Q&A: John Fein starts Firebrand Ventures to help other founders

Firebrand Ventures John Fein, founder of Firebrand Ventures in Kansas City. Photo courtesy of John Fein.

As Managing Director of his own venture capital firm Firebrand Ventures, John Fein is a founder helping other founders.

His Kansas City-based company is a seed stage venture capital fund that invests in other companies located in the Midwest.

“My job is to find exceptional entrepreneurs that are doing really interesting things in an innovative way and support them,” Fein, 50, says.

Fein says he’s asked by other founders asking how to engage in a community and how to get investment.

He answers those questions, plus a few of ours are below:

Explain your current role

JF I’m the Managing Director for Firebrand Ventures, which started about a year ago. We are a seed stage venture fund that invests in software companies in the greater Midwest. The way I describe it for our fund is a territory boarded from Austin to Minneapolis, over to Boulder to Columbus, Ohio. That’s the area we target, my job is to find exceptional entrepreneurs that are doing really interesting things in an innovative way and support them.

When thinking about the Midwest, how do you view the startup communities?

JF There are the top communities in the Midwest that have been around for a long time as startup ecosystems and are more mature, like Chicago, Boulder and Austin in that top-tier. Then there are a variety of other startup communities that aren’t as mature but have a lot going for them, like Des Moines, Kansas City, Detroit, Minneapolis, Cincinnati.

I know Kansas City aspires to be a self-sustaining ecosystem but sometimes it just takes time to build companies, attract more capital, get more engagement with universities and corporations, these are all key elements of a startup ecosystem.

But fantastic founders can be found anywhere. It’s a great work ethic in the Midwest, and for better or worse Midwest founders tend to keep their heads down and be more revenue focused. They may be a humble and almost to a fault, these are all qualities I respect.

What makes those mature startup communities successful? Longevity?

JF Having a really great university system that puts talent into the communities. I’m a big believer in density in the communities, having a large number of founders and hopefully investors in a relatively small geographic space. Other communities like Kansas City are starting to figure that out, one way is with coworking and PlexPod Westport Commons is where I have my office. It’s going to house hundreds of startups in one building.

Density is a huge part of it and another thing that these more mature ecosystems have is longevity, they’ve been doing it for a longer period of time. Startups grow, they get acquired or make a profitable exit, then that capital and that talent is back into the ecosystem to grow more startups. Kansas City and Des Moines hasn’t realized that cycle yet, but those other communities have based on the fact that they’ve been at it longer.

What is the startup community like in Kansas City?

JF It has had great growth over the last three or four years. We need more engagement between the universities and corporations and the startup communities. There’s more capital in Kansas City than there has ever been, which is great for startups. And as those areas improve we are going to see more successful startups. Kansas City is going to get there, but we are probably five years into a 15 year cycle. So we have to work hard to put those pieces in place and just give them time to grow.

Thoughts on the Des Moines startup community?

JF I need to get back up there. I think the Des Moines startup system is great and size wise almost a smaller version of Kansas City. Because Kansas City is one of the most welcoming communities you will ever experience. And I see Des Moines being very much the same way. It has a ton of potential and already has a lot of the right things in place. Sometimes it’s just a matter of time. It’s high on my list to get back there soon because I love the Des Moines community.

Is there any advice you would give to the people trying to grow within a startup community?

Start showing up, it’s really not that complicated, start showing up at startup events. Even if you have a day job, take one or two nights a week and make sure you show up and start meeting people. Because if you make that a habit, you naturally start becoming a part of the community. People will start expecting you. Just showing up, being present and engaging is super important.

You say you are always asked how to get investment…well, how do you?

There’s this famous blog post from an investor in Los Angeles named Mark Suster from Upfront ventures who wrote this blog post about an approach called, “Invest in lines, not dots.” If you are looking on a graph of touch points with somebody, if you have enough over time those dots becomes lines. And that’s what I say to founders wanting to get investment, don’t just go out and pitch somebody. Build authentic relationships with people.

When you do that what you are essentially doing is building your own support system and your own little community. Once you have that it’s incredibly powerful and a lot easier to do things like raise money.