An Interview with Jeanne M Sullivan, Co-founder, StarVest Partners - New York City
Jeanne M. Sullivan has been investing in and growing tech companies for many years. She is a Co-Founder of StarVest Partners, a venture fund created in 1998 with $400 million under management. Jeanne has over 23 years of venture capital experience and has spent 30 years in the technology sector encompassing both extensive operating and investing experience with technology companies. Forbes recently cited Sullivan as "one of the women VCs changing the world - grooming the next generation of female entrepreneurs". The New York Angels organization honored Jeanne as the OPEL award winner for 2013 - Outstanding Professionals for Entrepreneurial Leadership.
Visit her website at http://www.starvestpartners.com and Follow her on Twitter @Gianna212.
Who is your role model as an entrepreneur ?
I have met an extraordinary entrepreneur. Her name is Miki Agarwal and she lives in New York City. She has written the most inspiring book with an edgy name: "Do Cool Shit" . She is young, fearless, fascinating. She has opened 4 gluten free pizza restaurants, one of which Tony Hsieh of Zappos fame helped fund and install in his Las Vegas complex. She is now rolling out a women's underwear company (ThinX.com) that has unique properties for protection. I am blown away by Miki Agawal and so I share her with you. (www.mikiagrawal.com)
What is your greatest achievement to date ?
There are two things for me: 1) the achievement of being able to raise $400 million alongside 3 very smart partners and to put this funding to work in our StarVest Fund. 2) Putting ourselves in business in order to find and invest in dynamic portfolio companies. It is very difficult to raise the money and invest in a good portfolio company. You cannot be too early. If you are a big thinker and see the future, that does not necessarily mean that you have found a great investment, because it may be too early for adoption.
Being a co-founder at StarVest opened the door for me on what 'fueling and funding' women entrepreneurs is all about. Now I am able to leverage my 30 years' experience as a Tech Investor to help support entrepreneurs - especially women (and a few good men.)
What has been your greatest challenge as a woman investor ?
I have always been in male dominated worlds in each of the roles. I am used to working with men and being the only woman at the table.
Then as you see that your ideas are good, learn how to effectively communicate them.
One of the greatest lessons I learned in the Board Room, is learning how to be effective. Not necessarily learning how to be right or saying all the right things, rather learning how to effectively put forth good ideas and show why they should be implemented. That is a real challenge, when you are dealing with a lot of tough personalities around the table who think they know better. It is important to find your voice.
Having multiple board roles has given me that platform to learn and grow. I am lucky, because prior to StarVest, I was at Olivetti Ventures. We were investors in deals in Silicon Valley and Boston and I got to sit and participate at the board table with some of the greatest venture capitalists of our time! I kept my eyes and ears open, and observed and learned and found my voice along the way. The experience was highly instructive.
What has been the key to your success?
I really believe it is having a passion for the business. That means keeping up with and studying the dynamic trends in the industry - understanding the entrepreneurs - spotting the trends and companies that might scale. I love to grow grass on bare ground and it is thrilling for me to see a dynamic entrepreneur create an opportunity and scale the business. It is a thrill to help lend ideas, opportunities, resources and people and see a company grow and exit.
One of the biggest thrills we had, was being part of the IPO of NetSuite in 2007, a company we had invested in, back in 2000. The Company (founded by Larry Ellison) had thin revenues at the time of investing. We saw the brilliance of an online financial suite at the center, with CRM (customer resource management) and ERP (enterprise resource planning) around it, fully integrated. We already understood online accounting, that the cloud would be big (even back in 2000 when they did not even call it that !) and we were enthusiastic about Larry Ellison. NetSuite experimented until it started scaling and put a dynamic CEO in place, Zach Nelson. In 2007 we took the company public on the New York Stock Exchange.
We stay close to the CEOs even after an exit and have often ask them to be an Advisor to the Firm post exit, so that we can continue to leverage their brilliant insights, they help support deal flow, connections for customers or ideas for our fund. We like to keep a pulse on different industries and knowledge and this is one great way to do that. This is critical for success.
What would you say to other women to encourage them to become investors ?
Get operational experience on how to scale a business: Many men and women seek my counsel on how to become a venture capitalist. I tell them that 'it's a bright shiny object and to forget it, that it is better to go get operational experience in a company'. My Partner, Larry Bettino does the exact opposite and says 'you want to be a VC? ok, I'll show you how'. I started to adopt that approach and have observed the following: you have to know what to do and how to do it, to be either a great CEO of a company or a great venture investor. And guess what, this is one of the issues for women - they have not had the training or insight on what you have to know, in order to be an investor or at the board table. You absolutely have to have fluency in finance and have fluency in the domain or subject matter you are investing in. My practical advice stays: Go get an operating role in a company, helping them scale - this is one strong path towards being a venture capital investor.
Become fluent: I believe it is critical to have the fluency and knowledge so that you can add value to your fund on knowing what to look for that might scale. It is about finding companies that are not too early (because adoption may be too slow) or too late, where the marketplace is too crowded. It is critical to understand how to scale revenue, what proper business models are all about, cash flow breakeven, capital requirements of the business. Understand the acumen that exists on the portfolio company team - technology, marketing finance, and good esprit d'corps and leadership. These are some of the key elements that either have to be learned to invest with skill because that is what is needed to be successful in this venture capital world.
You can learn this stuff: Many times, women have not had the training or exposure to the skills I just mentioned. Sadly, it is just that simple. So what are we doing about it? There are many of us who have been to the "School of Hard Knocks" and are delighted to be transferring the knowledge and street savvy required to "play".
That is why I am so passionate about this and am out there doing something about it.
Women do not automatically deserve to have a place at the table or get funded. They have to "learn what to do and how to do it" and then they can network their way to get to the board table, start a company, get to a C-level role in a company.
My best example to share, that I tell you, humbly and vulnerably, is that I myself do not have the typical classic training in that. I have a lot of training and experience, but I do not have a computer science degree or a deep degree in finance. I had to learn it and I did learn it and I realize how important it is to be conversant in these areas.
What are the key trends for VC's in the future?
We have experienced the enormous adoption of mobile, the internet and e-commerce over the past 15 years. People were once afraid to give their credit card details to buy something online, and that is laughable now.
There has been increased sophistication around the world of e-commerce infrastructure, back-end platforms that are very advanced and that help companies and brands see and analyze buyer behavior. Understanding the sentiment around buying, buyer intent - all of this is now a highly sophisticated science. That has pushed us as a Fund to really study and invest in e-commerce infrastructure platforms serving retailer and big brands. We are interested in companies that understand customer buying behavior. The other major trend of course, is the Social Media world that has to be applied to almost any company today - from customer service to connecting and referring. Another trend that has to be mentioned is the Collaborative/Sharing economy - look at AirBnB and Uber shaking things up!
What is the most important thing that VC's can do to move the needle forward for women entrepreneurs?
Help build wealth globally by building these experiences with women.
Come with me and "us" on the Mission! Understand that women have a different lens from which we see different needs for products and services and unique, creative ways to market and scale. Meet with us - fund us - help us scale - help us replicate successes.
And, guess what, we DO need the men with us on this mission.
What do you want to achieve in the next 5 years ?
To leverage the 30 years of Tech investing by fuelling and funding women entrepreneurs. I see the need, I can relate to being a woman who had to learn fluency in finance and the tech sectors. I am on the speaking tour worldwide and would like to continue to speak to crowds of entrepreneurs large and small. I enjoy advising small groups of women (and a few good men,) on how they can build their business and get funding. I have written a book that I would like to see published this year. It shares stores about business and life, in short, pithy chapters. And lastly, I also want to find a little white space in my life to improve my golf game in this lifetime, and enjoy things I never really had the time to do.
3 key words to describe you.
• Joie de vivre for life and people
• Enjoy supporting entrepreneurs with ideas, information and inspiration
• Laughs every day - I try not to take myself or others too seriously
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