Who is behind *unranked? | Ep. 1 - Jonathan Bragdon
As interviewed by Jamie Finney
Why do you care about funding companies?
Small, growing businesses have such an outsized impact on our communities- economic and cultural. (More than government, non-profits, and in many cases, even churches.)
But they are typically misfits when it comes to funding–lack of collateral for debt, lack of defined hypergrowth for equity. The majority of companies don't fit into either category.
So working with founders who are growing companies has a massive, compounding effect for all of us. That's a never-ending stream of potential upside.
Your background is more as a founder and technologist - how do you carry this into funding companies?
With a certain amount of empathy.
I'm familiar with the day-to-day battle that is building a company. An investor doesn’t necessarily need that experience to be an effective investor. But to be more than just one side of a funding transaction, they must be able to walk a mile in a founder's shoes.
Even when a founder has enough experience to know the tools that help them grow a company, it’s difficult to discern the best tools for the problem at hand, instead of just using what happens to be within arms reach.
And, best case, even if there is a huge list of available resources, a guide is helpful to find the right fit.
There are always trade-offs. And we all have blind spots. Learning what is being traded usually requires someone in the trenches with you- someone looking at the same problem with different experiences.
What do you think is your superpower?
Understanding an entrepreneurs' situation and empathetically helping them make decisions.
I've been told I have a (sometimes radical) way of connecting dots to optimize the situation... unlike "these five things worked for me... they should work for you".
What's a top memory as a founder?
The best memories have usually been the first paying customers. Validating that the problem is being solved in a way that someone will pay for it. Impact made. Trajectory started.
The second is finding out that you have close allies who believe you can achieve what you set out to do… regardless of what the win-loss record is at the time. This always includes teammates and sometimes... customers and investors.
What's a top memory as a funder?
Emotions, even tears, from a founder when alignment is tight enough for a check to be written as the relationship begins… and a realization that a founder's intent becomes focused enough that someone else is willing to jump in the boat with them.
My favorite moments typically involve trust. Founders want to work with other founders, so when they find out I'm "one of them", doors begin to open.
How would you describe your company-funding-utopia?
When business owners truly understand the difference between transactions and a funding team, that not all money is the same, that not all financial tools fit all companies. When all founders have equitable access to both the tools (and the rubric) to choose the best financial tools for the business at that time.
When funding is structured to fit companies... not the other way around.
When GPs become more like guides to find the optimum capital stack and resources for the company, instead of just deal-finders for one specific asset class.
When LPs become backers of these (GP) guides... recognizing (and trusting) this huge, developing opportunity.
What's the most pressing thing you plan to dig in on with *unranked?
There are so many funding tools available now, but only a few are well-known. There is an expectation of startup founders to raise equity venture capital as a milestone on "the" path to success. That can be a great path, but only for a very small percentage of companies. Even "successful" outcomes for investors aren't always "successful" for the founder.
These are things I'm thinking about a lot:
Supporting companies that don't fit hypergrowth, high investment, or traditional debt growth.
Education for founders on capital structures, growth/outcomes, multiple paths
Telling stories about what success can look like for all kinds of founders (most of the time "becoming a unicorn" isn't even inspiring or even useful)
Celebrate "building" vs "raising". (It's easy to forget for-profit companies typically fix what gets broken with failed hyper-growth companies.)
The new role of a GP.
Who do you admire in this space?
You, obviously. It's why we are moving our conversations here, isn't it?
Too many to mention... I guess it depends on what "this space" is. For alternative funding... Bryce Roberts, Tyler Tringas, Justin Dawkins, Ross Baird, Melissa Withers, Whitney Haring-Smith. For broader access to financial tools that fit more people... Leslie Smith, Donna Harris, Kim Folsom, Jewel Burks Solomon, Mac Conwell, Melissa Bradley, Astrid Scholz, and more recently, Andrew Gazdecki.
In terms of building a new capital ecosystem, what is something you're very unenthused by?
Celebrating funding more than building revenue-growth businesses.
An entirely place-based strategy doesn't work as well as a more network growth-based strategy.
You can build a company anywhere now. Especially a tech-related company... and the cost is now a fraction of what it used to be. Even non-tech companies, services, physical products, etc. all benefit from the reduction in cost that tech-enabling brings to the market.
"Building" the ecosystem (especially a "walled garden of funding") is a tired idea.
Connecting multiple open systems is THE idea. Working in the space in-between.
How did you end up in Chattanooga?
I've always had a connection to Chattanooga. I was born here. My family moved away when I was a kid. I came back for school and moved around, mostly in the South, Atlanta, Nashville, Greenville.
But Chattanooga has this inescapable gravity to it. It's great for almost anything outdoors and you are within a couple of hours of thirteen million people. Plus, I'm Southern at heart. I love visiting big cities but living somewhere else.
What do your family and friends think about what you do?
Most have no idea what I do. Many of my friends and family have known me to always take on some risk to solve new problems... typically without backing, a corporate safety net, or family wealth. They see it doesn't always work, but sometimes the outcomes are good enough to talk about.
It's a similar dynamic at home, except that I couldn't do any of this if it wasn't for my wife, Kristen. She just "gets" it. She knows I'm always working in a non-standard space looking to connect misfits like me. She goes with the ebb and flow and supports me during the downtimes. She and I have a similar view of a community of relationships. Relationships are messy, imperfect, heartbreaking, expensive, local, conversational (typically less effective across social media)... but critical to anything worth doing.
My girls think I just talk to lots of different kinds of people and call it "work", which is mostly true.
I’ve never met a successful entrepreneur that wasn’t competitive, that didn’t try to continually push higher. Not in the attention-rankings or the raised-funds rankings, but in the keep-building-a-business rankings — revenues, margins, sustainability — regardless of whether they are funded or have a clear sight to an "exit".
Some people get lucky, some people move on, and some people keep doing the reps.
Those that get lucky think they already deserve to be ranked. Some that aren't lucky leave the game altogether.
We belong with those who stay with it, do the work, and continually want to level up... not those trying to win the lottery. They may not be ranked yet, and they don't need a list to tell them they "made it". Success might be $100M a year, but it could also be $1M a year and owning all of it with no intention to sell.