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.

New Year Restrictions

In Israel we are on our way into lock-down. Again. Just as the Jewish High Holidays are upon us. A time of coming together to bring in the new year with prayer – giving our thanks for the previous year and sharing hopes for the new one – with family and friends, in synagogues and around our tables… Well, that is not going to happen this year.

While some may argue that this is most fitting considering the past 6 months, it is still frustrating. Frankly, I think we could have done better.

It is easy to blame the government (now that we finally have one!), and some might even say that they prefer this approach as the easy way out. It seems to me that the timing of the lock-down actually makes sense. Besides it limiting the masses customarily coming together, it also takes advantage of the numerous vacation days already built into the Israeli calendar during this time of the year. In their defense, I do realize that this is the first pandemic they have been called on to lead us through. But the numbers are rising quickly and every delay creates a sense of “too little, too late”.

The period leading up to Rosh Hashana – the Jewish New Year – is a period of introspection. Taking stock of where we are and who we are. Compare these with what and who we want to be. Make commitments to do better in the new year… Take personal responsibility for making the world a better place by each doing our part.

“An early lesson I learned in my career was that whenever a large organization attempts to do anything, it always comes down to a single person who can delay the entire project.”

Ben Horowitz
The Hard Thing About Hard Things:
Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers

I look around and I know that we can do better. We must take personal responsibility to adhere to the social-distancing guidelines, while creating personal accountability for the health of others in our communities.

That is the only way we can contain the pandemic, as we continue the search for a vaccine… May it arrive swiftly in the new year so we can start to rebuild – emotionally, economically and, most importantly, together.

Shana Tova! May it truly be a good year of health and prosperity for us all.