On Truth and True Ventures

Dave Balter
Mar 2, 2017 · 6 min read

Back in 2006, Tony Conrad adjusted the scarf around his neck, and strolled into the offices of BzzAgent. Tony was CEO of Sphere, a blog syndication/ search platform, and was looking to hire BzzAgent to accelerate adoption of his product. We eventually struck a deal with one caveat from Tony: While he wasn’t ready to run the program yet, he wanted to be sure a spot was reserved for him. The fee: $70,000.

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True Partner, Tony Conrad, in his Sphere Days

A few weeks later Sphere’s 50% deposit check showed up in the mail. We cashed it, calendared a launch date— and focused on other things. As the launch date neared, we connected with Tony to begin development, but he demurred: he wasn’t ready yet — they were continuing to refine Sphere’s product — but he still wanted to make sure he had the slot. So we kicked the launch date out 8 more weeks. That date came and went, and so did the slot we’d set for 8 weeks after that.

Then, 6 months later, Tony’s on the phone:

“Here’s the easiest $70,000 you’ll ever make,” he says. “I’m not going to run a program with BzzAgent, but I’m cutting you a check for the remaining $35,000.”

I, of course, refused the offer. But Tony wouldn’t have it. Turns out Sphere had evolved from B2C to B2B, and a BzzAgent campaign would no longer fit with objectives. But that was his problem, not ours, he claimed.

We didn’t do anything, I noted. We couldn’t possibly accept his money. But Tony refused to allow us to let him off the hook — he argued that as a startup he knew we’d likely already booked the sale and the impact of us having to write off the booking would be unfavorable from a number of perspectives.

Round after round of back and forth — him offering, me resisting — and I finally gave in. A few weeks later the remaining $35,000 showed up in the mail.

I remember staring at the check with our COO. He turned to me and said,

“That Tony Conrad. What a mensch.”

When other entrepreneurs ask me why we raised capital from True (for both Smarterer and Mylestone…we’re repeat offenders), there are a thousand answers that would easily quantify their value:

  • the fairness with which they negotiate

The list goes on and on.

But it’s the “Tony Mensch” story that always pops into my head first. Not just because of Tony himself — he’s clearly an awesome guy with a strong moral compass — but because the behavior exemplifies everything you need to know about working with True Ventures.

The Truth about True: They just get it.

Last October, I had the fortune of attending True Ventures Founder Camp in Carmel, CA. Besides the draw of an idyllic location, Founder Camp is one of those events where you get to see a glimpse into the future. As dinner was wrapping I watched two entrepreneurs show off the drones they were building— one lifted off poolside, while the other was dropped right into the pool, where it performed all sorts of wild aqua maneuvers. At the next table, Dhananja Jayalath (DJ), was doing tricep dips and glute kickbacks and mountain climbers — his clothes registering his every muscle movement to evaluate strength conditioning.

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Athos, DJ’s Company

Having sold Smarterer in 2014, I wasn’t attending as an active True CEO, but was rather was on a panel about M&A to help other CEOs with their exits. The travel through Carmel was perfect, as I needed to be in California to pitch a different venture fund on backing Mylestone.

Before my panel, I caught up with Tony. We discussed my impending pitch to the other fund, and that kicked off a dialogue on whether this was a potential investment for True. I wanted to be very careful here: the other venture investor had shown interest but was not committed, and Mylestone hadn’t found product market fit. To be honest, we were doing a drunkard’s walk trying to find where product could fit our vision. I certainly didn’t want to represent that we were something we were not.

Tony suggested I run the Mylestone idea by Jon Callaghan, who co-founded True. I’d known Jon a bit from the Smarterer days, but had never really gone deep with him, so when we first sat down to discuss Mylestone, I didn’t really know what to expect.

More than anything, I was fearful that he would see through the business — we had strong conviction and believed very much in where we were headed, but our metrics and results were meager at best. Was he going to think Mylestone was just smoke and mirrors?

As the event was wrapping, Jon and I found a small table near a cold fire pit, and I launched into my pitch which was centered around memorializing the deceased. Jon listened closely, and then a funny thing happened — he didn’t try to poke holes in our vision; he didn’t ask about market size; he didn’t try to compare us to another company. He started talking about how passionate is he about capturing memories, how he is a rabid “journal-er”, how he’s been trying to find a good way to preserve his lifetime memories and make those infinitely sharable.

One might argue this is an entirely inverted business concept. We were focused on memorializing death, Jon was passionate about memorializing life. Many VCs might have decided we were on the wrong path, pushing their own opinion, and passing because our vision didn’t equate to theirs. But Jon didn’t try to sway me that focusing on “death” was incorrect; rather, he connected one level up on the importance of memories.

Mylestone was nothing short of imperfect. It was nascent, amoeba-like, raw. You could poke holes in it from every direction. But Jon didn’t do that — he wanted to see what could be possible. What the story was behind the story. Jon wanted to let the idea breathe.

True. They get it.

Back in 2014, just after Smarterer’s acquisition completed, Christiaan Vorkink from True called me. Christiaan had spent some time on the Smarterer Board of Directors, was an investing partner, and also operationalized the systems that supported the True Founders.

“I have some news,” he said, “Unfortunately, given you’re no longer an active True CEO, we will have to take you off the founder email list.”

You’d imagine, that after successfully exiting a company, nothing could be less important. But this hit like a thunderbolt — the True Founder email list was a place where you connected with the best of the best. Other True founders, all on similar journeys to create something out of nothing, asked questions, received answers and supported each other. It didn’t matter the type of business you were in. You were part of the family.

I played it cool, swallowed hard, and told Christiaan it wasn’t a problem. I understood. But it was clear he heard my voice crack.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “When we fund your next company, we’ll add you back on the list.” At the time I figured he was just trying to be kind, and wanted to fill the space with something that sounded positive.

On January 18th, Tony sent an email to the True list, “I’d like to welcome back Dave Balter, Mylestone founder, to our founders list.” More than 30 other True Founders replied welcoming me back — and Christiaan noted I was the 22nd founder they backed more than once.

This was True. They get it.

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