Jon Kraft’s first real job out of college was at the software tech firm Oracle. The Stanford grad was making his mark as a high performer at the company, and the corporate ladder seemed positioned for his upward ascent. But instead of reaching for the next rung on the ladder, Kraft started looking for an elevator.
“I’d go away on a two-week vacation, and I’d come back, and really, nothing had changed,” the 56-year-old entrepreneur says, recalling his early days at the tech giant. “The company was … just cruising along, doubling their stock every few months, with or without me. And I thought, wow, I guess I’m not really impacting much. I have almost no effect on this company.”
It’s an interesting perspective for someone so green in experience yet flush with ambition. Kraft’s motivation for finding a different upward path would not be deterred. He left Oracle after three-and-a-half years and founded Stanford Technology Group with two friends. The company developed an online analytical processing engine and was providing data warehouse consulting services – you can think of them as one of the first “big data” companies. When the company forged relationships with VC firms Sequoia and Hummer Winblad and raised their first round of capital, Kraft had caught “the bug,” as he describes it—the intoxicating rush of value creation.
But the real coup came in 1999 when he and Tim Westergren, a close friend from college, joined forces with Will Glaser to create and patent a music classification and search system that made it possible to pinpoint the musical taste of consumers and identify similarities between songs that revolutionized how music recommendations could be made. That patented system, the Music Genome Project, would become the cornerstone of their streaming music platform, Pandora. Pandora went public on the New York Stock Exchange in 2011, and was ultimately acquired by Sirius XM Holdings in 2019 for $3.5 billion in stock.
Today, Kraft continues to chase value creation as a partner with Black Diamond Ventures, an early- to mid-stage investment firm, which he joined in May 2022. His mantra when assessing new opportunities has become, “How do I get this start-up from sort of a cool, clever idea to become a really significant and impactful company?”
The path to prosperity could be an IPO, as was the case with Pandora. Or it could be an exit, as with the sale of Stanford Technology Group to Informix Software. Depending on the type of business and its degree of assimilation within society and the market, that path can shift, and it’s not monetary motivation alone that drives the decision or shapes his passion. Kraft points to Thrively, an educational platform that is taking a personalized approach to learning and development, helping kids to discover their passions in life.
“We’re in 130,000 classrooms. That’s incredible to me,” he says of the company he co-founded with Girish Venkat in 2012. “We’ve impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of kids and families and honestly, you know, we’re just beginning to hit our stride.”
There’s a certain set of characteristics that define a true entrepreneur. It’s part vision, part connector (of people and ideas), and a natural ability to transcend boundaries.
Kraft’s collaboration with Bill Gross and Idealab in the 2010s only kicked his appetite for innovation into overdrive.
“That was honestly the most fun I’ve ever had as an entrepreneur,” Kraft says. “Bill is a fountain of innovation, a magician as a fundraiser.” Kraft describes their time creating the mobile insights platform UberMedia together as a whirlwind of processing Gross’ “firehose of innovative ideas.” UberMedia tackled the Twitter ecosystem with gusto, growing to acquire eight companies in two-and-a-half years.
“At one point, our apps controlled about 20% of the tweets going in and out of Twitter, before Twitter had their own apps,” he says. “We then realized that we had a wealth of data from this Twitter ecosystem, and we started looking at ways to capitalize on that data… that’s when the company began to pivot.”
Kraft ultimately moved on to launch LiftOff, an accelerator, with Venkat, whom he had brought into UberMedia as CTO. That’s how he met Black Diamond Managing Partner Ana Quintana and Founder and Managing Director Chris Lucas. “Our offices were right down the street from Black Diamond. Glendale had quietly become, I think, an under-appreciated tech community,” Kraft says.
EAST COAST ROOTS
Kraft grew up in New York City, on the lower east side of Manhattan. Seemingly groomed for the profession of teacher, social worker, or doctor, Kraft did not have any business mentors in his early years. “My parents were social workers, so I wasn’t at all familiar with the business world when I started out,” he says.
He had no intention of applying to Stanford, but Kraft’s high school math teacher saw something special in him. “He had a brother-in-law who was a professor there, and he just kept hammering home that I belonged there. And so at the last minute, I applied.”
An added bonus of attending Stanford was that Kraft met his two eventual co-founders of Stanford Technology Group. “They were absolutely brilliant,” Kraft says. “Two of the smartest guys I’d ever met. I obviously know that I brought value to [the partnership] as well, but I learned so much from those two. And that was really where I got addicted to the entrepreneurial lifestyle, and how exciting … and fun it was.”
The fun could have gone in an entirely different direction, however. “Before Oracle, I was a neurobiology major at Stanford, and I actually worked for about six months doing Alzheimer’’s research, which is exactly what I thought I wanted to do,” he says. “I was scheduled to take the GRE in advanced biology … with a plan to get my PhD, and I realized I absolutely hated doing lab research. The only part that really grabbed me was the data analysis at the end of the project.”
That epiphany led to the chain of companies and partnerships that continue to reap dividends, not only for Kraft, but for his partners.
THE GRIND REAPS RESULTS
Success in the early days may have been heady, but it was a steady grind. During the infancy of Pandora, “I was commuting from L.A. to the Bay Area for nearly four years,” Kraft says. “It was grueling. And so I actually stepped back after those first few years as CEO and became more of an active board member through some of the subsequent formative years at Pandora, which we originally called Savage Beast Technologies.”
One thing that distinguishes Kraft from most entrepreneurs is his diversity of industry knowledge and experience. “It hasn’t always been a linear path,” he admits. People who knew him from Pandora would assume incorrectly that he operated primarily in the music industry. In addition to his current responsibilities on the boards of Thrively and LiftOff LLC, Kraft is president of Wine Chips, a cheese crisp product that pairs with wine.
“In my over 30 years of being an entrepreneur,” says Kraft. “I’ve pitched probably hundreds, plural, of VCs and worked on everything from music to education to big data, VR, and even swarm robotics. So, I feel confident that I have a good handle on the range of personalities, approaches and philosophies within the broader venture community. At this point in my career, it’s really about picking the people that you want to work with.”
When Kraft joined Black Diamond Ventures, he immediately gelled with the leadership style and relationship dynamics that Lucas and Quintana had established with their entrepreneurs and existing portfolio.
“Black Diamond’s thesis, at its core, is about supporting innovation,” says Kraft. “Specifically, we’re looking for transformative solutions to human health and wellness as well as innovative technologies that can impact the economy in material ways. AI, as one example, is going to be at the center of innovation for the next 20 years, so, we’re paying close attention to that.”
Typically, Black Diamond’s “sweet spot” for investing is Series B or later, according to Kraft, with a typical investment in the mid-seven-figure range. “When Black Diamond gets involved in an earlier stage deal, it’s because there’s a built-in relationship with the entrepreneur and the team — someone that they’ve had success with before,” he says.
Does IP help? “Absolutely, but it’s not just the IP,” Kraft says. “We also have to see how the product is taking off in the market. Again, with the caveat that if this is somebody who we’ve worked with in the past, and we’ve seen firsthand that they’re just relentless, and they just won’t stop until they’re successful—that kind of alignment could get us in a bit earlier.”
In terms of his most valuable personal investments, Kraft is married with three children, two in college and one just entering high school. A veteran of water polo, volleyball, basketball, and baseball tournaments, being a youth sports dad is a highlight of Kraft’s personal life. “I’ve probably coached 40 youth sports teams, dating from long before I even had my own kids,” he says. “That is part of what drove Thrively. I’ve always really loved working with kids and being a part of those communities.”
“Other than that,” he adds, “I don’t really need a ton of external stimulus.”