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Breaking Our Own Rules: Our Investment in Jet

September 26, 2014

Brad Svrluga

We’ve changed a lot of things at High Peaks over the past few years – new people, expanded resources, and a focused strategy for supporting our portfolio. But perhaps most importantly, we’ve gotten very focused and disciplined around the sorts of startups we invest in.

Sector-wise, I’ve long been a SaaS-focused investor, and have been religious about sticking to just that over the past 4 years. When Ben joined me in 2012, we added ecommerce and ecomm infrastructure to the mix, as that’s another NYC strength, and is what Ben knows best. So today, if it doesn’t fit into one of those two buckets, we won’t touch it. That focus has made us dramatically more efficient and effective, and we’re sticking to it.

Stage-wise, we are singularly focused on seed and ‘early A’ investment opportunities – generally $1-3MM rounds at <$10MM valuations. We like to engage early in a company’s life, at the point where the initial team has been put together, the strategy is clear, but usually before product-market fit has been established. Given the relatively small checks we write ($100K to $1MM initial investments), this stage also enables us to take more of a leadership role in financings and get meaningful ownership positions.

Additionally, our entire portfolio support strategy – in particular our talent program and Operating Partner Network – is built around working with companies at this stage. We frequently lead deals, and always actively engage with our companies, ensuring that our portfolio support resources can be fully brought to bear to help those companies grow.

So while we see lots of $4MM+ Series A opportunities with great teams in exciting markets, we’ve become religious about passing on them. We believe passionately in the value of living by our rules. We preach focus to our companies, and live up to the same standards. Seed deals in our target sectors are what we’re tooled up to do, so we stick to it.

But a wise man once said that rules were made to be broken. And we’ve just broken the rules in a big way…

The tech press has recently covered the formation of an exciting new ecommerce company, Jet, which raised an astonishing $55MM Series A from three of the biggest heavyweights in the business – NEA, Accel, and Bain Capital Ventures. A little further down the list of investors is High Peaks. (Last week, they also announced an additional $25MM of capital from WTI and Silicon Valley Bank.)

Jet was co-founded by what we firmly believe to be the best startup ecommerce team in the country right now: Quidsi co-founder Marc Lore and his Quidsi colleagues Nate Faust and Mike Hanrahan. These guys have done it before, building a $550MM winner that was acquired by Amazon in 2010, and the band is back together now with their sights set on even greater things.

So, why would we stray from our strategy and go after something like this, where we’ll have a tiny ownership position and limited engagement with the company?

In this case, it came down to two things – ROI and education.

  1. We think Jet has potential to be the single most important ecommerce company started during the life of our fund. This is as good a team as you’ll see, and they are taking a swing at an enormous opportunity. That led us to see huge ROI potential despite the aggressive initial deal structure. From an ROI standpoint, the chance to invest in Marc getting the band back together is an opportunity you simply have to pay attention to.
  2. We’re going to learn a ton from the experience. As investors in the company we’ll have an inside view as Jet grows and develops. Ben will be working with some of the most talented and innovative practitioners in the ecomm sector as they build a revolutionary business. The insights and perspective that we gain will be invaluable as we work with other companies.

So yeah, we’ve got rules. We care a lot about them and following them keeps us focused, disciplined and even smarter about our target sectors. But once in awhile – maybe a couple of times over the life of a fund – something comes along that is so compelling we’ll step outside those rules. That will almost always be about people, as it was in this case.

We’re looking forward to the Jet journey, and trust us when we say that as consumers you should be too. Stay tuned… 2015 is going to be an exciting year in the world of ecommerce!

6 Months In: High Peaks Talent Program Revisited

July 24, 2014

Brad Svrluga

Six months ago, we launched a major experiment when we formalized the creation of the High Peaks Talent Program, bringing Adam Redlich on board to lead our efforts at addressing the #1 challenge on the minds of almost every startup CEO – talent acquisition and team-building. Next week marks Adam’s ½ year anniversary, so we figured it would be a good time to check in on his progress against what we set out to achieve.

We started from a belief that recruiting support is something that VCs do either (a) not at all, (b) opportunistically, driven solely by GP networks, or (c) underwhelmingly via some in-house resources. There are a very, very small handful of exceptions that are truly high impact, and strategically designed to deliver repeatable success – Greylock and OpenView we’ve witnessed at close range, and they deliver. There are a couple others we’ve heard rave reviews about. But the rest seem to have only limited success, and it’s opportunistic rather than reliable and repeatable. And they generally focus purely on sourcing talent, not on broadly impacting a company’s full recruiting operations.

When Ben and I decided to get into the recruiting business, we agreed to the same rule we apply to everything we build into our strategy: we’ll only do it if we believe it will have a powerful and measurable impact on our portfolio companies. We’ve got very scarce resources at our small fund’s management company, so we can’t afford to spend time or money on incremental improvements – we need to pick the handful of things that are going to be really impactful and go all-in on them.

As I wrote when we launched the program, we took a unique approach. We did not attempt to address every company right out of the gates – that’s a losing proposition. We took a curated, high touch approach, focusing first on just a handful of companies, and growing from there. We focused from the start not only on helping companies source talent, but also on ensuring that their recruiting practices and processes improved materially. We wanted to make sure that when they sourced great talent at the top of the funnel they were then able to close it. This, we anticipated, would be dependent on getting our talent resources embedded in our portfolio companies – forming deep partnerships, not just transactional vendor relationships.

So now, 180 days in, how are we doing? So far, we give ourself a B. Adam has been fantastic, and he’s done exactly what we hoped he would. Not only has he sourced and helped close a whole bunch of terrific talent, he’s made the companies he’s worked with much, much better at recruiting. He’s shared his point of view on recruiting best practices and has helped improve their processes, from interview process development, to interview assessment and feedback best practices, to behavior based interview training, and systems and tool implementation. And he’s impacted not just the five companies he’s focused on, but also advised and consulted more broadly across the portfolio.

As for the hard metrics, Adam has produced better than we hoped. He’s recruited 15 high quality hires in the past 6 months across the five companies he works with.  Add to that three currently outstanding offers and it seems safe to say he’ll hit 17 or 18 by this weekend. That’s one hire every 10 calendar days from the day the program launched – a rate that is well beyond the expectations of a senior recruiter who’s already well up and running at Google (where Adam formerly ran northeast US tech recruiting).

This hiring hasn’t just been quantity, it’s been quality. Adam’s companies have seen only one declined offer on his watch – a sign that the right candidates are getting through the process, and the process is leading them to be excited by the opportunity.

Perhaps the most interesting metric we’re excited by – and one we did not expect at all – is Adam’s performance on outreach response rate. Recruiters often track the rate at which “passive candidates”, i.e. candidates who are not actively looking for a job, but who the recruiter contacts proactively, respond to this cold outreach. In Adam’s history, he’s experienced two realities on response rate. When he was at a couple of very successful but not household name growth companies, he would generally get 8-9% response, which is typical in the industry. Pretty low, but not surprising given the not-too-exciting messaging, “Hi, I’m recruiting software developers for XYZ company you’ve probably never heard of. Give me a call back.” At Google, which one might reasonably expect to get about as strong a response as anyone, he saw outreach response of 18%. Twice the generic company rate, but still not great. 

Now, through 6 months of calling as the Talent Partner at High Peaks, Adam’s response rate is over 35%. And this in arguably the most competitive hiring climate since the late 90’s bubble – with top SW developers getting calls every single day from recruiters. We thought Adam would have an advantage by being able to play the role of both VC and portfolio company talent manager, but we had no idea he’d have this level of advantage. Why is this? First, Adam starts with the deep understanding he gets as an insider at these companies, which leads to smarter outreach. Then because he’s recruiting on behalf of a portfolio of interesting opportunities, his initial outreach can be that much more tantalizing. It turns out, according to Adam, that developers are just way more likely to return a VC’s call than a recruiter’s.

What this adds up to is a candidate sourcing mechanism that is 2x as effective as Google’s and more than 4x as effective as the growth companies he’s recruited for. Combine it with the genuine insider’s view of his clients’ culture that comes from living in their offices every week, and you’ve got a sourcing machine that produces both better quantity but also screens that quantity more effectively, enabling portfolio company managers to spend their time only with the most qualified candidates. That is the sort of unfair advantage that any company would kill for.

Adam has also had the incentive and ability to impact the broader portfolio, too. He regularly takes interesting candidates that aren’t a good fit for any of his five core clients and passes them on. And he has jumped in on a number of occasions to advise and counsel other portfolio companies on their hiring practices. For example, he recently worked with a CTO to help strategize on the positioning of and sourcing strategy for a critical mobile developer hire. This Fall, he will be teaching a set of recruiting best practices classes to the whole portfolio.

So while we’re excited by the results thus far, we give ourselves a ‘B’ because we think we’ve only scratched the surface of the program’s potential. Adam’s early successes have given us some insights and ideas that we think will enable us to expand his impact even further. We’re working now on a few new strategy tricks that we think could improve our sourcing capabilities dramatically further. And, as anticipated, we’re going to start growing the program. This will happen both in breadth, as we add to Adam’s team so that we can support more companies in the same way, and in depth, as a couple of Adam’s companies add full time junior recruiters who will work under Adam’s direction on an even more focused basis.

Stay tuned for more developments.

A 12 Month Checkup: The High Peaks Operating Partner Network

May 13, 2014

Brad Svrluga

In late 2013, we announced our Operating Partner Network (OPN), which we launched internally in Q1 2013. The OPN is a group of expert operators who we connect with our portfolio companies to address specific tactical challenges that, frankly, VCs just aren’t equipped to help on. Tired of sitting around board tables listening to investors offer detailed advice on tactical stuff they didn’t really understand, we decided to build a better mousetrap to address those very real challenges. OPN members are senior team members at leading NYC companies like SinglePlatform, StackExchange, Fab, Quidsi and Medidata Solutions, to name a few.

With a year of the program under our belt, we wanted to take a look back at how impactful (or not) we have been.  While we haven’t been perfect, so far it’s been a great success. Since launching the program, OPN members have touched nearly every one of our companies, and most High Peaks companies now have an ongoing relationship with one or more of them.  We were even lucky enough to recruit one OPN member to join us here at High Peaks when Akshay Navle joined our team as a Venture Partner last fall.

As with most things, those who have gotten the most out of the OPN are those who have dug in the hardest. One of the most successful leveragers of the network has been FieldLens, a NYC-based mobile platform for the construction industry. The OPN has had a material impact on their business on several fronts, and I know FieldLens CEO Doug Chambers would back me up when I say that the impact these resources played had no small role in helping his team build to the point where he landed the unsolicited term sheet that led to the $8MM Series A Doug closed last week.

Doug is one of those ideal entrepreneurs who is incredibly knowledgeable about a whole bunch of things that are critical to his business, but also incredibly self aware about what they don’t know well enough and need help on. That understanding of what they don’t know – an absolutely essential ingredient of startup success – led Doug and team to regularly make requests of us and the OPN. Fortunately, we’ve been able to scratch nearly all of those itches:

  • When Doug was wrestling with initial go-to-market strategy after successfully beta launching the product, we connected him w/ a SW marketing guru who’s launched dozens of products and who dug in and led the team through everything from customer segmentation and messaging to writing the spec for the initial VP Sales hire.
  • An OPN member led a Customer Success workshop last fall and later, when the FieldLens team began straining under the support weight of their early customer success, this Success ninja dove in and helped them think through establishing customer onboarding and ongoing customer success practices.
  • As inbound leads to the sales team exploded, we connected the guys to the architect of one of the more unique and efficiently operating sales machines in NYC, and he’s been actively advising on high volume lead management since.
  • With a product of ever-increasing complexity, Doug’s uber-talented and industry expert VP Product Julian Clayton recently needed help thinking through the evolution of his product management practices. Enter Ron Vogl, a former OPN member and now VP Product at our portfolio company Handshake.  In an interesting roundabout story that Doug highlights here, Ron has jumped in and had a big impact on Julian and the FieldLens product practices.
  • And finally, when we needed a talented outside director to add to the board of this exciting young vertical SaaS business, we turned to OPN member Glen de Vries, Co-Founder and President of Medidata, which just happens to be one of the most successful vertical SaaS companies in the world.

FieldLens is just one of a couple dozen companies in our portfolio, but fortunately it’s not alone in having reaped these sorts of benefits from the incredible talent that we’re lucky enough to be associated with via our OPN. This all goes back to what I laid out last year when we started talking about practicing better startup medicine. We are not the ultimate fix-it guys, or the oracle with all the answers. We are guys who try our best to help you understand the right questions to be asking, to understand the underlying challenges you face. And then we go out and help you find the best folks in the community to answer those questions.

So far, we feel pretty good about our efforts. But we’ve got a long way to go and a lot of ideas we haven’t had a chance to effect yet. Stay tuned.


Introducing our Talent Program and Adam Redlich

February 18, 2014

Brad Svrluga


We’ve written in the past about our ongoing focus on building assets and resources that will have material operational impact on our portfolio companies. We think that’s our job as investors in and partners with the founders we back. Picking winners is the easy part – helping them win is where we can have a truly differentiated impact.

Since Ben and I formed this partnership a year and a half ago, we’ve been working our butts off to put our money where our mouth is on this front.  We announced late last year a first piece of our operational platform, the Operating Partner Network.  Today we’re very excited to announce another piece of the puzzle: our Talent Program, and a new member of the High Peaks team:  Adam Redlich, our Talent Partner.

Adam is a startup recruiting veteran.  In addition to running the recruiting practices at three high-growth startups, he also led Northeast tech recruiting for Google, hiring hundreds of engineers for their NYC, Boston, Pittsburgh and Waterloo, Ontario offices.  He’s hired over a thousand engineers in his day and has the breadth of skills to attract business side folks and C-level executives as well.  He’s studied and developed a point of view on the best practices of the recruiting function through tours at staffing firms, Google, and in-house at a handful of smaller tech companies.  Suffice it to say, he’s seen pretty much every angle on the recruiting game. We feel blessed to have him and are excited to watch him help our companies grow.

So how’s he going to work?

We’ve studied the recruiting models of a bunch of venture firms – talent programs are understandably in vogue at larger firms these days – and we’ve been largely uninspired by what we’ve seen. The typical model of hiring a single resource to ‘serve’ a large portfolio ends up being pretty low impact in the eyes of founders and CEOs we’ve spoken with. That’s hardly surprising when you imagine the life of a single recruiter trying to support 30, 40, 50 or more companies.

The venture firms who are having real impact on recruiting are doing so by throwing lots of resources at the problem. Notable amongst these are Andreessen Horowitz in the Valley and OpenView in Boston. The recruiter-to-company ratio is the key, we think. Lots of resources and a heavy investment in connecting with and understanding the needs of their portfolio companies leads to real results.

As a small firm with limited resources, we knew we couldn’t duplicate what those firms have done. But we weren’t satisfied simply throwing up our hands and concluding we couldn’t have an impact. As we wrestled with this, we focused on what our early stage companies are facing. And we saw a conundrum resulting from a collection of truths:

  1. Effective hiring will often be the single biggest determining factor driving success or failure of an early stage company.
  2. These are small teams for whom recruiting is never a core competence. Some teams might be lucky enough to have good networks to help them source candidates but they can’t spend enough time nurturing them.
  3. Even companies that are decent at sourcing aren’t good at the critical but underappreciated process management side of recruiting. How do you make sure that when you’ve managed to source that dream candidate you run a process that both identifies her and makes her want to work for you?
  4. While they need more help, they’re simply too small to hire a full time resource (~50-75 employees seems to be the breakpoint for that).

So where do they turn? Generally they go it alone and hope to get lucky and/or work with transaction-oriented contingent search firms who might help with the sourcing part, but not the process part. Some end up doing OK, but most end up pulling their hair out and throwing too much money at outsourced recruiters.

We believe that a focused, dedicated resource is the only good answer. You need someone who will actually come to understand the companies, who will be an informed and insightful sourcer, and who will educate management teams on optimal process. We’ve found a way to make that capability affordable to companies who are at only 10 or 20 employees – maybe a year or two before they’d be ready to hire someone full time.

The model Adam is now building is a high touch, shared resource model. The companies will pay for it on an entirely opt-in basis, so those companies that choose to participate will really focus on it. And given the skills of a guy like Adam, we think they’ll be getting a screaming bargain.

We’ll match all-star recruiters with portfolio companies on a 5-to-1 ratio, building an expanding team of recruiters over time. Those recruiters, like our portfolio, will be geography and sector focused, increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of our efforts. And they won’t sit in our office, they’ll live in the offices of their ‘clients’, coming to deeply understand the cultures of and hiring managers at those companies. We start with Adam and five lucky SaaS companies, and as the model is proven out Adam will add talent experts to his team, each of whom will serve five more companies.

We’ve been up and running now with Adam for a few weeks, and if the early returns from his clients are any indication, we’re onto something. He’s fast at work helping source key hires but also working with those companies to implement world-class recruiting processes and evolve and optimize their company cultures.

Startups and venture investing is all about the people.  We’ve known that for years and now we’re finally putting real resources behind making a difference. Adam has already improved our team. We can’t wait to watch him improve the teams – and as a result the performance – of our companies.

Eating Our Own Dog Food

January 29, 2014

Brad Svrluga

We spent a lot of time in 2013 working to rethink our business model and our relationship with the market in which we operate and the companies with whom we partner. We’ve been working hard to raise the bar on our expectations for ourselves as it relates to serving our customers – the companies in which we invest and the whole community.

At a fundamental level, we define ourselves by a belief that we’re in the customer service business, serving both our Limited Partner (the legal term for investors in VC funds) and founder customers.  As part of that, we’re striving to provide the best experience to the founding teams we work with.  That means not only delivering real impact after we invest, but also providing the best possible experience on the front end, including for founders that we don’t end up partnering with.

Like most investors, we compel the founders of our portfolio companies to actively solicit and listen to customer feedback. We understand and preach a belief that being customer-centric is a good idea for all of our portfolio companies. Hardly an earth-shattering notion, of course. But as we thought about it, we realized we weren’t sure that we did a good job ourselves at being customer-centric. With that in mind, we decided to eat our own dog food and ask the market how we were doing.  So last month, we surveyed every founder that pitched us over the course of 2013 and did not receive an investment offer from us.

Admittedly, we weren’t sure what to expect, as we figured these founders were likely to skew disgruntled.  We did after all decide not to invest in their companies, suggesting to these proud parents that their babies were at least a little bit ugly.

The good news is that we got a high response rate and learned a lot about how to improve.

We used a standard called Net Promoter Score (NPS) as a guide, in which customers are asked one simple question: how likely they would be to refer a given company they had interacted with to a friend. In the NPS world, 7 or higher is where you want to be, and below 5 is pretty bad. How’d we do?

  • 61% of respondents gave us a 7 or better
  • 32% gave us less than a 5


We also included room for open-ended feedback. There we heard a lot of positive feedback, things like:

  • “Honest; would make good partners.”
  • “Respectful, helpful, and thoughtful.”
  • “Responsive and transparent.”

There were, however, some folks that were pretty disgruntled.  Surely some of those people simply didn’t like that we didn’t invest, but we’re sure most were very appropriately dissatisfied with their experience. Fortunately, many offered very legitimate and valuable feedback.  Here’s what we learned:

  • We need to be more clear about the stage in which we invest – some founders came into a meeting thinking we might lead a large Series A round (we don’t).
  • We need to make our pitch review process more efficient – some founders were frustrated at being asked to do multiple ‘first meetings’ as we tried to get the deal in front of the right High Peaks team members.
  • We need to be consistent about providing more feedback when we elect to pass – clearly we are guilty of the unexplained pass at times.

Here’s what we’re doing to improve:

  • We’ve changed the language on our website to emphasize the fact that we focus primarily on Seed stage investments, and we’re doing more pre-screening of deals before inviting people in.
  • We’ve restructured our deal team more clearly into two divisions, one focusing on B2B and one on ecommerce, to create a clear and efficient opportunity escalation process.
  • We’ve committed internally to taking more time for follow-up phone calls and emails when we pass.

We’ve got a lot more to learn and a lot of work to do – this surely will not lead us to 80% 7+ scores next year.  But we’re living a never-ending pursuit of excellence, and we’re going to try.  And most importantly, we’re going to be listening a lot more.

For those founders who meet with us this year, we hope you’ll keep us honest.

Practicing Better Startup Medicine: Announcing the High Peaks Operating Partner Network

December 10, 2013

Brad Svrluga

Seed stage capital is a commodity. AngelList, the seed funding boom, the rise of the MicroVC and any number of other phenomena are ensuring this. And entrepreneurs are getting smart about it.

Historically, the seed stage VC game has centered around simply picking companies. Actually helping them to operate – and by that I mean really, genuinely impacting operations, is an afterthought.  With only a few exceptions, investing in genuine operational support for portfolio companies is written off because resources are limited at smaller funds and incentives and human nature lead to a focus on hunting down the next deal.

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As a result, most seed stage investors remind us of seventeenth century physicians – the one-stop-shop for all your medical needs who was a jack of all ailments, but master of none. That physician of old would deal with whatever walked in the door – broken bones, the plague, a burst appendix, or a premature birth – and know that he was the last line of defense. He knew what he knew, made up the rest, and hoped for the best, as he was the only option around.

Sound familiar? That’s the classic seed stage VC – a tiny bit smart about a lot, but woefully ill-equipped to have any real impact on most operational issues. Trust me, I know…I spent too many years living this model myself.

At High Peaks, we are working hard to re-think the seed stage venture model. Our goal is to be less Renaissance era doc and more 21st century, big city general practitioner. We think we’re pretty damn good at what we do, but we know we don’t have the experience to go all that deep on most tactical issues. Fortunately, unlike many, we don’t try to, either. Rather, we excel at preventive care (helping the teams we work with to see the forest and think constantly about goals, metrics, and the ecosystems in which they operate) and stay engaged enough to work with CEOs to diagnose operational issues early. Increasingly, then, we refer out to a true specialist.

To that end, today we’re excited to formally announce the start of our family of “specialists”, the High Peaks Operating Partner Network (“OPN”).  The OPN is a collection of incredibly successful operators and, importantly, tactical experts.  Hailing from leading NYC companies like Seamless, Gilt, SinglePlatform, Quidsi, and Medidata, these operators have, collectively amongst them, deep knowledge in just about every functional area that our SaaS and Ecommerce companies wrestle with.  When a portfolio company has symptoms that need to be addressed, they’re on call, capable of suggesting a remedy and often available to advise the company on an extended basis.

Unlike the classic Advisory Board model, which gets the biggest, sexiest, most impressive CEO names possible and then puts them on a website while they never contribute much (yep, we’ve been guilty of that one!), we’re focused on true expertise in critical functional areas – the folks who are actually doing the dirty work in areas like inside sales operations, search engine optimization, account management, etc. These folks know their stuff, and our companies are reaping the benefits of that expertise by working with them.

We are singularly focused on continuing to build a platform of operational assets that will support entrepreneurs.  The OPN (have a look at our initial group here) is the first piece of a puzzle on which we will be sharing more details in the coming months.  Stay tuned.

A Little of This and a Little of That: Constructing a Startup Board

November 8, 2013

Brad Svrluga

I caught up the other day with a friend (I’ll call him Rob, to protect the innocent) and successful West Coast founder who recently sold his first company. It was a good outcome, though not spectacular. He got a taste of success, made a few bucks, learned a boatload, and like any great entrepreneur, that was enough to leave him desperately hungry to go out and win big the next time. When he does, I hope I’ll have a chance to back him.

This was the first time we’ve had a chance to speak in detail about the transaction, and also the first time he’d been able to really stop and take a long view back at what the prior few years had meant and what he’d learned from them. In the course of our discussion, I asked him how his VC syndicate had worked out for him.

His only financing came from two large firms and a batch of angels. The angels were pretty insignificant and not involved in the business. The two VCs were on his board of directors and more involved.

In general, he was happy enough with his investors and the way they treated him through the process. However, he also said very clearly that he did not get anything close to what he hoped from his board, and the whole experience has taught him a lot about how to construct an investor syndicate for his next company. With the benefit of his less than satisfying experience, he had developed a very simple framework that we discussed and which I found pretty compelling.

He said, simply, that there were three things you needed to get from your investors. After some debate, we finally landed on the following prioritized order for them:

  • Domain expertise
  • Comfort with your investment stage
  • Operating experience

Explained simply:

  • Domain expertise can mean both relationships and experience in the vertical sector in which you operate, or experience with and knowledge of the business model which you apply. We debated which of the two is more important, but ultimately decided that it’s an interplay of the two that matters, and it’s impossible to pick one over the other.
  • Stage expertise is one that entrepreneurs frequently fail to focus on. This is about the alignment of your investors with the level of entropy and chaos that will exist in your company given its stage.
  • Operating experience is what it sounds like, and it doesn’t matter all that much in his mind where it comes from, as long as it is a vaguely similar tech sector and, most importantly, the investor has experience operating in a random, chaotic environment where managers are hiring and firing at a rapid pace and key decisions are made before the first cup of coffee and then changed three times by lunch.

board mtg cartoonAs Rob reflected on his experience, he understood that the investor and board struggles he’d had were a result of holes on his board vis a vis this framework. He had raised money from terrific, brand name firms, for sure. But for his  seed stage, two-sided marketplace business, he ended up with partners on the board who had between them zero marketplace experience, zero operating experience, and only one of whom was truly comfortable with the vagaries and uncertainties of seed stage deals. So while his initial fundraising press release looked sexy, and his cap table was impressive, his board ended up decidedly ill-equipped to satisfy Rob’s hopes and needs.

I’ve thought a lot about board and syndicate construction in the past, but I think Rob’s framework brings a really simple, elegant view to this incredibly important area that I will actively apply in the future. I’ve been on some 30 boards in my career as a VC, and I’ve seen really functional ones and  desperately dysfunctional ones. And when I think back through them all using this framework, it proves a remarkably effective predictor of board performance.

The only overlay I would add is that the framework is also dependent on the relative strength of personalities. If the loudest voice and otherwise most influential board member (this might be a result of experience, dollars invested in the company, or just sheer force of personality) is critically off the mark on any of the above, that can bring a board down on its own.

Rob & I discussed a bit how to practically apply this to future syndicates. While we agreed that it’s of course ideal to have a board full of individuals who are a match on each of the three dimensions, that’s rarely going to be possible. We agreed on two more practical rules of thumb. First, it is absolutely essential that a board, in aggregate, checks each of the three boxes. And second, it is by far preferable to get two of those boxes checked by each member of your board – folks who check only one of the three are just going to miss the point too often.

Of course, sometimes companies don’t have the luxury of a range of options. Sometimes you take the money you can get. However, I would suggest that if you are sophisticated enough to apply this framework to your discussions with each and every prospective investor, asking questions to qualify them on each of the three dimensions, you’ll end up impressing investors with your diligence and on the margin attracting a better group.

Good luck.


The Circle of Life: Our New Investment in MakeSpace

October 2, 2013

Brad Svrluga

People love to complain about the constant moving around of talent within StartupLand.

It can indeed be frustrating…in competitive labor markets people are always looking for the new, shinier, more exciting thing, and sometimes it feels like loyalty and commitment is a concept that is no more relevant today than dot matrix printing.

But that mobility of talent is merely the other edge of the sword of company formation and growth, as every great new idea is hatched by someone who seconds before that eureka moment was doing something else. Every great co-founder and every critical early employee comes from doing great things somewhere else.

At the end of the day, this mobility of talent is a critical enabler of this ecosystem that drives our economy. Last week I had a series of reminders of that.

First, I learned that the VP of Engineering at one of our best performing companies was leaving. I originally was astonished that he would leave this awesome company where he played such a key role. Then I found out he was joining a good friend as co-founder of a new company that already had VC backing secured. The circle of entrepreneurial life continues. As a gear in the engine of innovation, I’d be kind of a hypocrite to criticize that choice, wouldn’t I?

Then later that day I had a great conversation w/ a new friend – Guy Livingstone, who is a co-founder of ToughMudder. (If you don’t know what ToughMudder is, go check it out. It’s a fascinating business and one of the fastest growing and most wildly financially successful startups you’ve come across in a long time. All built on precisely $0 of venture capital. Nice.).

ToughMudder has gotten to the point where it’s started to spin off talent who go on to form new companies. As Guy was speaking about the phenomenon, I was surprised to hear him speak not of frustration at losing some key talent, but rather describe it as one of the most satisfying elements of his experience as a co-founder. He spoke with genuine pride of the talent of this group of newly minted entrepreneurs, and said he was excited to invest with some of them and partner with them as they build. How’s that for embracing the circle of life?



Trust me…This guy’s gonna kill it.

Finally, and most significantly, a great new company called MakeSpace launched last week. If you want to know the MakeSpace story, go read Mark Suster’s great post from last Wednesday. We’re thrilled to join Mark as seed investors in MakeSpace and think it’s an ingenious model that will become an important business.

But for me, it’s much more than that. This investment was a very personal one, because of one of the MakeSpace co-founders, Rahul Gandhi.

I hired Rahul in late 2010 as an Associate at High Peaks. Rahul was a talented guy who was absolutely determined to get into the venture business. 2010 was probably one of the worst years in history to try to get a VC gig. A talented guy with a great background in banking and then big tech company corporate development, Rahul had graduated from Columbia Business School in May 2010 and turned down every non-VC opportunity that came along. He knew what he wanted, and was determined to hold out. This is not a guy with a trust fund to fall back on as he ran his process – Rahul needed to work. So he scrapped together some consulting opportunities, made a few bucks, and then walked into our office one day and all but insisted (in his unbelievably gracious way) that we let him start working for us. For free.

Seemed like a pretty good deal, so we did. And in about 6 weeks he made himself absolutely indispensable. So we hired him for real, and over the course of the next 32 months he busted his ass like nobody I’ve ever seen. He very quickly distinguished himself as hands down the hardest worker, the best attitude, the most helpful colleague I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.

And over the course of those 32 months of absolutely killing himself for our firm, Rahul simultaneously became one of the most well-connected, respected, and just flat out best liked guys in the NYC tech scene.

He made an enormous impact on our firm, bringing in some terrific deals, connecting us with fantastic new people, and overall helping us raise the profile of the firm. I heard at least three times/week something along the lines of “man, what a great guy Rahul is!” I regularly told people that he was actually the most important person in the firm.

Then in June he told me that the MakeSpace opportunity had presented itself. In classic Rahul fashion, he got poached out of his own incredibly effective due diligence process. He had done such an amazing job of nurturing our firm’s relationship with co-founder Sam Rosen, and brought such insight to Sam through his work in helping him shape the business, that Sam finally (and very intelligently!) woke up and said “hey, I want you over here on this side of the table with me.” Could there be any more powerful statement of the effectiveness and value of a VC’s work with a company than that?

For me, it was a total kick to the gut. For about a day I thought he was insane, and I felt a little deserted.

But I quickly came to see things the way Guy sees them with his ToughMudder colleagues. Rahul had passion for this idea. He had a chance to be a co-founder at an exciting and well-backed opportunity. He had learned and grown a boatload in his time as a VC. But could I honestly tell him he would learn more over the next few years staying with us than jumping over with Sam? No way.

So I didn’t try that hard to talk him out of it, and ultimately I’m thrilled to see Rahul spreading his entrepreneurial wings further. I’m also thrilled for High Peaks to be a major shareholder. Trust me, buying a piece of whatever Rahul Gandhi is doing is a very good bet. While we had been doing our work and were interested in the business before Rahul decided to join, when he committed to joining, we stopped our work. Because in this business, it’s all about the people who make it happen. And we knew that with Rahul and Sam, we had a team for whom failure simply was not an option. I had seen it firsthand.

So I write this today to celebrate the launch of MakeSpace and the launch of Rahul & Sam’s entrepreneurial journey. But more than anything, I write it to celebrate the startup circle of life. This is an ecosystem built on talent, and great talent moves to great opportunities. As founders and investors, we need to acknowledge and celebrate that reality and, like Guy, look at it as an opportunity rather than a threat.

The Myth of the Startup COO

July 17, 2013

Brad Svrluga


Startup CEO & COO? An impractical two-headed monster

I just read a terrific post from Ben Horowitz that he wrote a couple weeks back about the fallacy of Shared Command in companies. I couldn’t agree more with his points about the essential nature of a singular decision-maker in start-ups, especially. There are so many challenges that every startup faces – adding ambiguous reporting and authority structures to the mix never helps.

While there will always be examples of powerful exceptions, if you’re looking for models of what’s likely to happen with shared leadership, surely Blackberry/RIM is far more instructive than Workday.

An argument against shared command structures is not new territory, of course. Yet we still frequently see startups who try to manage via co-CEOs. When I see that, I always dig in hard as to why this pair thinks they’ll be different. To this day I still have not invested in co-CEOs. I have, however, twice invested in teams where the transition from co- to a singular CEO evolved through the financing process. One of them has been a smashing success, the other was unsuccessful.

The failing of the second case is a great exemplar of a related challenge in startupland – the myth of the startup COO. In this instance, the co-CEOs changed to a CEO and a COO. But nothing functionally changed – they were sharing command.

When I meet an early-stage startup – say a company with fewer than 15-20 people – with a COO, it’s always a pink, if not a red flag. If there’s both a CEO and a President, that’s even worse.

In a real, grownup company, Chief Operating Officer is a title given to someone who sits between the CEO and some substantial portion of the functional areas of the company. At a tech company, you might see all the non Tech/Product functions report to a COO. Sometimes it’s everything other than Sales. In other cases, though less commonly, it’s all of the functional areas. Whatever the structure, the role is a result of the scale and complexity of the company, and it is intended to free the CEO from having too many direct reports.

When I see a COO at an 8 person start-up, it’s generally a title given to a co-founder who isn’t quite sure what they’re good at or what functions they are going to own. And 19 times out of 20, it’s a title that doesn’t make any sense.

Lord knows the CEO of an 8 person company doesn’t need to be insulated from managing his direct reports. If that founder/CEO isn’t intimately involved with and aware of every element of the company then he’s probably not doing his job. As that CEO, if you think you’re going to attract top notch functional heads into an early stage company and have them not report directly to you, you’re kidding yourself. Any high caliber VP Product or VP Sales or VP anything at an early-stage company wants to report to the CEO. I’ve seen companies with premature COOs get this feedback directly when they’ve tried to recruit senior executive talent beneath one of these pseudo-COO’s. It just doesn’t work.

So why do startups repeatedly end up with this structure? The most common underlying reason, in my experience, is it’s a title to give the non-technical, non-CEO co-founder.

Imagine this scenario: Sally and Bob are a pair of brilliant, 32 year old McKinsey consultants. Their friend Steve is a coder extraordinaire. Together these three have come up with a world-beating startup idea, and they’re all quitting their jobs to build the business.

Sally and Bob could just as easily be Goldman i-bankers, freshly minted Stanford MBAs, Associates at big VC firms, or a variety of other things. The point is they are very smart and creative, great at thinking about businesses and markets, but they possess few real, hard skills that are required in building startups.

For Sally, that’s not going to be a problem, because for one reason or another it was decided that she would be the CEO. Steve is all set, too – he’s clearly our CTO. So what is Bob going to do? Head of Product? No experience. VP Sales? No experience. CFO? We hardly need one of those yet.

Lacking any clear role and title, the founding team makes the rational choice to call Bob COO. It’s a big, fancy, ambiguous title. And in the early days it’s going to seem like a logical title as Bob’s going to be a utility player – some biz dev, some sales, some product, some finance. And he’s going to a terrific job at it because he’s super smart, a hustler, and a fast learner.

Fast forward a bit and the team has launched a product, it’s getting a bunch of traction, and it’s time to really build out the team. Suddenly, Bob is in a tricky spot. As Sally hires a VP Sales, a VP Marketing, and whatever other functional heads she needs, Bob’s portfolio is going to get whittled away, bit-by-bit. His McKinsey background doesn’t qualify him for any of these roles, and instead of focusing early, studying, and getting good at one of the, he clung to his generalist COO title too long.

I’ve seen this scenario play itself out several ways from this point. Sometimes Bob clings to the title and everything he once owned. When that happens, Bob is eventually pushed out of the company as those new rockstar functional heads insist to Sally that he’s getting in the way and they can’t work with him.

In other instances I’ve seen Bob suddenly decide he’s going to go deep and learn and own one of these roles. But at this point it’s too late. The company needs a star running sales, not a guy 18 months removed from his MBA who’s never carried a sales bag in his life. So Bob flails for awhile, but things are starting to move too fast for him to get it figured out, and he fails.

The COO role that Bob clung to, that made him feel great for so long because he had a fancy title, ultimately was his undoing. He fails at the point where the company needs much more than his utility role, yet isn’t big enough for a COO, and Bob’s not skilled enough to be anything but.

The painfully ironic thing here is that Sally is doing just great, despite coming to the table with no more relevant skills than Bob did when they co-founded the company. But that’s OK – CEO is a general management role. It’s about strategy and vision, hiring great people, and raising money. And those are all things that blindingly smart ex-McKinsey types can frequently do quite well.

So how to avoid Bob’s fate?

When I meet a founding team like Sally, Bob & Steve, I push very hard on just what Bob is going to do. And I tell him I don’t buy that the COO thing works.

In my mind, there’s only one reliable path for him to take, and that is to check your ego at the door, hustle like hell at playing the generalist early-days utility role, and simultaneously pick one specific functional area to learn and study and prepare to own. With some time, if he gets focused early enough, he’s got a shot at growing into a role leading that function. And if he doesn’t grow all the way there, he’s at least going to learn enough that when a VP is hired over his head, if Bob is humble and practical, the VP will want to keep him around as a contributor on that team.

Sure, there will be exceptions to all of this. I’ve seen a couple, but they’re definitively exceptions.

If you’re the non-CEO, generalist co-founder, I encourage you to get realistic early and structure your role in the company for success. Betting on being the exception is all too likely to lead you to instead being the rule – an unfortunate separation from your company before it reaches the promised land. And wouldn’t you rather be on the ship in a smaller role when it gets there than have been cast off a hundred miles out to sea?

Damn That Was Scary! Reflections on the Irrelevance of VCs & the Fallibility of Technology

May 1, 2013

Brad Svrluga

It’s only Wednesday, but it’s been a week of lessons, with two powerful ones forcibly reconfirmed for me this week:

  1. I was reminded that no technology is perfect
  2. I was confronted yet again with the day-to-day irrelevance of my job as a VC, at least as it relates to anything critical getting done in the world. 

I had a pretty crappy day on Monday. I got to the airport plenty early for a flight to San Francisco, where I had a few days of meetings. I had felt just a tiny bit queasy in the ride to the airport, but no big deal. I cleared security, got to my gate, and then started falling apart at a pretty rapid rate. I couldn’t stand up, I was losing circulation to my extremities, I was shivering as though I was standing naked in a blizzard, and my abdomen felt like it was about to explode.

I signaled to a gate attendant and told him that I would not be able to get on the flight. He asked me if I wanted him to get me an EMT. I declined, thinking, “if I were at home right now I’d just be crawling into bed, right?” But it got worse, and there was nowhere else I could go. He made the decision for me, calling the medics. They checked my vitals – low pulse, high blood pressure, blue fingers. Not good. Get an ambulance here fast. They gave me an EKG on the spot. Didn’t seem alarmed by the result.

I left the airport not by walking down the jetway onto an airplane, but by getting strapped to a stretcher and taking an elevator ride to the tarmac and a waiting ambulance.


My view on the tarmac

In the ambulance, another EKG, this one with allegedly more sophisticated equipment. The data looked not too troubling, but this device also had a software algorithm that automatically draws a conclusion from the data. The algorithm said: TROUBLE. The EMT looked down at me and said “OK, we’re gonna speed up now, and the sirens are gonna come on. I don’t think it’s really bad, but we’ve got to get you to a tier one cardiac trauma center. And here, chew these four aspirin while I get an IV into you.”

Ummm….OK??!!!  I’m 40, eat pretty well, have lower than normal blood pressure and cholesterol, work out religiously 4-6 times/week, and have never had a serious medical issue in my life. WTF is going on?

10 minutes later I’m wheeled into the ER, and moments later the aspirin and the apple I’d eaten 90 minutes before come violently back up. I’m shivering uncontrollably, feel like someone has put my entire GI tract in a vice, and nobody seems to know what’s going on.

Fast forward 8 hours and I’m discharged. After a boatload of tests, there’s apparently nothing seriously wrong and the symptoms are breaking. No heart issues, brief concern about a gall bladder issue is dismissed, it’s not my appendix. Nothing they can nail with certainty. Ultimately, the conclusion is I caught a very, very nasty, very, very fast acting virus. Trust me, this is a virus you do not want to meet.

After some emails went out canceling all my meetings for a couple days, I spent the bulk of yesterday resting and recovering. By noon today I was back in the saddle, for the most part. And now, as I think back over the past few days, I’m struck by the two things I mentioned above:

  1. The inherently imperfect nature of technology, at least as it relates to medicine
  2. The relative irrelevance of our roles as VCs

#1 is pretty straightforward: I had what ultimately proved to be a very painful but not actually serious situation. Humans in the field checked my vitals and did basic diagnostic procedures and did not think I was having a heart attack. They looked at the raw data from the EKG and all their training said the same thing. They sent the data ahead to the hospital while we were driving, and a doctor there concluded the same thing. But the software said I was in trouble. So we drove 80mph with sirens blaring.

Of course, there’s no penalty for caution, with the exception I suppose of some added costs to our healthcare system. But this was not the first time that I’ve seen automated technology fail in a medical setting – my first born son ended up in the neonatal intensive care unit for the first week of his life, and over the course of that week we saw a number of false alarms from the supposedly infallible machines. 

Bottom line, there are places in life where technology and human analysis are both essential, and medicine is certainly one of them. We can send robots to mine rocks on Mars, but we’re not going to have robots as EMTs and ER attending physicians anytime soon. Driverless ambulances? Sure. But let’s keep the woman in back with me a human.

As for #2, I was unannounced out of commission for 48 hours. I’ve got 12 companies that I’m responsible for in our portfolio. Each one of those companies is moving ahead at 110mph on their own super aggressive timeline. Pluck a key senior manager out of any of those companies unannounced for 48 hours and some sh@# is going to hit the fan.

I disappeared for 48 hours though and I’m not sure anyone noticed. Sure, it was a relatively quiet couple of days in that none of our companies were dealing with a crisis of any sort. But still, the nature of what we do as VCs is such that this type of disappearance can occur largely without notice. And that’s for me, someone whose reputation is that of a pretty seriously engaged, hands-on VC.

It’s a healthy reminder to me and my peers in the venture business about our role in the ecosystem we’re a part of. It’s easy for us to feel like we’re awfully important at times, but experiences like mine this week are good reminders that we’re nowhere close to the most important players in the game. The truly important players are the ones whose absence for a few days would’ve caused some trouble.

In the end, it leaves me reflecting fondly on just how fortunate I am to be here. In a macro sense, a good health scare really does make you appreciate what you do have – your health, your family, your own unique flavor of existence.

And more professionally specific, it’s good for all of us to be reminded just where we sit in the world. I feel truly blessed to be able to play a role in the technology ecosystem that is driving so much of what’s exciting and important in our country and the global economy. But I know I’m at best an occasional facilitator, or, by way of the cash I can inject, an oil man for a very small collection of companies trying to make a difference.

Regardless, it’s good to be alive, and a pleasure to be in this business. But be careful how much you rely on that damn technology…


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