• 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

  • Same-Day Delivery Takes One On the Chin

    oofOver the weekend, eBay took down a standalone app for its $5 same-day delivery service “eBay Now.” The company, which continues to make the service available online, is “rethinking how it wants to handle the high costs associated with running same-day delivery services,” reported TechCrunch.

    It would be a mistake to declare same-day delivery economically unfeasible because of eBay’s sudden ambivalence about it. It’s tempting, though.

    Despite the glut of same-day delivery services to materialize in recent years – from Google and Amazon to Deliv and PostMates – same day delivery services continue to face major challenges.

    The biggest hitch appears to be the limited base of customers who are willing to pay more for faster service. Bargain hunters on eBay may be especially averse to additional fees. (Only a fraction of a small retailer’s sales come from customers who also opt for same-day delivery, as Reuters noted last week.) The same seems true of Walmart, which launched its same-day delivery pilot program in 2011 and is still testing it in just three markets.

    But they’re hardly alone. According to a recent business intelligence report by Business Insider, only 2 percent of all shoppers living in cities where same-day delivery is offered have availed themselves of the services. Meanwhile, 92 percent say they’re willing to wait four days or longer for their e-commerce packages to arrive.

    Very possibly, not all of these consumers have been educated about the new offerings they could be using — dazzling applications through which workforces are now mobilized with a few taps of a smart phone. And same-day delivery margins are surely better than during the dot.com era, when companies like Webvan invested heavily in infrastructure.

    Whether they’re good enough appears to be an open question. For example, even with an extremely efficient fulfillment system, the same-day delivery company Instacart marks up its goods meaningfully over standard grocery store prices.

    Someone seems likely to figure out how to bring the various pieces together at scale. Uber, whose logistics system grows more sophisticated by the day, may be the strongest candidate for the job.

    EBay has piles of data at its fingertips, too, though. That it’s cooling to same-day delivery after two years of experimentation — and planning to focus more on helping shoppers buy items online that can be picked up in stores — is worth slowing down to consider.

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