Five With: Eric Lunt, CTO, Signal / Chicago Ventures Advisor
Signal CTO and Chicago Ventures Advisor Eric Lunt has seen his fair share of the Chicago startup world. In 2014, the ITA named him “Technologist of the Year”, a title granted to an “individual whose talent has championed true technology innovation, either through new applications of existing technology or the development of technology” for his leadership and work as a co-founder of FeedBurner (acquired by Google) and Spyonit.com (acquired by 724 Solutions); as lead technical architect at Digital Knowledge Assets, and lead of the application architecture team in Accenture’s next generation technology group.
Accolades and awards aside (including being one of the first named to Crain’s Tech 25 list), Eric has committed to using his experience to mentor, build and nurture the next wave of tech entrepreneurs in Chicago. We talked with him about hiring tech talent, changes he’s seen in the Chicago tech scene, and why he’s been drawn to building startups.
1) You’ve gone from early startup to big fundraise and through acquisition more than once now. What is it about the tech and startup world that attracts you to keep coming back?
The thrill of coming up with an idea, getting others to believe in that idea, and then willing That Thing into existence never gets old. It is just such an exhilarating feeling. There’s nothing like finding some people you trust and all agreeing to do something audacious together.
2) Hiring tech talent is a big priority for most of Chicago’s startups. Without giving too much away, do you have any tips on how you’ve continued to recruit and build such great tech teams?
A major key to success for us at Signal was to hire a full-time director of talent and culture, Lisa O’Keefe, in the first couple of months of the company’s history. Her ability to identify talent and accurately assess and communicate team fit helped us build a strong and healthy development organization from the earliest days.
I think another thing that helps build a great tech team is to live by the values that will attract a great tech team. I know that might sound silly and circular, but by recognizing and valuing software development as a fundamentally creative act, and supporting that view with our conduct, we attract developers who view themselves as invested creators and not as cogs in some kind of tech machine. A team that feels empowered in that way will usually create great software.
3) You’ve had your hand in the Chicago investment scene for awhile now; how is the landscape different than it was ten years ago? Where do you think we’ll be ten years from now?
I think the biggest thing that has changed in the last ten or fifteen years is the general awareness and understanding within the community of just how early-stage capital works. That, coupled with the emergence of cloud-hosted infrastructure, has made it much more realistic to get to a working minimum viable product with relatively small upfront capital needs. I think that helps to explain the growth in the number of angel investment groups and firms focused on seed and early-stage rounds.
My guess is that as capital becomes more and more accessible and commoditized, the experience and guidance of the investors will become more and more important.
4) Chicago Ventures is lucky to have you as an advisor to the fund, and you’ve given back to the community in multiple ways. What are we still lacking as a startup community?
Well, there’s one thing that we’re lacking as a community that I’m really happy about, and that’s the hired gun mentality for tech talent, where engineers are constantly looking for a better deal and greener grass. I know it’s a generalization, but there’s a genuine feeling of investment and loyalty with the people I work with, with the idea that we’re really building something of value together and not constantly optimizing for short-term personal financial gain.
5) What’s your favorite thing about your job?
Working with smart people to find the best way to do something at (sometimes terrifying) scale, and then seeing it come to life. It’s so incredibly gratifying, and I’m lucky enough to be able to do it with this team week after week.