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Video interview with Amy Errett, Partner Maveron. Amy has more than 25 years of business and operating expertise as a leading entrepreneur, senior executive and social-mission visionary. Her focal points are emerging Web enabled consumer trends, e-commerce social shopping, and online education. Amy currently serves on the Altius Education, General Assembly, Latimer Education, Livemocha, SAY Media and Sway boards of directors. Amy’s multifaceted career has ranged from the online Web 2.0 media industry to the offline consumer marketplace, and has stretched as far as volunteer nonprofit leadership.
Transcript follows & video above
I was wondering what your sweet spots or themes are that you love to invest in?
We only invest in consumer so anything that is b2b is not really for us. So in the context of consumer 3 areas: health & wellness, education & consumer internet. Then within those there are obviously deep theses about what we think is happening in each one of those sectors. Everything from what’s happening in ecommerce to marketplaces to consumer finance. In the case of education, doing a lot in the online space where technology seems to be taking out this notion that you’d have to physically be there to be educated. Lots of content that can be repurposed. Then in Health & Wellness we just have a deep belief that consumer’s responsibility for their health is becoming not just awareness because of fitness but healthcare, healthcare records, how doctors interact with consumers, those kinds of things.
So more empowerment issues then?
Empowerment issues & life style issues. Yeah.
Fabulous. Could you tell me do you invest in many women entrepreneurs or women founders?
We’d like to. I’d say we do invest in situations where we’ve been able to find women. I think that one of the big issues is I meet & see a disproportionate number of men, compared to women. A current investment we made was 2 women that met on the soccer field thinking about what they were going to do after they had their kids. They formed a company that is a direct marketing company for handbags that they designed, a multi level marketing business. It’s off to the races doing well! Founded by women in a life style issue for women & most of the stylists that they have actually hired are women & their customers are women. What we have found is that where we can find businesses where there’s the whole basis of funding consumer based companies is really about finding places where consumers have an emotional connection to some upper end & we’ve found that many of our successful companies are women. So it’s just an interesting thing that we haven’t been able to find more & more women that we can fund. But certainly, even for me personally (it’s kind of a personal mission). I’m an ex operator, so my deep experience before becoming an investor was actually being the person that ran businesses & started up businesses. So obviously I have a pre-disposed piece of me that would like to help foster that & mentor that & fund it.
And I’m sure you add great value to those companies that you do invest in, apart from the investment?
Here’s what I say, I don’t think there’s any analytical data that suggests that people that were operators versus people that were more just investors do better than others. I think what you probably could say, probably a reasonable assumption is that most likely around the boardroom, people that are operators might be able to zone in on what’s most helpful to entrepreneurs. Because there’s a level of you’ve done it before, you have empathy for it or you realize the full scale of the complexity of what needs to happen, you tend not to be in it for just the sheer financial return. But you do it because I think, great operators have done it & hopefully have had some level of success, whether that be financial or whether that be spiritual or whatever you want to call it, I think want to pay it forward. Somebody did that for them, somebody wanted to help them or teach them. So part of my philosophy is finding places where my skill set can be additive if not dilutive. And often investors can be dilutive. Really honing in on are the skills that I bring, my network, Maveron the firm’s network additive & can really move the dial faster for somebody than someone else. Because capital is capital.
I know that many people speak about the problem of lack of mentorship for women. Would you have any comments or ideas about how we could change that?
Well let me backup & say I look at problems from a very interesting perspective, I think. Which is I don’t think they’re just problems that emerge. I think they’re symptoms of a number of different pieces of things in life that kind of converge & then all of a sudden poof there’s a problem. So the outcome of this problem could very well be that there’s not enough mentors for women. So let’s trace back why that is. I think it’s some of the same reasons honestly why there’s a lack of women getting funded or a smaller number of women that are actually looking to be funded. A lot of it is because, at least in venture this very much for a long time was a cottage industry. It was an industry if you just trace back the history (& by the way I think it should go back to some of its roots versus where it is now). It’s a history that was about ex-operators kind of paying it forward & mentoring people to start businesses & putting their own capital to work. As the business grew it became more of an asset class that then had investors that were more professional investors & then they became more institutionalized & so on & so forth. So if you think about the pool of people to be funded would be, it was typically a pool of people that came from an embedded network & if the majority of that network were men, especially in Silicon Valley in technology: engineering. I have a daughter & I’m focused every single day on making her do science projects & giving her robotics & transformers & legos because I’m convinced that this is a culmination of a lot of things that tells little girls that become teenagers that become women that they’re not good in math & science or they’re not good at engineering or they’re not good at technology. That isn’t feasible, they have to go into non-profit or HR or softer squishier things. So when you trace all of that back, I think movement in women in the workforce has been much more about even small companies being formed by women that aren’t venture backed. Or women going into large companies, where large companies have recognized the dearth & have tried in many cases to bring more women in. Now whether or not those women get to be in senior positions is a separate subject. But when it comes to venture backed companies, many of those come from an ecosystem that comes out of the valley or comes out of a place where I was in a startup, I was one or two in a company & I decided to leave to get my own startup or I had a financial liquidity event so I want to go do it again. And most of the time that’s men. So some of it is not embedded bias. I don’t believe there’s some kabal. I don’t believe that there’s a secret group of men that are plotting to not have women be funded. I just don’t basically believe that. Though what I do believe though is that the ecosystem isn’t easy to break into. And I believe that the ecosystem doesn’t have an organic on ramp. So what that requires is a concerted effort to increase the on ramp. So that is a very long winded answer to a simple question that you asked is mentorship. So I think that some of the issue is creating situations where women recognize that they have the goods, they have the ability to be great startup people. I think that some of it is that in this generation, I believe that there will be women that will be now have liquidity events which will start the fly wheel going. I also believe that one of the things that we’re starting to see online are much more opportunities that are by women for women because women do make 85% of the purchasing decisions in this country. Many of them are online a lot in these purchasing decisions. All of a sudden you get things like media, fashion, certain kinds of commerce businesses, businesses for women by women & you start to see those really scaling. You start to say Geez women really understand those problems as well as anybody else. You get a couple of those that get successful, the flywheel starts & I think we have the opportunity but it’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to happen because dads & moms & schools kind of understand that we have the ability to be good mathematicians. So it’s not just wiring, it’s as I call it, Life is made up all the time of ability & willingness. I think there’s organic ability in the brains of women. I think the question is do we construct the ability for them to engage & get success around the willingness. I think that’s the same thing about funding them.
Something that I’ve heard over & over again is that women lack confidence or they don’t tend to push themselves as much as men. Sometimes the men come in & are quite brash & bold & the women come in holding back & not as confident or not talking as big as the guys. Do you think that this is a problem that’s holding women back & also do you think that that is contributing to the mentoring problem where women don’t feel that they’ve got anything to offer to mentor or help other women.
I’m going to answer it in a couple of different ways. I’d say my experience has not been that women that come in are not as brash. I don’t know if the word is brash. I do think that men & women have different styles & I don’t think one is more compelling than the other. I think it is a function of the fact, I think it’s a different issue. I think the issue is not how they show up in the meeting but do they even get the meeting. I think the issue is this, that women inherently aren’t really raised most of us to believe that we have the right to just pick up the phone & use our network & call a whole bunch of people & just don’t take no for an answer. We don’t come at the world thinking Well of course they’re going to see me, It’s my right. It’s usually Oh I don’t want to impose. In some ways when I even hear myself saying it it seems kind of insulting or self serving but it’s more about a place of a lack of, if you will, ego that creates some way for you not to stand out. It starts somehow because it’s very rare to get a woman that becomes tenacious enough to get any meeting that they want to get. So when women do, it’s sort of like Oh she was really special because she was a real fire cracker. I’ve had situations where a woman comes in & does a pitch & just nails it. A guy could come in & nail it & the comment when the guy leaves is not What a go getter! But when the woman leaves its What a fire cracker or What a go getter! Now I’m not sure it’s good or bad but what I’m saying is that there’s almost like a different expectation level that the world has. Again I don’t think it’s sexism or misogyny or any of those things that often people label these things & then they become a self fulfilling prophecy. Like if you look in the world for anything you could find it. If you actually look for anything, racism, homophobia, ageism anything you can find it. There are examples of sexist behaviors. But you either decide that that’s not where you’re going to live your life or you decide that you’re going to live your life leveraging & making the positive change so that isn’t the base line perception. Again you asked me a very simple question & I’ve given you…. there’s a theme in here, a complex answer. Because I think that these are complex issues & so I don’t necessarily think that women come in & they underwhelm people. I think it’s a whole set of various elements that contribute to people’s reaction in the room, whether the women are even getting the meeting or not, how they’re using their network. Just look at our profession, the amount of investment dealflow that I get on a weekly basis & anybody, it’s not just me, gets – you have more options than you have opportunities to deploy time & capital. The truth of it is is that stuff that really comes to your attention rises to the top of the level. If somebody is not really using their network or not really pushing, in a certain way they’re not going to potentially not get the same attention, not by design but by product.
One entrepreneur mentioned to me that she felt that her receptivity was often misconstrued. She said that she would often like to listen to people rather than continue to put her opinion out & obviously to integrate that & work out whether or not that was true or not. Often she felt that because of that people thought she wasn’t pushy enough or wasn’t putting her own opinions out as much. That really rang a bell with me, because I know that a lot of women just naturally can be receptive. I mean we’re sort of made that way, we have to look after children & people that don’t have all those communication skills. So we have to be able to receive what’s happening with them. I see that can be a strength obviously but maybe in this culture or in this particular scenario where women are having to go for funding of push their startup, maybe there is some detrimental cultural perceptions about that. What would you think?
I can see that but I also think that this is why my core belief in life around entrepreneurs being funded & investors, is that finding the right strategic alignment between what the entrepreneur wants & needs & what the investor can give those wants & needs. That marriage, that partnership is not just Oh I’ll give you capital. Si having said that I think that really good investors know what right looks like for them & they know what their skills can contribute. So for instance we tend to be a partnership that doesn’t judge somebody on how they necessarily come in & make the pitch. We try to get to know people over an elongated period of time. Because you could find that somebody doesn’t do well in a room that doesn’t mean that they will be a bad CEO or a bad entrepreneur. You can read the Steve Jobs book & see that there were some dynamics there that didn’t necessarily transfer to human skills & the guy was unbelievable. He changed the world! We have example after example after example that not one type of personality makes for a fantastic leader or CEO or a person that can be successful in a startup. So I think that the issue really is are you the kind of investor that is making a decision based on a partnership meeting where somebody’s got an hour to impress you. Or are you the kind of investor that says You know what I really need to get to know you & I want you to get to know me. And I want to see over some period of time where theres the ability to marry what we can offer, earn the right to give you money & see whether or not you have the needs & wants that gives us what we need in terms of return. I think in the case of this company that we recently funded, we got to know these women over a period of time. It didn’t have to do with that they were women or men, that it was the right partnership.
Wow that’s a great model & hopefully more venture capitalists will take that one up? I think it sounds like it would work better in the female community because it’s about building relationships. Then everyone is a lot more sure rather than racing into something that might not work.
Having been an operator myself, it’s very rare that somebody comes in & gives me an investor presentation & it works out the way they said it would, especially early stage. The whole point is that you are investing in something that is a concept. You’re investing in a market that is big enough presumably, a product that resonates with you but you’re really investing in the people. So what I say to people all the time, most people wouldn’t get married after a one hour meeting. They might & who knows it might work better? But all I’m getting at is that this is very much our philosophy. There are some firms that are exactly like that. So I think for women that’s a good advantage.
It certainly aligns with a philosophy that I have. I’ve been helping entrepreneurs pitch & my piece is try & engage the investor rather than just to hammer them with information. Again I think that’s just the seed of what you’re saying, is about creating some sort of relationship & report rather than just spewing forth a pitch.
Absolutely delightful to talk to you today Amy. It’s been fabulous & I wish you all the best with the firm.
Thanks well I think you’re doing a great thing here. Thanks for taking this topic & spreading the message.