The idea that you have to uproot your life and live in Silicon Valley to make big money may have some truth in it. But this is not necessarily a requirement for Match.com Founder Will Bunker when he sold his company for $47.5 million. The success secrets he has held onto in order to invest in 170 start-ups are humility, gratefulness and exponential thinking. Don’t be just a clone of the other pitchers that came before you. Have a heart, choose kindness and think outside of the box.
Today’s guest on The Successful Pitch is Will Bunker who founded Match.com and was able to sell that for millions. He’s now invested in over 170 companies. He shares with us what he looks for when he hears a pitch and the importance of getting a customer versus just relying on funding to grow your company. He has some real core values at his company,GrowthX, about humility, gratefulness and exponential thinking where they’re really looking for the big idea. Really the big takeaway for me was if you’re not good at something, then figure out how to do it. If you’re not getting the results you want from pitching, then work with someone like me who can help you with the pitch. He’s working on improving his networking skills, so I introduced him to Judy Robinett. There’s always something you can offer someone no matter how successful they are, if you take the time to figure out what they’re working on now and how you can help. Enjoy the episode.
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Gratefulness And Exponential Thinking: Success Secrets with Will Bunker
Today’s guest is Will Bunker. Will knows two of my other guests, Andrew Goldner from GrowthX as well as Manny Fernandez. Obviously, I am excited to have Will on the show because we’re connected from multiple different ways. He’s an investor in more than 170 startups. He made it his life’s mission to help other entrepreneurs succeed in developing successful companies and achieving their goals. His skill and experience in connecting people have allowed him to build a global network of investors and entrepreneurs, which he then considers his extended family. Before he co-founded GrowthX, he raised and led the Silicon Valley Growth Syndicate, which is a seed-stage micro-VC. He was also a seller-founder of OneAndOnly.com, the largest internet dating site and one of the top 100 site of the 90s acquired by Ticketmaster for $47 million and rebranded as something we all know as Match.com. Will, welcome to the show.
Glad to be here.
Why don’t you start by telling us where you’re recording from because that’s interesting right off the get-go?
I’m at the Blockchain Conference, which is at Draper University being put on by DLJ and a couple of other folks. It’s an interesting group of people. There’s a lot of excited young people mixed in with conspiracy theory currency stuff, and so it’s just very interesting.
I know that your career began when you were working with N.B. Hunt who sent you on these adventures across Russia and Nicaragua, and you ended up carrying $250,000 worth of gold to Florida. Can we start there?
The plane left too early in the morning so I had to sleep with the gold under my bed because you couldn’t get it out to the bank that early. I would sleep with it under my bed, drive out to the airport, jump on a commercial plane, and drop it off to the Brink’s people in Miami every two weeks. Panic attack, it was tough.
[Tweet “Spend time learning skills you don’t have.”]
How long did you do that?
A year was all I could take. I would grab a book on Novell networking in the airport, come back to the jungle, study it, and when I passed all my tests, I quit and went to Dallas to get into the tech business.
If nothing else, it’s almost like building up your risk tolerance like taking a cold shower can do, right?
Starting an internet company seems a lot less risky than Nicaragua and Russia, that’s for sure.
I know everybody probably always ask you this and I would be remiss as a host if I didn’t, but would you mind sharing the story of how you came up with the concept for One And Only, and then how that became Match.com?
Dave Kennedy and I were really good friends in Dallas, Texas. We knew we wanted to do an internet business we believe strongly and that technology is the future. We kept researching ideas and then I ran across the fact that AOL generated half their revenue from chat because they were charging by the hour and everyone’s on the chat system. We went into the chat rooms and everyone was trying to get a date. We saw that half of the revenue of the largest company revolves around dating, whether they know it or not. We need to build that on the internet so that when everyone migrates off, we’ll be there. That was where the idea came from.
How long did it take to grow? Going back in my own memory bank, there was a stigma attached that only people who are really desperate would go on an online dating site. Now, that obviously is gone. Was that a big objection you got?
When I would tell people what I did in Dallas, they would physically back off or would cringe. It was seem pretty shady. As a matter of fact, there’s a really good movie about the guys who processed credit card payments for the pornography industry, and that was the only bank that would take us. I knew the guys in that movie. They were the only ones that would take credit cards from some crazy dating site. It was strange times.
Did you have to raise money before you were able to sell it to Ticketmaster?
I had no clue as to how to raise money in that time period. It was Dallas. It would have been very difficult even if I’d known how. We raised a total of $90,000 and that was all the money that went into the site. We grew it on cashflow for the next five years before we sold it.
After you have that kind of success, I recently read your article about what do I want to do next in my life, and you talked about do what makes you happy. I love that story. If you wouldn’t mind expanding on that about your own personal passion, you were happy with computers when you were a young lad, right?
My father was always buying us the latest technology, so we had a TI computer that I programmed. I really liked it as a kid. I was socially awkward. I just enjoyed it, I’d get lost in it. Then you get a little bit older and you realize, “I got to make a living.” I just couldn’t imagine getting paid to do something that much fun. I went into industrial engineering. I learned a lot and I’m very happy of the things I picked up in college, but I went to work at a factory during my junior year at the summer, and it’s just a miserable environment. You’re in there, it’s noisy, you’re inside, the machines are going, no one’s happy to be there. It’s worse than farming. I was just like, “I’ve got to get out of here. I’ve got to find something else to do with my life. Twenty years of this will not work for me.”
You know what I find interesting about your story, Will, is the risk. You could only do it for a year of taking that much gold from Nicaragua to Miami, and you said, “I can’t do that anymore, so internet doesn’t seem so bad. Now, compared to farming, being in a factory is even worse so I have to still find something else to do.” These dramatic comparisons are sometimes what propel us to take action into a new area of innovation.
My father had the best way of motivating me. His thing to me was, “Son, go do anything you want. If it doesn’t work out, I’ve always got a tractor for you.”
That’s what you want to hear, isn’t it? Come on back to that life.
It’s like, “I’ve got to get out of here. I can’t do that.”
Since you’ve invested in so many startups, and this is The Successful Pitch, we would love to hear what makes a good pitch in your opinion?
It’s a combination of having a unique idea that’s not a clone of 60 other things you’ve heard that week. Today, I heard one at the Blockchain Conference. It was a person who is using Blockchain technology to allow anyone to rent storage space on their computer. Just connect it to the internet all the time. It’s like a distributed AWS, Amazon Web Services. I’ve never heard that idea before, that’s really interesting. It may or may not work, but at least it’s a unique perspective, and when you think about the future, you’d go, “Why wouldn’t you be able to do that?” Some of it is just being on trend, but they’re not being a clone of the seven other things that are trying to do it.
God knows there’s a lot of clones of Match.com, for example, now. I can’t imagine you’d have much luck trying to get money.
It’s very hard to raise money on dating because everyone’s heard of a dating idea and then seen it fail.
One of the things you wrote about that I really resonate with is when you generate trust, that’s what generates money, and that’s what caused you to want to get involve with GrowthX. Can you talk about that please?
I started investing seriously four years ago with my personal money. Quickly, I reached a point to where every time I want to invest with a company, I have to have this super painful conversation with my wife where she would beat me up and tell me what a terrible idea that startup was and we shouldn’t invest in it. I just reached the point where I was like, “Let me just put a fund together and write one check, invest of it out of the fund.” Plus if you look at the math, you need to make a lot of investments at this stage to get to one that really has the payoff that you want.
GrowthX came out of the fact that I was bringing some of my startups into Sean Sheppard who was teaching sales and Biz Dev at a boot camp. He started getting the students to work on it and they took one of my companies from $30,000 a month to $1 million in a month in less than a year. I just went, “What if that happened more often?” We put together this group, and if you raise money for people it is because they trust you. The people that gave me money initially, even for One and Only, it was the guy I worked for. Why did he give me money? Because he saw what a hard worker I was and he trusted me. In order for it to work, you have to build an ecosystem of trust around you because that’s who people do business with, that’s who people give money to. If you’re a first-time founder and you don’t have enough traction for an outsider to invest in you, the only resource you have is to go to the people you’ve built trust with and ask them. You’d be surprised at the numbers that will back you.
GrowthX has so many different arms and legs. Let’s let everybody know what all the different potential things are. Let’s start with the boot camp part of it.
We train people to do the non-technical roles that grow a company. That could be sales in Biz Dev, digital marketing and design. If you built a product and you have initial customers, you’re going to grow or die based on your growth talent. That doesn’t mean just touchless digital marketing. It could be any of the three. That’s our way of trying to create a talent pool that ten years from now we’ve got hundreds of people that we could pick up the phone and say, “We’ve got this great company that’s taken off. Are you interested? Can you help us support it?”
You also are really big on helping seed-stage capital find its product market fit. How does that work?
Before we had the school, we had an internal team. We want to make sure does this process work? We would take that team in about one out of three investments, deploy them into the company to do it with the company, and then to train and hand off those functions in the company once we’ve got the basic pattern figured out. That’s our market acceleration program. We’ve done it with twelve companies now. I’ve got two people full-time on the team and they’ve now taken twelve companies to market in the space of a year and a half. The amount of experience that they bring up there is really incredible.
Can you tell us the story about one of them, Will?
Max was a student of Sean’s. That company that I was saying that they grew, I was looking at investing, and Max called 400 new customers and of that, 35% wanted the product and 0% were able to use the product. It wasn’t time to put money in, but think about it, the other Angels that I hang out with were like, “No, why didn’t you put money in?” They know I invest anything. They really got worried. I said, “We called 400 customers and here’s what we found out.” They went, “Oh shit, we only called two.” You can generate a lot of information by trying to sell a product. It’s better than looking at the deck, that’s for sure.
You talked that success comes from customer revenue, not venture capital subsidy. I think that’s a big a-ha for a lot of people because they watch companies keep raising round after round that are not profitable and still maybe even pre-revenue, especially in the artificial intelligence arena when you’re competing against, let’s say, IBM, Watson, or something.
If something takes that much money to develop before you can get your revenue, it is exceptionally hard for the founder to end up with anything at the end of the journey. The original founder of Match.com raised $10 million ahead of us. He was fired, and when they sold the company from underneath everyone, he made $40,000. That is a very common story. The more you peel back that onion, the more you realize that raising money is not the outcome.
The other thing that I really love about what you and Andrew Goldner and the other people there are doing is this whole concept that you don’t have to uproot your life and your family and move to Silicon Valley in order to build a great company.
You don’t. All of us made our money out of the valley. Mine was in Dallas. Sean’s was in Phoenix. Andrew was in New York initially. It’s crazy that you have to move to be near some guy to write you a check. It’s logical for them because they can, but I think we’re rapidly reaching a world where that’s just not going to be true. If you focus on coming up with an idea and approach where you sell aggressively early, it removes that burden from you.
For someone who’s listening who is a startup founder, let’s say it’s their first startup, they don’t live in Silicon Valley, and they would love to raise the money and possibly work with GrowthX, what’s the first step they take?
Reach out either via someone you know that knows us or via the website. Some people will contact me on Twitter and send me their deck. It’s just any way to make that initial contact. I’m very diligent about at least looking at the deck and asking myself, “Am I interested?” It’s more interesting if someone I trust introduces you, but it doesn’t mean that a cold intro won’t work. One of our best investments stalked me at a conference in Redwood City, just came up out of the blue and just started talking to me. There was just something about this guy. He’s awfully strange but he’s a really good founder. You just don’t know. There’s a little bit of serendipity in this business.
Some investors like to really specialize, “I only invest in Fintech. I only invest in Mobile. I need to be early.” Do you have a criteria that you could share so people would know if they even have a shot at what you’re looking at?
I can’t really help you because I don’t know enough about your vertical to tell you what to do. Then, if you have a price point that allows you for having sales people involved, so it’s not just touchless digital marketing, then that fits our wheel house a lot better. It helps if you listen. If you’ve already got all the answers then we don’t really have much to add, please go execute. You don’t need me. Just go do it. I’m looking more and more just for people that are pleasant to work with. Pleasant doesn’t mean you agree with everything. It just means you’re not an asshole about stuff.
That whole thing about being coachable. Let me ask you to just recap so that everybody can really grasp. If someone’s pre-revenue, you’re still willing to potentially invest with them?
No. They must have a customer. Then we’ve got something to say about that, which is how do you get a million more just like him?
You have to have proof of concept before they should even approach you is what you’re saying?
Yes. We’ve had one company that was very science-oriented. They used magnetic waves to detect your heart rate without touching you. We, as part of our due diligence, got them their first customer. If you’re mature enough and interesting enough, we can always work together to get that customer, but we won’t invest until you have one.
You’re willing to possibly help somebody, get that first customer and then make the investment. How much revenue do they need to have? Do they need to have 400 customers for you to potentially call that money?
No, if it’s an interesting idea with some customer traction, just some. The more, the better, but any is fine.
Do you have any sweet spots of things or areas or you’re just open to new ideas that are unique?
As long as you’re selling to human beings, we find that interesting.
Of all the companies you’ve invested in, unless it always obviously is the person has unique idea, they’re coachable, you like working with them, do you fund past the seed round or do you put them in touch with VCs you know or do you do both?
We will follow on some capital. We consider the sales. Deploying that team is a form of human capital, so that’s our follow on. One in three companies we do that with. Then we have a real strong LT network that the reason they gave us money was to find good things for them to put money into.
The other thing that I really like about what you’re doing at GrowthX is your core values. Would you mind speaking to some of them? There are eight of them. The one that really resonates with me, of course, is gratefulness, but we can talk about any of them.
[Tweet “Core values of Humility and Gratitude are Key”]
For me, it’s people first. If you really treat everyone as a legitimate human being, then you’re forming the basis for a real relationship, a real way to work together. It’s easy to say that, “People first,” but from the people we picked to be our partners, that’s the key thing. If someone’s nice to me because they need something from me but the minute I’m not around, they tool on a startup because they can, I don’t want to work with them. You don’t know in this life who or what will become meaningful and important later. How many times have I needed people’s help? A lot. I just really believe in leading with that. I may not be able to give you money, I may not have any answers for you, but I can at least be kind and listen and be empathetic.
The other one that really jumps out for me is this concept of exponential thinking where you take some exponential steps. Can you explain that? I’ve never seen that before as a core value and that really interests me.
It’s the thought that we live in a world of unlimited abundance. We want to be working on things that have that explosive potential. If we don’t think our sales team can 10X your traction, we shouldn’t do it. We’re looking for those giant leaps forward. I took that $90,000 investment from that one investor and I returned him $15 million. That’s the kind of results we wanted, not only from the people we invested, from ourselves. We need to be looking at those things that are going to make a difference. I’m not doing this just to earn an extra $5. I want the world to be a better place. You do that by introducing new technologies, new businesses, new ways for human beings to get what they want.
Let’s talk a little bit about your advisory board because I was reading some of the descriptions of just basic things on how to come up with compelling ways for your messaging, which I’m all about story-telling and pitching. I was impressed by that.
Are you talking about the advisory board for the fund or for our mentors for GrowthX Academy?
I think the one I was reading was about the GrowthX Academy, but either one.
The academy there is creating a community of people that are successful and ready to give back. I go give talks all the time. I’m not doing it because I get paid anything, as a matter of fact. I do it because I want, in some way, to give back to the next generation of founders and entrepreneurs. The mentor group, at their core, that’s why they’re doing it. They’ve all reached a level of success where it’s no longer just about getting that next promotion or making that extra dollar. It’s, “What can I do to help people just like I was helped?”
Any final piece of advice about pitching or anything?
The biggest thing is to look at every one of these things like pitching, raising money, as a skill. By definition, if it’s a skill, you can learn to get better at it, but you have to train to get better at it. If you’re going around and you’re not having success raising money, how much time did you put this week into getting better at raising money, fundamentally? One of the things I’m working on now is I want to be better at maintaining my network. I’m putting a lot of time and energy. I’m spending probably five to seven hours a week learning about that because it’s a weakness that if I got better at it, I would be able to raise money faster and I’d be able to help more of my startups because my network would be better. It is a skill. Anything that you’re not having success at, if you put attention on getting better at it, you can.
What a great line and what a great way to end because if you’re not getting results from pitching, then you should engage someone who can help you with your pitch. If you want to improve your network, you should figure out who’s good at it and get their advice or read books on it. Even at your level and all the experience you have, you’re still willing to learn and I just think that’s so inspiring to all of us.
Will, I can’t thank you enough for joining us. On Twitter you’re @WBunker. Is there anything else you would like us to promote you or what you’re doing?
No, it sounds good. I enjoyed it. Thanks.
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