“When you invest in early-stage companies, you're investing in the idea but really you're investing in the management.”
Tracey Riese is the founder of the strategy and branding firm T.G. Riese & based in New York City. Prior to founding her firm in 1994, she worked at Revlon as Senior Vice President of Corporate and Marketing Communications Worldwide, at RJR Nabisco as Vice President of Corporate Communications, and at Chemical Bank as Vice President of Consumer Marketing Communications and then Vice President of Marketing in the Residential Mortgage division. Riese also invests in early stage companies through her private investment vehicle Riese & Others and as the managing director of the early stage investment firm Golden Seeds. Her portfolio focuses on enterprise software, media, marketing, retail, and big data.
In this interview, Tracey Riese reveals how she started her own firm, when she began investing in start-ups, and the role of art collecting in her life.
TGL: How was your childhood?
TR: I grew up in New York City, I had a very New York style kind of childhood. I spent a lot of time at museums and got to know a lot about art without knowing anybody who knew about art. I went to a big public school with kids from all over. Getting to know people who lived in different parts of the city and who grew up in very different ways from me was exciting to me.
TGL: What did you study?
TR: I combined international relations and art history at Sarah Lawrence College. I wanted to work on cultural diplomacy and foreign policy.
TGL: Did you know what you wanted to do right away?
TR: Never. When I left college, I started living with my boyfriend, now husband, who had a demanding job. I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I was not really pursuing anything. He came home one day and made dinner for me and a bunch of my friends. At midnight he went to bed, because he had to work early in the morning. When he came out in the morning, my friends and I were all still sitting around, smoking and drinking as if we were in a dorm room. He went off to work and when he came back, he said, "I really like living with you, but I feel that we should get on the same schedule. Maybe you could get a job," I replied, "Who will employ me? I have this fancy degree from a fancy college, and I'm totally unemployable," he said, "Here are the want ads, make some telephone calls." When he came back that afternoon, I had gotten a job. It was not an interesting job, but I got started.
TGL: What was the job?
TR: I was hired by a company in the garment industry to enter their invoices. It was basically accounting, but I was just entering the invoices into the legend book and trying to make the columns add up on both sides. I also had to stamp the invoice with a stamp that said, “This invoice is the property of Congress factors.” Those were words I didn't know, but I had what I like to think of as my scarecrow moment, when the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz suddenly gets his brain. They were discounting their receivables for cash flow. At the time I didn't even know I knew those words. I went to the guy that hired me and asked if that's what they were doing and he asked if I’d like to help him work with the factors and do more. I left and got another job.
TGL: When did you begin working in the corporate world?
TR: I first wound up working in a large conglomerate agency, running accounts that included advertising, public relations, and marketing for big companies like Merrill Lynch and AT&T. I went on from there to working with clients for many years.
TGL: How did you create your own firm?
TR: Having experience on both the client and the consultant side, I had a particular point of view about where I could add value. I didn't want to build a large firm with a lot of capabilities, because that worked against being able to stay relevant to my clients. I wanted to be able to say to my clients, “Maybe this isn't really a big problem.” You can’t do that if you have a lot of overhead, you always have to say to the client, “This is a really big problem and you need all of my employees to help you solve it.” I started as just myself and if a client needed other types of capabilities, I would bring someone else in. I'd already worked in the field for 15 years, so I knew good people across a wide range of disciplines.
In the beginning, I wrote to everyone I knew that I was in this business and would be happy to help them. The business developed very quickly. Since then, all my business has come from those clients, some of my relationships with clients have lasted for 25 years. It's a pretty fluid set of relationships. I don't need to produce any particular, dependable revenue stream, because I do not have a lot of employees. I'm able to be flexible with what my clients want. When you make yourself available, and a client is in a position to hire you, they will want to hire you. That’s really what my business has been about all these years.
TGL: What is your specialty?
TR: It has actually morphed quite a bit over the years. I did a lot of work in communications and branding strategy. Over the years, it morphed away from communications and toward business strategy. I focus on the intersection of the business model and the brand. Particularly today, when there is a great deal of digital disruption to the traditional business model, a lot of companies have questions. Business is changing, so we identify ways to add value and find a business model that really lasts.
TGL: When did you start investing in start-ups?
TR: About 15 years ago, I started investing in early-stage companies. It's been an interesting journey, it paid for my education. I focused chiefly on enterprise software and business-to-business technology. I look for big problems that someone has found an elegant solution to and help them figure out how to penetrate those markets. Now I have a lot of experience in what it takes to go after those kinds of markets, what it takes to sell into those markets, and the best kind of technologies for your clients. It's one thing when they sign up and say they want to work with you, but it may take a little while to integrate the technology in order to start generating revenues. I understand that process very well and help clients figure out faster ways of getting there.
TGL: How did you build a great relationship with start-ups?
TR: I have been lucky, I got to serve on the boards of a couple of them. When you begin the startup and you serve on any boards, your job is to help the CEO figure out how to speed up the success of their company. That is an exciting proposition for everyone who likes to have a successful exit from their investments. When you invest in early-stage companies, you're investing in the idea but really you're investing in the management. It’s a pleasure to work with really smart people who are driven to make their company successful.
TGL: Who inspired you during your career?
TR: The great thing about collecting art is the artists that you meet. All of them have their perspectives, they're always thinking about things in a really different way from other people. Every contact with an artist opens up new ideas, new avenues, it's part of why we do it. I've had a lot of really wonderful bosses, clients, heads of big companies, and each of them have taught me important and interesting things.
TGL: How would you define art collecting in your life? Is it a passion or an investment?
TR: I am interested in what artists are thinking about and what they are trying to do. Over the last 40 years, my husband and I have worked with relatively young artists. They aren’t all necessarily young, but most of them are in the early stages of their careers. We are looking for somebody with an interesting point of view. We spend all of our time with them, we don't have any other leisure activities. When we are not working, we are eating, sleeping, in art galleries, in artists’ studios, or visiting museums. When we travel, I always get referrals to artists and visit them in their studios and galleries. Some of the artists have had great careers and the others have fallen right off a cliff, but we still like all of the work that we have bought.
TGL: How does your home affect the art you collect?
TR: Many years ago when we lived in our first loft, we were in an art gallery and there was a very large piece that we were attracted to. We could afford it, so I said, “We could hang that.” We bought it, hung it in the loft and then after that all the pictures that we wound up buying were very big. Otherwise they wouldn't have had an impact in our space. After that, every time we had to move, we had to get a loft.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don't know?
TR: I just finished a wonderful book by a writer named N.K. Jemisin, who writes science fantasy. She wrote a book called The City We Became, which is an extraordinary vision of New York City and of the meaning of great cities. Her books are so vibrantly written and her vision of cities was so expansive and so powerful and modern. I would love to have dinner with her.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?
TR: Pay more attention to other people and learn from them. Ambitious young people today are frustrated because they're not getting ahead how they think they should. When I had more brains than experience, I thought brains should count for more too. I would advise the younger Tracy to pay a lot more attention to what she can learn from smart people, who've been there before and not assume that you could just make it up because you're so smart.