Friday, December 15, 2006
Interview with Barbara Bry, Blackbird Ventures
Our interview today is with Barbara Bry, the Chief Operating Officer of Blackbird Ventures (www.blackbirdv.com), a venture investment firm located in San Diego. Blackbird recently made an investment in Quanlight, a company developing technology in the LED space. Barbara has a great background, having been the co-founder and on the founding team at two successful companies, including San Diego's Proflowers.com. She also was Associate Director at CONNECT, the very successful San Diego area regional development organization. Barbara is also co-host of "I'm There For You Baby" (www.imthereforyoubaby.com), a weekly radio show focused on entrepreneurship, which broadcasts in the San Diego area on AM 1700. She hosts the show with Neil Senturia, who is her husband and CEO of Blackbird. We thought it would be interesting to talk to Barbara about Blackbird's investment in Quanlight, her experience as a successful entrepreneur, and the show. socalTECH's Ben Kuo interviewed Barbara.
Tell us a little bit about Blackbird, and your investment in Quanlight?
Barbara Bry: Blackbird Ventures is essentially Neil and me. We usually get involved in one or two companies at a time, and Neil generally becomes the CEO. We raise money for the company, and put in our own money. Our newest venture is Quanlight. We met Vladimir, who is the brilliant inventor of the technology, in February at UC San Diego, where he recently got his Ph.D. He literally walked up to Neil, who was there for a poster session in the engineering school, and asked him to read his business plan. We read his business plan, thought it had lots of potential, did our due diligence, and formed the company around the technology. We have an exclusive license with the university, and we both put in some money. We've now raised $1M, which includes some of our own money and from private investors.
What kinds of firms are you involved in, and what do you invest in?
Barbara Bry: We like technologies that are hard to do, and where it's really going to make a change. Second, we want to invest in an entrepreneur who is willing to walk through walls, and is really passionate about what they're doing.
I think our readers would be interested in your background--can you talk about your story?
Barbara Bry: My story is you can become an entrepreneur at any age. So I actually started as a journalist, and spent 8 years in journalism, most of it as a business writer at the LA Times. I there spent ten years at UC San Diego, as the Associate Director of CONNECT. I was there from 1986 to 1996, basically from day one. And it was like getting a second MBA--I have an MBA from Harvard. Then, I got divorced in 1993, met Neil a year later, and we knew from the beginning we wanted to go into business together. Neil was an out-of-work real estate developer at the time. Interest rates were high at the time, you couldn't get funding for projects--and he started coming to all of the CONNECT programs, and got very interested in technology. In the fall of 1995 he came up with the idea for the first company we did together, which was called Atcom. We were the first company to do Internet and email kiosks, and then we were the first company to do high speed Internet access in hotel rooms. Then, from my contacts I put together the technical team for the company, and together we raised $3 million from our friends and family, then we raised one round of venture capital, $5 million, and then we sold the company in the September of 1999 for about $60 million dollars.
Prior to selling the company, I joined another startup called Proflowers.com essentially on day one. There were five of us, a million dollars in the bank, the founder had an idea, and I was the first marketing person. I was there from when it was just an idea, even without a web site, and was there for almost 5 years. That's probably the most successful startup I've been with. It went public in December of '03, and sold last February to Libery Media for $477M. And, I was blessed to be there early, and when you're early you get a lot of stock, which could either be worth something someday or just wallpaper for your bathroom. I did something else for a couple of years, and then I went back to journalism for a year and was the founding editor of a community newspaper, the VoiceOfSanDiego.org, which received national recognition for efforts in community-based journalism. I was working seven days a week, so a little over a year ago, Neil said "BB," -- he calls me BB-- "time to come back and work with me," and said "I want to be a radio talk show host". I had a background in journalism, and Neil actually in his twenties had written for TV sitcoms, and really it was a perfect marriage of our abilities. We started last February doing podcasts, which we put up on a simple web site, and then we met a local radio station owner, John Lynch, and he invited us to have a real show. We've been on the air since July, on radio station AM 1700, on Saturdays from 1 to 2pm. We also put all our shows on the web site.
So it sounds like you are one of the few who made the leap from podcast to radio?
Barbara Bry: Well, I actually believe you have to be multi-platform. I really believe one seeds the other. There have been some studies that only a handful of people are really listening to podcasts, at this time--I think that's going to change. I think it's only a matter of time when you will have Internet radio in your car.
I imagine you're reaching lots more people now with radio than podcasts?
Barbara Bry: We probably do, but with radio you don't exactly know--the measurement system is not as exact. We're actually going to invest in some online marketing, so I can measure exactly what comes to the website. I'm the producer and co-host with Neil. Neil is like funny and outrageous, and I'm a little more the rational person.
For the readers who aren't familiar with the show, tell us what it's about, as they'd probably enjoy it.
Barbara Bry: Our show is "I'm There For You Baby, the Entrepreneur's Guide To the Galaxy". It's about entrepreneurship and taking control of your life, and being the architect of your own vision. We believe you can do that in several ways. One, is you can start your own business; two, is you can find your niche within a large organization, and 3. you can do it in the nonprofit sector. It doesn't have to be a for-profit business. We've done many interesting interview with entrepreneurs in the nonprofit organization, such as Serge Dedina of the WILDCOAST Foundation. whouses business lingo like strategic planning, mergers and acquisitions, and has a high sense of urgency--just like anyone starting a software company.
With your background and experience, I'm sure you're often asked by entrepreneurs for advice, what do you tell them?
Barbara Bry: Every piece of commentary on the show has rules--rules from the BABY’s Book on Becoming a Billionaire. We have rules one, two, and three. One is return every phone call--nobody is big enough not to. Two is networking--become a professional at it. And rule number three is it's most important to go to event you don't want to go to.
That's an interesting rule, why that?
Barbara Bry: Because your expectations are probably lower as to what the outcome will be, and you'll be more open and more relaxed.
Thanks for the interview, that's very useful.
Barbara Bry: One last thing, is if people have an idea on a topic we should cover on the show, or an idea for someone who would be a great guest, we'd love to hear from them. Our ideas come from people talking to us. You don't have to be in San Diego, you can be anywhere in the world. We also want to make this a nationally syndicated show.