By Chris Kenji Beer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Not to be confused with Bill Bryant — the man running for governor of Washington state — Bill Bryant, the entrepreneur and local startup investor, has some impressive feathers in the cap of his own. In fact, Bryant has a reach that’s far and wide, and that reach is certain to expand after being promoted to general partner of one of Silicon Valley’s prominent venture capital firms.
Keeping a low profile in the Seattle community, Bill Bryant is not exactly a household name.
But he has been involved with over 500 start-up companies, most that are profitable or enjoying a profitable exit either through merger, acquisition, or IPO. These include co-founding such internet and mobile industry trendsetters as MetaCrawler/InfoSpace Dogpile, Netbot/Excite, Medio, Mixer, and Qpass/Amdocs.
But Bryant didn’t become one of the ‘Who’s Who’ of the Seattle area business community overnight. It was quite a long and, at times, arduous journey from his early life in Hawaii and graduating from high school in Bellingham. He studied at the University of Washington and graduated in 1975 with a dual degree in Philosophy and Entrepreneurship from the business program. “I knew early on I wanted to be an entrepreneur,” said Bryant. He recalled having always “dabbled in things,” such as a lawn mowing business in high school and then an import business with friends in college. It was through these and his labor experiences such as working for Dole in the plantations that he realized, he didn’t want “hard jobs — it just won’t work for me.”
So when he was asked by longtime friend Scott Oki to run Jeremy Jaech’s Shapeware/Visio as Vice President of Sales and Marketing, it was merely a temporary interlude for Bryant to reach his ultimate entrepreneurial goals. Bryant had been working in Silicon Valley for Tidemark Corporation, a Kleiner Perkins and Sequoia Capital funded company that he co-founded, which led the way in office automation. Oki was a board member of Visio at the time. Bryant was brought in as Visio’s 19th employee.
It was at Visio between 1991 and 1994 that Bryant came to the conclusion that “the era of desktop software was coming to end.” He then met Steve Arnold at the right time and drafted Arnold’s first business plan for Corbis, a leading digital library for online distribution. Corbis was later acquired by Microsoft and became Microsoft’s Internet Services Group, which Arnold headed and Bryant helped run. Bryant and Arnold created Sidewalk, Encarta, and CarPoint, and the first directory of internet sites, which at the time was in the hundreds versus today’s billions.
In 1997, Bryant partnered with Mark McNeely to co-found Qpass, an Amazon type of “one-click” shared identity authentication and payment system for mobile devices. He helped raised $100 million for the company as its chairman and CEO, where he remained for four years. Following the successful sale of Qpass to Amdocs for $325 million, Bryant spent some time as an angel investor.
From 2001 to 2004, Bryant advised various venture capital firms, including Atlas Venture and Boeing Ventures. For Atlas, he orchestrated one of the firm’s most successful deals, Isilon Systems. In 2004, he co-founded Medio, a successful digital media company, and then Mixer, a “Snapchat” solution for feature phones in 2006. In 2007, Bryant was asked to join and run the Pacific Northwest offices of Draper Fisher Jarvis Fund (DFJ), a prominent venture capital firm in Silicon Valley. In 2014, he was made general partner. In all, Bryant invested, co-founded, and/or ran 25 successful companies, mostly in the Seattle area.
Despite these achievements, Bryant never forgot his roots. He was a co-founder and 10-year board member of Densho, a Seattle area grassroots organization dedicated to preserving, educating, and sharing the story of World War II-era incarceration of Japanese Americans.
He also co-founded Social Venture Partners with Oki, a philanthropic organization that connects people who want to give back to nonprofits. He credits Oki and Arnold for giving him opportunities in his professional pursuits.
Through all his experience, “there is no set formula (for entrepreneurial success).” “Every startup is unique,” said Bryant, “and any category of business works with entrepreneurship. It’s a combination of, among other things, people, market, competition, and strategy.”
Doing startups are inherently difficult, and companies rarely do what they originally planned, said Bryant. “Entrepreneurs are often wrong initially, so they don’t have to be precise, just directionally accurate. They must be adaptable, pivot, and make a course correction. When I look for investment opportunities, I look at the founders’ motives and passion. The motives have to be right, and they must be passionate about their business ideas, a missionary about their purpose.” Bryant believes that it may be a good experience for aspiring entrepreneurs to start out working for a larger company to gain experience, and learn to tackle problems.
“It used to be that working for a large company was less risky, and start-ups were viewed as unstable,” said Bryant. This is no longer the case. “Startups today are viewed to give just as good a chance and opportunity at acquiring wealth and success (as large companies).”
Chris can be reached at email@example.com.
I like the point he made about entrepreneurs often being wrong at first, so the need for flexibility is strong. I think that is a very valid point, at least in my own personal experience as an entrepreneur.