When someone invites you to a safari, my guess is your first thought does not go to the Four Seasons in Denver, Colorado. But Merlin Ventures has always done things a little differently. Over lunch in June of 2022, as our CEO David shared photos of the beautiful landscapes and wildlife on his ranch in Colorado, Shay was in awe and declared that we needed to do a “Merlin Safari” there. So when we started talking later that day about the value of bringing together our portfolio founders and CISO advisors to strengthen relationships and share ideas, Colorado seemed like the natural place to do it. And with that, the Merlin Safari was born.
Last week finally saw it all come to fruition. After a whole lot of work by our team, we were able to bring together security leaders, founders and some of our closest partners for open (and off the record) discussions, networking, and a healthy dose of outdoors. The theme for the event was relationships. We wanted to move beyond sales pitches and LinkedIn messages to personal relationships that would allow people to share ideas for years to come. Looking back now, we can declare it a success: No one got eaten by a bear, the sunburn wasn’t too bad, and friendships were formed that go beyond just business relationships.
The meet and greet was followed by a fireside chat with Alan Denenberg from our partner Davis Polk & Wardwell. Alan has been involved in some of the biggest IPOs in cybersecurity and led an interactive discussion about what it takes for founders and security leaders to prepare companies for a successful exit. After a networking dinner by the pool, we sent everyone off to bed with a warning to get some sleep so they could wake up early for our trip to Rawhide Ranch.
We kicked off on Sunday afternoon with a series of round tables. Jason, our Director of Community, wanted to make sure everyone got to meet each other right off the bat. Ignoring some (friendly) ridicule, he charged ahead with an event that had people rotating from table to table in a carefully choregraphed process that can only be described as the most complex game of musical chairs you can imagine. Soon introductions were happening, conversations were flowing, and people were smiling (no doubt at how proud they were of themselves for mastering Jason’s rotation plan).
The next morning, armed with our Merlin Safari hats, backpacks, sunblock and (thanks Davis Polk!) towels, we boarded the bus and headed off for Rawhide Ranch for a day of fly fishing and hiking. Armed with a whole lot of bug spray, the hikers set off to go conquer the mountain (or at least very large hill). At a starting elevation of 7,500 feet climbing to closer to 8,500, the hike was no joke, and those that went hiking definitely got a workout! Meanwhile, the rest of us got ready to do some fly fishing. Although many made jokes about how often they had phished before, most of us had never been fly fishing. Luckily, we had some of the best guides in the business, and soon we were in our waders and heading for the river. Rawhide’s website describes the area as having “excellent fishing [and] unparalleled scenery,” and it did not disappoint.
When we were planning the event, our team had debated the right amount of time to allocate for fly fishing. David had suggested we spend the better part of the day (and possibly night) there. Others thought one hour was more than enough time. In the end we settled on a bit under four hours, and frankly we could have easily done another four. Many commented it was one of the few times in quite a while they had been able to turn off their cell phones (it helped there was no coverage) and stop thinking about work for a day. Since the event was off the record, we won’t say who caught the biggest fish. But you should have seen the one that got away! 😉
Heading back to Denver on the bus people started sharing photos of their hikes, their catches and just the fun they had that day with new friends.
That evening, in keeping with the theme of building relationships and sharing, we had dinner at nearby tapas restaurant. It was amazing to see people who had met only the day before sharing food, drinks and stories, and already making plans to connect again after the event.
The next day, Tuesday, was our last day together, and we wanted to build on the trust that had been built by letting the CISOs share their perspectives with CEOs and vice-versa. Once again Jason came through with a great format for an event, with panel discussions followed by round tables to drill down into the topics discussed. We started out with a discussion between founders and CISOs on the best way to work with one another (hint – calling a CISO’s cell phone every day is not endearing), and then followed that up with a round table on how to best position early-stage startups.
That was followed by a lively discussion about advisory boards. One thing we’ve seen in working in this space for a while is many CISOs want to be advisors but aren’t sure how to approach startups, and many startups can benefit from advisors but aren’t sure how to select the right ones. With a trusted audience in the room, we decided to hash out some answers and share tips from both sides on what they find most beneficial. We closed out the day with round table discussions building on the advisory board discussion, digging into issues around conflicts of interest and how to avoid them. With that, we broke for lunch and people started saying their goodbyes.
We’ve done a fair number of events. Most of them last a few hours, and people often comment on the caliber of people they meet at them. But the feedback we got about Safari was not just about the caliber of people (you all know you are awesome), but about what it meant to get to spend time together with all of them. Relationships matter in business and in life, and for all the things we can do to help our portfolio companies and founders, building strong relationships with smart, caring people is the most important. I don’t yet know what next year’s Merlin Safari will look like, but we’ve set a high bar for ourselves. I know it will be fun, and I know there will be great people there. But our real measure of success will be whether we are able to create even stronger relationships.