The TinkererAt home and at work, tech ideas are tested
July 30, 2010
Boston Business Journal
by Galen Moore
The newest general partner at Waltham venture firm Matrix Partners spends his workdays messing around with new technology. It’s not uncommon for Antonio Rodriguez to get a dozen or more serious pitches a day from startups raising money to build Web applications, and he likes to try them all, he said.
In fact, building and tinkering has come to define the home life as well as the career path for Rodriguez, who joined Matrix in March.
At home, for example, there was the 3-D printer he bought. Normally, these cost tens of thousands of dollars and are used by fabricators and design shops. But Rodriguez found two guys in a garage in Brooklyn, N.Y., who had created the MakerBot, a consumer 3-D printer, available for about $1,000. Rodriguez and his two sons, ages 4 and 8, tried to use it to fabricate custom Lego accessories.
“It turns out that the printer doesn’t quite have the resolution to do it at this point,” he said — but he’s hopeful about future versions of the hardware.
Another home project, a soda can robot built for $10 out of a kit in Make Magazine, was more successful. Using a photovoltaic cell and an open-source microcontroller called an Arduino, the Rodriguez boys made it so it would follow a flashlight beam around.
“That was a big success,” he said. “It was the only thing we built that we put batteries in it, they ran the batteries out. We put batteries in it, they ran the batteries out.”
On some of the projects, the kids get bored, Rodriguez admits — which has led to questions about who is getting the most out of the exercise. “(My wife) has caught me with (the kids) watching something on my iPhone and me furiously working on the project, and she questions whether it’s really bonding time,” he said.
Rodriguez has been involved in some bigger projects, too. His last two startups have built consumer Web applications for organizing and publishing personal media, such as photos. Cambridge startup Tabblo Inc. made a “print button” for blogs and digital images. Founded in 2005, it sold quickly to Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ) for an undisclosed sum in 2007. Before Tabblo, Rodriguez had worked on on-demand book publishing startup MyPublisher and the personal server startup Memora.
One of Tabblo’s earliest employees was software engineer Ned Batchelder, who joined the young company a few weeks before its product launched in beta, to take over a code base that had largely been written by Rodriguez himself. Also the company’s CEO, Rodriguez had been handling business development and marketing, and drumming up investment in the company.
“You got the sense that if there were enough hours in the day, he wouldn’t need anyone else working with him,” said Batchelder, who joined HP with Rodriguez immediately after the Tabblo acquisition.
At HP, Rodriguez’s bluntness sometimes got him into trouble, Batchelder recalls. “I’ve heard him say, ‘Oh, that’s useless. You shouldn’t be doing that project. You should be doing something else.’”
That kind of candor might not go over so well in a large corporation, but it could be welcome in the VC world, where investors have a bad reputation for leaving founders dangling.
Venture also could be a natural place for Rodriguez to make a virtue out of his mania for new projects. While entrepreneurs typically work on one company at a time, VCs are often involved closely with several.
Nevertheless, when he joined Matrix, Rodriguez got a world of grief from his friends and former colleagues. A longtime entrepreneur, he’d joined the “dark side,” they said. It was his experience at Tabblo, where Matrix was an early investor, that showed him VC can be more than dealmaking and golf.
“That completely flipped my perspective from this is money plus connections and a little bit of pattern matching to these are people who can get in a room with you and help you build a company,” he said.
At Matrix, he’s getting exposure to a wide range of companies. Web publishing is still a magnet, but good opportunities are few, and unlikely to be big. Instead, Rodriguez says he’s actively looking at data companies that can build unique assets that are hard to reproduce; mobile platform services for iPhone and Android; and new e-commerce formats. But ask him what his interests are and Rodriguez tends to wax poetic about Internet publishing. “There are folks who think of the Internet as the greatest sales and marketing channel that ever lived,” he said. “To me, the Internet is much more about personal expression.”
Growth in personal expression is one of the most important ways the Internet is changing people’s lives, he said. The bar startups have to reach to win Rodriguez’ attention — and it’s a high one, he said — is figuring out a convincing way to try making money off it.