In this series, Open Every Door, Entrepreneur staff writer Nina Zipkin shares her conversations with leaders about understanding what you have to offer, navigating the obstacles that will block your path, identifying opportunity and creating it for yourself and for others.
Eurie Kim understands what it takes for a company to go from an idea to a living, breathing, money-making reality.
Kim is the general partner of Forerunner Ventures, a venture capital firm focused on early-stage investments in companies that want to take the world of retail and ecommerce by storm.
Prior to her role with the fund, Kim was a management consultant at Bain and Company, an investor at Castanea Partners and founded a luxury leather goods brand called MAVN. She also sits on six of the boards of companies Forerunner has funded.
According to a study by TechCrunch last year, 7 percent of partners at the top 100 VC firms are women. Another 2016 report from the National Venture Capital Association and Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion found that 11 percent of investment partners at 217 firms are women. That makes Forerunner’s team of six — five women and one man — something of a rarity.
Kim says that the core of the firm’s philosophy is being active and engaged investors. “We always joke that being a venture capitalist also means you have to be a therapist. It’s the ability to build that relationship,” she says. “It’s not just about being smart or giving advice, but can you be the first call even when things are bad? Especially when things get bad.”
Since the firm was launched in 2012 by founder and managing partner Kirsten Green, it has backed companies such as Dollar Shave Club, Jet.com, Away, Glossier, Warby Parker and Zola.
More than anything, for entrepreneurs who are just starting out and want to bring their ideas to a venture capitalist, Kim says you need to understand why you are the right founder to grow this business and why this venture is important to you. And it can’t just be because the numbers appear to line up.
“We get a lot of smart people, people who were at the top of their MBA classes. They think [an idea works because] this is a big market or a good business model. But when things get really hard, are you going to be excited? If you quit because it gets hard, then we all fail,” Kim says. “It’s not just about being smart and identifying opportunity. Do you realize how many years you’re going to have to dedicate to this and maybe fail anyway? So why would you do this if you weren’t super passionate?”
Entrepreneur spoke with Kim to get her insights on when you should give yourself permission to take the big leap and why she answers every email — even if the pitch isn’t a good fit.
In your experience, when should an entrepreneur seek out VC support vs. other types of funding?
You have to be willing to grow a gigantic business. No venture capitalist puts money in hoping that they don’t ever get the money out. There’s only a few ways you can get the money out. One of of them is you get acquired for oodles of money. There is a scenario where it’s a good situation — you become a nice business that makes good money. But that’s not venture. The plan is go big or go home. The clear medium path is not venture. The bold, “we can be a publicly traded company” — that’s venture.
So what’s the difference between the two paths? It’s what product differentiation you have, but it’s also how much tenacity and ambition does the founder have? Oftentimes we ask the question, what does success look like for you?
If someone says, “I think we can be $100 million in five years,” [but for venture] $100 million in five years isn’t fast enough. One hundred million dollars in two or three years? Now we’re talking. It’s not crazy, it’s just, what do you have to believe to get there? It isn’t for everybody. If you do take venture funding, you can almost certainly stay in business if you continue on that trajectory. But with venture, you could be going OK, but then not good enough. So no one will give you more money and you go out of business. The pressures are really different.
What advice do you have for women entrepreneurs about advocating for themselves and their ideas in a fundraising environment?
You’ll see a male entrepreneur and a female entrepreneur pitching the same idea. The male entrepreneur will come in and pitch with so much more confidence and so much more aggressively. Whether or not they are flat out lying or wrong about those numbers, you get so absorbed in the story and think, this person is going to crush it. The female entrepreneur is often really thoughtful, but conservative. As a result, [that approach] makes it feel like it’s a small idea. They’re going to hit those numbers, but if they hit those numbers, it’s not that exciting. It’s OK, but it’s not a venture-backable business.
That conservatism isn’t fair because women tend to want to over-exceed expectations and they set the bar low and then they do a lot better. Men tend to go big and if they come up short they just have a bunch of excuses as to why they came up short, like the market changed a little.
But as a result, you get somebody much more excited when you’re talking about the big vision and you’re going to go for gold. I think that is, time and again, the situation, so I’ve given female founders the feedback that you need to crank up your projections. You’re trying to hit better than what you just showed me. If you can’t, you shouldn’t quit your job and do this.
What advice do you have for people who have never been entrepreneurs before who want to start something new?
If you can’t stop thinking about something and you are honestly OK with making no money, that you just have to do this one thing, then figure out what is the minimum viable product you can build to start testing it out and go and do it. But have a backup plan. You don’t have to willy nilly quit everything just to prove a point.[Ask yourself], what is it that you’re trying to accomplish? Can you do that with maybe saving 20 grand for the year, figuring out what your prototype looks like, building that on the side and then getting some preorders? There are a lot of ways to do this in a scrappy fashion. We really appreciate that, because a lot of people come in and say well, I need $3 million to start my company. Do you? Before you start taking other people’s money, figure out if you really have something.
What do you think sets Forerunner’s culture and approach apart from other firms?
There is a Forerunner way of doing things. [We are] super responsive, really humble and really respectful of founders that come in. They’re pitching you their dreams. Whether or not it is the dumbest idea you could possibly imagine, it is still their dream and it’s an honor to be on the other side of the table when you listen to somebody pour their heart out. They’re hoping that they create something special and magical. Whether or not you invest that day is going to make or break their entire idea. It’s a lot of responsibility. We reply back to every single email. We do it with courtesy and we give feedback.
Why not help them? If they honestly shouldn’t be starting this company, I’m just an opinion of one. But if I say, I’ve seen this a few times and these are challenges, maybe it will help you start a different company. Maybe you’ll be an awesome executive at some big company and then one day come help us in another way. The world is so small. That attitude is really important.