The Accidental Entrepreneur: David Skok of Matrix Partners Talks Marketing Lessons, VMware Killers, and VC Missteps

11/3/11Follow @gthuang

His last name means “forest” in Norwegian. Which is appropriate, because this guy sees the forest for the trees.

David Skok of Matrix Partners is one of the most talked-about venture capitalists in town, among young entrepreneurs and experienced ones alike. He is best known for his investments in JBoss, the open source middleware company (acquired by Red Hat for $420 million in 2006); AppIQ, the network and storage management firm (bought by HP in 2005); Diligent Technologies, a data protection company (bought by IBM in 2008); and CloudSwitch, a cloud infrastructure startup (acquired by Verizon this year). He currently serves on the boards of tech companies such as HubSpot, CloudBees, Digium, Enservio, and Solidworks.

Critics say he hasn’t had a big exit in a while. Supporters say he has a real knack for building companies and getting them acquired for good prices—and that what he touches often turns to gold.

Whatever you think of him, Skok has carved out a reputation as a hard-working investor with both technical expertise in business software and a deep understanding of sales and marketing from a customer’s perspective. For the past decade, he has been a general partner with Matrix. But when I sat down with him recently, I was more interested to hear about his previous life as an entrepreneur and five-time CEO, and how that shaped who he is today—both the decisions he makes as a VC, and the kind of mentorship he provides to startups.

It’s not quite Batman Begins or Casino Royale, but here is the David Skok origin story—and its lessons—in three parts.

Act I: A New Hope (Software)

The story opens in Johannesburg, South Africa, where Skok was born to an English mother and Norwegian father. His parents didn’t want him to grow up with apartheid, so they sent him to school in England, where he lived from age 8 to 20, in London. From there he went to college at University of Sussex, where he was part of the first class of graduates in England to be awarded computer science degrees. That was 1976.

His father made him come back and join the blue-collar family business, which involved machining equipment. He went to apprentice training school and survived his first week when all the tough guys tried to haze him. By the end of the course, he knew how to use a new tool for machining parts that followed a program stored on punched paper tape. The problem was, if there was a tiny error in the tape, the part would be ruined and “you’d have a huge wreck on your hands,” he says.

So Skok wrote a piece of software to get around this. “If you designed the part on the computer, you’d be able to do the machining without worrying about the geometry,” he says. That led him to start his first company, Skok Systems, which became a computer-aided design (CAD) firm.

“I’m accidentally an entrepreneur,” Skok says. “I didn’t plan to be an entrepreneur, I didn’t have any training in it, I didn’t have any mentors to turn to to teach me how to be an entrepreneur. I’m trying to figure out all the sales and marketing stuff that’s going on.”

The company went through a few shifts, but the pivotal moment happened in … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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  • http://www.sumall.com Dane Atkinson

    Great to see the back story of such an honorable corner stone of the industry. Just missed the part where he got bitten by alien spider and gained supernatural marketing powers.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/ghuang/ Gregory T. Huang

    Dane, yup that’s the REAL origin story. Must have happened in Sun City (what happens there stays there).

    Greg