nice thing is with experience you can avoid many of those pitfalls. Off the bat, when you have returned a ton of money to VCs it is easier to raise money. That’s always nice because many entrepreneurs can’t raise enough capital to build what they want. Second, tons of companies fail because even though they have a nugget of a good idea and some money they can’t actually recruit a team. Again, here I am fortunate to have multiple people I’ve been working with for 15+ years. So it isn’t just that I’ve gotten better, we’ve all gotten better. My team today is 65 people. Half of the executive team is new to my company and are some of the best people I’ve ever worked with. The other half is a group of people I have worked with for 8, 9, 14 and 18 years respectively and think are amazing. That is a huge advantage.
I’d say this time around for a specific example, we have been extremely focused on growing our relationships with our customers. At Adify we had a phenomenal idea and got the product to market quickly. We were growing like crazy but in retrospect I think I placed too high a priority on signing new deals vs. growing existing relationships. That ultimately caused me to miss a few giant opportunities in the AdTech space. I was so focused on our successful first product that I completely missed the additional things our clients were begging us to build. Though Adify had a big outcome it could have been a lot bigger and I will not make that particular mistake again.
HW: I’ve always been impressed by your read of people – just good intuition or do you have specific questions you ask them – or yourself – when deciding whether to hire someone?
RF: That’s nice of you to say! I like very smart people who work hard and hold themselves to a high standard. As long as you have that you’re fine with me. We don’t need to be friends, go to dinner, hangout or anything like that, you just have to work hard, be extremely competent and low politics / bullshit. My favorite two things about startups are the ability to handpick your team and the lack of politics. The handpicking the team is great because, as I said above, companies mostly fail for a variety of boring reasons so the better your team the lower the chances of that happening. It is extremely rare for extraordinary companies to be run by bad teams.
My interviews are extremely conversational. If you are interviewing to work in a senior position on my team we are probably going to spend a few hours together in a variety of situations talking about all sorts of things. I do like to ask people things about what they are proudest of in their life, their biggest work accomplishment, things like that.
HW: You’re also a pretty successful angel investor (TubeMogul, udemy, etc). What’s your motivation for staying involved in this scene given all your other priorities?
RF: I’ve probably invested in 35 companies in the last 5 years or so. Some have been enormously successful, others have failed quickly and badly. I have a few motivations. First, I really love meeting and working with entrepreneurs. You learn a ton. Take TubeMogul and comScore, I am a Board Director at both companies. I suspect if you asked both CEOs they would tell you I am a great Board member and really helpful. They probably do not know this but I honestly have gotten MUCH more from them than they have gotten from me. You learn a ton watching other smart people run their businesses. I had a similar experience with Udemy, I was one of the first angel investors and was the first outside Board member. I got to watch the company grow from nothing to the giant success it is today, learn about marketplaces, online education, hiring a development team outside the US, etc… I know they got a lot from me but I’ve gotten just as much from them. Second, from a purely financial perspective I’m extremely unlikely to outperform the market from a public standpoint because I don’t know anything about it compared to professional money managers at mutual funds or hedge funds. On the private side I have proprietary knowledge and access so it’s a better allocation of capital.
On top of that it is nice to give back and be helpful to entrepreneurs. It’s why I also do things like mentor at the Founders Institute in addition to investing. But again, there is only so much time in the day…