A good investment
Starting a new venture is no easy task, and turning that venture into a successful enterprise is even more difficult. But for Brett Conrad ’82, investing in a new venture is his bread and butter. He even has a proven track record to show that the hard work of investing in and building a new business is often worth it.
Although he earned a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering from Mines, Conrad decided a more varied career path was a better fit. After getting his MBA and seeing a rising interest in snowboarding in the 1980s, Conrad launched an outdoor apparel company with Sandy White ’83 to fill that niche. The business took off, but he eventually wanted to pursue other ventures within the outdoor apparel industry. He invested in new ideas, such as a step-in boot binding system that he helped launch and sell, and worked his way up into top management at Ride Snowboards.
Conrad eventually moved on to stock trading and investing in software companies before his brother asked him to help launch the U.S. branch of the athletic apparel brand Lululemon Athletica, one of the largest and most public-facing companies he’s helped get off the ground.
After leaving Lululemon, Conrad started a clean energy fund and later a capital management company, which he still manages today.
We sat down with Conrad to learn more about investing in new businesses, what it takes to lead a startup and practices leaders should keep in mind when nurturing a company.
Mines Magazine: You’ve been involved in starting some influential businesses in your career, from running Lululemon’s U.S. operations to other ventures in the apparel industry and beyond. How do you manage the risk of a new venture with the uncertainty of whether it will become successful or not?
Brett Conrad: You know, we hear of the successful ones, like Lululemon, but for every Lululemon, there’s a thousand other apparel companies that are nowhere near as successful and you don’t hear about. You think everyone can do it and that it’s easy to start a company that ends up having a $50 billion dollar market cap, but that’s just not true.
Sometimes I end up spending more time on my problem investments than I do on ones really taking off, but I’ve had to figure out what is a good return on my time and be disciplined as to when it’s time to essentially give the reins over to someone else. And that’s the nature of startups.
But Lululemon is fun to talk about, because it was one of those things where 100 things went right, and it’s fun to see now a global company with nearly 30,000 employees grow from a handful of people and an idea. It was neat to be part of that in the early days.
MM: What were the biggest factors in Lululemon’s early success that other entrepreneurs might be able to learn from?
Conrad: Lululemon was really exceptional in that it was the right idea at the right time with incredible business execution. The social trends we researched were in our favor. More women than men were becoming college graduates in the year 2000, and that has just expanded since. Women have more buying power and investing power. They want exceptional product with a relevant buying experience. Additionally, professional women want to work out on a daily basis with clothing that performs, fits and looks great. Also, talented women entrepreneurs who typically run the stores—high-quality college graduates themselves—have a great career path doing something they love. All of this was in the context of being the first company to focus on the performance aspect of yoga apparel right when participation in yoga was accelerating for much of the same reasons I’ve mentioned.
MM: What you’re saying is that to lead a successful enterprise, you have to look at the big picture, current trends and take care of the people behind a company?
Conrad: Yeah. Great leaders these days are really interested in developing their people, because their people are the ones that drive the engine of their company or organization. How do you help people get better 24 hours a day, inside and outside of work, create the right mindset and help people learn more? We like to train people to be masters of their own vision and goals so what they do every day is more exciting, more fun, more engaging and more productive. We can’t get much done on our own—we need a team to do that.
MM: Many Mines alumni have gone on to launch their own companies or invest in new startups. What do you think makes Mines graduates particularly well suited to these kinds of business ventures?
Conrad: I remember going to my first geology lab, and I thought, “Oh my goodness, we’re going three times as fast as we did in high school.” The Mines experience is all about learning a lot of new things, interacting with others and learning from them. There’s also a high degree of integrity with Mines graduates, and I love being around that type of person. These days, the world is changing so fast, and you have to be able to learn quickly to keep up and dive into new projects—it’s really just keeping that mindset of I’m in school every day and I’ve got to be able to take in and learn from whatever is thrown at me.