Interview with Zach Coelius
It is often said that the entrepreneurial bug is infectious. Building a startup is like “jumping off a cliff and assembling an airplane on the way down” as famously said by Linkedin Co-Founder Reid Hoffmann.
While there is no perfect guide to entrepreneurship, there are a few key elements you should consider. We believe that talking with and learning from experienced founders is crucial to move your business forward this is why we organize Untold Stories Budapest. We are excited to introduce you to our “UntoldSpeakers” interviews series where some of the biggest founders from Silicon Valley and EU will be sharing their entrepreneurial journey.
Meet Zach Coelius, a four-time founder,
investor and a syndicate leader.
At his last company, Triggit, an ad-tech startup, he raised $18M from Spark Capital and Foundry Group.
The company was acquired in 2015 by Linkedin and a financial buyer. Only after 2 years as an angel,
he has already enjoyed a $1B exit (Cruise, bought by GM).
Zach shared with us his journey from a tech entrepreneur to an investor,
how the Silicon Valley changed and what is he looking in a founder.
The founder-turned-investor also pointed out why events like ours are super important
for building connections and making CEE ecosystem stronger.
We are sharing with you a glimpse of his untold story:
How did you become a tech entrepreneur?
I never had a real job. I started my first company at 16, I started a couple of companies during university, and after grad school in 2005, I moved to San Francisco hoping to break into the tech scene. I crashed a bunch of conferences and worked my way into it, and totally by accident, with my sister we funded an ad tech company called Triggit in 2005. I ended up growing it for 10 years and, after quite a journey, I ended up selling it in 2015.
I would say I am now a washed-up entrepreneur; I washed up on the beach. Now I am an investor.
How was Silicon Valley back then compared to now?
It was totally different, there was not much going on. It was 2005 and Michael Arrington just started TechCrunch. He organized a party in his backyard, a bunch of people showed up and it was like people were coming out from their caves and hadn’t seen each other for years. I remembered it as being the beginning of the startup ecosystem. There was not much activity back then, but it took off really fast. Only three years later Michael made the Time list of the 100 most influential people and his venture investments include Uber, Airbnb and Pinterest.
Is it easier for founders today with all the sources, education and funding opportunities? Or is it noisier and harder?
It’s both. Back then there wasn’t a lot of information, so you if wanted to learn to do stuff you really had to dig hard and talk to a lot of people. Now, there is a world of information on how to build a website or how to raise money… you go online, and you can learn so much and so quickly. But with the internet the competition is way harder you have to go so much faster, you have to be so much better at your job. If you are some idiot like I am (or at least I was at the beginning) It would have been a lot harder to get the company off the ground. Back then nobody knew what they were doing, so anyone could do it!
What do you think about startups coming from not so obvious places such as the European scene or the CEE scene?
I think it is multifold, the democratization of technology and the talents, the know-how is over all the world. When I started it would have been very difficult to set up, and learn how to set up, a startup if you were not in Silicon Valley. Now you can do that anywhere in the world. I think that creates tremendous opportunities for teams from everywhere, to get together and create great stuff. But there is a substantial difference between ecosystems from different places. The ecosystem from Silicon Valley is incredibly dense, tons of smart people, tons of competition and you can learn really quickly. Whereas in other parts of the world it is much more challenging. Where you can't go to an event every night and meet people who are in startups in most parts of the world, like you do in Silicon Valley. That’s why Untold Stories Budapest and similar events are so cool. Building connections between people who are doing similar things is super important because it is very difficult to build startups without community. On the other hand, San Francisco is incredibly expensive, it is really difficult to found a company if you are based here, so being able to be some place cheaper is great.
How was your transition to an angel investor? How did you end up leading one of the largest syndicates on Angellist?
When I sold Triggit in 2015, I was trying to figure out my life and I was talking to different companies about investing and one of the investments I made was a company called Cruise Automations, this self driving car company, about a year later GM bought them for a billion dollars. So everyone then suddenly thought that I knew what I was doing (but I didn’t!) and I had more capital than I knew what to do with. That gave me the runway to learn the business, do some more investing, making money for my investors, it is going really great!
What are you looking for in a founder when you make an investment?
The most important thing is for them to have a deep understanding of what they are building and who they are building it for. That they surprise me with their understanding of the problem, that they understand it better than anyone in the world. And demonstrate that they can take that understanding and turn it into reality.
Would you like to ask Zach more questions about investing and entrepreneurship?
You will have a chance to do it at our first Untold Stories event in Budapest on November 7th.
100 lucky startups will have a chance to book 1 to 1 meeting with him and present their visions and struggles.
Remember that our application is on a rolling basis.
Apply today to get into selection process.
Stay tuned, more interviews are coming!