This is my interview with Mr. Brett Hurt, CEO and Co-Founder of data.world, as well as a successful tech entrepreneur and investor. I learned a lot from this interview, and I think that you can too.
I want to thank Brett for helping me to kick off this series and hope that you learn a lot from this as well. You can check out more of Brett’s content here at — http://lucky7.io or his Medium page Brett Hurt. Make sure to check out his book, The Entrepreneurs Essentials, as well.
How did you get started with programming?
Brett: My mom bought my first computer when I was 7 years old. It was one of the original Atari’s with the BASIC programming cartridge and plug-in keypad to program it. My mom thought it would help me learn math. It did. She also learned how to program with me. This is a moment I will never forget — the investment of her time in learning what would become my lifelong passion — to change the world through technology. I immediately took to it and spent the next 14 years of my life programming over 40 hours a week.
What programming project from your childhood was most memorable to you and why?
Brett: I created an Internet game when I was 18 named Renegade Outpost in my freshman year at U.T. Austin. Thousands of people all around the world played it, and people even invited me to speak at a conference they organized around it. People got married in real life because of the game. Eventually, the code for my game became the foundation of World of Warcraft. It was an incredible experience.
How and why did you get started with blogging?
Brett: From 2012 to 2015, when I started writing Lucky7, I was dedicated to doing my part to teach Austin’s entrepreneurs how to lead the way. I was focused on creating a lot of jobs and economic ripples in the process. I measured that phase of my life based on impact, and Lucky7 was initially a reflection of my dedication to Austin’s success. My goal was to get Lucky7 to be an “encyclopedic resource” of what I had learned in founding five companies (now six with data.world) and investing in and mentoring many others in the hopes that it would help them. I’ve been a lifelong student of leadership and entrepreneurship since I began my career, and I will always be learning. Refreshing the best of Lucky7, I published my free book, “The Entrepreneur’s Essentials,” on August of 2019. It is over 50,000 words long and a 207-minute read. It took me almost a year to complete. It will always be available online for free in that interactive format (on Medium), and I expect to turn it into a print book later, possibly even this year.
What do you look for in the companies you invest in at Hurt Family Investments (HFI)?
Brett: The five most critical ingredients to build a big company — one that changes the world and creates a lot of jobs and economic impact are:
1, Business model — Without a good business model, you will not be successful in building a large company. A good business model is one that has a margin profile that is similar or better to companies in its category (public company comparisons make this easy to assess) and one that has a very large addressable market.
2. Team — Without a good team, you cannot build a good business. My past partners at Austin Ventures may say this is the first thing they look for. And it is true that if you have a good business model without a “complete” or good team that the team will have to be filled out or change for you to be successful. And this process never stops because people are your biggest variable and high growth actually puts more pressure to either bring out the best or worst in a team.
3. Mindset — The founding team must have a mindset to go long. Brant and I could have sold Bazaarvoice for $25 million when the company was a year old (a public company offered to buy us). That discussion took us all of five minutes. Instead, we doubled down. We wanted to go for a much bigger outcome, which creates larger ripple effects. If we had sold for $25 million, it would have been enriching to us personally. But it wouldn’t have created so many jobs and financial outcomes for many later.
4. Funding — At some point, if you want to build a large company, you are almost certainly going to need to take funding. Companies like Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft all had to do so. And even if somehow you avoid it until your IPO, remember that an IPO is a fundraising event itself. If you have the mindset of “I need to own it all, and I can never give up control,” it will be very limiting in terms of your optionality to build a large company.
5. Culture — You need to constantly reinforce a culture of performance if you want to build your company for the long term. Performing at or above your goals gives you the freedom to build for as long as you would like — usually.
Yash: Brett goes into more details about this criterion in this chapter from his book, https://austinstartups.com/the-entrepreneurs-essentials-3-the-five-critical-ingredients-to-build-a-big-company-52b812637f2
If I could only take away 3 things from Entrepreneurs Essentials, what would those things be?
- The CEO should embrace vulnerability. As the senior-most executive, you are on the ultimate stage. Everyone is watching to see how you will behave — and, to a large extent, they will mimic your behavior. The CEO should have a growth mindset versus a fixed one. No book explains this better than Egonomics. If the CEO has closed their mind to learning due to their “success” (I put this in quotes because there is always someone that is more “successful” than you), then many others in the company will also choose to stop learning.
- The CEO should own the long-term vision of the company. The CEO should carry this torch and light the fires with everyone — investors, employees, clients, and partners. This will create tremendous energy — both for the CEO and everyone else. The CEO also decides when to sell the company or keep growing. This is aligned with the long-term vision.
- The CEO must constantly work on self-improvement and regularly take the time to reflect. After graduating from Wharton, where some of my fellow graduates felt they had received the best business education in the world (and it was indeed quite good), I felt that my business education was just beginning. I had founded Coremetrics during my last semester and was now in the real, raw world of being an entrepreneur. I was determined to read hundreds of leadership and management books in my first two years post-Wharton to help me in my journey — giving me the opportunity to apply what I read every day. I believe that books are read by leaders, and magazines and newspapers are read by followers. This doesn’t mean I never read a magazine or newspaper, but keeping up with the 24/7 news cycle doesn’t improve yourself like a book does. A book causes you to think more deeply because decades or centuries of knowledge are nicely summarized. I discuss this mindset and practice in detail in #4: The importance of an Always Be Learning life.
What did you find most fulfilling about working with TechStars?
Brett: Definitely being with the entrepreneurs and hopefully being a small part of helping them make their dreams come true. You create the future. Others dream about it, some write about it, many read about it. But the rare few actually create it.
What do you think is the most important advice for success in the tech field (for kids or adults)?
Brett: Follow your passion and live your values
What was the process of writing your book like, and where did you draw these learnings from?
Brett: It all grew out of my blog, Lucky7 — I got to see which posts resonated the most with entrepreneurs and investors over a long period of time. The learnings were all drawn out of many books, podcasts, and most importantly, my lived experience as an entrepreneur myself.
How did the speaker series you did at the McCombs School of Business impact you?
Brett: I started it off with a bang at a past SXSW with my interviews of Michael Dell and Rod Canion, the founder and first CEO of Compaq. These interviews were a great contrast to each other. Michael started Dell while attending U.T. Austin, as everyone knows. His sales took off at an astronomical pace, and he decided to drop out as a result. While I was serving as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at U.T. Austin, I used him as an example for students who visited me during Office Hours and were considering dropping out. It is a trade of sorts — the completion of the degree or the immediate pursuit of the market opportunity. If you are a student and have sales like Michael Dell did at the beginning of Dell, I think it is a rather easy decision. But most of the students that I speak with about this are considering dropping out with very little revenue.
Rod Canion’s story was very different. He wanted to work at Texas Instruments long term but got the bug to start his own business and be his own business because of how frustrated he became with the culture. This is similar to Cotter Cunningham’s story with the founding of RetailMeNot, which began with a failed venture at the age of 46 (read this Lucky7 post on failure to learn more). Rod recently wrote Open: How Compaq Ended IBM’s PC Domination and Helped Invent Modern Computing, and it is a fascinating tale about the beginning of the PC industry. Even though I’ve been a consumer in the industry since I was 7-years old, I didn’t realize that IBM had tried to make the industry a completely proprietary one. Compaq waged a David vs. Goliath battle by building open technology to break IBM’s proprietary hold. But they couldn’t do it alone, so they formed an industry coalition with competitors like Dell and literally gave the industry their open technology. Intel benefited from this as well, and the rest is history.
The next interview I did was with Matt Chasen, co-founder, and CEO of uShip. uShip is very interesting in several ways. First, it represented Austin’s largest marketplace business. Bill Gurley, the famous U.T. Austin alum and General Partner at Benchmark Capital, wrote about the ten rules of marketplaces, and uShip meets most of the ten. Second, not surprisingly, given Bill’s post, it is backed by Benchmark Capital. I’m pretty sure this is Benchmark Capital’s only VC investment in Austin. With their background in eBay, that is quite a nice mentoring benefit for the uShip team. Third, Matt was an MBA student at U.T. Austin, and he and his co-founders participated in the venture competition here. Although they didn’t win it, they later won in a more fundamental way. We discuss the intricacies of marketplace businesses, how Matt convinced Benchmark Capital to invest in him and Austin, and the role that U.T. Austin played in helping him get started.
The last interview I did was with Dan Graham, co-founder, CEO, and co-owner of BuildASign.com. Dan’s story contrasts with the rest in that he did not take VC funding and instead pulled off something that is nearly impossible (and almost never happens in Silicon Valley) — he bootstrapped a B2C business, cracking the code on low-cost customer acquisition from scratch. The high cost of customer acquisition usually requires an entrepreneur to raise a lot of money to spend on online marketing. The payback cycle occurs over time as those customers continue to spend and hopefully have a high lifetime customer value (LTV). But Dan and his team started with a bootstrapped consulting firm and found a niche to capitalize and focus on with BuildASign.com. Dan didn’t drop out from U.T. Austin, but he did, in fact, start his first business while in school. This was a great way to finish the EIR Speaker Series for the academic year, and I learned a lot from this interview. We dive into exactly how Dan achieved this and what some of his low-cost customer acquisition secrets are. We also talk about how philanthropic BuildASign.com has become and why.
As I have told many friends, this was a very soul-nourishing activity, and I personally found myself very inspired by the students and professors tirelessly working to encourage entrepreneurship.
What are you currently doing at data.world, and what learnings can others take away from it?
Brett: Building the most meaningful, collaborative, and abundant data resource in the world in order to maximize data’s societal problem-solving utility
We’ve undertaken an ambitious journey to unleash the potential of data by bringing together that data and the people who are interested in it.
Yash: For those interested in learning about the advances data.world has made, you can do so here, https://data.world/company/public-benefit-corporation/.
Brett was a fantastic interviewee, and I enjoyed hearing his learnings and experiences from his various ventures. From his early beginnings of creating Renegade Outpost to interviewing the likes of Michael Dell and now the CEO and Co-Founder of data.world, it is a truly amazing journey. It also taught me a lot about the importance of being conscious of our social impact, something that Brett personifies in everything he does. Whether it is the PBC status of data.world, his work at TechStars, or his commitment to supporting Austin’s entrepreneurs by providing what he’s learned in the form of his blog. In addition, I thought that his focus on a people-first approach to being a CEO was awesome to see as I didn’t think about the importance of leading by example and having a comfortable but performance-driven environment. This interview was incredibly insightful for me, and I hope that you got something out of it as well.