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[00:34] 614Startups Nation, welcome to another episode of the 614Startups podcast. This is season seven, The Money Issue, and I expect that our guest is not going to disappoint. When we talk money, we’re talking big money right now. We’re talking Drive Capital, the venerable venture firm based here in Columbus, Ohio, and I have a very special guest, Molly Bonakdarpour of Drive Capital. Welcome, Molly.
Molly: [00:59] Thank you. I’m happy to be here.
Elio: [01:01] All right. You see, I get excited when the camera comes on, right?
Molly: [01:03] I like it, and you did a great job with the last name, great job.
Elio: [01:06] Oh, thank you. Thank you. Well, thank you so much for joining me. Let’s jump right into it, okay? For people who don’t know who you are, let’s start with a bit of your background, and then we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of what we’re going to talk about today.
Molly: [01:18] Yeah, so as you said, I work in venture capital, so I invest in early stage companies. So that means we find exciting new companies, and we invest a certain amount of capital into them for a percentage of ownership. And with venture capital, that means it’s minority ownership, we’re not controlling these companies, we’re investing in them and helping them grow and getting to that next stage. We are based here in Columbus, and I lead our health care strategy. So I look at all things health care for Drive Capital, and that’s really where my background is, too. So before Drive, I was actually on the operating side of things. I was at a startup. I was out there trying to figure out how to get our company to grow like everyone else I talked to today. So I think that provides an important perspective as well because I’ve been on the other side of the table, and I’ve made a lot of the mistakes. So hopefully now I can help entrepreneurs avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made and find all new ones to make instead.
Elio: [02:17] Now are you an Ohio native? Are you from outside of the state?
Molly: [02:20] I had actually never been to Columbus before talking to Drive Capital. I am from the East Coast, so I grew up outside of DC, and then lived in Boston, in New York City, and then Chicago before Columbus. So I had no idea what Columbus was going to be like, but I’ve actually absolutely loved it. I’ve been here for almost three years and it’s been phenomenal.
Elio: [02:43] All right. So we got to capture a little bit of that magic in a bottle. What was Drive’s pitch, right? Because we want to attract as much talent– I mean, we got a lot of homegrown talent, right? But one of the things I hear a lot about companies that want to move here is “Tell me about the talent pool. How many people have actually done it?” Because when we want to expand to Ohio, we want to hire the people that can hit the ground running. So what was that Drive pitch to say, “This is where you want to be for the next phase of your career”?
Molly: [03:11] Yeah, yeah. So Drive Capital has very much a Midwest thesis that’s really built on customer proximity. When you think about what can make an early stage company successful, we think being close to your customers and understanding their needs is going to make you more successful. And so that’s the crux and really what Drive Capital is doing. And interestingly, I kind of lived Drive Capital’s thesis before this at the startup I was at before. A company called Livongo Health. We started in Chicago and then when we went to raise our Series A, opened a Mountain View office, so Silicon Valley office. And so we kind of lived the two worlds of Chicago, and the Midwest, and Silicon Valley, and kind of the tech ecosystem that’s there and focused on health care. And so what we saw was definitely the pros of Silicon Valley, but really what stood out are the pros of being in the Midwest and being close to your customers. If you think of health care, the large health systems, the large health plans are all here. And then we also sold to large employers, and the majority of those are going to be between the coasts.
[04:17] So what was interesting is Drive didn’t have to sell me on the thesis of Drive Capital because I kind of lived that and saw the importance of customer proximity. They had to sell me on why Drive Capital and why Columbus is the best place to do that. And that actually, once visiting, it became pretty clear. So I met with the whole team, but also with a number of the portfolio companies that were here. And what stood out was just, you know, they’re solving real problems and going after big problems. And yes, I think that can happen across the country, but what stood out to me was that these were like super meaty, really big problems that people were super passionate about wanted to solve, and saw that they could do that in Columbus. And I think that atmosphere really sold me.
Elio: [05:00] So, you know, in the acting world, actors are always fearful of being typecast. You could play a character so well that people could see you as nothing else. Let’s talk about this whole health care focus thing. Did you just do the health care thing so well that you just got pegged as the person that was going to lead health care, or is health care in your blood, in your bones, you really want to have this as your focus in terms of companies that you invest in?
Molly: [05:27] Yeah, so it’s not mandated. I can invest in any industry that I want. Actually, the investment I will hopefully be closing here shortly is outside of health care. So I don’t have to spend my time in the health care world. It’s just to me, when you think about where you can invest capital and how much impact you can have both from a value standpoint, and from a mission standpoint, health care kind of crosses both of those worlds. It’s not often that you can invest in companies and have those companies literally change people’s lives. And I kind of caught that bug back at Livongo. We had a platform for, initially, diabetes management, and then more broadly, chronic conditions. And so what I saw was just how frankly terrible the existing ecosystem is to help people with chronic conditions manage those better. There’s not a lot of education. We kind of tell people they have this thing, and then say, “Good luck and come back in six months or a year, and we’ll see how you’re doing.” And what happens the other 99% of the time is they’re trying to figure it out on their own. So there’s an opportunity for us to make people’s lives easier while also bringing incredible value to your investors, that’s kind of the holy grail to me. So it’s just been an area that I’ve found myself coming back to over and over again.
Elio: [06:51] Thank you for listening. We’re going to take a quick break and be right back after this message from our sponsor.
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[07:24] All right, so you’re preaching to the choir here, okay. I’m big into health care. In my other life, I work in the health care space. I work especially with seniors. Talk about chronic conditions, right?
Molly: [07:36] Right.
Elio: [07:36] Talk about health care spend. Talk about the end of the spectrum where the numbers really become astronomical, and we’re impact can be made, so I’m sold here. I love the health care space. Now, as you said, and you’re the second person so far in season seven that has said it, is like this is where the customers are. All the buzz about the startup world, and all these people raising all this money, etc. is on the coast, but they sell to the Midwest. So why not build a company here since the customers are here? So I love that thesis of Drive Capital and I understand why it sells. That’s what we’re selling here as well. All right. So for people who have been hiding under a rock, and have never heard of Drive Capital before, what is Drive Capital?
Molly: [08:19] So we are a venture capital firm, and we invest capital into companies. And those companies are going to be typically early stage. And so it’s like “What does early stage mean?” It can mean anything from one or two founders and a vision, where they’re like, “Hey, we have this great idea. We have this unique insight; we need a small amount of capital to get going.” That small amount could be $500,000, it could be a couple million dollars, up to– We are talking to a later early stage company that has product-market fit, they know how to sell their products, they’re growing really nicely, and they just need capital to really put fuel on the fire. And so that could be investing anywhere to up to $50 million. So it’s a pretty wide range of how we invest, and we do that by raising our own funds. So at this point, we have 1.2 billion under management, and that’s across three venture funds and our first expansion fund, which allows us to write checks in those wide ranges of $500,000, up to $50 million.
[09:21] And then after we invest, that’s really when all the work begins. So it’s not about the capital, it’s about helping those companies and increasing their chance of success. So that means helping them with talent. We think after providing capital, the next important thing is finding that next great hire. So we have a phenomenal talent partner in Robert Hatta who does exactly that. The same thing goes for customers. We want to make sure we increase the likelihood of success for finding that next customer, and so we do the same thing with our customer program. And then really layering on those things that we can then help the company succeed we think is extremely important. And then of course the investors would most often take a board seat and be there as advisors and be there to really help the company grow when they need our help.
Elio: [10:07] And Nils over at Drive is creating quite a content house, and so if you want to get into the nitty-gritty of venture and venture thinking and venture math. Chris Olsen has a great video that really explains kind of the mechanics of venture capital. And so if you guys want to go in a deep dive, and you really want to understand how the folks at Drive Capital think, check out the Drive Capital YouTube, you can get a lot more information. And Robert is an alumni of the podcast. This is when I was young, young in the podcasting game, so I don’t know if I was a good host at the time but he did lay out a lot of great points about how you guys approach attracting talent, and helping startups attract talent, so check out that episode as well. Okay, a day in the life of Molly as an investor. You’re in the health care world, you’re looking at deals, what does that look like for you?
Molly: [10:55] Yeah, so I think one part of venture capital, at least for Drive that people aren’t as aware of is it’s extremely outbound driven. And so we spend a lot of our time identifying companies that we think we should invest in. It’s not simply we get a referral or an email, and we’re like, “That company looks cool, we’re going to invest in it.” We’re very outbound driven. So what that means is, we have to have a point of view of what we’re looking for. So that starts for us with what we call market maps. So we build market maps that are effectively a thesis on a segment in the market. So you were talking about seniors, right? So you could think about the seniors within America. And one very, very simple thesis is there are going to be more seniors in 10 years than there are today, but the pace of workers and caregivers are not going to grow at that same rate. And so the gap between number of seniors that need care, and those who can deliver that care is going to widen. So it’s like if you take that view, what do we want to look for? What type of companies should we be investing in? And that could be like the genesis of a market map. And so you build out that view of what you think the future will look like, and then you start reaching out to companies that fit within that market map to help you identify the specific segment you want to invest in, and then within that, that market-defining company that you want to invest in.
[12:17] So to do that, you have to talk to a ton of companies. I think that venture capital can seem glamorous, but there’s a lot of really unglamorous parts, and that’s really where it comes in. You have to put in work to reach out to companies. And oftentimes we hear like, “How did you find us?” because we’re really good at searching for companies, no matter where they’re hidden. So a big part of everyone’s day, is really thinking through those market maps, and then reaching out to companies, and so that will always be part of a day.
[12:50] And then as you make investments, of course, it’s supporting those companies. So I have four investments today and each company requires different levels of support. Sometimes the best thing I can do is just get out of the way and let them do it on their own because I will just be a distraction. And then other times, particularly earlier stage companies, it’s really collaborative, and we’re kind of working together to help them put together that vision and execute on that vision. So any day can involve talking with a bunch of companies, reaching out to a bunch of companies, working with my existing portfolio companies, both in formal and informal ways and then really thinking through that investment thesis. So the fun part is each day is different. Some days are a lot more on the sourcing, some days are a lot more with existing portfolio companies. There used to be a lot of travel involved in our days, but that part has definitely slowed down quite a bit. But it’s a fun way to be able to dig into a bunch of different areas that are exciting to you.
Elio: [13:50] Yeah, I think it’s so enlightening that you shared that philosophy or the way that you guys think about, you call it I think market maps?
Molly: [13:58] Yep.
Elio: [13:59] Okay, so this idea of market maps, right? So I’m going to use a metaphor, It might come crashing down on my head but essentially, there’s this kind of a little bit of a play in the venture space where investors are from Venus, and founders are from Mars. And sometimes it’s hard to understand where each part of this partnership’s mind is right, really understanding the way you guys think. And I think that’s fascinating. I think that’s really enlightening for a lot of people who listen to this show that are first-time founders. Essentially, you guys are going out into markets, and you’re then identifying where you see a potential problem, and then going out and looking for startups who are solving that problem. Oftentimes, founders are starting companies, and maybe they’re passionate about a particular problem, but the problem that the investor is looking for and the problem that the startup is solving may not always be aligned. And a no to the founder is not necessarily a no to your idea. You might not just be talking to the right founder who’s looking where there’s crossover. Do you find that?
Molly: [14:56] I think that’s absolutely the case. I think because we are thematically driven, if we’re not focused on a specific area, then it just might be a wrong fit at that time. And so it’s not that when we say no, that you are not going to be successful, it’s “No, this is not an area where we are actively focused, and so we won’t be able to get that conviction that we need to say yes, and then also help you really grow that business.” And so sometimes it’s truly just “No, it’s not a fit because of different areas of focus”, and it’s not a “No, you have a bad business model.” And the good news is our theses are changing all the time. And so what might not be a fit today could very much become one tomorrow, and we try to move quickly to identify those areas. So it’s rarely a permanent no, it’s just said a no right now. And I do think that’s important for founders to know because I also think it allows founders to do some research ahead of time to say which firms and then which investors are really focused on my area and solving this problem. Because we try to be vocal about it like, “Hey, we’re super interested in this” is a way for us to signal to founders, “If you’re working on this, come talk to us.” And so when founders hear that, definitely pay attention because it’s a way for investors to say, “Hey, I already like the area you are in, so tell me about what you’re working on”, and I think that can help a lot.
Elio: [16:21] We’re going to take a quick break and be right back after this message from our sponsor.
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[17:09] All right, so what happens when you find a deal and you’re like, “Oh, my goodness, this is a unicorn”? You spot one. What’s the process for the investor in terms of getting a conversation started? Do you guys prefer that it’s a warm lead? Because you hear all these things like, “You’re going to cold call them investor? They prefer a warm lead.” Every investor is different. So you see it, what’s your next step? How do you get ahold of people? How does the process work if you guys truly want to engage with them? What’s the due diligence like, that whole process from an investor standpoint?
Molly: [17:38] Yeah, we do not require warm leads or anything. I would say, most often, when we find companies we are really excited about, it’s because we worked really hard to get in front of them. So don’t feel like warm leads are required or some sort of connection. Again, it comes back to being thematically driven. We are going to reach out to companies we’re very excited about. So sometimes that part’s hard, you know, we have to find different ways in to get in front of the founder and really hear the story. But once we have, and because of all the work we do ahead of time in the market, we can move very quickly when we find that exciting company because what you don’t want is your process to keep you from investing in that company. It’s really hard to identify companies that fit within your themes, that you have a strong conviction on, and that you’ve already gotten your partnership really excited about. So once you do, the last thing you want is for your internal process to hinder your ability to invest. So we spent a lot of time doing diligence on the market, on what we’re looking for, the types of products we want ahead of finding that perfect company. And I say perfect because no company is perfect, but the one that fits our thesis.
[18:55] And so once we do, it’s really about getting the rest of the partnership up to speed, moving as quickly as we can to pull in all the relevant data. And again, it’s going to be much more focused on that specific company and less on the market that they’re focused on because we’ve already done that part. And then we get them in front of the whole partnership to do a formal presentation, and usually, we can make a decision very quickly after that. So we’ve had some of our deals, you know, it went from first meeting to term sheet in a week and a half. And then from that to close is another 30 days. So you can move extremely quickly in those situations. I mean, that’s probably out of date. I think we’ve done it even faster at this point. But you can only do that if you take a thematic approach, and I think we pride ourselves in that approach.
Elio: [19:44] Yeah, and let’s talk about friction. Like you were talking about it’s like, “Hey, I want to work with an investor that we can go from initial engagement all the way through funding really, really quickly. So what are some of the things you’re like, “Oh my god, this is so basic. Why don’t you guys have this? We want to give you the money, but you’re making it hard for us to give you the money”? What are some things that you just expect founders should be able to turn over to you on a flash drive or in some kind of secure way that you receive documents from startups? What are those just basic things that you’re requesting from people in order to get your process started?
Molly: [20:21] Yeah, it’s going to vary based on the stage. So an extremely early stage company isn’t going to have nearly as much information on their unit economics because they might not be selling anything yet. But let’s say it’s a company in the market today, what we really want to see is that they have a strong understanding of their existing unit economics. So how are you acquiring customers, and what’s the cost today? What is your payback period? Is that improving? Same thing goes for retention. What are your customer logo retentions, dollar retentions? And it doesn’t mean it has to be perfect because it rarely is, but it shows that companies are thinking about how to build the business in the right way. And then, of course, there’s going to be some difference for enterprise businesses versus direct to consumer businesses. But again, it’s all about understanding the fundamentals of each company and if they are approaching the market in the right way. And it could be, “Hey, our payback period is long right now, but it’s because we’re really focused on getting out into market and getting that distribution and we’re seeing that trending down, so we’re comfortable with it.” There’s no right or wrong answer. It’s just if they have no idea it means they’re not thinking about how to build their business in the right way.
Elio: [21:34] Yeah, so there has to be some path to profitability, right?
Molly: [21:37] It depends what you mean by profitability. So I think there are two different– Sometimes we conflate different terms. I think it’s really easy to sell something that’s worth $1 for 90 cents. Turns out, if you say, “Hey, I have this thing that’s valuable, and I’m going to sell it to you for less than that”, people are like, “Cool, I’ll buy that because I’m making money.” So that is not sustainable. But if your unit economics are strong, and yet you’re reinvesting that profit into the company so that you’re still not profitable, that is okay to us. That from our perspective means you’re investing in your future growth, and you’re comfortable with the fact that you need to hire more engineers to build out the future product. And so yes, you’re losing money each month, but the fundamental unit economics are strong. So that’s how I would just be careful of those two different things.
Elio: [22:27] Yes, you know, media guy using terms loosely, keep it together. Is that what you’re saying to me?
Molly: [22:32] Well, no, no. I think it’s just they get mixed up all the time. And from our perspective, it’s okay to not be profitable, but it’s hard to build a business where you sell something that’s worth $1 for 90 cents, and it’s much easier to do that.
Elio: [22:47] I have a pen here. I’m taking notes, okay? I’m learning as we go. So unit economics, extremely important. Profitability, not always, conflating two terms. Got it. Now, talk about vindication of this market map strategy in thinking about problems that exist and then looking for companies that are solving the problem. You guys went one step further with Root Insurance, which was you saw this problem and you went out looking for founders who were willing to start a company to solve that problem, at least that’s what I understand happened with Root insurance. And your understanding of that market map has proven so prescient that Root Insurance has filed for an IPO estimated at what $6 billion? So if there was ever a case study on the approach that you guys are taking about really understanding markets and then going out to find companies that are solving the problem in that market, I think Root Insurance would be the poster child for that. What does an exit like Root Insurance mean for Drive Capital?
Molly: [23:59] Well, so I want to be careful here because they’re still in their process. So I’m going to put aside them specifically, and just talk more– I think insurance is a perfect example of when you can be thematic within your investment thesis, you’re able to go deep on what can be a complicated industry like insurance and find subject matter experts that can build really big companies that can have an impact. So we have other insurance companies in our portfolio today, Beam Dental, and actually, we’ll have one more here shortly, and we’re thinking about adding additional ones. And it’s a perfect example of when you really focus on a market, you have an opportunity to build meaningful companies.
Elio: [24:41] Okay. I need my legal counsel and this ear saying, “Oh, no, you can’t really ask that.” You see, I got to get my team together, Molly, we’re getting there. Okay, so let’s switch gears a little bit. Let’s talk about what you’re thinking about right now. What are some things you’re looking at, and companies that you’re searching for that you would be very, very excited if you came across a company solving a particular problem in health care? What’s top of mind for you in health care right now?
Molly: [25:05] Yeah, there are a few things. I’d say one is a very simple thesis around access to care. We have a lot of things that keep us from getting the care we need when we need it. And when you kind of go down what that means, obviously, there’s how technology can impact how care is delivered with what we’re seeing in virtual care. There’s also I think, what is super interesting is how care is paid for. So we’ve been spending – I guess back to the insurance theme, spending a lot of time in thinking about how to apply our learnings in insurance to health insurance. Are there ways to find unique data sets, and really rethink how you underwrite for health insurance in a way that is better for the people that are getting that insurance? I think we’d all agree today, health insurance doesn’t really feel like insurance anymore because you have a huge deductible before you even get the benefit, to the point where there are now insurance plans for your deductible. So you shouldn’t have to get insurance for your insurance. So I think anyone who is really thinking through cool ways of redoing the health insurance world is something that’s super interesting to us.
[26:11] And then the other one is something we’re calling machine discovered medicine. So we are collecting so much data today, whether you’re sequencing the genome, or the proteome, or the metabolome. And we’re getting data from medical records, you’re getting it from medical images, but humans can’t synthesize all that information anymore. We need machines to come in, and step in and do what they do best, which is identify patterns and serve up actionable insights to humans. And we see that impacting everything from drug discovery and development to clinical trials to diagnoses and treatments and kind of long term monitoring. We have an investment on the kind of drug discovery and development side called Cyclica, but we see opportunities in other aspects of it as well. So that’s one that we continue to spend quite a bit of time in as well.
Elio: [27:01] Well, hey, this has been super informative. Now, guys, you have to listen to podcasts like this with a pen out, taking some notes. You can’t tell Molly that she didn’t share with you exactly what the market map is. You can’t be like, “Well, what is Molly investing in?” Like if you listen to this podcast, and then you call Molly and say, “Oh, what are you excited about? What are you looking to invest in?”, we can’t help you, okay? Nobody can help you because you laid it out. Access to care, virtual provision of care, paying for care, how do you underwrite health care to improve our health care system, and then machine discovered medicine. Guys, there’s the map.
Molly: [27:40] There you go.
Elio: [27:40] Solve the problem, then holla at Molly. All right, so Molly, let’s talk about what you’re thinking about what Drive is thinking about over the next five years. So let’s just call that the short term strategy for Drive, and then maybe one thing that you have learned so far now. You’ve gone from the operation seat to an investor seat that you didn’t know before. Five years, and then what have you learned in this new chair that you sit in.
Molly: [28:07] Yes, I think for Drive, it’s really about continuing to expand our vision to more and more of the market. So I think what started as that kind of Midwest focus thesis is really, we see the next emerging market in technology as America. It’s no longer just Silicon Valley, it’s truly across America where you can see impactful technologies being built. And so when I think of the next five years, it’s us continuing to invest thematically but in a broader market, and really building out Drive Capital so we can do that, which is, I suppose, kind of a boring answer, but we’re very focused on really proving out our process and our thesis-driven approach. So I think that would be what you see from us. And then, of course, just continuing to develop all of the investors within Drive. I joined Drive three years ago from the operating side. Like you said, I was not a long-term investor that knew exactly what I was doing. I came in, and they really had to teach me the right approach to investing. And I think we’re going to keep trying to do that with as many really smart people as we can, and really bring them up through the Drive Capital way.
[29:20] So I guess in terms of what I’ve learned, I mean, the biggest difference from operating to investing is that feedback loop. So when you’re an operator, particularly at a startup, it’s like you make a decision, you go, you see the impact of that decision, and you get feedback. And then you change it a bit because you got it a little wrong and then you go, get feedback. And so it’s like decision, feedback, change, decision, feedback, change, and you just can do that over and over again. In investing, that feedback loop is years. So it’s about finding the early indicators that will help you identify whether you think you’re on the right path. You make a handful of investments each year and you see how those investments are doing over the next five to 10 years. So it’s a bit about not celebrating what you think is a win before things are over and not getting really down on what you think is a big blow before things are over because it is definitely a roller coaster ride and starting to kind of even out as that process goes is one of the biggest learnings.
Elio: [30:30] Awesome. Molly, thank you so much for joining me on this episode. Every episode I end with my one takeaway, and I think it’s the Oracle of Delphi, the Temple of Delphi, but Molly, you are the Oracle of Drive Capital and you’re telling the people “know thy market”. Thank you so much for joining us on another episode. Peace.
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