Remote Investing

As we begin to create a “new normal” for life with Covid-19 (coronavirus), there is a lot of discussion about how “work” is going to change.

During the peak of the outbreak, to comply with stay-at-home orders, many who could would work from home- did. This was especially relevant for tech companies who already used various collaboration tools to enable long-distance team work. In some cases this transition seemed almost natural. Some even argue that the pandemic has sped up market adoption rates by as much as 10 years for these tools, essentially changing the nature of work as we know it.

It would seem to me, that this can work well for pure software companies. However, for hardware being developed in the shop or biotech being developed in a lab, things are a little more complicated. Indeed, many parts of the innovation can be outsourced these days, but the core science needs to be done within the company. And, at the end of the day, someone, somewhere, needs to get in the lab to run the experiment and record the results. Most of us cannot do this at home.

Across our portfolio we have seen different approaches to the work-from-home situation. Anyone who could accommodate did, and most have shared only limited dips in productivity or even improvement. This seems to support the research about time wasted in traffic and the stress it creates, taking a toll on the productivity of our teams.

As someone who has been working out of the home office for almost 10 years, this was a non-issue for me. I knew how to hold video conference calls and had a comfortable working environment where I could be productive. I was more than happy to spend less time in traffic or at coffee shops for the two-days-a-week of meetings-in-person schedule which I was keeping. But I do miss visiting the portfolio companies. The insights from being on the ground are vital to providing good counsel to a CEO.

For us, the biggest challenge so far has been the inability to meet with founders of potentially new portfolio companies. It is much harder to assess the passion, conviction and nature of a founder when you only meet virtually. I remember this from my early days as an investor when I was reviewing companies with the team at TechU, where everything was done by video conference. I needed to “feel” the team to get comfortable. So when we set out to start our own fund, we made this a priority. At Sapir VP we are deeply engaged with the founders since we see ourselves as part of their team. We don’t dial-it-in, figuratively or literally.

As such, while we have been very active as investors during the pandemic closing a new investment each month, this may change in the near future. As we move forward with the opportunities we had engaged with before the pandemic locked us at home, and look to move forward with newer opportunities, even the ones we really like, we find harder to commit to. The concern is not about the tech, the market or the terms of a round. Rather it is truly about the people and whether we are a good fit to support them on their journey.

At the moment, we are trying to overcome this hurdle by spending more time with these founders, online. This has slowed down our process. It is frustrating to us just as it must be for the founders we are engaging with. I am sure we will miss out on working with some great teams because of this, but I prefer not to keep them hanging if we can’t get there at the moment.

Show me the “exit”?

Last month, I had what was technically our first “exit” as an investor.

One of our portfolio companies from our angel fund – A2Z Venture Partners – was acquired. This is definitely an exciting event. But the outcome as an investor is still unknown.

I am happy for the founder, who has become a good friend during this journey. And on paper our new holdings reflect a nice return. But it is all still on paper.

The above led me to question some of the data around “time to exit” of startup companies. We all know that companies are staying private longer. And that the tech titans of today created more value for their investors post-IPO rather than pre-IPO.

It used to be a rule of thumb that it was 6 years to success – either to get acquired (aka M&A) or long-term viability through profitability (aka IPO). Crunchbase shared data at the end of 2018 which indicated a very broad range of time-to-exit, depending on the industry, from 5 years and up to 16 years. In Israel, IVC shared data at the end of 2019 showing an average time-to-exit of 7.89 years for VC-backed Israeli companies.

When does this data stop the clock? Is it when the deal closes or when the investors see a capital return?

Based on what I’ve learned so far I would assume the former.

What should I do during a Pandemic?

A month ago we sent out a letter to all of our portfolio companies regarding the novel Coronavirus pandemic (COVID19). Our intent was to show our support, offer practical suggestions and make ourselves available to help them wherever needed.

It is hard to believe that it has only been a month, but the world truly feels like a different place. We recognize that the current situation, while improving, is not going anyway soon. Despite the optimistic voices around the table or on the news. So, as we look to develop long-term strategies and new ways of doing business, we went back to review what we wrote at the time.

Here are some excerpts which we thought are still relevant:

The world is a different place than it was when March 2020 began. We hope that you and your families are safe at home, with plans to stay there until we can overcome this pandemic. I wanted to take this opportunity to share our perspective on the start-up ecosystem and share updates from SapirVP.

I am sure you have all seen the famous “Sequoia letter of 2020”. In a step which mirrored their approach to the downturn of 2008, the experienced firm shared their perspective and recommendations to their portfolio companies. These are good insights and valuable recommendations which I suggest you consider for your companies. The full letter can be found here.

While we are hearing other voices that do not completely align with Sequoia’s, we believe the following:

1. You need to prepare for the worse-case scenario.

2. You need to take advantage of this situation to enhance every aspect of your company.

To break this down to practical considerations: Regarding #1 the assumption needs to be that there will be significant, and potentially long-term, market disruptions on all fronts – customer interest, supply chain and fund raising are the most critical to an early stage venture. Regarding #2 – this is the time to refocus internally on product development, learn the voice of your customer through interviews and position your offerings for better market-fit in a changing world.  We are forced to stop, take stock and adjust.

This is also an opportunity to make improvements to your team – trimming (only) where necessary, cutting those who were not pulling their weight and hiring great talent that was hard to come by just a month ago. Of course, maintaining a positive culture is critical. Our approach has been to frame these steps as a way to boost the company and rally the troops to your mission. Protecting your employees as much as possible (safety and financially) is a solid way to lead by example. Choose to maintain a positive attitude and seek out the opportunities this situation has created.

These times call for swift and decisive actions to preserve what you have built while positioning your company as one of the few still standing, prepared to take advantage of the world post-Covid19 impact.

We all need to adapt. SapirVP remains engaged in evaluating new opportunities and closing investments to which we had committed before the world went into lockdown. But we are also reevaluating investment strategies so as to provide these companies with the best starting position to weather the storm.


Stay safe. Stay healthy.

BBB

Bring Back Blogging.

These are different times we live in. New experiences and new challenges, which bring with them new opportunities. We are forced to stop our lives and reconfigure. This is probably a good thing overall, but the impact will be meaningful. While many focus on the negative, there is also light shining through, highlighting the positive aspects.

I am trying to do what I can during this time. First for my family, and then our portfolio companies, our investors, our local community and the overall ecosystem. With people more available and interested in consuming content, I saw this as an opportunity to begin blogging again. In the spirit of @pmarca in his recent post, I wanted to get back to the feeling of building something again.

Initially we will be digging into some of the ideas and the thinking that we have been sharing in smaller conversations or online workshops. As the content develops and the world continues to adapt and reshape, I expect the content here will do so as well. Hopefully, we can expand our contribution to the ecosystem through this medium.

I look forward to your feedback.

Stay healthy.

Mission: Impossible?

When engaging with entrepreneurs trying to change the world, we look for people who are on a mission. We are not unique in using these buzzwords as many other investors also claim to back “mission driven founders”. So, for the sake of clarity (and transparency in the industry), we wanted to break down what “mission-driven” means to us at Sapir.

Let’s start with the formal definition offered by a Google search:

a formal summary of the aims and values of a company, organization, or individual.
“a mission statement to which all employees can subscribe”

Google

Even with such a simple definition there is already a lot here for us to unpack.

formal summary – indicates it should be crafted with a formal tone and language but in brief form rather than War and Peace.

aims and values – this is the core of the statement as it is the message you are conveying in the to grab the attention of your audience and connect with them around what truly matters.

statement – I recommend one sentence. It can be a long sentence, but the message needs to stay brief.

all… can subscribe – the end product needs to inspire and drive to action.

With this in mind we would like to propose some practical steps to create this monumental sentence so it is deserving of being called a Statement.

1. Define your purpose. What are you setting out to do? How will you be changing the world and making it a better place? Why does the world need your company? Why now? – If you have read our previous posts about your company’s Vision and how to create one then you have already developed this core material.

2. Drill down to first principles. Get specific around what is important to you as far was what you want to achieve and the values that guide you in your pursuit of these aspirations. First principles make it easier to quickly comprehend your message.

3. Create inspiration and drive action. A call to arms, so to speak. This statement will be the rallying call that introduces or reminds the audience of the grander (and longer) vision each time they hear or see it.

4. Iterate until you have a single comprehensible sentence.

Your Missions Statement is not your vision. It is not a grand description of the utopian future you are creating or a list of your core values. It is not even your Why. These are all different components of your corporate culture and each piece plays a different part. I’ll illustrate how you can use your mission statement with a personal story.

After 4 months of basic training and 3 months of advanced training our infantry platoon was stationed at an outpost along the Israel-Lebanon border. Our training had included seminars on ethics and conduct, not to mention the code-of-honor drilled into our minds throughout, balanced with the need for a military force to defend the Jewish people (the IDF is the most moral and ethical military force in the world!). But despite all of this advanced preparation, in every mess hall and briefing room there was a sign that said: “Protect the Northern Towns!”

A brief history can be found here, but ultimately we knew we were there so as to guarantee that civilians living in a town or in a kibbutz a couple of kilometers away could do so peacefully. And yet, every time we walked into the room, we had that super simple three-word statement front and center reminding us of all the other details – values, purpose, training, etc. – without needing anyone to repeat them all again.

The Mission Statement is concise because it can be if there is a strong vision shared in advance which incorporates the grand purpose and core values so it does not need to iterate them again. Rather it is a sentence that reminds those who know already and captures the attention of those who do not yet so they will want to learn more.

It is also important to emphasize that your Mission Statement is not your Elevator Pitch. We plan to discuss the Elevator Pitch in a separate post. The Mission Statement can be part of your Elevator Pitch, but it is still just one sentence so at most it would be 10 seconds worth of your 1 minute elevator ride.

As a final note, you can have multiple mission statements geared towards different audiences. Though the core should remain the same and thus the different versions are similar, the emphasis can be adjusted to best address an employee or a customer or an investor.

Sapir Venture Partners empowers Israeli founders solving grand problems by leveraging deep-technology and cutting-edge science, while holding themselves to core inspirational values with which we align allowing us to provide mentorship at the early stages of their journey to create a positive global impact.

Sapir Venture Partners

This is our mission statement.

Super Vision

In a previous post we discussed the need for a strong Vision as a way to inspire people to join you in your pursuit of making the world a better place. It is an important part of your story which can be used to attract talent, customers and investors.

How do you create your Vision? – We share here a 3-step process to get you started.

First you need to understand what your Vision is. Read this post.

Next, I recommend answering the following 4 questions which I have used with dozens of founders in my sessions at MassChallenge. The best results will come if you can be honest and detailed in your answers.

1. Purpose: What is my company’s reason for existing? Why do what I’m are doing? Why now?

2. Values: Why do it this way? What are the values by which we operate and which will guide us as we pursue our goals? How do we do it better/different than everyone else?

3. Impact: What is the ultimate impact we want to have on the world? What is the utopian future we are creating?

4. Customer: Who is my customer? Why does my customer need me? What do I need to be able to provide so as to allow my customer to benefit from what I offer?

If you are a team of founders then using brainstorming techniques to develop your answers will be very helpful once you have each answered these questions individually.

Some tips for getting good results when answering these questions:

  • Keep it simple and clear
  • Think long-term (5-10 years out)
  • Dream big yet stay rooted to reality
  • Focus on factors that will drive success
  • Make sure you can convey your answers with conviction

The last step is to test and refine till you are happy with your end result. One way to test yourself is to try and define specific goals and metrics by which you can evaluate the realization of your vision. If you can’t identify these yourself then, most probably, others will not be able to do so either. Another test to share your vision with others – family, friends, mentors, etc. – and get their feedback. Did they react with a resounding “can I join you?” or were they more like “ok, good luck!”?

Developing a strong vision for your company will take numerous revisions. It is a process that ultimately tells a story across time – where you have been, where you are today and where you want to be in the future – which requires iteration to both hone the message and learn to convey it passionately.

The final product of these exercises is intended to be a paragraph or two, not necessarily a single sentence or statement. It should be future based – aspirational and motivating. It should be a clear message which drives your business forward. These will in turn be used to further develop your Mission Statement (one sentence) and Elevator pitch (1 minute). We will cover these in future posts.

Does my company need a Vision?

Simon Sinek, in what has become one of the most watched TED talks ever, explains his theory of “Start with Why”. The talk captures the key message of his book by the same name. At the core of Simon’s explanation for motivating people to take action, is the simple understanding that people want to do something that has meaning. They want to be a part of something that they feel is meaningful.

As a founder you are always selling. You are selling to your customers, obviously. But you are also selling to your corporate partners and to your investors. You are also selling when you search for top talent to join your team as you hire them and then motivate them to stay and perform. We will explore this further in a separate post.

But what are you selling? Especially in the early days when there is as of yet no product/service to be shared?

You are selling your vision. You are sharing your personal “why?” and motivating people to support you in pursuing it. It can be as grand as you like. Actually, it should be almost unbelievable. But only “almost”. There needs to be a sense that the vision is rooted in reality, no matter how high the aspirations, so that it can be believable. We follow visionaries because we want to be a part of the type of world they describe and which we believe is attainable.

The first step is for you to understand your “why?” – why do you do what you do? Why did you decide to dedicate yourself to doing this? And why do it in this way rather than alternative options to achieving your goals? – Simon says: People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it…

Asking these questions should help distill the core purpose you are trying to achieve along with the core values that drive you achieve it in the first place. They will also allow you to map out the general path by which you decide to travel on your journey to make it a reality.

In their important article – Building Your Company’s Vision (Harvard Business Review, 2000) – James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras build a two-layer framework in which to insert these answers as you create your company’s vision.

Collins and Porras define the first layer as your Core Ideology. This layer is comprised of your Core Values and your Core Purpose. Your Core Values are the handful of guiding principles by which the company navigates. They are used to weigh decisions on a moral level. E.g. – first do no harm. Your Core Purpose is your organization’s most fundamental reason for being. For example, when we started Sapir Venture Partners we first needed to answer the question – why does the world need another early stage venture fund? – This forced us to map out the ecosystem and define where we add value. From this we crafted our investment thesis against which we evaluate every investment opportunity we consider.

The second layer is defined as your Envisioned Future. This layer is comprised of your Monumental Goals and a Vivid Description of life once these goals are achieved.

The first layer, your Core Ideology is a fundamental part of your “why”. By layering in the Envisioned Future you are beginning to craft your story to be shared with the world.

The key word here is story. An audience can relate to a story. They can connect to it and even try to see themselves as a part of it. This is what happens when you read a good book. You can see yourself as the protagonist and experience the adventure first-hand.

Great storytelling is an art. It is a skill we all learn at an early age. But there is a difference between good storytelling and great storytelling. The key to great storytelling is connecting to people on an emotional level. Use your own feelings, dreams, aspirations to generate reactions from others. This will attract people who feel the same way and aspire to the same outcome.

Using a personal experience is the most genuine way to do this. Sharing an experience that made you feel a certain way will immediately create a “hook” for someone who can relate, either because they have been through it themselves or because they can empathize. But this can be a hard thing to do as it requires opening up about things that may not always be easy to share. For example, if you are driven to cure cancer because someone you love suffered from the disease or if you were driven to create change because of a personal failure you experienced in the past. Retelling this story in an inspiring way will surely be challenging for you emotionally as you relive the pain each time. It could certainly not be fun to tell this story hundreds of times before complete strangers while asking them for something in return.

Another key to great storytelling is iteration. Practice makes perfect. Each time you tell the story you get better at it. You learn from how the audience reacts to certain parts whether you are sharing too much detail (this is always the hardest part for me to overcome) or you rush the outcome to get to the punchline. Timing, pace and passion will reel your audience in.

Another important tip I recommend to all founders is that you create multiple “hooks” in your story. You usually will not know in advance which hook will catch any given member of your audience. By creating multiple hooks you are essentially spreading a wider net (see what I did there? Mixing fishing metaphors!) to catch more of your audience but also allow an individual to hone in on the element that is most attractive to them within your story. An investor is usually looking for a path towards outstanding financial returns. But they could also be interested in supporting a potential global change in a field that is dear to their heart or back a breakthrough cure to a disease that afflicted someone they care about. You never know. So add hooks to your story and then watch how they respond and listen carefully to their feedback so you can emphasize the elements that most appeal to that audience when you continue the conversation.

A founder telling a great story can inspire others to act – build, invest, buy, sell – so this is a critical skill for a founder/CEO to master.

Another blog?!

Why do we need another blog?

This is a good question and one I have been asking myself for a while. We already suffer from information overload. Entire industries have been turned upside down through the democratization of knowledge. And now we have crowdsourcing and AI and machine learning, etc. So do we really need another blog?

On the other hand, research has shown what we intuitively assumed regarding the positive impact of a good teacher. If you had one, you know what I am talking about. Mine was my eleventh-grade math teacher. Along those lines I truly believe in the power of a good mentor. Many will agree, but it is not always easy to practice. I have been lucky to have several special individuals to learn from in my life. I always tried to learn from each role-model, boss, commander and from my peers with whom I’ve had the privilege of working with or for.

A good mentor can truly make a difference. I have been practicing mentorship myself, in one form or another, since I was in high school when I became a counselor in the Bnei Akiva youth organization. But I was probably doing it even before.

I can clearly state that I enjoy it. I like to listen and learn. I love to analyze and brainstorm. This is what good mentoring is all about. A great teacher creates curiosity and a drive to explore by asking questions and challenging assumptions. A mentor can funnel this towards personal success, corporate success and exceptional achievement.

My personal enjoyment would not be a good enough reason to mentor (or blog about it) but over the past few years I have come to realize that I am actually pretty good at it. More and more people whom I have had the privilege to work with and mentor have shared feedback that is overwhelmingly positive. This led to the realization that maybe I should be doing this professionally.

That is why we launched Sapir Venture Partners. We focus on the types of companies – founders, stage, science, technology – where we can truly be of value as mentors. We are a mentorship driven firm and invest accordingly.

However a fund is limited in scale by design. There are only so many companies we can work with and provide the value we intend to before our team is overextended. And so on a recommendation from a few friends over at MassChallenge I have decided to share what I can through this medium. Everyone is always suggesting we grab coffee so they can get my thoughts on their company/product/career/etc. So hopefully I can share some of that here for even less than a cup of coffee.

We will write about our view of the world and share what we are seeing in the tech industry. Naturally our focus will be on early stage tech investing in science and technology companies with ties to Israel. But not just. We plan to share more on topics that apply generally but which we believe are important to founders at the early stages such as product-market fit, founding teams, HR, IP, innovation and fund raising (of course).

We would also like to hear from you. We welcome your questions and will hopefully be able to address them in future posts. Write to us at: [email protected]

Thanks for reading.

Aaron