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Remembering Tom Alberg: How an understated investor had an outsized impact on Seattle tech

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Tom Alberg, co-founder of Madrona Venture Group, speaks at an event in 2015. (GeekWire File Photo)

Tom Alberg will be remembered publicly for everything he did to help create and shape the Seattle region’s tech industry, and for his early investment in Amazon, seeing the potential of the internet, and helping to give Jeff Bezos the capital he needed to get the company off the ground.

However, it was the way Alberg interacted with people behind the scenes that will leave the biggest impression on many of those he worked with during his long career as a lawyer, investor, and business and civic leader.

That’s the clear message from a series of tributes to Alberg posted online over the weekend by his many friends and former colleagues following the news this weekend of his death at 82 years old.

“Tom did all this work behind the scenes, away from the limelight,” wrote his Madrona Venture Group colleagues in their remembrance of Alberg’s life.

“He wanted the founders and the leaders of the organizations he supported to shine while he helped them as a mentor and advisor. He came from a simple beginning in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, a grandson of immigrants, and helped found and build many extraordinary companies and organizations that we all benefit from. And, that style of understated impact pervaded how he served others.”

Kathryn Sheehan, vice president and associate general counsel, held Alberg up as an example of the impact that board members can have on companies, in his 23 years on the Amazon board.

“I have personally learned so much from my interactions with Amazon’s board, and Tom Alberg was no exception,” Sheehan wrote on LinkedIn. “He was understated, dedicated, and he could always ask a probing question that would make me think about my work differently.”

Greg Gottesman, who worked with Alberg at Madrona for many years, remembered being surprised to find him reading a book about quantum physics: “He said, matter-of-factly, ‘Oh, I want to understand this.’ That was Tom.”

Gottesman, now co-founder and managing director at Pioneer Square Labs, also recalled Alberg’s reaction in 1999 to the news that Amazon had agreed to acquire LiveBid, a startup led by Matt Williams, a founder they were working with.

“I’ll never forget Tom’s expression of pure glee for Matt, ‘Isn’t that just the greatest thing ever?’ he said. That was the moment I understood the magic of Tom,” Gottesman wrote in a post on LinkedIn on Sunday.

Describing Alberg’s “uniquely empowering management style,” Gottesman wrote that he was “a tough judge of talent, but when he believed in you he would give you wide latitude to make mistakes (and more mistakes) and hopefully accomplish great things, even as a very young professional.”

Williams, who found Pro.com after working at Amazon, told his part of the story in a comment on Madrona’s LinkedIn post about Alberg. He remembered Alberg approaching him, excited about investing in the company, after Williams gave a pitch to the Alliance of Angels.

“It was magical when Tom smiled ear to ear,” Williams wrote.

Julie Sandler, managing director at Pioneer Square Labs, who also worked with Alberg previously at Madrona, remembered the impact he had on her early career in her own post on LinkedIn.

“As his green, 20-something associate, from my first day on the job he approached every conversation with me like I was one of his long-time partners,” Sandler wrote. “It took my breath away. It lifted me up. I always remember this today when working with younger colleagues: how empowering it is to experience that level of trust, belief, and kindness. I feel such gratitude to him for what he taught me. May we all live up to his example.”

See our earlier story for more on Alberg’s impact, and information about donations; and see Madrona’s LinkedIn post for more tributes and remembrances from those who worked with and knew Alberg during his life and career.

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