Discover more from The World In A Grain of Sand by KdT Ventures
Who I am: Mack
As a firm, the team at KdT has decided to publish long-form Bio’s to help the folks we work with learn more about who we are as people. Our hope is that the openness and vulnerability that comes from sharing our stories will help enable our dialogues with all our partners, most importantly, current and future KdT founders. Here goes nothing…
There are costs and benefits associated with growing up in a town with ~1,400 residents. On the benefit side: the absence of a reliable labor pool can serve the interests of enterprising children in their search for autonomy and responsibility. On the cost side: it renders those same children with a distorted view of the world — the reality of a small town rarely reflects the reality of the world. From this truncated view, the roles of varying professions, most notably, business and law are reversed. And for children that orient their path in life based on this truncated view, the world can surprise. This was my world.
Camino, California, a small town in the Sierra Nevada foothills exists to supply our surrounding communities with apples, pears, cherries, peaches and an assortment of other lesser known fruits. Like any conscious industry, over time it created multiple revenue streams: in addition to shipping produce, it cultivated a “family-friendly, country” vibe that lured those coming from San Francisco on their way to South Lake Tahoe to stop by, and spend a couple hours picking fruit and enjoy a slice of pie. The Fall is sufficiently busy that the vast majority of farms are only open for 3–4 months a year.
My best friend and his family owned one of the biggest and most successful farms in the area — employing a handful of local folks in the off-season and up to sixty or so during the Fall. One day in the seventh grade, his parents, presumably unable to find a competent employee, asked me if I could manage the pumpkin patch that Fall. I proceeded to spend every sunlit minute of that Fall negotiating prices of pumpkins with people 30–50 years my senior. The price was determined based on size — there was no objective unit of measurement. Of course, some pumpkins are short and fat and others are skinny and long — so there’s plenty of room for negotiation between a $3 and $6 pumpkin. Although I then understood it in much different terms, I served as the head of customer success, sales manager and revenue officer. In terms I would only later understand, I wanted to run, manage and grow a business (unit). I would return to work at this farm every Fall and Summer for the next six years, only “retiring” for college.
While learning to operate a small business is undeniably a blessing, the relatively small scale of the operations led me to (incorrectly) believe that business opportunities are small and local. Even if I wanted to work outside of the farm, as I sampled the business landscape, the other local businesses were similarly capped: drywall, roofing and coffee shops. Of the community members that were valued the most, many were lawyers and doctors. This truncated view tricked me into thinking that if I wanted to make a dent in the world, if I wanted to drive change in the world at scale, I needed to look beyond business. Instead, I should follow the paths of the community leaders within our social circle: lawyers and doctors. The Atticus Finch’s of the world impacted people through their roles as a legal advocate in ways that a farmer simply couldn’t (or so I had come to think). Camino blessed me with real business exposure but it cursed me into miscalculating the scale of business relative to other opportunities.
Once decided that I would pursue law, I spent my college days orienting myself towards preparing an optimized law school application. The game was simple: get good grades, score high on the LSAT, and show an interest in law. So that’s what I did. In between classes, I worked at local law firms, took legal writing classes and volunteered at various non-profit organizations. Having achieved modest success, I received a scholarship from the University of Michigan Law School and decided to enroll. Employing my small town work ethic, I did well enough at Michigan to earn a job offer from Fenwick & West, a leading technology law firm located in the heart of Silicon Valley. For a small town kid, this job offer, during the summer of 2009 and in the throes of the financial crisis, felt like “making it.” Within months, my perceptions about the world, and my place within it, would be turned upside down.
After my first couple of months working with truly transformative technology companies, it was obvious that my view of “business” was fatally flawed. I failed to appreciate the scale of the Airbnbs and WhatsApps of the world. Further compounding the magnitude of this epiphany, the individuals driving the change in the world were not the legal advisors; rather they were entrepreneurs and management teams of these companies. In Camino, the local attorneys were the go-to advisors for the local business owners (and were frequently the most sophisticated of the parties) while the local business owners ran moderate (or compared to WhatsApp, minuscule) operations. I realized that every decision I had made for almost a decade was driven by my (mis)understanding that by becoming a leading attorney, I could drive change in the world. It became painstakingly clear that my failure to appreciate the larger macroeconomy (that outside of Camino), left me with not only an incomplete view of the world, but my understanding was in fact inverted. Businessmen and women drove change in the world in a way attorneys were not able to. As soon as I thought I had “made it”, I realized I needed to reorient my skillset and knowledge base. Fortunately, I was well-situated to do so.
For the next seven years while at Fenwick & West and Shearman & Sterling, I took advantage of every opportunity to learn how the smartest (and the least smart) operated their businesses. How did these management teams think about growth? How did they plan their fundraising efforts? Which terms did they optimize for and which terms did they not care about, and why? In a board meeting, what did they focus on and how did they present poor results vis-a-vis good results? What matters were they willing to share with employees and what matters were they willing to share with investors? These insights are valuable to emerging companies that haven’t had access to this information.
Similarly, I’ve seen what founding teams look like and how they operate prior to success and prior to failure. I’ve seen how and why financings can move from signed term sheet to no deal. In the same vein, I’ve been on the call when the buyer tells the seller that they won’t be proceeding on the deal notwithstanding the six months of negotiations and efforts on both sides to consummate the sale. With this information, I’m an asset to a business that supports emerging companies. After seven plus years, I had reoriented my skillset, based on a revised view of the world, to join a business or an organization that would support these emerging companies.
My partner, Cain McClary, built an incredible foundation at KdT Ventures. Through great fortune, I had a front row seat both as a partner and advisor. When he asked me to join his team and help turn KdT Ventures into the standard in early stage science venture capital, it was an easy decision. Not only would I be able to work alongside my best friend as we fund, partner and support companies, it’s an opportunity to drive change in the world.
If successful, and I have allocated every bit of social and financial capital to this effort, our companies will make the world a better place for us and for future generations. At the same time, we will enrich those partners who believe in us. It’s precisely the opportunity this enterprising boy from small town USA has oriented his entire life towards.