Q4 2021: VC Industry Trends

Towards the end of one year and as we prepare for the next, it seems like a good time to take stock of where this industry is going. Venture has been on a wild ride these past couple of years, with the initial hesitation in Q2 2020 brought on by the pandemic quickly becoming the catalyst for some of the industry’s most exciting quarters ever.

I won’t focus on the changes in how VCs operate, as that has been covered elsewhere. For example: The move to virtual meetings and writing a check without ever meeting the founding team in person are definitely a significant shift. Whether these remain acceptable post-pandemic, only time will tell. But unlocking global investment opportunities is definitely an exciting trend as investors learned that there are great teams to be backed in places other than a firm’s backyard. A trend that was just beginning pre-COVID19.

The current talk in the VC industry seems to be regarding a split between three investment strategies.

The first group are super-angels/accelerators/crowdfunding-platforms that continue their spray-and-pray approach to investing. Writing relatively small checks across many opportunities. Some may then double down in later rounds, but only on the perceived winners. I assume that promise is the strategy behind SoftBank’s Vision Fund investment in OurCrowd, a Jerusalem based crowdfunding platform.

The second group are the traditional VCs. These large funds are investing capital at a ridiculous pace, based on a strategy I could only define as “there is more capital out there, so let’s do this round and then quickly go get more”. These quick and large rounds inflate valuations making the VCs look good on paper so that they too can raise more capital before the markets cool off.

Let’s take a closer look here: As the larger players from PE and banking move downstream to play in the late-stage venture sandbox, these larger VC funds are forced to move in one of two directions. The first option is to innovate and create new opportunities for their investment thesis. These are firms like A16Z and Sequoia who are creating new methods for investing or finding their way into the public markets (which Ibex, formerly Lazarus, had been doing for years as a hybrid fund for private and public equities). Alternatively, they can move into the earlier stages of VC, bringing with them massive check sizes and out-of-proportion early-stage rounds of funding. This latter move can have dire consequences for founders.

You have heard my criticism of the approach to unicorn-building practiced by some VCs, pushing capital into companies at valuations that are unjustified with a hope that the value will be backfilled after the round. These do not always work out (WeWork anyone?) and ignore the fundamentals of building a business. This now seems to be happening in overdrive. To me this means that such investment decisions cannot be backed by real diligence or risk analysis. As Gil Dibner of Angular Ventures cynically asked in a recent blog post on this topic: for a large fund that believes there is more capital right around the corner – “why shouldn’t they just invest in everything?

The third type of investor are pre-seed/seed stage funds like ourselves who seem to be avoiding the temptation of joining this free-for-all approach to venture capital. The best founders are also probably (hopefully?) avoiding the hype, taking only the capital they can actually use to build the best company that they can and from the best partners with which to do so. Eric Paley of Founder Collective covered this is in an important article on TechCrunch back in 2018 and it seems even more relevant today.

Remember, if 9 out of 10 startups fail (in Israel it is actually more like 1 out of 20 which succeed) then it is only a fraction of those successes which become unicorns. Of those who become unicorns, most will take a decade to do so!

We cannot try to compete with a brand name $B fund who decides to write checks from $100k to $50M, active everywhere from Seed to Series C. As early stage VC investors we need to write smarter checks. We need to refocus on the needs of the founders from their early stage investors. Before investing, we must take the time to create conviction in the team, their tech and the market opportunity so that we can truly be of value on their journey.

This is a strong investment thesis that requires us to filter out the noise from all the hype and resist FOMO. We are driven by a belief that this is still where the greatest returns can be created for venture investors, as a multiple of cash-on-cash return. At SapirVP we are doubling down on the strategy of investing in 50X opportunities. These are the long-term horizon, and at times contrarian, opportunities that can change the world. Change takes time so the capital needs to be patient.

To be sure, our strategy also carries new risks in this changing market. This abundance of capital could lead to some of our companies getting acquired earlier than expected, as larger rounds enable players to consolidate within their market (especially if they need to backfill value: revenue, product or talent). It will require a delicate balance between timing and exit size in order to realize the multiples of return that we are seeking.

That is another reason why being aligned with the founders is the strongest position to be in. A core part of our investment strategy. As every VC always says: It is all about the people.

Focus

This is part of a series of posts capturing my thoughts during the Jewish High Holidays and the new year, as we emerge from the pandemic.

We talk a lot about focus in the start-up world. Founders hear this advice all the time: you need to focus. On product development so you can ship on time. On customer engagement so you can find product-market fit. On sales so you can hit your numbers. All true. And yet, it feels like something is missing…

At the early stages of the company, the most valuable asset is the team. All investors say that they invest in people, but I have come to realize that means different things to each of us. We look for passionate teams who want to make a positive impact on the world. These usually take time.

It typically takes years to transform a startup from a fantasy into a real business. Sure, there are small milestones along the way that help make the startup more real, but the road to reality is long. Be prepared!

Eric Paley on Twitter @epaley, Oct 7, 2021

So we need to consider what “focus” really means in this context. I’ll share a couple of thoughts here as I relearn how they apply to me.

Short-term vs Long-term

Focus is often misconstrued as short-term thinking. That is simply untrue. Long- or Short-term thinking relate to the goals you set for yourself. 30/60/90 goals will be different than annual or legacy type goals. Focus is about taking the steps that will move you closer to those goals. It is the trade-off between what you can do right now to move yourself forward, no matter which goal you are pursuing.

Many times the actual number of options and possible outcomes could lead to decision paralysis. So we just go with the flow. Sticking to our comfort zones and knocking out the easy tasks. We often fool ourselves that we are being productive because the number of items being checked off the list is longer than those remaining, despite knowing the outstanding tasks are more challenging.

In a great blog post, in which he shares his personal story about selling his company to Salesforce, Mark Suster asks the following questions:

How do you process your company’s biggest decisions? How do you live with uncertainty and stay focused?

Mark Suster, Both Sides of the Table, Oct 9, 2013

Mark goes on to share what works for him (music and running) to create that focus. It doesn’t matter what works for you (though some activities are more positive than others) the key is disconnecting from the grind, from being in the weeds, and letting your mind wander. Then when you are ready to refocus, it will be even sharper.

Take the Day Off!

In our pitch-deck, when raising capital from LPs, we state that we take a day off each week and encourage our portfolio founders to do the same. For me this is Sabbath, the 7th day, and is done as part of a greater set of beliefs. But the research around the importance of this practice has been validated many times over.

Being overworked and stressed does not lead to better productivity or superior results. How much has been written about the importance of better work-life balance over the past decade? – Breaks provide a boost to energy, renewed focus and enable greater creativity. Taking a step back, removed from the details, and then reengaging makes a world of difference.

This is true for vacation time as well.

I’ll share a personal example. The other night, in the middle of the week, I decided to watch a movie with my son. He is into cinema and we often discuss some of the classics which my dad forced me to watch with him usually late at night when I had an early start the next day (Thank you Abba!). My son had been home for the Sukkot holiday and happened to have no plans for the evening. It was an opportunity that I decided to be spontaneous about.

We watched the Maltese Falcon. Still a great movie, with powerful acting and terrible stereotypes (and still not as good as Casablanca!). The clearer picture (saw it originally on the ~28″ CRT that we had growing up) actually made it easier to follow the plot and helped appreciate the acting even more.

Besides the quality father-son time and another topic we can discuss next time we have a long car ride, I found that taking the evening off really did make a difference. I had more energy and clear-mindedness the next day which helped me focus. It was extremely productive. I guess I was not practicing what I preach as well as I could have been.

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

Ferris Bueller, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

One of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite movies. Words to live by. Of course, the problem came later in the day when I was tempted to close my laptop a little earlier and head back in front of a screen to see what else I might be able to enjoy. I didn’t. I stayed focused. But I will definitely be looking to add some of that “down” time into my routine so that I can enjoy the benefits.

I suggest that you do too.

Signaling

Another quarter has passed and it seems that we have little “news” to report from the venture ecosystem. New records were set for venture funding since Q1, when the previous record was set. We are seeing the impact of the continued return to offices and normal life in the US. Hopefully, this new variant will not create setbacks, as we are witnessing in Israel.

As we consider these trends, one thing becomes clear: the pace for venture funding has sped up significantly for “hot” deals while it may have even slowed for every other company looking to raise capital. This dichotomy is enhanced between those companies that truly standout and those that still have much to prove.

To be sure, in both camps there are winners to be found and losers to be avoided. But identifying them becomes more complicated since previously valuable signals are now blurred. For example, time to closing a lead investor and agreeing on terms is not necessarily a good indicator anymore as to the strength of the team or opportunity.

It may be taking longer than expected because demonstrable performance metrics have expanded and a renewed expectancy of potential returns in other sectors (real estate? NFTs?) might make venture funding slow down considerably in the next 12 months. On the other end, a top-tier-fund term sheet presented within a week of a first meeting shouldn’t carry the full weight of the brand name investor who clearly could not have completed the necessary diligence to invest with conviction.

Problems with signaling have always existed. The most common being “why aren’t previous investors joining the current round?”. This is a valid question in some instances and less so in others.

For example: In the past, if a company was accepted to an accelerator program and didn’t get funding from the accelerator, or its affiliates, after “graduating” then this was a problematic signal. The solution? The accelerator programs give everyone equal funding. This was like a participation award.

However, the accelerator leadership knew which were the truly exciting companies and wanted to invest more in those. They are in this to make money too. So maybe they added an additional funding tranche which were given only to companies which hit certain milestones. This could be a requirement to raise a follow-on round within X months of graduating the program, for example.

This would then allow the accelerator team to “push” the company in front of friendly investors who are connected to the program. These investors would lead a round and the accelerator would join in. Not entirely kosher, but actually seems fair to me. Clearly the companies not being recommended are getting dinged and not enjoying the full prestige of the accelerator brand. And I am sure it is not always entirely based on performance or potential. But I am not a huge fan of participation awards. So unless the original funding was designated for use during the program to cover expenses and allow the company to take advantage of the opportunities the program creates, then this model seems to be required due to market forces. There are some programs that state this clearly and structure the support accordingly.

[As an aside, I fully recognize that what I am describing contributes to the lack of diversity in tech. It could also be used as a way to “level” the playing field unfairly if the dial were turned to the other end of the spectrum. Extremes are not good place to play.]

Accelerators are either investors themselves or backed by investors. Alignment needs to be created to accept the best companies, work with them all, but then continue to invest only in your best bets. A good selection process will help minimize the drop-outs, but I’d be surprised if anyone could have a perfect record.

This is what good investors learn quickly, and what I am learning the hard way. Every investor invests in people. They believe in them and their ability to execute on their grand vision to make the world a better place. So when things go sideways we try to help them get back on track. But when do you know that it is time to let go and focus your energy on your winners?

The famous scene in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), where Alec Baldwin’s character Blake is giving the Always Be Closing speech*, was given new meaning for me during a great Sales class in business school. Another layer was added to the A-B-C of sales. The key is to invest in your A players as they will generate the greatest return on investment. Support your B players to see if they can become an A level player. But cut your C players as quickly as possible since they aren’t carrying their weight and can sink the entire ship if resources are wasted trying to help them get to B level. They are just too far away from the A level players you need in your organization to be successful. First place gets the Cadillac, second place gets the steak knives. Third place prize? You’re fired.

This is true for investments as it is for team members. Though sometimes the team member is just not a good fit for the specific company or the specific role. “Firing” a portfolio company is something that I am not prepared to do, unless they have crossed a line. We won’t bail when times get tough, but we might be less involved if our efforts are not well received or misplaced. After all, Like all investors – we invested in the people, right?

As I shared this story with a couple of founders this week, I made it clear that both of these situations – firing a team member or watching a company fail – are really hard to navigate. Assuming you are a decent person with a smudge of empathy.

* I read on IMDb that this speech was not part of the original play on Broadway but written by David mamet specifically for Alec Baldwin who performed it magnificently such that in later stage productions it is often incorporated.

Another VC Fund?!

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what differentiates us as an investor. This was triggered from two different directions. The first is the explosion of new venture funds. It seems everyone I talk to is raising a fund these days. The tech media headlines indicate lots of capital looking to be deployed, at all stages. Differentiating your product is necessary to stand out in a crowded market.

The second, and more important consideration is rather from the other side of the table – why would a founding team choose us as an investor in their company? To be clear, it is a founder’s market today. These large amounts of capital looking to be put to work has led to a rise in valuations and we are seeing deals closing faster than ever (at least for the 15 years I’ve been exposed to venture, I was focused elsewhere in the late ’90s – early ’00s).

[As an aside, the above concerns me because it seems that one of two things are behind it. Either investors are making bets (no other word for it) without doing the necessary diligence. Or, investors are backing “cookie-cutter” founders without considering the hidden-potential of diversifying across first-time founders, female founders or minority founders. Others have written at length about these meaningful topics so I will refrain from digging in here, though that should not diminish from the importance of the conversation.]

Coming back to thoughts on differentiating SapirVP as an investor, we always refer to our tagline of: “Mentorship Driven Investing”. Is this really differentiated? – Today it seems that every micro-VC team claims to be “founder friendly” and “value-add” investors. Are statements like these based on the assumption that every other fund is not adding value? Only emerging managers can add value?

Maybe. We have all met investors who were less engaged and less helpful. These are probably not good early-stage start-up investors, or not a good fit for the company. Some advance diligence regarding the investor may have helped the company avoid that experience. Maybe not. Either way, these investors are not the majority and the market forces should be working against bad players so that they don’t stick around for long (though performance cycles in venture are long, so this is all relative). Most investors, even those who have already had great success and have $B AUM, are in this business to add value. As it should be, because: Venture Capital is a service business.

We only have two types of customers: Founders and LPs.

For LPs the service is primarily financial – take their capital, invest it, report on your progress and do your best to return exciting multiples within a reasonable timeframe. Some LPs are looking to create impact, increase diversity or identify potential strategic value. However, for most LPs the transaction is a financial investment at its core. The service elements here seem clear. Good GPs will be transparent and can stand out by offering unique opportunities of value creation for the LP. While popular in all VC pitch decks, I am not sure that a “unique” investment thesis is enough of a differentiation in today’s market. It is probably more important to show “product-market fit” between the fund (team, size, geography, focus) and the strategy.

Founders should also be sure that they are getting a service. The service level should fit the needs of the company. Industry expertise as well as stage expertise. A biotech spin-out from MIT establishing a scientific innovation as a commercial offering needs a different type of “added-value” than a Series A consumer product company looking for hyper-growth. Some founding teams are seeking the “roll up our sleeves” hands-on involvement to navigate the early-stage foundation-forming period, while others are content with taking capital from an investor and then only engaging with them once a year for the annual update (I advise all founders against this, for various additional reasons detailed in a separate post).

Founders should choose carefully which investors they choose to engage. Not all capital is equal.

The most common term thrown around by VCs is that they are “founder friendly”. Like many informal terms, this seems to mean different things to different people. I’ve found that the gap between speaker and audience can be pretty big when it comes to understanding what this term means.

For us this means that we recognize that the founders are the company. The investor is just along for the ride. Our mission is to find the best way to add value during the different stages of the journey. This can vary from team to team and from company to company. This is what we mean by “Mentorship Driven Investing”. It is a tailored experience, based on the core foundations of our mentorship-model, establishing this relationship even before we invest.

I just threw out another vague term…. Let’s unpack this further.

I’ve come to define Mentorship as the combination of Experience and Empathy. Experience is valuable, but it needs to be shared in a way that it can be received and make a difference. Sitting around telling stories of your glory days will provide few practical tools/lessons for a founder. Using a story to illustrate a situation or share a new perspective will create new neural connections and inspire innovative thinking.

Mentorship is showing, not telling. The mentor serves as a personal example and as a guide. But you can’t just do it for someone else, as they will never learn to do it themselves. And you don’t need to have all the answers. Just ask thoughtful and thought-provoking questions.

The mentor should always be there to help pick up the pieces and help make course corrections. Mistakes will be made and **** happens. It is not about you (or your ego), it is about the founders building an amazing company.

Mentorship is not about being a friend. Friendships may (and should) develop. But the mentor need not try to be a friend, especially if it will make it impossible to have the necessary open conversations about what is best for the company. A mentor is also not a teacher, at least not in the sense of making rules, handing out tasks or giving exams. Inspiring creative thinking and continued learning are great.

I think that we embrace the service mentality in a unique way, but we don’t say “founder friendly”. How then should we convey this to the world?

Earlier this week, my friend Shimon – a successful serial founder/CEO – told me that he thinks that we are “Founder Respectful”. He said some very nice things about our approach vs some of the investors he has dealt with. My takeaway from that conversation is that the empathy element we incorporate into these relationships – as mentors, not friends or investors – is where we truly stand out. It makes all the difference to the founder. This in turn gives the company a better chance of success. Said success should result in those multiples of returns we look to provide to our other customers, the LPs.

Creating alignment across the LP-GP-Founder ecosystem. Multitiered value-add. Practicing what everyone preaches: “It is all about the people.

Branding Thoughts

I have recently been thinking a lot about brands. This has come about from multiple directions. Some external, and some internal as we navigate our path for growth at SapirVP. My friend Jonathan Friedman over at Lionbird recently shared his thoughts on the topic in his newsletter.

In a follow up call shortly after, Jonathan shared further insights from his journey in building Israel’s leading e-Health venture fund. This conversation spurred me to put some of my thoughts down on paper. Jonathan – thanks for the inspiration.

A strong brand is a powerful tool. Like other powerful tools it takes significant time and effort to create one. And despite being powerful, brands are actually very delicate. One bad move, or even a mistake, can damage the value you worked hard to create.

While the above seems true as a generalization, the nuances and details are specific for each case.

Let’s take a consumer brand as a first example. Simon Sinek, in his book Start with Why? explains the Apple fandom as being way beyond great tech and an amazing user experience. Rather, he claims that it is a company on a mission which others want to be a part of. It took decades for this type of loyalty to develop and it was not necessarily part of Apple’s strategy from its early days.

Others may have argued this before me (please share references.) but I would suggest that in his second term as CEO at Apple, Steve Jobs brought with him a very important skill learned from Pixar: Storytelling.

Sure, Steve must have been good at pitching his company and selling his vision earlier in his career to have gotten that far. But what Simon describes goes beyond all that. It is a religious support of Apple products by a mass following that endorse it through their buying power. They not only choose to spend their hard earned dollars on the generally more expensive Apple products but also vehemently defend these products even when they perform below par.

This type of devotion is naturally associated with religion, but also with books and movies that rise to cult status to create mass followings (and sequels!). They are based on powerful storytelling infused with a mission – a why – that people want to be a part of.

Shifting to a second example, I want to share a recent email discussion I’ve been having with my good friend Gil Eyal, the founder and CEO of HYPR (now merged with Julius). Gil is my go-to-guy for all things influencer marketing related. He has worked with some of the biggest names across movies, music, sports, etc. in designing and running successful marketing campaigns.

Observing some recent headlines regarding influencers backing some questionable choices (in my opinion), I asked Gil whether these influencers care what they were associated with or was any headline coverage considered good PR? Or as the old saying goes – “there is no such thing such as bad publicity” – attributed to PT Barnum.

I was actually surprised at how definitive Gil’s answer was. He unequivocally stated that these influencers do indeed care. However, he continued to explain to me that it is not just about being affiliated with products/services that they genuinely care about (or at least are not strongly against). Rather, it is that they have worked very hard to achieve their success and recognition so they must protect it. And monetize it. But that is for a separate post as we are working on an idea to help them do this better.

Which brings me to my third and last example, our personal journey in building a new micro VC. In recent conversations with potential LPs we keep hearing them ask about our “super power”. While I think it comes through pretty well in our deck, I find myself needing to explain what isn’t necessarily obvious in the deck. Namely, that we are developing a brand, not just a single investment vehicle.

We have a unique approach to investing in seed stage deep-tech companies through the blend of what we do. It is not just one specific thing that gives us an edge. Sure, there are others that do elements of what we offer. There are some really great investors out there today and we are lucky to work with many of them. (Too many to name here, but you know who you are. Thank you for your collaboration across the ecosystem!)

But our core values could (and should) be applied to any new venture. Our current seed-stage deep-tech fund or our future funds, whatever they may look like. (Again, we have ideas and are already working on them…)

Creating a brand is about recognition. Flash an image, mention a name or quote a tagline – immediately everyone knows who you are and what you are all about. I’ve never needed the spotlight, though I don’t necessarily shy away from it. At times, I even enjoy it. Usually when I feel that I can add value. Not as a pulpit from which to preach or as a soap box to chase publicity. I am comfortable being backstage and just making things happen. Truthfully, as an investor – that is the role. We should remember that.

When I was a teen, my mom used to say to me that if you don’t publicize what you have done, then nobody can give you credit. That is true. But still something I struggle with. So, in 2021 I am launching a few initiatives to help spread the word about what we do and how we do it. If you don’t feel like you are hearing from me (or at least more than in the past…) then please hold me to this. Thanks.

Deep Tech vs Now Tech

I find myself struggling with the question of whether Deep Tech must always be a long-term prospect, by definition.

Sure, creating meaningful innovation takes time. Deep Tech means that a lot of research and development is going into this new product or service. And as an early-stage investor this would lend itself to a long-term investment strategy.

Accordingly, most of the companies that we invest in require significant R&D before they can go to market. We focus on these companies because that is where we can roll up our sleeves and lend a hand. We find ourselves mentoring them as they navigate early customer engagements to bring the voice of the customer into the R&D process. This helps create truly game-changing innovation and strong product-market fit. And the next round of funding to continue their growth.

But then I meet a deep-tech-driven company that believes they are market ready. They are usually wrong. If so, then we can still add a lot of value and they are just placed later on the spectrum of early-stage, a little closer to a Series A than to a Seed round. Still well within our wheelhouse. However, if they are right, should we even be considering them as an investment opportunity?

From a portfolio construction perspective it makes a lot of sense to have some “later stage” companies which may generate earlier returns. It also balances the levels of engagement required from our team amongst the portfolio companies, as far as the time we spend with each.

Despite these considerations, I find myself second-guessing myself. Am I too just being anxious instead of practicing the patience I preach to my LPs? Or can Deep-Tech be engaged with the market and still be considered Early-Stage?

I welcome your thoughts.

Musings from a second lockdown…

We have now been in our second lockdown for 2 weeks and we have at least another two weeks to go. While our work is being done differently, it has not slowed down. On the contrary, we are finding ourselves busier than ever with even more to juggle. Despite no need to commute.

Since we are at the mid-way point of this lockdown period (we hope!), I thought it might be a good time to stop and reflect. Here are some observations and musings from my mind wandering. I welcome your feedback and perspective.

  • Deals are getting done in the VC world. Valuations are down but some may say this is just a “correction”. That is ok as long as we aren’t slashing valuations just because we can. Rather it should reflect companies adjusting to COVID and understanding the long-term impact on their market. In some industries that might actually raise a company’s valuation (Amazon? Zoom?).
  • As long as the players continue to act in good faith then good deals should get done. Founders need to be a little more modest and investors need to be a little less greedy. Don’t forget, this is a repeated game and long-term brand matters.
  • Real estate is going to change. Across the board and across geographies. I should have bought into many of the deals I have seen the past couple of years but passed on because “I wasn’t doing real estate…” – invest early and often. The secret of compounding.
  • Remote work will remain significant, but I don’t think we will eliminate offices entirely. The adoption of tools and new practices was accelerated but so are the downsides to it. We will not all just work from home going forward. But more of us will, even if just part of the time.
  • EdTech is more complicated. Thank God I am married to a licensed teacher who wasn’t actually practicing that craft when COVID hit. She is home shepherding our kids through classes and assignments while not actually needing to teach a class remotely herself. Teachers and students need to be back in a classroom. That is, until we can actually bring a virtual classroom experience to the home (pick your futuristic pop-culture reference). Not all learning needs to be done in a classroom – I am glad to see more assignments and work done virtually – but this Zoom thing isn’t working for us.
  • Digital Health is also a different story. Here I think we will see the longest and greatest impact as technologies enabling telemedicine, health operations efficiency, discovery and diagnostics are all being rapidly adopted by an industry which has been reluctant to change. There are many more elements here that I think will stick around once we get past this pandemic. If only for the fear of the next one.
  • As I have written before, for me personally and for my “job”, the lack of in-person meetings has made things more complicated. Sure, I hate sitting in traffic like everyone else. And air-travel gets old quick too. But I miss being able to spend time with people and get to know them. To pick up on the non-verbal cues and body language. See them in their element and in other settings beyond their Zoom-background-of-the-day. I look forward to walking through the labs and “feeling” the team/science/product/culture of each company. I’m even ready to got back to coffee-shop meetings which I had become bored with. Please make my latte soy. Thanks!

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.

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.