As one of the first investors in Amazon.com, Tom Alberg has been an active participant in the Seattle area’s tech industry for decades. He talks about those years, Amazon and investing in risky startups.
When Tom Alberg moved back to Seattle from New York in 1968, the biggest technology company in town was Boeing. A few medical-tech companies were on the horizon, but none had popped into view. Microsoft had yet to be dreamed up, and South Lake Union was free of towers.
The young Alberg took a job at Perkins Coie, the Seattle law firm. He was there when Advanced Technology Laboratories knocked on the door, asking Perkins to take a chance on providing legal counsel to the ultrasound-technology company.
Alberg, now 75, persuaded his law firm to take a look at that early technology company, just as he became someone who took a chance on dozens of tech businesses over the years since. Alberg co-founded the region’s largest venture-capital firm, Madrona Venture Group, and was one of the first investors in what has become a dominant force across the world — Amazon.com.
Co-founder of Madrona Venture Group
Past jobs: Executive vice president of McCaw Cellular Communications, partner at Perkins Coie
Education: Ballard High School class of 1958, Harvard College and Columbia Law School
Claim to fame: One of the first investors in Amazon.com
Madrona turns 20 years old this month. In the time since Alberg started the firm, Amazon has become a powerhouse, thousands of startups have sprung up in the city, and the region has cemented itself as a global leader in the technology industry.
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“It’s really been phenomenal what’s happened, obviously,” Alberg said.
But it wasn’t all grand successes. Madrona had just raised a $250 million fund when the tech bubble burst in the early 2000s. Several of the firm’s investments over the past two decades have failed. That’s just the way it works, Alberg says.
“I think if you’re doing venture investing, you have to be willing to take a risk, and you protect against that partly by not making two investments a year, but making eight investments a year,” he said.
The strategy has paid off. Madrona has been behind some of the region’s biggest growth stories, including Isilon, Appature and Redfin.
Alberg attracts some of the region’s most talented people and companies because of his own generosity, said Greg Gottesman, a longtime venture partner at Madrona and co-founder of startup studio Pioneer Square Labs.
“He leads in such a quiet and powerful way,” Gottesman said. “People want to work with Tom. When he says something, you really want to listen because it’s something that you haven’t thought of yet.”
The past two decades have transformed the region, Alberg said, and much more is coming our way.
Alberg sat down for an hourlong interview last week. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Q: How did you get interested in Amazon?
Alberg:I opened an office (with other Madrona co-founders Bill Ruckelshaus, Paul Goodrich and Jerry Grinstein). We were going to invest in companies, do some consulting. We were going to look at private equity, you know, big things. We looked at Russell (Investments). None of those ever worked out.
In ’95 people started walking in the door. And one was Jeff Bezos, who in 1995 was raising a million dollars. And another lawyer in town called me and said ‘Well Tom, you’re an expert on the Internet.’ I really wasn’t. But I was interested in it.
I was very skeptical. I mean, I like bookstores. They’re great places to hang out and browse.
I met with Jeff; I was very impressed, he was very smart, he had a very coherent business plan. I didn’t make a decision on the spot, it was, ‘Well, let’s see how it goes when you launch.’ And at some point I said, ‘I’ll invest but I want to make sure you raise the whole million dollars.’
I think I wrote the check in December and he closed then. That first one was $50,000.
Q: You seem to have developed a sense for when companies will be a success.
Alberg: I think we invest very early. So sometimes we’re too early. It’s about taking risk. You know some are going to fail, some are going to be moderate successes and I can’t exactly say how you know that some will be successful, but in fact they are.
You’re investing in things that have high growth potential. You’re both investing in the technology and various talented people.
Q: Are there some investments that have not worked out as well?
Alberg: One I always use as an example is HomeGrocer.
After Amazon, we were having some pretty good successes, and that was a hot era, too. HomeGrocer came along and it sounded interesting. So we invested and even lost our entire investment along with a bunch of other people.
But my point on it always is that if you don’t invest in some things like HomeGrocer, then you’re not going to invest in some things like Amazon.
Q: Startup founders often say that they need to leave the region to find funding. Are we missing some venture-capital infrastructure?
Alberg: There’s much more funding, I would say, available in Silicon Valley. They’ve been at it a lot longer, there’s more venture funds, there’s more angel investors and probably more willing to write bigger checks.
The good news in Seattle is we really had a great growth of angel investing. I’m one of those who actually says there is a little shortage of venture capital in the Seattle area because Silicon Valley comes up here some on early stage (investing). But primarily they come up the next level … on what’s called the B round. But the gap is really filled between people like us and angels.
Q: Is it to the Seattle area’s detriment that it doesn’t have as many early VC funds?
Alberg: It doesn’t seem to be hurting. … I think we could use some more, (but) I don’t think it’s a crisis.
Q: Do you think the companies that are headquartered here are contributing enough back to the local community?
Alberg: I think there’s always more that can be done, but I think the companies are doing a lot. The technology engine is making a lot of good things possible in Seattle.
There’s no question there are transportation problems, there are homeless problems, housing and mostly education problems, I think, in the K-12 system.
But it’s also the jobs that have been created, high-paying jobs, the continuing growth — it does provide the city wealth to do things.
I actually don’t think the $15 wage would work — and there are economists who agree — in cities that are poor. It will work in Seattle … but I think it’s only possible in a city that’s wealthy.
Q: What are issues that need to be addressed?
Alberg: I think the one place that a lot of tech people are really concerned about is education, K-12 education. I mean, we should have the best public schools (in the country) and we don’t.
I think we need some radical steps and my two radical steps are: Transfer the control of the Seattle school district to the mayor and City Council, like (in) many other urban cities.
Q: What did you think of The New York Times piece on Amazon’s “brutal” workplace culture?
Alberg: I thought it was very bad journalism. And I just think they sort of had a theme that they promoted. I think there’s been a lot of controversy over whether they did a fair piece.
I think there’s not a question that people at Amazon work very hard. I think you are going to have poor managers at any organization, and people need to uncover that and take action. I think companies work at that, but so it’s just too bad it wasn’t a more insightful article to get at the issues.
Q:Do you think that’s going to affect people that may have been considering working at Amazon?
Alberg: I don’t think it affects the hiring. Amazon and Microsoft are not places for everybody. You do have to recognize you’re going to be working really hard, you’re in an intense thing that’s very intellectually challenging as well as stimulating.
It sort of undercuts their whole story that if Amazon was so bad why would people go to work there? I mean Jeff said himself, ‘I wouldn’t want to go work at that company if that’s the way it is.’
Q: Where is Seattle’s tech industry heading?
Alberg: I do think we are in a great spot. The technology future — and a lot of the job future — is really going to be driven by this technology engine.
In terms of economy and jobs, it’s really going to be driven now globally by cloud computing, the Internet and mobile. And Seattle is so well positioned to be a leader.