MEET Brad Furber, a recovering “deal junkie”.
Those recovering deal junkies can be hard to spot. Brad looks calm, clean cut, not too stressed out. His round wire-frame glasses and deliberate manner of speaking give slight clues of his past career as a corporate and securities attorney. Otherwise, he looks like another internet entrepreneur. Listen to him talk about online marketing, and you’d think he was born to be an internet big wig. Sometimes, however, get him talking about his past deals and he’ll admit that he still craves the “adrenaline rush” of negotiating and closing big deals.
The truth of the matter is that if you were an entrepreneur in the Seattle area during the late 1990’s and early 2000s, you probably met Brad or heard him speak at one of the many “how to raise private equity” or “emerging growth company” seminars and events he chaired or sponsored. From its inception in late 1995 until its merger into a national law firm in 2002, Van Valkenberg Furber Law Group was involved with many of the region’s most successful start-up and emerging growth companies. Brad’s clients included Classmates Online, Digimine, Jones Soda, CallVision, Elf Technologies, VenCore Solutions and many others. He estimates that at one point he had an equity interest in more than 50 start-up and emerging growth companies. Of those, approximately a dozen have achieved some form of liquidity event, many ceased operations or liquidated assets in firesales during the dotcom bust, and some are still out there, fighting the good fight, trying to spin straw into gold.
Now, like so many attorneys, Brad has moved over to the business side. Why not? He is now getting paid to manage a business, but not expected to keep detailed records of his time billing hours to clients, recruiting and herding lawyers, and doing after hours client development. As an equity partner, he was expected to do all these things, and more. Those demands were straining Brad’s ability to spend time with his wife and kids. Those demands also did not give him as much time to exercise his creative interests and talents, in business and otherwise. On his 41st Birthday three years ago, Brad announced to the shock and surprise of many in his family that he was resigning as the executive partner of the Seattle office of a major national law firm to become the eighth employee of a small software company located in Sammamish, Washington.
For the last three years, Brad has served as President of Xeriton Corporation. Xeriton is a private company focused on bringing cutting edge consumer software and web services to market. The company now has almost thirty employees, and has achieved profitability each of the last three years. Xeriton has created a constellation of brands, including Sammsoft, ByteCrusher and Zoombli (the latter of which has in the last six months rocketed into the top 1,250 most visited Internet sites as ranked by Quantcast). Brad and his team are launching and building new brands (with associated products and services) with a view towards creating a synergistic network. To leverage its network, Xeriton has been releasing and plans to continue to roll out a number of new products and services.
Last week, the company launched a live computer support service called Zoombli LiveHelp (http://www.zoomblilivehelp.com/; toll free 1-888-660-4850). LiveHelp Experts, all of whom are certified resolution experts, are available around the clock to ensure its customers computer problems are completely resolved – satisfaction guaranteed. With permission from its customers, LiveHelp Experts connect remotely to fix up to three PCs or Macs, including hardware, software and connections to peripherals such as printers, WiFi routers and iPods. For a limited time, LiveHelp is offering one free support incident (a $50 value). For “all you can eat LiveHelp”, Zoombli is offering these services at $24.95 per month, or $199.95 for a full year. To date, 100% of LiveHelp customers surveyed have said they would recommend the service to their friends. My wife is a new customer.
This week, Xeriton is also coming out of Beta on its Web 2.0 social media website: Wiki Talk. The site offers a split screen view of top news stories and their associated comments by WikiTalk members. Right now, there is an interesting thread going around “Client 9: Her Myspace Page” (this is Ashley Alexandra Dupre, the woman that Gov. Spitzer allegedly transported from NYC to his hotel in DC). The split screen view makes it possible to view both an underlying site (e.g., the URL hosting the article, video or website) and associated WikiTalk user comments, thereby creating an easy to use framework for the WikiTalk community to engage in online discussions. WikiTalk will be partnering with a number of old media companies in the coming months to help them “extend the conversation” with their users online.
Xeriton is growing and profitable, which is not an easy feat in the startup world. Brad has learned a lot about running a successful Internet company the past three years. “We basically spend $0 on marketing campaigns that are not measured,” he says. Yet, the company has a very significant online advertising budget. As more and more marketing goes online, other executives will be as demanding as Brad on measuring the ROI on its marketing and advertising expenditures.
Ironically, Brad’s focus on online marketing has put him face-to-face with developing legal issues. “This is a rapidly growing legal field with privacy issues (around tracking visitors) and trademark issues around search,” he says. “Sometimes it is not clear who is wearing the white hat or black hat. The past few years have been a bit like the Wild West, although things are becoming clearer month by month and year by year as regulators and legislators catch up, weigh in and provide guidance and comfort on the hot and dynamic legal issues of the Internet age.” No one knows exactly how all these things will play out, but lawyers will definitely have a huge influence on the eventual outcome, which will impact and guide Brad’s business.
Brad has no regrets about leaving the law to pursue a career as a business executive. He really enjoys the creativity of his work. Also, he is coaching the basketball team for both his son, Bradley, 11, and his daughter, Isabella, 9. That would have been difficult to do had Brad continued to remain an equity partner in a major national law firm.
This brings us to how I met Brad. The boutique corporate finance and securities law firm Brad co-founded back in 1995, Van Valkenberg Furber Law Group, was hired by ARIS to serve as company counsel in connection with ARIS’ 1997 initial public offering. During some of the drafting sessions with the investment bankers, accountants, lawyers and senior business executives, ARIS CEO, Paul Song, would break up the stressful work by challenging the bankers to a basketball game. Those were spirited games and Brad won a lot of respect from Paul by pounding the boards and hitting key shots against the bankers. “Paul was very competitive and a good shooter, and we all found that it made good business sense to get the ball to Paul early and often”, Brad says with a grin.
Brad thinks one of the reasons his boutique firm won the law firm IPO bake off against a who’s who list of law firms much older and bigger was because he challenged Paul to a two-on-two basketball game for the corporate counsel IPO mandate – Paul and any ARIS executive of his choice against Brad and his fellow lawyer, Jeffrey (aka Hoopmaker) Heutmaker. Paul wouldn’t agree to the stakes, but the challenge did make an impression. Unlike most of the other deal toys now packed securely away in boxes somewhere, Brad still displays the ARIS IPO deal toy, an engraved leather basketball, on his home office shelf.
Brad recollects fondly his deal-making days as a lawyer from 1990 through 2005. That said, he says he is satisfied with his career choice to switch over to the operations side, helping to lead an emerging growth Internet company. In addition to the challenge of climbing a steep new learning curve, Brad says he values and enjoys being able to have more control over his own schedule which, in turn, enables him to spend more time with his wife of thirteen years, Sabina, and their two kids.