Conventional wisdom probably would discourage the use of emoji in a business setting, but there isn’t much that’s conventional about Brian Rabben, the new entrepreneur-in-residence for Blue Startups’ latest cohort of companies.
Blue Startups is a technology accelerator, an organization that helps selected start-up tech companies launch and grow their businesses.
Rabben describes himself as a “growth wizard” who provides “gaas,” or “growth as a service.” His social media profiles are liberally sprinkled with tiny, playful pictograms such as sunglasses-wearing smiley faces, trophies and moneybags. As an investor and startup advisor, he even encourages founders to use emoji in their marketing.
“It’s silly and fun, but it really works,” said Rabben, whose Twitter handle is @WolfofGrowth and who lists his location as the “SoMa Emojitsu Dojo” (“emoji” plus “ninjitsu”). “This was just cryptic, silly and arrogant enough to stand out to my target audience of founders and C-level executives — it started as a joke that ended up being great marketing.”
His credentials, however, are no laughing matter. Rabben started his career as one of the first employees of Google’s AdWords team, which built a contextual advertising service that today fuels much of the web and mobile world. He then started an independent digital marketing firm, and cofounded the marketing company Growth Machines with Dave McClure, of the venture-capital fund 500 Startups, and Samir Patel, of the online advertising firm SearchForce. Meanwhile, he parlayed his successes into becoming a venture-capital investor and an advisor to a number of companies.
Rabben left his cat — which until recently featured in his LinkedIn profile photo — in good hands in San Francisco, to join the seventh cohort of Blue Startups. The cohort kicked off on Monday with nine companies — five from Hawaii — and Rabben will spend the next 15 weeks in the office mentoring a brood of ambitious, hungry founders. But this isn’t the first time he’s spending time in the islands.
“I’m an early adopter of the trending ‘digital nomad’ lifestyle, and I’ve lived all over, but my love affair with Hawaii is more recent,” he said. “I had always dreamed of living in Hawaii full-time.”
He realized that dream four years ago when he sublet his apartment in Portland to move to Kona. By chance he was then able to move into a friend’s house on Maui, and finally relocated to Kauai to work with a friend and client there, spending several weeks on each island. But business opportunities eventually drew him back to the mainland.
“Although it was worth leaving Hawaii temporarily for career development’s sake, I left my heart here,” Rabben said. “I’m thrilled to be back to reclaim it.”
Blue Startups Cohort 7
DPH Ventures [dphventures.com]
iFirst Medical Technologies [ifirstmedtech.com]
Entrepreneur-in-residence is a relatively new role within the Blue Startups office, which always has tapped a diverse network of mentors from Hawaii, Silicon Valley and Asia to provide feedback and advice to its invited cohorts of founders of start-ups.
“Since our other mentor-network members come in and out of the program, we felt that having one on site would be really valuable for the teams,” explained Chenoa Farnsworth, who serves as managing partner at Blue Startups and as managing director of Hawaii Angels, an investment network. “The main value is for the companies to have an in-house resource for the business development questions,” she said.
Blue Startups put out the call for “an accomplished business leader” who was also “adventurous, experienced, [and] fun loving,” but Farnsworth said the position had to evolve along with the kind of companies that were entering the program.
“As the companies we attract are more and more mature, many of them are struggling with go-to-market issues as opposed to product-development issues,” she said. “This has required us to modify our curriculum to be more customized to the stage the company is at so we can take both early and later stage companies.”
“We were specifically looking for someone with ‘growth hacking’ skills… and Brian had the right background for that,” she added.
Rabben admits that he didn’t know very much about the Hawaii startup scene. He heard about Blue Startups for the first time when he met Elyse Petersen of the wholesale tea auction company Tealet, who had taken her idea from the stage at Startup Weekend Honolulu in 2012 to the 500 Startups program in San Francisco.
“Although I still know very little about the scene, I’m extremely inspired by our fearless leader, Henk Rogers, and his mission,” Rabben said. “I share Henk’s passion for environmental sustainability, and I’m hoping Hawaii startups will continue to focus on creating products and services that help achieve not only Hawaii’s environmental goals, but also the help the rest of the world become more environmentally sustainable.”
And as an angel investor himself, he said that the bigger picture plays a part in his decision making.
“I won’t consider investing in a company that I don’t consider socially responsible,” he said. “And I only invest in companies that are attempting to solve problems in markets for which, because of my background and experience, I have an unfair advantage in my ability to see both the forest — the strategy — and the trees — the tactics.”
Rabben looks forward to sharing the investor’s perspective as part of his work with the founders at Blue Startups, and says his top piece of advice is to “always make 100 percent data-driven decisions.”
“It’s amazing how, despite the increasing availability of amazingly reliable and even predictive business data, most leaders of early-stage startups still suck at this,” he said.
“I’m not religious, but I live by this philosophy religiously — in both my personal and business life,” he added. “I intend to lead by example and help Blue Startups’ startups build good habits before their lives become really overwhelming.”
For his own part, Rabben said he avoids becoming overwhelmed by practicing vipassana meditation.
“I believe everyone should meditate, but maniacal, type-A startup nerds like me need it more than most,” he said.
Disclosure: Ryan participated in the previous Blue Startups cohort.
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Ryan Ozawa is a life-long geek, avid media maker, and community builder focused on the Hawaii tech and innovation scene. He is the communications director for local tech firm Hawaii Information Service, a former newspaper editor, and proud husband and dad of three. He is a co-host of Bytemarks Cafe on Hawaii Public Radio. You can follow him on Twitter at @Hawaii .