An Evening with Jeff Pulver

Jeff Pulver at Leaders Organization in Ramallah after “An Evening with Jeff Pulver” event, which was hosted by Sadara Ventures.

Last month, Sadara Ventures hosted Jeff Pulver in Ramallah on his first visit to Palestine. For those who missed it, this should be a good recap. For all of you who made it, feel free to share your takeaways/highlights in the comments section.

The goal of the visit was to get Jeff acquainted with the local startup community, and to give members of the community an opportunity to interact firsthand with an active angel investor. The Leaders Organization (home of Fast Forward accelerator) provided the venue for the main event: “An Evening with Jeff Pulver.”

Before arriving at the event, I wanted to give Jeff a brief tour of Ramallah and surrounding areas. I picked Jeff up at a meeting point in north Jerusalem, and headed towards Ramallah through Route 60. We got off Route 60 at the entrance to Ein Yabrud, and drove west to Dura al-Qari’. From there, we turned south towards Ramallah passing by Al-Jalazone refugee camp, and finally entering the city through the Al-Balou’ neighbourhood.

After a short tour of the city that included passing by Al-Mukataa, Palestinian Legislative Council, and other points of interest including Stars & Bucks and KFC, we arrived at Orjuwan restaurant. There we had a late lunch with a few local entrepreneurs. Jeff enjoyed specially prepared, gluten-free appetizers, complete with a vegan main course.

We then headed to Leaders offices for the event. The event was invitation-only. We had around 25 attendees including entrepreneurs and others associated with the startup scene in Ramallah. We started the evening with brief introductions. Following that, Jeff gave a talk where he weaved stories from his professional and personal lives into important and relevant lessons. This formed the basis for good Q&A and discussion.

Here are some of the takeaways that stuck from Jeff’s talk. I’m working totally from memory here, so if you attended, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Like many other tech entrepreneurs, Jeff started as a tinkerer. Some of us tinker with code, others with circuit boards, and yet others with communication equipment. Jeff’s toy was his ham radio. He said he didn’t have many friends as a teenager, but that didn’t stop him from being connected and getting his voice heard. As a ham radio operator,  he used to talk for hours on end with a community of other ammature radio operators around the world. He made a good analogy when he talked about how he views Twitter as the ham radio of the Internet – a medium where anyone can interact and make their voice heard at scale. Luckily, with Twitter no one needs to get an operator license from the US Government (as was the case for ham operators).

Tinkering with “stuff” was an important development outlet for many of us who grew up in Jeff’s generation, and had technical tendencies (aka geeks). Jeff felt that kids growing up today with the internet are not getting the same opportunity to “blow things up”, or perhaps are less interested. I see the same thing with my kids too. They are growing up in the dot-com generation where their virtual lives are at least as important as their physical lives. There’s just so much more to do for them there than in the real world.

On the upside, kids of this generation are using new ways  to communicate, play, and learn. Jeff emphasized how we as parents, or as adults running education and business institutions, need to understand the shift that’s taking place here. We need to embrace it, and take full advantage of it. When kids use Facebook groups to collaborate on homework assignments, schools should be trying to figure out how to help develop and improve such new approaches to learning and staying connected.

Another example is my son Omar. He spends untold hours playing Minecraft. It all seemed like such a waste of time, until one day he told me about Redstone. It turns out that Redstone, along with other game components, enable players to build full-blown circuits. So now Omar (15) has good basic knowledge of logic gates and circuit design.

Entrepreneurs constantly pivot and reinvent. They not only do this in businesses they build. They also do it in their own lives. Hearing Jeff say that we were looking at “Jeff version 8.0” brought this into sharp focus. He said entrepreneurship is hard, and it takes a lot of courage, no matter where you’re doing it. The same goes for reinventing yourself (or rebooting yourself as he puts it). It was inspiring to know that from his days at a bond-trading firm in the early 90’s, Jeff has rebooted himself 8 times.

Looking back at my own experience, I think I rebooted 3 or 4 times. Each time was a significant challenge. It was challenging not only because change is hard and introduces many uncertainties, but also because most people around you will not support you. Jeff said that at some point he had to stop listening to the naysayers, and had to follow his own intuition.

Among experienced entrepreneurs, Jeff is not alone in imparting such wisdom. The late Steve Jobs said the following during his 2005 Stanford University commencement speech:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition; they somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Jeff also spoke about his angel investing. Much of what he talked about reflected key principles that drive active angels. Among these are investing more in people rather than in ideas or revenue models. Investing to help those whom no one else wanted to help. Investing as the start of a longterm friendship, mentorship, and support. Investing to give back, to give innovators more runway to experiment, create, and innovate. To experience, along with investees, the magic that happens when you create something of value and take it to the world.

He said that when he invests, he likes to embrace his entrepreneurs, both figuratively and literally. So be on the lookout for a hug from Jeff.

Jeff also made the point that he never asks his entrepreneurs about revenue. He then added that “if they [investors] ask you for revenue, it means they don’t want to invest.” Needless to say, this generated many puzzled looks, mostly directed at me. The reason being that most people in the room (probably including Jeff) knew that I ask everyone who approaches us for funding about how they plan to make money. And here’s the punchline: I actually fully agree with Jeff.

So what gives?

Jeff is an angel. I’m a VC.

Angels like Jeff who invest at pre-seed stage come in at a point in time when an entrepreneur has a raw idea, a vision, and perhaps some semblance of a prototype. Everything else is yet to be figured out. There are assumptions to be validated, customers to be developed, technology to be proven, and many potential pivots. At this stage, any answer to the question of “how do you plan to make money”  is at best a wild guess. You simply don’t know. Jeff understands that his investment is what’s needed to help entrepreneurs answer my question.

By contrast, entrepreneurs looking for Series A financing need to be at a stage where many assumptions have been validated, and questions like mine answered from real market data. Early-stage VC’s cannot afford to be investing at risk levels inherent in pre-seed stage. The economics simply don’t work. We have to look for market traction, and expect part of the risk to have been brought down by the time we come in. This is why we love angels, probably more than the entrepreneurs themselves. They (along with accelerators) do the groundwork necessary for us to be able to invest with relatively better visibility.

Jeff ended his talk on a personal note. He spoke about how he has decided to take control of his health. He’s been on a gluten-free diet, and an intensive workout routine, and the results are clearly visible through a dramatic body transformation. He reminded all of us that if we’re not healthy and don’t feel good about our body, then really there’s not much we can accomplish. “You can’t do anything if you’re dead.”

During the discussion that followed, Jeff said that next time he’s in the region, he’d be willing to come to Ramallah again for a “Breakfast with Angels” type event. Hopefully we can make this happen.

After the event, I drove Jeff back, this time heading south from Ramallah to Qalandia, skirting the infamous Qalandia Crossing, and then winding our way down towards Hizma to enter Jerusalem via the Hizma checkpoint. All this was not before we had a chance to swing by Zamn Premium Coffee for some cappuccino, a chance to unwind, converse, and get caught up on our Twitter and Facebook feeds.

  • Thanks for the summary of the trip. It is great to get such people to talk to entrepreneurs in Ramallah. Do you ever get Israeli Angels or VC talking in Ramallah or is that too politically charged.

  • Abdallah, that is too politically charged. However, it does happen on occasion. Certainly, my co-founder Yadin Kaufmann comes to Ramallah frequently, but that’s the exception.

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