Family Dinner Recap: Tom Shields

Event Recaps
Nadia Bidarian
May 17, 2024

Coder-turned-CEO and now venture investor Tom Shields shared three key insights with Residents at The Garage during Family Dinner on April 30.

Shields currently invests in climate and agriculture tech companies, some of which he serves as Board Chair for. Prior to his executive and board member positions, Shields shared his experience as the founder of NetGravity, the advertising software company that wrote the code that put the first banner ads on website pages. (“Sorry about that,” Shields joked.)

Shields speaking with Residents at Family Dinner.

Addressing the crowd, Shields shared his tips from his experiences as both a founder and an investor, having been on both sides of a pitch.

  1. Keep the main thing the main thing. This saying, which Shields credits businessman Stephen Covey with, encourages founders to focus on what matters most. “It’s very easy when a customer says ‘Hey, I want to pay you money to do this thing,’ to say ‘Cool, I’ve got somebody who wants to pay me money,’” Shields said. “But if it’s not the main thing, don’t do it.”
  1. Get out of the building – and avoid the “ugly baby problem.” Shields emphasized the need to “get out of the building” by talking to customers outside of one’s organization and encouraging their feedback. Even though a product may be the founder’s “baby,” presenting it as such to a potential customer will make them afraid to say anything negative, for fear of offending the founder. Instead, Shields recommended emphasizing that you as a founder want candid feedback.
  2. All work problems are relationship problems. In Shields’ experience as an advisor, a company has asked for his help in different areas, such as in building a sales team. In reality, though, the question the company faced was not how to build a sales team – it was how they could learn to manage salespeople, which they had never done before. In essence, all work problems boil down to relationship problems between people and groups.

As Shields answered student questions, one recurring theme involved uncertainty following graduation. Some students wondered what to do if they couldn’t find their calling.

Shields offered this advice.

“You will find the thing. Keep moving forward, and you will find the thing,” Shields said. “But the first job you get out of college is not the be all and end all.”

About the Author

Nadia Bidarian ’26 is a Journalism, Data Science, and Cognitive Science student from Redondo Beach, California. She is a student aide at The Garage who works on alumni programming, events and other projects for The Garage.