His address was part of the Duke Entrepreneurship Education Series, a comprehensive program designed to introduce students to concepts essential for a future in entrepreneurship or venture capital.
Brown was a partner at Sidley Austin in New York before launching an 18-year career in financial services that included leadership positions at Goldman Sachs & Co., AIG International, and Morgan Stanley. He served as global co-head of listed derivatives at Morgan Stanley before joining the Duke Law faculty as a visiting professor of the practice in 2008. He also is an entrepreneur; in May 2008 he co-founded 8 Rivers Capital and Palmer Labs, enterprises that he describes as a technology developer and a venture capital company bonded together.
“I am now on my third and fourth careers,” Brown told the assembled group of about 80 students. “I’ve had a great time — it’s really fascinating to grow this business.”
Welcoming the unknown has been an underlying principle in the evolution of his professional life, Brown said.
“My original thought was that I would go home to the mountains of North Carolina and practice law with my dad. I did that for a summer and decided, ‘Well, that’s not it for me.’”
Instead he went to New York, first to practice law and then to work on Wall Street. While at Goldman Sachs, a senior executive asked Brown and a colleague to build a foreign exchange client base among the asset management industry.
“I asked my colleague if I could take Boston. I had gone to school there [at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology], and I wanted to focus on the large presence of asset managers there,” Brown recalled. “In about a year and a half, that same boss called me in and said, ‘Bill, great job. Boston looks fantastic. Now give all your accounts away.’ And I go, ‘What!? I own Boston. I can walk in any door up there. I built this business with my own two hands!’ He said, ‘Exactly, and you can do it again.’
“It felt like he had pulled the rug out from under me. This is similar to the conditions a lot of people face after they have had a ‘failure’: I had to start fresh, but I was able to use the lessons I learned from my first efforts. In effect, my boss engineered failure for me — instant failure. I had to build a business again, this time with hedge funds. After a while, I had a new set of accounts up and running, and he said, ‘Great Bill. Give all your accounts away, move to London and do it again.’ And I did.” Brown credits these experiences with teaching him the essence of entrepreneurship.
“What you start to learn is that you’ve become needlessly focused on retaining the known, and not focused on embracing the unknown,” he said. “[Entrepreneurship] is letting go of what you have, and it’s embracing the possibilities of what could be.”
After leaving Morgan Stanley and returning to Durham, Brown launched 8 Rivers Capital and Palmer Labs with a friend from MIT, Miles Palmer. The two partner with entrepreneurs who have already grown and sold technology companies in financing and commercializing technologies related to biomedical devices, gene replacement therapy, traditional energy, alternative energy, and the telecom and automotive industries, among others.
Brown told students that the idea for his new business was sparked by an off-hand remark Palmer made about changing the telecom industry.
“To his credit, Miles also decided to embrace the unknown,” Brown said.
Brown counseled the budding entrepreneurs in the room to exercise common sense, discretion, and a degree of caution in sharing their new ideas and innovations. “First rule: Don’t talk to anyone you don’t trust, and make sure they’re legally obligated to keep a secret,” Brown said. “We’re going down the road of intellectual property protection here. If you were able to sketch this out on a napkin, and someone got that napkin, they would have your idea. If they could take that napkin and beat you to the patent office, they would own that idea.
“And whatever you do, act with advice of counsel.… This will help keep you from making expensive mistakes—especially the ones that are not immediately apparent,” Brown said.
In spite of the flagging economy, Brown suggested the emergence of a new “golden age of American innovation.
“In 1929 we had a financial forest fire that leveled many businesses,” he said. “This cleared away the old underbrush and allowed the 1930s to become what many believe to be the most technologically innovative decade of the 20th century. We stand at a similar place today, and the students at Duke are fortunate to have opportunities of a scale not likely to be repeated in their lifetime!”