How Being Hardwired to Create Can Pave the Path to a Career in Tech

Entrepreneur, music producer, and tech advisor Avi Brown shares what he looks for when investing, why developers need other creative pursuits, and what’s on his vinyl playlist

You’ve sold an ad tech company, produced music, and advised emerging tech leaders. How do you describe what you do?

Avi Brown: I’m really just a maker of stuff. I’m an entrepreneur at heart. I’m a dad and a husband. Before that, I was a musician. And now that I’ve been around the block a few times, I find it really exciting to guide others who are creating, too. I do that with tech companies and by producing albums.

What inspires you to create?

Brown: It’s just the way I’m wired. It’s all I’ve ever known. I was raised by creative people. The most fulfilling thing I can imagine is building something from the ground up that makes a difference in the world. Right now I’m producing a local bluegrass band and advising a few tech companies. I’m also working on a vision for my next startup.

Why Portland? You just moved your family from the Bay Area.

Brown: Portland nurtures creativity in unique ways. The burgeoning startup scene, coupled with deep roots in advertising, music, and art in general, makes it pretty inspiring on a daily basis. It’s also unbelievably beautiful because it’s in the Pacific Northwest. We moved in September of 2015, so we’re still getting the lay of the land.

Do you work with music on?

Brown: I prefer not to. Listening to music is active for me. I either listen to music or work, but not both at the same time.

What’s on your record player these days?

Brown: I always have the Bobs in the rotation: Dylan and Marley. I’m also a huge fan of jazz—lots of Grant Green lately. My three-year-old son is currently obsessed with the Jackson Five, so their anthology gets a lot of spins as well. My more contemporary fix has come from Fleet Foxes and that Alison Krauss/Robert Plant record, lately; it’s called Raising Sand.

In tech and leadership, we can sometimes think of music and the arts as luxuries or add-ons, but you make time for them as essentials.

Brown: If you spend all day looking at spreadsheets and trying to find a growth hack, you probably won’t find success. Great success stories come from people who are trying to create something that’s genuinely meaningful to others. Playing music lights up a part of the brain that can lend itself to complex problem-solving. The ability to stretch your imagination in ways that aren’t limited to traditional business thinking will help you when you sit down to do business tasks. You’re less bound. You have that elasticity.

“Great success stories come from people who are trying to create something that’s genuinely meaningful to others.”

How have you seen that play out in real life?

Brown: A recent story comes to mind. I advise a company that had a product road map that took us to 2017, or even 2018. It was a solid plan with lots of product releases and marketing announcements along the way. But, guess what happened? The entrepreneurs building the company discovered that what they were planning to launch in a few years was needed now. They had to throw out the other steps that everyone told them would lead to the right, wise, cautious approach, and they are now bravely leapfrogging into what they thought was the future. Now! Everyone else said walk before you run, but they saw the opportunity at hand and are striking while the iron is hot. There’s no one right way to do things. I don’t hate structure, but I believe you can create structure as you go. You have to listen to your customers but also honor your vision.

Was that jump forward in the timeline ultimately successful?

Brown: Well, we’re in the process of discovering that. This is all unfolding as we speak. So far, so good. Their customers are excited, and that’s really the best sign.

What’s another example of outside-the-box thinking resulting in success?

Brown: Well, another example would be BrandAds. We wanted to aggregate every metric for video ads into a unified, real-time analytics platform, but the general thinking was that there would never be one solution that could do it all well. Everyone said we should narrow our scope and specialize in a particular subset of video metrics instead of trying to offer a holistic view of video ad analytics. Or they would say that true real-time was impossible. But we refused to abandon our vision. I knew it was possible, and we didn’t care what everyone else thought. We also knew that hitting the product out of the park and really building something beautiful and intuitive would put us on the map pretty quickly. We got creative, and we took risks, and we got acquired less than three years after founding the company. The stuff that people say is impossible turns out to be the only stuff that actually matters.

Are you working on any of your own projects now?

Brown: Always. Aside from music, I’ve been honing a vision for a new startup. It’s all very stealth at the moment, so all I can say is that it involves brands and causes.

What led you down that path?

Brown: Most of my tech career has been in advertising. I’ve helped brands sell more products, which is all well and good, but I want to leverage my knowledge and experience in digital marketing software to actually help make the world a better place. I want the world to be better for my kids, and I love seeing what can happen when you form the right collaborations. I like the idea that I can create something significant that will inspire others.

Who’s doing this well right now in the tech world?

Brown: Elon Musk inspires me tremendously. His vision encompasses so much, is so grandiose, yet so pure in intent. True entrepreneurs aren’t just stuffy business people anymore, and creatives aren’t just artists. Thanks to technology, we live in an era where the lines are beginning to blur and people can merge business and creativity together to accomplish some genuinely meaningful things.

What is the creative process like for you?

Brown: It’s always about identifying a problem that needs to be solved, and then finding an elegant way to do that. I like starting with customer archetypes and learning about how they think and what matters to them.

And what about advising or investing—what things do you look for? What makes you want to get involved with a company?

Brown: There are three things I have to have. They have to be solving a problem in a market that has scale, so their company can truly grow. The problem has to be real and the solution has to be unique. And the team has to be inspirational. They don’t have to have the deepest experience in the world—although that is a good thing, and past wins help—but the most important thing is that they are passionate and that they really understand the market and their target customers. If any one of those things is missing, it’s just not going to capture my imagination enough to make me want to get involved.

Is there a secret to spotting these three things?

Brown: I look for chemistry. An entrepreneur has to respect the process and be open to ideas. As an advisor, I might throw out an idea that gets shot down, but that should get us riffing on what might lead to a fresh approach. It’s the way this process unfolds, not the results, that helps me get a feel for the chemistry.

What’s next for you in 2016?

Brown: There’s so much happening, and I’m always looking forward to exploring new collaborations. I’m working with a handful of companies, and I’m excited to produce some music later this year. It’s always an adventure!