2 Years After My Real People Thesis

In 2017, I wrote out a “thesis” (I know, very VC of me).

In it, I wanted to record to both the world and to myself, a promise that I was going to focus on founders building companies that give real people more agency over their lives.

Since I wrote that thesis, I’ve: completed 2 seasons of my podcast, had 1000s of discussions of entrepreneurs, made 394+ new investor “friends”, and supported 120+ companies in the Precursor portfolio. I’ve had all of my systems on overdrive to manage this growth both personally and professionally so thought it was time for some reflection.


Update #1: The underlying premise of my focus on “real people” still holds true to me.

This is unsurprising as I’ve spent the last 10 years of my career on this same beat. Whether it was advocating for low-income tax filers to the federal government or building a better CSR practice at a mid-stage company, I’ve always been interested in how to create systems that make this economic project of capitalism work better for everyone.

This is where I get the most energy, am most compassionate and think most creatively. In the words of Frida Kahlo:

Like Frida, I can get pretty insufferable — to others and myself — if I spend too much time thinking about things that are generally in vogue with cultivated people. Generally, I categorize these things in the following camps:

  1. Lofty ideas that have no likelihood of implementation — ie any conversation had at burning man
  2. Mediocre ideas that can squeeze more out of the “maker class” to make the “thinker class” richer

Update # 2: BUT, my thesis is too broad.

If I would have taken a look at the few companies I was really excited about  I would have seen the trend clearly, but alas here we are. Better late than never. Both of the companies are focused not just on helping real people access more agency, but on fundamentally altering economic systems. Essentially, this is a version of the old adage:

Give Someone a Fish, and You Feed Them for a Day. Teach Someone To Fish, and You Feed Them for a Lifetime

How do these companies address economic systems change?

  1. Red Bay Coffee: They source coffee directly from the communities making it via direct trade. Their company is also a co-op where employees have ownership.
  2. Lacquerbar: They are focused on giving nail technicians — a group of workers who have been historically treated very unfairly — access to premier education that will help them access new opportunities within their industry. This access also unlocks a new more equitable way of building and operating nail salons.

My focus is here because my interest is here. I’m interested in solutions that fundamentally alter our economic system for the better. The incremental bores and frustrates me. Thinking in big picture gives me hope.

An additional piece to this is if you’re building an economic systems change, you have to be targeting the long-tail, a harder to reach population that has been negatively impacted by this system. I think this is a competitive advantage and a huge moat because aggregating this long tail is so difficult that others can’t figure it out and won’t be able to copy you.

I have, I think, a good eye for how this can be done in asset-heavy businesses; however, I think that this can be done in asset-light businesses as well.

I am on the hunt to find them so that we, at Precursor Ventures, can invest! If you are building one of these companies, please reach out.

Update #3: I’m realizing that my interests are different than most VCs which makes it even harder.

I’m trying to support the creation of something that is fundamentally different and untapped. This means that there are few current proxies for their success. When I was feeling down about this, it was really helpful to read this from Paul Graham at YC.

…the average investor is, as I mentioned, a pretty bad judge of startups. It’s harder to judge startups than most other things, because great startup ideas tend to seem wrong. A good startup idea has to be not just good but novel. And to be both good and novel, an idea probably has to seem bad to most people, or someone would already be doing it and it wouldn’t be novel. That makes judging startups harder than most other things one judges. You have to be an intellectual contrarian to be a good startup investor. That’s a problem for VCs, most of whom are not particularly imaginative. — Paul Graham

One thing I didn’t realize though was how difficult it would be to divert capital from a widely acceptable “good” investment to a very polarizing “amazing/terrible” investment.

This is ironic because I think it is this polarizing nature of companies that can become the bedrock of its success. Revolutionary ideas are hated by some and loved by others. That’s how some of the greats were made.

Google revolutionized access to information.

Apple revolutionized access to computers.

Square revolutionized access to banking.

Amazon revolutionized access to commerce.

Shopify revolutionized access to building online stores.

I’m looking to do something on the same scale and think that for it to be done, it can’t be left up to broad consensus.

So that’s where I am now… if this feels incomplete, it is because it is. Still working through this and looking forward to reporting back on more findings in the coming years 🤓

let me know how i can be helpful

If you have taken a look at VC Twitter recently, you might have noticed the debate taking place around this one phrase: “let me know how i can be helpful.

Back story: Many VCs end conversations with entrepreneurs who they decide not to invest in with this phrase. It feels terrible to learn that your startup isn’t going to get money from a potential investor. But it can feel like salt in the wound where the person you just spent 1, 2 or 3+ hours with, gives you an open-ended phrase of “support”. The more generalized the feedback, the less actionable — particularly for first-time founders who don’t know what to ask of investors who have passed on investing in their company.

To help entrepreneurs understand what they can come to me for, I hope in this article to outline exactly how I can be helpful.

I’m your girl if you’re looking for an investor who:

1 Is Obsessed with Customers — Particularly those at the Long-Tail. My entire career has been spent trying to figure out how to serve the “hard to reach”. I think figuring out how to communicate and serve this population is one of the biggest challenges organizations face (the government included) and I have gone through many rabbit holes unsuccessfully trying to figure out how to do this well. I would love to help you avoid some of those!

2 Has a Very Different Opinion than Most Investors. As you might have guessed from my answer to the first point, I have spent the majority of my career in the public sector. I’m also black. I also identify as a woman. I also live in Oakland. I did not go to Stanford. I’ve never worked at Google, Amazon, Uber or Facebook. Can I stop now? Essentially, name one thing that you think most investors have in common and I probably don’t have it. So I’m here for you if you are looking for feedback from someone outside of the status quo.

3 Can Provide Feedback Based off of Employee Experience. I have never started my own company. I have also never been a CEO. This I think gives me tremendous empathy for the employee experience. As you are building your company and have questions around employee compensation, roles & responsibilities and want to think through ways to push back against some of the “tried and true” methods and and want to fundamentally re-think how you can organize your organization that both empowers employees to do their best work and also creates a safe environment, I’m your girl.

4 Has an Eye for Process Optimization. When I first joined Precursor, I had to envision all the ways to create processes for the firm that could scale not to 1–10 companies, but from 1–100+ companies. I love thinking through big-picture process design that helps you identify and build towards the goals you seek. As I have been involved with supporting founders at the Pre-Seed stage, what I’ve found is that the beginning stage of beginning a company is a lot of admin — so much admin. So I am happy and excited to help you brainstorm best practices here.

5 Is Obsessed with Complex Partnership Strategies. I have never worked in an industry where I had only one stakeholder. That sounds like the good life! In one of my first roles, I was in charge of preparing public schools over summer so they were ready to open in the fall. I had to think about the Principals, the students, the parents, the district office and many others. I’m used to making sense of, organizing and processing these complex maps and am happy to help you think through how best to do that for your company.

6 Has Relationships Across Diverse Talent & Investors. I never sought out to be “the only” in venture. I know there are amazing people of color investors, engineers, PMs and founders, and when I first got to this industry I looked to build coalitions to meet and support them. I’m happy to help bring these relationships to bear wherever it can be beneficial for all parties involved.

7 Has Seen Over 100+ Fundraising Strategies. Precursor has grown now to serve a lot of companies. Out of Funds I and II, we have invested in over 100 companies. I have seen a lot of permutations of startup growth — from fundraising strategies, decisions to grow to profitability to shut-downs. From this bank of information, I think I’ve developed a healthy amount of knowledge on how to explore any combination of these steps. Always happy to chat through and guide founders through the buffet of options available to them.

8 Listens a Lot More than She Talks. I love to listen and try to come with an open mind to most conversations while actively questioning opinions and ideas. Talking is less interesting to me because I know there is so much that I have to learn.

9 Brings Her Full Self to Conversations. The experience of building something new, asking for help and working with investors puts founders in a deeply vulnerable position. I am still figuring out my footing in service of founders, but one thing I try not to ever do is to compartmentalize your experience or mine in a way that makes things “easier”. I’m here for the messy, the random and the real-life conversations that creep into the everyday life of trying to do something revolutionary — build something from scratch.

10 Can Get You Some Sweet Software Discounts 🙂 I’m good at getting discounts.

Please don’t come to me for:

1 24-hour Support. I’m human, just like you and need sleep so I can be my best self for you, my family, the Precursor team and my community. I’m probably not the best person to support you if you want to talk to me at 3 am, again at 6 am and then once more at noon. To get the best out of me, expect extremely quick responses from 8am-8pm and a delay outside of those times.

2 Immediate Feedback. I’m a deep thinker and journaler! I pride myself in having thoughtful, well-researched feedback for questions or concerns you might be facing as a founder. To that end, to get the best out of meeting with me, send me a few questions in advance that you’d like to discuss and I’ll come prepared.

3 Sunshine and Fairytales. I am very direct and don’t like to pretend about anything. If you are very conflict-avoidant, I might not be a great fit for you.

4 Anything Bro-y. I just can’t with that life.