Founder and CEO of Intrepid, Intrepid Labs and co-founder Timbre
The problem in Boston right now is that I'm starting to feel like companies that should get funded, aren't getting funded and they aren't getting funded for stupid reasons. It doesn't need to be this way. Boston is the second most vibrant venture community in the world.
Interview by Heidi Legg
Mark Kasdorf started Intrepid building apps for popular brands and startups at the age of 24 and decided to focus on mobile. That was 2010.
One year later, he met Matt Bridges through a friend-of-a-friend at the Friendly Toast in Kendall Square to talk about consumer mobile. Three weeks later, Mark hired him, and together they built Timbre, the hot concert finding app, after Matt built the initial version at a hackathon at the Boston Innovation Challenge sponsored by The Boston Globe in May 2012. Kasdorf and his team built Timbre out further that summer.
The next thing they knew Apple had listed them #1 New and Noteworthy App for the iPhone 5 Launch and VCs were knocking down the door.
Kasdorf always seems to be at the front of what’s next in tech and as he grows into his role as a seasoned tech entrepreneur, he explains why Boston is poised for optimization compared to San Francisco, London and New York.
“I think there are four fundamental things that any tech community needs to be successful: The first is access to capital. The second is access to risk takers/entrepreneurs. The third is access to talent and the fourth is access to mentorship,” Kasdorf said as he began to sketch the pillars on a graph for me in the coffee shop of his offices at the historic American Twine building in Kendall Square.
“If you're missing any one of the four, you can't have what Boston and San Francisco enjoy and I think Boston is the optimal location on the planet.”
Last year Kasdorf sold Timbre to Seatwave, a UK-based online marketplace to buy and sell concert, sports and theater tickets. But today, Kasdorf says he is 100% focused on Intrepid.
I sat down with Mark Kasdorf to find out what he thinks we need in Boston to optimize and how an entrepreneur who is doubling in capacity grows with a company.
How do we optimize Boston as a tech community?
Boston is the second most vibrant venture community in the world, behind San Francisco as you can lump San Francisco and the surrounding areas into one group. We're number two and we're trading places with new York which is twenty times our size per capita. It’s pretty amazing that we're still neck and neck with New York being 1/20th the size. If anyone is positioned to be a great thriving place for consumer ventures to thrive, it's Boston.
Do you worry more Boston CEOs will head west or to New York once they hit it?
I draw this chart where we've got capital, talent, entrepreneurs and mentors. San Francisco looks like this [see image left] and New York City is even worse because they have severe talent problem, less entrepreneurs than us, tons of capital and not very many mentors.
Boston is this really well distributed set of pillars. We are pretty darn good at everything.
We're not quite as big as San Francisco and then there is a market like London, tons of capital, quite a few entrepreneurs, but virtually no mentors and it's such a conservative place where people aren't doing stuff quite yet and not very much talent. In every city you can kind of plot against these four pillars. Boston is poised to maximize all four.
Are you the tech head?
No. I have a degree in mathematics and I have a law degree. As soon as we hired a third guy and had two contracts, a law firm made me an offer. It was a base salary of $160,000 a year and I had a new baby.
My wife and I talked about it and I wouldn't say she gave me an ultimatum but basically she said, 'I'm going to quit my job on Friday and you pick what you're going to do.' I turned down the law firm offer.
How did she react?
She's always had an enormous amount of faith in me and I have an almost pathological amount of faith in myself too. I don’t have any long-term fear, which is really freeing. It enables you to make better choices. I’m not solving for a short-term problem with a long-term decision. Choosing to shut Intrepid down and join a law firm would've been a very long-term decision for a short-term problem of ‘my wife needs to quit her job.’ So we made it work.
How will the app business change this year compared to last year?
I think mobile usage has reached a threshold where it's changing everything: How you converse with your doctor, how you get to work, how you buy a car. I think it's become viable for people to disrupt really old business models. Mobile commerce is going to be huge in 2015, as we watched the ramp up in Q4 2014.
Our mission is to build the best products at the intersection of technology and humanity. The way we define these intersections is a point at which technology is changing something that's been done for five or ten or fifty years.
One West Coast VC who wrote a blog post about how mobile commerce is the next era. And that the next $100 million dollar company will come out of mobile commerce and that's a once a decade thing where you see a $100 billion dollar exit. The last couple exits like that, in reverse order, were Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft.
There are opportunities to disrupt almost anything. Openbay is a great example, and the CIC is an even better model because they don’t need the venture market to keep exploding.
Mobile is eating the world. Android and IOS are gearing themselves up to be operating systems that can be put in many different things, and not just phones. I have specific examples of potential clients that I can't talk about yet, but I think IOS and Android are going to transcend well beyond your phone.
[Here is our podcast interview with David Rose. His new book, Enchanted Objects, predicts the same.]
Who are your clients?
MIT is a big client. Adidas, Philips, Oyo, Sense HUD, to name a few. About a third to 40% of our revenue is word of mouth. 90% of the work we've done is building apps. It’s probably an app although we may have done some backend work for them many clients as well.
Do you build your apps with that in mind?
I don't consider us an app development firm. I consider us a problem-solving firm. If you look at our portfolio, most of our clients are changing the way people do things: changing the way elderly people in their homes use mobile. We've got a client that's changing the way people do CAD drawings on mobile devices and elsewhere, and in the cloud. All of our clients are changing something.
We will look back on 2013 as the age of Angry Birds, and in 2013 and 2014 enterprise and healthcare became real industries in mobile. Looking forward, we'll see education, manufacturing and many others. The iPhone 6 is as powerful as the most powerful computer in the world in was 1993. Any device with an API can now have a brain that's as powerful as the most powerful supercomputer from the early '90s.
How will that apply to daily life?
Uber is a perfect example. Square is a perfect example. This app just replaced a $150 piece of hardware that you used to carry around. Very simple apps are coming out that are dramatically changing how people do things. American Well is a local startup that's raised, I think, more than $100 million in the telemedicine. They are changing the way you communicate with a doctor. Three taps and for a buck a minute you can talk to an oncologist.
How will life look differently in one year?
You're going to shop a whole lot more on your phone.
What I know is you spent thirty minutes a day on your phone in 2012. Two hours a day in 2013. Three hours in 2014. It's going to be five hours in 2015. It's accelerating.
It's guys like Rob from Openbay to figure out how mobile's going to change the world. I'm capable of building it.
What public opinion would you like to change?
I would like to change the concept that great consumer companies can't get funded in Boston and have to go to San Francisco. I think half of it is perception and half of it is reality and both of those things need to change.
It will probably have to start with the venture capitalists. I know a really great company raising money. It's a third time entrepreneur who's had two nine figure exits starting his first consumer tech-company. He's raising a $3 million round and he goes to the Boston VCs and he needs one more lead and they're punting. They are saying, “Geez, a half million dollar check and no –traction… that feels like a big check for no traction.” He goes to a single event with West Coast investors and they're like, ‘only $3 million? This is a consumer company. You're going to need a lot more money than that. You should consider increasing the size of your round.’
What are you doing that's new and different as a CEO of a growing firm?
My short answer is I have no idea because this is my first job and I think this is one of the beauties of Intrepid. I don't have a venture board. I don't have a board, period. We are making everything up and we've been making everything up with no one who's done it before since the day we started the company.
We have a lot of policies and things that we put in place when we were five people that just made sense. And we still do today. We spend $500 per person on holiday gifts and every gift is completely personalized.
Why is that important to you?
It's part of our culture.
Can you define that culture?
I can define the culture by anecdote. On a typical Friday night we have a happy hour, which I now know is actually very normal. But we get dinner for the entire company every Friday night. Two Fridays ago, we had thirty-three out of forty three staff here. We've already added two people since then and everyone was here at seven in the evening having dinner, talking and laughing, drinking, listening to music.
What's the average age?
Twenty-seven or twenty-eight now.
How does it feel to be focused solely on Intrepid?
It's amazing. Intrepid this year has grown from twenty-five to forty-five people. We have tripled in revenue. We are profitable now. In the past year, the entire company has transformed.
And we started a separate company called Intrepid Labs, which is a co-working center. It took us about a year to fill it. Today I'm half the space and half the space is our tenants. There are ten startups just on this floor.
I love this building: the kind of brick and beam, and the location on the green line, red line, right in the middle of everything. I just loved the location of this office.
Do you think about the possibility of being ousted as the company grows?
I've heard the old saying. “There's zero to $1 million guys; there's one to $10 million guys; there's ten to $100 million guys; hundred to a billion and they're very often completely different people.” I've taken the company from zero to one to ten pretty successfully and, yes, I'm feeling the changes as we're going from ten to a hundred.
Such as the full time Christmas present initiative?
Yeah. (He laughs.) Next year the managers are going to pick the Christmas presents, not me. We're tweaking things but it's deeper than that. Corporate politics are starting to pop up and the challenges are different.
What's interesting for you about what's coming next?
I get bored really, really easily. I've gotten more and more strategic in my role in thinking about the future. I feel myself maturing. I feel myself looking back even a year and saying, 'man, I didn't know anything' and I don't know exactly what's coming. I'm really enjoying the jump from thirty-two to sixty four. We just gave out titles for the first time at Intrepid.
When will you get a board? Do you have an advisory group?
Last January, I decided that I needed some accountability and I decided I was either going to create a professional board or join a peer group. I joined The Raffoni Group’s The CEO Collective. Melissa Raffoni runs it. It's great. I love it.
Is it like Young President’s Organization (YPO)?
It’s more structured. It's a full day meeting. You bring a case. I think what Melissa would say is that when you're in the group, you're working on the company. YPO's a network organization. With the Raffoni Group there's real prep. It's great. It's exactly what I wanted.