After facing death, early Facebook employee finds life is sweet

Kevin Colleran at the Boston crosswalk where he was hit by a van in February. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff.
Kevin Colleran at the Boston crosswalk where he was hit by a van in February. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff.

Kevin Colleran remembers that February morning clearly. The groggy feeling after a late-night flight, the snow piled on the South End sidewalks as he took a walk to the corner store to pick up some breakfast.

Most of all, he remembers that moment crossing Tremont Street when he spied a van turning left, directly into his path.

“I remember turning over my right shoulder and saying, ‘I’m about to get run over,’” Colleran said.

Knocked to the pavement, Colleran initially was able to walk away. But within an hour he was vomiting at home and quickly taken to Massachusetts General Hospital, where doctors diagnosed massive bleeding in his brain and performed emergency surgery. Another two hours, the surgeons told him, and he would have died.

The accident was a violent reminder of frailty for a young man who had, until that moment, enjoyed uncommon success. Hired at age 24 to be one of the first employees at Facebook, Colleran was privileged to be among the bright minds who helped to change the way people communicate, deeply embedding technology into popular culture. Along the way, he became a very rich man.

Now 34, Colleran is a venture capitalist, seeding the next generation of technological change. But he didn’t truly know how good his life had been until his near-death experience prompted an outpouring of concern and gratitude from far more people than he would have dreamed.

“If you ever go to a funeral, you look around and say, ‘How many people would be at mine?’” Colleran said. “My understanding was, this room would be a lot more packed than I ever imagined.”

Colleran has nearly recovered from the accident. He lost his sense of taste and smell, but has no other lasting effects from the brain injury. And on Saturday, he will give the commencement speech at his alma mater, Babson College.

For the exhausted grads and proud parents in attendance, there will be no great epiphany, no storybook bolt of inspiration that forced Colleran to change bad habits or rethink his career. Instead, they will hear that life is there for the taking — a simple message made much more profound coming from a guy who nearly died just a few months ago.

“It’s a great time in my life for 100 reasons. And yes, this sucked,” Colleran said. “But I called my father, and my dad was like, ‘Don’t let this hold you down in any way.’”

Colleran might sound like the kind of tech-industry guy who is ripe for caricature. He pounds cans of Coke Zero, sends emails like they’re going out of style, and interrupts winding anecdotes with a smirk to note that he once trademarked the word “Blabbermouth.”

But in an era when fast-talking entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley excess are lampooned on television, members of Colleran’s vast network of friends are eager to testify that he’s one of the most genuine, sincere, inspiring people in their lives.

“Some rich guy, the world owes me everything, poor, poor, pitiful me—he’s the exact opposite of that. He is inspired by young people, never makes them feel badly that they weren’t at Facebook, is always interested in learning about others,” said David Fialkow, a managing director at the venture capital firm General Catalyst Partners, where Colleran works.

“The bottom line is,” Fialkow added, “people love Kevin Colleran—love him.”

In 2005, when Colleran was already running a company that sold digital ads for websites targeting college students, another group of kids asked him to come build Facebook’s internal ad business. Hoping to run his own company on the side, Colleran ended up at Facebook for more than six years, long after many other early employees had cashed in and left for new adventures.

“Kevin put his heart and soul into that company as much as anyone,” said Dave Morin, another early Facebook employee who today is Colleran’s investing partner and the CEO of Path.

After leaving Facebook in 2011, Colleran traveled, got married, and eventually joined General Catalyst. Just before the accident, he, Morin, and another Facebook alum, Sam Lessin, began raising money for their own investment fund, called Slow Ventures. They were most of the way to their $40 million goal when Colleran stepped into the street that February morning.

At first, Colleran was able to spring to his feet. A quick survey found no bruises, cuts, broken bones—no blood. But the ambulance crew warned his wife, Erica, to watch for signs of head trauma. And they were back at his house about an hour later when Colleran began vomiting, an indication of a more serious brain injury.

Any question about how well the chatty, jovial Colleran weathered the surgery were answered shortly after he woke up from the anesthesia.

“One of the first things that he said when we were in the recovery room was, ‘Hey guys, is this a bad time to mention that I don’t have health insurance?’” Erica Colleran said. “He was just being Kevin.”

Despite having a drain tube hanging from his skull, Colleran couldn’t resist taking a selfie from his hospital bed — and posting it on Facebook, naturally — with the jokey headline, “Big Day.”

The selfie Kevin Colleran posted to Facebook the day of his accident and surgery. Courtesy Colleran.

As soon as the image hit the Web, messages flooded in from all corners of his life: his best friends, business associates, even people he hardly knew, all wishing him well. Others told Colleran his close call and persistently happy attitude had a deeper effect.

“People sent me notes like, ‘It took that picture to scare me enough to remind me how fragile life is. And therefore, I’m going to do the following — I’m sick of this job and I should have moved on long ago,’ or ‘I love this girl and I should have proposed long ago,’” Colleran said.

Though he had spent the early part of his career building a social network, the strength of Colleran’s personal ties became far more apparent after he shared his experiences online. “I feel like I affected more people’s lives than I ever imagined,” he said.

Colleran got out of the hospital five days later, his head marked by a zig-zag of staples. In the meantime, back in his professional life, money poured into his new venture fund, closing at a much bigger $65 million.

“My joke is, I’m not the Make-a-Wish Foundation. This is a fund,” Colleran said. But rather than contributing out of sympathy or pity, some investors said surviving the accident might give him newfound drive. “One person literally said, ‘I want to invest twice as much because you’ve got something to lose and hopefully, you’re going to be a better VC.’”

Two weeks after his surgery, Colleran elected to attend the South By Southwest conference in Austin, Texas. It was a big trip for someone recovering from major surgery, but his doctors cleared him, and Colleran planned to use the tech gathering to host one of his many dinner parties, in part to thank the friends, business leaders, and investors who had supported him after the accident.

Sure, he had something to prove by showing up. But for Colleran, connecting with other people and staying plugged into the latest trends is a source of his seemingly boundless energy. After staring down death, sitting this one out would have hardly been living.

“I had absolutely no reason to go back to work,” Colleran said. “Except every reason in my mind and every reason in my body, which was ‘Gotta get back, gotta get back.’”

Colleran 3Two CAT scans of Kevin Colleran’s brain. At right is from the day of his accident, Feb. 27, with the shadowy white area showing bleeding. At left is as scan from April 2, showing how the bleeding had receded. Courtesy Colleran.