Will Poole, Managing Partner and Co-founder of Unitus Seed Fund, a social technologist and venture investor, shared insights on his journey in the world of entrepreneurship and investing in a fireside chat at the YourStory office recently. Here are the highlights from the event and discussions:
Will Poole spent most of his early days in Providence, Rhode Island, USA, and now feels that the environment was quite similar to Nagpur in India. He learnt about computers on mainframes at Brown University in 1975 and was hooked to them. In the 1980s, micro-computers took off and he made money programming unlike others his age who would mow lawns or flip burgers to make a quick buck.
He got into starting up with his friend’s father and became so busy with it that he almost dropped out of college. He then went on to work at Sun Microsystems after college. Will recalled that Sun Microsystems had a startup like environment back then. He learnt about the importance of sales and distribution there.
Will did not want to leave the East Coast but eventually moved to the West Coast and got into pen-based computing. “We were 19 years too early in that sector,” he said. They got up to a Series C funding for the pen computing startup and then got into e-commerce in 1993. They caught the attention of Microsoft and Netscape. At the age of 35, Will sold his startup and then joined Microsoft.
Will was with Microsoft for 13 years and worked on digital media; media centre and contributed to the growth of a $10B market.
“Bill Gates is a very dynamic leader. I interacted with him during Internet Explorer development,” Will recalled. He realized that Bill Gates would listen to people who had conviction and, as a good leader, he liked to challenge people to do better. On one occasion, when Will was trying to show Bill what he was working on, Bill said, ‘That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard!’ Will stood his ground and put forth his reasons and Bill finally had to agree that it could work.
Entrepreneurial ventures and Unitus Seed Fund
After Microsoft, in 2008, Will moved to entrepreneurial ventures in emerging markets. He then realised that mobile devices, open source technology etc held the key to bringing technology to a wider market. Starting off now with connected tablets, for example, gives a better educational experience than earlier.
I love entrepreneurship and working with entrepreneurs and creative people, and teamed up and cofounded Unitus Seed Fund (USF), he said.
Will became a financial services entrepreneur, working on positive social impact. He believes that businesses and startups can help under-served markets. India has huge opportunities in mobile, education and health. USF works across sectors, in scalable businesses, their typical investment size is Rs 1 crore, and they help entrepreneurs get to Series A in 18 months. In addition to providing entrepreneurs with investment, they also help them out with good operational advice.
What USF looks for in startups – passion, persistence, learning ability
USF prefers startups with co-founders who have complimentary skill sets as it is beneficial to long-term success. To make his point, Will talked about mGaadi, a TripAdvisor for auto rickshaw drivers, and explained how the founders had complementary skills and backgrounds in technology and working with an unorganised labour market.
USF is also running a national startup competition for edupreneurs called StartEdu.They have three initiatives – StartEdu, StartHealth in partnership with Pfizer and StartAadhar in partnership with Khosla Labs – for startups in education, health and government sectors.
India is a country of great talent, but parents need to be convinced to let their kids work in startups, said Will.
Will also spoke about how government regulations sometimes hamper a startup’s progress. The Karnataka Government wanted Hippocampus, a startup in the education sector, to register their facilities. This would be counterproductive for them as it would raise their cost to schools and provide no real benefits.
Will believes that mobile and low cost devices are the future and that we need to keep an eye out on them. Mobile operators are key players in putting mobiles in people’s hands, and even messaging platforms like WhatsApp.
Will stated, “It’s better and more productive to fly across to India than across the US!” and explained how he was having a great time travelling in India and investing in startups.
He also stated that demand for local language content in India is a lot less than he had estimated. Many parents want English content and there aren’t many takers for content in local languages.
Tech impacts on education are accelerating in India, but could be faster. He felt that computer labs and tablets could help usher in the change. Technology alone is not meant to solve problems in education – people have to be involved for transformative change. Teachers alone can’t solve the education challenges in India either; there has to be synergy between technology and teachers.
“I have the joy of concurrently seeing 16 startups doing amazing things,” he said. Entrepreneurs are eternally optimistic people but they also need to face reality and not remain stuck in their bubble.
On forecasts and five year plans
We don’t forecast 5-10 years into the future; USF looks at three-year windows, especially in the next 12 months. We also believe that creative distribution models are as important as the nuances of your product.
On building confidence
A leader must instill confidence; I learnt and practiced this during boating expeditions and in startups. Ideas are cheap but getting stuff done is what matters, he said.
Advice for startups
“The future is the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage,” said Will, advising young entrepreneurs to have clarity of thought and be able to convey what their startup does, not in 10 minutes but in 10 or even fewer words.
In storytelling you need to be passionate and articulate, not just charismatic. Connect within your first 10 words, he said.
Website : USF
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- Bill Gates
- Venture capital
- Sun Microsystems
- khosla labs
- Will Poole
- Brown University
- pen computing startup
- mobile and low cost devices
- open source technology
- UnitusSeed Fund