Changemakers: Glen Meakem and Dave Becker
To begin with, it doesn’t look like $75 million. It looks more like a modest, suburban insurance office, Sewickley second story, zoned commercial. OK, there are framed clippings doubling as wall art – deals hither and yon, Inc. and Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, along with copies of their FreeMarkets patents.
This is Meakem Becker VC
, the VC for Venture Capital. As Butch asked Sundance, and vice versa, “who are those guys?”
You really can’t talk about one without the other, although it’s Glen Meakem who’s the out-front guy, the one giving talks, sitting on boards, getting his name in the paper, while Dave Becker is perfectly content to work in the back office. There’s Meakem, dishing out quotable quotes like so many glasses of white wine and fistfuls of smoked almonds; there’s Becker, crunching his numbers, keeping his proverbial nose to the grindstone.
“We’re two people with complimentary skill sets that work effectively,” Becker says.
“We’re a very good team,” Meakem agrees. “Dave’s a rock. Brilliant. Hard-working. Clear-sighted. I’m the front-of-the-room speechmaker. Together, we cover a broader front than we would alone.”
It was fall ’89 when they met at a Harvard Business School icebreaker, a golf foursome. Despite disparate backgrounds – Becker from rural Kansas, and Colorado engineering, Meakem from suburban New York, and Harvard – they found common ground, including an entrepreneurial bent. “By the first green we’d become friends,” Meakem recalls.
After MBAs, it was off to careers, time spent with such blue-chippers as Dole and Kraft and Union Carbide and General Electric, until Pittsburgh and FreeMarkets.
Coming to town in ’94, Meakem sought a way to blend old-style corporate purchasing with emerging e-commerce. When GE took a pass, Meakem went for it. As founder and CEO of FreeMarkets, he revolutionized e-trading.
Opening the doors in ’95, he enticed his old friend Dave Becker to join him. Going public in ’99, within a few days the stock had spiked so sharply that Meakem was a billionaire – on paper, at least.
Of course, such things don’t last. Sensing that the e-world was changing at warp speed, by ’03 Becker was gone, to his own ventures, and the following year, ’04, Meakem sold FreeMarkets to Ariba
for a sultry half-billion dollars. “Strategically,” Becker recalls, “it made all the sense in the world.”
Walking away with a fortune, why not chuck careers and simply go skiing? “We’re young,” Becker answers. “We’re career-oriented. We’re highly ambitious.” He pauses. “I don’t think we’ll ever sit still. Ever.”
Within a year, they were back, talking. A venture firm? they mused. That October, ’05, the Rubicon was crossed.
Their first fund, at $75 million a full five mil over target, came in two years later, ’07. “It’s hard to raise a first fund,” Meakem admits. “It was a lot harder than I thought it would be. We got a lot of rejections. A lot of people said no. But a lot of people said yes.”
“It was hard,” Becker agrees. “But entrepreneurs find a way to get it done.
“Venture capital is hard,” he adds. “It’s a dangerous business. You’ve got to know a little about a lot of things. And the world changes. Technology changes.”A Fine Balance
“We’re young enough to identify with entrepreneurs,” Meakem adds, “and old enough to have experience.”
Currently working to get it invested, “we’re off to a really good start,” Becker says. “We’ve got deal flow from all over the United States – all over the world, really, especially Israel and India, where the high-tech ventures are.”
Deliberately positioned in Sewickley, where they both live, they’re close to town and even closer to the airport, where they spend a great deal of time flying to scope out investment possibilities. “In the venture business,” Becker says, “you don’t need a Downtown address on your shingle.”
In what Becker terms “a logical extension of skill sets acquired during our previous experience,” the pair funds early-stage start-ups -- much like the FreeMarkets of 15 years ago. “As venture capitalists, we are very attractive to entrepreneurs, because we have been, and continue to be, entrepreneurs.”
“Entrepreneurship is key,” Meakem agrees. “We invest in great people with compelling products or services that target large markets. We use our deep experience to help entrepreneurs build their businesses, creating tomorrow’s market leaders.”
Working in the $2-6 million range, with an eye toward IT and life science -- not coincidentally, Pittsburgh’s strong suits – Meakem Becker has invested in such high-tech ventures as:Leostream
, desktop virtualization software; Waltham, MALiquidTalk
, digital media business applications that that send sales data, product updates, and HR training to mobile workforces; Chicago, ILHotPads
, web-based national real estate search and listing services; Washington, DCShipwire
, merchant access to a national warehouse network, outsourcing merchandize receiving, warehousing, and shipping; Palo Alto, CASpendview
, web application for tracking, analyzing, and optimizing personal finances; Houston, TX
And in Pittsburgh: Akustica
, micro-electromechanical microphones, speakers, and other sensorsBitArmor
, data security and data lifecycle managementCollege Prowler
, student-written university guidebooks about academics, housing, nightlife, security, diversity, even datingSEEC
, reconfigurable problem-solving software for insurance, financial services, and health care companiesTiversa
, security, advertising, and digital media content distribution
“Venture capital has become very global in the last 10 years,” Meakem says. “We invest all over the country. And we bring in money from all over the world.”
“We have to look nationally,” Becker says, “even if we want to invest locally. There’s no shortage of ideas in Pittsburgh. We see a lot of early-stage stuff. There’s quite a bit of innovation here.
“One hundred and fifty years ago,” he adds, “Pittsburgh was America’s Silicon Valley. The legacy is infrastructure that a lot of companies would kill for. And CMU
continues to attract the best and the brightest.”
“We see interesting deal flow from Pitt
and CMU,” Meakem says. “I am very, very optimistic about our strategic assets.” He ticks the points off his fingers. “Location. Universities. Headquarters. Diverse economy. A terrific Downtown. Pittsburgh is big enough to matter, but small enough for intimacy and quality of life.
“I love working here,” he adds. “Pittsburgh is a great place to live. I like the people. I like the four-season climate. The blend of East Coast and Midwest.” He pauses. “I’ve never had trouble recruiting great people to move here.”
“Pittsburgh is a great base,” Becker agrees. “It’s steady growth. No big boom, but no disaster either. The future is bright.”
Abby Mendelson’s latest book, End of the Road, a collection of short short stories, is available at amazon and bn.com.
Photographs of Glen Meakem (in white) and David Becker (in blue) copyright Brian Cohen