In Conversation With Brad Feld (StrictlyVC Insider Series 2017)

Earlier this month, Connie Loizos of StrictlyVC and TechCrunch gave me the opportunity to sit down with Brad Feld from Foundry Group at her latest “Insider Series” event. I love these events because everyone attending is genuinely interested in investing in startups and everyone has a genuine desire to learn from others on how to improve, how to get better. And, who better than to learn from someone like Brad? You can see a video of our chat above. I focused our talk on two categories — (1) advice for people just getting into the game of investing in startups (covering branding, stage focus, and more) and (2) drawing out lessons from Foundry’s first decade in existence. It’s hard to meet a newer investor in the ecosystem who hasn’t just met Brad, but also received direct and meaningful help from him. My favorite part of our chat is when we talked about competing for a Series A investment against firms where he has friends — and I loved his answer. More or less, he said that Foundry wants the founder to pick, and is ultimately happy for them whether they pick Foundry or a friend/rival firm. It’s a subtle, deep, zen-like approach that I still need to think and reflect on. So, thanks to Brad for making the time for all of us, and thanks to Connie for the opportunity!

Edited Transcript (not full)

@semil: We have only a little bit of time. I know there are a lot of people here who want to meet Brad. So, excuse me, I’m going to talk really fast and get to some audience questions. Can you handle quick fire?

@bfeld: Let’s go.

@semil: Okay. on the Snap IPO itself, what it does it mean for the tech industry, investing, and is the consumer window closing?

@bfeld: I am not a Snapchat user because I’m too old. I mean I have one, but I don’t have this on my phone. I don’t have much emotional connection to the company. I think it’s really good that it’s going public, and I think more… I’m sorry. But other frameworks or school of thought is I think more IPOs are good. I don’t really think there’s a window per se of consumer, not consumer. This is the endless discussion. “Oh, there’s no more opportunity to do x ever again in the history of mankind.”

@semil: Fred wrote that a few days ago in not such a direct way, but he all but – in my reading of it – closed the door on Consumer Internet, Digital Media.

@bfeld: Well, so let’s define what Consumer Internet, Digital Media is. Will there ever be a new product that is ubiquitously, used from a consumer perspective, that is in the universe today that we’re thinking about? Absolutely. And is it something we haven’t thought about yet today? Absolutely. Is the ability to raise a bunch of money on a relatively smaller user base in a perspective view of the future available to people? Probably not. So, the shift is, instead of it being a whole bunch of people trying to get money into stuff, and a whole bunch of things getting created, focusing more clearly on what you’re doing as an entrepreneur that’s playing ahead of the next wave of what’s going on. And we go through this over and over again. I mean, every single layer of whatever the new hot, trendiest thing is… 4 years ago, or 5 years ago, I was on a panel that some other publication – not to be named – and the panel is about Big Data, right?

@semil: I remember that.

@bfeld: The headline that, of course, got printed was Big Data is bulls**t. My comment was is that calling Big Data five years ago is going to be microscopic data in 20 years. So, the dynamics of all these things are continually changing and gets renewed. The idea that there’s somehow a window that’s closed is doing a disservice to anyone who has a creative vision about the future. The notion is the way that things have been funded for the last five years and the opportunity space that exists may not exist going forward. But that doesn’t mean the next things aren’t going to be creative.

@semil: In this current boom cycle over the last seven/eight years, have VCs in general been too friendly?

@bfeld: No. There’s two different pieces of friendly. Friendly piece #1 is warm, cuddly teddy bear. And most VCs who are warm, cuddly bears are actually warm, cuddly polar bears, which means that they’re really wonderful until something goes wrong, and then don’t **** with them. The other version of friendly is passive about dealing with terms, and about the only one setting expectations at some point in time in the context of companies. This phrase that’s maybe 10 years old now, founder-friendly, it’s like a problematic cliché. What does it actually mean to be founder-friendly?

The far extreme of that would be a phrase I use all the time, which is, “Give first,” and this idea that you want to enter into a relationships non-transactionally. You put energy into something – it’s not altruism – you expect to get something back. You just don’t know when, from whom, over what time period.

The extreme case of ‘founder-friendly’ would be, “Hey, here’s 5 million bucks, no contract, no nothing, and send me back whenever.” Obviously that’s not how it works. You get this marketing illusion of what founder-friendly is as a way to obfuscate what the true character of the people are. My advice to entrepreneurs is to recognizes that it’s not a situation that’s generic. The archetype of VCs is not a singular archetype. There’s not a founder-friendly VC — there’s a whole bunch of different personalities in the context of where they’re investing, how they behave, how they interact with you, that defines it. My view is on the dimension that I care about, which is my job as a VC is to help you win period. And as long as I support the person running the company, I work for you. I don’t think VCs are far from that end of the spectrum.

@semil: There’s a lot of chatter about non-Bay Area / non-tech companies buying tech startups as sort of a bail out, if you will, or reinvention. Do you think a lot of that is chatter or do you think we’ll see more of that over the next few year?

@bfeld: Big industrial companies buying tech companies for way too much money because they don’t know what else to do? Yeah. In each cycle, and the whole world that we’re living around is in cycles, and it doesn’t matter what that cycle is doing and whether it’s sloping up or sloping down. You have big movements that are directional. Those big movements, when they happen, are often happening after it’s too late to actually have the appropriate impact of it.

I’ve been doing this for 30 years – I’ve been investing for 20 years – and there are continuous cycles of non-technology companies entering into the world of trying to buy technology companies, going back well before I started even my first company, and a small number of those companies extract really significant value out of that because they buy at the right time, when they occur, when they’re able to do something with it.

And, then a whole bunch of companies don’t get the value for their investment. It will depend on which category, right? You could talk about the auto industry, you could talk about the consumer products industry, you could talk about retail. I think there are different phases of the cycles. They are doing different things. They’re spending different money for different reasons, all of them chasing innovation.

The idea that chasing innovation and creating innovation within their companies, doing it in a way that is acquisition-only, is kind of nonsensical. It’s a strategy. The strategy we’re using at Techstars when we partner with large companies and build accelerator programs, not for the large companies, but for companies that are building things around the ecosystems of those large companies. It’s a very inexpensive way versus spending capital and buying a team of people that’s effectively a startup and run your product. So, all of those things can work and all of those things can fail. It happens over and over again.

If you’re an entrepreneur and you’re trying to time that, you will get f****d. And, if you’re an investor and you’re relying on that, from an investment perspective, it won’t work. You will either get lucky or you won’t. If you get lucky, that will feel good. You’ll start to believe that that’s an extrapolated trend and then the cycle will change on you again.

@semil: Say you’re entering the world of startup investing today, you’re managing a small fund, medium, or part of a larger fund, what would your advice have been let’s say 10, 15 years ago versus now in 2017?

@bfeld: My advice probably 10 or 15 years ago would have been irrelevant, because I don’t think I had enough time doing that. If you go back 15 years ago, I was in the middle of working through one of the biggest sh*t shows that got created in the venture business, which was the collapse of the Internet bubble, and I was part of a firm called Mobius which grew from four people to 70 people in three years and raised almost $2 billion over that period of time, and had one awesome fund, one terrible fund, and one fund that depending on what happens might make some money.

My horrifying year was 2001, where everything fell apart. If I wind the clock back 15 years, I don’t know that I would have had good advice. Even 10 years, which was when we started Foundry Group in 2007, we started Techstars in 2006, I had a bunch of deeply held beliefs, frame of reference, things that I had been involved in that I had done wrong, or that I had participated in that had been done wrong. The younger Brad would have had probably some opinions and hypotheses, but wouldn’t have been able to give advice.

Interestingly, one thing that I do feel like I could give advice on is how I went from being an entrepreneur to angel to VC. And the way I did that was deliberately from entrepreneur to angel, I sold my first company, and I took almost all of the money I made… I sold it in 1993, made a couple of million bucks, bought a house, and then took all the rest of the money, except $100,000, and invested in 40 companies over three years, $25,000 to $50,000 at a time. In ’94 and ’96, particularly a good time to be investing in internet startups.

@semil: But you put your own capital risk. You didn’t seek other people’s money.

@bfeld: I’m now an angel. That’s my money. This is a mistake. I then started working with this very large organization called Softbank, a Japanese company, had a few people in the U.S. that were making investments, and they didn’t have a big team in the U.S., so they leveraged the U.S. team by having some affiliates. For those of you who studied history, there were me, Fred Wilson, Jerry Colonna, who became Fred Wilson’s partner at Flatiron, and Rich Levandov, who is now a partner at a firm called Avalon. We were the affiliates. Softbank was investing tons of money really fast, we were all very busy doing deals. Softbank then ran out of money, and the four of us started what became Mobius Venture Capital, originally called Softbank Venture Capital.

The four of us were accidental partners. It was not a deliberate choice.It was a reaction to a moment in time, a lot of stuff happening, us working together, and three of the four of them worked at Softbank. But then we created a venture partnership and we didn’t do the work of really creating a firm basis for what we then grew very, very quickly, and the predictable thing happened. So, the advice I would give is really simple, is to be deliberate. And this is especially true in this environment where it’s relatively easy to raise a very small fund, it is harder to raise the next level fund, and then it’s harder, again, to turn that into something that’s more than a single partner, that’s sort of scale up from angel. And if you look at the 500 or so funds that are in that cycle right now, an awful lot of them are not going to be successful. And so as both investors and entrepreneurs, the idea that it all just continually goes up is a mistake. So, this notion of being deliberate gives you a starting point for deciding what you’re going to do over a very long period of time.

@semil: On that note of proliferation of seed funds, is there any more room for more funds, either geographically, sector-based in the U.S.? Clearly there are going to be more funds started, but what’s kind of the end game?

@bfeld: I don’t think that supply of capital is the problem, especially globally. There’s always a supply-demand imbalance no matter where you are, no matter what time we’re at. Generally speaking, the only layer of capital that a particular geography can impact is the seed stage. If you’re in – pick any city – and you’re trying to impact your city, as part of the city, whether you’re an entrepreneur, investor, or government, or something else, your goals should be focused on that seed stage. Because pretty much every city in the world there is a bunch of rich people, and they give money to things like museums, and symphonies, and whatever. Those rich people could give the money to startups instead, and at least under the current tax code, they get the same tax deduction if the startup fails that they get if they give it to a museum. So, it’s just think about it as for-profit philanthropy. The worst case is that it turns into something and they get 10, 15, 20, 100 times their money. But they’re building the economic fabric of that community. So, that layer could be impacted. The growth layer, once you got a business that’s working, that money will travel anywhere. Then sort of $2m to $20m million financing, it turns out that’s a b*tch everywhere, including here. There’s never too much of that even here. And the challenge of that later is really difficult.

@semil: And that’s a function of fund size, right?

@bfeld: That’s quite a function of a lot of things, right? You have a place where… I’m going to say this carefully. There’s an enormous amount of work at the whole cycle around investing. The work at each stage is very different. When you’re at the seed stage versus you’re at that $2m to $20m million stage, and then you’re at the growth stage, getting good at doing that work in the $2m to $20m million stage, it’s really hard. It doesn’t necessarily translate, if you’re really great as a seed investor, to all of a sudden being really great at that stage (Series A, etc). And if you’re a growth investor, almost by definition, you’re probably not going to be really good at that stage (Series A) because the characteristics are so different. So, there’s a lack of supply of people who are really good at it, and because of that, in the short term you might be able to have a surplus of capital at that stage, but in the long term the capital is going to go to returns. So if you raise capital at that stage and you can’t get returns, you’re not going to raise future capital. Or you’re going to realize you’re not good at that stage and you’re going to move up or down on the spectrum side. I want to be careful because I don’t want it to sound like, “Oh yes, there’s seven good people and there’s a whole bunch of shitty people.” It is probably the place (Series A) where there’s a biggest constraint of capability.

@semil: Let me spit that back into another way. Are you saying there are funds and they’re composed of managers who have the skills, capabilities, backgrounds to handle writing a $2M to $20M check, but that also have a fund size that allows them to do that?

@bfeld: Yes, that’s right. If you have a very, very large fund, if you have a billion dollar or more fund, it’s very hard to write checks of that size. We experienced that in Mobius. And, it’s two things: one it’s just hard to do the velocity of deals; the other is cognitive dissonance. I remember so vividly that moment when I went home at the end of the day and I realized that I had have massive cognitive distance. And it’s when somebody said, “Oh, it’s only $5 million. Let’s just do it.” And everybody said, “Okay, it’s only $5 million. No big deal.” For me, as a startup entrepreneur who raised no money, my first company was self-funded, $5 million?? What are you talking about? But I participated in that. The cognitive dissonance was I’m like, “Yeah. Okay whatever.” I’m like, “Wait, wait, wait!” Right? So, you lose sight of it as the fund scales up because it’s just incredible. By the way, $200 million fund the equivalent of that is, “Oh, it’s only $1 million dollars.” And if you’re really good, you make a deliberate decision across several million dollars.

@semil: For Foundry Group, I know that fund size typically has been $225 million. Has there been the same number of core investments in each of the vintages?

@bfeld: Yes, each fund has about 30 companies, plus or minus one. I think, 28 to 31. And each fund that we’ve done we’ve invested over three years, again plus or minus a quarter. We do not have a consistent pace, so we like to say we do about 10 investments, 10 new investments a year, but it’s not one a month. We’ll do a whole bunch in January, and February we’ll look at each other and say, “I’m out for a while.” Somebody will see something and they are back at it in May again. So, it’s not that we’re too busy. It’s just sort of a notion of it’s lumpy based on where our interest and proclivities are. We’re not trying to match against an allocation. We’re trying to get paid. Wed had one year where we did 14 investments, and at our annual meeting, at our advisory board, we had a couple of very vocal investors. One of them is a partner of ours now, Lindel, who is a large investor. Lindel said, basically in the advisory board meeting the equivalent of, “Will you guys slow the f**k down? You said 10; you did 14. You’re going to hurt yourself.” Not that you’re going to get bad returns, not that you’ve done bad investments. You don’t have to do… this fast is not good for you, not good for your soul.”

@semil: New people entering the VC world, how would you advise them to create a brand and attract deal flow today? Could someone just starting and maybe they have an angel portfolio?

@bfeld: I’m going to separate attracting a deal far from building a brand. Attracting deal flow is a function of knowing what you like, who you like, and how you like, and then spending a lot of time doing those things. And the reason that’s so important is that if you spend your time doing those things, and you’re aligned with what you like, how you like, who you like, you nourish yourself.

The effort of getting started and finding deal flow is really hard. It’s very easy to find people that want to raise money. It’s certainly hard to find things that are worth investing in. And so, you have to be doing it with essentially whatever you can configure in your favor when you’re just starting out. I think that the idea of you have a really good network, and your network just brings you stuff, well two things. One is your network runs out of things at some pace, but it never brings you everything. It doesn’t filter. If you say “No” to certain things, your network stops bringing you things. If you say “Yes” to everything, you’re becoming an investor. It’s sort of figuring how to build that feedback loop.

The brand is extremely personal, because I’ve seen seed investors be successful who knowing those who they are, other than the companies they invest in, and they’re very not visible. Then there’s people like you who everybody knows who they are. So, you put a lot of effort into writing and talking about your ideas and getting known. I think that’s good. You could be deliberate about it, very disciplined, or you can let it be your personality. My view is that you do it as your personality, you’re very much you.

Now, lastly I’ll say about building a brand is that all the bulls**t marketing stuff doesn’t work — words like “be authentic, be transparent.” Words that we’ve overused to be meaningless… That really just means do and be yourself in the context of how you’re interacting with people, and let your brain, after whatever you want it to be, emerge from that, and people will sort it to people who are attracted to you and people who are not attracted to you. And that’s okay in this world because the goals shouldn’t be that you’re trying to invest in every single company. The goal is that every time you write a check you think it could be a great company.

@semil: Let’s assume for a second that we’re close to, or at some point, there will be a down cycle. I think a lot of people myself included, haven’t actually seen it…

@bfeld: There’s no way Donald Trump is going to be elected president.

@semil: And so, at some point it will happen. Myself included, we’ve read about it, we haven’t seen it. How do the LPs and VCs behave in the cycles that you’ve seen when things have changed very quickly?

@bfeld: Well, it’s a combination of overreaction and total denial. So, those two things happen simultaneously. And we actually have a pretty good taste of it in Q1 of last year. There was a two-month period when the the public markets went down. All of the later stage, hedge fund growth capital at very high prices, those guys stopped playing, the crossover guys stopped playing. All of a sudden, you had these companies with $5 million-a-month burn rates that were counting on raising it in the next round. For a two-month period, the world was going to end, and then it didn’t.

@semil: And they were huge, multiple billion dollar funds raised in Q1 as well.

@bfeld: Well Q1 of 2016, the first half of last year was the most money ever raised. It’s a good point. You have a dislocation of activity based on time. Anybody here who played the MIT Beer Game? Nobody, I must be on the West Coast.

@semil: Looks like there’s one person.

@bfeld: Yeah. Did you go to MIT? There’s a very famous game from the 1980s at MIT, which is called the Beer Game, and it’s a four-stage… it’s a game that everybody that goes to business school plays, and it’s a four-stage supply/demand, sort of supply chain game. One end of the spectrum is the retail purchase, and the other end of the spectrum is the people making the hops or whatever. And there’s four steps, and you have demand that raises you on the front-end. Each turn up serves one, and know what the other ones are. You think it’s a 50-turn game, and so you sort of build inventory and do things as though it’s a 50-turn game, and it ends on a random turn. It could end at 21 turns, it could end at 37 turns, and it’s amazing. No matter what people do, the same kind of behavior occurs, which is that when the demand is high you create an over-production cycle that has time lack, that’s roughly a length of the supply chain. It’s roughly a four-turn lag.

So, if you’re playing it optimally, take a quarter, so four quarters behind what’s happening. Now, you got all these VC funds that have tons of money, and everybody is saying that the world is ending. Who does that benefit? It actually benefits the VC funds, because the entrepreneurs they all want to raise money on terms that they can raise money on because they’re afraid they’re going to run out of money.

Or maybe it doesn’t benefit the VC firms because the people who have the money are not the ones that were the early stage investors. So all of a sudden, the early stage investors are getting capital piled on. It’s not consistent, and so it’s holding these two notions together.

The challenge is the denial dominates. You want to hope it’s not going to suck, and you sort of push off your behavior longer. And what happened at the beginning of last year, a lot of companies slowed their growth, slowed their hiring rates. A lot of companies lowered their burn rates. Some companies raised money opportunistically. A lot of people just sort of focused on their business. And this year, a lot of those companies, many of them are having very shallow growth in years.

Interestingly, if you push the denial out long enough, and the problem stays, so the problem that we had last year continues out, that they had in the first two months last year continues after 12 months, all of a sudden you start to have structural problems, and then you have this massive overreaction. Then all of a sudden, everybody turns upside down and stops doing something. So, it’s interesting to reflect back on 2000. I think 2000 had an extraordinary amount of venture capital raised some of you probably know. But at the time, it was like that was a peak amount, and that was really the signal of the oversupply of capital.

Now, I think there’s a different dynamic going on this time around, both in terms of the globalization of the activity, the amount of activity democratization of innovation, so it’s not just geographically centered. But you had the same kind of problem, which is that you will have an oversupply in certain stages of whatever, and you will have a macro dynamic that somehow impacts that. And ultimately, you always have plenty of tears. The question is whether when it is painful for whatever period of time it is painful, you have the fortitude to actually keep building.

Last comment for our people. Does anybody remember 2008/2009? Wasn’t that supposed to be the end of the universe, the end of our entire financial systems? Startups didn’t even notice it. But for startups, they were just starting to emerge again. So, it’s so interesting how as humans we calibrate our cycles. You’ve never been through a downturn, but anywhere it just wasn’t really a downturn that directly impacted you because the world you were living in wasn’t the one that had this massive downturn.

[Unfortunately, we weren’t able to record the last bits of the chat, where Brad and I talked about how Foundry “competes” for deals, and what they’re planning on for Foundry Next. Sorry about that. Also, the audience members asked Brad some personal questions, and I must say, even I was surprised by Brad’s answers — very deep and profound. Perhaps for another fireside chat!]

Haystack is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2017 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus