M12 co-founder Lisa Nelson on discovering the excitement of startups from inside Microsoft – GeekWire

Lisa Nelson practices some social distancing pre-coronavirus in the Maldives. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Nelson)

In her 14 years in leadership at Microsoft, Lisa Nelson held five different positions. But it was perhaps her favorite job, and one where she marked one of her proudest achievements, that inspired her to leave the Redmond, Wash.-based software and cloud behemoth.

Nelson’s last job at Microsoft was as managing director of M12 (formerly known as Microsoft Ventures), the company’s venture capital arm that she helped launch with three colleagues in 2016. M12 invests in early-stage B2B startups and has more than 80 startups in its portfolio, including some that have exited.

While at M12, she also founded the annual Female Founders Competition, which this year is teaming up with Mayfield, one of Silicon Valley’s oldest VC firms, and Melinda Gates’s Pivotal Ventures to award $6 million. The event recently announced its finalists.

Working on M12 and the competition, “it opened doors to a whole new world,” said Nelson. Her previous roles included corporate accounting, investor relations, the office of the chief financial officer and business development.

Lisa Nelson, co-founder of M12 (formerly Microsoft Ventures). (Microsoft Photo)

Building M12 was a bit like creating a startup inside the giant Microsoft organization.

“You are that underdog,” she said, “looking for scraps to get by.”

Nelson liked working with less mature companies that the venture was funding. It fueled her “passion and energy around the startup ecosystem,” she said. It helped her realize that “innovation comes from everywhere” and not just companies with millions in the bank.

Nelson recently joined the board of directors for Peacetrees, a Seattle-based nonprofit working to remove war-era explosives in Vietnam. She is particularly eager to support this group given her Vietnamese heritage. Nelson also just took a role as a strategic advisor to New Zealand Rugby, the governing body of all-things rugby in the country.

She’s excited by the opportunity to engage with more startups and nonprofits that align with her interests.

“I was more focused on building my career and professional life,” she said, “and now I’ve got this luxury of time to commit to industries and organizations that can benefit from that.”

And given her experience with startups, does she have advice for companies in the time of coronavirus?

“You have to stay focused,” she said. If possible, it’s important to save whatever cash one can so that when the economy picks up again, a founder has some resources to build or retain her or his team. Nelson also recommended that leaders are transparent with employees and share their thoughts about business decisions.

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“You’ll not only show them the compassion they deserve but you’ll also build trust,” she said.

We caught up with Nelson for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.

Current location: I’m based in Seattle, but travel a lot for work and personal travel. All told, I’ve been to 90 countries! I am currently in New Zealand. I came out here a couple of weeks ago for some advisory work. I hear it’s absolute mayhem at home, so I’m still trying to figure out where to go from here. [Editor’s note: Since completing this Q&A, Nelson returned to Seattle.]

Computer types: Surface Pro and Surface Studio (when I’m at home)

Mobile devices: That’s a long list! I have two iPhones (One for domestic use and one for international use. I own about 10 different SIM cards.). I also carry an iPad with me as I use that to consume entertainment. And of course, I carry my Surface Pro with me as that’s my favorite device for email and productivity.

Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools


  • Aaptiv (on demand fitness — great for someone who’s always on the road)
  • WhatsApp (it’s a great way to stay in touch with family and friends around the world, even businesses are on it)
  • Alaska Airlines (I’m always booking flights) and Marriott (I’m always booking hotel rooms)
  • Grab (they bought Uber in Southeast Asia; I love it because you can order everything from a motorbike to a helicopter!)

Cloud Services:

  • Not sure if you call this a cloud service, but Netflix (I was probably one of the biggest consumers of “Friends” when they had it; I now watch a lot of crime/thrillers/espionage shows)
  • Google and Google Maps — they’ve done a great job integrating so much of the information that I care about (how to get somewhere, like where to eat, making it easy for me to order a ride to get there, etc.)

Software Tools:

  • Adobe Lightroom — you can make yourself look good in any photo
  • Outlook — I live in my inbox

Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? My workspace is very fluid and mobile. I have a Tumi travel purse that fits everything in it — and I mean everything! I take that with me everywhere so I can set up shop whenever/wherever I need. I’ve gotten used to working almost anywhere.

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Lisa Nelson has developed a flexible work style and can set up shop anywhere. This is her most recent improvised workspace at an Airbnb in New Zealand. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Nelson)

Your best advice for managing everyday work and life?

  • Wake up early. I generally wake up between 4:30-5 a.m. no matter where I am. Being up before the world turns on is my most productive time.
  • Make lists. It helps keep me organized and gives me satisfaction when I check something off it.
  • Maintain perspective (and use friends and family to keep you in check). We always tend to think things are a bigger deal than they really are.  Turns out the world probably won’t stop, even when you think it might, if you don’t do that one thing urgently.
  • Exercise! I’m a runner. I absolutely love it. Even when I don’t feel like it, I go because I always feel better after.

Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? It’s going to make me sound old, but I like Facebook. It keeps me connected with folks around the world. I’m not a great phone person, but via Facebook, I get to stay up-to-date with what’s happening in people’s lives. Then when we do get a moment to speak, we aren’t catching up on the day-to-day stuff but are having a meaningful conversation.

Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? Unread: always ZERO! Unanswered: less than 10.

Lisa Nelson running in an Ironman race in Whistler, British Columbia a few years ago. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Nelson)

Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? Nine. But there are way more entries than that. I often use my calendar for reminders and to-dos. Over time I found putting them in my calendar and dedicating time to them ensures that I actually get the tasks done.

How do you run meetings? Always start with setting or reminding everyone of the context for the meeting, what we need to achieve, and how much time we have. It’s amazing how many people will come to a meeting and not even know what it’s about!

Everyday work uniform? Jeans, black sweater or blouse, black comfy flats, Garmin Forerunner watch

How do you make time for family? My husband and I run together. When we started dating, he asked me, “Why would someone run if they weren’t being chased?” He’s since completed several races, including a marathon and a half Ironman. We also use WhatsApp a ton to stay in touch.

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Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? Running and traveling. There is something magical about seeing the world and seeing how other people live. It’s a great way to get perspective and stay grounded.

What are you listening to? I just received a message from Spotify that I’m in the top 1% of Flo Rida radio listeners (Flo Rida is described as a “feel-good, party rapper”). It’s embarrassing, but it’s the truth. That is the music I like to run to. It gives me energy.

Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters?

  • BBC: one of the best for reporting global news
  • Good Morning from CNN newsletter: love the summary/highlights format
  • Weather.com: I’m a total weather geek
  • Fidelity: I watch the markets and my portfolio (although I haven’t looked in three days — it’s too depressing.)
  • Termsheet: a newsletter by Fortune
  • And of course, GeekWire: today’s top stories
Before traveling to East Africa while on sabbatical from Microsoft, Lisa Nelson connected with a nonprofit organization called Shoe4Africa that helps African women and kids. Together they organized a 5K, “women’s empowerment” run in Kenya. Nelson collected donated athletic shoes before the trip and provided a free pair to every participant. Some 1,000 women age 7-81 ran in the event and all completed the course. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Nelson)

Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? I’ve always got a couple of books going at once. Right now it’s “The Pisces” by Melissa Broder (I’m only halfway through and it’s just taken a crazy turn; I can’t wait to see what happens next) and Kieran Read’s “Straight 8: The Autobiography.” Read was the former captain of the New Zealand All Blacks Rugby team. He won two Rugby World Cups and is one of the sport’s best ever players.

Night owl or early riser? Early riser for sure! I love the morning. I don’t really enjoy the nighttime. My dad once told me nothing good happens after midnight; that is so true. I wake up between 4:30-5 a.m. and get to bed around 9 p.m. most nights.

Where do you get your best ideas? Running or on a plane. I love both.

Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? Former President Barack Obama. He was one of the busiest people in the world with the most stressful job, but was always so calm, cool and collected. I’ve seen him tired, but I’ve never seen him flustered. I know people who have worked with him, and they universally say it’s all genuine. He really is a good person.



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