Maveron’s Dan Levitan: This Time Is Not “Different”

Dan LevitanDan Levitan, the former investment banker who founded Maveron with Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, is having a pretty good run as a venture capitalist. His 16-year-old firm has backed a long line of consumer-facing startups that have become household brands, including eBay, Groupon, Cranium, Shutterfly and Zulily, the daily deals website for moms whose late 2013 IPO transformed an early, $5 million check from Maveron into a windfall for the firm and its investors (though Zulily’s stock has more recently been sinking).

That long string of winners has convinced Maveron’s institutional backers to provide it with nearly $1 billion over the years, including a $140 million fifth fund that the firm closed last year. Still, Levitan — who has a big personality and tells the sorts of unguarded personal anecdotes that readers love and public relations pros abhor – readily admits that Maveron has lost its way a couple of times before getting back on track.

StrictlyVC talked with him last week in a fun chat, shortened here for length (and per the request of his watchful communications advisor).

You’re in Seattle, but you’ve had a team in San Francisco for a few years. Do you spend time down here, too?

I’m down at least every two weeks. Increasingly, we’ll be down there more. We’ve had some successes up here in Seattle, but as we’ve moved to a more-focused consumer-only strategy, we realize we have to be more successful in San Francisco.

A “more-focused” consumer strategy? Maveron has always been focused on consumer startups, hasn’t it?

We’ve always been consumer only, but we kind of justified [a] business-to-business-to-consumer [strategy] for the first 10 years, [meaning we’d back] products and services that sell into consumer businesses. We called it “powering consumer services,” and it was a mockery of a parody of a tragedy of a sham, so we decided to focus on consumer very narrowly and invest only in end-user consumer brands. It’s worked much better, including because we’re presented with more [of these types of startups]; we have a greater pool of companies facing similar problems, which helps our entrepreneurs; and our LPs are getting more consistent returns.

Many people think of Maveron as a Series A investor, but it also makes seed-stage bets. How do you approach both types of investments, and what size investments are you making at these very different stages?

Our seed bets are small — $100,000 to $250,000 – and we make one to two a month. Our [San Francisco-based partner] Rebecca Kaden leads the seed effort, but it’s a completely different process than our core investment effort. There are six of us on the investment team and if any two of us wants to do a seed deal, we will. It’s designed to get to know entrepreneurs and spaces we might not be familiar with, so sometimes after a day or two, we’ll say, “Fine, we’re in for $100,000.”

If we make a core investment, it’s a more focused effort. We typically write checks of $2 million to $8 million for between 15 and 25 percent of the company. [Before we invest], basically one partner has to decide that they like it and want to champion it and they get the colleague who is most appropriate to work with them on it. Then everyone on our team meets every entrepreneur we’re going to back in a Series A deal.

Does majority rule?

[Not necessarily.] Someone might like [a deal] and, after issues are pointed out, says, “I can handle it.” Ultimately, I think something that’s obvious doesn’t particularly relate to great VC returns. There have been a few times in the last 16 years when we’ve funded something that was a no-brainer and it worked well for us. But most of the time, it’s not a no-brainer. Our goal is to give people the latitude to make some non-consensus bets.

A few of Maveron’s portfolio companies have gone public in the last 18 months or so, including the sandwich chain Potbelly, Zulily, and the pet health insurance company Trupanion. What do you think of the broader trend of entrepreneurs pushing out their IPOs and staying private longer?

I think entrepreneurs are being thoughtful that as long as late-stage [investors] value their companies at or above public market prices, why not take advantage of it? I don’t think the dichotomy between late-stage and public valuations is sustainable, though. Over some period of time, that [gap], which is so stark today, will close, either because public companies become more expensive or late-stage companies [grow less so].

What are you seeing in terms of valuations?

In general, it’s a good time to be an entrepreneur. We’ve seeing valuations based much more on greed than fear, which we’ve seen before.

I’m humbled by how much we all benefit by the up cycles, but I promise that everyone who says this time is different is wrong.

Photo by Gabriela Hasbun

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