When it was time to put his kids to bed, Tom Alberg spun stories about the imaginary adventures of Huckleberry Bear, remembered his wife, Judi Beck.
And, when it was time to go to work, Alberg brought the same creativity to envision how a company that was only an idea could one day transform the world.
An investor, lawyer, writer and conservationist, Alberg had a mix of creativity, practicality, “phenomenal common sense” and an unwavering belief in new ideas that helped him dream up bedtime stories and the companies that would usher Seattle into a new wave of innovation.
“We’d all be looking at the same piece of paper and he would see stuff that we didn’t see,” Beck said. “He could look at an opportunity and say, ‘I believe in the person, I believe in the concept. It’s worth the leap.’ ”
Alberg died Aug. 5 at the age of 82. In his lifetime, he helped bring a wave of tech innovation to Seattle and pushed his passion for initiatives ranging from self-driving cars to native plants to wine. His friends and family remembered him as a private man who was nonetheless generous with his time, whether that was to help one of his children with their algebra homework or a startup founder puzzle over a problem.
Alberg is known best as the co-founder of Madrona Venture Group, a pioneering venture capital firm that has invested in Pacific Northwest startups for 27 years, as well as being an early investor in Amazon. He guided the company (and its founder, Jeff Bezos) through the years when it lost money to become the powerhouse it is today.
With his passing, Seattle’s business leaders recalled Alberg’s integrity and force. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said Alberg “had a profound impact on both our industry and community.” Amazon CEO Andy Jassy lauded Alberg’s character, describing him as “as good a guy as they come.” Bezos said on Twitter Alberg was a “wonderful, good man. I was so lucky to have you in my life, Tom.”
Building a community
The grandson of a Swedish immigrant, Alberg grew up in Ballard, attended Ballard High School and worked on the family farm near Carnation. Later, he earned an undergraduate degree at Harvard University and a law degree from Columbia Law School.
When Alberg moved to Perkins Coie in Seattle in 1968 from a New York law firm, he helped usher the firm into the era of startups, venture capital funding and public offerings, said Chuck Katz, a former partner at Perkins Coie who helped Amazon go public.
At the time, there were only two people at the firm working in corporate finance law and they were having a lot of fun working on public offerings for large firms like Boeing, Alaska Airlines and Puget Sound Power & Light Co., Katz said.
Alberg pushed the firm to work with Advanced Technology Laboratories, an ultrasound technology company, in a deal that may have been one of his first venture capital investments. Doing so, he helped shift the firm’s focus toward a wave of tech innovation coming quickly toward Seattle.
“There was a very definitive moment back then when venture capital — at a very small scale came to Seattle — and, again, there were not that many lawyers who knew how to do this,” Katz said. “Tom was one of them.”
Alberg thought of his role as a lawyer as a conduit to grow things, not tear things apart, Katz said. He helped startup founders make connections with the right people to get their pitch off the ground and he became interested in angel investing — funding at the very early stages of a startup.
“His attitude was ‘Let’s build this community and let’s make opportunity for the technology here,’ ” Katz said. “All of us felt like we were part of something bigger than just doing the legal work on a venture deal.”
For Alberg, the decision to leap into biotech with Advanced Technology Laboratories was more than just “’Hey let’s take on ATL,’ it was ‘Hey we need to pivot, the world is changing,’ ” said Bob Giles, a managing partner emeritus at Perkins Coie who worked with Alberg. “Tom was the big picture guy. He was the visionary.”
In 1995, Alberg helped bring more venture funding to Seattle when he co-founded Madrona Venture Group with William Ruckelshaus (the first Environmental Protection Agency administrator and former acting FBI director), Paul Goodrich and Jerry Grinstein. In the company’s history, Alberg has backed and guided tech-based real estate company Redfin, business management software company Apptio, and Impinj, maker of radio-frequency identification devices and software.
Through Madrona, Alberg invested in Impinj within the first six months of the company’s founding. From there, he rarely missed a board meeting, said co-founder and CEO Chris Diorio. Most board members deferred to Alberg’s opinion, Diorio said, and the investor often made himself available to go on a problem-solving walk.
“He was always generous with his time. He was always generous with his mentorship and he trusted people,” Diorio said. “There was never any downside to talking with Tom.”
Though Alberg stayed involved with the companies he invested in, he had the most fun at the early stages of a startup when an idea was forming, Diorio said. He wasn’t a technologist by training so he was inquisitive and excited by “every part of technology they introduced him to,” Diorio said.
“It was like a kid in a candy store,” he continued. “He was curious as a little kid. Tom was like [that] till he was in his 80s.”
It wasn’t all grand successes but that’s just the way it works, Alberg told The Seattle Times in a 2015 interview marking the venture fund’s 20th anniversary.
“I think if you’re doing venture investing, you have to be willing to take a risk,” he said. “And you protect against that partly by not making two investments a year, but making eight investments a year.”
Leaving a mark on Seattle
Alberg helped jump-start the growth of the University of Washington Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, and he helped kick-start Challenge Seattle, a hub for business and community leaders focused on civic issues. He served on the Amazon board for 23 years and he helped start the Technology Alliance, a nonprofit that is working to build an innovation economy statewide, and Alliance of Angels, an angel investment group that funds companies at the very early stages. After leaving Perkins Coie, he took an executive role at McCaw Cellular, which later became AT&T Wireless.
“He gave infinite amounts of his time and expertise to mentoring people and to making our region stronger in every imaginable way,” said Ed Lazowska, professor and chair emeritus of computer science and engineering at UW.
Outside of the tech industry, Alberg was one of the principals who developed the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Seattle and he co-founded two wineries in Woodinville. He invested in local media and was an early champion for digital-only media, according to Crosscut, one of the ventures he helped to get off the ground. Alberg contributed funding to Seattle Times journalism initiatives, including Traffic Lab and the Investigative Journalism Fund.
He also transformed his family’s farm in Carnation into the nonprofit Oxbow Farm & Conservation Center, which researches and practices sustainable farming methods.
Politically, he argued for radical changes to the city’s education system and told The Seattle Times he didn’t think a $15 minimum wage would work nationally. He believed self-driving cars would help fix Seattle’s traffic problems and open new business opportunities by connecting Portland to Vancouver, B.C. He helped to found ACES, a group to explore alternative transportation options, and worked with the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based conservative think tank, to on policy issues in tech, economics and education.
In 2021, Alberg published a book “Flywheels: How Cities Are Creating Their Own Futures,” drawing on his experiences in Seattle to make an argument for city governments and tech companies to partner to address civic challenges.
“He really recognized if Amazon is going to hire everyone they need to work here, you also need to have people working on the corporate level working for the health of the community,” Beck said. “He always hoped the best for Seattle and expected the best for Seattle.”
At Challenge Seattle, Alberg helped spearhead a public-private partnership that helped the city handle its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including distributing personal protective equipment and streamlining vaccination sites. He pushed for the group to get involved with finding solutions to homelessness in the city and eventually secured almost a billion dollars to help fund new initiatives, according to Christine Gregoire, CEO of Challenge Seattle and former Washington governor.
Often after meetings, Alberg would call and say ” ‘I think we need to think bigger,’ ” Gregoire said. She’d ask what he had in mind and he’d say I don’t know but let’s talk about it. Those conversations often did lead to bigger ideas.
“He left for all of us a clear message: this has to be done, let’s get going, don’t give up,” Gregoire said.
In his personal life, Alberg was private but shared his love for wine and sailing, said Katz, who considered him a mentor at Perkins Coie. As a colleague, he was eager to set an example and hand new opportunities to new partners. As a lawyer, Alberg was respectful, precise and “unflappable in the face of adversity.”
At Perkins Coie, Alberg encouraged the firm to bring back a sabbatical program after he took time off himself and wanted others to be able to do the same, said Giles, another partner at the company. When Perkins Coie was looking to expand in the 1970s, Alberg encouraged it to deviate from its competitors who were opening offices in Yakima and instead think bigger. The law firm eventually decided to instead open a location in Washington, D.C.
Early on, when Alberg predicted Perkins Coie would hire 1,000 lawyers sometime in the 2000s, most of his colleagues laughed but “he said mark my words,” Giles said. It took longer than Alberg predicted but the firm hit the milestone in 2014.
“I had no problems supporting Tom,” throughout his career, Giles said. “Because he had proven himself right more often than not.”
The “adventure guy”
Married for 33 years, Alberg and Beck met while she was working a marketing job for a hotel that was set to open. He was one of three general partners working on the property.
Beck, 71, celebrated the couple’s 33rd anniversary on Monday with her two children, three stepchildren and four grandchildren.
As a father, Alberg was the “adventure guy,” Beck said. For family vacations, she would plan the nuts and bolts and he “was in charge of all the things that were wonderful.” He passed on a love of gardening, sailing and being on the water. The couple owns a home in the San Juan Islands and raised their children going to the beach or the garden.
“He was a fairly private guy, and a man of not very many words,” she said. “But a very strong family man and we all benefited from that.”
He was a hands-on dad who always helped with algebra homework, but was useless in the kitchen, Beck said.
Alberg never wavered in his business decisions, Beck said. And he never learned to relax, despite talking about his intent to slow down over the years. When he first told her about Madrona, he pitched it as group of guys getting together in retirement to talk about their investments.
He was a creative and practical thinker, who had “phenomenal common sense,” Beck said.
While the couple was home together during the COVID-induced shutdowns, Beck told her husband she would make dinners but he was on his own for lunch. He grabbed a piece of bread and asked how long he should microwave it for toast.
“I gave him a jar of peanut butter and said ‘Have at it,’ ” Beck said, laughing at the memory.