Throughout the month of January, we will be featuring a handful of our customers and close friends on our blog. First up we have Matt Rho, a Richmond based venture capitalist who focuses on finding investment opportunities for New Ventures Richmond (NRV). NRV is a local venture capitalist group that was established to build-up Richmond into a world-class destination for entrepreneurs and start-up businesses. We recently caught up with Matt to learn more about his career, thoughts on building community and plans for the upcoming year.
What is the goal of NRV and how did it get started?
NRV was founded by three Richmond-based business and community leaders who wanted to use their capital, wisdom and resources to make Richmond a better city to live in. They noticed that the days of recruiting big companies to relocate their headquarters to Richmond to provide jobs were pretty much gone. It’s harder and harder to do this, but at the same time, they had done some side investing in a few local entrepreneurs and those turned out to be huge successes. They realized that maybe the key to the future livelihood and economic flourishing of Richmond may be with the entrepreneurs. They decided to devote themselves to fostering a community of entrepreneurs here in Richmond. Over the last three years, we’ve seen this burgeoning entrepreneurial scene here and NRV is a big part of that.
What factors lead to this recent boom in entrepreneurship in Richmond as well as across the country?
This was really catalyzed by the financial crisis.
It used to be that when you graduated from college you got a job at IBM or GE and that was who you were. You were an “IBM Man”, or a “GE Man” and that was your identity for the rest of your life. You spend your entire career there. During the last economic downturn, a lot of these companies didn’t keep up their end of the social contract and people realized that they couldn’t look to these places to provide a sense of meaning anymore. I think that’s why this search for meaning in the marketplace is happening right now because people started to look elsewhere.
Entrepreneurs began to realize that they could go out on their own, and all the people who were left at these big businesses were either let go, or saw their friends being let go. People started to think, ‘Maybe it’s crazy to depend on this company to provide for my family’s future, and what we used to think was the safe road is the most insane thing that I can do. Perhaps the only sane thing that I can do is control my own destiny and that may mean starting my own business.’ This is not just a Richmond thing but is something that has happened across the country.
What qualities do you look for in the entrepreneurs and businesses that you may potentially invest in?
I try to keep a pulse on the entrepreneurs and I do this by meeting with anyone who will meet with me. I want to hear about their ideas and see if I can be helpful in any way. NRV is not here to just make money off of good investments. Our founding mission is to build up community. So part of our mission is to have an open door and try to be helpful to everybody who walks through those doors.
In the course of having those conversations, what I look for is really one main thing: is the idea big enough to scale-up to have a national or global impact? That’s important to us, not only from a financial perspective but also an impact perspective. We want to invest in companies that can grow and provide more resources, wealth creation and jobs for our community.
You became an investor in Ledbury, how’d you become involved?
I was an admirer of Ledbury from a distance and a fan of the brand for a long time. When Ledbury was raising money this last time around, they met with Jim Ukrop [Co-founder of NRV] and I happened to be in the office at the time. I met Paul and Paul and we quickly became friends. A colleague, myself, and a few of our friends pooled some money together and we invested as well.
Ledbury is a primary example of a big success story coming out of Richmond right now. Ledbury has taken something that is very authentic and true to Richmond and the South, projected it to the national stage, and the response has been overwhelming. People resonate with the brand ethos of what you all do – a level of sophistication but with a real genuineness and authenticity. I really can’t explain it but there’s something there.
As an investor in small-businesses, you’re in a position where you can help to create meaningful change both within a city and in people’s lives. What is the most fulfilling aspect of your job?
Number one, I love people. I love meeting with people, talking with them, learning about them and trying to find ways to help them. This job lets me do that everyday, all day long. That’s probably the most fulfilling part about it.
Is there anything that you’re most excited about in the upcoming year?
It’s an interesting time for me because there’s a really exciting project I’m doing with a business partner that will launch in 2014. In my work with early stage entrepreneurs, I noticed that they moved through life differently than from the people who I observed when I was working for big companies. It was that the entrepreneurs were fully integrated – work is life and life is work. They were part of this one cohesive thing, which is the person, and this all flows out of the core of who they are. I believe this and I started to wonder why big companies couldn’t be like this also. So my business partner and I are working on a new venture to bring this perspective to big businesses.
Do you have any personal goals or projects that you would like to accomplish in 2014?
I want to work with my hands more in 2014. That could mean a lot of things. Weekend projects with my three boys – building rockets and stuff like that. Making things. I feel like I’m like a lot of people where I feel like I’m thinking about work all the time – whether it’s NRV stuff or this new venture, it’s just all consuming. I want to carve out space to be doing other things as well.