This Bill Bryant is not a politician, he isn’t running for governor and he’s not the one on campaign signs. Instead, this Bill Bryant is a veteran venture capitalist with an accomplished track record and his finger on the entrepreneurial pulse of Seattle and Silicon Valley.
In college, Bill Bryant bought aquariums, fish food and a strain of tropical fish for his friends. The arrangement was mutually beneficial, he said. He would sell the rare fish to specialty pet stores to make money, and his friends would have an interesting hook to intrigue the young women they were dating.
The plan had a perfect setup, until Bryant realized he had given the task of raising fish to too many friends.
“It got to the point,” he said, “where I had so many friends with aquariums producing so many fish that I was driving around town trying to sell to the tropical fish stores and they were saying ‘Look, we don’t need anymore.’ And I’d say, ‘No, no, you have to take them.’”
Title: Partner at DFJ Ventures
Early business: Importing and selling sunglasses with small AM radios built into the earpiece
Investments in Seattle: Chef, Remitly, Liquid Planner, Socrata
The fish, which he was selling for $100 a pair, ended up as food for piranhas.
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Bryant’s early failed business didn’t discourage the college entrepreneur who is now a venture capitalist in Seattle working as a partner for DFJ Venture, a Menlo Park, Calif., firm.
A Honolulu native who moved to Bellingham in middle school, he is not to be confused with the gubernatorial candidate of the same name — though the mix-up has become quite common.
Bryant and his wife, Laury, receive phone calls inviting them to various fundraising events, and his friends have started sending him pictures of yard signs for Bill Bryant, the Republican candidate, when traveling to Eastern Washington.
Bryant, who seems to take most things in stride, doesn’t mind much, though he’s looking forward to the end of the election. But he’s a Democrat, and will be voting for incumbent Gov. Jay Inslee.
The 58-year-old veteran venture capitalist doesn’t need the prominence the politician has brought to their shared name. He has carved out a name for himself in his decades in Seattle, first as an entrepreneur and now as a VC who has invested in some of the fastest-growing startups in the region.
Bryant is the only Seattle-based VC at a major Silicon Valley firm, a feat he says works only because he built a relationship with the DFJ team for several years before joining the company. Seattle used to be home to outposts of venture funds from other regions, but all pulled back after realizing, Bryant surmises, that it’s hard to keep an investing culture and mission that’s consistent when the partners aren’t in the same place most days.
Bryant sits on the board of mobile finance startup Remitly and cloud-technology company Chef in Seattle, as well as Reflect in Portland, Bright Computing in San Jose, Calif., and Yellowbrick in Palo Alto, Calif. As an angel investor, Bryant has also supported Seattle companies Socrata and LiquidPlanner.
He says he can tell within three minutes of meeting an entrepreneur if the company makes sense as a DFJ investment. That sense was developed through meetings with more than 5,000 entrepreneurs over the course of his career.
Some founders have the sort of ambition and scope and scale Bryant is looking for, regardless of what subsector of tech they operate in.
“What I get excited about is the entrepreneur’s personal vision and what they’re trying to accomplish,” he said.
That’s what drew Bryant to Remitly CEO Matt Oppenheimer, who came up with the idea for the remittances company after watching his friends struggle to send money home to their families while he was working in Kenya.
“His vision is around impacting on the lives of hundreds of millions of people,” Bryant said.
DFJ likes that sense of huge scope — that’s evident in its roster of investments, which includes Box, Twilio, Tesla and SpaceX.
“We take greater risks and we have higher expectations, perhaps,” Bryant said. “We won’t do very safe deals that we call ‘moneymakers.’ ”
He admires Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos for their ability to build companies over decades. His modern-day inspiration is Elon Musk — someone who believes in what he’s doing, and is known for being bold and working tirelessly, Bryant says.
He cultivates that kind of daring in his portfolio companies as well. One example is Barry Crist, CEO of Chef, whose early interaction with Bryant was when the investor suggested the cloud company expand its business to Europe in 2013, just after Crist became chief executive.
“He encouraged us to look at it much earlier than we would have,” Crist said. “It was really bucking the conventional wisdom.”
The expansion was a success and Bryant became the straightforward voice of a fellow entrepreneur whom Crist came to depend on in the board room. Bryant also pushed Chef to secure a partnership with Amazon Web Services before Amazon.com’s cloud-computing division was the dominant force it is today.
“He’s good at looking around corners and seeing the future from a technology standpoint,” Crist said.
Indeed, Bryant has been involved in several successful companies, including (as a founder) Visio, which was sold to Microsoft in 2000 for $1.5 billion in stock, and Qpass, which was bought by Amdocs in 2006 for $275 million.
Not all of his decisions have worked out.
Bryant once turned down an executive job at a young Amazon after seeing employees run around a warehouse full of metal shelves of books, compiling orders that came in via fax. It seemed to go against consumers’ natural experience of picking their own products and bringing them to a register, Bryant said.
“I just thought this will never work,” he said, laughing. “I declined to engage. Of course, that was a decision that was costly.”
But he also isn’t afraid to gamble when he believes an endeavor has a shot. Shortly after getting his doctorate from the University of Washington, Bryant and a few friends started Tidemark, which made a small printer for envelopes and mailing labels.
He didn’t have any luck drawing investments from the three venture funds in Seattle at the time, so Bryant set off to Sand Hill Road, Silicon Valley’s avenue of venture-capital funds. Not having a clue as to what he was doing, Bryant went door to door asking for meetings.
“Many of them said yes,” he said. “I think because it was so charming it was like, ‘Oh, man, this guy is such an idiot, he has no idea how this works. You’re supposed to be referred from someone.’ ”
But it did work — a young partner at InterWest Partners offered to give Tidemark $60,000 on the spot if the company moved to Silicon Valley.
Tidemark eventually failed and Bryant returned to the Northwest, itching to work on new startups. He did a stint at Aldus, where his wife worked. Entrepreneurship is evident in the family. Early in their careers Laury Bryant was part of the tech industry while her husband was still checking out biotechnology companies. For his first five years in tech, Bill Bryant says he was known as “Laury Bryant’s husband.”
After Aldus, Bryant was introduced to the early team of what would eventually become Visio, where he became head of sales and marketing. But as the company grew, he was replaced by a more seasoned executive. Bryant spent the next several years working on more startups, including writing the first business plan for photo-licensing agency Corbis.
His growing network and dabbling in angel investing eventually led to an introduction to partners from DFJ. Years later, in 2007, the firm asked Bryant to do some investing for it in Seattle.
Now he works from Seattle, where he and his wife raised four children, two of whom still live at home. Bryant applied his discipline to a new arena this year, and he and his twin 16-year-old sons earned their black belt in tae kwon do.
He regularly goes to DFJ’s headquarters and checks in on his portfolio companies in Silicon Valley. When he’s not working, he travels internationally and has visited more than 50 countries.
Bryant taps experiences from his entrepreneurial roots when working with CEOs and founders.
“I have lived through the ups and downs,” he said, “and know that success is never a straight path.”
Entrepreneurs involve him in more day-to-day scenarios than many other investors, and Bryant is pleased to keep working with them from the ground up.