• The Next New Thing: Women VCs

    women-vcsThe venture landscape changes fast. Ten years ago, few would have predicted the ubiquity of micro funds or the rise of Andreessen Horowitz or the very existence of a platform like AngelList that enables people with enough connections to become pop-up VCs.

    Few — though not most — see what’s coming next, too, and that’s women VCs, taking their place alongside men, in equal, or nearly equal, numbers. In fact, we’d argue that the shift will represent the biggest opportunity over the next decade.

    It may be hard to believe, given the wealth of attention paid to the low numbers of women in the industry and the obstacles they’re having to overcome. But the signs of change are everywhere if you’re paying close enough attention.

    Women now make up 60 percent of college graduates, and many more of them are graduating with tech-friendly degrees. (Women are exceeding at elite institutions particularly, and now account for one-third of Stanford’s undergraduate engineering students, as well as one-third of Stanford’s graduate engineering students.)

    Though women are making slow inroads at venture firms — according to CrunchBase data published last week,  just 7 percent of the partners are women at the top 100 venture firms —  women are increasingly finding paths around today’s guard.

    They represent 12 percent of investing partners at corporate venture firms — a percentage likely to grow because of heightened interest in how tech companies fare when it comes to diversity. “We believe it’s a missed opportunity if we aren’t an active participant” in funding women- and minority-led companies and funds,” says Janey Hoe, VP of Cisco’s 40-person investments unit.

    More, over the last three years, 16 percent of newly launched venture and micro-venture firms had at least one female founder, shows CrunchBase data.


    So what’s happening? As VC Jon Callaghan of True Ventures noted during a panel discussion in San Francisco last week, Moore’s law has played a starring role. As costs have fallen and made entrepreneurship accessible globally, more people are coming into venture capital.

    Monique Woodard, a longtime entrepreneur and more newly a venture partner at 500 Startups, credits her own path to the democratization of information brought about by social media platforms, as well as the many public insights into the industry that VCs like Fred Wilson and Brad Feld have contributed over time. “You suddenly have this library around venture capital and thought leadership that didn’t exist before,” said Woodard, speaking on the same panel.

    It’s also the case that women — an expanding number of whom are founding startups, as well as rising through the ranks of other companies — have more role models in VC than they did a decade ago.

    Of course, none of these trends is brand-spanking new. So why, you may be wondering, is now suddenly the tipping point? Because the ethical, business and financial reasons for change are finally poised to overtake the industry’s inertia.

    More here.

    (Image: Bryce Durbin)

  • True Ventures on Spotting Winning Teams

    true-ventures_fullSince its 2005 founding, San Francisco-based True Ventures has been making seed-stage bets on startups, with an eye toward plugging up to $10 million into those that break out. 

    The firm’s strategy has worked with aplomb. True was the first investor in WordPress parent Automattic — one of the tech industry’s hottest private companies. True also wrote early, small checks to the video ad network Brightroll and the wearable device maker Fitbit, companies that have gone on to raise tens of millions of dollars from eager follow-on investors. I recently caught up with cofounder Jon Callaghan to discuss True’s model, how to know when a startup is souring, and what kinds of companies the firm is backing right now. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length.

    True typically gets 20 percent of a company in return for a fairly small first check of $1 million to $2 million. How do you do it?

    We’re investing a $200 million fund, so $1 million checks are half of one percent of the fund. If you think about that allocation, it lets us take on an incredible amount of risk. When things work, we have a large enough fund that we can support [the best investments] with $5 million or $10 million – and we do have $10 million in lots of companies. [With] our best companies, we’re the largest shareholder on the lowest cost basis because we were in there on day one.

    Some of your founders have enjoyed success before and could presumably sell 20 percent of their company for a bigger check. Why don’t they?

    We wouldn’t be doing them any favors by putting too much money in too soon. We’re actually much more aligned by saying, “Here’s $1 million to $2 million to take you through the next 18 to 24 months [to see if your idea works]. Is that worth 20 percent to you?” And it is. It’s a pretty good trade.

    When you write a bigger check, you also start bumping into loss aversion. You really don’t want to lose that first check. If you’re in too heavy in the beginning, it’s really scary for any investor. And the last thing that any creative founder needs is a nervous investor.

    True has now backed 120 companies. When do you know that you have a great team on your hands, and when do you know a startup is going south?

    We like to see a constant thread through [founders’] experiences, meaning that when we hear their story, it’s really clear why they’re doing a particular company. We backed [former Wired editor] Chris Anderson [who founded the unmanned aerial vehicle company 3D Robotics last year] knowing there were a number of threads that led him to his company: his fascination with innovation; his kids’ curiosity in hacking Legos with remote control airplanes; and finally, just knowing that there’s nothing else in the world he’d rather be doing – and this is someone who could be doing anything.

    When it comes to the downside, there are a lot of easy tells. Communication gets weird between a founder and the rest of the team. Things just don’t add up. When teams are in flow, you can see it and feel it. Their offices are alive with energy. Those are the good ones. If you spend time at a company and there’s not that energy, then you kind of have to say, “What’s going on here?” It’s usually because some basic stuff is missing. People aren’t on board the mission, or the founder or someone else took the product in a direction that isn’t really resonating with the rest of the team, or the team kind of didn’t have the trust required to get together in the beginning.

    True first went after consumer Web companies, then SaaS companies, then infrastructure companies. What does your newest crop of portfolio companies look like?

    We think this wave of software and mobile innovation will disrupt very large existing businesses. Hair color is one of two consumer packaged goods companies that we’ve done. In robotics, we’ve funded many interesting and wearable robotics companies that haven’t yet been announced. We now have one of the largest device and wearable portfolios that no one knows about. We also think the car industry, where there’s clearly a huge software opportunity, is really interesting.

    It’s a big, scary market, and traditionally you might say, “What? You want to sell to automakers?” But we think there’s a really brilliant team doing something very bold and audacious, and we can and want to take a ton of risk with that first check.

    (To read a previously published segment of our chat with Callaghan, on the “Series B Crunch,” click here.) 

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  • True Ventures’ Jon Callaghan on the Series B Crunch

    JDCHeadshot1Late last week, I visited Jon Callaghan, a cofounder of eight-year-old True Ventures, a firm that makes seed-stage investments in companies that it can afford to back for the long haul. The firm’s string of hits includes the book recommendation site Goodreads, which raised $2.75 million and sold to Amazon this year for $150 million; 3D printing company Makerbot Industries, which raised $10 million and sold to Stratasys this year for $403 million in stock; and Automattic, the still-private parent company of WordPress. At True’s San Francisco offices, surrounded by a sea of glass windows and polished wood floors, Callaghan shared his views on a number of things, from the firm’s operations to the democratization of startup capital. We’ll feature more of that interview in StrictlyVC this week; what follows is a part of our discussion that centered on the growing shortage of Series B funding for startups.

    Years ago, you told me that True only does its own follow-on rounds, meaning in companies it has already backed. Has the firm reconsidered that stance, given that fewer and fewer firms are focused on Series B size investments? You’re investing a $200 million fund. Meanwhile, it seems like an underserved market.

    It’s a really interesting part of the market. We’re not building a new product for that market. It’s not in front of us right now, though I personally think about how we can solve the needs of great entrepreneurs, and that’s a big, huge problem in the ecosystem right now.

    What’s creating this bottleneck, in your view? 

    There are definitely too many seed-funded companies. But I think it goes back to risk. I don’t think the normal venture capital model is designed to take extremely large product/market risks. What that means is when companies get through the A [round] to the B and they still have big unanswered questions around product/market, it’s really hard for the normal industry to fund that.

    What would you do that’s not being done?

    You make sure that [the size of] your investments are relative to your [overall] fund [size] and you embrace the idea of investment failure as part of the model.

    Other VCs will accuse you of being patronizing. They’ll say that failure and risk are very much part of their models. What are you suggesting that’s different?

    Well, we’re talking about a big gap in the market – B rounds – and the reason those rounds aren’t getting funded is [the startups don’t have] enough traction.

    For the most part, the industry has gravitated toward strong, traction proof points because that’s a good business. Put $5 million or $20 million into a business that’s working and write it up? That’s a fantastic business. But it’s different than taking high risks on B rounds. So to your point, I think there’s a product to be built that’s structured around taking high risk in B rounds.

    If True Ventures were to do it, what would it look like?

    I think there’s probably a $3 million to $5 million B round product to be built that’s sort of in the $15 million to $20 million pre [valuation] range, and in order to do that you’d need a fund large enough to have follow-on capital for each of those. You can run the math. Thirty to 40 companies [in the portfolio] would be pretty optimal.

    I think it’s a really interesting slice of the industry, and it’s not rational for Sand Hill Road to come down and do it because [those investors already] have a really good model. There are some funds out there that are really well-equipped to do this and do a phenomenal job, including Foundry Group and Spark Capital — they embrace really big product and market risks. But [most] VCs will fund B and C rounds for things that have product/market fit and traction.

    Those are good companies, too. But there are an awful lot of companies that get through A rounds that don’t have all of those things and shouldn’t die or go away.

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