Meet Ali Byrd (Duke ’95), Managing Partner of Towerview Ventures
The lifelong technologist, passionate Dukie, and serial startup CFO is blending his myriad loves in running a venture fund for Duke alums.
Ali Byrd has been preparing for his role at Towerview Ventures for much of his life.
Byrd’s passion for technology started in childhood, when he taught himself to develop software code. That interest bloomed in the ’90s at Duke, where he studied engineering, and he’s since received a deep education in business-building, acquisitions, financial modeling, and mentorship as a serial startup CFO. Microsoft, LimeWire, Second Market, and Olapic are just a few organizations where Byrd made his mark before joining Towerview Ventures.
In a new Q&A, Ali tells us more about why he decided to run a venture fund for Duke alums, how his engineering background helps him view the startup landscape, and what lessons he’s learned about building great companies.
Towerview Ventures is private, for-profit, and not affiliated with, endorsed, or sanctioned by Duke University or by the Duke Angel Network.
What’s your link to Duke, and what do you love most about the institution?
I am a proud alum of Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, and have remained connected to the University since graduation. Today, I am a Regional Board Member of Duke New York, and an active contributor to Duke’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship effort, as well as DukeGen (Duke’s Global Entrepreneurship Network).
What I love most about Duke is the lifelong passion of our alumni. The student excitement you see during men’s basketball season from the Cameron Crazies continues long after graduation and extends far beyond the court. Duke alums love Duke, and that connection remains strong forever.
Tell us about your professional background. How did you land in VC?
I have been involved in technology since I was a kid in the mid-’80s, writing programs in BASIC and Hypercard, and teaching myself to code. After graduating from Duke, I started my career as an engineer, building computer networks and writing web applications at the end of the client-server era and the early days of the Internet.
I then spent nearly a decade at Microsoft in Sales, Product and Strategy; a few years as a Investment Banker on Wall Street; and another 10 years in the finance function as a builder and operator of early stage, venture-backed tech companies in New York City. After raising capital and leading M&A exits as a startup CFO, I decided to start a new chapter as a VC enabled by a variety of rich operating experiences on the other side of the table.
What sparked your interest in working for Towerview Ventures?
“Where do I sign up?” That’s what I asked after hearing about the opportunity to raise venture capital from a passionate, highly-motivated community of Duke alums and the chance to invest that capital alongside top VCs into exciting, high-growth companies across all stages and sectors that have a Duke connection. I’m a lifelong technologist and Dukie, so the choice was simple.
Which venture trends are you most excited about? Any emerging specifically from Duke that you’re excited about?
There’s a lot to be excited about in venture. But as an engineer, I’m most drawn to the idea of an increasingly and exponentially connected world through IoT, the Internet of Things. Just think about what has happened to mobile phones in the past 10 years. This is bigger than watches or productivity devices, and extends far beyond smarter homes or autonomous vehicles. The possibilities are endless, and I’m excited to see and be a part of investing in what comes next.
What are the three most important lessons you’ve learned in VC?
The three most important lessons I’ve learned in VC actually come from having operated on the other side of the table as an acquirer, a fundraiser, and a seller of venture-backed companies. These lessons are: (1) Companies are bought, not sold; (2) raise capital before you need it; and (3) the quality of the board can influence the quality of the team. Informed by these lessons, we believe at Towerview Ventures that a good company is better than a great story, we never want to be the dumb money or a company’s lifeline, and we only co-invest with high-quality VCs in the industry.
Which resources or sources of inspiration (podcasts, books, blogs, mentors, etc.) are most useful to you on a regular basis?
As a NYC startup executive and VC, I enjoy hearing from my ecosystem peers at First Round Capital and reading Fred Wilson’s blog, AVC. I also enjoy my chats with the next generation of local guys like Steve Schlafman from Primary Venture Partners, Richard Kerby from Equal Ventures, and fellow Duke alum Mark Peter Davis from Interplay. And I’m a Medium post junkie.
What else would you like to share about yourself?
Towerview Ventures provides me with an amazing opportunity to enhance an exciting life journey. When I consider my path from being a kid who loved computers to becoming an engineer at Duke, and from growing as a tech professional at Microsoft to immersing myself in the finance and venture community in NYC, I can think of no better role than connecting fellow Duke alums to the most exciting investment opportunities in venture. Go ahead, pinch me.