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FLYWHEELS – Tom Alberg’s Vision for Integrating Technology, Opportunity, and Community


AUTHOR: Madrona Managing Directors | November 2, 2021

Seattle is recognized worldwide for its outsize influence on incubating world-changing technologies. But fewer people realize that our city’s tech economy might never have materialized without the foresight, curiosity, and work ethic of Madrona’s co-founder Tom Alberg.

But fewer people realize that our city’s tech economy might never have materialized without the foresight, curiosity, and work ethic of Madrona’s co-founder Tom Alberg.

Adding to his list of accomplishments, today Tom debuts as an author with the publication of Flywheels: How Cities are Creating Their Own Futures (Columbia Business School Publishing). Flywheels tells the story of Seattle’s stunning transformation from a sleepy company town built around airplane manufacturing to the e-commerce, cloud, life sciences, and research powerhouse it is today – with companies as diverse as Amazon, Starbucks, Microsoft, Costco, T-Mobile, and Alaska Airlines calling it home.

Revered wireless industry leader John Stanton wrote the prologue for Tom’s hybrid tech chronicle-and-memoir, which has already attracted praise from former Gov. Christine Gregoire, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and tech-culture historian Margaret O’Mara. In it, Tom shares some less-known parts of our region’s remarkable journey – and his unique, behind-the-scenes role in shaping it.

In the early 1990s, well before Amazon became a word synonymous with online shopping, Tom recognized that the Internet would become integral to our lives in ways we could not yet envision. He was inspired by the possibilities, curious about the science and, always, eager to learn about fields that might become new sources of innovation.

That innovation mindset attracted the attention of entrepreneur Craig McCaw, a visionary whose McCaw Cellular Communications would lay the foundation for today’s telecommunications industry. At the time, in 1990, Tom was a lawyer representing a mix of clients from The Boeing Company to life science pioneer Immunex. But McCaw recognized in him the same blend of curiosity, risk-taking and teamwork that are now hallmarks at Madrona Venture Group. When Tom made the leap to become Executive Vice President of McCaw Cellular and President of its affiliated firm, LIN Broadcasting, he found himself with an up-close vantage point on Seattle’s nascent tech economy.

Five years later AT&T had purchased McCaw, and Tom put his belief in informed risk-taking to the test, leaving the company to found Madrona with three friends. He had only recently met a then-unknown financial analyst named Jeff Bezos, who had an idea about using the Internet to shop at home for books. In Flywheels, Tom recalls that moment with classic dry wit: Jeff had originally incorporated the company as Cadabra, a reference to the magic of the Internet, but his lawyer suggested that it sounded too much like cadaver.” Tom famously became one of Amazon’s first investors and went on to serve over twenty years on the Amazon board.

But merely identifying successful companies has never been enough for Tom. He devotes at least as much energy to supporting the growth of Seattle’s tech ecosystem overall.

But merely identifying successful companies has never been enough for Tom. He devotes at least as much energy to supporting the growth of Seattle’s tech ecosystem overall. In 1999, when he realized that a vibrant innovation economy depended on cross-pollination between talented people and supportive investors, Tom rallied several other tech leaders to form the nonprofit Technology Alliance. Their goal? Showing legislators how to build a tech economy in Seattle that could rival the Bay Area’s and broaden the access to innovation jobs and opportunities. A key part component of that ecosystem would be helping to commercialize research coming out of computer science, engineering and life sciences labs at the University of Washington and other exceptional research centers.

That was only the beginning of Tom’s community-building. Even after partnering with and investing in many promising entrepreneurs, he wanted to find ways to help Seattle’s business success translate into a better-functioning city for all. In 2014, that wish, in part, spurred the creation of Challenge Seattle, where many of the region’s top CEOs and nonprofit leaders meet monthly to tackle civic problems affecting everyone – from regional transportation to public schools.

Three years later, the same love for his hometown – and its natural environment – led Tom to co-chair the group ACES, which unites business and policy experts around advocacy for Autonomous, Connected, Electric and Shared vehicles.

Tom’s focus on the future, sometimes one that is hard for everyone to see, is what makes him an incredible visionary and someone that people seek out for advice and support. 

He has been a pioneer even before investing a dollar by supporting seemingly improbably ideas and helping those ideas turn in to “inevitable” successes.  That vision is core to what we do at Madrona and directly a result of Tom’s leadership.

Despite his optimism for this Seattle-of-the-future, Tom never shies from confronting the problems that have accompanied our surging tech economy – including homelessness and the traffic snarls that ACES aims to address. In Flywheels, he envisions a city where the tech industry partners with government to solve social problems in new ways.

It’s not science fiction. Flywheels points readers toward an inspiring new idea about the role of technology and opportunity in building cities that can benefit us all.

We are so honored to work with Tom and join in celebrating the publication of this important history of Seattle. www.tomalberg.com

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