How I Built a Track Record in VC Without any Money

One of my goals is to use my voice more. That means owning things I’ve learned with hopes that it can help others. This feels very uncomfortable to me! Anyone who knows me knows that I am more of a show, not tell type of a person. But as I’ve grown more comfortable in my skin, I have realized that I must tell my own story. This gives me serious anxiety – but alas, every time you try something new, it feels unnatural and uncomfortable. So in the name of growth, I’m working through it. A few days ago, I listened to Brene Brown’s new podcast on FFTs (f*cking first times) and that gave me the extra bit of courage I needed to post this.

I hope this post is useful to any and everyone who is trying to figure out ways to demonstrate both to themselves and to others that they are great investors. Without further ado, here we go!


A few weeks ago, I was really excited to see Nate Maslak — co-founder of Ribbon Health — announce his Series A led by A16Z. I met him for the first time almost two years ago when I invited him on my podcast, “Be About It

I created the podcast to show the world that the companies that fit my thesis could be successful. 

My thesis has focused on companies that are building products that give real people more agency over their lives. This can be financial agency, time agency or mental/physical agency.

By demonstrating that my thesis worked, I would also be building my track record. 

What is a track record? It is a scorecard of your investments. It is used by LPs (your investors) to determine whether or not you are a “good investor”. Generally, “good” means that your investments continue to grow in value. 

As CEO/Founder of this podcast, I was in charge of sourcing companies, ensuring they fit my thesis, finding times to meet with these companies, coming up with thoughtful interview questions and also running all of the mechanics behind the scenes to make the podcast live. I purposefully chose founders who were Pre-Seed because that is Precursor’s focus and also because it holds the most risk. If I could demonstrate to myself and the world that I could pick Pre-Seed companies that would advance, then I must be pretty good at finding outstanding founders & companies. 

After spending over a year and countless hours on the Be About It podcast, I was privileged to share time with 15 founders — all of whom I continue to be inspired by. Here is how their companies have grown:

Season 1 (2017) Companies

2017: 7 were Pre-Seed

2019: 3 were Pre-Seed and 4 were Seed

Season 2 & 3 (2018) Companies:

2018: 4 were Pre-Seed and 4 were Seed

2019: 1 was Pre-Seed, 3 were Seed, 4 were Series A and 1 shut down

One thing I wasn’t expecting was my own growth between my first podcast and the second. In Season 1, I learned so much and brought that into Seasons 2 & 3. You can see it clearly in the numbers — Seasons 2&3 had a higher graduation rate than Season 1. 

The portfolio continues to mature and I’m excited to add another to the Series A list with Ribbon! 

The thesis behind my podcast — to find companies building meaningful businesses that provide mass markets access to what previously was held by only a few — is the same one I hold today as I enter into a full-fledged investing role at Precursor with the ability to make my own decisions and trust my gut. 

It’s exciting to enter into this new role with this track record and I look forward to building upon it — with dollars this time — in the coming years. 


The key things that I think are important to building up your track record without money are as follows:

  1. Develop and publish a thesis on what types of companies you like and why
  2. Publicly name companies that fit this thesis
  3. Wait a few years… (I never promised this was going to be quick!)
  4. Follow-up and see if those companies are doing well! 
  5. If they’re not doing well, write an article stating what you think went wrong and start at #2 on this list again.

A few examples of people/organizations that I think have done this well are Ben Thompson at Stratechery and Scott Galloway at No Mercy/No Mallice.


I hope this inspires many of you — particularly those who might not have the accredited investor title or the VC job —  an alternative way to create your own track record ❤ 

Have you also come up with a novel way to build a track record for yourself with limited resources? Or, do you have a company you’d like me to chat with that fits my thesis?

If so, I would love to hear from you! 

You can always reach me on Twitter: @sydneypaige10 or via e-mail: sydney@precursorvc.com


Note #1: More inspiration to everyone building, striving and creating who are also worried about owning their own success 🙂


Note #2: More deep dives into the creation tools behind the Be About It podcast if you’re interested here.


Note #3: There were a few additional founders I chatted with and unfortunately their interviews never made it onto the podcast. I’m still a huge fan of them! I didn’t enter them into the calculations above since I never formally processed their interview. 


Noted #4: Due to technical difficulties, currently, only Seasons 2 and 3 of Be About It are public.

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.

My User Guide

How I approach my work within venture capital

Ah‚ you’re part of something way bigger
Bigger than you‚ bigger than we
Bigger than the picture they framed us to see
But now we see it
And it ain’t no secret‚ no

— Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, “BIGGER”, The Gift Album

I recently realized that when I enter conversations with other VCs, I have a pretty complex background song playing. It’s not always Bigger by Beyoncé, but it usually has a similar tune. 🎶

To help people understand how to work with me and get the beat down of the song playing in my head, I decided to create a user guide. A “user guide” (or manifesto or first principles) is a list of your own values.

I decided to create a User Guide when I realized that I’m pretty complicated & putting my values down where everyone could reference them could be a useful resource to decrease stress & anxiety of interactions

Here is my first stab. I hope you’ll treat it as a living document that reflects the living, evolving person I am.

Let’s begin with a quick summation of my life story:

I grew up in San Diego, CA

I spent summers in West Virginia with my mom’s side of the family — that includes, but is not limited to 11 uncles, 1 aunt and 20+ cousins

I graduated from Duke University with a major in public policy, just 4 years after the lacrosse scandal

I drafted legislation for the City of New York + lobbied the federal government to pass it

I conducted tax preparation services for low-income New Yorkers, supported a multi-city roll-out of a city program & raised money from private sector organizations like Nike to invest in New York City’s public schools

Then my background starts to get boring…

I went to business school at Berkeley-Haas

Then it gets exciting again!

After business school, I helped Charles Hudson manage and operate Precursor VC

Cool cool cool, if you have read this far, thanks for getting up to speed – we are now the same page.

So let’s get into the question I really came here to answer: “what is my relationship to venture capital”.

Short answer: It’s complicated 🤷🏾‍♀️

Long answer:

1. Venture Capital has a transformational ability to support and finance companies that are building scalable solutions for people and places that have been systematically under-invested in. That excites me more than anything which is why I’m here. 🎉

More background on my POV: Why I’m Betting on Real People

2. At the same time, the relationship between capitalism and black people has been fraught since slavery.

a. Black people were brought to the US to build foundational pieces of the economy (agriculture, railroads, construction) while venture capitalists’ invested in them and reaped the rewards.

References: Without Slavery, Would The U.S. Be The Leading Economic Power?

b. After emancipation + reconstruction, many black people had the capital that they accumulated stripped away from them leaving us with today’s issues of extreme wealth inequality between races.

References: 8 Successful and Aspiring Black Communities Destroyed by White Neighbors

References: African American Homeownership Falls to 50-year Low

c. There has been little action taken to decrease this inequality and instead, immense work has been done to reinforce a brand of meritocracy. As a result, the word “meritocracy” and the assumption that folks with power deserve it or earned it hurts me.

References: The Perils of Meritocracy

3. This informs my own imposter syndrome as a black woman in VC — I know that 1M+ black or brown people could be great at this job and yet somehow because of my own luck, I have ended up here. So I take great care to try and call in those left outside of the room & make their voices heard.

4. I struggle with the evangelization of technology and startups. Startups/tech/entrepreneurship is hard, but it is not the hardest job. Having family across the country with many different socioeconomic status’ keeps me grounded. A harder job to me is trying to making ends meet while working for less than minimum wage in the only job available to me in the small town where I live. I’m not in venture capital because it’s the hardest work available, I’m doing it because it has the widest impact.

5. We are all complicit in an economic system that has caused significant trauma on people, communities and countries across the world.

My favorite book that discusses this is American Spy — review by NPR here: ‘American Spy’ Is A Unique Spin On The Cold War Thriller

6. In order to be a productive member of society, being a thoughtful investor is not enough. The work starts with you. The arc of the universe does not bend towards justice if nobody does the work to make it so. How are you building a pattern of reflection and growth? How are you living your values? Do you wonder how what you say/do impacts others? What are you hoping to accomplish in this lifetime? How are you actively working to raise your own consciousness so you don’t become a reactive pawn in a greater system created by other people? These are questions I struggle with daily. One of the ways I work towards addressing them is by building a full life outside of my day job. I am an active supporter of Beyond Emancipation, the North Carolina Bail Fund, Esq Apprentice and am getting more and more involved in my own community of Longfellow, Oakland.

7. I think that listening to people different from you, and changing your opinion accordingly, is the biggest act of courage you can take. This is based on my love for humility. It is my favorite trait (right above gratitude) and one I try to practice often. Humility isn’t a widely appreciated trait in VC because it is at odds with industry standards of conviction, assertiveness and self-righteousness which makes this work hard sometimes.

8. The hustle culture of entrepreneurship and tech is problematic. It is particularly problematic for communities of color where the old adage that “you must work twice as hard to get half as much” rings true. That isn’t a life I wish to cultivate or to exhault. It leads to burnout and breeds exhaustion which can create even more anger amongst underrepresented communities. I recognize the privilege in this lifestyle choice and also believe that my ancestors wouldn’t want me to live in a way that hurts me if I don’t have to. I approach my life and my work within VC with this lense and work hard to build boundaries so that I can have a full work and home life. Please don’t try to e-mail me on weekends and please please please don’t follow me on instagram 🙃

a. That being said, one of the values that I hold deeply is that in order to be successful, you must be proactive. If you are reaching out to me cold and would like to speak with me, I expect that you have your questions prepared. If I have invested in your company, I expect that you will treat me as a valuable resource who can help guide you. One of the most frustrating experiences I have had, and would like to prevent, is feeling like the person I’m talking to isn’t taking full advantage of my time and and/or isn’t taking responsibility to make their situation better. One of the quotes I try to live by is: we all have agency over our own lives and I have continually developed a practice of proactiveness. In order to work together effectively, I need to see you model proactiveness as well. I try really hard and work best with people who are also trying really hard.

References: Black Workers Really Do Need to Be Twice as Good

10. Being a black woman doesn’t mean I have all the answers to inequality within this industry or outside of it. Please read a book (or an article) before asking me any questions pertaining to inequality, white supremacy, racism, etc.

References: How To Be A Better Ally: An Open Letter To White Folks

a. I am still very much a beginner in learning about the different struggles that other communities of color experience. And welcome more resources that I can use to improve.

Some of my favorite books have been:

In the Midst of Winter —From Isabel Allende, a Novel of Three Immigrants and a Brooklyn Misadventure

Pachinko —Culture Clash, Survival And Hope In ‘Pachinko’

Exit West —Escaping A World On Fire In ‘Exit West’

Long Story, Short: I love venture capital and technology, but my relationship to it is complicated. This industry was not created in 1976 with the invention of Apple. Books are important, history is important and without those two things you can become an actor in a greater narrative that you didn’t know existed — I try my hardest not to be that actor, but mess up sometimes. When I could do better, I expect you to call me out and I promise to listen. To earn my respect, I expect you to try hard too. I also expect you to mess up sometimes — at which point, I will call you out on it and expect for you to listen. We’re all human.

First Draft Written: August 9, 2019

Updated: March 11, 2020

Updated: March 12, 2020

Scarcity Mindset is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in Venture Capital


https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2015/06/steven-a-cohen-pet-pig.html?gtm=top&gtm=bottom

First, you might be wondering, what is scarcity mindset? 

When you are living in a scarcity mindest, you believe that there will never be enough [1]. So you hoard.

You hoard power, money, ideas.

VC is living in a scarcity mindset because it has become addicted to hoarding despite operating in an ecosystem of abundance. There is more capital and more entrepreneurs than ever and yet what we’ve seen is that funds have raised more money, hired fewer people and forced more money into fewer companies. 

Something has to change.

But before we get into what should change, let’s get into how we got here. 


The VC Industry has grown significantly over the last 10 years

VC investing reached an all-time high last year. $130.9 billion was invested into US-based startups.

That is more than the entire GDP of Ukraine, Morocco or Ecuador. 

Plus there were more firms created last year than ever before over the last 10 years.

But more money is chasing fewer deals 🤔

More money is chasing fewer deals and as a result, fewer deals are able to IPO. 

The decreasing number of IPOs can be due to a number of factors. One of them is that VCs believe that fewer deals are great and “deserve to IPO”. I think this is a misnomer and self-fulling prophecy because if all VCs think that only a few deals are great, then only a few deals will be great. Luckily there is a growing trend of voices who don’t believe this — like Greenspring Associates who recently wrote that: “the market is expansive and filled with opportunities, when approached with an open mind.” [2]

Another, more tactical factor is that IPOs are expensive and large banks only want to do the biggest ones with the biggest market cap because these have the most potential to impact their bottom line. 

However, this same song has been played before and the chorus goes: “bigger is not better”

As VC firms and investment banks opt for larger market capitalizations, the growth of these companies after IPO has decreased. 

Which makes intuitive sense — if you wait to invest into a company until after it’s worth $3B, the likelihood of it growing to become worth $10B is low, because they’ve already squeezed so much juice out of the lemon. 

As a result, the IPO market has been described as: “a holding pen for massive, sleepy corporations” [2.5].

How do we prevent this from happening to VC?


If VC wants to continue generating the returns it has in the past, it needs to get out of its scarcity mindset. How?

1. Build a bigger tent

This scarcity mindset impacts how VCs are investing in companies and their own teams. 

I recently read that having a scarcity mindset makes people more racist [3]. 

If this is true, we are seeing it play out in venture both in the types of teams VCs back and the types of people VCs hire/promote. 

Only 2% of venture capital funding goes to women entrepreneurs, and less than 5% of entrepreneurs backed by venture capital firms are black or Latinx [4].

Venture Capital teams aren’t doing much better. The number of female partners only increased from 2017 to 2018 by 2% and the number of black and latino investors decreased [5].

But does this have to be true? The data shows that there is enough capital to spread around and that if firms were creative, there are enough venture capital jobs to go around as well. 

2. Enable Public Access to Early Stage Funds

“The pre-IPO market has become the IPO market of the past, but it’s only available to investors such as venture capital firms, mutual funds and hedge funds able to put up large amounts of money that once were only available through public markets.” [6]

If a pension fund is able to invest a person’s pension into a VC fund, why can’t that person decide to invest into another entity that invests into a VC fund?

Let’s be clear, I am not advocating that individuals should be investing their own retirement dollars into investment firms directly. Instead, I’m thinking of something more in line with Fundrise, but for VC funds. Something that allows the public market to have diversified access to early stage investment firms. Especially as the availability of pensions continue to wade, giving fewer and fewer everyday people access to these early investment opportunities which are driving the largest returns. 

3. Act Like We’re the Longest Assetholders (because we are)

Back in its heyday, one of Kleiner Perkins’ biggest investments was a $100K check into Genentech. It turned into $47 billion three decades later [8].

As we continue to invest in the future of a world we can’t even imagine, we are going to have to take risks on ecosystems, people and ideas that are out of this world crazy. We can’t invest in what would work right now, because the point is that just because it works now, doesn’t mean it will work later. Instead, we are choosing to invest in the unknown — into something that might work in the future. 

This lens towards investing in weird, crazy ideas has always been a nomenclature of VC, but this hasn’t actually played out. Instead, the industry has decided to rally around big buzzwords every few years. Big data! AI! Cannabis! Instead of taking a longer and more humble view on the fact that the future is unpredictable. And instead of trying to move it in our favor, by overcapitalizing a few “winners”, perhaps we should be open to a world where more people were given a chance at bat and in return we had a more comprehensive stake in an unpredictable world. 


“In the United States, for example, “trickle down” economic policies that support tax cuts for the rich with the aim of boosting economic growth and jobs have led to a $2 trillion annual redistribution of wealth from the bottom 99 percent of earners to the top 1 percent over the last 30 years, said Nick Hanauer, a former venture capitalist and now head of Civic Ventures, which aims to drive social change.

If the trend continues, by 2030, the top 1 percent of Americans will earn 37 to 40 percent of the country’s income, with the bottom 50 percent getting just 6 percent, he said.

“That’s not a capitalist market economy anymore,” he warned. “That’s a feudalist system and it scares … me.”” [9] 


[1] “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, Stephen R. Covey

[2] https://blog.greenspringassociates.com/venturecapitalsaccessmyt

h

[2.5] “The Deregulation of Private Capital and the Decline of the Public Company”, Elisabeth de Fontenay, https://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=6431&context=faculty_scholarship

[3] https://www.thecut.com/2014/06/scarcity-might-make-people-more-racist.html

[4] https://www.nber.org/papers/w23082.pdf

[5] https://medium.com/allraise/was-2018-the-year-of-the-woman-e2824f513a09

[6] https://www.pantheon.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Shrinking-Public-Markets-Final.pdf

[8] http://fortune.com/longform/kleiner-perkins-vc-fall/?utm_source=fortune.com&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=term-sheet&utm_content=2019042312pm

[9] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-democracy-wealth-inequality-idUSKCN0XC1Q2

What DEMO Africa Taught Me About Investing in Africa

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending DEMO Africa in Casablanca, Morocco. DEMO Africa is a yearly event that brings together entrepreneurs and investors from across the continent of Africa. This was my first time attending and it was a great primer into the African entrepreneurship ecosystem.

My favorite session was the infrastructure summit which was hosted by the US State Department.

In it, we discussed some of the core systems underlying the African tech ecosystem and an overview into what infrastructure projects have succeeded (and failed).

I came away from the conference with the following insights that I’m planning to keep in mind when evaluating investments across the continent of Africa.

Many Telecos Don’t Connect to Google/App Stores
I talked with an entrepreneur who built a coworking space and accelerator in Morocco. He exclaimed that while Morocco has a number of trained engineers, it was difficult to advise them to build apps when many consumers don’t have app stores. I was so surprised — how does someone get a phone without one of these app stores built in? Through research, I realized that the only reason our phones can operate app stores is because we provide them with financial information. App stores don’t work without credit cards.

Most telecos that operate across Africa have different financial payment plans to fit their users more effectively. These innovative systems don’t yet cooperate with Google Play and the App Store.

This is slowly changing though. Orange just launched direct billing in Egypt allowing the market to access the app store. We’ll see how this continues to evolve.

Why this matters: The “traditional” application ecosystem is stifled across the continent. This is a huge opportunity to invest in an alternative ecosystem.

Data Storage For Most Consumers is Extremely Limited
Unlike in the US where unlimited data plans are the de facto option for many cell phone owners, large data plans in many African countries are still relatively abnormal. This has made consumption of entertainment (especially in Nollywood!) difficult. Many of Nigerian soap operas uploaded onto YouTube went unseen by Nigerians due to their data plan constraints. To combat this, Google created YouTubeGo which allows users to download videos when connected to wifi to consume later.

But first, the phone has to come equipped with the YouTubeGo app because (as I mentioned before), many phones do not have Google Play or App stores.

Why this matters: Investing in high-data usage tech companies will likely shrink your market size significantly.

Getting from One African Country to Another is Hard
DEMO Africa featured entrepreneurs based in Togo, Coitivoire, Ghana and others. I learned that their travels into Morocco were really difficult! Multiple shared that it was cheaper for them to fly to the US/Europe than across Africa.

When digging into this, I learned:

“The continent is home to roughly 12 percent of the world’s population and will be responsible for most of the global population growth over the next three decades. But it accounts for just 1 percent of the world’s air travel market. The flights that do exist are often more expensive than routes of similar duration elsewhere in the world.”
Many African countries are mired in protectionist policies that make traveling across the continue extremely difficult.

Why this matters: If you are hoping your company will expand across the African continent, take into account that each country operates very separately.

No Great Customer Acquisition Channel
One of the most common concerns that I heard from African investors was: access to market. The word on the street is that Jumia, despite it’s critical acclaim online, is not experiencing great traction. There is still a lot of distrust in ecommerce. So a focus from investors has turned to B2B. Many consumers are excited about working with large African enterprises to improve experiences.

Why this matters: If you are investing in a consumer company, go really deep with the entrepreneur on their G2M strategy.

Repatrition Just Getting Started — Long Way to Go
Another common concern I heard from investors was: there are not enough African entrepreneurs are investing in Africa. On the other hand though, I was surprised by (and excited to see) that many of the startups at DEMO Africa were launched by Africans who have recently returned to the continent after living, studying and working abroad. But there is still a long way to go.

Why this matters: The lack of investment in African startups by African entrepreneurs is felt mostly on the angel/Pre-Seed side. This has ripple effects across the ecosystem.

I hope this helps others get more information on the African ecosystem. I’m extremely bullish on investing in this fascinating and rich continent. Precursor has made two investments here already — Tastemakers and Buycoins!

I’m plotting my next trip to the continent soon. This time to Lagos! If you are hosting a tech conference in Nigeria, let me know. I’d love to make it!

A Week in the DC Tech Scene

I spent last week in Washington, DC getting to know their startup scene. We, at Precursor, have yet to invest in a company based in the nation’s capital so we don’t have much exposure to the area. I wanted to get to know the scene to better understand the dynamics to prepare us for future investment.

It was a fun and packed trip! Along the way, I met with founders at the Pre-Seed stage all the way up to the Series D stage. I met with ecosystem builders and investors. I traveled across the entire city from U Street to Capitol Hill to Arlington.

Here are a few of the things I observed:

1. Tech looks different in a city that runs well.
In a city that has a higher population density than San Francisco with only about 200K fewer people, it was remarkable to see how smoothly things operated in Washington, DC. I saw this show up in almost every technology I used.

When I got to my AirBnB in DC, two things were surprising to me. The 1st was that it was so large. I didn’t actually need to use a coworking space at all because I had enough space to do work at home. (And the few times that I ventured out to a coffee shop, I was able to find space to charge my computer and could use the bathroom without a code (*gasp*).) The 2nd was that it was a public housing unit. Compared to public housing units in the bay that can immediately be recognized as tier 2, this public housing unit treated its tenants with respect and dignity. I felt like I was staying in a luxury high rise! Think of how different AirBnB could look and feel if people from all income levels had attractive homes to rent out on the platform.

When I pulled up google maps, it was almost always quicker for me to take public transit to my destination instead of ride hailing. Over the course of my week in DC, I took a Lyft twice and both times were frustrating due to how slow they were. Between the bus and the metro, I was able to get places quickly and conveniently. Consequently, the rides on Lyft seemed to be steeply discounted. It cost me $13 to take a 30min ride in DC, whereas in San Francisco, it costs $13 to take a 10min ride.

When I saw people on Bird & Lime scooters pass me by, I saw young black men riding them near Howard and old white women riding them near Capitol Hill. The equal distribution of access to technology is remarkable compared to what I see in San Francisco where Birds are wiped with poop in the Tenderloin. Howard also is home to one of the few accelerators called in3.

2. Tech is still “weird” here.
I got the sense that the folks who are building tech companies are still seen as outsiders. The “cool kids” were able to secure the illusive Legislative Assistant role for the Congressman of Georgia. I describe these jobs as illusive because they really are. When I was an undergrad at Duke, my dream job was to work as a Legislative Assistant for anyone! I applied to over 100 jobs and didn’t get one.

For the folks who can’t secure these really competitive jobs, they could always work for a startup. They are risky yes, but so is joining a political campaign. In DC, the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well, it’s just dedicated to the political arena. The successful, DC based later stage startups that I met with told me that many of their recruits came from San Francisco and I assume it is to combat the selection bias that can occur when your industry isn’t the hottest one in town.

I get the sense that people in Washington, DC are still traditionalists who look to change the world through the system that is already in place. They do not yet see tech as a real system and if they do, they don’t see it as a place to impact society in a positive manner.

3. Nobody cares about San Francisco.
This is actually my favorite trait of DC. Nobody there seems to know about or care about what is happening in the valley. I know many folks knew this already as is pertains to our Congresspeople (*insert Facebook Congressional hearing here*). But this seemed to be true of a wider variety of folks. For example, somebody asked me in earnest if I knew what was Upwork.

For companies that are building in very competitive industries, this naivete is terribly destructive. For companies that are building in industries that are either 1) extremely revolutionary or 2) taking advantage of DC’s unique traits, I think this mentality is invaluable.

Take FiscalNote for example. It might have been able to have started in San Francisco, but it couldn’t have grown as fast and as large as it has without its location. It sits 3 blocks away from the White House and <10 from Capitol Hill. It is able to attract the best and brightest who are committed to changing the world because it is building a tech company that works within the legislative system. These are the types of companies that will continue to succeed in DC. And I think the country — especially right now — is ripe for them. With accelerators like Higher Ground Labs, people are starting to build tech companies that can change city, state and federal government and I’m excited to see what comes next! So can unicorns grow in DC? Which gets me to my conclusion. Can the next Unicorn get started in DC. I say yes. It is a city full of entrepreneurs looking to change the world. They are just not sold that tech can fulfill that promise.

How to Tackle the Long Tail

I’m now two seasons into my podcast “Be About It” where I interview founders who are solving meaningful problems.
So far, I’ve had 15 amazing founders on my podcast. Each one is solving a real pain point experienced by 80% of the USA — individuals making under $100K and small business owners.

Across the founders I interviewed, there was a single pervasive concern. When you target such a large population, how do you actually reach them? Reaching the top 20% is not easy, but it is relatively straightforward. The toolkit for most includes some cocktail of Facebook/Google ads, App Store hacks and modern design.

Reaching individuals and small business owners located in the remaining 80% is much more complicated.

Their interests are varied, they are not all located in one online community and are very hard to please because they have to see immediate ROI in their purchases.

They do not have excess capital to be as patient as the top 20%.

I saw this first hand when I was working in the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs in the Mayor Bloomberg years. There, I was tasked with managing the product launch of SaveUSA across New York City. SaveUSA was created to demonstrate that a progressive tax policy that incentivized low-income tax filers to save some of their tax refund could impact the wealth gap.

Essentially, I was in charge of finding people to give free* money to. Easy right? No. From the marketing — where do you find low-income tax filers? — to the onboarding & engagement — how do you keep these tax filers engaged over a series of months?, my experience at SaveUSA was a deep dive into the complexities of targeting a diverse population.

In SaveUSA’s NYC campaign, here’s what really worked for us:
Meet folks where they are. I learned how to do taxes (*shout out to VITA*) so that I could help folks with their tax filing and then enroll them into the SaveUSA program. This helped us understand exactly what the main pain points were for tax-filers and address them immediately. Also doing someone’s taxes really builds their trust.
Be respectful of their time. When we incorporated an ability to sign-up for SaveUSA into the flow of tax filing — which was difficult because a critical piece of signing up for SaveUSA included opening a new bank account — we saw a huge increase in take-up rate.
Speak to their best selves. One of the selling points that worked best for us during SaveUSA was speaking to the tax-filers’ best selves. This is especially hard in a culture that treats poverty as an illness. But framing questions around: “How can we figure out how to pay the most critical bills now and save the rest?” instead of “Why haven’t you paid those bills yet?” worked wonders.

It was enlightening to hear additional techniques on how to engage this segment from the founders I talked to on the podcast.

Here are the top 3 recommendations I learned from the founders I interviewed:
Do your research. Jimmy Chen at Propel shared how important it is to conduct deep customer interviews to understand how to build the most intuitive product possible. 🎧
Don’t reinvent the wheel. Chai Mishra at MoveButter discussed how important it is to work within the ecosystems that exist for the communities you are trying to serve. 🎧
Build a movement. I learned from Beatriz Helena Ramos at Dada how to help creators build communities among themselves in order to catalyze an even larger movement. 🎧

I am inspired that people are proactively exploring the long tail wave of consumers and coming up with creative solutions. At the end of the day, it reminds me that the most important thing founders can build is a strong community.

If you’re interested in learning some of these hacks, check out the past couple of seasons of “Be About It.” You can listen to it anywhere — from Soundcloud, Breaker to Apple Podcasts.

I’d love to hear from you! What have you learned from the founders in the episodes? Do you have ideas of founders I should talk to? Leave me a comment below or reach out to the podcast on Twitter @thebeaboutitpod.

*The money was not technically free. The participants received a 50% match for every dollar they saved for 6 months, up to $500.

Why I Decided to Become Pipeline Angels’ 1st VC-in-Residence

In September, I added another job to my title. I’m still the Investment Associate and Head of Ops at Precursor Ventures and have now joined Natalia Oberti Noguera and her team at Pipeline Angels as their first ever VC-in-Residence.

It started with a simple e-mail. I’m not yet an accredited investor, but I was inspired with what Natalia was building. So I filled out the Pipeline Angels application and included a short note about how excited I was to get involved wherever I could be useful. Luckily, my application aligned with a new idea Natalia had brewing to get more women like me involved in Pipeline Angels.

Natalia and I hopped on the phone and she shared her vision for extending her pipeline initiative to not just help women and non-binary femmes become angel investors, but also help women, non-binary people, and men of color become GPs at investment firms.

The road to GP is usually paved with a stint in angel investing and a demonstrated ability to bring quality LP leads to the table.

But these prerequisites to the job require one huge piece that many women and non-binary femmes lack → access to capital.

As a VC-in-Residence, her vision was that I would be given the opportunity to learn both. Through working on a team alongside angel investors, I would get to learn the ins — and — outs of the angel investment process, support their decisions on who to invest in and be a contributing member of their investment team. Through working with accredited investors, I would be able to build relationships with women and non-binary femmes who could be tomorrow’s LPs.

As Natalia put it: Pipeline Angels created the role of VC-in-Residence to inspire our members and broader network to help change the face of venture capital by becoming LPs in VC firms led by #morevoices.

I’m grateful for Natalia’s vision and even more grateful for Precursor Ventures’ sponsorship. Professional
development opportunities in venture capital are few and far between. I’m lucky to have found a crew that understands the importance of growth.

Interested in learning more? Check out Megan Rose Dickey’s feature about the VC-in-Residence role in TechCrunch.