True Grit: John Gabbert masters the art of venture investment data tracking and catfish noodling

“Have you ever been noodling?”

It’s an interesting question, considering the topic and the questioner.

Noodling is fishing for catfish using only bare hands. The person asking the question is John Gabbert (BA 1996), the founder and CEO of PitchBook, a financial data and software company headquartered in Seattle. The company and Gabbert made news in late 2016 when Morningstar acquired PitchBook, valuing the company at $225 million.

The two—noodling and Gabbert—intersected when he started teasing the fishing experience as an incentive to his sales team.

I had talked about it for probably five years and then, finally, people were calling my bluff,” says Gabbert. “I was like, ‘Oh, we’re going to do it—we’re going to do it this year.’ And so we did. Twenty-two of PitchBook’s top salespeople went down to Nashville.”

All came back with a great fish story.

“We work hard at PitchBook. We push,” says Gabbert. “We also laugh a lot and have a good time.”

Notice the hard work comes first.

Cold calling

Gabbert worked during college to pay for his education. One of the skills he acquired was a comfort for cold-calling while he was employed at Copiers Northwest, Dain Bosworth and as rush chairman of his UW fraternity, Tau Kappa Epsilon. “I earned 10 bucks every time I got a qualified lead. I literally made thousands of cold calls,” says Gabbert.

It’s a skill that would come in handy more than a decade later.

Gabbert had moved to San Francisco to pursue a job in finance. After nine years working in the field of venture capital, he heard a need expressed by his customers—a single database of tracking information about venture capital and private equity investments, fundraising, fund performance, etc. Gabbert pitched the idea internally. It went nowhere.

So, for two years, Gabbert worked full time and spent his nights building PitchBook, crashing in a former fraternity brother’s spare room and living on pizza and Coca-Cola. During this time, his wife and kids were in Seattle. He describes being away from them as his low point.

He returned to the Emerald City and his family, and launched PitchBook on March 1st, 2007, just as the Financial Crisis was about to strike. His timing wasn’t great, but his tenacity and ability to pick up the phone and pitch his idea kept his dream afloat.

“Early ’07, the private equity database seemed like a pretty good idea,” Gabbert recalls. “Later ’07, it seemed a little bit less of a good idea, ’08 was miserable, ’09, horrible. I was trying to raise $3.8 million. Through the period that was known as the Great Recession, I pitched over 200 people that said no. Luckily, 18 people said yes.”

Number 18 was Joe Mansueto, founder of Morningstar, the Chicago-based provider of independent investment research. Gabbert had cold-called him with the pitch.

This wasn’t on the syllabus

For those first few years, PitchBook operated out of a 200‑square-foot office.

“There were seven of us, no windows,” says Gabbert. “I think it speaks to just how focused we were. We were running a business and trying to break even through the recession. It was a slog.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when asked what book Gabbert would recommend to current students, he picks Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth.

“I sometimes hear people discuss—almost complain—how many hours they’ve worked recently and refer to that as having grit. Whereas I view grit as a long-term play,” says Gabbert. “It’s not as transactional as putting in so many hours. Rather, it’s about finding things you’re passionate about and not quitting regardless of the obstacles in the way. I don’t know that grit is a teachable quality. It’s a mindset that can be developed over time and is best exemplified by the willingness to repeatedly get out of your comfort zone and by persevering.”

Phone a friend

While Gabbert may not have developed grit while attending classes in Balmer Hall, he appreciates the breadth of knowledge he took from the experience.

“One of the things in particular about the business school is that you get exposure to a lot of different things: marketing, finance, accounting, management, communication. I think it’s that broad exposure that lays a great foundation to build on.”

He also celebrates the relationships he built at the school and the TKE fraternity, and the impact they’ve had on his life. His first job out of college at AT&T came from a referral, as did his next job at John Hancock. And his move to San Francisco came at the invitation of UW friends.

“I look back at the relationships I built at UW and those really may be the most valuable parts of my undergraduate experience,” says Gabbert. “Today, I enjoy paying it forward. Whether it’s hiring from UW, providing referrals, mentoring students or my role as Fritzky Chair at Foster, giving back to the Husky community is extremely important to me.”

Let the good times roll

“We like to make it fun,” Gabbert says.

And they do. The evidence is all over PitchBook’s Twitter feed. Amid the tweets about financing rounds and acquisitions and valuations you’ll find photos of the team at baseball games and golf tourneys—and even noodling.

About that fish story. It involves hours submerged in murky water. And a fishing guide named Big Sexy. And a 55-lb catfish that shook the riverbed before Gabbert pulled it from the water attached to his arm.

In 10 years, Gabbert built a company with less than $4 million of capital into one with $80 million in sales and nearly 750 employees.

As Gabbert says, “It’s a work in progress. And it’s also success worth celebrating.”

-Andrew Krueger

John Gabbert is serving as the Edward V. Fritzky Endowed Chair in Leadership at the UW Foster School of Business during the 2017-2018 academic year.