Five Questions For … Mercury Fund Co-Founder Blair Garrou
Houston—Blair Garrou is the kind of guy who prefers juggling a lot of balls at once.
When oil prices cratered in the 1990s, business slowed down at his employer, a mergers and acquisitions firm.
“I had some time on my hands and there was this new organization called the Houston Technology Center so I started volunteering,” Garrou says. “They were looking for someone with financial analyst skills, who could help startups with business planning and financial modeling.”
In 1999, he joined the HTC as director of operations, a position that he says uncovered an interest in tech startups and innovation. “I was fascinated by how these companies were funded and how they were built by entrepreneurs,” Garrou says.
After spending four years concentrating on tech deals at Houston private equity firm Genesis Park, Garrou decided to form, along with Houston investor Dan Watkins, the Mercury Fund.
In the decade or so since, in addition to building up Mercury, Garrou became a frequent presence at Houston tech events, mentoring startups at Station Houston (where he is a co-founder), the former Surge Accelerator, and student accelerators at Rice University and the University Houston. “All of this set me down a road to just continually look for opportunities to improve Houston and help it to live up to its potential,” he says.
This week, we have “Five Questions for … ” Garrou, who speaks about perfectionist tendencies, “L.A. Law,” and why his HTC boss sent him for media training. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Xconomy: How do you relax outside of work when you want to tune out the noise?
Blair Garrou: I tend to run with music on. My wife Amy and I are big music lovers. We see a lot of concerts, listen to a lot of music, especially alternative music. When I’m able to run in the off-hours I use my iPhone and I can tune everything out and enjoy.
X: What leadership lessons did you get from your parents?
BG: Probably the best leadership lessons that I received from my parents were persistence of message and enablement. One of the things that my parents did is they stuck to the plan, in schooling and programming. When I was young, the importance of work was really stressed to me. I worked for money starting at age 12, cutting lawns and then went into delivering newspapers. I bagged groceries, worked in department stores, and eventually I worked in a shoe department at a sporting goods store.
You need to be able to do effective time management, whether that’s playing a sport or working along with school. My parents really showed me the value of work and juggling a number of things at an early age. A lot of people will say to me, ‘How do you get it all done?’ It’s always been second nature to me to have multiple things all at once and being effective at them. [The lesson was:] You will have a number of activities; you will stick with them, and that commitment in the short or long term is key.
The other piece is, when you have good teams, enabling them to do their best and giving them lots of rope for success or failure. That’s the best way to learn to succeed and thrive. … I’m always trying to improve. I don’t think I exemplify those qualities all the time. I’m a perfectionist and perfectionists have a tendency to micromanage. So I’m constantly needing to remind myself not to do that.
That’s something entrepreneurs face within startups. Being able to release certain things and letting people do them is challenging. The ones who are best are the ones who can rally the troops and empower them to go out and do their best work.
X: What did you want to be when you were a kid?
BG: When I was young I wanted to be lawyer. There were a lot of legal shows on TV. I loved watching lawyer-oriented movies. What was interesting was most of those movies revolved around trying cases, rather than putting deals together. I interned at a law firm in high school. I did it for six weeks and figured out it wasn’t for me. It was a little esoteric for me. What I liked about watching legal TV shows like “L.A. Law,” was being able to convince and lead others around an idea and opportunity. The more I grew up and the more I interacted with friends whose parents ran businesses—that to me was very interesting.
Later on in life the aspects of doing deals and bringing people together in a common cause, constructing a deal, and building a deal out was more interesting to me.
X: How do you define success?
BG: It’s an interesting question. Probably 10 years ago I got to the point in my career where I could have had a much better work-life balance. Dan and I had launched Mercury. We had staying power and started to hire other employees.
But as the community has grown, I’ve been pulled in a number of directions to help. I find the most enjoyment helping the community in ways that helps my business. If we have a stronger tech community in Houston, Mercury will be stronger.
But we’ve learned so much with Mercury about the other ways, by interacting with other communities, that we can bring those best practices to Houston.
Success is how to do well by doing good. Many people think about that [in] different ways. At Mercury, the expectation is we need to give back. That’s by finding ways we can help the tech community and expand and diversify Houston’s economy for the next wave of entrepreneurs.
X: What’s the most embarrassing thing about yourself that you’re willing to admit publicly?
BG: I was a terrible public speaker when I was younger. I was just terrible. My hands would clam up. I would stress about it for days. I would avoid it. It wasn’t until I worked for Paul Frison [HTC’s president from 1999-2007] that he agreed that I was a bad public speaker and he sent me to media training school. Within a two-day period, they set me on the road to be a more effective communicator and [taught me] how to motivate others. That’s become one of my skills over time.
People are really surprised by this. Growing up, I was much more introverted and much more worried about what people think. It really held me back from presenting publicly.