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.

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.

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