How This Successful Self-Taught Engineer and Repeat Founder Approaches Success

David Nelson
April 22, 2019 By Heidi Craun

Getting to know David

David Nelson has started and scaled three startups, most recently Motion AI, a software platform to help businesses create chatbots and develop their conversational strategy. Motion AI was acquired by HubSpot in 2017, and today David works on the company’s product team. He’s also an active member of HPA and invests in and advises early-stage startups.

We sat down for a conversation with David to hear about his journey into entrepreneurship and his best advice for those looking to do similar work.

What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?

It might be a bit cliché, but just ensuring that you can execute is really the core thing. It’s easy to dream big and even relatively easy to meticulously plan around how to achieve those dreams. At the end of the day, no one is going to evaluate you around your ability to dream; they care about your ability to execute.

For me, whether I’m working on side projects or during my day job, the first thing I think about is how I’m going to execute. In software, I’m thinking about how a system can be architected, what the inputs and outputs are going to be, what the UI looks like, etc. As a self-taught engineer, learning and finding ways to grow to meet the needs of building a business are essential — both from the perspective of building empathy for those who are going to work for you and from the standpoint of putting together a practical action plan to grow company.

Tech democratizes education and success in that way. Tell us more about your journey as a self-taught engineer and entrepreneur.

From a very young age, learning how to program and learning how to do graphic design, all of these things were really just a means to an end for helping realize some of the loftier ideas I had but didn’t at the time have the business or financial connections to make happen. I think the big advantage of the internet is that anyone can go online and learn these skills by taking free online courses or leveraging the resources that exist. Tech is increasingly more of a meritocracy, and businesses are really open to working with anyone who’s showing they are willing to get the job done through whatever background they bring.

What’s an interesting trend you see in tech right now?

This is nothing particularly new, but I’m more recently interested in the convergence in next-generation hardware and next-generation software. There have been a lot of huge, independent leaps in both hardware and software that haven’t really converged yet but are bound to. For example, some of the best hardware in robotics currently lacks the software to really provide huge business or consumer value. I think the companies that will basically play matchmaker between these spaces will ultimately be the big winners.

What advice do you have for someone who is looking to raise money from investors or start a company?

This ties into my earlier thoughts on execution, but in general, I encourage all entrepreneurs to take great care in both the timing and preparedness of their fundraise. The more tangible output that you have to show from your game plan, the better you will do with investors. Demonstrably cool offerings are more important than your 5-year revenue plan. In early stage VC, people don’t expect you to have everything planned out exactly, but they do expect you to have a clear ability to execute and roll with the punches as you move along your entrepreneurial journey.

How do you recharge?

In an ideal world, I’d sit down with a book and be able to spend a couple of focused hours on that. For me, more often than not, I’m sitting down with the iPad and spending an hour or two reading blogs or articles on Quora or Wikipedia and seeing where it takes me. I’ve always been a huge reader and love books, but more recently, I’ve grown to appreciate the wide variety of viewpoints I can consume in a quick fashion on the internet.