In Episode 16 of “5 Questions with the CEO,” General Joe Votel, USA (Ret) talks with BENS member Brendan Marshall, CEO of Flow. Brendan is a serial entrepreneur and amongst his many achievements, he has been formerly named a Forbes “30 Under 30” honoree. In just 20 minutes they discuss business and deep-dive into meaty topics like embracing fear and having courage when starting something new. They share what happens when a team loses a leader – how to honor their legacy while moving forward with the mission – as Brendan did when his co-founder died suddenly, and as General Votel experienced in the military.
In this episode, General Votel and Brendan explore why it’s important to create work/life balance and what it took for Brendan to launch multiple start-ups and pivot from marketing direct to consumers to empowering entrepreneurs as they navigate the process to secure funding. We also learn why Brendan is a BENS member and believes that national security is everyone’s business.
Business Executives for National Security welcomes you to five questions with the CEO, where BENS CEO, General Joe Votel, former commander of all United States Special Forces and forces in 21 countries in the Middle East and Asia, interviews top business leaders focusing on their stories, strategies, and real-world experiences. Here, we want to know why they’re passionate about sharing their talents and insights to assist senior leaders in the national security enterprise as they solve some of our nation’s most pressing challenges and why they are part of a growing number of executives who understand that national security is everyone’s business.
General Joe Votel (00:43):
Welcome to another episode of the BENS podcast, Five Questions with the CEO. In this podcast series we take some time to get to know our members and talk about their business experience and why they became involved with BENS. And joining us today is Brendan Marshall the founder and CEO of Flow. Brendan is a California member of BENS. Flow, his company, is a platform that solves the complexity of fund infrastructure by connecting investment professionals with their limited partners and service providers. It offers complete provider flexibility and everything needed to raise and run a fund at scale. Brendan, just a little background here. Brendan was raised in Southern California, attended Fordham University, working at JP Morgan, and Perella Weinberg Partners in New York City. Following his graduation, he returned to the West Coast and attended Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. He’s an entrepreneur and investor and advisor residing in the San Francisco Bay Area. SoBrendan, welcome to the podcast. We’re glad to have you on today.
Brendan Marshall (01:45):
Thank you so much for having me. I have a very deep admiration for BENS and also the way you’ve been leading the organization. So thank you for today.
General Joe Votel (01:53):
Okay, so let’s jump right in. I feel certain that anyone who has met you would say that you exude positive energy and that you clearly approach life with a lot of curiosity and hope. Characteristics that serve serial entrepreneurs and progressive leaders quite well. People refer to you as a startup genius. And you have some fairly notable accomplishments here, like making it onto the coveted Forbes 30 under 30 list. I suspect however, that that success hasn’t come as easy as we might think. Can you dive a little deeper and share with us what gives you the courage to repeatedly take good ideas and put them into actions when two thirds of startups fail? And I’m especially curious about when, as a young person, you pivoted from kind of the buttoned up investment banking space to co-founding Kitchit and with a couple of friendspitching venture capital firms. How did you balance the fear and courage that went along with all that?
Brendan Marshall (02:57):
I think the framing that’s always worked well for me is just more of a understanding that a startup is really an experiment. And so some of these experiments fail, but running the experiment can be a career in itself. And that’s really what startups are to validate that in the market. So it’s very honest. You can’t just make up a story. You have to actually build something of value for the market. And in doing that, it’s like a science experiment of understanding how the world works and how it could work better. I think the mindset shifted when I was at Stanford and in Silicon Valley, and just meeting with a lot of entrepreneurs and seeing what tech could do. And this idea that you can have an idea and a thesis for how the world works and very quickly go and experiment with that. And that’s really been the model of how I think about building companies.
General Joe Votel (03:51):
So let’s dive in a little bit and talk a little bit about one of your first startups Kitchit., Not long after this at Kitchit, your 24 year old co-founder George Tang, died in a very tragic accident. And you’re only a couple years into the startup at this time, and of course, as everyone knows, this is a volatile time to make it or break it. How did you handle that situation? How did you honor his memory while still moving forward with the task at hand, of getting that company going?
Brendan Marshall (04:21):
Yeah, that was a tragedy. And George was an actual genius, not just a headline pretend one. Just a remarkable person. And there’s the personal experience I had with that. But for the purpose of the question, I’ll focus more on how it related to the company. And from my perspective, that was a pivotal moment that shifted how I thought about leadership. And up until that point, I always felt like I had to stay ahead of the curve of what the team needed, of what customers needed, what investors wanted. So I had the answers. By the time that we got to that point. And at that time, what happened with George, I didn’t have any answers. I remember picking up the phone and calling investors. They didn’t have any either. These amazing mentors that I have in my life, they said, you’re kind of on your own on this one, and do the best you can. And instead of showing up to the team and to everyone as here’s what we’re going to do, I instead focused on helping create an environment to find those answers and how I could support the team with resources. So for example, we had a grief counselor come in and spend time with the team for people who wanted that to help process. To help surface the answers that were right for us as a team versus me dictating what those answers are. And that really stayed with me in everything that I do. And even with Flow today. Which is this concept of, as a leader, it’s actually a bad thing if I always have the answers. What I need to do is have principles and values and mission that’s locked down and be very clear in what that is for our company and why that’s important. But then really empower people to come up with the answers for how do they solve for that. And so that was a big pivotal moment. I remember that very distinctly. And fortunately that helped us with the grieving process and also helped strengthen the culture we had as company.
General Joe Votel (06:33):
That’s really interesting. And I just think back to my own military experience and, you know, having lost leaders and organizations that I was part of, and then of course, having oversight and command of organizations that lost leaders. This idea of how you build resilience into an organization, one, to deal with that loss, but then how you actually come out of it, you know, I think is really, really critically important. And yeah, I just love the way you talked about that. I mean, that’s so important, this idea of setting the environment so the organization finds its way through this as opposed to somebody coming in and directing. Thanks so much for sharing that. I’ve mentioned up front here that we’ve had an opportunity to have dinner together and golf and do a few other things. And so I’ve gotten to know you fairly well and as a very thoughtful and curious guy. And I’ve heard you say that life isn’t just about the work, it’s about creating balance in and outside of work. But you’ve said that it isn’t necessarily about compartmenting that balance that you only have over here, you do this over there, you do this. Can you talk a little bit more about what you mean by that and how you’ve incorporated that into the overall strategy to your strategy to grow professionally and personally?
Brendan Marshall (07:48):
Yeah, that’s a meaty question. I think that’s a great question. I like thinking about this quite a bit. I’ll start with how we think about the team at Flow and who we want here culturally. What I described, and this actually relates in some respects to creating an environment for success and answers versus having all of them, I say a lot of what we do and our work is a version of mountain climbing, and we’re climbing mountains that we haven’t climbed before. And my leadership style is not that I’ve gotten to the top and here I am, follow what I’m doing. Our style and culture us that we’re climbing this together. In what we find is that it’s very important for people to do, let’s say there’s the professional work, reports that you need to come up with, or a project, or a product, what have you. But there’s the personal work of how do you do that with people. The relationships that you have. How do you do that under a high pressure environment? And that’s the discovery of who you are as a person. And so what I mean by that is, somebody might go into a high pressure environment or somebody who’s an introvert might need to go and present, and they will have a personal reaction to that, an automotive reaction will be triggered in some way. And culturally what we want to do is we focus on the output of the work, but support their development as a human so that they’re more comfortable and they understand what that trigger is about, and they work through that so that they’re more capable in what they do as a person. And what that means when I’m talking about kind of coming back to the individual, is this culture that when you go and leave the office and go back home go anywhere outside of the office, that you’re elevated as a person. And so where we find success in our team is that there’s a connection to a mission of what we’re doing as a company and driving success there, but there’s a personal connection to development, which elevates their life experience. And that kind of feeling of evolution of that self has been very enriching in terms of working with those people. So it’s not just about the professional work but also thinking about their personal work and not doing it in a way where we’re each other’s therapists at all, but more of just an openness that we have, things that we need to work on. And that has for me enriched my experience outside of work when I do get to leave the office.
General Joe Votel (10:19):
That’s really fascinating. And you know, I find myself often, and, you know, now that I’ve been retired through several years talking to colleagues in uniform, and I always remind them now having been exposed to a large portion of the business community, and I try to remind them that, you know, if you think if you think leadership is always cloaked in the uniform, you’re mistaken. There are people out in the private sector and others that really have very sophisticated ideas about leadership and leadership styles. I wonder if you might share a little bit more in terms of how and who might have influenced you the most in kind of developing your own leadership style?
Brendan Marshall (11:01):
Yeah. I mean, there’s definitely as an entrepreneur, I think we have a bias to, we have to touch the stove to learn that it’s hot. But we, I’ve been very fortunate in, I mean, it started with the professors at business school the I Grace Becks, Andy Radcliffs of the world, who were heroes in the startup world to some really terrific investors. I mean the folks that have seen this before, they’ve been through the process. They’ve built these again and again. I’d say the best advice that I’ve gotten across the board, and this early on there was a bit of like, well, who’s my hero? And how do I grow up to be like them? The most consistent advice I’ve gotten from successful entrepreneurs and leaders is the importance of your authenticity and the resonance of that authenticity with how you work. People see through that. And more importantly, if you’re not being authentic in a business and the career that I have, it’s really, you’re missing the point. Because it is a very rewarding journey when you’re out there. I have been very fortunate to have a lot of support and mentorship from these experts and inspiration. And that common thesis of supporting me as a person has really helped tremendously and my career.
General Joe Votel (12:26):
Let’s talk a little bit about Flow. Four years ago, you co-founded Flow, which provides this flexible infrastructure to raise and manage venture capital and private equity funds. And I suspect this was built out of your experience as a startup founder, navigating this very complex and daunting process that goes along with starting things up. Can you talk with our listeners here a bit more about why you chose to shift from the kind of marketing direct to consumers with an app? Booking professional chefs for in-home dining or event catering or cooking lessons to the newest venture. And on a more serious note, how do you view the work you do today as tied to the BENS mission?
Brendan Marshall (13:10):
Great set of questions. Let me try to maybe take that across, start quickly or briefly with Kitchit and the business model was a new restaurant model where a chef could sell directly to customers. The thesis and mission was this idea that we can strengthen somebody’s social network with technology because the people you break bread with, that you eat with are your existing friends, and that you, you can enhance and enrich those relationships. And taking a step back, the way we thought about that from a technology is strengthening networks not necessarily growing that. So that always was the theme of what we’re doing, but certainly dinner parties are a bit different than the private markets The private markets I’ve always been fascinated with, I was doing things as an investment banker and the early parts of my career, but to your pointI’m very immersed in the private markets as a founder. I found that it was very broken. It’s very archaic. It’s really basically running on stone tablets, there’s this contradiction of investing in the future companies like SpaceX and then having a broken process. And so there’s a bit of saying, okay, well, it works like the DMV, who cares what’s going on? But when you take a step back, the private markets are the engine of our economy. They are really, and this will drive kind of going back to some of the national security stuff. They’re the engine and they drive the evolution of democratic economies because private markets are rooted in empowering entrepreneurs, individual thought and connecting capital to that to make it happen. It’s a very complex space and it’s a very vast space. It’s approaching, in terms of assets ,the size of Europe’s GDP of 15 trillion. So there’s a lot of complexity we could talk about, but on a simple basis what do private markets represent? Or there’s two centers of gravity. There’s the capital that goes in investing in private markets. And so typically those will come from like limited partners who are investing into structures. I’ll talk about it in a second. And then the second is the assets. These are the ideas that are being supported, the companies that are being formed and everything in between the capital and the asset are these networks that are coordinating Capital. And from those assets and the networks, this is what’s the mess today? These are the stone tablets that coordination, they have a focal point, which are these funds. And what, what the fund is representing is a thesis, it’s a strategy. So if they want to invest in defense companies, that is the thesis. And so you’ll have somebody who will aggregate capital into the private markets to go find those assets and support. Now again, you can look at this as driving returns on the capitalist model, but you can also look at this as ideas coming in, innovation happening and where our growth comes from as an economy and how democracies evolve as, as a result of that growth. And so I think theI get very fascinated with that in driving this evolution forward and unlocking the power of thought that we have to actually make them ideas. Going back to why I like starting companies, it’s like an experiment to see that. But second, that ties directly with really the passion I have for BENS and the organization, which is how do you take the best practices of the business world? And really, in my mind, it’s the best practices of innovation in our market-based economy and apply it out to national security, which is something that I really don’t know a lot about as a civilian, but am very fascinated by in the sense of knowing how important that is for our world. So that’s how I see those pieces connecting.
General Joe Votel (17:10):
I love your statement about private markets as the engine of our democratic economy. I mean, this is an important point and you know, we’re actually some of the work we’re doing right now really is designed to highlight to our government partners the importance of reaching into the capital markets and leveraging those for the investments and other things that we need for our own national security. I really appreciate you talking about that. So we have been talking a little bit about BENS. How did you actually get connected with BENS? What brought you to BENS?
Brendan Marshall (17:43):
So who brought me to BENS was Joseph DeMarco, who was at the Department of Justice at the time. We had met when I graduated from Fordham, some of the, the folks there introduced me to him as somebody to know in New York. And we had a dinner and we became fast friends. We got into some various philosophical discussions. And he is a member of BENS and recommended I connect with you guys. And then I just found it fascinating. There’s a perception of what it is and how it works. And coming from a place like California you could say there’s some inherent biases of what that lens is and perceiving it. And so my curiosity every time I’ve interacted with in general, or sat as a kind of fly on the wall for any of these seminars or sessions or when we traveled going to Fairbanks and speaking with an F 30 pilot, which, you know, you think it’s Maverick, but it’s really a math nerd who can do derivatives in his head. I mean, it just kind of like, this is it, it’s really cool to see how a lot of the world works or what’s driving some really important things in the world, but getting a window into that, going to 29 Palms, like seeing this stuff has been really, really cool and powerful. And so that’s how it started. And then the members of BENS, you know, it’s, it’s a very intimidating thing when you’re first walking into the room and you’re looking at the credentials. And I’m kind of like, well, you know, you guys I mean, if you want to hear about some startup stuff, sure. But this, this is like the real deal. And incredibly welcoming very open with sharing insights and wisdom curious about what I’m doing, and very organic. And, you know, hearing stories from the CISOs and what they do on, on security to policy-oriented, oriented aspects of how organic keeps going back, how the world works. That all has been very, it inspires me. It really does. So I feel very, very fortunate to be a part of it. And certainly thank Joe for introducing me to you guys. Yeah, I, I really appreciate it.
General Joe Votel (19:55):
So I do have a bonus question for you here.
Brendan Marshall (19:57):
General Joe Votel (19:58):
So what tips do you have for BENSmembers who are contemplating going to Burning Man?
Brendan Marshall (20:05):
Oh, yes. Well shade, you need a shade structure. Don’t mess around with shade structure. But I, I’d say that one of the biggest learnings of, of having a camp there, so we have a camp, it’s we cap it at 50 people now because we don’t wanna run a hotel out there. One of the most important lessons there, this is a volunteer organization, and we get a different set of volunteers, and you might otherwise get the most important lesson was understand your vertical. So for, you know, when I first started Eatings, you might have guessed in kitchen itself, my vertical was food. But when we first built this camp, it was a bunch of, you know, high functioning misfits getting together. And so it was like, who’s leading what and how do we solve for things? And so we created verticals, and that could be front camp, back camp within the back camp, shade structure, kitchen shower, and the toilets, the sound who’s on, who’s on the generators, managing the power grid. And so you start getting specialists as key owners. And that was so if you’re gonna go to Buring Man if you’re a BENS member, send me a note. I’ll, I’ll vouch for you guys. But definitely have your shade structured water start there in your earplugs, you need earplugs.
General Joe Votel (21:27):
Great. Thanks. Thanks for that. I always enjoy these discussions that we have about this whole evolution. It’s completely fascinating to me. So thanks again for taking some time to talk with us today. As always, have really enjoyed really enjoyed talking with you. Thanks so much.
Brendan Marshall (21:44):
Thanks General, really appreciate the time. Thank you for having me.
General Joe Votel (21:46):
For our listeners, thanks so much for joining us today. I hope you’ve enjoyed this podcast and we look forward to, to bringing you back here in the future to hear some from more of your fellow BENS members.
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