Investing

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 

Momentum vs Conviction

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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. 

Hardware as a Moat

Photo credit: Peloton

When investors look at companies, one of the things we try to understand is whether the company can build a moat. In tech, a moat is a conscious business design choice that allows a company to develop and maintain a sustained competitive advantage over other players in the space.

Economies of scale and network effects are two of the best-known moats. But there are others—like deep tech, etc. Today, I want to propose a new moat: hardware. I’m talking about products like Peloton, where the hardware is central to having the full experience.

In the wellness space, software solves real problems, and the app ecosystem in these spaces is thriving. These apps help with things like meditation, period tracking, sleep tracking, and exercise of all kinds. But in a crowded market like that, investors ask, “How does a company win?”

Now, when you have “just” apps in these spaces, with no connected hardware, they are fungible. To move from one app to another, you just… click. If you have paid an annual subscription, you might wait until it expires, or you might just eat the cost and try a new app regardless. With these apps, there may be UI differences or instructor differences, but the experience is largely similar. The customer choice is being made based off of relatively small differences.

As my colleagues and I have written, in a software-only space where differences are minimal, a product-led community can be a great moat. Another moat could be sales to enterprises, where a company buys the app/service as a benefit for employees. If you lock up as many companies as possible, very quickly, the employees of those companies become your customers. But this kind of lockup, while valuable, may not be driven by passion or love for the product.

So, a moat that could be longer lasting is hardware. Yes, hardware often scares VCs, because it can be complicated. You need to create processes around mailing things out, dealing with returns, production challenges, and more. There seems to be an endless list of issues.

However, hardware has changed over the past few years, becoming easier to manage than it was 10 years ago. A whole ecosystem of companies has emerged to support hardware companies with many of the logistical issues. And engineers, product people, designers, and marketers who have built and shipped multiple versions of good consumer hardware are available in the market.

In a crowded software market, hardware can be your moat.

The most successful of these companies is Peloton. If you buy a bike (or presumably a Tread), to just get your hardware to turn on, you have to pay Peloton $39 a month for a subscription. And while your parents’ generation ended up using exercise equipment mainly as a clothes horse, these new devices are a joy. They are well-designed, they are connected, they often have community elements, and they have a rich user experience that’s compelling and powerful. So, sure, much like your parents, you could turn your Peloton into a dumping ground for your shorts and t-shirts, but once you’ve bought a device that costs several thousand dollars, the additional monthly pinch of $39 is likely making sure that you are using the device. Their numbers back this up: their S1 claims 95% 12-month retention for those who buy their hardware. Even if it is a bit lower, like some analysts debate, it’s still incredibly strong. Also, just yesterday, agreeing with this point of view, Lululemon bought Mirror, a connected hardware exercise mirror, for $500M.

Photo Credit: Core

It is even better when the hardware gives you unique data. For example, our portfolio company Core provides your Heart Rate, your HRV, your minutes of calm, and your minutes of focus for each session. Because you are holding a device that vibrates to give you a point of focus, and that same device gives you all this data, once you’ve bought a Core, you’re unlikely to want to use anything else to meditate. Same goes for Peloton.

In addition, unlike another apps on your phone, which are all behind the black glass screen, hardware is visible. You can see your Peloton bike in your house, your Core trainer on your desk or bedside table. And by being visible, and by being well-designed, they beckon to you to use them and experience the tactile, live user experience with them. They exist in the real world.

These are still the early days of connected hardware, but between the physical presence, the cost paid to acquire the device (which could be a proxy of customer commitment), the tactile experience, and the data generated, these devices can serve as a moat in crowded software markets. Over the next few years, companies will evolve their model and create fantastic new experiences for consumers. Both as a user and as an investor, I am excited to see where this world goes, and I’m excited to use these beautifully designed products and apps to achieve my goals.

Ignore The Gatekeepers

Photo by Zachary Lisko on Unsplash

Last week, I saw the awesome news that my NYU Grad Film classmates Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers are making their next feature. I love their story because it’s so different from what people may consider the “traditional” path in film.

It was the summer of 2012, and most of the class was on draft 63 of their soon-to-be perfect first feature script. But before that, we each planned to submit draft 79 to all the prestigious film labs. There, we would get input from auteurs we admired. Then, we’d make the perfect film, it would open to acclaim at the perfect festival, and get acquired and released nationwide. That was the plan.

That same summer, Charles and Sarah-Violet (SV) had a very different plan. Instead of perfection, they decided to create immediately. They cranked out a feature script. They each borrowed $40K through student loans. Knowing they were on a tight budget, they wrote about a world they knew (deep Brooklyn), with only a small handful of locations (all in NY), and very few characters. They didn’t submit the script to any labs. They didn’t apply for any grants. They did not wait.

They planned the shoot. They cast fantastic actors, some of whom they’d known for years. One of our classmates was the cinematographer.

They shot their feature. They edited their feature.

They did it all on a total of $110K. Tiny, even by indie standards.

One year later, they submitted it to festivals. The movie, Fort Tilden, premiered at SXSW. It won SXSW. And that set SV and Charles on a different trajectory. They were writers on the Netflix show Wet Hot American Summer and now have their own, very successful show on TBS, Search Party.

I share this story to share the power of ignoring gatekeepers. There are a few big steps in making a feature film: write a script, prep and plan the shoot, shoot, edit, release. Every step depends on funding. You could wait for funding at each stage—basically asking for permission from someone else to make your film. Or, you can do what SV and Charles did — make the best movie within the constraint they faced and the funds they were able to access. No waiting, no permission needed.

Don’t get me wrong: this is definitely not an easy or guaranteed path. I spoke with SV recently about her story, and she said, “(Taking out those loans) was still a huge insane risk I wouldn’t exactly recommend for everyone. But it felt right. So I’m always very careful to say, ‘Look, this is how we did it, and it worked out for us. I have some success but I also still have student debt.’ That said, I do NOT regret it. Not everyone would be comfortable with the position I put myself in, but it was right for me. I had a lot of clarity in the process and risking the money didn’t scare me. Waiting years and years to find funding or someone to approve of my voice was a much scarier fate.”

If you follow the SV & Charles model, you will have a real, live product. A product which people can see and enjoy. A product that people can evaluate and say “hey, they won SXSW on a tiny budget.”

Given the choice between being constrained, but still making something, versus waiting for the “ideal” situation, what would you pick? While most of the class was dreaming of the perfect first feature, SV and Charles made their first feature. That was enough to launch them into a world that is very hard to break into.

Breaking into tech is easier because angels and early funders (the gatekeepers) are willing to fund first-time founders. But it’s not always easy to raise your angel or pre-seed round.

Look at the funds and skills that you have. Decide how much risk you want to take — each person has their own comfort level and you should be the one that decides what is best for you. And then, design and build something using your skills and your budget. If you build something people love, you will have a little success. And that little success can propel you onto your next opportunity. And then onto the next opportunity. And each project or startup could get better. The gatekeepers will then come to you (and I say that as a venture investor).

In my film school class, every single person had ambition, most had a great idea. But SV and Charles just did it. And they went from strength to strength. You can, too.

Consumer + Enterprise + Mission

Photo by Devin Avery on Unsplash

My friend Nikhil recently made a great point about how more startups are serving both consumers and enterprises. “The technology world used to clearly segment businesses by consumer or enterprise,” he wrote. “But those lines have been blurring for quite some time. The most interesting companies don’t fit into either bucket.” He cites Zoom, Amazon, PayPal, Notion, and many others as examples of this trend.

I saw this firsthand at eBay. It started as a consumer company, but very soon, two things happened:
1. Sellers on the marketplace realized eBay could morph from a fun side hustle into a profitable main business. Some of these sellers grew into SMBs. The world is full of enterprising people. And when your product encourages them, they will find new and interesting ways to stretch and use it.
2. Businesses realized there were a lot of buyers on eBay. It became an attractive additional storefront for them to sell their wares.

By the time I got there, eBay was already both a consumer (p2p) and a business company (b2c and early signs of b2b).

So, I agree with Nikhil 100% that the next big thing will be both consumer and enterprise. However, I believe there is an even more important lens to evaluate companies: mission.

I think of a company’s mission or purpose as its raison d’etre.

  • Why does the company exist?
  • At scale, what problem does the company solve?
  • If the company solves the problem, does it make our world significantly better?

If your company can answer that final question with a resounding “yes,” you are at a big advantage.

One advantage is that you can hire talent at reasonable rates, because people buy into the mission. Gen Z is the first generation to prioritize purpose over money. If they authentically believe in what they are working towards, their commitment level is incredibly high.

Another advantage of being mission-driven is resilience. All startups hit speed bumps, but with a strong mission and a team of believers, these become easier to weather. The purpose will help guide your team through the hard times.

Finally, customers value mission, too. Millennials and Gen Z care deeply about which brands they patronize. When they see a mission-driven company that aligns with their values, it is much more likely they will form a strong affinity for the brand.

At eBay, employees thought about the mission every day. Last week, I was catching up with a former eBay colleague, and he expressed the desire to be driven by mission again: “I mean, we weren’t working for just any company.” When you’re helping expand access to economic opportunity, and you’re doing that with a great team, it’s a powerful thing (and it’s a ton of fun).

Core, one of our portfolio companies, exemplifies this idea of consumer + enterprise + mission. It’s a mental performance company that encourages meditation. Consumers are adopting it, and companies are buying Core to help their employees find a sense of calm and focus. Their mission, to cement mental performance as a pillar of well-being, gives them an important advantage.

Historically, mission (or purpose) has been sneered at. Investors believed the lack of singular focus on money led to sub-commercial returns and failed startups.

Not us. At Spero, we believe that when you combine a great business model (an absolute must) with a great mission, magic happens. Purpose is not just icing on the cake. When a company, by executing on its core business, makes the world better, that’s a huge win. eBay, Tesla, and WhatsApp are all examples.

Mission/purpose is your secret sauce. It’s your superpower. That’s why I believe the best companies of our generation will be purpose-driven.

Re: Money On The Screen

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com 

What I love most about the newsletter format is that it encourages discussion. In response to my last post, Put The Money On The Screen, a founder emailed me with some points that I want to share and discuss.

The founder rightly pointed out that there’s nuance to the idea of putting the money on the screen. Spending and cost-cutting decisions depend on the stage of the company and the unique circumstances.

Here’s part of what the founder wrote:

The problem with cutting off-screen costs is that the results over time mainly go to investors (because the great majority of the company over time is investor owned), and proportionally less to employees and common shareholders, which are asked to bring the sacrifice. Just be mindful of what asking people to sacrifice means.

This founder was speaking from a personal experience: being asked to take a ridiculously small salary after raising a significant Series A from a top-tier firm. The founder went into debt as a result of this, and it took a long time to recover.

While I haven’t heard both sides of the story, I do think putting a founder in that situation is harsh. VC firms should make sure founders and CEOs aren’t under undue financial stress—it’s in everyone’s self-interest for the CEO to be able to focus on building the company. Additionally, some expenses that might strike VCs as superfluous may be legitimately necessary for team morale or culture. Those are best judged by the company’s leadership.

All of this depends on the stage of the company. At the later stages, the tradeoffs will change. But regardless of stage, employees bear the brunt of putting the money on the screen during tough times. I’ve seen this happen in film, where the writer/director bears the highest cost in “making it happen,” and first-time founders are often in the same situation.

While that’s the nature of the beast, it’s something worth pausing on. It is not always the right decision to cut some “off-screen” costs. The best decisions may emerge when investors and CEOs have honest conversations that recognize the impact and consequences of these decisions.

Being Wrong

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At some point in 2002, while I was still relatively new to eBay, I found myself sitting in a room with the exec staff discussing something strategic. Many of the details of the meeting are now blurry, but one little event is still crystal clear in my mind. People were talking, discussing options with opinions flying around, and I said something. I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember the reaction to it. 

One of the senior leaders—a lovely, but brutally honest and blunt man—said, “That is the dumbest thing I have ever heard.”

There was a pause in the conversation. My heart stopped. And then the conversation continued, while I sat there, stunned. 

I felt in my bones that I must speak again, in this meeting, to get over that comment, to move on and retain the confidence that I can contribute.  I practically forced myself to speak again. Sort of like falling off a horse and getting back on. 

I can guarantee you that the only person who remembers that moment now, 18 years later, is me. It’s actually a moment I’ve thought about several times as one of the key learning moments in my life. 

The reality is that we will all be wrong sometimes, or at the very least, perceived to be wrong. It’s the price of speaking, the price of thinking, the price of writing. So what should we do? Never speak, think, or write unless we are certain we are right? That would erase your voice from the conversation. 

I wrote a post last week about Quibi, and I purposely made a bold statement about how innovative this new film platform is. The innovation is not just the short-form content (or chapters) that Quibi uses; it is creating an interaction between the form factor of the screen (the phone) with the content for the first time in cinema. 

Many (most?) people disagree. Some even wrote to me privately to tell me why I was wrong. I love the engagement. 

Am I sure that Quibi will succeed? Absolutely not. But I am glad they are trying something fresh, new, and innovative, and I certainly hope they will succeed because I love the bold approach. I’ve been watching chapters for the past two nights and it’s a slick user experience. 

As investors, we need to be both right and contrarian to make a return for our LPs. We will often be wrong, too, because the path to success for any company is filled with so many near-death experiences along a very winding road. But we can’t be afraid to make an investment.

Similarly, we can’t be afraid to talk or write. I will be right sometimes. I will be wrong sometimes. What matters to me is the thinking and the engagement. And I prefer to have a hopeful and optimistic view of the world, where I am rooting for success rather than failure. 

Speak up. Claim your seat at the table. So what if you are wrong sometimes? We are all wrong sometimes. Shake it off and move on. I promise you that you are the only one who will remember that moment (even days later). Ultimately, your voice matters. Don’t erase yourself.