The Austin area is seeing an influx of new investors, as we’ve written about extensively in recent times.
But the newest entrant is a little unique.
Kansas City-based Firebrand Ventures has launched an office in the Texas capital and tapped Ryan Merket, a Facebook alum-turned angel investor to lead it. The Texas native has a storied professional background and what’s really interesting about this is his choice to be here instead of the Bay Area (we’ll elaborate more on that later).
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The move is “a homecoming of sorts,” Merket told Crunchbase News.
But first, let’s explain how Firebrand works. The self-described “sector agnostic” seed-stage firm started investing out of a somewhat modest $17.7 million in late 2016, and currently has 20 companies in its portfolio. Of those 20, five are Austin-based: ScaleFactor, inKind, Threatcare, Prefix, and Skipper.
Founded by former Techstars Managing Director John Fein, Firebrand is adamantly focused on startups located outside of the coasts and more specifically the “greater Midwest.” Fein, in particular, is bullish on Austin.
“It’s ranked at or near the top of almost every list of startup ecosystems. I visit quite often and every time I do I seem to meet compelling founders,” Fein told Crunchbase News. “We’ve invested in more Austin companies than any other city and I wouldn’t be surprised one bit if that continues.”
Fein recruited Merket to run the new Austin office because of what he described as their “shared values.” The pair first got to know each other after Merket joined Amazon and while Fein was managing director at Techstars. Fein was especially impressed with the way Merket interacted with founders.
Merket had a “helpful, give-first approach,” Fein said. Merket’s impressive professional background didn’t hurt: early employee at Facebook, product manager at Reddit, active angel investor, and more recently, a startup advisor and mentor at Amazon.
“But I think what iced it was our shared values,” Fein said. “He and Firebrand place a premium on integrity, transparency, and being founder-focused. We’re building a tier-one venture fund in the middle of the country and Ryan is going to be a key part of that.”
For his part, Merket is thrilled to be back in Texas and says despite being recruited by Bay Area firms, he chose to locate in Austin. Merket was born and raised in New Braunfels, a city located about 40 miles south of Austin.
“I asked myself where do I want to be in 15-20 years,” Merket told Crunchbase News. “And I realized I don’t want to retire in the Bay Area. I want to retire here (in Austin).”
Merket’s Impressive Resume
So we’ve mentioned Merket’s storied professional background, but now it’s time to elaborate.
As a teenager, Merket coded for fun.
“I was one of those weird kids growing up who thought reverse engineering software was more fun than going to school,” he said. “I had code and IP addresses written all over my bedroom walls…I ended up dropping out of high school in my junior year because all I could think about was writing code.”
Eventually, Merket ended up going to a university in Oklahoma that created classes specifically for him.. He worked for a small agency and then ended up as an engineer at CBS Interactive. Ultimately, Merket built apps for companies to use on the Facebook platform and helped launch the “Facebook Login” button globally. This led to his eventually hiring by Facebook, where he worked until starting his own company, Appbistro, that was acquired by InMobi, a large mobile app network in India.
Merket then transitioned to Reddit, where he served as a product manager. From Reddit, he ended up at Amazon, where he says he “mentored and advised thousands of startup founders at top accelerators such as Y Combinator and Techstars.” Merket also became an angel investor and invested in 16 startups, five of which have been acquired.
For now, Merket is excited to be working as a VC in the Austin area.
“Austin is booming and generally considered the top startup community outside the coasts,” he said. “I believe that’s in part due to the excellent universities in the area being a good source of talent and a number of groups such as Capital Factory creating a real energy here. Now, more investors are showing up.”
Merket was also drawn to Firebrand’s commitment to diversity.
“I love that 65 percent of Firebrand’s portfolio companies have women, minority or LGBT founders,” he said. “I share the belief there’s great strength in diversity.”
It seems Merket has come full circle back to his Central Texas roots and it’s likely that his hometown enthusiasm and extensive experience will translate into another win for the region.
Photo Credit / Mary Ann Azevedo