5-1/2 Questions for David Cohen

David Cohen

David Cohen is the Founder and Chairman at Techstars, the worldwide network that helps entrepreneurs succeed. David has been an entrepreneur and investor for his entire life. He has only had one job interview in his career, successfully got that job but then quit shortly thereafter to start his first company. Since then, he has founded several companies and has invested in hundreds of startups such as Uber, Twilio, SendGrid, DigitalOcean, Pillpack, Classpass, Zipline, Scopely, Outreach, Remitly, SalesLoft, and DataRobot. In total, these investments have gone on to create more than $210B in value.

Prior to Techstars, David was a co-founder of Pinpoint Technologies which was acquired by ZOLL Medical Corporation (NASDAQ: ZOLL) in 1999. You can read about it in No Vision, All Drive. Later, David was the founder and CEO of earFeeder, a music service that was sold to SonicSwap. He also had what he likes to think of as a “graceful failure” in between.

David is active with several non-profit organizations, including his work as a founding Board Member of Endeavor Colorado. David is also a co-founder and Advisory Board Member of the Techstars Foundation.

David is the co-author (with Brad Feld) of Do More Faster; Techstars Lessons to Accelerate Your Startup. David also enjoys reading non-fiction books and playing tennis. He is married to the coolest girl he’s ever met and has three amazing kids who always seem to be teaching him something new.

You can find David tweeting at @davidcohen and blogging on the web at DavidGCohen.com.

5 1/2 Questions for David Cohen

1 — Since you started working, what aspect of business life has changed the most?

There’s a lot, cause I’m old — but probably the number one thing that I would say is just the availability and flow of information. It’s so much easier to learn about something to you know, do research to communicate at the speed of light — than it was when I started.I mean. We were still, you know, writing memos and sitting around the office right? And so now you can talk to anyone in the world. You can learn about anything: There’s probably a book that’s been written, or a great blog on the topic. And that’s a real advantage for getting up to speed and figuring something out quickly.

[Is too much information a problem? ]

I used to think that it might be a problem, and I invested a little bit in information overload as a category.

But I actually don’t have that thesis anymore, because I think the tools have gotten good. Google is a great example of that, right? It finds the most relevant, most connected, most referenced things. But I think lots of tools are doing that to help us deal with the deluge of information, including our own email inboxes and things like that.

2 — What is your secret sauce? A skill or trait you have most contributed to your success?

I don’t know if it’s a secret sauce or just pure luck. Or something in between. But I seem to be pretty good at thinking 20 years into the future and thinking about the effects of a change or a technology well into the future.

As an investor, I try to think in a minimum of 20 year time horizons, and there are many examples of companies that I invested in. Uber is an easy one that people would know. When they had no cars on the road, I was imagining, well, what would it be like to just be able to push a button and get a car anywhere? And today we all take that for granted. Even the taxi companies do that. But you know it was pretty clear to me that things like that, you know, that particular technology, would be well-received and would really change an industry, destroy an industry and then build another.

So I think it’s this ability to think far into the future — where far is 20 to 30 years — and I imagine what it would be like. I’ve been right a lot when I when I’ve done that in my career.

[is that a natural skill? Or is that something you learned over the years?]

I feel like it’s probably innate. I’m a technologist, and you know I study computer science. I’ve always spoke to machines and I understand technology pretty deeply. I don’t know why I have had a lot of luck or a lot or success in sort of predicting the direction of markets, but that certainly helps as an investor so I don’t feel like I studied it, or anything like that.

3 — What industry do you think is ripe for major disruption?

Today, I would say real estate — both commercial and residential.

I think the whole way the market works is is 100% going to be disrupted. You see it a little bit, but it’s it’s got a long way to go. It’s a big market, you know. People have to live somewhere and have to work somewhere. It’s global and I think the idea that a realtor could earn 6% or a couple of realtors could earn 6% of a transactional sale by doing, you know, 3 hours of work, or maybe by doing, a 1,000 hours of work and get the same pay — is ripe for disruption. I think people can have much more control over it. And like a lot of things, we’ll see some disintermediation in that market.

4 — What kind of success (in business or life) do you admire the most?

When I think about business heroes in my life, people like my dad comes up, but also people like Jack Bogle (Vanguard), or Warren Buffett (Berkshire Hathaway). And I think people like that all had a counterintuitive non-obvious vision of the future that was ridiculed by many people.

[for instance] “Index funds” — They said “No one’s gonna do that. No one wants to just take the the return of the market. You’ve got to have these smart managers that you know are better pickers than anyone else. You gotta pay them a lot of money.”

But it turns out that index funds now are the major shareholder in most public companies. It’s bigger than managed funds. Berkshire Hathaway a holding company that would buy and let businesses continue to operate. It took them 20, 30, 40 years for people to take them seriously, but they had the persistence which I think is really important, and they had the vision that they basically never let go of believing in, even though a lot of people told them they should.

5 — What frustrates you the most when trying to help new entrepreneurs?

I get pretty frustrated by what I would call false FOMO.

You know this notion of, you know fear of missing out, or this extreme bravado. [Founders who] think they’re positioning as “well, you know you gotta get in on this this week, or you know this is your only chance.”

When I run into that it’s it’s pretty much a turnoff for me, because I know it’s not true or you wouldn’t be talking to me right? So I get really frustrated by that.

I think there’s a VC culture that’s been created that encourages entrepreneurs to act like that. And some of the top VCs in in my industry are sort of out there with a lot of bravado and a lot of self promotion, and I’ve just never been one of those people. I like to be heads-down and let the work speak for itself, and just do the work.

And so I like to work with entrepreneurs like that, so that maybe it’s just a me thing. But I get frustrated by that false bravado.

[Do you think these entrepreneurs naturally have it, or that they’ve learned they’re learning it at work, or putting on the facade of bravado, because that’s what they think the industry wants ]

I think some naturally have it some people probably as an asset, I mean again, you know, back to the Uber story. If you’ve seen the TV shows you know Travis Kalanick — and he had, he naturally had that [bravado quality].

And there are many people we can think of — WeWork (Adam Neumann)- that had similar natural bravado, I think. And a lot of times it is forced and unnecessary. I get frustrated by all of it.

Actually, I probably wouldn’t have invested in Travis. But I invested in Ryan (Graves) who who was the first person I met (at Uber) and was actually working there before Travis. And he was not like that.

and … the BONUS “Color” Question

5+1/2 — Which TV or Movie character would you most like to start a new venture with? (and Why?)

I mean I would instinctively and quickly go with Yoda, I mean, you know sort of ability to convince people with maybe weaker minds than his — which is everyone — to do what he wants them to do I mean he’s Yoda!

So of course you know, he had that ability to just make things happen — a superpower that makes for a great co-founder, to me.

For his ability to persuade people, or to cause things to happen that wouldn’t naturally happen. You know, Yoda can lift the the spaceship out of the swamp — No problem! So I would imagine that he can help me convince investors, for example, to invest or to provide resources for the company, or for someone great to work there. So yeah, that power of persuasion I think it’s pretty important.

[So … Basically, you want a co-founder with super powers. ]

[laughs] Yes.

For more 5–1/2 Questions Interviews, see:

“5–1/2 Questions” from CJ Cornell is a new series of mini-interviews with leaders in the entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem around the world. In less than a half-dozen short questions, we’ll try to learn more about each leader, and what makes them successful and unique.

The questions are designed a little like a “Magic Eight Ball” (my GenX colleagues know what this is): A set of questions, posed at random. Plus, at least one question, or half-question, is designed to find out something about their personality that most people might never suspect (I mean expect).

CJ Cornell is a serial entrepreneur, investor, advisor, mentor, author, speaker, and educator. As an entrepreneur, CJ Cornell was a founder of more than a dozen successful startup ventures that collectively attracted over $250 million in private funding; created nearly a thousand new jobs; and launched dozens of innovative consumer, media, and communications products — that have exceeded $3 billion in revenues.

He is the author of the bestsellingThe Age of Metapreneurship — A Journey into the Future of Entrepreneurship.”

And the upcoming “The Startup Brain Trust — A Guidebook for Startups, Entrepreneurs, and the Mentors that Help them Become Great.”

Follow him @cjcornell or visit: www.cjcornell.com



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CJ Cornell

CJ Cornell


Professor of #Entrepreneurship & Digital Media. Serial/Parallel Entrepreneur, Author, Speaker, Mentor, Angel Investor, #VC. Crowdfunding & #Startups Evangelist