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DiscoverU – Tom Alberg’s Advice to High School Students
AUTHOR: Tom Alberg

Note: As part of The Road Map Project’s DiscoverU Campaign to get high school students to think about higher education, Madrona hosted more than 30 students from Renton High School to learn about jobs in the startup world. Tom Alberg shares this post as his thoughts for students who are thinking about working in the industry.

Here is a link to the DiscoverU website  – www.discoveruwa.org

Where did you go to school? 

I graduated from Ballard High School in Seattle. It wasn’t the best high school in the city. All the teachers weren’t great but some were amazing. I was OK in math but not great. I got a C in geometry in high school. But some teachers encouraged me and I decided to work hard to improve so I could get into college.

I majored in government in college and got pretty good at math which I have to use every day in my work.

What do you do at work?

I am a partner in a venture capital firm in Seattle. We don’t have thousands of employees like Boeing. We also don’t build airplanes. But we help create new businesses. Companies that someday might grow to be a Boeing or a Microsoft or an Amazon.com.

What do you invest in?

We invest in people — people who have a dream about starting a company and building it into a success. Many of the people we invest in are young – under 30. I call that young.

Many are first or second generation immigrant Americans. Either they or their parents were born in a foreign country. The CEOs of at least fifteen of our fifty companies are first or second generation immigrants.

Every day someone comes into our office with an idea for a new company. We meet with over 500 every year.

Today we have over 60 active startup companies we have invested in and are working with to help them grow.

What does it take to start a company?

First, you need an idea to start a company.  Hopefully, it’s a product or service that people will want to pay for.  Some years ago, I met a young person who had an idea about selling books on the Internet.  His name was Jeff Bezos and the company was Amazon.

Everyone has an idea for a new business.  Some are good and some are not as good, but give it a try.  How about delivering lunches for $11 from restaurants to people in their offices.  We have one of those.  It’s called Peach.  You may have a better idea.  Is there something you are passionate about?  Maybe there is business idea involving your interests.

Do you need a team?

You need to be able to build a team. One person can’t do it all. This is the same as a winning basketball or football team. You need people with different skills who can work together. You do that every day when you play a sport or complete a group project – you know who is good at what and sometimes you push your friends to do stuff they don’t like. We can all learn to do new things

You need to be persistent even when people tell you that your idea or even you are crazy.

Does it take hard work to build a company?

To build a successful company you need to work hard and learn. Jeff Bezos had done a lot of work to analyze the book market and the Internet. He was open to new ideas. He also listened and learned as built his company. The first company name he picked was Abracadabra but someone told him it sounded like Cadaver so he renamed it Amazon. You need to learn from others.

I visited the University of Washington recently and met with two young students who are trying to launch a company that is using virtual reality to visualize organs inside the human body. I was able to grab a heart, rotate and examine its insides – all visually of course. They are working with local doctors and hospitals to test it. They call their company CadaVR – I thought it was pretty cool.

2016-10 Tom Alberg - Hay Truck

Summer job  – Loading and unloading hay

What size are your companies?

Our companies start out small. One or two people working hard with an idea. They don’t need a lot of money at first. If they have a product or service that others want to pay for, then they will need more money to grow. And they come to see people like us. Or ask their friends and co-workers to invest.

What do some of your companies do?

Our companies include Redfin, which sells homes through the Internet, a restaurant delivery business, two companies that are developing products for virtual reality, a drone company that lets people at home pilot a drone from afar, a company that will deliver gasoline to your car in a workplace parking lot or mall, a company that helps you take care of your pets, and a company that sells men’s clothing over the Internet that is tailored to your measurements.

We also start companies in our Madrona Labs. Labs has six full time employees and is run by a UW grad. We’ve been lucky to work with him on multiple companies from the time was an undergrad. He started companies while still at the UW to make some money. He then went on to run and start other companies and now he is working with a team to come up with a lot of ideas to test out.

Who do your companies hire?

Our companies hire lots of UW grads. Some majored in computer science. Other pursued business courses, sales, marketing, graphic design. It takes all kinds of skills. I would love to have you major in computer science but whatever your interest, work hard at it, be persistent.

How do you see the future?

You are growing up in an exciting time. New inventions are happening every day. Some are being invented at big companies. Like Amazon. Others like Facebook are big now but started in a dorm room. There are hundreds of small companies right now in Seattle that could be the next Amazon or Facebook.

Whether you are interested in a big company or a small startup, there will be lots of opportunities for you. For a good job, however, you are going to have to finish high school. And increasingly jobs in the future will require that you go to college or to a community college to learn specific job-related skills.

Because of all the opportunity I see for you, I would be happy to be starting over.