Detroit Hustle In Silicon Valley

Meet Jonathon Triest. The 32-year-old Detroit native runs Ludlow Ventures and just closed his first venture fund — $15 million. He’s a Detroiter investing directly in Silicon Valley with the sheer gumption of a Midwesterner. “We hunt startups like most startups hunt VCs,” he told me.

Operating out of downtown Detroit, Triest isn’t your traditional Detroit venture capitalist. His portfolio is filled mostly with companies outside of the area. Fundraising for this latest fund started in 2012 and Triest quickly started handing out early-stage cash to such companies as Product Hunt, uBeam and Circa. And he’s just getting started.

Triest explained to me that his firm works differently from others. He calls it a VC without ego, and after talking to Triest over the past few weeks, that mantra also properly describes him.

“There are a lot of people in venture capital that give VCs a bad name,” he said, adding that they often tend to bully and bat entrepreneurs into corners. “Our whole business [that is, venture capital investing] exists because of entrepreneurs.” Not having an ego is part of Ludlow Ventures’ ethos, he said.

“There are a lot of people in venture capital that give VCs a bad name.”

Triest started investing in young companies in 2009 when he was 27. The money was private capital and he invested roughly $1 million into just over 20 companies. He tells me that he held certain family members hostage until they agreed to let him invest on their behalf. I think he’s joking.

“Those first investments were really used to get my feet wet, build a strong network of mentors, and figure out the best way to attract the top entrepreneurs,” Triest said.

His first investment from this capital was Carbon Ads, which was later acquired by BuySell Ads.

After making a name for himself as an angel investor, Triest started fundraising for his first fund in 2012 and quickly started handing out more early-stage cash.

With the last investment of $600,000, the latest fund closed slightly oversubscribed. His limited-partner investors include Karen Davidson, the widow of former Detroit Pistons owner Bill Davidson, and Marc Weiser of Ann Arbor-based RPM Ventures where he serves as the managing director.

So why Michigan? Why Detroit?

Family, he said. His family is based here and he wants to be close to them. He went on to explain that while it’s a slight disadvantage, it’s also a motivator, as the fund has to find interesting ways to get people’s attention.

He’s certainly persistent.

Throughout our talks, Triest constantly talked about how he has gone to great lengths to get attention. Take the case of uBeam. Triest explained that he desperately wanted to connect with the company’s founder, Meredith Perry. Yet she wouldn’t return his emails or tweets. Weeks went by. Eventually he produced a video of his daughter pleading with Perry to return his emails. It worked. Ludlow Ventures participated in uBeam’s last two raises.

He demonstrated this persistence with me as well. Even though I ignored several of his emails, he never gave up on being featured on TechCrunch. He walked the line of being annoying but never crossed it. He is clearly used to hustling to get his way.

We’re just weird. We’re not wrapped up in our own egos. We don’t pretend that for a second.

While Ludlow is based in the heart of the downtown Detroit startup scene, Triest’s firm has only invested in two Detroit-based companies from this latest fund.

Triest isn’t working against Detroit, but doesn’t see it as a space for everyone. “Some people have a view of Detroit that its some post-apocalyptic city where you can’t build a company,” he said. “And others talk about how you can do anything you want here. I’d say the truth is somewhere in the middle, but we are definitely heading in the right direction.”

He explained that Detroit is a great spot for a company or founder to lean on the auto industry, real estate market or manufacturing chops of the area.

Maybe because of this view, Ludlow Ventures has invested mostly in companies from the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, where Triest’s self-proclaimed “no ego” mantra perhaps shines brighter. “We have to be able to bunk on the founder’s floor,” he said. “We don’t take board seats. We’re looking for good people.”

“We’re just weird,” he added. “We’re not wrapped up in our own egos. We don’t pretend that for a second.”

Triest and Ludlow’s results have garnered impressive praise so far. In 2011, when he was 29, he was named to Crain’s Detroit Twenty In Their Twenties list.

“I can say that Jonathon is one of the most determined, supportive and loyal investors I’ve ever encountered,” Perry, uBeam’s founder, told Crain’s Detroit. “He is very hands on with the company and really runs the extra mile to help out founders.”

Triest is a mentor at several accelerators around the country including Up West Labs in Silicon Valley, The Brandery in Cincinnati and Highway1 in San Francisco.

“I found JT to be one of the more clear thinking humans that I have met,” Highway1 managing director Brady Forrest told me. “He seemed to have already mapped out Navdy trajectory over the next few years and have the patience to help see it through.” Ludlow participated in Navdy’s $6.5 million seed round.

Ludlow Ventures has already invested in 30-odd companies using the cash in its latest fund. Triest is looking for 100 more, and I can attest that he’s hard to ignore. It’s that Detroit hustle.