180: Is Venture Capital Right for You?
Catch the full episode: https://www.wealthformula.com/podcast/180-is-venture-capital-right-for-you/Buck: Welcome back to the show everyone. Today my guest on Wealth Formula Podcast is Vanessa Bartram. She is the managing partner of Zora. Zora is a Tel Aviv based fund that backs exceptional Israeli teams who will become the next global leaders in impact tech. Vanessa began her career in investment banking in Mexico City, later founding the Miami Impact Company WorkSquare which she grew to twenty five million dollars in revenue. She holds an MBA from Harvard BA from Princeton and is a heritage fellow with the Wexner Foundation and now of course the next step for most Harvard graduates is to go to the Wealth Formula Podcast for an interview. Welcome to the show Vanessa.
Vanessa: Thank you happy to be here.
Buck: Great so let me start out a little bit just defining some things which you’re involved in is something called impact tech. What is impact tech and how did you get involved in this space?
Vanessa: Sure. So impact investing is a broad and messy term. I think we’re getting a little bit better at defining the space. But effectively what investors where impact investors are looking for is to have some quantified measurable trackable impact on a social or environmental outcome in addition to you know strong financial return. At this stage I think about 90% of impact investors say they’re looking for market rate of return. So this doesn’t mean that you want to you know save the whales and make less money, it’s figuring out how to make the same amount of money that any other venture fund would or any other tech company would while also being able to track you know tons of carbon you know diverted or you know tons of food waste diverted from landfill or something like that.
Buck: Yeah so give me some examples of some of the impact tech companies out there that maybe people might have or heard of just to get a bit a little bit better sense of what that sort of the company looks like.
Vanessa: Sure so you know some of the companies that we’re working with are working on everything. One company does data analytics for satellite/radar data and they’re working specifically in the forestry industry. So for us you know for them they’re looking to sell you know operational insights and forest managers about how to grow their forests better. But for us when we look at this it was really a carbon emissions play that we realized that we could help improve the carbon stocks you know in the because of their because of the intervention that they had another of our companies now is a company called waste lists you know they’re working on the problem of supermarket food waste so the 30 to 40 percent of perishable products in supermarkets are thrown away right now and it’s about one percent of revenue for supermarkets. So by being able to introduce a dynamic pricing that’s integrated with the you know POS software in the in the supermarket can incentivize customers to buy a cottage cheese that’s expiring five days sooner rather than the ones that’s gonna expire in three weeks and that way you know for them it’s for the supermarket it has potential to to up their margins which are very tight already by you know 30 to 40 percent.
Buck: Got it. So you know one of the things again going back to basics and defining things you mentioned Zora is a it’s a fun but it’s a it’s a venture capital fund is that right?
Vanessa: Yes that’d correct.
Buck: So for some of you know as you may or may not know most of us in this group and our investor group we’re just a bunch of dumb real estate investors. Can you explain the difference you know this this is sort of new for I think a lot of people. What’s the difference between a venture capital fund and say you know private equity or say angel investing so what how do you how are those defined?
Vanessa: Sure so venture capital, angel investing, private equities they’re all the same thing and that you’re buying some percentage of a private companies equity as opposed to buying company I’m on the public market like the New York Stock Exchange. So in all of these you know as an investor you’re buying some shares of a private company so different phases typically are just what phase the company is in and what size the company is. So an angel investor is going to be the first capital that goes into you know a start-up or other company. An angel may be putting in anywhere from you know 5,000, 10,000, 25,000 into a company. Venture capital typically is the first sort of institutional round of a company fundraise. So they’ll be putting in anywhere from maybe a few hundred thousand to several million. Private equity tends to be what’s called the growth stage when companies are already established and they’re just looking to expand operations.
Buck: Got it guys so that’s helpful so in general you know part of it is determining you know how big the company is where you’re in and presumably because of that there’s different levels of risk reward profiles based on those kind of different time horizons for business investment right?
Buck: So in terms of venture what is the typical time horizon you know for this kind of thing where I say you’ve got investors who are in a fund and you know what do you typically you know in a venture fund do you expect like a five years, ten years, you know some level of liquidity during that period of time?
Vanessa: It’s a great question and I love that you’re that you’re facing and what you usually talk about is residential you know both my family. I came from a background a family that that’s our family business so you know about 90% of my net assets are in multi-family residential real estate so everything you say I think is absolutely spot-on. Venture capital you know I tell everyone whether it’s you’re an angel investor even up to private equity it’s an extremely risky asset class. This is something that I put in that bucket over five to ten percent looking for a different uncorrelated you know asymmetrical kind of return. So it’s important to remember that piece when we’re talking about the risk because then the risk of a venture capital has become you know we have this extremely risky asset class what’s everything we can do to mitigate that risk and to do this as strategically and thoughtfully as we can. But to answer your questions were typical and it’s illiquid is another another piece of this. And so the typical venture investment is a five to seven year hold. So typically a fund is going to spend about two to three years deploying the capital that they raised. So say someone raised over ten million dollars fund, it’ll take them two years to sort of spend that money and make those investments they then hold it for five to seven years and then that harvesting period is another two to three years. So as a typical venture capital fund has a heavy shelf life of ten years which can be a daunting hold period for for some investments.
Buck: Yeah so in terms of what that looks like during that period of time there’s often zero liquidity so I mean again going back to the parallel of multifamily real estate, we typically are looking at some dividends or distributions you know quarterly or even potentially yearly or whatever. But this is something that you got to say okay you know what this is your asymmetric risk play. Okay you buy Bitcoin and maybe you want to know invest in and this as well and you’re just gonna forget about it. If you lose it you lose it. If one day you wake up and somebody says you meet you know five hundred percent on your money then that’s kind of what what this is right?
Vanessa: Absolutely and then listen it can be done far more strategically that’s that’s what we’re there to do. But yes it absolutely has an element of risk and it attracts people who are entrepreneurs and it’s a you know we can talk a little bit more about the economics of it but it’s absolutely a homerun business you know you’re looking to have a portfolio and have those one or two you know big wins in there.
Buck: Right and then in terms of in terms of a homerun what is a homerun in venture language is that like at ten like 10x or is that a 5x I mean I’m just curious again these may be somewhat simplistic but most people probably in this in this audience probably don’t really understand you know what what kind of metrics, financial metrics that, again not talking about specifically your fund as you know but just in general for venture like what if you’re if you’re talking about smaller allocations what are the typical targets like what’s a win what’s a what’s a grand-slam and what is you know kind of a loss?
Vanessa: You’re testing my sports metaphor here this is a sounder, but I can play, I can play. So typically our fund you know a fund that has is it in sort of 90th percentile is going to return 3x net of fees to its investors. So if you have a hundred million dollar fund that means you’re returning maybe 350 million, 50 million are you know please other expenses and your investors end up in their pocket with 3x what they put in. So that’s how that’s how you get into the top decile of funds you know that’s the same kind of numbers that we’re looking to do, but then you’re going down to the portfolio level and you assume each fund is invested and maybe you know 10 to 20 companies. So if we say that’s 10 companies you’re going to make the assumption that 5 of those companies failed totally, you know 3 of those companies you’ll have like a small return on and that’s maybe two to three times your capital, one of those companies deals on medium return which is maybe a five to ten and one of those companies you want to have a real outsides return that could be upwards of a 10 and somewhere a 20 to 30 kind of X.
Buck: Right I got it. And from a you know again understanding how I’m approaching this from real estate is there any sort of tax advantages to venture capital investing.
Vanessa: Not in this, you know we don’t have obviously the the depreciation that you would have in real estate. Most everything as an investor you’re buying into a limited partnership so you own a part of a pass-through entity right you own a percentage of that LP and then from that you receive a k1 and your gains are you know long-term capital gains so somewhere between 15 and 20 percent.
Buck: Okay got it okay. So let’s talk specifically about Zora. Okay so when was Zora founded? Are you one of the founders and you know tell us a little bit about the story of the company.
Vanessa: Sure I am the founder and general partner. I moved to Israel about six years ago and started investing a few years after. And again this was a I always grown up with this idea of wanting to sort of do well do good while also doing well. This came from you know being second generation immigrant family that after running a series of different small businesses you know multi-family real estate and was able to grow you know reasonable amount of wealth there and I think as a child my parents did a good job of pointing out all of the things that I got to do that was not what an average child gets to do, whether that was going to summer camp or my education at a private school or studying abroad. So I think I always had sort of this question of how do people acquire wealth, how is it that once people have wealth they seem to be able to make more wealth more quickly, and what can we do as a society to sort of make sure that other people have access to more wealth, whether that’s through financial education or starting businesses whatever that is. So that was sort of my you know social social justice lens coming into this world, but started my career and Investment Banking and really love the transactions I than the deal-making side. I was working in Mexico City where helping mostly third fourth generation companies sell themselves to foreign acquirers so going through the valuation and through the exit with them and after a bit after doing that moved to Boston to be my MBA at Harvard realized I was in entrepreneurial unfortunately while there, moved down to Miami started a company there doing financial education with low income you know bussers, janitors, dishwashers as a sort of job placement HR agency at WorkSquare and after running that business for a few years loved what I was doing did not love the industry and wanted the opportunity to work with more mission aligned entrepreneurs at a strategic level. By chance I came across Israel and started learning more about Israel and was just blown away about what a good fit it was for someone who wanted to do early-stage tech investing you know with a social environmental focus.
Buck: Why is that? Tell us a little bit about that you know why Israel was such a big part of it, why was it a good target for your venture fund.
Vanessa: Sure so you know first off we have about 6400 startups in Israel and about 40% of those have some social environmental sort of impact in what they’re doing. So we have about 600 startups each in agricultural technologies in digital health and medical devices and clean tech, we have exciting new sectors coming up like food tech and and education and water technology all have 250–300 companies between them so really strong pipelines. I identified about you know 2,400 companies in Israel that were mission oriented and the way we were looking for and among those about 700 that were relevant in stage for us which is sort of pre seed and seed and I think Israel’s really benefited you know with the the largest tech hub outside Silicon Valley it has the highest number of engineers and scientists or capita in the world. The government strongly supports R&D you know to the tune of about 400 million dollars per year for for small startups. The companies here all have a strong b2b focus from day one because our you know our population is only eight billion people you automatically need to be selling abroad. So that’s a given. You know we have over 300 multinational companies that have a presence here whether it’s a venture fund or Scouts for technology so from day one startups are working with these multinationals to sort of figure out the product market fit and the best reasons you know also evaluations here are far more reasonable. You know it’s not hard to be more reasonable than what we’re seeing in the US center market right now is craziness. We have far more reasonable valuations and our entrepreneurs tend to do about twice as much with the same amount of capital.
Buck: That’s great okay got it okay. So you go to Israel you set up shop and when was that this?
Vanessa: It was 2014 when I moved here and started looking for deals on my own sort of as an angel that I could follow and put some put some money in and I would find deals you know this is a dating before you get married kind of things and a year to two years sort of following coaching these companies before deciding which ones to go with. I would put in you know a small amount of capital personally put together a 25-page diligence report and bring that to investors primarily in the US where my network is and have them invest alongside me for a typical you know venture capital fee.
Buck: Got it. So what’s happened since 2014?
Vanessa: So we’ve invested in five companies as part of our demo portfolio and that was the sort of one by one you know each investment we did was a special purpose vehicle with different investors and then it came time to put together a small fund. So we’re working on that now we’ve made our first two investments and have our third under diligence and we’re really looking to be the the best of Israeli impact tech.
Buck: Got it. Is it too early to have any Vegas 2014 and now is too early to have any divestments or at this point?
Vanessa: Yeah so I first investments we’re actually like started in 2016 we’ve had one we’ve had one exit so far yeah which was which was fun and to use sports metaphors there was a double you know now that not a homerun but it was great to be able to send some money back to investors and it was I think emblematic of the challenge that we see in Israel which you know we have great product and technology and the challenge is frequently knowing how to commercialize and get that to market you know the best way. So this company was approached by the largest Japanese education publisher because they wanted to expand the product through Asia so the team decided to go with that and have them distribute for them.
Buck: So let’s go back again to sort of your buy box. so when you guys are looking at companies what are some of the characteristics that might be somewhat unique to to you and your in terms of metrics things like that what are you looking at?
Vanessa: Sure we’re looking first of all we’re looking at the niche of seed stage. In the past about five years since 2015 most venture capital funds have gotten bigger and bigger and bigger with the reasonable idea that if you’re going to make an investment in spend the time doing due diligence you might as well invest more money at a later stage and have more fees and more you know successfully from the time that you spent on that. What happens is there’s a real vacuum at sort of speed stage and for us seed stage is when a when a tech company is raising about a million to two million dollars, they’re pre revenue, what we’re looking for is that they have some significant partnership with a major corporation that might be an unpaid pilot, a paid pilot, it might be you know a joint project and developing a product together, but we want to see that the company has abilities to access the kind of the kind of large-scale multinationals that they’re going to need to be selling to and for us we’re looking at seed stage we’re looking at valuations of about four to five million dollars pre-money or about a five and a half, six million dollar valuation after is around this point and that allows us to buy about a little over five percent interest in the company and so we’re writing initial checks of about three hundred and fifty thousand dollars on average, which means we’re looking for other strong co investors in that round. We want other people with deep pockets with sector expertise that are also going to come in have skin in the and help us grow that company. I would say the other things we’re looking for, we’re looking for a short time to monetization so anything that we think is going to have a long regulatory cycle, anything beyond that be a class one we won’t even look at. There’s a lot of the clean tech here that becomes problematic for us because it’s the time horizon is too long it’s too capital intensive so we’re looking for companies that can monetize in the next you know two years minimum.
Buck: Yeah got it got it. And I presume and of course those monetization I mean that money is all going back in the business just to be clear, it’s not distributed or anything. So basically from from the standpoint, these investments are relatively small right three hundred three hundred fifty thousand like you’re saying. So for a venture fund is there a lot of variability in terms of minimum investment for the actual investors in the fund, I mean is it you know usually, you don’t have to talk about your fund I know, but in general do you have to you know is there these kinds of things sort of all over the place?
Vanessa: They are and I would say increasingly so and for the better. Typically in a firm this may be a twenty five million dollars fund I think traditionally they’re going to have a minimum that’s a 250,000 or a 500,000 but payable over you know a few years of the investment period and you know one interesting trend we’ve been seeing in the past few years a sort of the better access to startup investment through crowdfunding platforms. There’s you know a large one in Israel called Our Crowd that I think is invested over you know maybe 300 million dollars in the last few years in Starbucks. The one challenge you know it’s a real balance with sort of the making venture capital which you know in my mind is a terrible industry it’s you know been opaque, it’s you know people are running off the ball stairs and crazy fees, you know there’s a lot of mismatched incentives between investors and the fund managers, so I’m not at all a fan of of the industry as it is, but on the flip side you know bringing the model to a more retail level I think can also be scary because investors are missing that diversification. I see investors you know coming here and you know putting money in one startup that they find that the guy seems nice and statistically speaking you’re better off going to Vegas and you know putting your guns on red pen. So that’s one piece. The diversification piece is another that’s really challenging, you know like we were talking about before even the best angel investors the best don’t know for a while which of the 10 is going to be the home run and which is going to be you know one of the hardest and so that’s another piece of it. And the third thing I’d say is that you know whether it’s an equity crowdfunding platform or even like a local angel group, it’s really hard to get the best a little access, so again this is a this is a game of home runs you need to have access to the absolute best entrepreneurs and deals you can find and you know nine times out of ten the best deals, different VC fund severity you know are fighting for allocation and those deals before any crowdfunding platform or any angel group whatever see them.
Buck: So that’s probably one of the reasons being in Tel Aviv is also advantageous as well right I mean I would imagine it’s probably a little bit less competitive compared to the Silicon Valley venture targets.
Vanessa: Yeah absolutely and that’s why we’re really strict about staying in seed stage because at that phase when an entrepreneur is raising about a million a million and a half dollars they’re shopping locally for investors. They’re not taking the time to go abroad. Once they get to their series A when they’re looking for three to five million you know they’re going to New York they’re going to Silicon Valley and suddenly the valuation is the same as it is in Silicon Valley, New York you know so my colleague Ryan Weinberg and I were joking about one startup that we saw that we thought was really interesting and had a four million pre-money valuation, they were invited to participate in Y Combinator in the valley and two months later after they finished the program the four million pre-money valuation was now nine million pre-money.
Buck: If you’re in that as an investor at that point it really doesn’t really make any difference to you until there’s some sort of liquidity event right? I mean that’s not that that’s great to know right, I mean just increased your net worth, but is there any you know what happens at the investor level when that happens?
Vanessa: So that was one trend since we didn’t invest in because we anticipated before they closed the round the valuation was going to get a little ridiculous and so you know you’re absolutely right. Being here locally we get to take advantage of the better valuation before people go shop them abroad but they’re you know if you are in a deal you know where you come in at a reasonable valuation and other investors come in at what you think is a little bit crazy valuation and it’s time you know, on paper you know we have to remember all these values on paper until you actually get your money back which doesn’t have a central acquisition or exit and you know on paper you you double your money and however it can make it difficult for the company to raise additional capital you know at that valuation.
Buck: Right got it. Well you know I want to give you a chance just to mention anything else that I haven’t asked because this is clearly not my area but I mean if you’re somebody who’s interviewing you, is there something or anything I’ve missed that you think is useful to know about the space about impact investing or just you know just in general about Zora?
Vanessa: Sure I mean I think it’s important in this space if people are looking to get involved in venture, I would spend a lot of time doing diligence on different fund managers and checking them out, you know we talked about you know VC returns historically are nothing to get excited about. I think on average VC returns as bad anywhere from sort of you know 13 to 15% which when you are counting in the liquidity you know and the risk profile over what a market benchmark is not so exciting when you’re looking at it used to be real estate is not so exciting. You know smaller fronts is not a bit of advantage. They’re typically at 15 to 18 percent kind of IRR return. But the real sort of secret in this industry is a big huge gap between the good fund managers and the bad fund managers. So the top quartile of fund managers have traditionally delivered you know load 20 IRRs know 20 to 26 IRR numbers where it’s the lowest quartile fund managers have been about 5 to 8 percent, which 5 to 8 percent to have your money locked up for 10 years it’s you know enough to make your stomach turn. So I think a huge piece of this is picking the right front manager and doing the homework on that and that’s really a question of who’s gonna have the best deal offset. For me I really favor and admire homes that are run by entrepreneurs. They’ve been there, they understand what it looks like, they know how to add value in an operational sense, you know they need to have an ability to execute on a relatively short timeline, and they need to have skin in the game. You know I see some fund managers who have none of their own capital sort of invested in this and they’re happy making money off the management fees whether those investments succeed or fail, and that’s obviously a no-go.
Buck: Well this has been very very helpful and educational. How can how can we learn more about what Zora does and you know website or any other kind of information we can potentially get?
Vanessa: Sure so we put together a special page for Wealth Formula listeners. One of the Wealth Formula members, Jonah Mink is an investor of a few years and a good friend. Thanks to him, made the introduction, so glad to be with you today. And so if you go to our website and http://www.zora.vc/wealthformula, there’s a special page and we’ll be having some more informational materials for Wealth Formula members.
Buck: We’ll also put that in the show notes. Vanessa thanks so much for being on Wealth Formula Podcast today.
Vanessa: Thank you, Buck. It’s great to be with you.
Buck: We’ll be right back.