Sadness: Remembering Bill Campbell

Bill Campbell’s remarkable impact as a coach, CEO, and mentor will get a lot of attention in the coming days, as well it should. He was an extraordinary person who gave generously of his time, energy, and insights to help other people grow and develop. In the process he had a massive impact on the technology industry and particularly on the way technology companies are built. As an Adjunct Associate Professor at Columbia Business School, I was fortunate to work with Bill in a very special setting – the classroom.

From approximately 2004 to 2009, Bill Campbell was a regular guest in the Venture Capital Seminar that Stuart Ellman and I teach at Columbia. During this time he was in tremendously high demand as he served as Chairman of Columbia University, as an advisor to Google’s management and board, and as a Director of both Intuit and Apple, all while mentoring a number of CEOs.

In spite of these commitments, every year Bill would make time for us. Talking about human capital and the development of high performance teams has always been a core part of our course and I think that’s what kept Bill coming back.   Every year we would hold a closed-door session with just our students and Bill. The sessions were never announced publicly and we kept everything off the record – no tweets, no posts – so that Bill would feel comfortable talking openly about the companies and CEOs he was close to.

And talk he did, telling stories from the early days at Google and recalling tough moments as CEO of Intuit. We dug deeply into topics like hiring, performance reviews, and firing, and even how to do a layoff. We talked about the role of founders and some of the challenges faced by founder CEOs in dealing with investors. We talked about values and how to build an organization around them. Some years we were joined by former Intuit executive Bill Strauss and longtime Intuit Board Member, Chris Brody, who had both worked with Bill for years. They would get him going on a particular memory and Bill would go off. The students loved it. And as a young partner in the venture capital industry, I loved it. Bill taught me a great deal about how to be a good investor and board member. Eventually the university found out about these sessions and wanted to film them. We knew that many of Bill’s stories could never be made public. We dodged them for a few more years and then Bill made it clear that he had to step back.

Bill possessed a deep, powerful humanity that one doesn’t encounter very often. I don’t know whether it was a product of his modest upbringing in western Pennsylvania or his passion for football and coaching, but he knew how to connect with every sort of person. He had vast reserves of energy, and compassion and he was fiercely loyal. No matter how long he had been away, he always greeted you with a big hug and a slap on the back – a not so subtle reminder that he was counting on you to do your best. When I was moderating these sessions with Bill, I sometimes found myself on the receiving end of a sharp glance or a suspicious look if I asked a question that didn’t really flow with his thinking. He always expected the best of the people he committed to – and he was there to help us hold ourselves accountable.

When my father died of cancer in March 2006, I received a single, one word email from Bill. “Sadness” was all he wrote. It turns out that Bill had lost his brother in the same week. With just one word, he reached out to make the connection, to let me know that I wasn’t alone in going through something tough. Bill’s great strength was his incredible humanity.

I feel immensely fortunate to have known Bill and to have helped him share his experience with our students. My RRE colleagues and I want to express our deep sympathy to Bill’s family, his many friends and all the people he influenced throughout his long career. Today we are all touched by sadness.

Spaceflight and BlackSky Global

I’ve been neglecting the blog over the last few months because of some medical issues in my family and a major project for the Dockery Farms Foundation.  I’ll have more to say about that project in the weeks ahead, but this morning I’m excited to talk about RRE’s investment in Spaceflight and the launch of its BlackSky Global division.

Spaceflight is executing on many of the trends that we see affecting the satellite industry broadly. After decades of isolation, open systems thinking is finally coming to this industry. For those of us who actively invest in enterprise systems businesses (networking, processing, and storage hardware) it is difficult to fathom the monolithic and proprietary design approach that still persist in most of the satellite industry. The rest of the systems/hardware industry relies on Commodity- Off-The-Shelf components, open architectures and standards and a universe of offshore contract manufacturers.  The expense of launch and of operating in the harsh environment of space have been major drivers of this approach, but the willingness to pay of Government and Defense customers has also been a big enabler. This is of course changing as the Government outsources more and more responsibilities to new suppliers. There is no better example of this than SpaceX’s contract to supply the International Space Station.

The most important enabler of this shift to open systems thinking has been increasing access to affordable launch opportunities. This has enabled satellite system designers to think in terms of replenishing the elements of a satellite constellation much more regularly. Once launch is cheap and easily accessible, then satellites become much easier to replace, which opens the door to considerable simplification in the way they are designed.

Spaceflight is deeply rooted in the legacy satellite industry, having developed small satellites for government and defense customers for more than a decade. But the company has also been a leader in increasing access to affordable launch and designing smaller form factor satellites that can still deliver high quality imaging to meet specific customer requests. We invested in CEO Jason Andrews and this extraordinary team in part because they are so deeply rooted in the industry, but also because they are consciously reinventing it. We spent a great deal of time analyzing the imaging market and the business model choices of other companies in the sector. We believe Spaceflight and its BlackSky Global division blends the best of modern systems thinking with a commercial approach that is well tuned to the needs of government and enterprise customers alike. We are delighted to have led the company’s Series B financing alongside our friends at Vulcan Capital, Razor’s Edge, Chugach Alaska Corporation, and Apogee. And we will work with our friend Richard Fade, who also served on the Whiptail Technologies board, any chance we get. Spaceflight is the 3rd company in RRE’s space portfolio, which also includes Spire and Accion Systems.

The New


But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.

-Anton Ego, Ratatouille


There are times when the business of being a venture capitalist seems an awful lot like being a professional critic. We review hundreds of opportunities every year and it is part of our job to turn down most of them. Every entrepreneur I know who has raised money has stories of “awful” meetings with “arrogant” venture capitalists, who were unprepared, did not listen, and seemed unfairly critical (if not dismissive). There are of course, two sides to this – every entrepreneur believes that their plan is inherently sound, they deserve to be funded, and they expect to succeed. It is unfortunate that, too often, skepticism can come across as arrogance.

And, in truth, our job is not to criticize but to help create.   Like the cold-blooded critic, Anton Ego, in Disney’s Ratatouille, the venture capitalist actually has a responsibility to discover and defend “the new.” While it may seem far-fetched to connect a kid’s movie about a rat who can cook to the technology venture business, I think the quote above captures perfectly the issues we face. Some of the most important work we do as investors is to identify those things that are truly new that we should help. Indeed I think we have a duty to help certain entrepreneurs and companies, simply by virtue of our position in the market.

This does not mean that we should let idealism override our responsibilities to make money for our Limited Partners. Nor should we support visionary companies that don’t have a reasonable chance of being successful. But for those few, truly great, new ideas that deserve to succeed, we have a duty to support them – to fund them (if we can) and to help them succeed in the face of the world’s skepticism. As Anton Ego thoughtfully concluded, “The new needs friends.”

The Salt Bucket

There is a tiny dry cleaner near my office, right next to the place that I get coffee every morning. It’s run by an elderly man who spends most of his days taking in laundry and hemming clothes for his regular customers. He has been there a long time. His shop is immaculate and he is always well dressed. It’s snowing in New York this morning (3rd time this week) and when I passed his shop today, he was out front with a big bucket of rock salt spreading it around to melt the snow and ice on the sidewalk. He had a big snow shovel nearby.

On the face of it, there is nothing remarkable about this scene. Lots of other small business owners were out doing the same thing (and a bunch weren’t, as we can all see from the sidewalks). But I was struck by two things: First, the sheer incongruity of the fact that he must keep a big bucket of rock salt underneath his work table inside his otherwise pristine little shop. Second, while he is in the business of cleaning and altering clothes, this is what he has to do for his customers to make sure that they can get to his shop safely. And this is what he has to do to make sure that no one is hurt in front of his shop.

He, like most small business owners, is an entrepreneur. And like any good entrepreneur, he does WHATEVER is necessary to look out for his customers, even when it means doing things that are totally incongruous with his core skills. This is a fundamental value of every good entrepreneur and early stage company I’ve ever observed. They are willing to go well beyond their core areas of expertise to help their customers be successful. This is part of how they earn the loyalty and trust of their early customers, and part of how they keep them in the long run. I’d even posit that every good early stage company should have some kind of a salt bucket – a symbol of the things that they do to help their customers above and beyond the core experience of their product.

The Good Banker

One of my first meetings of the year was with an investment banker from a well known firm that primarily advises technology companies with sales of $10-50mm. I have gotten to know a lot of bankers through the years. A handful have been truly exceptional and have made a difference for our companies. Here’s what distinguishes those that I’d consider exceptional:

1) They really know their sector deeply. This is not just knowing the people who work in Corporate Development at the relevant acquirers and calling on them routinely. Instead they have real thoughts about how the next wave of value can be created in a sector and they are not afraid to espouse those views.

2) Because they have a clear view on their sector, they know which companies they want to work with and why. This is the key thing. They may not have as much inside knowledge as an investor would, but they understand why certain companies are important and they only want to focus on those.

3) They take the long view, particularly with respect to their own compensation. Knowing who they want to work with, they are willing to pour their efforts (and often their relationships) into helping the best companies. This is usually long before there is any discussion of an engagement letter.

I actually had to beg a banker who has been quite helpful to my companies to send us an engagement letter for one of our recent exits. He helped us close two strategic investors and introduced the ultimate acquirer long before we ever worked out what his deal would be. He had no competition for the assignment because he had totally distinguished himself as a true advisor to the company. In the eyes of the board and management, he had completely earned his place at the table and the substantial fee that his firm was ultimately paid.

I have a lot of friends in investment banking and they are all smart, hard working, honorable people. And I recognize that they are buffeted daily by changing priorities within their organizations and amongst their clients. But it is the rare few who approach things as I’ve described above.

Accion Systems

We are excited to announce our investment in Accion Systems this morning alongside a syndicate of some of our favorite co-investors. This is our 2nd investment in a New Space company after we led the Series A round for Spire last spring.

Accion is commercializing a new ion-based propulsion system for spacecraft. We were introduced to co-founder and CEO, Natalya Brikner by our friends at Undercurrent, who share our passion for new space technologies.

Electric propulsion is the next big thing in small satellites. In order for cubesat constellations to achieve their maximum useful life, operators need to be able to manipulate the spacecraft beyond what is possible with simple reaction wheels. Propulsion systems that use combustible fuels are not allowed on the ride shares that cubesats depend on, so a new type of propulsion system is needed. There is also a lot of discussion in the industry about regulatory standards that would require a deorbit mechanism on cubesats (in part to deal with the space junk problem). The Accion Systems products are a logical solution.

The core technology has been under development at MIT for 10 years. It produces a tiny unit of thrust, about the size of a penny. While I am not a physicist, my layman’s understanding is that these engines convert a cheap, non-volatile plasma into streams of ions that can impart thrust. The Gen 1 products are sufficient to move a 3Kg Cubesat and extend its useful life. The Gen 2 systems should be able to impart considerably more thrust and will be useful for larger satellites. The systems are already being manufactured reliably and they have had hundreds of hours of ground tests. With nearly 1,000 cubesats being launched every year and considerable demand for propulsion for both large and small satellites, we think Accion has a terrific addressable market opportunity.

As much as we love the technology here, it was the team’s pragmatism about the company building process and their strong commercial instincts that really persuaded us. Natalya and her co-founder, Louis Perna, have given a lot of thought to how to build a strong, high performance culture that can last for the long term.

We are delighted to welcome Natalya, Louis, and the team at Accion Systems to the RRE portfolio and we look forward to working with them in the years ahead.


Occasionally I will use this space to tell you about a company I really like. It may or may not be an RRE investment;  there are lots of things that we like that we don’t get to invest in.  Nevertheless, I feel that one of my responsibilities as an investor in this community is to support those companies and teams that I think are doing great work

One such company is goTenna.  John Levy, one of the company’s board members, is an old friend and we share a deep belief in what I’ve come to call the New Hardware. I will say more about the New Hardware in an upcoming post. goTenna has created a private, free, peer-to-peer communications network that operates in unlicensed spectrum without any central infrastructure. This network can be used as an alternative channel when you have little to no network coverage, such as in the backcountry, in a crowded concert venue, or in an emergency situation. Or, in a situation where you just want a completely secure private network connection. Most impressive is the way they’ve done it – CEO Daniela Pedromo and her brother and co-founder, Jorge, have put together an incredibly capable small team of hardware hackers and network software developers. They’ve made great choices about what capabilities to build in-house and what they could do with outside partners that know how to work with early-stage companies.  And they’ve done it with very little capital. goTenna blew through their pre-sales forecasts and the diversity of their initial customers is striking. I’m excited to see their sales launch later this year.

It’s the kind of clear, focused product effort that we don’t see enough of. goTenna typifies the lightweight approach to product development and go-to market strategy that is critical for today’s hardware companies. I think goTenna is going to do some amazing stuff this year and I encourage you to follow their story.