Bijan Sabet, Partner at Spark Capital: Interview XII – Real Leader Interviews

The most amazing benefit of doing these interviews (for me) has been finding a nice excuse to speak to some truly amazing people and understand what makes them tick.

Bijan is one of those people we should all be thanking! He’s been helping businesses get better by investing in them, advising them as a member of their board of directors and probably most importantly, believing in them when the world rubbished them on first glance. The result is an incredible group of businesses he’s supported through their early days – Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare are of course the most popular of the bunch. The other’s are making it to popularity and success as well. If you have heard of the ‘Draw Something’ game that has become a phenomenon in recent weeks, that’s from OMGPOP, also an investment Bijan has led for his firm, Spark Capital.

That’s not really why I interviewed Bijan though. I’ve been following Bijan’s blog for a few months now and I feel I’ve come to get to know an amazing person. And I simply couldn’t wait to get to know him further.. 

About Bijan: Bijan Sabet has been a General Partner at Spark Capital since its inception in 2005.

imageBijan led Spark’s investments at Twitter, Tumblr, Boxee, Foursquare , Stack Exchange, ExFM, OMGPOP, Bug Labs. , SendMe, Runkeeper and  He also led the investment in thePlatform (acquired by Comcast) and was on the board at Next New Networks (acquired by Google).

Prior to joining Spark, Bijan was Senior Vice President, Corporate Development of GameLogic(acquired by Scientific Games, NASDAQ:SGMS) after serving as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Charles River Ventures (CRV). Before his work at CRV, Bijan was Vice President, Business Development and Product Management at Moxi Digital
Previously, Bijan was an early member at WebTV Networks, which introduced the first true convergence digital consumer product, combining Internet TV, interactive TV, digital TV, digital video recording and games into an integrated consumer electronics device.
Rohan: What is the story of your career so far?

I grew up in New York and went to school in Boston. Later, I went to Boston College. And in 1991, I went to my first
Macworld in San Francisco and I was just blown away. It was my first time in Silicon Valley as an adult! I think I was there as a little child. I did not remember much of it.

A few months later I quit my job and I packed everything I wanted in my hatchback. Four days later, I drove from Boston to San Francisco. I got a little studio apartment. I was there for 10 years and I made my career there! I initially worked at a few start-ups. But the one that changed my life was WebTV Networks. I joined them before Microsoft acquired the company and ran business development. For a number of things, it was really exciting. A couple of months later it was acquired and I stayed with Microsoft for a little while. I’m really not a big company guy! Along with the founder of WebTV and couple of other WebTV folks, we created a company called Moxi Digital that we eventually sold to Paul Allen. It was not a successful WebTV by any means. We had a great idea and it had some problems. It was an easy ride to WebTV and a not-so great ride from Moxi Digital. It was still an amazing experience!

I got married in Silicon Valley. We had our first daughter in San Francisco and our families were all back east. Ten years later, we decided to move back home. I did not know anybody out there. But, eventually, I got introduced to the folks at Charles River Ventures (CRV). One of the guys I met at CRV was Santo Politi. He was a partner there and we just hit it off like peanut butter and jelly. We were interested in the same things! I had no desire to be a venture capitalist but I wanted to work with him.

Later, he decided he wanted to leave CRV. We became quite close to our other foudding partners and they were looking to build a new type of venture capital firm. They basically asked me to come along. I had no track record as a VC, they still gave me a shot and I took it. I really thought about it as another start-up. We were building a company from scratch. Yes we raised the fund and everything else. Nobody ever heard Spark Capital in 2005 and I am sure people today never heard of it either (haha). And we just went to work! I really considered this as the best entrepreneurial decision I ever made. A lot of people wondered whether I was good at it or if I would suck at it. I said there was only one way to find out. So that’s kind of why I did it. And I have fallen in love with it!

Rohan: How was the shift in mindset from being in start-ups to becoming a VC?

When you are an entrepreneur you only work on things that you love! I think there are some VCs that invest in things that they love and also in things that they think will be good investments. For me however, I decided that the only way of doing something is by investing in things I was passionate about, things that I know something about, things that I have experience in and things I care about. 
There are a lot of things in the world that I cared about but I needed to limit and focus on things that were interesting to me. These are things that I wake up everyday excited to do. If another venture firm ever called me and said ‘Hey, I think you should be a VC here’ and if they were a life sciences firm I would not do it. Simply because I don’t know anything about it and its not something I would be passionate about.

Rohan: How was the experience of building your firm? How did you guys do it?

Bijan: It wasn’t one thing I think, it was a combination of things. I had lived in Silicon Valley for ten years and that had helped. Even though I am in Boston now, I made a lot of investments in Silicon Valley and New York. I met Fred Wilson before Spark, he had invested in a good friend’s company. We met through Steve Cain. I met Biz at twitter. My friend Rueben who I worked with at WebTV, works with Android. He introduced me to Biz. It was all through the network I had formed. Also, frankly blogging and twitter changed my life. They enabled me to have a voice and to meet a lot of people just like I met you!

Rohan: True, this blogging thing IS amazing. So, what are some defining moments in your life?

Bijan: It’s hard to under emphasis that the relationship with my kids and my wife is a defining moment. They mean more to me than anything else! They’ve had an endless impact on my life. And you know it’s a juggle to be involved in your family and at work. At the end of the day family means more to me than anything else!

Rohan: How do you juggle between your family and work? Do you keep any routines?

Bijan: I think it’s not easy. It’s a commitment to trying to make everything work. You know there are moments where you are trying to make everything happy but it’s just about commitment! And I can only give up my sleep for that! It’s being a husband, a dad and a VC. For the last 6 years sleep has been giving. I am having the best time!

I don’t do e-mails on Saturdays. If I am doing e-mail on a Saturday then something is really wrong in the universe. I try not to do emails on Sundays too. By Sunday night, I am sucked back into the work but I try to stick to my boundaries! I used to keep my phone with me during lunch and dinner. I was trying to be in the moment and in the present but now my kids have started loving Foursquare and checking-in for me. So leaving my phone behind is no longer an option! I really try to separate my work life from my personal life. When I am working, I am working and when I am not, I am not. I have tried to take more vacations. It’s a process, and you have to get used to it. I used to suck at it and now I am getting a bit better!

Rohan: What does the future look for you in 10 years from now, in your opinion?

Bijan: Things move so much faster than you think in start-ups. I look at very big companies and their scale like Twitter and Tumblr. In their first year they had less than a million users. I think Tumblr had 400,000 users and Twitter had more than that but it wasn’t huge. We have this company called OMGPOP that I wrote about. In 20 days they have 8 million users on one game (Draw Something). That’s because the iPhone wasn’t invented when Twitter or Tumblr was. All the new technology that’s coming in is just more ways for us to connect. It’s also just getting to a point where it’s hard to predict the acceleration.

Things that you used to think were faster are a lot faster now. When you ask about ten years from now I think about how much we are in the early days of those things. I say things about how many people in the world are going to have connected devices. It may feel like it’s a ridiculous number. But when you think about it in this context, its less ridiculous. We are working in the tech sector and start-ups are the future here. That’s why I am really excited about what’s happening in Stack Overflow and Codeacademy. I think this is the area of development we should all be excited about and celebrate! I think it’s going to be an important fabric of our global economy.

Rohan: Any advice that you would have for the aspiring leaders out there?

Bijan: What I have seen with leaders is that they are brave and take a chance. All of the leaders we end up doing business with, investing in and working with – they all have different skills but they are really brave people. It’s so hard to do what they do. It’s hard to take a chance and do things. I think that’s the essential attribute. Other things are critical but you should have this to be a successful leader.

There were just so many learning points in it for me! Thanks Bijan, for taking the time! It was an absolute pleasure getting to know you.

More to follow, as always, with Real Leader interviews..

From your Real Leaders team – Dhanya, EB and Yours Truly