Get Tim Smith wound up and his thoughts will come tumbling out — he’s a self-confessed rambler — but stay with him, because his musings are purposeful and intriguing.
That’s one reason he was a hit at a recent Start Co. entrepreneurial networking event. The Memphis-born, San Francisco-based venture expert huddled with startup hopefuls downtown in a series of speed-dating consults, dispensing the savvy he’s picked up from, as he says, “eight hard-won companies and a couple of good exits,” plus an entrepreneur’s passion for accelerating accelerators.
Smith is with Bee Partners, a venture capital team that offers investment and mentoring to entrepreneurs. The “Bee” signifies how the partners work collectively. But to really stretch a metaphor, it also describes Smith who, in his endeavors over the years, has collected enough pollen and nectar to give an entrepreneurial hive enough honey for success.
He comes back to Memphis regularly to see his parents, Dolph and Jesse Smith, but hadn’t really been involved in local business ventures until he connected with Start Co. CEO and founder Eric Mathews and president Andre Fowlkes when they were visiting in California. “I was hugely impressed with what they were doing here,” Smith says, and that counts for something since for six years he’s been involved with SkyDeck, created by the University of California, Berkeley (his alma mater), which is a campus startup accelerator for innovative companies.
So Smith knows a thing or two about starting and sustaining businesses. But then it was always meant to be.
“I was fated to be an entrepreneur kind of genetically,” he says. “When I left Memphis a million years ago, the plan was to go to a real school and come back and take over Memphis. My Central High School GPA was less than 2.0 — I was the worst student on the planet because I was already starting companies at 15, selling kites of all things. I got into Berkeley, and I’m still not sure how I did that, but it was an amazing experience, as you can imagine, for this hometown boy. I fully expected to come back here and be a Henry Turley or whatever, but it didn’t work out, ’cause I got so transfixed by what was the eco-system out on the West Coast. It was so strong, everything there in place to do whatever you wanted. That was 30 years ago.”
He put together companies that dealt with tech design, development, marketing, large-scale data center management, and interactivity before interactivity was cool.
So was Smith a genius at the right place at the right time? He was no genius and he’ll tell you why: “Most entrepreneurs seek others that are smarter than them,” he says. “That’s why I tout that 2.0 GPA, right? ’Cause I’m a great cheerleader, but I ain’t the brightest light in the room. But I love putting those people together and buying the beer and the pizza, and making them talk, and translating, and saying, ‘What can we build?’ And encouraging them to think bigger.”
These, you see, are his people.
Smith got involved volunteering at SkyDeck because he wanted to say thank you. “Entrepreneurs could come right off campus from engineering, from the labs, from Haas Business School, and they can go into this accelerator,” he says. “We have something like 120 advisors there now who work pro-bono, like I did. I was doing a little angel investing, meeting companies that are kind of looking for deals, but it was really about giving back to the school. And I just loved it ’cause it’s a constant stream of absolutely fascinating, brilliant people. My people. Not the people who work all their life as the Senior VP in the bank. Or management consulting. That all seemed a little too predictable for me. These are the crazy ones, as Steve Jobs says. The ones that really screw things up, put a dent in the universe.”
And then he got to thinking where else he might mine for talent. “Is there anything we could do in Memphis, I wondered? I wanted to go home a little bit and I’ve got more energy, I can give back, ’cause I look at Memphis as another SkyDeck opportunity.”
He cultivated his contact with Mathews and Fowlkes, getting involved, meeting more people, and looking at a couple of investments relatively closely. “So long story short,” Smith says, “I don’t know what I’m doing here, except fishing around.”
But he chooses where he fishes carefully.
“Who’s investing in what here?,” he asks. “What are the big power hitters doing strategically? What’s FedEx doing? What is AutoZone doing? Where are they placing their bets? And is this an eco-system that we can potentially play in? It’s only been the past three or four years I’ve been coming back looking at Memphis through a different lens, right? What I’m starting to see is investors, start-ups, entrepreneurial, accelerator, eco-system. I see so much potential as we see in the Bay Area in a corporate support entrepreneurship either through funding or in kind. Or pilot programs, or something like that has been so effective in general, I think, that I’d love to learn more about how that’s happening here.”
Smith was talking and listening at Start Co.’s “Start-Q” that put founders and business leaders with startup teams. And what did he find out? First of all, the power of symbiosis: “Every team I talked to, it was about, ‘Man, there’s three companies in my portfolio I’d like to hook you up with ’cause the two of you working together would be incredible.”
He finds a huge benefit of going to accelerators like Start-Q is pattern recognition, crucial to investing. “There’s a tendency for these teams to go off in their corner — this happens at SkyDeck and I rail against this — you go and you burnish, and you burnish, and you build up this soft cost of your investment, and how beautiful your little toy is, and you come out on demo day and reveal it to the world after this gestation period, and you’re horrified that no one believes, no one gets it. I teach a rapid prototyping class at Cal and at SkyDeck. Build it, make something, the roughest thing you can. Minimal viable product prototype. Get it out on the street, and start getting the ‘no’s’ daily. That’s the hardest thing in the world to do because entrepreneurship is a thousand no’s. And maybe a yes. If I came here and worked, one of the first things I would do is, we’re gonna start making stuff day one.”
Smith also teaches how to build out a team, motivate it, and be a resource magnet. “I’ve hired hundreds of people accidentally,” he says. “And there’s no art to that. There’s no science. You just have to figure out how to inspire people, give them permission to break things, and not punish them for that. And if you can build loyalty in your team, you can make miracles. They don’t teach that in business school.”
Much of what he wants emerging entrepreneurs to understand is to think bigger. “What’s your dream here?” he’ll ask. “If it’s a $15 million or $20 million company, you’re not looking hard enough. You’re not thinking big enough. You’re not busting out of this territory. How do you become a hundred million dollar company? What would that take? And they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s just crazy.’ No, that’s what you need to be thinking about. And you should think about it. Let’s make this exciting.”
Likewise, Smith wants Memphis to think bigger. “You have permission to think bigger, permission to raise more, and we’re a little bit tentative and cautious here. Now if there’s anything I could change here it’s to make Memphis like Atlanta or Austin,