S6 Ep. 7 — James Norman: Black Operator Ventures
Tim Schigel: Welcome to Fast Frontiers. I am your host Tim Schigel, managing partner of Refinery Ventures. In this episode, we're talking with James Norman, a serial entrepreneur wearing many hats. He's currently the CEO of Pilotly, Partner at Transparent Collective, and General Partner at Black Ops Venture Fund. In this episode, we're going to dive into James' background and talk about how he got his start very early on, as a builder and learning how to sell. And the two attributes that really stick out in his story are just that, what it means to be a builder, to be really hands on, learn the details, and learn to build fast. Second, is the power of the network. He's built such a good network over time that gives him access to unique opportunities and unique places. Please enjoy my interview with James Norman. James, welcome to Fast Frontier, it's awesome to have you on the show today.
James Nolan: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
Tim Schigel: So, we got to know each other through a co- investment we've made recently in a company in Detroit called Livegistics, really interesting construction technology company. So, I was really excited to be able to bring you on Fast Frontiers and share your story with all the listeners, and you got a lot of different things going on, so we'll slow it down a little bit, and get people up to speed on who you are and the things you're doing. So, first of all, let's go back to the beginning, back to where you grew up, where you went to school, and your story.
James Nolan: It's a long time ago, but I track it in my mind quite frequently just so I can remember what's going on. So, I'm originally from Michigan and was born in Lansing. Grew up around Detroit, grew up in a lot of little places. I was a kid who flew airplanes by himself since he was nine years old. So it's just natural to me to just be moving around and not necessarily be at home. It gives me like a certain level of freedom I guess, to just go where I think the action is. But yeah, when I was younger, I was always trying to find ways to make money because my mom didn't have a ton of money. My parents are social workers and her whole thing was just like, " Well we can't afford that." I was like, " Well if you have a job, then how do I that," right? And when you're like 10, 11, 12, no one's giving you a job. It's illegal, right? So I'm selling candy in the schools, doing the usual thing. And then we're doing video game tips. That was a thing. I found a bunch of kids with video games. I was like, " Okay, well if you want this game, I have this one, you got that one, let's never buy the same game. So we have access to all the games. And then, let's rent these things out as our own little Blockbuster situation and we'll sell tips. So we'll do that." Our friend's dad was an actual engineer. He had all the tools to build anything. Me and my best friend, Martin, started building speaker boxes and building speakers and selling those. And once we got to high school, we were starting to get known in the city for having that type of stuff. I'll never forget, never forget, we are in home room. People are rolling dice, they're doing whatever they're doing. Fernando's doing beats on the table. Like, " Fernando man, you got to buy some speakers." We're trying to sell speakers to all these guys. These guys got money for illicit, for unreasonable reasons. They're ninth graders with money. I'm like, " You need to buy my speakers." He's like, "I don't want to hear nothing about your home audio speakers no more. I drive cars, I want car audio." And that was an eye opening moment. Our entire market base, these people were going to be driving cars. We need to start selling car audio. So that's kind where the business really blew up, because car audio at the time in the mid to late'90s was a huge thing. Cars would come with terrible sound systems, people who wanted high fidelity, it was kind of becoming a bigger business. And so we became, next to Crutchfield, one of the fastest growing car audio websites. So we sold car audio around the world.
Tim Schigel: I had more speakers than tires.
James Nolan: Yeah, 100%. Yeah. I wasn't super into cars yet. I was only into big speakers in cars.
Tim Schigel: Right. The car barely moved, didn't start half the time, but man, did it sound good.
James Nolan: Right, man, it sounded good. And then I started building whole cars. So at that time, now I'm in the whole cars. I'm working with these Thai guys in Ypsilanti, and we're building some of the fastest Mazdas in the US. And we just email Mazda one day, "Look, we got the fastest Mazdas. We're on the cover of this magazine. We should be building Mazdas." And after that came a RFP. And they were like, " Well, tell us what you do." And so then being an engineer, I wrote a 40- page document on exactly what's going to happen, and why it's going to work, and who's going to work with it, blah, blah, blah. And that came a car. So this became a thing where people were delivering free cars to my dorm room or to my apartment.
Tim Schigel: Michael Dell, or?
James Nolan: Yeah, it was just like, " Okay, well, free car. Now what?" So it became a whole thing. Started traveling to Vegas every November for SEMA, and delivering the cars, and doing all that while I was still doing school. When I got out [of school], ended up moving to LA because most of my clients were there. I was doing cars for Honda, Mazda, Ford. Partially all Mazda. I was still doing stuff for Ford. Of course, they were Detroit but every bus was in LA. So moved to LA. Got my one out of two jobs I ever really had, which was designing and doing private planning at Mitsubishi. This was like a dream to me. I could be at Mitsubishi doing Eclipses and bringing the Evo to the US, and all these things. And having some consistent amount of pay that is just, to me, 65 grand that was guaranteed to me for a year was like, "Wow, that's more than the 40 grand I made last year, doing all this other stuff. So let me do this." But that was a learning lesson to me. I was like, " Corporate environment's not for me." These people are not there to win. They're there to sustain their job. The overarching mission of what's going on wasn't important to them. I'm been the CEO's office yelling, " Stop doing this, we got to do this." And that guy's liking the energy, but his organization isn't built for what I'm talking about. There's a time when they were doing Fast and Furious Four, there had been a big break between Three and Four, and they hit me up and they were like, " Yo, we know you guys have the Evo, which is the product plant, the product that I was working on, and we want it to be the hero car of the movie. Can you bring it to for Paul and Vin Diesel to see?" I was like, " Absolutely." But now I had to go to my boss and be like, " Hey, I need the Evo." He was like, " Well, they don't want to be involved in those movies anymore, because they want to be green, they want to be like Toyota." I was like, " This is nonsense. We need this movie. This is free marketing, we don't have marketing dollars, we need this movie. This is why people buy Mitsubishi. This is our essence." And he's like, " Well, I didn't tell you but I think the keys are somewhere in this room. So if they happen to disappear, I guess I don't know where they went." So, take the keys, hop in the car, drive up there, got the car cover, took my boss at the time with me. And then what happened was, I covered up the car. Everything's cool, I'm networking, I'm doing the thing, I come back, the car's uncovered. I'm like, " What happened?" I talked to my boss, he's like, " Oh, a couple more people wanted to see the car." I'm like, " That's not the plan."
Tim Schigel: That's why it's covered.
James Nolan: "I brought this up here to see these two people, hide it until I get back. No one knows what happened." By the time we get back to the office, this joint is all over the blogs. Picture, everything. PR lady in my office losing it and I'm just like, " This isn't my fault." Anyways, that was life I was leading. I was like, " This is not for me, I need to get out of here." But all that to be said, ended up leaving there in 2010, because during that time I started building my first tech company Ubi. And Ubi was a online channel guide, to aggregate all video to one place. So I came to the idea of doing that, I think, because I was in Hollywood and I didn't like the business model of cable tv. So I canceled my cable in 2008, and have been building solutions in and around that space ever since. But was inspired to do it because my best friend now, Joe, who actually works for Pilotly, he's went to MIT and his network's different. And so his buddy, who was his roommate Drew, was starting Dropbox and that was my first point of exposure to Silicon Valley. He was a Y Combinator, he's passing me some articles and the materials from Y Combinator. I'm like, I want to do this. I started building and by 2011, I had 2000 people watching TV on that platform every day. But I was also not the best CEO. I had the wrong co- founder, I had the wrong, hired the wrong engineers per se, had to teach myself to code to fill in the gaps. And then we had wacko angel investors that didn't understand what was going on. Series A docs on an angel invested company. I knew the docs were wrong but I needed the money. I didn't know what else to do. So all that being said, the company began, became, now I know but at the time didn't quite understand, the company became quite un- investible, right? You don't have the right team, got the wrong docs, you don't have the right story, there's no way.
Tim Schigel: Just a mess.
James Nolan: But I did get in a program called NewME and that moved me to the Bay around 2012. And NewME was backed by Ben and Felicia Horowitz, Mission Free KPort, Google, Facebook, et cetera. And that was a house of primarily black people but women, people of color. They were all building tech companies and they paid for us to live in that house, and it was a 16- week program or something like that. And that was how I got to Silicon Valley in earnest and really understood what's going on.
Tim Schigel: So two attributes that kind of stick out to me as you tell the story is one, from very early you've been a builder, right? Hands on in the details. Learn fast but build. Second is the network. It seems like you've built such a really good network that's gotten you into some of these places and unique opportunities.
James Nolan: Well the network wasn't quite there yet. The network really started when Drew was in Y Combinator, and I started seeing that stuff, and started tapping more into the MIT network and seeing what they were doing. That's when I started to understand network a little bit more. I had a crazy network in the car space. I could do anything in the car space. I could have built free cars for the rest of my life, and ate and lived off of that, but it wasn't going to scale the way I wanted to achieve. So I left the car space, I was leaving something big behind. I really spent in earnest at that point, 10 years in the automotive space. I'd only been 27, but I worked at GM when I was in high school. So it was leaving a lot to go do something I thought was bigger. And so I started from scratch to the network. But when I did get in that NewME program, that closed network apps rapidly, very quickly, Ben Horowitz became a good friend. Mike Siebel became a mentor of sorts, a person, the person who I could always ask for good information and know it's on point, and in line with what's going on in the Valley. But at that point, I still didn't understand being... That's a good thing you pointed out. I'm heavy on product, I'm heavy on execution. I get in the weeds. I didn't understand and Drew being a coder, and Drew being a builder and executor, one, I didn't understand the purpose of his co- founder. I didn't understand that relationship and what the balance was of what they were doing. I had always been a solo founder. So understanding what the team brings to the table, and then what the CEO should be focused on, it took me a long time to figure that part out. Not understanding the storytelling aspect of it, because I'm coming to you with the pure facts. This is what it does, this is why people want. This is what we're doing. This is what I think we do next. Not, the world is tired of being constrained by the cable company. They have terrible service. The, " There's so many channels, I can't find anything. My kids can find things they shouldn't be finding. I want to be able to curate my entertainment experience how I want it." That's a story. That's different than, " Here's the feature that does this, here's the feature that does that. You would love this. Here's the problem, here's the solution." It's not the same conversation.
Tim Schigel: And what you're talking about is a key attribute that I try to find, and look for and noticed in really good leaders, which is the paradox quotient. You can go macro and micro, and sometimes you're so close to the micro you can't get macro, right? Because you see it like you said, you see all the details, you see all the weeds. But if you start talking to people about all that, you're just, they're just going to be confused. They're not going to be interested. There's no emotional connection to that. You have to bring it up to the macro and look at the big picture.
James Nolan: Yeah. And I think the funny part about it is, by being involved in Hollywood for long enough, I start to understand the difference between those two. Because if I sat there and talked to you technically about a director of photography, and how they're setting the color lighting, and how everything gets done in this show, that's interesting but you're not emotionally buying. Well, if I'm telling the story and you see it, you're like, " Oh, I want to be a part of that. I want to be in that story. The story you just told me, I wish I could be an extra in that movie."
Tim Schigel: There you go. That's the key right there to the storytelling. Yep.
James Nolan: Yeah, so that's super important. So when from there, now I was in Silicon Valley doing Ubi, like I said it was un-investible. And so I would go back and forth to Ben's office, trying to find different people I could potentially sell the company to, because I built so much technology. And so eventually, positioning for an IP acquisition offer by a small cable service provider. And then, I stayed in the Bay. And then the second job I ever got was to get my wife to move out to Silicon Valley. My now wife, she was not my wife at the time. But she was like, " I know you got a place and everything, but you don't have anything in your place." And before I started going to move, I was sleeping on air masters, before the IP acquisition thing, and then I got a place where I'm like, nothing in it. I'm like, "Okay, I'm ready." " No, no, no. You got to have some sort of employment." So I went and got a job as a developer, building video platforms at this company. And that was a big outfit for me, because I was like, around talent, couldn't get a job at Google. I don't know how to play these Ivy League mind games they play in the interview process, asking me like, " How many pencils am I holding if I have three fingers," or whatever it is. I'm not there for all that. If you ask me to build something, I'll build it. But I did get a job at this place and it made me realize, I'm the best talent they could possibly get to, after Google, and Apple and Amazon paid a whole bunch of other people way more money, who technically have more experience than me as a developer. But, I'm definitely very specialized in building video platforms. So I'm the best person they could get, and for 90 grand, they're winning. And for me I'm like, " Cool, whatever. I just need a job."
Tim Schigel: You just need a job to get your wife.
James Nolan: Exactly. So I'm like, "Whatever dawg, that's cool." So it's a win- win. And in that environment I was like, I learned a lot about the development environment, why it was important to build diverse engineering team from the get go. The people who are working in that particular environment for sure were toxic. The way they communicated with each other, the way they treated each other was out of control. And it made me realize, if you built a team like this from the start because it's what you could afford, and you tried to insert other talented people and tried to diversify minds with women or a person of color, they'll never fit, because the people who are there have set the tone for what that culture is. And that culture is abrasive, passive aggressive and non- collaborative in some cases. If you're coding something a way that I didn't learn in school, the way you're coding is wrong. I'm like, " Well, that's impossible because mine works and yours doesn't, but we're sitting here battling about the syntax." And I'm like, " It'll make no sense because yours doesn't work and mine does." Once I got her out here, I quit that job and started GroupFlix, which is going to be the first a la carte TV service and speeding through that, well, a couple years, it essentially was, I knew the game now. So I got my MIT and Stanford friends together, built the whole product, got a thousand people to sign up in eight days with subscriptions. And the last mile of it was, could I get the content contracts to actually execute on this model? And at the time, 2014- ish, Google and Apple were both trying to build these types of things. They wanted to build a TV service. No one wanted to work with them because Apple had already upended the entire business model of music. And they were like, " You're not about to do that TV, so we're not talking to you." Which is why Apple TV today is them spending their own money building big budget content. It's not like them distributing other people's content. So anyways, I got those contracts and there were investors that had told me, " If you get those contracts, man we're definitely in on this." But that was actually them just putting up a goal post that they thought I couldn't kick the ball through. And so, when I showed back up with those contracts, there was no money to be had. And I was like at this point, Drew's company's a billion dollars. My boy Jake has started Nerd Wallet. Joe, who works for me now, was the first employee at Nerd Wallet. I could have been the second employee at that point. Forget all this. Nerd Wallet is going to be worth a billion dollars. Mike had already pivoted Justin TV to Twitch. That's how people know it. I'm around billion dollar people. I know how this works, but I'm not able to get the money. Of course, I could go ask them for some money, but what am I... That's only like a half million dollar.
Tim Schigel: So, just pause on that for a second, because this is something that I noticed years ago related to entrepreneurs in the Midwest or outside Silicon Valley, maybe even better said. You're interacting, you have friends that are involved in businesses like this, unicorns, et cetera. And you know them. You know that you're every bit as good as them. And my contention is, that makes you more confident to pursue what you want to pursue. Whereas, if you were just in Michigan, hadn't met any of these folks, you didn't know any of these folks who had been around that, you might not have been inspired or motivated in the same way because you didn't see other people do it, that were like you.
James Nolan: But, well, definitely. That's definitely how I entered into a trajectory. Definitely, that first point of exposure to Y Combinator in Silicon Valley set that trajectory, and then the constant involvement with more people gave me more confidence that I could do it. And I was getting closer to it. So I was, because by getting closer to it, I got more of these people in my circle. But there became a point after GroupFlix where it was frustrating. So it was like, now I am seven years into this with all the information and the product I know the world wants, but I can't get to capital. So now I'm frustrated, because everybody else is getting capital. And so now, I'm like, " What do I do about this problem?" And in that moment, start of 2015, I was with my other friend who I grew up with, since I did NewME, then he was like "NewME?" He built his company a year after, came out through NewME, and moved out to the Valley. So we've been doing the same trajectory the whole time. And he's a genius. I'm a builder, I can get things done. I learn fast. He's actually a genius. He was in college when we were sophomores in high school. He's at Michigan State, you know what I mean? He's literally with it. I was like, " If one of us," I'm the master executor, he's one of these geniuses that you want. If it, what's the balance of it? If neither of us are able to get any access to capital, there's a huge problem here. It was only two data points, but two very key data points with a lot of frame of reference. And so that's when we started Transparent Collective, because we're collectively, our networks are pretty ridiculous, but people aren't being transparent with us about what we need to get to the next level. So we want to create this Transparent Collective thing, where we impart that knowledge and that network upon other people of color and see what happens. Because people are talking about want to invest in people of color, but I don't know where they're at. I don't know how to meet them. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. " Well, let's create this mechanism where we're going to bring, who we think the best of the best are out, and we're going to teach them the pitch and put them in front of the people," et cetera. And that became a thing and it was pretty successful. So I was doing that and at the same time, I pivoted group flick to Pilotly. I went to all my customers and apologized for negotiating these contracts that I couldn't pay. And then I was like, "How do you get data?" Because Hulu and Netflix and all the distribution points of today, don't deliver data back. Same thing happens in retail or grocery stores. There was a time where Kroger, and Target and Walmart would deliver data back to P& G and Mandalay, and all these people. That data's not going back anymore. They're like, "No, no, no. I want to learn about what you're doing, and then I want to build my own, brand it, put it on the shelf, put it next to yours and then when you run out, you run out."
Tim Schigel: The typical playbook of the platform, right? " Hey, come be on my platform, I'll share stuff with you, make a business. And then at a certain point, I'll just take that for myself."
James Nolan: So, that's what's happening? I was like, " You guys can't survive like this. You need to know what's going on with your content." So we do focus groups in Burbank, Orlando and Vegas. I was like, : Okay, well, lots of people travel there so we can intercept them." I was like, " Okay, this isn't the'90s though. People's time is way more consumed. In the'90s, you could catch someone walking down the street, not looking at their phones, not in a hurry to go somewhere else. And to modern time, that's impossible. You will not catch a 15- year- old on the street in Orlando or taking it in and like, " Oh, you want to watch a TV show?" " No, I'm on my way somewhere. I'm on Snapchat," or whatever it is. It's impossible. So you're fooling yourself that you're getting accurate data and it's the same as it was 20, 30 years ago. Because everybody said, " Well, we've been doing it this way for decades, so we think it works, but if you have something interesting, we'll look at it." I was like, " Everybody said the same thing." I said, " Anything that's been used for decades and there's no explanation for why it works, other than it's been used, it's broken." And so that's when Pilotly came about. We put an interactive layer on the a la carte TV service of GroupFlix. Took the people who had signed up, and turned them into basically survey respondents and started the business. And Home Depot was the first customer. And that expanded my aperture, because I realized it wasn't just pilot TV shows, it was any piece of content where people wanted to understand the human response. So Home Depot had spent money on a TV series, wanted to understand if that was changing people's perception of their brand and driving intent to go to the store. Now today, I know that as a brand list study, back then it was just like our first customer. We got to figure out what to tell them. And they paid us five grand to do that. And I was like, "If someone just paid me five grand to do this and I really know what I'm doing, this is a huge opportunity." And so that's how Pilotly came about. My boy Joe had joined GroupFlix and Pilotly, just to be the white person from MIT on my team. So once we got in the 500 startups, he left, put his equity back, and he moved on to do other things. He came back and joined the company. He rejoined Pilotly eight months ago. But he was always like, " I don't want to take your resources. I don't want to be in your way. You can build all of this and then when you need me, when you need to extract yourself from product or take yourself out of a key part of the business, I'll come in and run it." But since then, it's been me and Hector. And Hector's my CTO. He's first generation Columbian, grew up in a small little apartment in New York, somehow got himself to Harvard, CS degree, and was lead developer at Flixster. Exited at the Warner Brothers, and then came and randomly met me, and joined me doing Pilotly. He happened to see me pitch GroupFlix at a TechCrunch event and he became a user of GroupFlix. And then when it pivoted, we got randomly connected. He was like, " Yo, I want to do this, I want to work on this company with you." And I was like, " What's your background?" I was like, " All right, let's do it." And we just PARA code it for six months and there we were. Got 500 startups and started having a little bit of money to build something.
Tim Schigel: So, let's shift now to Black Ops and how that came about.
James Nolan: Yeah. So ever since NewME, I saw what it was like to get an opportunity to get inserted into something. We didn't get a bunch of money out of it or anything, but it definitely put me in a different space mentally and physically. So I always wanted to be able to do something like that, which Transparent Collective kind of was the manifesting that. Because, by the time I started Pilotly, and we were 500 and all that, we were doing these demo days once or twice a year and it turned into a bigger program. And I think by 2020, we were responsible for 10% of all black founders that were funded. Now the program wasn't just for black founders, it was for women and people of color. But that opened my eyes to a certain fact. I was like, " Why is it that the black founders are so performant coming out of this program?" It made me dig back into my experience as a founder. I was experiencing the journey and trying to walk the path of my typical makeup founder, white male Ivy League, kind of like MIT, Stanford, whatever. I was trying to follow that path. There are aspects of that path that are important. There's understandings about how Silicon Valley works that are important, but trying to walk anyone's path, but nonetheless someone who's nothing like you, is a fool's errand. And I didn't understand that. And then when I start seeing the performance of people coming out of Transparent Collective, a thing that invests no money in people, I realized it was myself and the people I brought around who have done this before and done that journey, that had a unique lens on just certain things we know that you're going to be good at, and certain things you might not be so great at, based on where you're coming from. And, be able to mold them to the space where they need to go. That's when I realized there's a cultural aspect to this that is unseen, just because of how it's traditionally been done. The people who have traditionally been involved. So, that was mind blowing to me. So I start looking at things like how I communicate. How I communicate amongst people I was around was fine. And honestly, also emboldened by people like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. You get emboldened by that because you're like, " These guys go hard. They say whatever the hell they want." Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But the sheer reality of it is, at least for me and my 6'4" black male body, if I approach you like Steve Jobs, it's not going to come across as, it's not going to come across the same. It just doesn't. Me presenting in that way came across as threatening. It came across as overconfident. It comes across in these different ways. They're this perceptions of the people that you're talking to. And you can't change those perceptions. The only thing you can do is either not deal with them, or adjust the way in which you're delivering the information. These are just learnings that you have. It doesn't mean that I'm a bad person, although I do feel like I've evolved as a person, and it has been better for me, but.
Tim Schigel: Wow, so did Steve Jobs, quite a bit. I mean, people didn't working for him, right? They didn't want to deal with him.
James Nolan: Exactly.
Tim Schigel: And he had to go through his own journey to figure out, " How can I not be such an idiot to people that actually want to do stuff?"
James Nolan: And that's the part that's not sensationalized. That person too, before that person died, had to have an evolution. But in the moment, he's still able to carry that through. And so I just think about the different things I had to think about, that were changing outcomes and could shift perceptions. Because ultimately when you're pitching these investors and have these conversations, one large reason why there's a bias on what's going on, because the person you're talking to really has to develop a certain level of empathy for you. They have to understand you. With Black Ops, that's what's important, as being founders and people who've built many things. When we see someone who we know has built something, and we can see it's had an effect on a certain set of consumers, and we understand there's a bigger opportunity. That person might not be verbalizing it in the way that someone else might want to hear it. We know there's a billion dollar opportunity. As long as this person seems very capable of building towards that direction and we know the product works, we can get excited about it, because we know how hard it is to build something that people love. But just answering your question, 2020, Transparent was doing well. My friend, Sean Green, called me. Sean Green had been in Transparent Collective in the second class. So I know him for a number of years. He's the one who introduced me to Art Basel and that whole world, and just opening up myself to new points of creativity. And so, we spend some time together a couple times a year. But he is like, " You know what?" He called me, he said, " We need the fund. We have fun now." I just talked to Joanne Wilson, Joanne's like, " This is a catastrophe. They're going to start putting money out here in the market for people of color and some of this stuff's going to get squandered, but you guys need to take advantage of it, and go back, black founders. You know how." I was just like, " Well, that's my dream. That's what I want to do when I sell my company. I'll have this money, and then I'll go invest in people and it'll be good." Right? He's like, "No, no, no, we have to do it now." So I'm like, " Okay. All right. You sure?" And I'm getting pretty deep into this stuff, because at the time, I'm building this thing called theBlackFounderlist. com, I've cataloged every black founder that's ever raised mission capital. So I'm kind of getting into the statistics of it, and the opportunity in it. Looking at the performance of these things. Who's matriculating to the next rounds of funding? Statistically, what does it look like for a black founder to get money, and given full rounds of funding, what they're able to achieve? The math really shows a huge arbitrage opportunity. So now I'm just like, " I'm excited about the moment." Because I'm like, " Okay, now someone is going to start figuring this out, but I've been thinking about this for years. I want to be at the forefront of this." And so, I wrote this thing called The Four Challenges. The Challenges For Venture Capital To Invest In Black Founders. And that was in the Harvard Business Review. And people started reading that and nobody questioned it. Nobody thought one part of it was false. And that was the best thing I ever wrote in my life. And that's why I knew, I was being called to do this now. I'm a lot about, spiritually where I'm supposed to be directed and at this moment in time, this is what I'm supposed to be doing. And so we started Black Ops and the first person I called was Ben Horowitz. Like, " Ben, hey man, I'm about to go do X, Y, Z, so, if you want to get involved and get behind?" He's like, " Been waiting for the phone call, man. Happy to do so." Okay. So when you start calling people, whether it be Brad Thiel, Fred Wilson, start calling these people. " Yeah man, we're in. We're in. We want to help you." And so the forces that be got behind us, and we began raising a fund. And it wasn't not challenging, because we're two people running companies. As things came to fruition, as we closed in on money, as we brought in people like Bank of America and JP Morgan and all that, things started to look more real. And then once we start actually investing, then I think some of the concern around what it might be like for someone to be running companies, and running a venture firm like this, start to become moot. We got great deals, things are going well. Still the same people running it, so let's keep doing this and take it to the next level.
Tim Schigel: I love that you didn't wait. I had a similar realization when I was doing my startup, same thing. It's like, " Oh, once I hit, I'm successful in a billion dollars, then I'll go do all this other good stuff." And it's like, " No, no, no. You can start right now. If it's important to you, do it now."
James Nolan: Yeah, because it could, maybe 10 years from now, and it's just like it could have been done 10 years earlier. Like digging into this pool of black founders where I can get on any cap table, because people want us involved. And then getting into the series A, guaranteeing them. Basically guaranteeing them we're going to get you series A. If you hit your product milestones that we agreed upon, we're going to get you into the series A through our ecosystem where it gets you more money, it's going to keep going. And we just believe that we're doing the good work on a LP level, where we get these people their returns. We believe we can become a top decile fund just to fund one. That's what we're going to push for. We had to start earlier because we want to see the fruits of our labor while we're alive. If we execute on this fund one, fund two, fund three, fund four, and what we do does play out the way we say it does, we're going to have a significant effect on social equity in this country. And I want to see it happen. I might be 70, might be 80, but I want to see it happen, where a black person who's an eighth grade is like, "I'm going to be a start up founder." And then has the access to the money, because there's a thousand other people or 10,000 other people who've made a million dollars, who are putting out checks to people who they think could be the next person who could start the next company. Creating that cycle of money and creating that access. I want to see that happen. And at that point, that's when Black Ops will become a commonplace fund. When that happens, that's when Black Ops will open the aperture to a larger demographic of people, and just begin applying our practices across different cultures and doing all that. But for now, I just want-
Tim Schigel: But at the end of the day, you're building, you're investing in real builders, real leaders. And for those people that are builders leaders, but may look different or don't pass the easy.
James Nolan: And the best of the best. I mean, people like Andre and Turk, these guys that, I look at them, I'm like, " These guys are amazing executives. I be trying to be executives like them."
Tim Schigel: Yeah, me too. These are the co- founders of Livegistics.
James Nolan: Yeah, these guys are talented.
Tim Schigel: I'd love them from the get go. They were, I'm just like, " Wow, these guys know what they're doing."
James Nolan: They're buttoned up. If you can find that, that's something you're going to get. If you go for a black founder, you get someone who's buttoned up. Can you get someone who's buttoned up and can do the macro and micro, and you're in a good place. You're in a non- losing situation. All you can do is, the worst case scenario is not getting a billion dollars. You can't lose. So that's kind of how I see it. There's certain intrinsic advantages. And one thing I'll say, I know we're running out of time, but there's advantages to this particular set of people, and two key things that stick out. Black people naturally build relationship. It's part of our culture. So we'd like to build authentic relationship and our word means a lot to us. It's just part of our culture, probably because over time, people didn't have too much. And so the relationships they held with people and the word that they gave them, became the most valuable asset. And so, it's just part of culture. So when I tell you I'm going to do something, it has to get done. If I don't get it done, it's like I'm not a real person. It's like I'm just disassociating myself with said culture. The fact that I'm running a company, even right now I'm running the fund, I could leave my company on the ground. You know what I mean? I could just dip. I don't owe anybody anything. I don't owe anybody anything. But to me it's part of my identity, and I promised a bunch of people something and I have to execute on it. It has to win. Black Ops being no different. So now I have these promises that I have to keep. And so in the case of black founders, you're not in a situation where you can expect someone to start something and then to leave it, when it's not going as good as it could go. Because that person believes that they've made a certain promise to set an investor or whoever's on their company, that this is going to win. And they might pivot it around, but we must find an outcome, because it's tied to my identity. And that's an advantage to have a founder that is tied in, because it's not all about the money. It's about their family, it's about the people that's in their company, it's about the culture, it's about showing that people like them can do it. So there's less of extrinsic factors that are beyond ego and access to money that are driving that connection.
Tim Schigel: And that's the key thing. That's why I'm so interested in founders, and will do anything to help keep the founders engaged in the company, as CEOs if possible. Sometimes they don't care if they're CEO or not. Sometimes it may not be their best skill set, but there's no replacing that founder. The amount of skin in the game that they have, you can't hire for that.
James Nolan: You can't replace that. And the other thing is, that relationship aspect plays into the customer acquisition as well. There's reasoning around why black culture drives American culture, because it's unique and creative, but also people want to have those authentic relationships when they're your customers. So, I've literally been talking to my customers while I'm getting married, and they're like, " Oh, congrats to you guys. Let me talk to your wife," blah, blah, blah. Or they send me a card or I'll send them a card. There's an authentic relationship there that kind of goes beyond the product offering. The product offering, of course, has to be great, but when you layer that on top, you have something that is just different than what everybody else is offering. And that's something that is just going to come more natural to black founders than other people, based on how we carry ourselves amongst our culture and how we like to execute. So those are two big advantages to me that just increase my confidence when I find the right person, that we can create an outcome. So look, we're super excited now. We're about to have the seventh company we're going to do. We're super excited to have the companies we have in the portfolio. We have a couple outcomes coming down the pipeline I feel like, over the next 24 months, because we invested in a couple later stage companies so we could get a couple markups. But ultimately, we're just excited to keep doing this work and hopefully be able to invest in about 20 to 26 companies in the first fund, and start changing the landscape.
Tim Schigel: Nice. Well congrats on all the progress so far. You're doing a fantastic job. I think this time, the market that we're in now is even better for you for a bunch of different reasons.
James Nolan: Yeah, 100%. They always ask me, "What's going with the market?" I'm like, well these people never had high valuations, never had capital. So guess who's winning now?
Tim Schigel: Right, right. The unexpected. Yeah.
James Nolan: Right.
Tim Schigel: Yeah, no, that's awesome. Well, I look forward to doing more investments with you, and I think, I was going to ask you parting words to entrepreneurs as an investor, but I think you gave the best commercial possible by just sharing the culture and your vision with Black Ops, and how you think as an entrepreneur. So thanks for doing that.
James Nolan: Yeah man, no problem. And yeah, I think the only parting words are like, " Build your culture early in your company because it's going to matter." Everybody says that, but you will not. It'll be exponentially more challenging to do it, as you add each person.
Tim Schigel: All right, James, thanks for coming on Fast Frontiers, and best of luck with everything you're doing.
James Nolan: Thanks, great to see you, and hopefully I see you in Ohio soon.
Tim Schigel: Join us next week when we bring you my conversation with Dan Cremons, former private equity investor and CEO, current PE advisor, and best selling author of Winning Moves, 105 Proven Ways to Create Value in Private Equity- Backed Companies. Thanks for listening to Fast Frontiers. If you like our show and want to know more, check out our website, fastfrontiers. com. If you've enjoyed this episode, please share it with others and leave us a review on your favorite podcast platform. The Fast Frontiers Podcast is brought to you by Refinery Ventures. Our producer is Abby Fittes. Audio Engineering by Astronomic Audio, and our podcast platform is Casted.
Today on Fast Frontiers host Tim Schigel speaks with James Norman, a general partner at Black Operator Ventures, a venture fund that specifically empowers the entrepreneurship of people of color. James takes listeners on a deep dive of his growth and trajectory from Hollywood to venture capital, lessons learned in leadership, and how important networking and nurturing relationships are to customer acquisition.