If I Knew Then

This Entrepreneur Sold His Company to AOL and Bought It Back Two Years Later. Here's What He Learned.

This Entrepreneur Sold His Company to AOL and Bought It Back Two Years Later. Here's What He Learned.

Tony Conrad

Image credit: Courtesy of Tony Conrad

Tony Conrad is a Silicon Valley veteran, who has been on both sides of the tech industry as an investor and a founder.

He is currently the co-founder and CEO of About.me, a social platform that wants to be "the web’s starting point for identity." Think an all-encompassing one-page public profile with big, beautiful images and stylish fonts -- all packaged on a sleek, user-friendly layout.

Conrad says the premise behind the tool is to help everyone "take pride in and own their story." The concept caught the eye of AOL, which acquired About.me in 2010. (AOL also purchased his other company Sphere in 2008.) But two years later, Conrad and his team wanted to take back the reins, and bought back About.me.

In addition to being a serial entrepreneur, Conrad is a partner at True Ventures and sits on the board of big-name companies like Automattic (Wordpress), High Fidelity and Blue Bottle Coffee.

We caught up with Conrad to talk about his take on entrepreneurship, the importance of swallowing your pride and why being excited to work your team every day is the first step towards success. 

Related: One Entrepreneur, Three Radically Different Companies: Here's How She Did It

Q: Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently when you were first starting up?
A: What I've learned the hard way is that you only do your best work if you surround yourself with people that you are genuinely jazzed to work with. If it's anything that falls short in that category, you shouldn't do it. No matter how awesome the job or the pay is, none of that matters because you're not going to be able to put yourself in the position to do your best work.

All the early hires we made for About.me came from our direct networks. The result of that is we have had an incredibly low churn on our team and created a stable environment, which is sometimes hard to do when you're a fledgling startup. It can be chaotic and scary, but by virtue of what we did, this always felt very solid.

In a more tactical way with About.me, I think if we had understood when we started the company, just how dominant mobile would become in the consumption experience of the web, we would have built our team differently. Not that I regret the product or the platform and the scope that we have, but it would have impacted the way that the product got built.

Related: TOMS Founder: 'Focus on Your Passion. Nothing Else Matters.'

Q: What is your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
A:
Entrepreneurship is a contact sport. You need to get out and be an active member in the community around whatever business sector you're going to pursue. If it's tech, there are tech events every night in [Silicon Valley]. If you live in the Bay Area and you fancy yourself a founder or entrepreneur, and you’re not out in the scene a minimum of three nights a week, then you should choose some other profession. It's that critical to forge connections.

The specific advice I give young entrepreneurs in tech is to learn to code. That doesn’t mean that you have to be a world-class coder. I think that it creates certain credibility in this sector. Everybody on our team knows how to code a little bit. It creates a stronger appreciation for the art that the developers make happen.

Q: How do your skillsets as a founder and an investor informed one another?
A:
I think they are 100 percent symbiotic. I became a much better investor when I became a founder, and I'm a much better founder because I'm an investor. I think my understanding of entrepreneurship and founders and, [my] ability to spot a high-quality founder that I think is really capable of creating a movement around their vision was enhanced when I became a founder myself.

Related: One Kings Lane's Alison Pincus on the Importance of Coffee Dates and Asking for Help

Q: What factors led to the decision to become autonomous again after being under AOL's umbrella?
A:
I think it’s amazing we were able to get it done, but there wasn't any acrimony. When Tim [Armstrong] took over AOL, there was a moment there when they wanted to take a bunch of calculated risks to get involved with new areas, while he was taking care of existing business. They took a bunch of bets, and we were one of those bets.

After we got there I realized that some of the core issues Tim and his team were tackling were much more significant and taking longer [than first anticipated], and that's where the organization was acutely focused.

But we were most excited about growing -- and we just weren't able to go as fast as we wanted to go. After about a year, Tim and I started having a conversation about our priorities. He and I realized with this ongoing conversation, that the right answer for About.me was to go back out and let it thrive. I think that's hard to do [to start having that talk], because you have to swallow your pride a bit. [And with buyback situations] people might poke fun or poke holes at you – but AOL still has a minority stake in the company.

Q: What are you glad you didn't know when you were first starting out?
A:
I'm glad I didn't know how crazy the odds are stacked against you for succeeding: to build a meaningful product that is valued by customers or by an acquirer. Even though I have been an investor and been around the ecosystem for a long time, I don't think I appreciated how stacked the odds are to achieve either of those things. I'm not sure it would have deterred me, but I'm glad I didn't think a lot about it, because I'm not sure I would have had the guts to do it. 

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

Related: Steve Blank: 'Entrepreneurship is a Calling, Not a Job.'