Words Simon Lovick
January 18th 2022 / 8 min read
2021 smashed the records for venture capital funding. By the end of September, startups in the US had raised $240 billion, already $80bn more than the previous record set for the whole of 2020. This is, many have proclaimed, the Golden Age of Startups.
Pete Flint, general partner of Silicon Valley-based venture capital fund NFX, agrees that this isn’t hyperbole—this could be the best time to launch a startup. Capital, as well as talent and appetite for risk, has never been in greater abundance. The greater challenge, therefore, may be knowing who to accept funding from. One aspect of this is experience, or lack thereof: just 8% of VCs in the UK have had experience of working at a startup, according to a 2019 survey by Diversity VC. If you’re looking for investors with practical knowledge and the secrets for startup survival, it may be challenging to trust someone who hasn’t got founder credentials themselves.
Conversely, Pete has built an investment career off the back of the experience he gained in early startup teams and as a founder. After leaving the founding team of lastminute.com, Pete founded real estate platform Trulia, with which he raised just over $250 million. Following a $3.5 billion merger with Zillow, Trulia became the world’s largest real estate company. He then turned to investing, joining Silicon Valley-based VC NFX as General Partner in 2016. Last year, NFX announced its latest $450 million fund, the largest ever fund dedicated to seed/pre-seed companies.
As both a founder of and investor in unicorns, Pete has a great deal of knowledge to share about building successful companies, raising capital, as well as making the transition from operator to investor. In a recent fireside chat with lastminute.com and Founders Factory founder Brent Hoberman at the Founders Factory Founders Day, Pete shared some of his top lessons for CEOs, which include:
Transparency is non-negotiable
Timing is critical to success
Your product is only as good as your distribution
Look for investors who give you more than just money
Understand the patterns that investors look for
Remote work is the future—but doesn’t replace certain in-person experiences
One of the biggest mistakes I made at Trulia was avoiding talking about the challenges that we were facing as a company. This can be tempting as a founder: you want to project an image of success in order to strengthen conviction in your company.
For me, this all came to a tee when we had just done our first major fundraise and launched our V2 product—and it was a complete disaster. Outwardly I remained positive, to the point of hiding the true figures from my team. I was too proud to admit failure, so I kept saying that things were going to be amazing and that it would all work out.
At the next board meeting, the truth came out. The real numbers came out and we were down on all of our metrics. I could see the disappointment from my team, and that my actions had the complete opposite effect from what I’d intended. So from that point onward I shared every single metric, dashboard, deck, and so on—I was a complete open book. This transparency turned out to be incredibly fulfilling, rewarding, and had a transformative impact on the company.
After I finished my MBA at Stanford in 2005, I saw the opportunity to launch a new real estate website—Trulia. Even at this stage of the internet, there were already a number of competitors in the space to stand out against. We’d designed a great product, but I believe timing was critical to our success.
Firstly, there was a great technological catalyst for our product. We launched around the same time as Google Maps, which proved to be a huge asset. Suddenly the web went from very stationary list formats to more interactive 2D formats, and with this mapping tool, you could create a very engaging product experience for property buyers and sellers.
Economic circumstances were also fortuitous to our launch. The Global Financial Crash in 2008 was precipitated by the US real estate crash, which saw many of our opponents in the sector disappear. We had raised just before the crash, meaning that we could efficiently take a large market share.
In the early days of Trulia, we dedicated a great deal of time to perfecting our product, creating something that was unique and had an excellent user experience. We needed this to stand out against our competitors in the space. Founders should know, however, that if you don’t get your growth and distribution strategy right, then it really doesn’t matter how good your product is.
We had a number of key strategies we used for distribution. At the time, the SEO space was much less defined and competitive, so we were able to successfully tap into this to stand out. We also had a fairly aggressive PR approach, meaning our name was quickly established as a leader in the space.
Having had experience on both sides of the investment conversation, I often dwell on what makes a good investor-founder partnership. For founders, your ideal investor is someone who is actively engaged in your business and its success.
You’re looking for availability, empathy, and help through the journey of being a founder. Empathy is the key word here—being a founder can be a lonely experience, so you want someone who knows that not everything goes to plan, and is able to provide support and counsel on the decisions to make when you face inevitable challenges. On the flipside, you also want someone who is able to celebrate you when things do go well.
VCs who have had experience as operators will inevitably be better placed to serve this role, given their acute understanding of the highs and lows of the founder journey.
Many investors’ decisions are guided by pattern matching—essentially, looking for traits or trends that have signalled success in the past, that will hopefully engender success in the future. When I’m writing cheques, I try to look beyond CV points that might bias my decision.
Here are three of the main traits I look for in founders and businesses:
Defensibility. Founders who understand how what they’re doing is going to help them be the dominant player in their specific industry or sector. “Competitive advantages” help your company become successful. “Defensibility” helps you stay there.
Size and scope for growth. There’s a balance between startups that are big enough to be interesting, and those that aren’t big enough to be interesting. What I mean is you want to invest in companies that have a capacity to grow at great scale, but that are early enough in the journey to feel exciting and unpredictable.
Ability to hire exceptional people at high velocity early on. To do that, you’ll need both the insights to back up your business, but also the salesmanship and communication skills to attract people. You’re going to have to convince great people to get off their Google salary and be part of a startup.
The debate over where the future of work will take place continues. I personally feel that for younger generations—millennials and Gen-Zers in particular—remote work is the future. They’re far more digitally native, and they’re becoming increasingly aware that being in a physical office together doesn’t necessarily create culture. As trends like the metaverse grow, our digital reality will start to draw level and even exceed our physical reality.
There are, however, certain in-person experiences that will remain difficult to replicate online. These are particularly evident in early stage startups. There’s something about that environment, a small team all sitting in a room together trying to create a product, that requires those connections, collisions, and accidental communications. There’s really no substitute for that. In the early days of the pandemic, I saw small startups who were unable to use their office going out and renting Airbnbs so they could recreate that environment.
General Partner of venture capital fund NFX, previously a prominent angel investor
Founder & former CEO of Trulia, led the company’s IPO in 2012, and merger with Zillow in 2014
Part of the founding team at lastminute.com
Studied his MBA at Stanford Graduate School of Business from 2003 to 2005
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