Q&A: Mark Kvamme on Silicon Valley, JobsOhio

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From the May 2014 issue of Columbus CEO

The same year ousted Apple founder Steve Jobs returned to the company, the world’s number-one brand aired the moving “Think Different” commercial, which featured Richard Dreyfuss’ narration over images of revolutionary world leaders, scientists and artists.

“The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do. ..You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things.”

Jobs called Mark Kvamme up at 10 o’clock one night to read him the script he’d written for that commercial. “Myself and several others advised him. One of the things I said he should do is, I said ‘Steve, it really should be your voice, because it’s really about you,’” says Kvamme, then a partner in the Silicon Valley advertising firm CKS Partners.

CKS was Kvamme’s first successful business. The firm itself was revolutionary in its new-media approaches to advertising campaigns, having pioneered digital and content marketing as far back as the early 1990s, according to Wired.

Kvamme is a legacy Silicon Valley tech-capitalist. His father, Floyd Kvamme, the founder of National Semiconductor and a former Apple executive, worked with Jobs on the 1984 commercial that made Apple a household brand. Thirteen years later, Kvamme worked with Jobs on the 1997 campaign announcing Jobs’ return and launching Apple into the iPod era.

From Apple to eBay, LinkedIn and Yahoo, Kvamme’s worked with the world’s dominant Internet companies. “When you’ve seen one of these companies go, it’s an amazing experience,” says Kvamme. So we’re looking forward to having one of those go here in Columbus.”

In 2013, Kvamme launched Drive Capital from an office in the Arena District. Drive has secured $250 million in investments for its first fund, including $50 million from the Ohio State University.

Most Ohioans know Kvamme from his work with Governor John Kasich in the privatization of Ohio’s economic development agency into JobsOhio. Kvamme is more widely known for his investments in more creative business ventures, including the website Funny or Die, which he and his son founded with Will Ferrell and Adam McKay in 2007. Among his personal (ad)ventures outside of Drive Capital is an investment in the moonshine distillery Popcorn Sutton’s Tennessee White Whiskey.

Kvamme relocated from California to central Ohio, where he lives with his wife, Megan Kvamme. An avid motocross racer, Kvamme spent several months recovering from a serious crash in 2011. His work hard/play hard mentality lends itself to the high-risk investments on which Kvamme thrives.

Do you see parallels between getting back on the bike after an injury and recovering from the failures that inevitably happen in the startup and venture capital business?

Venture capital, a lot of people just think it’s easy. It is a really, really hard business because you meet with entrepreneurs, you meet with ideas, and especially in early stage venture capital, 40, 50, 60 percent of the companies you invest in don’t make it.

When you win, you usually win pretty big, but (if you lose) you lose a lot. So you have to feel very comfortable knowing when you’re about ready to make a new investment.

I’ll never forget one time at Sequoia—actually this is right before the LinkedIn investment—my investments hadn’t done well, one was going out of business. You’re going, ‘Man, can I do this? Am I very good at this? What can I do?’

And then, you know, you’ve got to get back on the bike, if you will. Look at the entrepreneur, look at the opportunity and make the investment. I think there are a lot of similarities.

How does it feel to be a part of the success of really influential brands?

I’ve been very fortunate. From a Silicon Valley perspective, all the early companies, I knew many of the folks there as a child through my father then later on as a professional. I worked very early with everyone.

I remember when David Filo and Jerry Ying walked in my office because they needed a logo and a design for Yahoo. There were four people in the company. All four of them were there, David wasn’t wearing shoes, they were in jeans and cutoffs and stuff. And we designed the first Yahoo site. The first ad campaign for Amazon, working with Jeff Bezos. We’ve worked with a ton of those (companies), so it’s been fun watching them grow up over the years.

What did you learn from those experiences that you carry with you?

There’s a couple things. The people that put these companies together are special—they have a special vision. These things don’t happen overnight. It takes a long time to build these companies and to do the things they do. There’s a lot of ups and downs. The ones that we all know about now and are household names, they’re attacking big markets, they’re looking at things that change the world, if you will. And when you do that and you have success, you then become a household name.

Do you see the same spark in Drive companies that you did in those that have become household names?

Absolutely. Sean Lane here in Columbus, CEO and founder of CrossChx, he has a vision and a drive that is truly fantastic. James Fisher, down at Roadtrippers in Cincinnati, the same thing. Jesse Vollmar at FarmLogs--every single one of them is like that. The question is: Will their vision come true, will it work? There’s still a long ways to go.

How do you entice companies to relocate to Columbus?

Our pitch is multifold. One is, in the past you had to be in Silicon Valley to build technology companies because that’s where the core technologists were. If you had to touch the hardware in any way, shape or form, if you had to build a data center. Mark Zuckerberg moved his company from Boston to Silicon Valley, a little bit for the money, but also because that’s where all the engineers were for doing the backend designs and the database designs and data center designs.

In today’s world with cloud computing, you don’t need that anymore. You need front end designers, you need Java programmers, things like that.

Well, it turns out the Midwestern schools are the ones that are making those things happen. People forget that a big chunk of the Internet was invented at (University of Illinois at) Urbana-Champaign. Marc Andreessen came from Urbana-Champaign, the browser was basically created in the Midwest, but they had to go to Silicon Valley to get the engineers and so forth.

The good news for them is they have a lot of investment capital--over $12 billion a year is spent in Silicon Valley. They have it, but the problem with that is you have to raise a lot more money and it goes a lot more quickly. The average cost of an engineer out there is two-and-a-half, three times of what it is out here.

Next to customers, you have a lower cost of living, you have great access to engineers, it’s a great place to build the next technology business.

What do you enjoy about working with early stage companies and entrepreneurs?

I love watching people do their passion. These companies are passion projects really. Great companies aren’t started because they want to make money, great companies are started because they want to solve a problem, a problem that they have.

YouTube was started because Steve (Chen) and Chad (Hurley) wanted to share videos. They couldn’t share videos easily, they came up with a way to share videos more easily. Reid Hoffman started LinkedIn because he really believed in networking with folks and he couldn’t really network with folks effectively and efficiently. David and Jerry started Yahoo because everyone started sending them websites and they wanted to share them with all their friends, so they created a way to aggregate them and put an ontology around them.

So everyone starts these companies to solve a problem of their own and it’s just so much fun to be around that, those passionate people.

Some of your projects seem like passion projects—Funny or Die, for example. How did that website come about?

We had funded YouTube at Sequoia, and my son, who was 14 or 15 at the time, was a fledgling comedian. I used to drive him around to all these comedy clubs. He said, ‘You know dad, I can’t find anything funny on YouTube.’ There was another site at the same time called HotOrNot, and he says, ‘What you need is HotOrNot meets YouTube.’ So we need people to actually rate whether it’s funny or not, and the ones that are funny rise to the top.

I had some connections down at Creative Artists Agency and I said, ‘Guys, here’s this crazy idea: What would happen if we take this idea and from the ground up, build a company that has both Silicon Valley roots and Hollywood roots?’ Usually they’re at war with each other. They got excited about the idea, talked about the idea and said, ‘The only person you’ve got to do this with, is you’ve got to do this with Will Ferrell and Adam McKay.’

In fact, I was just with Will on Friday and we were talking about how it’s funny, because the first time I met Will was on the set of Blades of Glory, and he was in this Chazz Michael Michaels outfit, and I was sitting there trying to have a serious conversation with him.

What’s amazing now, the company is doing very, very well. It’s profitable, over 100 employees…. That was a passion project because it was my son’s idea and it’s kind of been fun to go through it all.

When you were in college, you studied economics and French literature?

I had a double major in international business and French literature. I was working full time at Apple at the time and I needed to graduate, and so I was able to graduate with my French literature and economics degree. I had one more semester left on my international business degree and I just said, ‘Forget it.’ So my actual degree is in French literature and economics.

Do you have a favorite French writer?

I’d have to say Pascal, I love Pascal. He’s pretty amazing. Voltaire is fabulous…I’m an 18th-century kind of guy.

Tell us about your investment in Popcorn Sutton’s Whiskey:

That is an investment that I made, actually my wife runs the company--she’s the CEO, Megan is. It happened…in the 2008 downturn in the recession. (A friend of mine) was watching the History Channel…a show on moonshine. He said, ‘What ever happened to moonshine?’ and decided to go to East Tennessee and ask, ‘Who makes the best white whiskey?’

White whiskey at the time was only in the mountains….We partnered with Popcorn, I’m an investor in the company, and it’s done exceptionally well.

Working with the governor on JobsOhio, what do you think about the way the organization operates now and its prospects for the future?

I think it’s very well set up for great success in the future. It’s kind of funny, because you hear all these things about transparency and all this crazy stuff. Unfortunately, when you’re doing business, people don’t want to know everything about what’s going on in the middle of a business deal.

The way JobsOhio is set up is that, when the deal’s done, it’s 100-percent public. But during that process--for example, everyone was lauding the fact that they won this big thing down in Dayton with this car plant, 800 jobs, brand new automobile plant. Well, in order to make that happen, Kristi Tanner first had to fly to Russia and meet with the founder, then she had to fly to China, and then they spent four months in intense negotiations. First of all, at the Department of Development, who’s going to be flying to Russia on state business? Ain’t going to happen. Who’s going to fly to China?

One thing I noticed when I was interim director of development is, there were many companies we were losing and opportunities we were not able to participate in because they didn’t want people to know they were about ready to make a change. I remember one (negotiation) in particular, I had to do the whole thing by the phone because we couldn’t write one email because they’re public companies. If someone does a public records request and it gets to be a mess, they’d rather just not deal with it.

So by having this as a private entity it allows you to do things that you weren’t able to do. Second, it allows you to bring people in that are business people, that get excited about the business problems, that aren’t focused on government policy and things like that. They’re trying to just bring jobs in, put up great companies, so on and so forth.

The third thing is, by privatizing it by using the liquor profits, they now have funding for the next 20-25 years, and I fundamentally believe that’s the way it should be done. One thing we always say in the venture capital business is the best time to invest is during a recession. We are going to have another recession, I hate to tell you this, but we are. Don’t know when; don’t know where; don’t know how. By collateralizing it by buying the liquor profits, well JobsOhio will have great sums of capital to invest in companies that come to Ohio during recessions. During recessions, the Department of Development was not funded at all, because the government didn’t have any money.

So I look at all these different things. I think, in the long term, people are going to look back and say it’s one of the best things the governor ever did.

What advice would you give up-and-coming founders and VC investors on succeeding in your line of work?

This is a really, really hard business and it takes a lot of time.

There are very few overnight successes. YouTube would be an example of one. In 18-24 months it just blew up. WhatsApp, the latest one, would be another kind of overnight success. But most of these--I mean, LinkedIn took ten years, Yahoo—these companies take a long time. You have to have the intestinal fortitude to kind of ride out the wave, if you will.

The other thing is, failure’s OK. That’s how you learn. That’s one thing about the Silicon Valley spirit—there are some VCs that will not fund an entrepreneur unless they’ve had a failure. Because you don’t really learn anything without failure. Where the Midwestern culture is more, ‘Oh you failed, you’re done.’ It’s a different kind of culture. We’ve got to accept failure. We’ve got to accept risk. We’ve got to embrace it.

Maybe that’s why I ride dirt bikes—you have to embrace risks. Because without risks there is no reward. Every single time you put yourself out there to go do something great, it’s a risky venture.

I’m a big believer in ‘You gotta go for it.’ Believe in your dreams, but you have to be smart about it, too. That’s one thing about failure, is you learn about cash flow and gross margin and great, I can have that dream, but if I don’t have 60-percent gross margin I’ve got a problem. It’s a tough business, but it’s fun.