Archive: 2020

Misinterpreting “Mission”

Photo by Shaah Shahidh on Unsplash

At Spero Ventures, we’re a single bottom line venture fund: we measure ourselves by our return to our LP.

At the same time, our investment thesis is that we invest in the things that make life worth living: well-being, work and purpose, and human connection. That means we invest in mission-driven founders.

The idea that mission and profit can be tightly bound together is unfamiliar to some people. They ask one of two questions:

  1. How can you be a single bottom line investor and say you invest in mission-driven companies? You have to measure the “impact” the company is having with different impact metrics.
  2. Oh, so you invest in mission-driven founders—that means you’re okay with sub-commercial returns, right?

AAAARGH!!

The company, by performing its core function, should take you towards your mission. And if you have a mission, we believe you will be substantially more successful than if you were not mission-driven.

The words “core function” are doing a lot of work here.

eBay’s core function is to connect buyers and sellers to execute a transaction. By performing their core function, they are fulfilling their mission of enabling economic opportunity around the world. Every transaction on eBay contributes to the mission of giving buyers and sellers agency to live the lives they want.

Tesla’s core function is to manufacture and sell electric vehicles. By performing their core function, they are fulfilling their mission of accelerating the world’s transition to sustainable energy. Every car they manufacture and sell is making the world better by being one more car that uses clean power.

WhatsApp — does this seem like an odd one? It’s not. By performing their core function, they are fulfilling their mission of letting people communicate anywhere in the world, without barriers. Every text, video, and phone call on WhatsApp, whether across ten thousand miles or ten miles, is democratizing access to human connection by making it free.

In contrast, a company like Toms Shoes might be making an impact, but their core function is to sell shoes. The fact that they happen to give to charity is a nice-to-have — it’s not part of their business model; it’s a marketing tactic. They are not a mission-driven company even if they use marketing language about “improving lives.”

Mission is not off to the side. It’s the very heart and soul of the company. It’s the product, it’s the marketing, it’s the company.

And because mission is core, the bottom line is the only thing you need to measure. Tesla doesn’t measure impact separately from its bottom line, because having more Teslas on the road is the impact. At a mission-driven company, when people buy and use your product, your bottom line is going to grow, and there’s a direct connection from mission to the bottom line.

At a true mission-driven company, the business model itself makes life worth living. And we believe those companies have the highest chance of success.

Here are three companies from our portfolio that exemplify this:

Skillshare’s core function is to allow teachers and learners to connect around their creative passions. By performing their core function, they fulfill their mission of inspiring and multiplying creative exploration that furthers expression, learning, and application.

Gencove’s core function is to extract valuable genetic information through low-pass sequencing. By performing their core function, they fulfill their mission of making whole genome sequencing a bedrock of decision making by making it accessible and accurate.

Core’s core function is to get people to stick with consistent meditation and mental health practices. By performing their core function, they fulfill their mission of cementing mental well-being as a pillar of our lives.

Mission can be very beneficial to your company:

  • Your mission is your north star for decision making. Any time there’s a big strategic question, asking yourself whether it takes you towards or away from your mission can help you answer it.
  • It attracts people who believe in the mission: whether it’s co-founders or employees, these are people who are also driven by wanting to see the world be different and to have a direct hand in making this company come to life. It has some side benefits where you don’t have to pay them big company salaries in order to attract them because they are passionate about what they are building and will be more than a cog in the wheel of a large enterprise.
  • Every startup is a rollercoaster. Regardless of how much we want to believe it’s all up and to the right, there will be moments of intense stress and existential angst. When everything is going to shit, you can hold on to your mission and know why you are doing this and use this to motivate yourself and everyone at the company.
  • Customers have started to care about which companies they patronize. If you think about your customers as co-creating the company with you, they will become part of your “cult”.
  • Board of directors: If you’ve had a choice on who funds you and who joins your board, then you could pick investors and directors who are aligned with your vision of where you want to go and what you want the company to become. A clear mission gives you a stronger way to unify them. This is important since they can have a big influence on the strategic choices you make.

At the same time, it’s important to know the place and role of mission in the company.

A great mission without a great business model means very little. Do you have an exceptional business model? At the end of the day, this is the most important aspect of any company. If your business model doesn’t work, the company is going to fail.

This means you shouldn’t put mission ahead of money. They walk hand in hand: If you don’t have a good business model and cannot generate money to survive, you will go out of business. If you go out of business, you won’t accomplish your mission. Game over.

I’ve seen some mission-driven founders treat making money like it’s a bad thing, or making the mission primary and delaying coming up with a revenue-generating model that is sustainable. Mission and business model have to be developed in concert. Fulfilling your core function should generate revenue and move you towards your mission.

In pursuit of that successful business model, you may need to redefine your mission—or achieve it in a creative way. “Purity” of the mission is a false god. You can keep your priorities intact while changing what you do about those priorities. Much like how a film is rewritten when it’s edited, the details of your mission will morph as you find the best way forward.

So ask yourself: Do I care enough about this mission to work hard for the next 10 years? Missions are motivating. Companies are slogs. There is no company that just grows “up and to the right.” Most are nauseating rollercoasters where the highs hopefully compensate for the lows.

But, if you have a mission, with a fantastic business model, where the core function of the company is going to make life worth living, then that is a jewel.

Founder-Market Fit Matters More Than Ever

Photo by Tekton on Unsplash

These days, practically anyone can start practically anything. If you have a sliver of pedigree1, like experience at a reputed company, it becomes even easier.

But as tech permeates everything, people are starting companies in industries they don’t know. In other words, they’re founding companies as outsiders, without strong founder-market fit.

And that’s fine. A fresh perspective is often a huge help. But many industries are complex. The incentive structures, local laws, and nuances about who wins and loses are not obvious from the outside, or even after several conversations with those in the industry. Today, there are over 1,000 seed funds—capital is flowing freely. You will get funded, but that doesn’t mean you’ll find product-market fit, and then get to scale. At any given time, there may be 5-10 companies tackling a similar problem. This is where a founder’s knowledge or experience in the industry is a real advantage.

As my colleague Jonathan Kroll put it:

“The bar has never been lower to build a product. 10 years ago, you’d need millions in investment to have some sort of rudimentary machine learning or computer vision capability. Now, this is all off-the-shelf.

This is amazing! Right?! Well yes, it is—but as a result, building a cheap product with amazing functionality is at everyone’s fingertips. So while amazing products with amazing features could have been the major source of differentiation in the past, today, that’s just not enough.”

Founder-market fit is an advantage because:

  • These founders get to asking the right questions quickly.
  • If they don’t know the answer, they know who to call in the industry to get the answer.
  • “Founders who know exactly what their market needs,” in terms of leverage to move the needle, “might meet those needs faster and in a more capital-efficient manner, therefore extending runway and giving themselves more time to experiment,” said my colleague Sara Eshelman.
  • They understand the incentive structures, and so know how to position their company in the most appropriate (read: unthreatening and helpful) manner to the relevant constituents.
  • They know local laws and where they can push and where they can’t.

Founder-market fit is not developed only by having worked in the industry. You can also be obsessed with a problem in that industry and immerse yourself in it before you find a solution that works.

One example of this is Filip Victor. Filip is the founder of our portfolio company Mati, which is focused on identity verification. He came to the US as a student and faced the challenges of an immigrant: not being able to get credit and not being able to verify his identity with many of the commercial entities that you need to live a life with agency. This led him to spend time learning about the space to try and solve the identity verification problem for people in the developing world.

Another example is David Zamir at Nana. During a tough moment in his life, he taught himself to repair appliances, going out to customers’ homes to fix their washing machines in order to have an income. This led him to create an appliance repair marketplace that trains technicians and enables them to craft their own livelihoods.

Founder-market fit is real when a founder knows enough of the market to see a real opportunity, while knowing how hard it’s going to be. At the same time, founders need to have a bit of rebellion, a bit of chuztpah, a bit of “fuck it, this may really work,” a bit of willingness to upset former colleagues, boldness, and the ability to envision how things could be. That’s when they can take the leap and build a company that could be amazing.


  1. This is a problem and it is exclusionary, but it is also how the world currently works 

Brave Space

The poem, An Invitation to Brave Space, was shared during Back To School night last week, and everything about it resonated with me.

I’ll call out the three sentences that spoke the most to me and why.

Together we will create brave space

By the very fact that we live, we collect baggage. Proof of life is found in your scars. Never all good, never all bad, but sure to happen. Physical, mental, emotional. And instead of shielding ourselves from the things that make us who we are, we show up with them, bravely.

We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow

Authentically looking at yourself, figuring out where you are on all spheres, accepting it and determining where you need to grow is the most important thing anyone can do.

To do it well, we have to recognize that none of us know everything. And to learn and grow, we have to be willing to learn from those whose voices we don’t hear all the time.

I wrote a short tweetstorm about how creators need to turn down the volume of the outside world. It’s important to be able to hear your own voice to figure out who you really are.

We will work on it side by side

Nothing is ever perfect. What matters is the willingness to commit to your teammates and colleagues, to commit to moving things forward. To work towards a more accepting, demanding, understanding, exceptional, constantly improving space. Together.

The questions that matter

Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

In my experience, the best leaders ask the questions that matter. And the questions that matter are the key to driving the organization forward.

As the founder or leader, you’re in a unique position with a wider, more all-encompassing perspective. You can see the vision of where you need to be in 3 years and in 5 years, the reality of your bank balance and fundraising, and the sense of the morale of the organization. You’re the only one with all this information floating in front of you as you chart a path forward.

What do you do with that?

The best leaders use their unique position not only to make objective observations on the state of the business, but to determine the right questions to ask the team. They use these questions to guide the organization towards the most important goals.

Imagine a product team that has spent the last few weeks designing a feature. They’re excited to present it to you. It’s a great feature — but based on where things stand, it’s not the highest priority. While you know that, you have to communicate it in a way that’s productive.

This is where you ask the questions that matter. By asking the right questions, you won’t just tell people what you see; you’ll help them see it, too. You’ll keep them on track while keeping them motivated.

A few of the questions that matter, in this example:

  • Is this the most important feature we need in our product to achieve our goals for the next 6 months?
  • And if not, why were we spending time on it?
  • Where was the gap in the communication that let these resources get get spent on this?
  • Is there a faster way to get this live (that may involve manual intervention) in order to get it out there?
  • Is there a more cost-efficient/scalable/robust solution?

Instead of command and control, questions help the team think for themselves. It’s the Socratic method for effective orgs. The caveat is that in an emergency or a time crunch, being directive is fine. It may be needed. But organizations that always rely on one person to make decisions end up paralyzed and ineffective.

I once worked with a senior leader who did exactly this. If someone came to her saying a deadline “could not” be met, she’d find the right people and ask the questions that mattered. By doing that, she’d help people figure out how to circumvent the bottleneck. She ensured that the things that moved the company forward, moved forward. It was amazing to see how “impossible” things, once she’d pinpointed the right questions, got done.

The same is true for investors. I find the best investors ask founders questions that make them think about the world differently, change the lens, expand the set of options in front of them with an interesting re-frame.

Asking the right questions indicates a level of thought, knowledge, and facility with the world you are dealing with. A leader asking the right questions can help an organization come up with creative solutions, hit their goals, expand their view of the world, grow to become more self-sufficient, and by doing so, move the organization toward that long-term vision.

Your Startup is an Improv Class

The Office Michael GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
From Giphy

These are some guidelines for an improv class.

  • Improv is a trial by fire.
  • Don’t deny the reality in front of you; react to the world as it is.
  • Ditch your inhibitions.
  • If you have a good idea, run with it. If you don’t, it could falter. Commitment matters more than the idea.
  • Take the initiative to develop your character; otherwise, someone else will.
  • Adapt your character as the improv session evolves. Don’t worry about what it looked like 5 minutes ago—that scene is already over. You have to react in the present.
  • Improv is about everyone contributing little actions and lines that make the scene killer. It’s not about who said the smartest line; it’s about the whole.
  • Figure out how to make others look good. Letting others shine gives them an incentive to let you shine.
  • Be in the moment. Don’t focus on who’s watching, on looking dumb, or on being wrong. Instead, focus on what you’re doing.
  • You have to take (a little) time to think—but then, be willing to own the spotlight.
  • If your performance is inspirational, the others will want to step up.
  • Improv teaches you that you control very little, except your performance and how you react. The rest depends on other actors, the audience, and a bit of luck and timing.
  • A situation may look bad or good, but every situation is an opportunity.

This is also startups.

Your startup is an improv class.

Zoommovies, Panpics, and Startupping

Mythic Quest’s Quarantine Episode

Human beings are amazing. A mere two weeks after the lockdown started, most people had adapted to a remote world. Kids were learning soccer on Zoom, personal trainers adapted, cooking and baking classes moved to zoom—but I really did not expect theater and filmmaking to adapt in this world.

But, adapt they did. Zoomtheater and Zoommovies are a thing now, 4 months into the pandemic—for example, Host is a horror movie, made on Zoom.

Are these pieces any good? Well, it depends — film, which is asynchronous (i.e. shot and edited before the viewer sees it), can be just as good. For theater, which is delivered in real time, the remote version is not as good as when the cast and crew are in the same location. But the ability to adapt, the ability to even try this, makes me optimistic.

An image from Mythic Quest’s Quarantine episode

For a polished spin on quarantine filming, look at Mythic Quest, which is on Apple TV. They were filming the second season when the pandemic shut things down. This article outlines what the crew and cast did to shoot a “pandemic” episode that is part of Season 1. They used iPhones with prosumer film software, mics, and shot in all natural light, since lighting is one of the harder parts of filmmaking. They then edited it together to make it look like it was shot on Zoom.

On the other hand, some of Princess Bride’s celebrity cast decided to make a fan fiction, and it’s very clear that it’s shot by non-professionals, embracing the reality of shooting in different locations, with no crew.

In a scene with Diego Luna and Jack Black, they create continuity from two different locations in amazing ways: Diego throws down a green rope tried to a tree in his house and Jack, who is lying on a set of stairs in his house, grabs a hose that is thrown down to him. Diego lifts, Jack clambers, until finally, Jack is back at the top of the mountain (stairs). It’s really well done!

Images from Home Movie: Princess Bride. Image courtesy: Quibi

This would never have been considered acceptable pre-pandemic, but with a new set of rules for the world, there’s a new set of expectations. All film-watching requires the “willing suspension of disbelief,” and for these pandemic-pictures (panpics?), the suspension of disbelief has to be extended. But they are so entertaining!

Theater, unlike film, is synchronous – everything is live. This makes it much harder to adapt to a remote environment. While in film, you can do an extreme close up to show the twitch of an eyebrow, theater acting is “bigger,” so that the person in the last row can have the same read of a scene as someone sitting in the front. So Zoomtheater and the innovations there are harder to adapt to the pandemic. But theater has adapted, too. And if the pandemic stretches out, theater will have to continue to adapt. Imagine if there was a plugin that:

  • allows a lighting tech to set the stage by adding a virtual background and virtual lighting to make people seem like they’re in the same room, with the mood lighting the director wants.
  • controls which person is “shown” to the audience during a live performance. That way, the tech can make sure the right face is shown at the right time.
  • enables a “prop” tech to develop a unique, dynamic set and background for each actor and upload it behind them as the stage changes
  • allows live mixing of the audio so that music can be woven in, like a play.

It’s entirely possible that this could happen. Because despite the insanity in the world around them, humans continue to create, continue to innovate, continue to live lives of hope and splendor. Constraints make them innovate in ways that they wouldn’t have thought to before.

The same is true for startups. Startups have to startup. And the first requirement of startupping is surviving. But the very best startups, like the best creators, use constraints to innovate and thrive, offering customers an unexpected, delightful solution that moves us all forward.

Being Messy

Photo by todd kent on Unsplash

Chanel Miller said her New Year’s resolution for 2020 was to fail as much as possible.

“Making things that are really crappy and undeveloped until maybe they can be good. I’m way too young to confine myself to one lane and lose the ability to openly experiment.”

This is exactly how a the first draft of a film script develops. Characters and ideas float around in your head, and one day, they’re done with the floating and demand to live on the page. The script gets written, and when you’re done… it’s shitty. It’s embarrassing, you don’t want to show it to anyone, and you wonder how on earth your magical characters and ideas amounted to this pile of doodoo on the page.

But, it’s really important to have this first draft. Because as Miller said, yes, it’s crappy and undeveloped, but you need the crappy and undeveloped to have hope for the good and the great.

Struggling, wrangling, failing, crying, working, pushing forward allows your characters and your story to breathe, thrive, and for the bones to slowly emerge from the pile. Experimenting openly, taking the story in unexpected directions, adding or removing key characters, and messing around with no pressure allows the sparks of creativity that makes the script sing.

Every creator needs that messy time.

The same is true for startup creators. Ideas for a product form in your head over time, sometimes over years. Then one day, you’re ready to put it on the “page” — to code something, to craft something. And it may be a sloppy, messy ball of hair, mud, and hope. Don’t clean it up, polish, and shine it in order to raise money too early.

Love your messy stage, because it is so important to relish that stage. You can only do it once for each startup, and it’s when experimentation, ideation, hanging out, and trying weird things is entirely possible. It’s where ugly is awesome.

At some point, a screenwriter will have to share the script with producers. At some point, you have to share your startup with users and, if you want, with investors. If things go well, they love it, and you build an amazing company. Fantastic.

If you’ve grown your company into a wonderfully world-changing one, it’s worth finding ways to go back to being messy. Get into small groups. Make room for experimentation with ugly, creative things that may fail, because that can lead to new lines of growth. If you have the urge to start again, you could start another company and embrace the new ugly ball of mess. Whatever path you follow, the messy part of creation can be the the best part of creation, and the challenge of it makes your ideas and your company better.

Who are you?

Photo by Jyotirmoy Gupta on Unsplash

Every August, US filmmakers rush to make the Sundance Film Festival deadline. And in early December, Sundance announces its lineup. The day before, everyone is equal—all aspiring filmmakers. But the moment Sundance announces, the wheat is separated from the chaff. There are those who will have a film that “premiered at Sundance,” and… there are the other mere mortals. Both groups will now be treated differently as expectations start to diverge.

While companies are less of a lemming-like march to the cliff than film festival applicants, similar rules apply. After a company goes down in flames, or after you get fired, the same thing happens. The very next day, there’s a sense that you’re a different person.

In both cases, I see a similar pattern: people define themselves (and each other) in terms of their successes and failures. But both success and failure are transient and ephemeral. They can both be taken away, forgotten, or overcome. Successes and failures aren’t who you are.

Perhaps, instead of letting successes and failures define you, define yourself according to something no one can take away, something you cannot lose.

If you can lose your job, you are not your job or your job title. If you can lose company, you are not your company. If you always need permission to create or make a film, you are not a creator or filmmaker.

A couple of years ago, someone asked me if I would view myself as a failure if I failed at my job as a venture investor. My answer was yes. I explained that my job is a huge part of who I am, and if I fail at it, yes, I would be a failure.

Since that conversation, I’ve come to a more nuanced view of the world. I wouldn’t say to a founder, “If your company fails, you are a failure.” Quite the opposite. You are not your company, and regardless of whether you took it public or closed it down, you are separate from the entity that is your company.

So, if not by those ephemeral things, how can you define yourself?

  • Instead of defining yourself according to your job description, you can think about characteristics like persistence, compassion, and thoughtfulness.
  • Instead of defining yourself according to successes and failures, you can look at the chances you choose to take. There are second chances, there are third chances—but they only exist if you don’t give up on yourself, and if you actually take them.
  • Instead of defining yourself according to your ego, you can think of yourself as someone who’s always learning.
  • External validation is the bane of humanity. Fuck external validation.

Despite the transience, we let success and failure have such a huge impact on us. Depending on how we deal with it, they can change our life trajectories. But these things still aren’t who we are. Who you are is the amalgam of personal characteristics that make you up. It’s what you learn from success and failure. It’s how you deal with it, and what you go on to do with it. That’s what no one can take away from you, and that’s what makes you who you are.

Momentum vs Conviction

Photo by Brendan Church on Unsplash

Among the many reasons why it is challenging to be a founder, there is this quirk of the venture business — there are a lot of investors, and it is tough to figure out who is the right one.

One axis of the decision-making model is what I think of as Momentum vs. Conviction.

One way you can identify the momentum species is if they ask the magic question: “Who else is in the deal/round?”

Momentum investors are driven by the trend du jour. They often show up when:

  • The round is oversubscribed and the company operates in a “hot” space
  • Participating in the round will allow the investor to be part of an “in group” of “top tier” VCs
  • The investor missed the last hot company in this space and is prepared to do anything to get into the next one (this is one sad reason VC bubbles form)
  • There’s a great/famous VC leading the round
  • A great/famous VC led the last round

It seems obvious that this isn’t the kind of investor a founder wants. But in the moment, it is really difficult to say no to someone who is persistent, especially when you’ve been laboring away at your product on starvation wages for years. The attention can also be fun. For the moment, everything’s great, you’re hot, and dollars are flying at you. 

The question in your mind may be: So what? What if they’re in the company for the wrong reasons?

The answers unfortunately only emerge over time:

  1. In future rounds, they will be unable to come to a decision on whether or not to fund you based on how you’re actually doing. They seek external validation from the market and cannot think through the nuances to figure out where the market is going and how you can play a role in the market
  2. Their term sheets can often cause trouble. If the deal is hot, they may overprice it (and then later yank or revise it if the deal cools). High prices driven by the perception of being “hot” can often lead to downstream issues in future rounds (but that’s a whole different post).

Momentum isn’t the only way to make investing decisions. Someone could also invest in your startup based on the conviction that your company represents the best approach in a space they understand and care about. Here are some of the signals of conviction investing:

  • They want to learn about the company and the space
  • They admit when they are learning and how much time they need
  • Rounds can move fast, but these investors will want to do the work to get to comfort regarding the industry, the company, the founder, and all open issues
  • They almost never ask the dreaded question “who else is in the round”, because they’re basing their decision on their work.

It’s fantastic to be a hot company, but if the music stops, and if you cease being the next hot thing — you want a conviction investor at the table with you. 

On Picking Tough Challenges

Photo by Alex Azabache on Unsplash

No one would call Maynard Webb a pussycat. He joined eBay when the technical infrastructure was failing. He was critical to fixing it and making downtime a thing of the past. Anyone who has worked for him would say he was their toughest boss. He was full of pithy Maynardisms that all basically meant, “Stop whining and get back to work.” He was a force to be reckoned with.

Many years ago, in one of our ongoing mentoring sessions, Maynard said something like, “Whenever you’re faced with a career choice, pick the toughest challenge.”

He explained that if you choose an easy problem, you know you can fix it. But, many other people in the world can fix the same problem—there’s nothing unique about the accomplishment. If you choose a really tough problem, you may fail, but if you succeed, then you’ve done something pretty darn hard. That would be rare air.

This is one of those pieces of advice that sounds great. It’s aspirational; it’s the hero’s journey; it’s inspirational. From afar, it all looks and sounds glorious, but the daily reality can be painful. And the chance of failure is extremely high. You’ll work long, hard hours for years, put your lifeblood into something, and likely fail. Not easy.

Founders have self-selected into the toughest path in front of them. The alternatives abound. It would be so much easier to go work somewhere else—somewhere where you’re a member of a team, where many hands make light work, where a decision will not fundamentally affect the success or failure of the company, where the buck doesn’t stop with you.

But the small chance of success is alluring. What if you’re the one to pull it off? You crush that job, or you create that unique company. The highs of that are incredible.

And that is why we are all in tech.