Tom Alberg Sees the Future
The early Amazon investor propels Seattle tech’s virtuous circle.
In the spring of 1995, as a favor for a friend, Tom Alberg started poring over 47 single-spaced pages. The subject? An online internet bookstore. “It does a good job describing our vision,” Jeff Bezos scribbled at the top of his typed business plan.
Alberg wishes he could say he knew what was to come. “It wasn’t brilliantly obvious—at least not to me—that Amazon would be as big as it is today,” Alberg writes in his book Flywheels, published this fall.
Still, the McCaw Cellular Communications lawyer saw enough potential in the idea, and the founder, to eventually throw down $50,000 of his own money and become a full-time investor. Bezos named him an advisory director, beginning a 23-year run on Amazon’s board that gave Alberg a major say in the e-commerce giant’s rise.
Today, Alberg is a force of his own. Shortly after his angel bet on Amazon, he cofounded a venture capital firm, Madrona Venture Group, whose investments now make or break founders’ dreams. Name a successful Seattle startup, like Redfin or Rover, and chances are Madrona’s backed them.
Such funding wasn’t always available. When Alberg and company started the firm, they aimed to fill a critical financing gap in the local tech ecosystem. Despite Microsoft’s success, the area lacked the deep-pocketed risk-takers to foster a thriving startup scene. In Silicon Valley, “success begat wealth, which led to increased investment, which spurred new firms, and begat more success.” Alberg wondered if he could create a similar economic “flywheel” here.
He formed the Alliance of Angels to encourage more seed funders and direct pitches from entrepreneurs. Later, he raised money for the computer science school at the University of Washington. Madrona has invested in about 20 startups emerging from the program. “He’s a guy that can’t fail to see the future,” Challenge Seattle CEO Chris Gregoire said during an interview with GeekWire last year.
So what does Alberg see next? While he hopes the city’s tech and political leaders can move past their squabbles to help solve pressing housing and public safety problems, he’s more confident about the economic developments to come: He believes biotech and artificial intelligence, especially autonomous vehicles, will drive our next period of technological growth. If history serves, entrepreneurs and investors will line up to join him for that ride.
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Trish Millines Dziko
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