I worked for Yvon and Malinda in the mid-’90s, first heading up the “technical” products group (all the sport-specific products requiring specialized fabrics and construction), and then leading the effort to build the company’s first online store. I was just 26 when I started there, in way over my head professionally, and still trying to figure out how to reconcile my interest in business with my desire to make the world a better place. For me, at that moment in my life, Patagonia was the perfect place to try to understand how those two often-conflicting value systems could be brought into (uneasy) balance.
Eventually my passion for the Internet pulled me away from Patagonia’s cozy home in Ventura up to the Bay Area, and then on to Seattle. But the path that Yvon showed me – brought freshly into focus with yesterday’s news – is the same one I’m still trying to walk today.
But wait, you’re saying to yourself, you’re a venture capitalist; isn’t that among the darkest of the dark arts? How does the growth-at-any-cost world of VC have anything to do with making the world a better place?
Nearly 30 years ago these were the same kinds of questions I found myself asking Yvon and Malinda about their business. At the time, each senior leader was required to write a monthly letter to the two of them, outlining their activities but also raising issues or posing questions about the business that only the founders could address. Malinda in particular was known for reading each letter carefully, often sending it back with red-ink notes in the margin, responding on behalf of them both. Many of my letters to them found me struggling with the tension at the heart of their business: how does a company that sells affluent people more stuff they don’t need reconcile that with its stated goal of serving the environment?
Yvon’s answer to this question came in the form of a Zen parable: the “goal” of business isn’t profit, it’s to pursue your craft with a total focus on right action at each step. The process itself is the work, and if practiced with diligence over many years it will produce positive financial results, but only as “exhaust”, a side effect of having done the work correctly along the way.
The Chouinards never accepted the traditional rules of business, always finding a way to do the work that allowed them to be their authentic selves while also building a for-profit business that survived and thrived in an industry known for cyclical churn. Their decision to put the business in trust is just the latest twist in a lifetime journey of succeeding by doing things differently.
Patagonia is a global brand with $1B in annual revenue, Founder’s Co-op is a regional VC fund nobody’s ever heard of, with barely $100M under management. But when I read about Yvon and Malinda’s recent decision I felt a welcome jolt of recognition.
Every day, Aviel and I wrestle with the same questions I struggled to answer almost 30 years ago: how do we build a business that both works and does right? How do we take care of our founders, our LPs, our families and our communities, all at the same time? Where are we getting it wrong, and how can we do better?
We already know we’re outliers in the blue-shirts-and-khakis world of venture capital. We’re self-taught VCs, having never worked at any investment firm but our own. For 14 years we’ve practiced our craft in a city that’s barely acknowledged as mattering to the global software business (despite decades of outperformance by firms large and small). In an industry that relies on Asset Under Management as the ultimate marker of both power and wealth, we’ve deliberately kept our partnership and fund sizes small. Over time, we’ve learned that certain types of founders and business models run counter to our values and we don’t choose to work with them, no matter how much money we think we might make by doing so.
None of this makes us better than any other VC firm out there. It just means we get to bring our whole selves to work every day. That’s the gift that every founder earns the right to by sticking their neck out to build something new.
When you bring your authentic self into the world it inspires others, even if it takes a while. That’s what Yvon and Malinda taught me, and that’s our goal for the founders we back: to have the courage and strength to be 100% yourself, in life and in work, whatever that means to you. Founders are the most powerful force for good the world has ever known. If we pick the right people, and support them in the right way, everything else will come.
Welcoming Goodbill to the Founders’ Co-op family (and the best compliment a VC can ever receive)
February 3, 2022 - Chris DeVore
We’re excited to announce our investment in Goodbill, a new consumer advocate that spots and fixes overcharges in hospital bills. We’re even more excited to be sharing this investment with our friends at Maveron, a Seattle-based venture firm with an amazing track record in consumer-first investing. And we’re over the moon to be working with Goodbill co-founders Patrick Haig and Ian Sefferman for the second time.
We named our firm Founders’ Co-op because we believe that extraordinary founders – not clever ideas or VC cash – are the bedrock of startup value creation over time. The highest compliment we can ever receive is when a team of founders we’ve had success with in the past – and who because of their success could raise from any investor they choose – decide to partner with us again on their next company.*
I met Ian Sefferman back in 2008 when he was a developer at Amazon and we had just started Founders’ Co-op. He’d built a side project that he thought might be a company and wanted feedback on his idea. I backed him as one of our first fund investments and together we learned what it means for founders and investors to build a company together.
Along the way I was introduced to a second-year UW Law student who was growing disillusioned with the idea of practicing law and was interested in startups. I introduced him to Ian, and before long Patrick Haig had dropped out of law school to join Ian as a co-founder. Their company was ultimately acquired by TUNE, which was in turn acquired by Toronto-listed Constellation Software, a happy outcome all around.
Ian and Patrick’s next project was a startup studio – Undefined – focused on health and wellness opportunities. As much as I loved working with them both, our founder-centric worldview makes us wary of the studio model, so we stayed in touch but didn’t invest (a choice that can sometimes sour a relationship for obvious reasons). But when Patrick reached out just before the holidays to say that he and Ian had fallen in love with one of their studio research projects and decided to go all in again as co-founders, we said yes without a second thought.
Healthcare payments in America are a Byzantine mess, and customers are regularly hit with surprise bills for thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars. Medical bills are reported to be the number one cause of U.S. personal bankruptcy; they’re also rife with mistakes and overcharges that are difficult for consumers to spot and even harder to challenge.
Goodbill uses the power of software and machine learning to spot inaccuracies in medical bills and negotiate on the customer’s behalf to have those charges reduced or removed, saving hundreds to thousands of dollars per error. It’s still early days for Goodbill’s offering but their solution is already sparking excitement from customers and consumer medical advocates alike.
We’re thrilled to be working with old friends to solve this important problem. You can add your name to their waitlist here or take advantage of their first product here to help you get reimbursed for at-home COVID test purchases.
* We were curious so we looked it up: over 25% of our investments over the past few years have been with founders we’d backed previously – higher than we thought, and a number that makes us feel good about our repeat rate while also leaving plenty of room for new people and ideas.
Reflections on Overnight Success
September 23, 2021 - Chris DeVore
Today Seattle fintech unicorn Remitly (NASDAQ:RELY) begins its journey as a public company. This is obviously a huge milestone for the founders, not to mention the 1,600+ employees who have joined them along the way. It’s a different kind of milestone for me as an investor: 10 years ago I led the company’s Seed round and joined the board, where I served until the Series C. Today marks the first time in my investing life that an investment I led at Seed has made it all the way to its Wall Street debut.
I know this is a familiar experience for many of my peers in Venture Capital. And 10 years is a long time to wait in any career before achieving an important milestone. But for me, and for the investment partnership I co-founded, it still feels like a moment worth celebrating.
Today I’m feeling both lucky and grateful to have met the founders of Remitly when I did. Matt, Josh and Shivaas helped me learn early in my VC career what good really looked like. Not for their feats of “blitzscaling” or similar startup hype-factory nonsense, but for exactly the opposite: for methodically building a product and a culture that delivers real value to real people, with genuine care for the humans involved, fused with a relentless desire to get better every day, no matter how many days it takes.
Every founding team is unique, but my journey with Remitly, beginning as early as it did, helped me to see the raw excellence hidden in those that came later, from Outreach and Auth0, to Bluecore and Amperity, Ally and Level Ten Energy, Shelf Engine, Routable, Comet ML and a dozen others whose names you haven’t heard yet (but I expect you will). Along the way, I had the incredible good fortune to team up with a founder from our first fund — Aviel Ginzburg — as my investing partner. Our shared decade-plus as investors in over 250 companies — both as VC partners and in our roles leading Seattle’s Techstars programs — has built a foundation of trust, experience and craft that makes even our bad days good, and our best days better than “work” has any right to be.
The world of software investing has changed dramatically since we started Founders’ Co-op back in 2008. Things that seem obvious now — the collapsing cost of starting a software company, the corresponding ascendance of Seed (and now Pre-Seed) as the first institutional funding stage, the steady erosion of Bay Area dominance in company formation and the related rise of new centers of excellence in Seattle, Austin, New York, LA and beyond — all of these were unknowns when I began my journey as a venture investor.
I fell in love with the Internet back in 1993 and spent my first 15 years as a founder/operator, creating and launching Patagonia’s first online store, bootstrapping an ecommerce software startup to $15M in revenue before selling it to a public acquirer, co-founding — and failing at — a venture-backed startup, before switching roles to help other founders as an investor at the earliest stage.
The ‘aha’ moment for me came after moving back to my hometown of Seattle after many years in California. Founding a company here, even with the support of local and Bay Area VCs, was ten times harder than bootstrapping my first company in San Francisco had been. From raising money, to attracting great talent, to finding a local peer group of high-performing founders, building a startup in Seattle was frustratingly, unnecessarily hard. In a market so rich in engineering talent and an incredible — if concentrated — history of tech wealth creation, that seemed like a problem worth solving.
Like any startup journey, the years have been short but the days long. As a self-taught VC I learned my most important lessons the hard way. And the most enduring lesson of all is how long it takes to build anything of real value, whether it’s a company, a venture firm, or a startup ecosystem.
The venture industry values speed above all else, but today I know that every story of overnight success you read in the trades has been carefully pruned and compressed to create the illusion that the journey was both short and wildly successful from the beginning. Not only is that a misleading and disheartening lie to first-time founders, it dishonors the grit, craft and resilience of those few founding teams who do make it all the way to the public markets.
Ten years later, Seattle is still mostly a company town, where big employers like Amazon and Microsoft dominate the talent market and founders have to be twice as capable, persistent and resilient to raise their first institutional round. I still feel like an outsider in the very insider-y business of Venture Capital. And I still have so much to learn. But today I’m feeling grateful for my amazing investing partner, the extraordinary founders we’ve backed along the way, and all we’ve learned and done together that has brought us to this point. Go Remitly, and thank you Matt, Josh and Shivaas.
Announcing Founders’ Co-op V
March 1, 2021 - Chris DeVore
Aviel and I are thrilled to share the news that we’ve just closed a new fund, our fifth, and at $50M our largest yet.
In most ways, this is just business as usual. Our LPs, many of whom are founders themselves, love our commitment to being first and fast, writing high-conviction pre-seed and seed checks to the best technical founding teams in the Pacific Northwest. We have an enviable track record of helping those founders raise from the best later-stage investors in the world. And with over 200 companies in our combined portfolios, we’ve assembled the most powerful founder support network in the region.
What’s different this time is mostly how the world has changed around us.
When we started Founders’ Co-op back in 2008, Seattle was still a company town. Amazon and Microsoft dominated the market for talented software developers. The Bay Area still reigned supreme as the center of the startup universe. And billion-dollar startups were so rare they didn’t even have a name.
Five funds and over $100M later, the world looks different.
Seattle has become one of the most important cities in the world for cutting-edge engineering in cloud, machine learning, and enterprise software. Every global tech leader has a footprint here, many employing thousands of developers locally, creating a vibrant and highly liquid talent market.
At the same time, the Bay Area’s dominance of startup culture has eroded, partly due to a recurring failure of civic leadership, accelerated by COVID and the shift to remote work. Meanwhile, our company town has become a place where ambitious founders increasingly choose to build their startups and raise their families, even if the growth capital they need still comes from somewhere else.
We were lucky enough to team up with many of these founders at the beginning of their journeys, writing the first institutional checks into a growing herd of Seattle unicorns like Remitly, Outreach and Auth0. We created the Techstars Seattle and Alexa Accelerator programs to bring the community together around the region’s most promising founding teams from the very beginning. And we partnered with the University of Washington to house all these activities on the UW campus, injecting a new current of entrepreneurial energy into the region’s flagship research university.
So while a new fund doesn’t change much about who we are and what we do, our market is on the verge of an explosive wave of entrepreneurial growth, and we couldn’t be more excited to partner with the next generation of amazing founders at the beginning of the best startup decade this region has ever seen.
We want to express our deep gratitude to the fund investors who make it possible for us to do our work (many of whom have been with us since the beginning), and to the extraordinary founders who have welcomed us into their lives as investors and business partners. We love what we do and feel lucky we get to take another swing.
As founders-turned-VCs, Aviel and I have always relied on the “golden rule” principle — treating founders the way we wish we had been treated when we were in their shoes — when deciding how to build our own firm here at Founders’ Co-op.
As operators, we were lucky to raise from some pretty amazing VC role models, people like Brad Feld at Foundry Group, Ethan Kurzweil at Bessemer Venture Partners, and Karan Mehandru at Trinity Ventures. But along the way we experienced many of the behaviors Fred’s post talks about, so we know how awful the experience of raising VC can be.
Our first reaction to reading Fred’s post was that, by relying on our own experiences and learning over our 10-plus years and 200-plus early-stage investments, we’ve developed a strong shared view of what our customer experience should feel like. But one thing that really jumped out at us was how bad a job we’ve done at telling founders exactly what they can expect from us.
A wish becomes a promise when you put it in writing. This post is our first attempt to lay out our customer experience promise to the founders we work with, so that anyone we engage with knows what to expect, and so we can be held accountable for failing to live up to our ideals.
In the process of writing this post we realized we had a lot to say on the topic. Since most founders are too busy to read long blog posts, here’s the tl;dr:
– Tell the Truth – Be Fast – Give First – It’s Your Company – Be Human
For those with more time, here’s what we mean by all that…
Tell the Truth
Success in venture investing is random and unpredictable. Ideas that start out bad often get better over time as founders learn and adapt. Weak teams can get stronger as co-founders come and go. The instinct in venture is to never close a door on a founder or investment opportunity, because maintaining optionality over time is how you get into that one great deal when the time is ripe.
From the founder’s perspective, this makes it seem like every VC is a pathological grin-fucker. Everyone wants to be your friend and nobody will tell you your baby is ugly, and yet somehow they also don’t want to write you a check today, for reasons they can never quite explain in a way that feels true. So you wander from fancy office to fancy office, never knowing where you stand and just wishing someone would be honest with you for once about what they like and don’t like about your team, your company and your opportunity.
Our promise to founders is to always tell the truth. If we like something, we’ll tell you we like it and try to explain the reasons why. If we don’t like something, we’ll do the same. And if we aren’t sure what we think, because we don’t know enough yet and need more time to see if we can get our heads around it, we’ll tell you that too. But we won’t use that last one as a ploy to string you along and buy time to see if something changes that makes us like it more. Which brings us to:
No professional is more time-crunched than a seed-stage founder. Every single function that is staffed by a senior leader and their supporting team in later stages — from product, engineering, sales, marketing, finance, operations, and customer success, to taking out the trash and resetting the WiFi router — is 100% on the shoulders of you and your co-founders. Wasting a founder’s time is stealing their most precious resource, and reflects at best a lack of empathy, at worst a lack of respect.
Between our own fund investing and our years as Techstars Managing Directors, Aviel and I have participated in and coached founders through over 200 seed-stage financings. We’ve seen every possible flavor of time-wasting VC behavior, from never-ending requests for additional “diligence” information (this for companies with typically less than a year of operating history and often no product or customers), to weeks or months of inconclusive meeting requests involving a shifting cast of characters and no clear decision-maker, to outright ghosting without even the courtesy of a polite ‘no’.
Our promise to founders is to never waste your time. Aviel and I are the only people you need to talk to to get an investment decision. If it’s a no, we’ll tell you within 24 hours or we’ll explain why we need more time. If it’s a yes, we’ll tell you we’re headed that way and what we need to learn in the following week or two to make it official. There should never be enough distance between our final answer and our last interaction to leave a founder surprised. And while we have to gather certain information to protect our investors and make sure we understand how you think about your business, we won’t make you do our homework for us, or demand artifacts that no early-stage business should have wasted a minute creating.
VCs like to talk about their “value add”, all the ways in which their help is worth so much more than their money. Some of the biggest firms (Andreesen Horowitz was among the first and has taken it the furthest) have built full-fledged, free-of-charge consulting shops on behalf of their portfolio companies, with huge operational support teams that help with everything from recruiting and business development to culture and training. No matter the scale, the implicit promise is this: “if you take my money, I’ll help you build your business”.
Like Fred, I thought one of the best responses to his post came from Natty Zola, MD of Techstars Boulder and GP of Matchstick Ventures:
Natty’s answer is an elaborated version of Techstars’ prime directive: Give First. Instead of using the power imbalance between investors and founders as leverage, “add value” and earn trust by giving it away.
Founders’ Co-op partnered with David Cohen and Brad Feld to create the Techstars Seattle program back in 2010, one of the first expansion programs in what’s now a global network of entrepreneurial support offerings. Before joining the fund full-time, Aviel helped build and lead the Alexa Accelerator, another Techstars program created in partnership with Amazon’s Alexa Fund to support the global voice and conversational AI ecosystems. We’ve both seen up close how powerfully the “give first” mindset unlocks value for founders and investors alike.
If you’re a founder building a venture-scale company in the Pacific Northwest, in a domain that we know well enough to actually be useful to you, we promise to offer our help before we ask you to take our money. Whether it’s customer intros, recruiting leads, or even connections to other investors, we’ll do our best to show you how we work with founders before we invest, so you can make an informed decision about whether we really are worth more than our money.
It’s Your Company
One of the biggest worries founders have about raising outside capital is the risk of losing control of their own company. And while VC investments don’t usually give investors much say over the day-to-day operations of the business, that doesn’t stop some of them from acting like they run the place.
Running a fast-growing startup is one of the most confusing and stressful jobs in business. There’s always too much to do and not enough people to do it, the runway clock ticks louder every day, and the survival of the business is always in doubt. It can be hard for founders caught up in the daily shitshow to think about anything else. But for exactly that reason, nobody knows more about what’s working and not working than the founders, and nobody will ever care more than they do about the company, its employees and its customers.
Where founders go deep, investors go wide. We’ve seen some version of the same movie play out dozens — or in our case — hundreds of times. The characters and situations may change, but the fundamentals are often eerily similar. But when it comes to making a specific decision about a specific problem in your business, we always trust the founder’s depth and commitment more than our broad-but-shallow pattern-matching ability.
If you take our money, we’ll do everything in our power to help you succeed. We’ll open our networks, share our experiences and act as thought partners whenever you’re facing a tough situation. It’s our obligation to ask questions and share our perspective to help you get to your best decision. The one thing we won’t do is tell you how to run your business — no matter how hard the conversation gets or how strongly we disagree, our final words will always be: “it’s your company”, and we’ll mean it.
We named our firm Founders’ Co-op for a reason. Our theory of change — the one principle that our entire worldview as investors is built around — is that founders: extraordinary, unreasonable, obsessive, complicated human beings, are the engine of all positive change in the world. Truly great organizations aren’t built from clever market analyses and slick packaging, they’re built by small teams of superheroes who “can’t not do” the one thing they’ve set out to do.
This worldview comes with a whole set of corollaries and implications, some obvious, some less so. At the more obvious end, it means that when we invest in you, we’re investing in *you*, not your idea, your traction, your deck or any of the other artifacts that founders are often asked for when performing the strange mating dance of the venture capitalist. It also requires us to look in the mirror at our own quirks and peculiarities, to show up as ourselves in every interaction we have with founders, so that when we choose each other we do so as humans, not as checkbooks or cap tables.
At the less obvious end, a human-centered approach to venture investing means that relationships are forever, potentially spanning decades and multiple companies, through good times and bad. As long as we always do our best, treat each other with respect, don’t betray trust or take advantage of one another when the seesaw of leverage tips temporarily in our favor, our relationship will become an enduring source of joy and strength for both of us.
Signing up for a deep and long-lasting personal relationship may sound like more than you want from your investors, when everyone’s money is the same shade of green and the idea of “VC value add” smells like the typical bullshit that people with leverage use to get over on those still coming up. If so, we’re probably not your guys, and that’s OK.
The way we see ourselves is rarely a perfect match to how others see us. And our behaviors don’t always line up with our ideals. But if we tell you what we stand for and invite you to hold us accountable, it lets as little daylight as possible exist between our intention and your reality. We’re proud of our firm and the work we do, but we’re human too, and if we are thinking of choosing each other, we should both be able to make that choice with clear eyes and open hearts.
Welcoming MDmetrix to the Founders’ Co-op family
May 14, 2019 - Chris DeVore
The U.S. spends about twice what other high-income nations do on health care, but with results that are often worse than those countries achieve at much lower cost.
In 2009, in a national effort to improve quality and lower costs, the Federal government launched a huge incentive program to drive the adoption of Electronic Medical Records (EMRs), spending an estimated $40 billion over the past decade to implement this data-gathering technology in hospitals across the country.
This massive national investment in data infrastructure laid the tracks for system-wide breakthroughs in data-driven healthcare, but the benefits of that investment have been tantalizingly slow to appear; growth in US healthcare costs continues to outpace inflation, and the category now accounts for more than 18% of GDP
Today we’re proud to announce our investment in MDmetrix, a company that harvests the massive, minute-by-minute data flows generated by EMR systems and applies recent advances in machine learning and data science to help bend the cost curve and improve patient outcomes at the same time.
Those are bold claims, but they’re backed up by hard evidence generated by the company’s pioneering efforts at local healthcare leader Seattle Children’s Hospital (SCH). With support from Seattle Children’s Research Foundation, MDmetrix was originally developed to address physicians’ frustration with the lack of visibility into health outcomes. Once the system was deployed, it quickly became clear that both medical leaders and frontline physicians could use MDmetrix to assess and improve all aspects of clinical operations. The results were dramatic: MDmetrix has enabled its customers to improve care for thousands of patients, while also surfacing millions of dollars of cost savings and revenue enhancement opportunities.
MDmetrix is a commercial spinout from the non-profit Seattle Children’s, and the founding team includes the key technologists and medical leaders that helped develop and prove out the solution for SCH. They’re joined by a seasoned healthcare software leader, CEO Warren Ratliff, who previously played key roles at healthcare giants like McKesson and GE Healthcare, and at successful high-growth healthcare startups like Caradigm (a joint GE and Microsoft spinout).
We’re pleased to be joined in this fundraise by the Washington Research Foundation and Arnold Ventures, co-investors with a long track record of supporting health care innovation and commercialization efforts here in the Pacific Northwest. There’s a long road ahead to prove that the results achieved at Seattle Children’s can be replicated at scale across the industry, but the prize — better care at lower cost for millions of Americans — is well worth the effort.
One Decade In, Saying Hello to the Next One: Announcing Founders’ Co-op IV
April 15, 2019 - Chris DeVore
Where does the time go?
In early 2008 we announced the formation of Founders’ Co-op. We called it a fund, but at $2.7 million it wasn’t much of one, just some of our own money and some from a few local friends who knew how hard it was to be a founder up in this remote corner of the world.
Seattle then was famous for its coffee, for airplanes, and as the home of Microsoft, a once-feared tech monopoly whose valuation had peaked back in 1999, brought low by the one-two punch of the internet bust and the Justice Department’s antitrust ruling. The long-running property bubble had popped in late 2007 and global markets were unraveling, eventually turning into what would become known as the Great Recession.
In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine what we were thinking.
But starting a new fund in a downturn has its benefits. The only kinds of founders who start companies in the teeth of a recession are the ones who can’t imagine doing anything else. They don’t expect it to be easy, and when that turns out to be right they don’t quit. We met some amazing founders through that first fund, like Kabir Shahani and Chris Hahn at Appature, Aviel Ginzburg, Damon Cortesi, and Adam Schoenfeld at Simply Measured, and Scott Kveton and Steven Osborn at Urban Airship down in Portland.
As we learned from our early mistakes (and occasional good luck), we realized we needed to do even more to help local founders avoid the many traps and pitfalls that derail promising companies before they even get started. Some friends in Boulder were experimenting with an idea for a “startup accelerator” they called Techstars. We asked if they’d be willing to let us try a version of it here in Seattle and they agreed, so we launched the first Techstars Seattle class in the summer of 2010. We raised our second fund around the same time, a whopping $7.7 million, to lean into our strategy of being first to support the most promising founders here in the Pacific Northwest.
Somehow, all of a sudden, it’s ten years later. We’re still doing the same thing we’ve always done, but the world has changed around us.
Seattle is now one of the world’s top markets for software engineering talent. Microsoft is resurgent under Satya Nadella’s leadership, and local upstart Amazon has taken its place as the most feared company in tech. Bay Area leaders like Google, Facebook and Apple (plus dozens more) have scaled their Seattle offices to thousands of employees, taking advantage of our deep bench of talent, and drawing in more.
Over the past 10 years, through three successively larger funds, we’ve made over 90 first-check investments in Pacific Northwest companies, including some well-known local names like Remitly, Outreach, Auth0 and The Riveter. In aggregate, those 90+ companies have gone on to raise over $1.5 billion in follow-on capital, and now employ thousands of talented people here in the Pacific Northwest, and around the world.
One of those amazing founders from our first fund, Aviel Ginzburg, is now my investing partner at Founders’ Co-op, and we just closed our fourth fund, our largest ever at $25 million. In a few weeks we’ll celebrate Demo Day for our 10th Techstars Seattle class, bringing us to 100 total new companies that have been supported by that program.
Venture funds have a ten-year life, so every time we close a new fund it means we’re signing up for another decade of investing. Ten years ago we knew we wanted to help the best founders in the Northwest stay and build their companies here instead of leaving for the Bay Area. We just weren’t sure exactly how.
This time it’s different.
We’ve spent the last ten years honing our craft and building a community of founders, investors and mentors dedicated to our shared mission of making the Pacific Northwest the best place in the world to start a software company. Over the same period, our regional startup ecosystem has grown and changed in ways we never imagined, offering a more diverse and talented pool of potential founders than we’ve ever seen.
As with our first fund back in 2008, it looks like we’re heading into another cycle of uncertainty in the global economy. We expect markets to slow, or even contract, over the next few years. We expect the last several years’ run of easy money for startups to end along with it. Putting that all together, we know for sure that the founders we back in this next cycle will be some of the best we’ve ever seen.
We can’t wait.
Where does our money come from?
October 22, 2018 - Chris DeVore
We’ve written a lot about how our investing work at Founders’ Co-op connects to the broader global market for innovation finance (see The Venture Capital Stack or Regional Seed Investing), but we’ve never said much about where our own fund’s capital comes from.
Recent events have shined a bright, and ugly, light on the source of much of the money driving the current Venture Capital boom, and fellow investors and industry journalists are now advocating for greater transparency about whose money you’re actually taking when you accept a VC check (see this post from USV’s Fred Wilson, or this Techcrunch piece from Jon Evans).
As our earlier posts have described, global allocators of capital like Saudi Arabia aren’t much interested in regional or seed-stage investing; they have to deploy money in such huge volumes and with such frequency that only the biggest and most global platforms (like Softbank) are a fit. So if you’re curious, we never asked, and they certainly didn’t come calling.
But we do care, a lot, about where our money comes from. And while it’s not something we talk about publicly, at Founders’ Co-op we’re as proud of our investor base as we are of our investment portfolio.
Our work is intensely local, and intensely personal. We invest in exceptional people who have chosen to build their companies here in the Pacific Northwest. When they succeed, companies like Remitly, Outreach and The Riveter provide exciting, well-paying jobs for hundreds or even thousands of people who live and work here in the region. The leaders of those companies also become civic leaders who give back to our community, and they model the kind of pioneering courage that put our region on the map in the first place.
Our investors trust us to produce a compelling financial return, but they choose us over the thousands of competing alternatives because they believe what we believe: that building great companies in the place where you live produces returns that go way beyond a check in the mail. Well-paying jobs. Engaged citizens. A leadership role in the global economy. Thriving cities that are magnetic to talent from around the globe.
Given the values we practice as a firm, it should come as no surprise that our money is almost entirely local: founders and early leaders from our region’s most successful companies (including many of our own portfolio companies); families and family foundations with a long history in the region, who want to leave it a better place for their children and grandchildren; and even state governments with a voter-endorsed commitment to reinvesting in the next generation of local jobs and growth.
We know our investors and they know us. Our work is personal, and we take it personally.
“The truth is, it takes time to build anything of lasting value…[t]he better something is — the more powerful and lasting — the longer it takes to build”
It has been 10 years since we created Founders’ Co-op to provide first-check support to the best founding teams in the Pacific Northwest, and this month I started recruiting for the 10th Techstars Seattle class (that program will kick off in 1Q19). It’s incredible to look back at how far our startup ecosystem has come in that time.
Seattle in 2013 was a different place. It wasn’t until five days after that 2013 Geekwire event that Tableau held its IPO, and only six months prior that Amazon surprised many by paying $200 million to purchase three blocks in the Denny Triangle just north of downtown. As I mentioned in my talk, we had made just 40 investments at Founders’ Co-op then, and those companies had raised a relatively modest $140 million in follow-on capital.
Fast forward five years. Amazon has added more than 20,000 new hires here in Seattle, bringing their total local headcount to more than 40,000, and has transformed Seattle’s downtown with a new headquarters campus coming to life on on those Denny Triangle blocks. With three tech IPOs in 2018 alone, our market is adding new anchor tenants at an accelerating rate. And a resurgent – and acquisitive – Microsoft is giving AWS a run for its money and cementing Seattle’s reputation as the center of the global cloud infrastructure business.
Founders’ Co-op has grown along with Seattle. In 2015 we closed our third and largest fund to date, allowing us to double-down on our strategy of filling the seed-stage financing gap in the Pacific Northwest. We also raised a new Techstars Seattle fund, allowing us to cast an even wider net for great Pacific Northwest founders, and to deliver even better results for those founders, and the region.
Ten years of steady effort investing in our community has snowballed into something bigger than we ever imagined. Since 2013, Founders’ Co-op has more than doubled the number of companies we’ve helped to start here in the region (from 40 to 91) and those companies have gone on to raise TEN TIMES the follow-on capital they’d closed in 2013 (from $140 million to $1.4 BILLION).
On the Techstars side, the 2019 class we’re recruiting for now will lift the total number of Techstars Seattle alumni to over 100. With the addition of The Alexa Accelerator, Powered by Techstars, a second local accelerator program which we created with Amazon’s Alexa Fund in 2017 and which is run by my Founders’ Co-op partner, Aviel, we’ve doubled our capacity for impact via the accelerator model.
But while breadth of impact is important, the long-term health of our ecosystem depends on our ability to create new category leaders here in Seattle, delivering the same scale and long-term contribution as our most important platform companies. That’s why our new site showcases a few of the companies in our portfolio that are most clearly on a path to massive impact, both here and around the world. We were lucky to meet the founders of Remitly and Outreach when they were just getting started, and by leading their seed rounds and serving on their boards in their early years were able to play a small role in the success of two of our region’s most important high-growth companies.
I’m thrilled to have Aviel – a founder from our first Founders’ Co-op portfolio – joining me as an investment partner for our next decade, and beyond. We are doing work we love, in a community to which we’re deeply committed, on behalf of the most incredible founders we’ve ever known. Thanks to all of you who have been a part of our journey to date, and looking forward to the next ten years.