Lisa Calhoun

Welcome to the Atlanta Startup Podcast. I’m Lisa Calhoun, founding General Partner at Valor Ventures. I am excited to have Anarghya Vardana, Partner at Maveron, with me to talk about her perspective on investing. I’m so glad you’re with the Atlanta Startup Podcast and our guest. 

Anarghya Vardana

Hi, thank you so much for having me. It’s a true pleasure to be on and I’m excited to chat with the Atlanta ecosystem. Always fun to chat with you, Lisa. Thank you for having me. 

Lisa Calhoun

Well, it’s been such a joy being in the Kauffman Fellows class with you. I didn’t even realize how connected you and Maveron are until you referred me to a deal in my backyard. You’re already in CapWay, tell me about what Maveron invests in and a little bit about companies like CapWay and just what your day-to-day is.

Anarghya Vardana

Yeah, absolutely. Maveron is over two decades old. The fund was founded by my partners, Dan Levitan and Howard Schultz, and really off of the premise that consumer businesses have the ability and opportunity to change the lives of people for the better. How we think is that there are a number of different consumer categories, right? How people live, how people eat, how people transport themselves, how people think about their finances, their health, their childcare, whatever it may be. But it’s really with the end consumer, the person, the individuals at the center. As we think through that, we are wondering, “Hey, what are the big consumer behavioral shifts? What is changing in the world, such that consumers have new needs, and have new ways of living their lives? And what are the billion-dollar businesses that will arrive to fulfill those needs and to satisfy the changes in the consumer’s lives?” As we think like that it affords us the opportunity to invest in a really broad set of companies and categories. We invest in FinTech, health tech, social apps, e-commerce, real estate tech, Edtech, it’s super, super broad, again, with the consumer at the center. The easy way to think about it, as I say we want regular people to say, “I love blank, I use blank.” And that could be an app, that could be a product that could be whatever. That’s been true from ever on for two decades plus some of our early investments or companies like eBay, drugstore.com, Groupon, some of the OG .com businesses, and recently, we’re in companies like Imperfect Foods, CoStar, Allbirds, Everlane, and a number of different companies. And for us, again, always the consumer at the center. In terms of what we invest in, our bread and butter are leading Series A round. Who knows exactly what a series A is nowadays because the rounds are competitive and bigger and all of that, but writing to date, $8 million checks to lead rounds. We also invest at the seed stage and do a handful of seed checks throughout the year as a way for us to build relationships with founders early, get in at the ground floor, and have the opportunity to mutually work together and see if there’s a fit to work together long term and be a part of that theory day. CapWay is one of those seed investments for us. We’ve been super impressed with Sheena and her ability to think through an industry that has existed for a very long time. The financial services industry, to this day, has a lot of challenges in it. The incumbents don’t necessarily garner the level of consumer love and loyalty that we think is possible. It feels like the space is wide, wide open for a great company to come in, build something that resonates with consumers that give them the products and services they want in a way that is relevant for them, all about the right way at the right time to the right person. We think Sheena’s completely capable, impressive, and having the right perspective and strategy to go after this space. We’re excited to back her in the seed and to continue to see her grow and thrive. 

Lisa Calhoun

Sheena’s an absolute tiger taking over FinTech. They don’t see her coming necessarily. But she sees the landscape. I love working with her. She’s built such a great young team around her. But what you were saying a little bit earlier about things that everyday people love, what an interesting thing to think about in a world that sort of makes sexy the blockchain and non-fungible tokens and things that are more on the edge, to actually get the chance to invest in things that everyday people love and need. That’s powerful. Has COVID changed some of the things you’re exploring it all or just revalidated some of the things you’re already looking at?

Anarghya Vardana

That’s a great question. Absolutely, it is certainly selfishly rewarding to be able to invest in things that impact regular people day-to-day and we actually say that we want our companies to impact these companies and these individuals positively. And so again, that’s really powerful to see that positive impact. When the companies do well and reach scale, hopefully, they’re able to impact hundreds, if not millions of people. In terms of COVID, we have certainly seen tons and tons of consumer shifts, as I’m sure you have as well. Now, we have been in shelter in place here in San Francisco for a little over a year, maybe a year and a day. It’s kind of wild to think about now in March of 2021. Looking back, I don’t think any one of us would have imagined a whole year in this sheltered environment and in constant stress of the disease and what it’s doing to the world and to our loved ones and to the economy and such. But that has completely altered how many people work, live, think about their health care, think about their childcare, their loved ones, and things like that. Through the work from home concept, we saw tons of acceleration in products and services that are in the home. I think even today if you buy a couch or a dining table, these things are backlogged pretty severely because everyone’s starting to spend more time at home and therefore more money at home. We’ve seen an increase in people wanting to make the home a sanctuary and that is everything from having more plants in the house, more candles, more decorative items, to quiet spaces and things that afford for that and that allow the house to be that peaceful sanctuary and that escape from the rest of the world. Similarly, I think in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, we saw an increase in people’s desire to cook at home, and then there was all the baking frenzy. And again, I think there were some grocery stores that were out of wheat flour and starter and I heard some friends were trying four or five different stores to get yeast because these trends when they catch on, they catch on really quickly. Unlike ever before, the trends are able to be proliferated rapidly on social media. someone bakes something, within minutes, if not seconds, there are TikTok challenges and Instagram challenges about this and suddenly everyone is jumping on it. And again, you’ll see tons of the shortages in the early parts of the pandemic, everything from in-home, sports and fitness equipment, I think Peloton also had a massive backlog, to cooking to home decoration. Then if we shift more towards some of the other true day-to-day needs, the first one that comes to mind for me as the parent of a young child is childcare. For parents who have children of school age, that’s education for the kids at home. That’s thinking through how you continue the child’s development, the child’s learning in this wild environment, and maybe even more important than you know them learning how to add and stuff. How do you continue their social-emotional development? I think that’s been top of mind for many of my friends who have children who are in elementary school, especially when that development is just happening so quickly. And again, we’ve seen a rise in education tech startups and companies that are going after the education fate subspace. And in fact, I think if you had asked a year before COVID, are investors excited about Edtech? Most investors would say a resounding no. There have been challenges in the past like, who pays, how to unlock dollars, you have to sell through school systems, and what are the associated challenges, but then COVID made a dramatic shift in that and in a much-needed shift in that there is high demand for companies like Coursera, Outschool, and all the other ones where students do need support at home. Finally, I think healthcare has made a massive shift that I think will last for a very long time, which is why we’ve seen that telemedicine codes open up in a way that they never did before. We have companies in our own portfolio like Thirty Madison and Tempest and Two Chairs that have benefited from this and we have companies where they are able to offer this amazing service, whether that is telemedicine consultations or community. One of our companies called AllStripes, where they’ve been able to really serve customers during this time of intense healthcare anxiety and need. We’re super proud of them for stepping up and we think that many of these regulatory and consumer mind shifts are here to stay. 

Lisa Calhoun

I totally agree. Before COVID, I remember that the concept is bringing your whole self to work was considered a bit edgy and it was. It was like, “Oh, well I don’t know, dare I show a tattoo?” My tattoo was above the sleeve. My tattoo’s above the sleeve and they don’t even know. People that I live with, I don’t share it, but I’d like to. There’s this incredibly difficult cell membrane between who I really am and who work believes I am and how do I get across that membrane and what’s appropriate to share that membrane. COVID just busted that membrane. Now we really tend to know each other’s pets and children. We’re lucky if they’re wearing pants. You dress on both sides, top and bottom for the meeting, great for you. It’s really forwarded a dialogue in society and it’s exciting to hear about how you’re investing in the frontiers of these very real trends. As I feel like our society is rediscovering who we are, suddenly, who we are together, we always were. But it wasn’t in common parlance. Now, thanks to the silver linings in the pandemic, we really need to address it. I’ve told people before, I was quoted recently in our local papers, saying, “I think it’s the best time in my lifetime to be a venture capitalist right now.” I’d love to pull back the window a little bit and make it even more personal. Speaking of that permeable lens, and please don’t share anything you’re not super comfortable with, but you’re a VC I really admire. I would love to share with our listeners, how you got into VC, how you saw yourself coming into this world? Why did you do it? How’s it been for you? 

Anarghya Vardana

Happy to share. The reason I love answering this question is that I think venture capital is a pretty opaque system and a pretty opaque industry is tough for founders to know exactly how it works. It is very tough for people to break into it. I think you and I, Lisa, have been lucky enough to get into venture capital. My hat’s off to you for raising your own fund, which we both know, is incredibly challenging, and super proud of you for doing that work and for building such a thriving ecosystem in Atlanta and in the southeast in general. Venture is a tough industry to get into. I had many things that were certainly going for me, and that put me in an advantaged position to get in, but also many things that made it challenging. When I graduated from undergrad, the first job I went to work was at Google. Google was an amazing place to learn and to grow and gave me a very good first step into the tech ecosystem in the tech industry. 

Lisa Calhoun

How did you get the opportunity at Google? Sorry to interrupt.

Anarghya Vardana

No problem. Well, I went to Stanford for my undergraduate degree and Google recruits pretty heavily from campus recruiting. 

Lisa Calhoun

Is there any interesting story about getting into Stanford? I mean, if there is, we need to know. 

Anarghya Vardana

Absolutely. All of the story. I grew up in Oregon. I grew up in a suburb of Portland called Beaverton. I moved to this country with my parents in the early 90s. An immigrant along with my parents grew up in Oregon and didn’t have a ton of exposure to the American college system to really understand the intricacies of applying to college and all the kinds of tricks and tips that I think people pick up over time, that was very foreign to me and my parents. I’m the oldest child. I was the first one to go through this journey. Just a heads up if you hear some squeaking in the back, that’s my daughter. Speaking of that permeable membrane, I had a daughter in April of last year in the heart of the pandemic. One of the silver linings has been having so much time with her and I’m still breastfeeding her so she does jump into my meetings, my podcasts, and things every now and then for her milk. So that’s the squeaking in the back. 

Lisa Calhoun

She sounds like a very content little girl. I love that sound. Let me tell you, I know Beaverton. My grandmother is from Beaverton. I visit her and it’s a great little town, a suburb. I would go there when I was in high school and in college as my grandmother’s getting older, so I know Beaverton surprisingly well. It’s definitely not a fast track to Stanford so I’m glad you told us your story there.

Anarghya Vardana

Lisa, thank you for asking me because I think that sometimes when you see where someone is, it’s easy to ignore where they came from, and just be like, “Oh my gosh, like she’s a General Partner at a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley, like, boom.” But my message is that it was an unknown process for me and my parents to go from growing up in rural South India, to come to the US, and navigating everything that it is to navigate as immigrants. My parents have some hilarious stories of just not knowing any better and thinking like pizza was super healthy food because it has vegetables, bread, and cheese. It feels like it has all the food groups and just learned these American cultural things over time. But now I had the amazing opportunity to come to California, come to the Bay Area, and attend Stanford University, and the incredible four years of my life allowed me to learn a ton from some great individuals. But I think even more importantly, build some amazing relationships with classmates, friends, and folks who are still very much in my life, including my husband. And then, Google comes recruiting on-campus. I went through the recruiting process and did an application. My best friend had interned at Google a few summers prior, and she was also able to put me in touch with a recruiter. And again, another pro tip there for anyone considering a job at these big tech companies. I mean, they get tons and tons of applications every day, if you can imagine, and certainly having my best friend make that connection directly to the recruiter and having an email thread going with the recruiter certainly helps. Adventure and packing, whatever it may be, I always recommend that warm intro and then trying to find a connection that allows you, maybe, a clear line of information and communication with someone who is channeling and championing your application. I worked at Google and I started in a very generic kind of business associate role. I didn’t really know what it was but I learned a ton because it was essentially a sales role doing ad sales around small, medium-sized businesses. Basically, supporting small and medium-sized businesses, spending on Google ads, and helping them think through their online advertising strategy. I learned the bread and butter of how Google makes money. I’m super grateful for that. It was my first time really working in a sales role which I think it’s such an important skill that I did not appreciate then, but I appreciate it tremendously now because as I’m sure you know Lisa, some people joke that venture capital is like sales in psychology and that’s essentially what it is. I was at Google for three years. I’ve learned a ton. At the same time, I was seeing friends from school in the startup sphere, seeing them work and learn at a pace that seemed thrilling and exciting. This was in the 2010-ish timeframe. I took my chance at it and left Google after three years to try my hand in the startup sphere. I think this is a really important lesson for a lot of people looking to get into startups, which is that it is almost never a path up to the right. Most startups are gonna struggle and have ups and downs and ups and downs, and I had that. I worked with a couple of different startups and none of them worked out. I learned a lot and learned a lot of what not to do. At the moment, many of those experiences were super tough, and it felt scary and thought, “Well, this, this is the tank that ends my career.” But now I can certainly look in perspective, I learned a ton. Of course, I had a support system and a safety net where I could take those risks. Not everyone can take those risks. But I do also say that sometimes the full riskiness of a startup is often overhyped by the media. There are companies that are like 200-300 people that are still startups and you still get kind of exposure to joining a company at ground zero, but you get a good paycheck and you get good benefits and you still get the excitement of being early. Anyways, I had some great learnings there and then eventually got into venture capital. And again, it happened kind of serendipitously. I had some friends and some acquaintances, acquaintances who were in venture capital, it was a little bit of the one connection that leads to another project that leads to another until I met one of the partners at Maveron. I started to get to know the Maveron team. I really respected the team, the connection, the trust amongst them, I really love the consumer-only focus and the opportunity to, as you phrase it, really invest in products and services that make people’s lives better. I joined in 2015 and haven’t looked back since.

Lisa Calhoun

Wow, thank you for sharing that journey. It was awesome. Having the next generation in on this, okay, I hope she goes back in here at this podcast because the internet lives forever. Seriously, and it’s really true what you said about so many things. There are sales and psychology, that’s also the venture’s other side. But then also, the ups and downs of startup life. Sometimes it’s mostly down, but that actually gives you the insights that you need to have enough. It is true, it’s not necessarily all that well appreciated. There are just two more things I hope we could touch base on. One is, what opportunities do you see in our industry, venture capital, and then I was going to ask you for closing questions and I’ll keep it, but a little bit about some of the people that have shed some light on your path? But on the way there, what are your silver linings emerging in venture capital? Where do you draw joint strength from where the industry can go, can be?

Anarghya Vardana

Areas that I think that there’s still tremendous opportunity to build in. I think that the time to build a company continues to be no better than now. There are so many off-the-shelf tools to get companies off the ground, everything from just Shopify, Plaid, and Stripe, and just think through the companies that have been built and scaled to make forming a company so much easier and faster than ever before. It’s super exciting and super promising. Especially in the last year, there’s been more and more light shed on the challenges of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the tech space and the venture capital space. And most importantly, I think in the entrepreneurial space, we see the kinds of companies that are built, the kinds of founders that are getting funded, and that continues to be a conversation. There’s a number of organizations that have formed in the hopes of making the venture capital and startup world more diverse. Everything from All Raise to BLCKVC, and more. We need these organizations to continue thriving because there’s just so much work to do there. And so yes, there is a huge opportunity to build companies in a number of different categories. I already talked about a few of them from healthcare changing and being flipped on its head to FinTech, where there is a lot of opportunities for big trusted companies to come in to even how people shop. If you think about the traditional e-commerce websites, and how we shop for our clothes, that kind of is still the same. There are a lot of really cool companies working on more experiential shopping and more immersive shopping. The field is wide, wide open to build some amazing companies. The other side of it, I would say is the field is wide, wide, wide open for the continued proliferation and increase of diverse founders. We need more women building companies. We need more folks of color building companies. We need more people from diverse backgrounds, from different socioeconomic backgrounds, from different places in the US, and in the world to build amazing, long-lasting, impactful companies. It would bring me great joy to see another five unicorns come out of Atlanta in the next few years. I’m sure they would bring you joy. 

Lisa Calhoun

Oh, five? Are you kidding me? Atlanta is on fire! No, it is absolutely happening really, with or without us. Mostly I’m hoping with us, of course. 

Anarghya Vardana

One more point there. I think that is part of the silver lining of COVID. Is that in our world, the need to be in a specific location like, “Oh, you need to be in San Francisco or in New York City, whatever?” I think that is quickly dissipated. We see companies going remote to the all-remote company shifting locations. Companies feel more comfortable with hiring out of different locations. I certainly hope that that concept continues to persist because there is no reason why you can’t have an engineer in Dallas, a marketing person in Atlanta, and a salesperson in Denver. You can have people everywhere. We’ve all gotten a lot of comfort around working online, working productively, and effectively together, and maybe we all get together once a quarter, or whatever it may be. But I think that shrinkage and that shift from needing to be in this one specific location has been pretty powerful. I think San Francisco and Silicon Valley, and New York will always continue to be interesting magnetic places. But I think that we will see similar magnets cropping up in other locations as people migrate, and a lot more comfort, and excitement around that level of migration and the new hubs warming. 

Lisa Calhoun

I think I could not agree more. But I have to give you complete props, I did not expect someone from San Francisco to know it. If anyone would, it would be you. But for Valor, we reassured a technology that had its research roots in Europe. We hired an African-American, unbelievably qualified sales leader out of Baltimore. A lot of the technical talent is based in Atlanta and that is sort of a bread and butter type of deal in many ways for a lot of firms, Valor included. But it’s interesting, I’ve heard more centrism out in San Francisco recently and it really surprised me. A lot of San Francisco investors have a top track that, the present moment here we are recording in March, the present moment that goes a little bit like the best companies in the world are here thus the best talent in the world is here, thus the best ideas in the world are here, thus the best investment the world are absolutely focused here. It’s very refreshing to hear someone be a General Partner at a company with a twenty-year track record of investing in iconic brands and firms say, “Hey, it’s a new day.” It’s really exciting to hear you say that.

Anarghya Vardana

Do you mind if I really quickly give some tactical advice? Wanting to build the next unicorn out of Atlanta? One, please build the next unicorn out of Atlanta. And if you’re a consumer company, call me and I would love to meet you. I’ll lead with that. But the next thing I want to say is that a lot of the desire to have hubs around San Francisco, New York, whatever it might be, comes from a number of different things. One is that 80% plus of startups and in M&A, so their exit is going to be through merger and acquisition, and guess what? A lot of the M&A entities and people who might potentially acquire you are in Silicon Valley, and that’s Google, Facebook, Apple of the world. And of course, they’re the Amazons up in Seattle. These hubs tend to be where a lot of that M&A activity happens. I would say even a year and a half ago, if you said, “Hey, I’m building a phenomenal engineering-oriented company out of Salt Lake City.” The challenge is if someone is going to acquire you, do they want this remote person team in Salt Lake and how do they manage it? It presented a lot of challenges versus if that team was in Palo Alto, it would be just an easy absorption into whatever tech company. But I do believe that COVID has shifted that in that again like I said, people have more comfort in doing that remote work. And so that M&A can happen in a way that hasn’t happened before. I don’t have the data on how that M&A has been progressing over the last year but I imagine if we start pulling that data over the next year or two, we will see some geographical shifts. The other tactical tip is that there is a huge advantage, again, pre-COVID when I was here in San Francisco in Silicon Valley, just being out and about, getting the learnings, the lingo, and the know-how through osmosis. By that, I mean attending some startup launch party on Thursday night and meeting three different individuals who are building cool companies or who are VCs or who is a leading expert doing research and development in this particular field of alternative meats or whatever it is. Those things happen here a lot and that osmosis base on being in the environment and drinking the water type of stuff happens a lot. There is certainly something to be said. But that level of growth and knowledge and know-how is really important. Again, I think that in this remote work, we are finding more ways to do that. I’m not going to parties and happy hours and events. I’m just trying to meet people on Zoom and do Zoom cooking classes and whatnot. Again, I think if we maintain that spirit, and I can do a cooking class with you in Atlanta, someone else in Miami, and someone else in Hawaii, why not? Why can we not recreate that osmosis-based learning through something social like that that is done virtually and I hope that that also continues to persist? Again, if you’re building a company elsewhere, just figure out ways in which you can hack that learning or get that learning now in a way that you couldn’t before through online events, through listening to great podcasts like Lisa, through Clubhouse, maybe through Twitter or whatever it is. It’s more about where you can get that learning in an accelerated fast fashion. That might have been, “Oh, you can only get that if you’re in San Francisco on Mission Street”, but I think that is what we will see a shift in. 

Lisa Calhoun

You are so right. I had a face-to-face founder meeting today in our office in Atlanta Tech Park. Hispanic founder and he said as he gave me his background, “My parents were one of the original three Latino families in Gainesville, Georgia.” Now as a multimillion-dollar a year FinTech AI firm. It is amazing. Where do you go to these pools? He went to certain colleges. Stanford was a huge touchpoint for you. For me, Kauffman Fellows where I met you, was a huge touchpoint for me. For our listeners, it’s out there, you will find your people. Speaking of your people, are there 1-3 people who shed a light on your path that you might be willing to share? Their names in that story? What’s been meaningful to you? And that’s how I want to close this.

Anarghya Vardana

That’s lovely. Well, I’ll do a cheat code and say my parents and count that as one entity. My mother and father are just incredible, and I would say, have shaped me largely into who I am. I say this still in my 30s, even though I haven’t lived at home with them for a long time. We came to this country, and the level of care, attention, time, and presence that they gave me was just incredible. The amount of belief they had in me, I think that really is what propelled me to go after areas I was excited about, think big, think wildly, and think ambitiously. I don’t know if everyone can say that, especially as a little brown girl in Beaverton, Oregon, my parents really believed in me, and there was nothing I couldn’t do. That impacted me deeply as a kid. One kind of hat tip to them. I’ll give a shout-out to my partner and the founder of Maveron, Dan Levitan, founded 20+ years ago. He brought me onto the team in 2015 as a Senior Associate, and played a very key role in my development from a Senior Associate to a Principal to a Partner and then most recently to a General Gartner, to his mentorship and guidance. And again, I think you’ll see the theme, his undoubted belief in me, my learning, my growth, his gentle coaching, and mentoring along the way to fulfill that belief. It wasn’t just blind. It was based on the things that you do and here’s the work that you do. And then his advice along the way as well. Venture is such a weird industry. Many people claim to do an internship model but Matt, Ron, and Dan really live and believe that mentorship model. I’ve learned a lot and I wouldn’t be the investor I am today. I have a long, long, long way to go but where I am today, I credit a lot to the support and the learning I’ve had at Maveron specifically through Dan. I think that this is again, another cheat code but a kind of broader shout-out. I’m a really strong believer in community and the importance of community. And that was what taught me early on, my parents have a very tight-knit Indian community in Oregon. I had a very, very close community during my college years, and some of those folks are still my nearest and dearest friends. And Lisa, you and I are a part of the Kauffman community together. Even outside of that adventure, I have these pockets of groups and friends that I formed that have just been incredible support systems through the ups and downs of this career and all the things that happened with it. I just shout out broadly the concept of community, the people who raised you, right? Even in my 30s, I’m still being raised by the village that is around me. It never ends. I think there’s nothing that is more important to me than that. I hope that everyone is able to find that and that’s folks that you can call at 11 pm on Tuesday night and just be like, “Ah, what is happening?”, and it’s people who you hang out with on Saturday and just celebrate that there are sunshine and good food, whatever it may be. But shout out to the communities that we all have, that we all create, that we all cultivate, and hopefully more of that safely in a post-vaccinated world. 

Lisa Calhoun

I know. I can’t wait for more hugs. I swear. I mean, if I have missed anything, it has been hugging my people. I didn’t realize I’m a hugger. I’m such an introvert. In so many ways I can like live in my head and live in my mind. But I miss hugging my people. Anarghya, this has been a wonderful conversation. Thank you so much for the time, the insights, and I look forward to sharing the story with the Atlanta community. 

Anarghya Vardana

For sure. Thank you for having me and have a wonderful rest of your day. 

Lisa

Thank you for listening to the Atlanta Startup Podcast. You know, we’re not just a podcast, we’re a community, and we’d love to see you at one of our digital or physical events, go to valor.VC and sign up for an event that makes sense for you. We have events for founders and the investors who back them. Another event you might enjoy is Startup Runway. The Startup Runway Foundation is a Valor organization that provides $10,000 grants to founders who are women or people of color building next-generation software products. Applications are free and we’d love to hear from you at startuprunway.org. And as always, thank you so much to the organizations that make this podcast possible. Not only Valor Ventures, but also Write2Market, a tech marketing and PR agency in Atlanta, Georgia, and the Startup Runway Foundation and Atlanta Tech Park Valley’s headquarters, and also headquarters for over 100 local entrepreneurs, building global businesses. See you next week. Please bookmark the podcast and join us.