Five Questions For … Joshua Baer, Founder of Austin’s Capital Factory

Austin—Joshua Baer has become one of Austin’s most high-profile evangelists.

Baer founded Capital Factory in 2009 as a combination startup accelerator program and co-working space in the city’s downtown, and it quickly became a key epicenter of innovation in the city. (Capital Factory hosted nearly 1,000 startup-related events this past year.) During the South By Southwest festival, the 16th floor of the Omni Hotel highrise becomes the remote office for many of the visiting entrepreneurs and investors.

Baer’s own entrepreneurial journey started during his undergraduate years at Carnegie Mellon University in the mid-1990s when he founded Skylist, an e-mail marketing company. He continued to seek and sell innovations related to e-mail and marketing but now largely spends his time with Capital Factory and investing in startups.

In this week’s “Five Questions For … ,” we speak to Baer about his entrepreneurial origins, the best time to plant a tree, and the pleasure of an organized office. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Xconomy: What leadership lessons did you get from your parents?

Joshua Baer: When I look back, my family is just completely surrounded by entrepreneurship: my parents, both their parents, my aunts and uncles, cousins. They were not tech entrepreneurs. They were not creating “the biggest companies in the world,” but everywhere that I look, there was entrepreneurship. My father was an independent photographer; he worked for himself, worked out of our house. My mom was a schoolteacher, who ran a business on side selling wedding invitations for all my dad’s clients. My grandparents on my mother’s side owned a family business, a local toy store. My father’s parents had a retail women’s clothing store. Everywhere that I look, people worked for themselves. I had so many role models.

I was aware of it at the time, but I appreciate it much more now, how unique it was.

X: What career advice do you give to new college graduates?

J.B.: I started my first company when I was in college. Now, I teach at [the University of Texas at Austin], and there are new batches of students every semester. One of the first pieces of advice I give is that there will never be a better time. There’s a Chinese proverb I quote: “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is today.” The same thing is true in starting a company. Just get started on doing it. If you want to do a company, you’ll never be in a better situation than when you’re in college. You’re completely surrounded by tens of thousands of other people who are organized, categorized, labeled, sorted, scored, and ranked in who they are and what they’re good at—and none of them have jobs.

X: What’s your biggest failure as an entrepreneur?

J.B.: As an entrepreneur, most problems are people problems. It always comes down to learning a lot of lessons, dealing with people, and hiring people and managing people. I worked with a lot of my friends and it’s been a good thing and also been a challenging thing at times. My biggest mistakes have been around not managing people the best way I could, and not learning how to get the best out of people and maybe causing longterm damage to a relationship or friendship that I now know from maturity and hindsight could have been avoided.

One of the biggest lessons is we all load up everybody else with these expectations and emotions and reasons why we think they’re doing what they’re doing. We put ourselves at the center of all that. Everybody has a lot of different things in their lives, in their world. I think what I’ve learned is that you should take people at face value, ask them why they do things, but don’t necessarily think that you know everybody’s motivations or reasons.

X: What’s the most embarrassing thing about yourself that you’re willing to admit publicly?

J.B.: Most people that don’t know me that well think of me as an extrovert. They assume because I’m very public on social media and organize and host a lot of events and do a lot of social things. People who know me know I’m really an introvert. When I want to go and recharge, I’m actually by myself. It takes a lot of energy and effort to do all these things that we do.

X: How do you relax outside of work when you want to tune out the noise?

J.B.: Sadly the most recharging thing for me is organizing my office and my e-mail box and getting all organized and feeling like everything’s under control. That gives me a great sense of relaxation and peace. It’s not super exciting but that’s where I go retreat to. For fun … my hobbies are less and less mine as my kids get older. I have three young kids, and I’m spending time with them and learning with them. [Recently,] my 7-year-old son had the flu so while the rest of the family celebrated Easter, the two of us played Minecraft all weekend.

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