Blumberg Capital | Interview with its Founder & Managing Partner – David Blumberg
In San Francisco, we talked with venture capitalist and the founder of Blumberg Capital, David Blumberg. David talks about the investment due diligence process and startup ecosystem. Furthermore, he shares his learnings and advice for young entrepreneurs.
The transcription of the interview is provided below.
Martin: Hi, today we are in San Francisco in the Blumberg Capital Office with David. David, who are you and what do you do?
David: David Blumberg, I’m the founder and managing partner of Blumberg Capital. And we’re a very focused specialized fund. We focus very much on early stage information technology, that’s mostly software and it brings us across different geographies. We’ve started in the Bay Area, San Francisco and branched out quite early to Israel, New York as a triangle then along the way found out about the great brands in Germany and so I’ve been in Berlin mostly, with some in Munich and Hamburg, some investments there. And then along the way I also have found some great opportunities up in Vancouver, our neighbor to the north and then down to Los Angeles. So those are the four or five places. It’s interesting because I just read yesterday a study saying that in the opinion of US investor, the top four countries for early stage venture capital investments are US, Israel, Canada and Germany.
Martin: Canada as well, okay.
David: Yes, so somehow we’ve got it just exactly right per the view of other investors and that’s the places that we have main investments and where we have some successes to talk about.
Martin: What did you do before you started this fund?
David: I’ve been in venture capital for many years and I really started out directly in venture capital which is very rare. What happened is in college, I had thought I wanted to solve big problems in the world and at my age, when I was in that young high school, college time where I thought, oh the solution to big problems for the world is government. Government knows best. They know how to solve problems. So I started studying international relations in government at Harvard College and I went to work in Washington for three summers. And at the end of those three summers, I realized, ‘Ooh, I don’t think government is the solution, I think it’s more of the cause of the problems’. The Politicians like to reelect themselves and so they’re willing to offer or promise anything to anybody to get elected and they don’t really think about the long-term solutions. Whereas, in the market economy, there’s so much competition, if you’re not serving your customers on a daily basis, you go out of business. So for that reason and other reasons that science needs business to make a takeout out of the lab, I think the niche of a combination of science and entrepreneurship is fantastic for unleashing great things into the world and helping lots of people move up into a happy middle class safe, healthy lifestyle. That’s what my personal mission is.
Now the way that it worked is when I was in college, I started a company, because I was a poorer or midd—not poor, I was a middle class student that I needed to pay for Harvard which is very expensive. And I got this job and I had such a great success personally, fulfillment about being an entrepreneur. It led me to say, I should really think about business rather than law school and foreign policy and the state department. And so, I went to business school instead of law school. I decided to work in the entrepreneurial and tech sector instead of government and foreign trade. And this has been a fantastic luck. I really chanced out. I have a choice of going towards biotech or software, I chose towards software, because I thought it would be a lot easier. I didn’t have to go through organic chemistry and med school. And then, right out of undergrad, I had a choice at business school to go straight away or to work first. I thought I won’t appreciate business school fully until I have some experience in the real world. And I also needed to pay for it. So I had a job offer at T. Rowe Price, a fantastic firm, money manager firm in Baltimore, Maryland which manages tens of billions of dollars across many mutual funds. And the job that I was offered was to be an analyst for hi-tech stocks that were going IPO. And T. Rowe Price among other groups is a large buyer. It’s like one or two in the US buyer— of these big IPOs. And so, I was able to analyze these companies before they were public and that’s when I met a lot of venture capitalist and how I saw what is the output goal for a great successful startup. Essentially, in my mind I’m thinking I need to please T. Rowe Price or Fidelity or Wellington or any of these great firms with the startup that comes into my office now looking for a million or two dollars. Eventually, I want to be able to bring it ultimately into a great IPO.
Now, as we all know, many, many more companies get acquired along the way to an IPO, but IPO is still sort of the gold standard for great exits. And so, that training, the other way of saying it is, it’s a biological metaphor, I was looking at the estuary where the salmon come out from the rivers to the ocean and then swim back upstream. And I also knew in my career I wanted to go upstream to where they breathe and find the little salmon and help them grow the big strong fish, getting a little too deep in the metaphor.
But the idea is that, I knew I didn’t want to stay in Wall Street and look at it as an analyst, more secured portfolio manager of public companies because I like to be more involved with the companies. I want to be working with the entrepreneurial teams and in my little way helping them maybe pivot a bit toward a faster more strategic fit into the market. But you have so much more influence at the early stage that’s what I find fun and if I’m not going to be commercial, I also think it’s the area where there’s much more much more arbitrage opportunity. The information is much less widespread, it’s much less as an economics we say, it’s not perfect information. So there’s a great gap and if we can have better information, the insiders albeit legal, we have a better chance of making a great buy whereas at the public markets, there are so many smart people analyzing the same data. It’s hard to have an edge consistently.
Martin: And did you then start out of business school in a VC fund or did you just start your own VC fund directly out of business school?
David: Yes, I’ve had wonderful mentors. So I’ve had three mentors chiefly Frederick Adler from Adler & Company. He was one of the great VCs of his generation. There were probably about 5 to 10 major venture capital firms in those days, in the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s, he was one of them. He’s still alive, he’s still doing well. And then, the next one was Alan Patricof of Patricof & Company which now became Apax and then Charles Bronfman and his family office up in Montreal. So each of those three, they had amazing networks, they had a lot of capital, they had lots of success by the time I got there, so the deal flow was already coming in and I was really privileged to get to see excellent entrepreneurs, make some serious investments and learn a lot along the way. The joke about venture capital is how do you train a venture capitalist, let them lose or her lose $20 million and then they’re trained. And so along the way, I’ve lost and so on. And now, it seems to be working and we’re making but it does take a lot of training and mentorship so for that, I’m ever grateful.
Martin: But at some point, you decided, ‘I’ll stop working as an employee and start my own fund’. What was the reason behind that?
David: Yes, well when I came from the Bronfman family office, I started consulting and what happened is I started consulting to a Japanese technology distribution company from Tokyo and two family offices. And I would find the deals for them and they would pay me a bit of a retainer and I would have some carried interests from the companies, share options or shares from them and something on the deal closing, transaction fee. And I was working along that and four of them went IPO out of nine. It was very successful. And then what would happen is we were these three groups, you have family offices who can’t add a lot of value typically to a company when it’s in startup phase and this Japanese company who could add a lot of value in Japan but nothing in the States. But the entrepreneurs would come back to me after we had funded them and say, ‘Now would you help us in America?’ and so that I fell into an operating role with one call Check Point Software which became one of the most successful in my career. And that was a firewall company software, so listed, publically traded, very successful. And I was very fortunate again to become an operating officer, I came for all time purposes the vice president of business development in their first 18 months in market.
And that was at the dawn of the internet, so everyone needed internet connections and then the first thing they said, “we need security”. And a firewall was the front door lock, so to speak and so I had a fantastic time doing deals with Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, Tandem, bringing them to Japan, Australia, other places and the rest is history. It went very, very well and so I had that entrepreneurial experience in biz dev where market meets product especially in a company coming from overseas with a lot of engineering strength but not much in the resource packet of sales and business development. Developing all that, their marketing, their tradeshows, PR, all that experience of what a startup has to go through if they’re successful was super great training and I’ve had that now multiple times. But that was the impetus from those four IPOs in that little portfolio, we were able to then raise a fund one which is about $36 million then we’ve had fund two, $91 million then recently closed in October of last year fund three at $150 million and now things are going so well and we’re going to be investing at a rapid pace, so we’re going to be raise our next fund, early next year.
UNDERSTANDING BLUMBERG CAPITAL
Martin: David, let’s understand Blumberg Capital.
Martin: So you said that you have active investing in so many countries, do you have office in all these kind of countries in all of these kind of areas or are you sourcing them directly here from the US and just travelling abroad?
David: That’s a very fair question and a lot of people don’t understand how we do what we do. So let me first explain that as a VC we don’t think we’re smarter than the entrepreneurs and that we have a better crystal ball it’s the other way around, we think the entrepreneurs know more, especially about their specific domain than we do. So we like to listen a lot and be sponge and try and gather information from our network which is quite extensive, we have an outstanding network of friends and associates over the years that have become loyal, trust worthy sources of information and deal flow. So we get deal flow from a lot of places and we cultivate that, we go and speak at conferences and we go to start up competitions and we are judges and we try and give back to the community in that way, that’s it.
Why the specific areas? Israel was a personal passion of mine early on and I had that zionist dream to try and help build the country from nothing; deserts and swamps to something that could be respectful and help the rest of the world with maybe technological output in an export way. So, I took maybe extra risks there that wouldn’t have been seen as natural or logical for a business person. It’s paid off handsomely, I mean they have done all that they have said they would do and more. I mean the output of Israel per capita is higher I think than anywhere in the world, maybe—even including or close to Silicon Valley. So in terms of that it’s astonishing. Canada and Germany are places I feel comfortable in, we have good relationship with some of our investors, I lived in Canada, if you know that I lived for several years in Canada, because of Bronfman. So there’s that tied. The technical talent in both countries is really high, the ethics are very high, the level of business knowledge is very strong and they are both strong economies. Canada obviously tied very much to North America, Germany is the center of Europe, so all of those things work well. Now that’s it.
We see the world as, and this may be offensive to some people, a bit of a hub and spokes. The US is the big.., and North America is the big early adopter market, especially the unified currency, unified language, relatively unified market and has the biggest group of early adopter, and it has the biggest group of major strategic partners for distribution, and it has largest group of later stage venture capitalists for onward funding. So for those three reasons, if it’s a company starting in Canada or a company starting in Germany or a company starting in Israel, if they have any degree of goal to get into the North American market and launch as a global company, we feel like we can really add a lot of value.
For example, we would not think we can add a huge amount of value, in Germany for a German company that would be arrogant on our part. The same Canada, in Canada. No, that’s not where we would have the most value and in Israel, there is no market in Israel, it’s way too small. So we are inbound to the US in that respect. Now that said, the world has changed dramatically in the last 10 years with the advent of mobile as a platform and the advent of social media networks and just the cloud infrastructure. So all that makes it much easier to reach far flung markets. And if I can give an example of a German company, where we’re very happy to be investors, Credit Tech is doing phenomenally well doing consumer lending from a base in Hamburg, but not in Germany. They are lending in Poland and Russia, in Spain, Czech Republic, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Peru, etc., far flung places from Germany. And this is because everything is done on mobile phones; they have no offices anywhere in any of these countries. All of it is done through machine learning with giant algorithms that can grab data through APIs that were never available even 5 years ago. So all this is to say that the world is becoming easier to become Global as an investor and as an entrepreneur and we are taking advantage of that because we’ve seen that we can work with global teams on distributed basis. And that the rising middle class in the middle tier of counties is quite a surge, it’s going to continue for the next 10, 20, 30 years and another 500 million people will move up into middle class and they have every right and need to have services that meet their needs and we can hope to bring them some of those services. So that’s a slightly different model from the US centric model of the classic enterprise businesses where we’d bring stuff in from let’s say Israel or Canada and sell it in North America. Now this is the additional model which we find fruitful where we can start anywhere and address mobile markets of a vast numbers of consumers as well.
Martin: Okay, great. David, what types of companies are you looking for when you want to invest your money?
David: Great. We like to be an investor very early so we are almost always investing either pre- product or pre-revenue, or at the down or revenue and so it’s what we consider typically the seed stage and A, series A are the main entry points. We typically are the first institutional investor we are very glad to invest with other angels, other VCs, other strategic partners, but we are typically the first venture capital fund in. And we like to lead those rounds, we’re not dogmatic, we don’t have to we can collate etc., but we tend to that a lot. I think that’s probably because a lot of the larger firms that we have known historically that were our peers have gotten so big that they really prefer to come at the A,B, and C rounds, whereas we prefer to come in the seed and the A, so there is a nice division of labor. We do the, what I call the hard work early on and they can come in with the big dollars later and help with assets and distribution and so on. And then there is the Angel community, that’s a very community for us to work with. We like to work with angels because the find the deals first, entrepreneurs usually go to their friends first and then they would perhaps come to an institution after they have tried it out a little bit with another angel or taken a little bit of money and that’s fine with us.
Now within the realms, let’s go domains, we like things that are capital efficient traditionally. So that has led us towards software, it has led us away from energy production or clean tech, other than software kind of things or the biotech side, the wet lab related or things with a lot of FDA approval. Those are difficult for us invest in or material science, it’s traditionally been difficult because they’re capital intensive and they’re in the realms of either long regularity approval or large rollouts for scale up and that has not been where we canplan. So traditionally it has been software where we find our niche. And I think that is also changing, we are on the cusp of the new world in synthetic biology and the internet of things and new types of hardware that are astonishingly light and small and flexible that we are starting to see, that are been created on kickstarter and indiegogo, and so on. So we are looking at some of those with interest, haven’t done them yet, but we are open to it.
Martin: Okay. What are the properties of a great team, if you could imagine the properties of a team, what would it be?
David: First you it said the right word, team. It’s rare, it’s possible but it’s rare that we find a single entrepreneur. Usually one person needs a complement, either in live as a spouse or as an entrepreneurial group but there are 4 or 5 roles that are key, and so we look generally for somebody who really understands how product market fit and that can be a CEO with a sales background or it can be a CEO with a product background, or it can be a technology person with an understanding of where the world needs to go, or what a new platform will mean in terms of opportunity or in the security space, what a new platform means in terms of treat and hence opportunity. So those are the areas and by the way I should make more precise; we’ve tended to focus about 70% on B2B, the business to business, the enterprise focus. And partly the reason we do that is because most of us come from those background, the other is that we have a great network, we have a specific CIO council, chief information officer council, a chief marketing officer council and a group of CISO, chief security officers from fortune 500 and similar companies and those folks answer the question that follows, “if we build this, will you buy it?” And they are very good at helping us separate the wheat from the chaff and focusing us on areas of their concern, so that has been very helpful, it’s been helpful to the companies we’ve invested in because if they answer ‘yes we will buy this’ they often become the source and the locus and the focus of the first paid customers, the first proof of concepts that the company has.
Martin: Are you asking the CIOs, in their due diligence process, pre-investment?
David: Yes, often, not always. Often, but certainly, once we’ve made the investment we go to them a lot for help but we often make this question during due diligence. Again part of it is because we don’t think we always know the answer to everything, we wanna look around and get advice. And I think that’s— you know you didn’t ask this question yet but I want to make another distinction, our model at Venture Capital is not that we know better and we’re going to tell you as an employee, CEO, how to work for us and do things better. Ours is a little bit more, ‘You’re the race car driver and we’re the pit crew or maybe the manager’. So we’re going to give you some coaching of course and try to stop you from crashing around the track, but we’re going to change your oil, fill your gas, maybe bring the crowd into the bleachers and maybe give you some guidance from watching you go around the track many times and say, we’ve seen this kind of patterns before, here’s what we learnt from it, maybe that can help you.
So I think that model is appropriate especially at the early stage. I mean these people are working incredible hours, they are highly motivated, they are very smart and I just want to be very careful that we’re not trying to squash that creativity or say that we know better. And if I may, I think that’s why start-ups break off from bigger companies; the innovation just can’t happen in the structure of a big entity for a variety of reasons. One is the equity motivation but the other is that more informal sense of ‘We, a small team, that are empowered, can do something great and novel’. Whereas in a big structural organization you’re offending a rival, there is politics, there are procedures that just get in the way of that gorilla flexibility and speed and nimbleness that one needs as an entrepreneur.
Martin: David, let’s talk about how you perceive the eco system, the startup eco system. Can you tell us in what type of areas, countries, industries, ticket sizes do you perceive there are some kind of under or over allocation of capital and what is driving that?
David: Okay, here we are in 2014 and these questions have to be answered very specifically to a time we’re sitting and where we invest. We invest at the early stage and I think it’s never been a better time to be an early stage, it’s never been a better time to be an early stage entrepreneur. And you might say well, right before the bubble of 2000—during the early part of the bubble of 99’,2000, that was a great time, you might say, ‘Not really, that was fake, this is much more real.’ We stand on the shoulders of giants, the people who built the cloud, the internet, mobile networks, social networks, machine learning and things like that, are really making our lives a lot easier, whether an entrepreneur or whether funding entrepreneurs as a venture firm. So it’s a great time to be investing in that regards. The world is blossoming in terms of GDP per capita even though in the developed countries like Germany, US, Japan, etc., it’s been a really bad recession and recovery has been weak almost everywhere. The rest of the world has been doing a lot better. And I think probably because the really bad economic systems of communism and socialism in China and India are kind of getting taken away. They are just getting rid of the bad stuff and once you, like a brick on a—as a weight, if you take the brick off and you let the natural resources of entrepreneurship thrive, you get GDP growth and you get people who move from poverty to middle class, which I think what we should all wish for.
So that is making is have big new markets to reach and it’s making the entrepreneurial journey realistic for people in many, many new countries. So the fact that we operate outside of Silicon Valley has also been great for us. We have, I think a much outsized presence in Israel and then in Germany if I may say so, then our size would be compared to here, in the States. We are a small firm in the states and I think we are prominent, well known in our niche, but in Israel we are very prominent and in Germany probably more than we deserve because we are so unusual in doing this.
So now let’s go back to the ecosystem. The US venture capital industry has become what I would call bimodal, like a donut. The middle has eroded away, the early stage is doing very well, the late stage is doing very well. But in a recession, or in an interest rate spike, or in some macro collision, I’d be more worried about being in the later stage. People buying late stage pieces of very expensive, high flying companies, because the evaluations can pop very down here, if we are down at the very bottom level of these early stage companies and if we allocate enough money for follow on for say 2,3,4,5 year period, over life of our funds, we can survive through a down turn. And our returns might be lower, but everyone’s returns would be lower. But the volatility is much less at the early stage when their companies are well supported compared to the volatility of exits and the time frame that’s required of late stage investors so, I’d rather be frankly jumping out of a first floor than jumping out of a 47th floor, God forbid…
Martin: And if you look at specific industries like if you were looking at hardware, social networks, advertising, etc., what industries do you think are more overvalued?
David: Okay, we’ve taken a slightly different approach. Our approach has basically been that if you take 3 centuries of economic history, what were the big game changers? The 19th century was really about automation or infusion technology, that was really automation and agriculture, transportation and mining. 20th century manufacturing became highly automated and very efficient. Now what is the 21st century about? we would argue it’s the service economy and probably with now the internet of things and synthetic biology is also going to have a renaissance in the later part of the 21st century in actually manufacturing in a new way. But for now, the service economy dominates Europe, the Europe mainly and the US. 60%, 70%, 80% of our GDP and our employment more enforces in the service economy so strictly an example would be financial services. What are financial services? It’s services to people run on computers and communication networks using some kind of processing to crunch numbers and a way of communicating information out. Now, the communications and computational infrastructure plus storage in the past 10 years has rocketed to more efficiency and past 20, and past 30 years. Most banks, most insurance companies are running on systems that are 10, 20, 30 years old. So the new entrance can come in with almost a green field advantage in terms of much more efficiency and now the world is again opened to new platforms of mobile, we can reach consumers for the first time that could really never be reached except through traditional expensive branches. So we are deconstructing, disrupting and innovating the whole area of financial services across probably 18 or 20 companies in our little portfolio. And it’s amazing to see our little Davids go up against the Goliaths, but they are doing very well, I am seeing incredible growth. And sometimes it not that just that we are going to disrupt and destroy the big but we’re going to offer something new that they could never do at scale, it just wouldn’t work and that is very exciting. And so if I would say it again I would simplify and say the services economy is both capital efficient for us to go after, it’s expanding, it’s very inefficient still and it has a lot of room for innovation. So, those are the keys so far we are interested in. I would say further on in the horizon, very interested by new hardware modality, internet things again and then—the intersection we call synthetic biology but that’s where essentially computation meets the human and the biological for the new developments, not done in a lab but really done on a computer almost as in CAD CAM does for engineering, makes sense?
Martin: What other service industries can you identify that are right for disruption and big enough?
David: Sure, sure. Travel is a huge industry, very inefficient and ready for disruption, insurance, banking, lending, real estate, education. Health care is complicated but we think there are a lot of opportunities of disruption there making it much more efficient and better, we have a couple of opportunities on our table right now in that round. And the thing about the medical science itself, it’s more about delivery and access and payment, that’s where I find the infrastructure to be lacking dramatically. Security is not exactly a vertical domain it’s more horizontal but with every new platform, the bad guys find opportunities to poke holes and so the good guys have to come and build solutions and so we see security as the new platforms arise becoming great area for us we’ve had a number of great exit’s there and new investments that are very promising, so those are a few areas that look good for us.
ADVICE TO ENTREPRENEURS
Martin: David, you’ve seen so many entrepreneurs over the last more than 10 years, what advice would you give one of your friends who’s asking you for advice when he wants to start a company?
David: Sure. I’m going first to go back to the last question and say I left out things like E-commerce and marketing, advertising, all those again all those very strong. E-commerce is the fastest growing part of retail and within e-commerce, international e-commerce is the fastest growing part of e-commerce. So those areas with payments or marketing automation or supporting the customers or finding customers, all those are super areas that we can grow into the future.
Now if an entrepreneur comes to me or my colleagues at Blumberg Capital and ask for advice on what to do.
- First I want to ask if they have the mentality to be an entrepreneur, it’s not for everybody, it’s a very lonely thing to do, it’s very tough, the odds are against you. And yet, in your heart you know—or in your brain, combination of brain and heart, you should know that ‘I have what it takes, I’m going to give it my best.’ And if you have that persistence and that strength of character to try and forge ahead after being told no, no, no dozens of times and then you finally hear a yes, then I say okay, first thing is know yourself.
- The second thing is how do you solve the world’s problems? Who are your fellow man and woman who you can you deliver something better? One of my favorite economist is Thomas Sole at Stanford and he said, ‘What is the definition of Profit? Profit is simply a recognition by others of the value you deliver to other people’. That’s a beautiful concept and unfortunately, capitalism has quite of a negative perception, many quarters of the establishment and Hollywood and literary world, the art world and so on and I think it’s very underserved. I think capitalization is the greatest force for liberation of poor people into let’s say a more reasonable middle class lifestyle. It’s ever been in the history of the world. Remember until 1800 it didn’t really exist everyone is either a king or a surf, but another way owner or a slave, that’s what the world was until 1800 there was almost nothing else. And it’s only because of capitalism, it’s only because of moving capital around to entrepreneurs frankly from investors that you got innovation and that spiral going.
So, you know, that’s a little side argument for capitalism. For entrepreneurs I think again, it’s never been a better time. So know yourself, find what you can do to help somebody else in the world with a better product, a better service. Find a team that can support you, leverage you, add to what you have as an individual and then think it through, poke it and test it, test your assumptions and don’t come to us right away until you’ve done some testing with real customers or with people who know the industry. And you’re going to get a lot of no’s and you’ll get some false signals and there will be a lot of noise but in that noise look for the real signal and then we want to hear from you first.
Martin: So when is the best time to make contact you? Is it really like when somebody is looking for funding or is it like 6 or 12 months before?
David: I like to hear from people before they’re looking for funding because that gives us an advantage of being the first on the block to see it but also because we can learn the basic ideas in one meeting or encounter. We might ask them some tough questions and they’ll go back and think about it and comeback the second time better prepared and have more complete presentations.
Here are the odds, we see about 5000 business plans a year and we go and invest in maybe 10 or 15, our current fund size, so it’s a very tough needle to the thread. We’re not the only game in town, there are other sources of capital, and we make mistakes as well, we don’t have perfect vision. But I would say, do your homework, it’s always easier to raise money if you have real customers or real traction of some kind, they don’t even have to be paying customers. We’ve invested in many companies that we’re basing on the freemium model where they start with the free group that proves the value of proposition, improve the product, then we find what people are willing to pay for it. Ultimately, someone has to be willing to pay for something to make it work, makes sense?
Martin: Totally. David thank you very much for your time.
David: My pleasure.
Martin: Next time you are thinking about starting a company and looking for funding maybe you should talk to David or his assistance and get some advice. Thanks.
David: Thank you very much.
Martin: Great, thank you very much David.