Tuesdays with T4A: Erik Christoffersen (04/15/14)

Home » Tuesdays with T4A » Tuesdays with T4A: Erik Christoffersen (04/15/14)
Erik Christoffersen
Chairman of the Board | CUPP Computing
Erik is the Founder and Principal of Cotton Mountain Group, through which he makes angel investments in technology start-ups and invests in real estate. He is also Managing Director at The Presidio Group, which he joined to create the Silicon Valley Team, advising entrepreneurs and tech leaders with their investments whether managed by Presidio or direct. Erik has more than 25 years of business experience raising funds, launching businesses, and developing strategies. He has spent the majority of his career working in leadership positions with technology companies innovating new ways of doing business. Erik holds a B.A. from the University of Virginia and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School. He currently sits on the boards of CUPP Computing (Chairman, mobile data security company), Uformia (3D software company), and Summer Search.
Where did you grow up, and what do you remember most about it?
I grew up outside of Washington D.C. in Alexandria, Virginia. Living almost equidistant from Mt. Vernon to the White House, I quickly become immersed in US History and Politics. These interests were further fueled by my parents work — my father worked at the World Bank and my mother was an assistant to several Congressmen, all Democrats. My mother instilled in me the importance of giving back to the community and my father reminded me that the world does not revolve around the U.S.
What was your first job?
My first job was with IBM in Oslo, Norway. I started as a system engineer and then sales representative in a new group called the Information Network Services. I quickly learned about “pioneer selling”  as I was tasked with selling e-mail and private on-line services to large international Norwegian companies just when they had invested in telefax machines as their next generation communication solution. It was a great experience and taught me not to be afraid to push innovation if you have a real benefit to offer. 
What is your first political memory?
It was a sad one. I recall watching the train on TV that brought the body of Robert Kennedy back from California to D.C. The silver lining was it motivated me to learn all about the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations and who these Presidents were. I have forever become a reader of Presidential biographies as a result. 
What is your favorite book?
The Goal by Eliyaho M. Goldratt. It was required reading at business school. It was pivotal for me as it helped me to understand the importance of processes in business, politics and practically anything I do. It helped me to become a champion of continuous improvement and to appreciate the dilemma of bottlenecks — to solve one bottleneck will only bring you to the next one.
What is the origin of your company’s name (Cotton Mountain Group)?
It is in memory of my mother. Her family name was Cotton and it dates back to 1633 when the first Cottons landed in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. They eventually established a homestead on Cotton Mountain in New Hampshire. When she died seven years ago of cancer, I wanted to have a way to pay tribute to her and all she did for me.
You started your career in Norway, at IBM, where you also started a semi-pro American Football league, and co-founded the first Norwegian frozen yogurt company. What differences are there between starting a company in Norway and in the U.S.? Is it an easier place to launch or harder? Why?
There are many differences — too many to share here. Let me focus on two. First, Norway does not have the entrepreneurial spirit and ecosystem to support young entrepreneurs like we have in the US and particular the West Coast. Second, the costs of doing business are much higher so scalability of volume becomes more important than margin. Where large growth was not an option the emphasis turned to creating a cash flow business that could benefit from a friendly corporate tax environment that provided healthy dividends to investors. 
Vous avez étudié le français a l’université (UVA), et a l’Université de Grenoble. Pourquoi cette langue en particulier (est-qu’il y a une raison)? Le parlez-vous encore aussi bien qu’avant?
I had a great time studying french at the University of Grenoble. It also enabled me to pursue another passion — alpine skiing. My reason for picking french studies was to leverage my prior years studying this language so that I could do a year abroad in Europe. Highly recommend any college student taking a year off or doing a year abroad.
Who is your role model and why?
Two unknown people – Tom Hexner (an American) and Ove Hoegh (a Norwegian).

Tom taught the me importance of developing a long term plan to gauge all short term decisions and determine priorities in life. It started with an exercise leading up to business school, where he encouraged me to develop a 15 year plan for myself to determine whether going to business school was an important next step. It included goals related to my career, family life and personal pursuits. Amazingly it all happened.

Ove taught me about angel investing and doing business. He was one of the first venture capitalists in Norway. He developed the term ROI to mean two things – good return on capital and good return on the individual(s) he invested in. Now that I am doing angel investing myself. I always consider the people I am investing in together with the investment opportunity.

As you look at your community, city/state/country, how do you view your role/responsibility as a citizen? Within that context, how do you view your role as citizen in relation to our government and democracy?
It starts with being engaged. I think it is critical that I engage in my community at all levels. This has manifested itself in many ways from running a non-profit in San Francisco (the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society), to my board role on Summer Search where we help more than 2000 at risk high school students complete high school complete a secondary education and become leaders in their community to my most recent work getting involved in the election process of political candidates I think will make a difference.
Just about everyone (regardless of political affiliation) sees a large gap between our politics (Washington DC as well as state capitals) and the reality on the issues we face as a country. Why do you think that is? What do you think can be done to close that gap?
Wow. What a question. There are three major reasons for this gap. One – Education. Schools and the media do a poor job of educating the population about the relevance and importance of government today. Two – Marketing. The good work that governments (local, state and federal) do is poorly marketed and gets little attention in the press. Three – Political Divide. Recently, politicians from both parties seem to be more concerned about being elected and serving their party than doing what is good for their city, state or country.

Closing this gap requires the American public to demand that their politicians govern and make real change happen. The public must not allow COMPROMISE to be a four letter word and instead be a metric of success and factor into re-election politicians. This will require changing the political dialogue to highlight the good and important work government can do and to encourage citizens to engage and many more to serve in some capacity. This is no easy task but one we need to do.

Are political parties becoming less relevant today, particularly for young adults? Whatever your answer, why do you think that is?
Yes. Particularly because parties are becoming a barrier to bi-partisian efforts and compromise. At a minimum we need to elect more moderate candidates even if they continue to belong to one of the parties. To do this we need to get OPEN PRIMARIES adopted in more states and limit the state REDISTRICTING efforts to once every 10 years through the work of bi-partisan committee. Finally, I think we need to consider ways to elect more independent candidates or help a new party (e.g Centrist Movement) succeed.

The bottom line is that young people want to see government GOVERN and make progress happen both legislatively and through Presidential leadership. Currently, only the judicial process seems capable of bring about any change and that is not what our fore fathers had in mind.

What is your favorite journey?
It was a business trip with my father to Africa where I visited the continent for the first time visiting Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. The big impact of trip that has stayed with me was seeing how the people of these countries found happiness every day despite their circumstances and did not expect the government or someone else to shape their futures or bring a smile on their face.
If you could be anyone else for a day, who would you be?
I wish I could be the President for a day so I could fly Air Force One. I have always had a passion for travel and planes since I was a child.  A chance to fly Air Force One as the President would be amazing.
What is your proudest moment?
Today. I know this sounds contrived and altruistic but when my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer she taught me the importance of of trying to make each day my proudest moment. I don’t succeed that often but I always try.
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