I grew up in flyover country

In contributor editorial, issue one, the update by jayclouseLeave a Comment

by Erik Berg

I grew up in flyover country.

For as long as I can remember, building things has been in my blood. My favorite toys growing up were Legos. I loved Legos so much that I shared a room with my little brothers way too long, just so that we could use our other bedroom to store all of our Legos.

All Legos. All the time.

I have always been fascinated with building all sorts of things. Architecture, engineering, and even the arts. I did my first ever book report in kindergarten on George Lucas.

Not Neil Armstrong or Napoleon. George Lucas.

What is a director if not a builder of film? I have always been fascinated with building all sorts of things, but the things I have been most fascinated to learn how to build, are companies.

I get this from my dad. He came to this country with nothing. He built a life here, he built a company here, and his company built other companies.

My dad has his own private equity firm that he started over twenty years ago. When I was younger and my friends would ask me what my dad did, I would tell them that he “buys companies, makes them better, and then sells them for a profit.” My dad was a professional company builder.

Like many young kids, I wanted to be my dad. Which meant, that I too, wanted to be a professional company builder.

I did things right. I went to a good school. I got good internships. But my life changed one summer during college when I interned for a medical device startup called Vapotherm.

One of my parents’ friends from grad school was the CEO and he offered to have me join them for the summer. My parents joked it would be the Joe Army Business Bootcamp (yes that is his real name).

They were not kidding.

Joe got me up at 5 am every day to do P90x in the gym before work. Then I worked all day. I was staying with Joe’s family and I would go back to their place, eat dinner, and fall asleep as soon as I could.

The weekdays really weren’t so bad. He got me up at 4 am on the weekends to go tuna fishing.

At Vapotherm I got to see the magic of company building first hand. Every day I met with a different company VP to learn about their role and what they did. I learned as much in those few weeks at Vapotherm as I did in all my business classes combined.

They were good teachers. These days, you might recognize them as NYSE: VAPO.

The next summer I got the opportunity to go work for one of Vapotherm’s Venture Capital investors: a Portland firm called 3×5 Partners.

This is where I really fell in love with Venture Capital. It’s not hard to wonder why. It is company building in its most pure form. No fancy financial instruments. No corporate buybacks.

Venture Capital is real-life alchemy. You combine blood, sweat, and tears and you turn it into gold. I loved my summer in the wonderful world of venture capital. I was a sponge. I learned about everything from seafood to medical devices to chocolate to dry-air water generation. And I loved it. I loved getting my hands dirty working directly with founders to help make their dreams a reality.

And then it was over.

I went back to school to finish my senior year. I did things right. I got a good job. I went into the same industry that my dad had worked in for 20 years, private equity. I went to the brand name firm. I wanted to learn all there was to know.

And I learned.

And I was disappointed.

These weren’t the titans of industry I had expected. They weren’t as interested in building companies as they were in trimming the fat off of existing ones. They didn’t want to create something new — they wanted to leverage up and let the cash flows do all the work.

As my analyst contract was nearing its end, I started to think about what to do next. I was reading the Wall Street Journal when I read a story about how author JD Vance had joined DC investment firm, Revolution, to invest in startups outside of Silicon Valley. I felt like I had been hit by lightning.

I grew up in flyover country.

But going to school on the east coast and getting a taste for venture out on the west, all I knew was that things were being built on the coasts. Suddenly, here was someone who wasn’t just paying attention to everything in the middle, he was solely focused on it.

I knew that smart, hard-working people with good ideas were equally distributed regardless of geography. But I also knew that the capital they needed to build their business was not.

Coastal oversight was my opportunity.

I knew I wanted to get back into venture. I knew I wanted to work with companies at the earliest possible stages. I knew I wanted to get my hands dirty with founders again. And I knew I wanted to do it in a non-traditional tech ecosystem.

I started looking for jobs all across the country. I paid special attention to what seemed to be a new wave of rising tech hubs. Cities like Indianapolis, Denver, Kansas City, and Detroit. Cities like Columbus.

These cities all seemed to share a few key attributes: they were young, fast-growing, mid-sized cities. They had all been counted out in the not too distant past. They had all had revitalizations of their own. They were located near great schools and I kept hearing over and over again about how they had a more collaborative community than the Bay Area or New York. Everyone was rowing in the same direction. Everyone was working together to build something new.

My focus on these rising tech ecosystems led me to Rev1 Ventures in Columbus, Ohio. Here I work with the earliest possible startups. I get my hands dirty and I am working to help build not only companies, but an ecosystem.

I grew up in flyover country. And that is exactly where I am going to help build the next world-changing company.


Erik Berg currently works as an Analyst for Rev1 Ventures in Columbus, Ohio. He also blogs about venture capital, technology, and entrepreneurship on his blog, A Berg’s Eye View, and is a co-host of the upcoming podcast, Almost Vested, about investors and entrepreneurs in the early stages of their career. In his free time, Erik enjoys reading fantasy novels, playing tabletop strategy games, and watching his favorite soccer team, Arsenal F.C., play (and despite their best efforts, occasionally win).