Proust Goes Tech With Alex Marshall Of First Round Capital

No crypto, no politics, no talking about work. And put your phones in the middle of the table.

This was the rule for a few dinners that Alex Marshall went to when moving friends from “Twitter to IRL.” Fast forward, those friends are some of her closest ones. Setting herself up for conversations like that, it seems, helps get her away from one of her biggest pet peeves: another post on Medium about quitting tech.

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Marshall is working on special projects with First Round Capital, previously worked as a director of platform at Backstage Capital, and was also a co-founder of Health IQ.

In this Proust Goes Tech, we learn about how her synesthesia is a strength and a weakness, the story behind her pinned tweet, and why she doesn’t believe in the concept of work-life balance.

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What would you otherwise be doing right now?

Within tech, I’d probably be starting another company. I think a lot about empathy at scale, and how we scale product decisions to take into account emotional behaviors and consequences.

I have synesthesia, which helps me visualize time. I walk through time; it’s super weird. It helps me visualize frameworks and networks—the plumbing of a company. I became the go-to person to learn the ins-and-outs of how everything was moving.

Your main fault?

I love to execute. On top of that, I’m a control freak; I tend to be obsessed to make sure everything is done perfectly. If there’s no framework or best practices sort of model for balance that can guide me, I get super overwhelmed.

I’m also very prone to burnout, which is not unique to me. It applies to both work and life. I think it’s my main fault and has led to probably the most painful parts of my work and life. I can say I have other faults, like lack of patience. I ultimately just think the ability to balance is my fault.

The quality you most desire in a tweet?

Relatable, clever, and funny. I hate tweets that shit on other people, subtweets can be funny if they’re insightful. If it’s something people need to hear, great.

I don’t wanna hear about crypto, or the latest Medium post about quitting tech and leaving SF, or whining how much this city sucks.

Tech gives so much opportunity in this world. Whether you hate it or not, there’s a reason you joined in the first place. Tech has changed a lot; whining is not productive.

A lot of the best tweeters have swim lanes they stay in.

Your idea of misery?

A world where there’s a lack of direction. Or a universe without any frameworks or rules by which to cut the road. It would be really hard for me to intake anything.

Also, a crowded world. It’s overstimulation for me.

The final one: a world in which someone is constantly questioning my integrity.

What do you appreciate the most in your friends?

[They make me] think a lot and laugh. I learn a lot from the people I surround myself with.

Your chief characteristic?

Empathy. I am very aware of emotions, and it is natural for me to cater to the people around me. I have a really tough time not thinking about things in some empathetic manner.

I’m very objective at my job, my focus is entirely on our extended community and how we leverage the people in our community. Be it new programs for founders, be it creating access for people, it’s a privilege to do what we do in venture.

What skill do you wish you possessed?

[The] ability to focus for long periods of time. I’m super creative, but my process is ten times more non-linear than ideal, but it does allow me to bring unique perspectives to the table; it’s a lot of work on time management and myself.

Your most impactful book?

This is totally unrelated to tech.“A Beautiful Question” by Frank Wilczek. It’s all around this question on what’s the deeper order of beauty and nature. It’s no accident that there’s a ton of similarities in math and physics and geometry in what we find aesthetically pleasing.

What defines success?

Doing something I love that is meaningful to others in the world. I am not driven by the fear of failure. I am driven by the fear of spending my life succeeding at things that don’t help humans, community, or the world.

My pinned tweet is it.

When is confidence lost?

When trust is broken, personally and professionally. People rarely act maliciously. Often times, there’s an explanation, and I always operate with giving the benefit of the doubt if someone repeatedly decides to prove me wrong.

It gets easier as we get older.

Which buzzword is exhausted?

Disruption. We invest in things that change; I don’t understand why that’s a novel concept. It is no longer disrupting, because by nature we are in an industry that focuses on change.

What virtues do others have that you don’t?

Moderation. When I commit to something, I’m all in. I’m gonna do it to the best of my ability. I’m not great at doing things half-ass or half-committed. I don’t know if that’s moderation or if that’s temperance. I just know that I don’t know what it is like to pace myself. I’m learning.

It’s something I want to be better at.

What impact do you want to leave behind?

I think it’s two things. [First], that pinned tweet again. I want to spend my life succeeding at things, working on things that help the community, and the world.

But when I think directly about what that means, it’s how we create access and opportunity for those who are currently not part of the tech ecosystem. Growing up Latina, my mom is from Mexico City ⁠— I just think about it a lot personally.

What’s the biggest problem tech is failing to solve?

The compounding creation of moral problems while the number of companies racing to outperform each other increases. Solutions for these problems are built with more tech, and it’s a compounding problem.

For example, social emotional health. What we bring into kids’ lives has changed. With social media, we think about productivity, achievement, and growth, but I don’t think our industry is in a place yet where we’re fully taking into account the repercussions of what we’re doing.

As you have more and more companies that are in the picture, it leaves real room for possible outcomes. Because right now, the race is about growth.

Illustration: Li-Anne Dias.

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