When I first met Marc Ecko, the designer-publisher-VC had just been onstage at Uncubed telling an audience of New York techies about how much the word entrepreneur sucked: Hard to say, hard to spell, and "it’s French." The ecosystem needs a new vocabulary, he said, and his venture capital fund has its beginning in as its name: Artists & Instigators.
With partners Wayne Kimmel and Tony Bifano, Artists & Instigators has invested over $30 million in 36 companies, with a focus on tech-enabled consumer brands, from the lux-electric carmaker Fisker Automotive to credit-card bypassing Dwolla and way-sexier-than-Craigslist Zaarly. They haven’t been the lead investor in these companies; what they add is robust networks, marketing savvy, and strategic positioning. But that is all standard fare in the VC racket, part of the continued conversation between founders, VCs, and the people snooping on them, from the Valley to the Alley. An in group, an "us."
But Artists & Instigators wants to talk to everybody. To reach both "us" and "them," they are setting out to build a brand.
Branded venture capital: three words rarely in sequence, though a stickler may point out that the most revered firms have brands by default—Andreesen-Horowitz being the coolest money in the room is no doubt a brand.
But the play with Artists & Instigators is different: this is a venture fund that intends to face the consumer and in so doing, champion, democratize, and mainstream entrepreneurship. Think Nike and fitness, Quicken Loans and lending. The goal, as described by Ecko: infecting the population—from the mall walker to the Fast Company reader—with thoughts like "oh shit, I wanna be a badass entrepreneur." The question, of course, is how. Also: why.
Cut back to April 2008. Ecko, builder of a men's fashion empire, was looking to recapitalize his flagship brand, Ecko Unltd. While in the course of courting potential partners, he met Wayne Kimmel and Tony Bifano, principals of the Eastern Technology Fund, a Philadelphia-based venture firm that got in early on hits like Seamless, Take Care Clinic, and Nutrisystem. While they didn’t have a business fit at the moment, all three felt a connection. And Kimmel and Bifano had been thinking on how they could change the venture game.
"The things that we invest in can help change popular culture," Kimmel remembers thinking, "but none of us on the financial side are brands ourselves—so what if we started a branded venture capital fund?"
Bringing branding into a virgin field could create a paradigm shift. "Like what ING Direct did," Kimmel says, "they changed the whole banking industry."
To change the venture industry, they’d have to bring in someone who was a brand in and of themselves, but with business chops beyond a Bono or a Bieber. Ecko was their guy.
Born Marc Louis Milecofsky, Ecko grew up a New Jersey teenager airbrushing tees in his parents’ garage. He tried pharmaceutical school, but decided to drop out and started Ecko Unltd. It was 1992; he was 20. The company would go on to become the top streetwear brand, raking in a reported $1.5 billion in revenue. In 2002, at 30, he launched Complex, a publication pointed at the same young men's psychographic. By 2008, he was looking for the next brand. He had found a cause—he’d thrown himself at education reform, nearly burning himself out on trying to innovate within the regulatory structure. Kimmel and Bifano had pitched the branded-VC idea, but it took strange circumstances to make Ecko realize how branded venture capital could dovetail with education reform.
It's September 2008 and Marc Ecko is one of the most random people in the room. He's at Paramount in Los Angeles for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—the philanthropists are launching "Get Schooled," an initiative aiming to cure the dropout pandemic. They’ve brought together ed reformers like former NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and pop culture figures like Ben Stiller and Seal. Ecko had never seen two groups speaking such different languages. "What the fuck am I doing here?," he thought to himself.
The Gates Foundation had partnered with Viacom, giving them massive scale: beyond the present Paramount lot, the 90-minute documentary at the initiative’s center would be simulcast across Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, and MTV. Still, for all of the power behind it, the documentary, Ecko says, didn’t connect with its audience—it looked down its nose at the consumer. It wasn’t, in other words, market driven. They wouldn't launch a show that way; they wouldn't launch an artist that way. It boggled his mind.
For ed reform to stick, Ecko realized, it would need to be attractive to its consumer: it would connect emotionally, it would make the end user aspire. With that aspiration—with that hustle—would come education.
Just as he himself dropped out of Rutgers to launch his business, Ecko sees sidestepping as formal education as a path to education suited to the self driven. (The Enstitute would agree), the assemblage within General Assembly would as well. And if entrepreneurship—or instigations—became cool at scale, education would dovetail with the aspiration. Brands know how to do aspiration.
"Nike never said, 'cut your calories, just don't fry it,’" Ecko says. "I’m looking at Michelle Obama doing jumping jacks on the White House lawn and I’m looking at Nike creating this aspirational platform. They got the same goals realized that Michelle Obama explicitly asked for by never having to mention diet or saturated fats."
Artists & Instigators wants to act in the same way: making an implicit connection. "I know what it has to do emotionally for the audience," Ecko says. "I don't know explicitly how it looks, but I know how it’s going to make people feel."
This sense of entrepreneurial aspiration is already part of some conversations—if you’re reading this, you’re probably of the cohort—but Ecko wants to reach the broadest array of consumers. But how?
Again, Nike: think about the athletes they’ve invested in. Michael Jordan, LeBron James—shoe and apparel megabrands adjacent to and within Nike. Athlete endorsements are investments for Nike—so what if Artists & Instigators made an investment more like an endorsement? How do you get to the cultural point where the next Zuckerberg wants to sign with Artists & Instigators the same way that a star basketball recruit daydreams of a shoe deal with Nike?
To Ecko, it means cultivating—and uniting—the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Rewind back to 1974: Nike rolls out a jogging shoe called the Waffle Trainer (and kickstarts a trend in jogging). What did the fitness market look like? For endorsements, there’s the Wheaties box, a Rawlings signature mitt. Over the next 38 years, Nike built an ecosystem of fitness products.
"If Nike’s core product was the running shoe, our core product will be the capacity to fund," Ecko says. They’re now developing their third fund, to be made public in the second half of 2013. But that’s only part of the plan.
"The array of products (for entrepreneurs) that are out there in a fractured state are endless," he says, from the initial cultural on-boarding—what if there was a Pop Warner for junior entrepreneurs?—to academia to banking products. "How mainstream can you make investment capital is the question," Ecko says.
Going into 2013, Ecko wants Artists & Instigators to become more material to consumers, so they can "start to playing in the sandbox." Ecko’s cagey on what the sandbox would look like—"to call it a cool LinkedIn would simplify it so much that it wouldn’t do it justice"—but he does let on that it will be a virtualized space for consumers to interact with and gain currency with the brand.
Meanwhile, Ecko and Kimmel will continue to preach their ethos: that entrepreneurship is accessible, aspirational, fashionable—without having to rely on any hard-to-say, hard-to-spell French words.
[Image: Flickr user Ray Morris]