070: Boston Speaks Up with Silicon Valley Bank’s Russell Follansbee
Russell Follansbee leads Silicon Valley Bank’s (SVB) enterprise software team in New England, which counts roughly 60 percent of VC-backed startups in the Greater Boston region as clients.
He and his team help enterprise software companies, typically post-series A funding, to more efficiently achieve scale. While his experience ranges across industries, Follansbee specializes in the cybersecurity industry, a technology cluster in Boston that is driving global innovation.
Since joining SVB in 2009, Follansbee has worked with high-growth innovators at all life stages, from pre-seed startups to billion dollar juggernauts. This experience has afforded him deep insights into patterns of success and failure, making him a valuable resource to founders and C-level executives.
Follansbee lives in Boston with his wife and two kids. In his free time, he serves on the Rising Leaders board of BUILD Greater Boston, an organization that calls on the tenets of entrepreneurship to help youth in underserved communities succeed in high school, college and beyond.
Where did you grow up? And how would you describe your childhood?
I grew up split between central CT and western MA with divorced/remarried parents (one brother, 3 stepbrothers and 3 stepsisters). I grew up at a boarding school (Deerfield Academy) which was amazing because I had access to all the sports fields/courts. Most of my free time was spent playing sports and fishing. I would describe my childhood as unknowingly lucky, put a worse way, sheltered. I wasn’t aware of other’s struggles as much as I should have been.
Who were your role models growing up?
When I was very young, I LOVED the Whalers (Hartford’s hockey team). Kevin Dineen and Brendan Shanahan were my two favorite players. Once I realized I was not going to the NHL, which took longer than it should have, my grandfather was my biggest role model. He lived in a very small town in upstate NY, ran his own business, and gave back to his employees and community. He also valued family above all else. He was a heavy social drinker – my mom told him he couldn’t see me and my brother if he was drinking, so he stopped drinking cold turkey.
What is the first career you remember wanting to pursue?
NHL hockey player (as mentioned). Reality hit, and I thought I would be a teacher or work in some capacity in boarding schools since that’s what both my parents did.
To help out our younger listeners tuning into the show, can you speak on your internship experience(s)? In addition, can you share any insights you may have on the importance of internships/experiential learning (outside the textbook)?
I can’t tell you how important internships are (multiple with very different businesses if possible). The real world is so different than school. There are some industries or companies where colleagues don’t want to help you. There are some jobs that are explained one way but end up being very different. The biggest advice I can give is to look at the boss at your internship, and decide whether you would be happy with their life. Everyone is different, money might drive some people completely. For me, it was balance. I wanted to make a good living but also have time/energy for my family.
What’s your advice to young people breaking into the startup banking industry?
Tech/Innovation has been in a bull market for 12+ years. My advice for people starting fresh is to remind them that there will be some event that causes investors heartache, and therefore takes some liquidity out of the market. I’d also say you have to be passionate about the industry. The founders that start these businesses live and breathe their company, and they want partners who are as committed as they are.
Is there a particular person or event that helped shape the career path you took?
I thought I wanted to work with later stage (mostly public companies) my entire career, but the team I was on didn’t have the growth potential I wanted in my career (too many senior people ahead of me). That forced me to look at other teams within SVB – the early-stage team being one that had clear career growth potential. Not only did my risk pay off (I am running the team now) but I realized that I can be so much more meaningful to my early-stage clients than I can be to a very mature public company. Work is more fulfilling when you can see your impact clearly.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve overcome getting to where you are today?
I think the main thing I overcame was not settling for what was safe. I could have easily followed in my family footsteps and gone to work for a secondary school, but I wanted to experience something different. I could have easily stayed on the late-stage team and been happy with the position I was in, but I wanted more opportunity. Taking risks is scary, but often where I find the most energy.
Speaking on the topic of leadership, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your experiences leading others thus far?
If you give trust/respect, you get trust/respect. If you take credit for a win, it’s a short-term gain. If you give credit to someone else (especially if it really was your win), they will work their asses off to get another win. If you have a mentality of team-first – it resonates throughout your entire team. You can’t fake it though. Lastly, honesty and vulnerability go a long way in building the trust/respect I mentioned earlier.
How would you describe your leadership style?
Trust that people have good intentions until proven wrong. Lead by example – if I haven’t done or won’t do something myself, don’t expect others to do it.
What’s the most exciting part about advising young entrepreneurs?
The most exciting part of my job is when pattern recognition helps a young founder see a problem before they would have seen it themselves. When you have 60% market share in VC-backed software companies, you see a lot of good/bad decisions. Being able to pass that knowledge along is what makes SVB a different type of banking partner.
What do you find most exciting about the cybersecurity tech sector right now?
Cybersecurity is the single most important thing that can be solved by software. There are bigger problems (Climate change, divisive gvt, water/food supply etc.), but the new frontier of war is cyber. The most exciting part is that cybersecurity is making people rethink everything down to the way code is written.
What sorts of challenges and opportunities have you found in the pivot to virtual business and networking during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Zoom is a great way to be efficient, but it’s very transactional. You can have a lot more meetings in one day, but it’s hard to connect. I value building trusted relationships, which is much easier in person.
What are some of the most recent trends you’ve been seeing? What do you believe will succeed in longevity?
Vertical software is huge – different industries have different needs even for the same type of software. Software categories like sales enablement, CRM, recruiting, client onboarding etc are starting to target specific verticals (banking, healthcare, distribution, manufacturing, etc) because it’s very hard to make a software that fits every industry’s needs perfectly.
FINAL QUESTION: We like the idea of ending our episodes with a challenge for the listeners/readers. Whether it be reaching out to an old friend, reading 5 pages a day from a book, creating a new healthy habit… what is one challenge you have for the listeners?
Climate change is way too real, and I worry about what the world will look like when my kids are older. My challenge is to reduce your carbon footprint – My example: Eversource allows you to pick an energy provider that only sources electricity from renewable resources. It is more expensive, but consumers have power to shift demand towards renewables.