As a VC, this question is asked of you a lot. Sometimes it is genuine curiosity of a founder or another VC who wants to understand your background. Often, it is a veiled (or, often, not so veiled) shot at your credentials that insinuates that you couldn’t possibly perform your job effectively if you haven’t sat in the shoes of a founder.
Generally speaking, my answer to this question is “nothing.” That response was formed through a combination of two things: 1) an extreme appreciation and respect for what a founder goes through and 2) my personal imposter syndrome to even try to compare the one thing I have built to the struggle that most founders go through. That said, I have been doing a great deal of reflection on this question recently and I am starting to think that my answer should be “Lowe’s Ventures.”
Blasphemy! How can you compare “building” something in the safety net of a Fortune 50 company? The audacity. The nerve. Well, here’s my story. Hold judgement until the end.
Lowe’s Ventures started as an idea on a proverbial napkin. The problem statement was this: I (as strategy head) needed better access to information about the future of our industry and entrepreneurs in the home / housing / retail industries could benefit from capital, institutional knowledge and support of a major player in their space. The purported product was a venture fund whereby I gained knowledge through 1,000 sourcing and knowledge sharing meetings with great entrepreneurs which I could translate into actionable corporate strategy and in return I would do my best to support as many of them as possible with capital, partnerships or knowledge. I had no background in this area and no roadmap for how to actually accomplish this but I knew it needed to exist.
Prior to “raising money”, I decided that we needed to solve for three core elements: the team to help me, the product and the initial go to market strategy. To solve the first, I carved out a headcount from my Corporate Development team to work on this full-time and then recruited a five person “board of advisors” from inside who had various roles within the organization (VP and SVP level executives across a range of functions). To craft the product, I determined that we needed extensive “user” testing where users were defined as internal constituents, founders and other VCs (both corporate and non). We created a standardized survey about corporate venture capital (i.e. stages, rationale, check size, assets, team composition, etc.) and then posted up at CVC conferences and went to major innovation hubs and asked this to nearly 100 groups. From that user feedback, we crafted our initial product and go-to-market strategy which we presented to our “Seed Investor” to get funding. We also developed a framework for creating a continuous feedback cycle to refine our product post-launch. They loved it and off we went.
Upon launch, our goal was to create a recurring 6 month feedback loop whereby we made assumptions about how best to create value for both sides of our marketplace (i.e. founders and corporate), tested those assumptions in the market and then met with our advisory team to share our learnings, refine our product and solidify our measures of success. Elements of the product that we tested included asset allocation (funds vs. direct, stage, lead vs. syndicate), sourcing strategies (markets to source from, accelerators to work with, co-investor networks), human resources (headcount, roles, compensation models, office locations) and return metrics(learnings vs. partnerships vs. financial ROI).
During this phase, we tested several models. We invested mostly in directs, but also sponsored accelerators and became an LP in a fund. We led deals, wrote second-largest check syndicate investments and experimented with “yes over coffee” quick checks. We spent months in major markets and also went on nationwide tours of more than 40 cities to benchmark talent, opportunity and deal values. In the end, we found product-market fit. For entrepreneurs, we were a Future of Home & Retail focused VC sourcing and investing in major markets who can make quick, early-stage direct investment decisions, has a ton of industry-specific knowledge and connections and is willing to facilitate intros both in our building and beyond. For our corporate parent, we were a constant source of later-stage pipeline to innovation partners and an internal strategy team who can develop third-horizon strategic options with market validation. We could literally see the future being created and we became great at piecing it all together and productizing it for use to both constituents.
The few years we had product-market fit and were growing were amazing. Our network was expanding rapidly, our processes were refined and our reputation was stellar. The team had grown to a whopping three full-timers and it was like clockwork. The entrepreneurial market REALLY wanted what we were selling. And the internal market was starting to see what we could drive. We had strong executive champions and it felt like we were on the precipice of something big.
We maintained a steady pace of 4 new investments per year (slow by today’s standards and slow for a financial VC, but solid for a corporate who was cutting its teeth) and followed on to support our portfolio as they raised new rounds. Our market insights landed us spots keynoting the national conferences of Zillow and USAA Homeowners Insurance. I was asked by many of the largest Sand Hill Road firms to come in and share our housing innovation learnings and theses. Life was good.
Market Forces Leading to an “Exit”
Unfortunately for us, the base business was going through some challenges and an activist investor decided it was time for a change of stewardship. I had been warned by my CVC colleagues that management change is the kiss of death (or at least the ultimate challenge to our viability). But I felt so good about what we had done and the reputation we had built. That said, we were not “default alive” which meant we were not set up in a way to live without external funding from our parent. We had presented several options to turn Lowe’s Ventures into an external entity with committed capital so that we could weather such a storm but to no avail. And the change of stewardship focused on a back-to-basics strategy which did not align well with what we were exploring in the third-horizon. Thus, we found ourselves in a funding crunch.
Fortunately, we had built something of value which was able to be sold. In managing those positions to an exit, what was built has already returned multiples of original capital with several category-defining companies still active. And as for those involved, life after Lowe’s Ventures turned out great. My partner in crime who helped me build it from the outset went on to work for one of the largest tech PE firms in the US. And our analyst we hired? He is a founding partner at one of the largest crypto funds in the US. More importantly: they are great people who I would work with again in a heartbeat.
While we didn’t fulfill our mission, we built something to be proud of and learned a ton. We exited our positions with grace, stood by our founders through and after the transition and all three of us still serve entrepreneurs to this day. You may say that what we did was “easy” or that we didn’t really risk anything to build it and, deep down, I agree with some of that sentiment. That is why when people ask me “what have you built, anyway” I have historically said “nothing.” But I am thinking about trying out “Lowe’s Ventures” in the near future.