06 Jun Who is this Adam Bock Person, Anyway?
The world of venture financing abounds in colorful characters. Madison, WisconsinQuaerendo invenietis. There may be lessons here, but remember that my work with start-ups and financing is limited to the last five years. “I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew so well.”
Adam’s Adventure in Consulting-land
I entered the business world by accident, when it turned out that my degree in aero/astro engineering wasn’t going to get me a job. The solitary offer from what was then Lockheed’s Space Sciences Division was clearly a dead-end, and grad school held limited appeal. My friends were applying into strange fields: management consulting and investment banking. I was assured that these companies really did want engineers, so I interviewed blindly, submitting my resume to every such firm that interviewed on campus. The interviews were strange – logic puzzles, storytelling, quantitative analysis, and sometimes drinking and dining in fancy restaurants and bars. Offers came in, and I ended up at Monitor Company in Los Angeles .
Monitor was an amazing place. The spirit of Michael Porter hovered over our heads while we preached competitive strategy to clients. I worked in utilities, computer hardware, transportation, beverages, telecommunications (is there a consultant out there who hasn’t worked for AT&T at some point?), office furniture, and even helped manage Monitor’s own IT infrastructures. I performed competitive analysis, market research, monte carlo simulation, acquisition analysis, new market entry analysis, long-term strategic planning, cost analysis, channel strategy planning, and other projects. It was the most challenging and intellectually stimulating corporate experience I’ve known. I learned more at Monitor from consultants, clients, and on my own, than I have in any other business environment, including business school. But the work burned me out; once I put in two consecutive 100-hour weeks. I wasn’t convinced consulting would be my long-term career. After nearly four years with Monitor, I left (technically, I took a six-month leave of absence), figuring I’d never work that hard again.
I was wrong. I ran off and joined the circus.
They Fly Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease
Not immediately, of course. I signed up to work at Club Med as a sports instructor, and was sent to St. Lucia , just north of Venezuela (that club has since been closed). I spent six months as a G.O. ( Gentil Organisateur) leading activities like rollerblading, soccer, volleyball, and other sports. Don’t be fooled – spending all day outside in the tropics playing games sounds great, but after two weeks of being “on” from 7am until 11pm, it becomes a job. Dancing in the disco until the wee hours is fun when you’re on vacation, but when it’s required, you realize you just want to go to sleep so you’ll be awake to teach water aerobics in the morning. Somehow, in the midst of all this, I took up trapeze.
Circus at Club Med is a world unto itself. With only a month of training at St. Lucia, I was accepted to be circus staff at La Caravelle, on Guadeloupe. At any Club Med Circus site, three to four staff teach guests, from small children to adults, how to perform trampoline, floor acrobatics, circus bicycle, single trapeze, and, of course, the flying trapeze. The injury rates are high – something like one in four circus staff are sent home during a six-month season with a serious injury. The physical toll is extraordinary: one member of the team told me that being in circus meant that I’d wake up every morning in pain. He was right. During the first difficult weeks, I tore most of the skin off the palms of my hands – I couldn’t shampoo my hair until my hands calloused. Once I dropped a 22-foot aluminum pole on my foot. Once I was knocked unconscious for an instant by a steel bar to the forehead while I was hanging upside down by my knees 16 feet above a concrete floor. And once, Vincent, the guy who would catch me during our most dangerous trapeze act, said to me, “Adam, if I can’t hold onto your legs, look for the net and when you see it, tuck your head in. You probably won’t be killed.”
One season of circus was enough. I’d reached far beyond anything I thought I’d ever do (including “The Passing Leap”), but I was ready to re-enter the real world. So I applied to business school.
Postcards from Hell, or Wisconsin Anyway
In reality, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I figured business school would give me an opportunity to learn about lots of industries and businesses. I also wanted to return to Wisconsin – it had been 10 years since I left Milwaukee to go to college in California. I’d always liked Madison…
I’d be lying if I said business school was as hard as either Club Med or Monitor. But the WAVE Program gave me a unique opportunity to learn about small business, venture finance, and technology transfer. Professor Bob Pricer was, and remains an inspiration to me. Not just for the strength of the courses he taught or for his wit. (“A partnership is just like a marriage, but without the sex to relieve the tension,” or “You need a businessperson who can add credibility to your company. You know, someone with gray hair and hemorrhoids.”) Bob genuinely cared about his students, about the community, and about the University (even when he disagreed vehemently with its policies). There were many things about venture finance that he didn’t teach us – but because of the wisdom he provided, I’ve never felt unprepared. Surprised, yes, but not unprepared.
Entering the Whirlwind
While in b-school, I’d been consulting to some small businesses in Madison. When I graduated, I wanted to work with a start-up company. I signed on with about a half-dozen different start-ups, helping with everything from business plan writing to business development. Only one of them was paying me on a part-time basis. I helped initiate one biotech company, but the IP negotiations fell through, and we didn’t even take investor money. A second biotech company was spun out of the UW, and we did raise angel funds. I was operations manager for 12 months, and the company went on to raise additional money and obtain SBIR grants. But that company outgrew my areas of expertise, and I left to join Early Stage Research, which had just been started by Tom Terry and Larry Landweber.
To be 100% honest, this probably wouldn’t have happened if Larry hadn’t recognized me. He was friends with my parents when they lived in Madison – when I was 3 years old. He hadn’t seen them in 25 years, but I look (now) like my father did 25 years ago. When I was introduced to Larry at a Chicago Venture Fair in ‘99, he made the connection. Of course, it would have been nice if Larry hadn’t acknowledged this connection in front of all sorts of well-dressed business people at the fancy reception by stating, loudly, “I recognize you. I think I still have 8mm video of you running around in your underwear in my backyard.”
Most of you can pick up the story from here. ESR hired me to evaluate angel investment opportunities, primarily in the IT space. Since then ESR has expanded to serve other angel networks, helping private investors research and evaluate private equity deals across nearly every industry.
Happily Ever After
I’m not sure if there are lessons in all this. Maybe “Fortune favors the prepared?” No, too self-aggrandizing. Perhaps “Try, try, and try again?” No, too obvious. Lessons are tough because they suggest completion or resolution . I’ve heard some people say things like, “There’s more to life than business.” I think the lesson for me has been, “There’s more to life. Period.”
So keep this in mind when you submit your next financing request to Early Stage Research. And please don’t insult me by telling me it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand the opportunity. I am a rocket scientist.
Adam Bock is married to Lynn Hyland; they are expecting their first child in July. He’s a founding member of the Wolf Pack, a lapsed rock climber, an amateur gardener, and a wannabe writer. Adam is Treasurer of the UW-Madison Hoofer Sailing Club, an avid reader of literature and science fiction, and an addicted windsurfer. Adam is on the Council of Advisors of The SEED Foundation, founded by Rajiv Vinnakota, who was Adam’s best man. Adam and Lynn live in Sun Prairie, which is almost Madison, and they hope to live in Madison one day.
Adam J. Bock is the research manager for Early Stage Research, an angel network, and a regular contributor to the Wisconsin Technology Network.