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Meet the VC

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Meet Sim Blaustein, Partner at BDMI

Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments is the corporate venture arm of media company Bertelsmann

Innovation series by Steven Loeb
August 4, 2017
Short URL: http://vator.tv/n/49dc

Venture capital used to be a cottage industry, with very few investing in tomorrow's products and services. Oh how times have changed. While there are more startups than ever, there's also more money chasing them. In this series, we look at the new (or relatively new) VCs in the early stages: seed and Series A.

But just who are these funds and venture capitalists that run them? What kinds of investments do they like making, and how do they see themselves in the VC landscape?

We're highlighting key members of the community to find out.

Sim Blaustein is a Partner at Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments (BDMI).

Blaustein joined BDMI in 2012 from High Line Venture Partners, where he co-founded the seed fund, and has been in venture capital since 2002 including three years at Gabriel Ventures where he managed 17 investments including three IPOs and three M&As.

He holds an MBA from MIT Sloan, an engineering degree from the Cooper Union where he graduated Summa cum Laude and is a graduate of Stuyvesant High School. Blaustein is fluent in German, Spanish and can tell jokes in French and Italian.

VatorNews: What is your investment philosophy or methodology?

Sim Blaustein: At a high level, we're a corporate venture fund for Europe's largest media company. Bertelsmann has been in the venture asset category for a very long time and BDMI has been around for over 10 years.

Where we fit in the ecosystem, and our philosophy, is really driven by the idea of being a value add sector focused investor in the media space, though we define “media” around the edges maybe a little bit more broadly than one might traditionally view it. We're very focused on the creation, distribution, monetization of content. Sometimes that is literally companies that have technology around content production and sometimes it's companies that are coming up with new ways to monetize that content or media. Sometimes it's adtech and martech and while others are even e-commerce businesses that leverage content as a strategic weapon. Running through that thread is the litmus test of whether or not we can be a value add investor.

Our mandate though is slightly broader than that. Bertelsmann, just to give you the context, is a very large media company, with $20 billion in total revenue, 120,000 employees worldwide, is headquartered in Germany but with a global footprint. Our media assets are primarily concentrated in Europe, but with companies like Fremantle, which is one of the largest TV production companies in the world and very active here in the US; Penguin Random House, which is the largest book publisher in the world; we have a big consulting services group called Arvato; we have an education group that provides technology and services to the for-profit education sector; we have BMG in the music space, which is a rights management company that helps artists manage catalogs.

We have a number of sister funds under the Bertelsmann investment umbrella, with different mandates geographically and sector-wise, and we are the digital media focused fund. There are some other areas that Bertelsmann is active in that we could also invest in, leveraging expertise and access to markets that Bertelsmann has. Given the opportunities in media and in the ecosystem, as a small team with five investment professionals, we've really looked to focus on a couple of areas where we see the confluence of great venture capital return because, at the end of the day, we're a financial investor looking for venture economics, but also in sectors where we think we can be very value add.

VN: What do you like to invest in? What are your categories of interest?

SB: A lot has been said and written about the fact that technology is disrupting lots of industries; not just ours, but automobiles, government, software eating the world and agricultural technologies, and all of that. I think that you could probably apply the, 'Where is interesting innovation?' question to a number of industries and, obviously, our lens is media.

I think it's safe to say, and I hope that this isn't presumptuous, but I still think of media as the kind of core of the Internet, even though it was developed for research purposes and is now being used for everything from banking transactions to lots of enterprise applications. I still think about what most people do every day on the Web as being somehow centered around the consumption or creation of content, which is the lens we look at. So, obviously, anything that is changing, innovating and disrupting in that is interesting to us. Years ago it was the shift to mobile, and to social, and today we're thinking about the voice channel and voice ecosystem with things like Google Home, Amazon Alexa, Cortana and Siri. There’s some overlap there with things that are happening in bots, artificial intelligence and conversational interfaces, which is another thing we think about a lot.

To be specific, there's more established areas of innovation, like media companies, that are migrating from Web traffic and display ad monetization to being distributed publishers that are more video focused, that are monetizing in other ways besides running display ads on their site. There's a lot in that that we still find is a very interesting investment opportunity and that falls between both B2B and B2C companies. So, we'll invest in an adtech or martech company, or a company like Vemba, which enables the distribution of video by creators on any platform across the ecosystem, but we'll also invest in B2C companies that are consumer facing brands that are themselves media businesses. The Food52s of the world, the Mic Medias of the world, the CMG’s of the world.

VN: What would you say are the top investments you have been a part of? What stood out about those investments in particular?

SB: I've been in venture capital on and off since 2002. I'm pretty much always doing early stage, so there's a lot of companies I could throw out as an example.

When I was an associate back at my gig at Gabriel Venture Partners, I wasn't exactly the guy making investment decisions, so it would disingenuous of me to say, "I chose to invest in this company because of XYZ." So, maybe dialing back one fund to High Line Venture Partners, which I co-founded with Shana Fisher coming out of IAC back in 2010, literally the first deal that we worked on was MakerBot, which was one of those investments where there were so many great and exciting things happening in that company that got me excited.

It always starts with the founder, and Bre Pettis is that kind of visionary, passionate, walk through walls kind of person that had been hacking and working in this maker space for a while and had surrounded himself with a group of really smart, really excited people who wanted to get into 3D printing. I almost feel like it was through that passion that they were able to be the center, be the hub, of this movement to the point where my kids go into their classrooms in public school here in Brooklyn and they have MakerBots in the schools, because that was something that the company was passionate about doing. I'm using that as an example of what first attracted me to that company. Obviously there's all the other stuff, like you look at the unit economics, the traction, the strength of the team, the defensibility of the IP and all that other stuff but, fundamentally, that's the kind of company that seemed so zany and so wacky and so out there at the time that you had to be this very passionate founder to really have built something like that Bre did.

At High Line, again, we were the first institutional investors in Refinery29 and the fun thing about doing early stage, especially seed investments, is you can remember back to when they were working out of a basement with a dozen people. They didn't have deck or a model or an HR team and they had raised a few hundred thousand dollars and they took a little money from us. To really see the company grow and develop and do all these amazing things is, frankly, the most rewarding thing, even more so than the financial return as an investor.

With their cofounders Philippe von Borries and Justin Stefano, it was passion, a great working relationship between the two of them and something that I continue to focus on today, which is the fact that they had built this very unique editorial and brand voice. Back in 2010, people were about page views and volume and aggregating bloggers and free content. Building a digital native brand that had a voice and an opinion was not very commonplace then as it is now so they really stood out to me and Shana when we first met them. They always wanted to approach things a little bit differently in terms of building their audience, monetizing their brand and such.

We were the lead investors in StyleHaul before they sold, which is one of the deals I co-led here at BDMI. It was a similar thing, with Stephanie Horbaczewski being a super passionate founder with a specific vision. In her case, it was our first YouTube related investment. I'm turning 40 in a week and a half, and YouTube as an ecosystem, and these influencers, is not a domain that I'm native to. I don't sit and watch hours and hour of YouTube videos and vlogs. My kids do, but I don't. Of course, I'm also not a young woman, which is the target audience for StyleHaul, but, nevertheless, you see someone who deeply understands the fans and the influencers and natively gets it. In her case, the really interesting thing is that the vloggers and the influencers that StyleHaul aggregates are themselves entrepreneurs. So it wasn't just a matter of Stephanie being super passionate about fashion and beauty and style and building this company but the fact that she's also an entrepreneur herself made her into a role model for a lot of people in the ecosystem. You have this dual role model aspect that the leader of the company has.

Obviously I could go on and on about this, but the theme is really the founding team, and that vision from the start, that gets me excited.

VN: What do you look for in companies that you put money in? What are the most important qualities?

SD: On the team, I think I touched on the fact that it's first and foremost having that passion. They don’t have to be living that life or be that person, but having that walk through walls passion is always a prerequisite. Building a company is a little but crazy. Almost anybody who is going to succeed as a founder of a startup we back could, probably, be a well paid executive in the industry, or in some other industry. They're giving up something really big, so there's a bit of that self selection that is going on, but we really try to assess that.

At the same time, we're looking for complementary founders. Rather than having four business development, MBA types, we're looking for people than can complement each other on the execution side. More team specific stuff depends on the sector that they're going after. I've found that in direct to consumer media businesses, having somebody who really understands building audience and selling to marketers is a really core ingredient to being the successful founder of a media company. So we'll look for things like that.

Beyond the team question, we're looking to assess technology and defensibility. One the things that makes us slightly unique is that we're leveraging not just out network broadly, but due diligence within Bertelsmann. The standard meeting for us ends with, "Please send us a shareable deck that doesn't have any secret sauce, doesn't have any financials, that we can pass around internally, to vet the idea, the technology and the approach." I always tell people that during the due diligence process, if we can get them five or six new customers, partners, etc, onto their platform, if we can get people excited, make those intros, get them in front of them, and maybe they’ve closed a deal or two, or even gone live, by the time we're wiring the money two or three months later, that's a home run for us because that means we've added value. It's not just Bertelsmann but our broader network within the media space. My partner Urs Cete led our investment on a company called ZergNet, which is an audience development / content recommendation platform for other publishers, and we introduced them to probably seven or eight, maybe even more, publishers during the due diligence process, and almost all of them took a first meeting. I think they lined up six that had agreed to work with them when we decided to invest and by the time we closed they were actually operational with a few of those people. That speaks to not just how appealing ZergNet is to those partners, but their ability to execute in a finite window of time, which is not something you always see.

Flexibility is super important. I think it was Fred Wilson who said something like, "strong views, loosely held." Nothing is more dangerous than not wanting to be swayed by facts. I still think it's important to have conviction around core principles. I find that there are people who are more techy, and more data driven and they want to build companies that are centric around tech and data, and then there's people who are more about the brand and the content and they want to focus on great narratives and great stories. That stuff never tends to change. You obviously want to complement them. I'll give you an example: Food52, the team is amazingly focused on their brand and narrative, and they have very strong, and very data driven, organization, but I don't expect them to let the algorithm dictate their editorial strategy. That's not the team that I backed and that's not their vision for the company. If they think that publishing more long form articles about making ketchup is the right strategy, but then they write the articles and it turns out not to get traffic, they're also going to listen to the data and say, "Maybe we should write about mustard instead." You obviously want people who are at least willing to look at data and be flexible, but there has to be something at the core that they fundamentally believe that you, as an investor, either agree with or don't agree with.

VN: What kind of traction do you look for in your startups? And can you be specific? Are you looking for a number of customers or order volume?

SB: It depends a bit on the type of company. At one extreme, you can have a VR company or an AR company that's pre-revenue and maybe has a product or a demo out there. We've participated but we tend not to lead in those deals, just because there's a lot of capital intensity required.

If you’re in a sector where the barrier to entry is a lot lower, like if you can build a content site on WordPress without building a lot of technology, we're going to look for decent clip of monetization. If I'm getting excited about a Series A stage media content company, they're probably going to $4 or $5 or $6 million in revenue this year. There's no hard and fast rule about that, but that's probably going to be the benchmark. They're growing at a very nice clip, looking to triple or double next year. That kind of thing. If it's an enterprise SaaS model, where there's a monthly recurring subscription model, we're looking for $100,000 a month at the absolutely minimum, but probably $125,000 to $150,000 a month, really depending on the growth rate and the sector.

VN: How long does it take before you meet a startup and make an investment and how do you conduct your due diligence?

SB: Deal sourcing, like for most VCs, is a mixture of personal contacts and network, the existing founders and entrepreneurs. In our case, there are companies that come to Bertelsmann that are partnering or looking to work with our parent company. Because we never invest by ourselves, we spend a lot of time building syndicates or being brought into syndicates, so a very strong source of deal flow for us would be either another fund we co-invest with, who's looking at something and getting excited, or a seed fund that we're tracking and who invests in our sector and has a company that's graduating to the A. Those are main ways we’ll meet a new company.

In terms of our process, it definitely depends on the stage and the business that they're in. The ZergNet example that I gave is one where we were able to add a bunch of potential partners to their network through our funnel, through our network, our Rolodex. Obviously they're looking at numbers, technology, competitive analysis, but the meat and bones is talking to those partners, and hearing unbiased feedback, because they're not the guy's brother in law, they're not someone who owes them a favor, they're people who were legitimately interested in working with them. We do a lot of that. Sometimes we know existing customers. Like with Vemba, which is another one of my investments in the video syndication side, I was able to back channel and talk to a lot of the partners on the content, product and publisher side, as well as introduce them to new folks. Having both feedback from those partners, and feedback from new partners that we brought in, is really a big part of our due diligence.

If it's not a B2B company, if it's a consumer facing company, we're not going to call up every one of the consumers because they might have 20,000 customers and three million uniques. We will, though, look at a lot of the data around traffic, so we've developed some proprietary traffic analysis templates where we benchmark things like audience source, engagement, frequency of visit. We're looking in the e-commerce space at thing like cohorts, the health of the pipeline on the sales side. A lot of that is pattern recognition; if you've looked at 100 and invested in 10, you should be able to recognize the good version from the bad version of that business model.

It can be as quick as a couple of weeks if we know the company, but more typical is going to be a six to eight week diligence process, really depending on how much data there is, and where they are in the cycle. Sometimes, if it's a deal that we're not leading and it comes to us from a trusted source, sometimes investors will share due diligence with us and that allows us to get up to speed more quickly and so maybe it's only a two or three week process to make the decision.

VN: These days a seed round is yesterday's Series A, meaning today a company raises a $3M seed and no one blinks. But 10 years ago, $3M was a Series A. So what are the attributes of a seed round vs a Series A round?

SB: If you pull back further, when I started in 2002/3, investing in enterprise software and semiconductor companies, larger Series A were not uncommon. If you go back to the bubble days of 1999 and 1998, what we're seeing in terms of round size is a function of where the market is and how much investors want to deploy capital, with funds getting bigger, all that kind of stuff. The $3 million Series A from 10 years ago was more of a function of the fact that, at that time, we were at the bottom of the Great Recession and VCs had pulled back a lot so A's had gotten very small. I would say that these things always go in cycles.

I think there's a point that's related to that, which is that as companies can accomplish more at the seed stage versus the A, and the A versus the B, due to the fact that there's so much infrastructure now that's built. To say that I'm asking how much revenue a seed company is doing sounds crazy if you really think about it. If you tell an entrepreneur that, in order to raise a seed round, they need to be doing $30,000 a month in revenue, it's like, "What are you talking about? I thought this was seed money." The nomenclature's really shifted and I think, in many ways, the seed is the new Series A, not just from a round size perspective, but from a stage and company milestone perspective.

In our industry, or the areas we focus on and the geographies we spend the most time in, the round sizes are not nearly as big as what you probably see in the Bay Area. A $10 million Series A would still be pretty unusual for us.

Of course, the more you raise, the better and bigger you have to be to get the next round done. I co-founded a seed stage fund at time when a lot of these funds were starting, in 2010. What happens, naturally, is that VCs start at seed, and many want to grow their fund size and grow their check size because they can get more management fees and make more carry. So the $10 million Fund I becomes a $30 million Fund II, a $50 million Fund III, and a $100 million Fund IV, and the check sizes get bigger. I think the larger rounds are a result of traditional, institutional seed funds becoming bigger check writers and later stage, and new people coming in to full the gaps. Fro example Lerer Hippeau and the FirstRound Capital, who used to write checks of $100,000 in $500,000 rounds now want to write a $1 million check into a $3 million round. “Pre-seed” funds like Notation Capital came into being because they want to fill that gap. That cycle will perpetuate itself until new market shift happens.

VN: Tell me a bit about your background. Where did you go to school? What led you to the venture capital world?

SB: I was born and raised in Brooklyn and went to public schools. I always interested in math and science and engineering technology and space. When I got glasses I realized I didn't have the 20/20 vision you need to be an astronaut or a fighter pilot so I started thinking more about designing and building rockets and airplanes. I got really excited about engineering at an early age. At the same time, I got interested in finance and investing. My grandmother used to talk to me about all of her stocks, bonds and CDs, and all of that. I think I bought my first mutual fund when I was 10, and I bought stock in an IPO at age 13. Those two things had always been in me.

I went to Stuyvesant, a math and science high school here in New York, went to Cooper Union to study engineering undergrad, still thinking I was going to go into an engineer role. During my sophomore year, my roommate Joe and I aligned our schedules to be study buddies. He heard about this entrepreneurship class that we had at Cooper that was really cool. His friend had taken it the year before. And I was like, "Alright, I guess I've gotta fill the 11:15 to 12 o'clock slot, otherwise I'm going to sit on my thumbs." So, I took it and it was this amazing class where you had entrepreneurs and real life founders come in to the classroom and talk and tell their stories, kind of like how I'm telling you mine. We did business plans and we came up with our own entrepreneurial ideas as an academic exercise. This was in 1996, before you had Shark Tank on TV. This is before Elon Musk is a pop culture hero. So, it's not like everyone's sitting around thinking about starting their next company and being the next Zuckerberg. People are thinking about getting a job at a big company and being like one of the guys in Office Space, an everyday, workaday wonk, even as an engineer. So that was a really eye opening set of experiences.

They organized internships for the summer for those entrepreneurs who were willing to take on summer interns. I was lucky enough to get an internship with a company that had been founded by two Cooper alums. They had both gone to my rival high school, they were Bronx Science grads, but I forgave them for that since they were multimillionaires and had built a company that had IPO’ed. I went and interned for them for the summer and, instead of engineering, I was actually doing marketing and market research at a time when the DSL industry was starting out. That got me really fired up about startups, which I had not thought about doing. I did an internship the following summer at an aerospace research center to make sure that that wasn't what I wanted to do and it turned out that being in a startup in California was way more exciting than sitting in a lab in a university.

From there I went to a couple other startups early in my career, and found myself interested in the investing side and had met a few VCs through that network. I was lucky enough to get into venture capital. Initially, I had applied to one fund; I had worked on telecomm equipment, and I was going to backfill a position from a woman who was leaving to go to business school. I sent my resume in, they looked at it, they sent me a very polite email saying, "Hey, sorry, we're looking for a software guy, not a hardware guy, you're not a great fit." I was a little bummed, but I figured I'd go keep looking, then I get a called from this fund called Gabriel Venture Partners. I do a phone screen right away, they're very excited to meet me, so I come in and I said, "How did you guys find me?" The guy says, "My girlfriend was the one that you spoke to, and she said, 'He's not a fit for us, but why don't you take a look at this guy? He looks perfect for you guys.' Lo and behold the kindness of strangers; someone that I had never even met or heard of just passing me along. It was a really fortunate break and the guy who hired me, Tim Chang, is now one the partners at Mayfield and is still a close friend. I work with him, I work with Navin Chaddha, a bunch of the other guys who eventually left Gabriel to go over there.

After that, I went back to business school. I wanted to try my hand at being at a larger company so I joined IAC coming out of school, but I've always been interested in the intersection of large companies and entrepreneurship and startups. I was really excited when there was an opportunity for me to come here to BDMI five and half years ago because we’re a very unique fund in that we are part of a big media company, with a lot of resources, but we're also structured like a financial entity. I have carry in the fund, I am investing as a VC, and do all the things I love doing as a VC but really have differentiated edge in the sector that we focus on.

VN: What do you like best about being a VC? What makes you excited?

SD: Why I wanted to be VC was because, through my interest in investing and technology and, at the same time, entrepreneurship, it really seemed like the closest I could get to all of my interests in one place. If you're a public market investor then you're not very active, and a lot of stuff that you're investing is driven more by what's happening on Wall Street and the broader markets and less by, "Here's this than new and amazing breakthrough technology or brand new company." You're not as operational. So I felt like venture capital would bring all of those interests of mine, which are somewhat diverse, into one bucket.

What gets me fired up about venture capital regularly, and the most fulfilling part of the job, is that I believe most people go to work every day, interact with other folks, and, most of the time, are punching a clock. They're working to live, not living to work. We see 100 companies for every one check, we write; we kiss a lot of proverbial frogs before we meet the prince. Not to say that all the companies we pass up are frogs, but we look at a lot of things that aren't right, and it's a very high filter. But 100 percent of the entrepreneurs I meet, and 99 percent of my day is meeting entropic, are absolutely passionate about what they do every day, and it's so rare because, frankly, not all the people they work for, or with, are as passionate as they are. Certainly if you walk around a bigger company like ours, you're not going to get the same level of excitement from the average employee as you are going to get from the founder of this company. Even if that company is completely zany and they're completely delusional about their prospects, and Facebook and Google are going to kill them anyway, they're still fired up about what they do and that energy is infectious. It's a privilege for me to go to work every day and spend most of my time with people who are as fired up about what they do.

VN: What is the size of your current fund?

SB: We're investing out of a $150 million fund.

VN: What is the investment range?

SB: It's as small as $100,000 in a seed check, and up to $250,00 for seed. Then our main fund invests in the $1 million to $5 million range.

Writing a $2 million or $3 million co-lead check or lead check into a Series A deal that's $5 million total is pretty much our bread and butter, but we’ll put $3 million as part of a $10 million Series B in a company that we really like and get enough ownership where it makes sense for us.

VN: Is there a typical percent that you want of a round? For instance, do you need to get 20% or 30% of a round?

SB: Our ownership target in a company is typically 5 percent to 15 percent. 20 percent is probably more than we want to own, because we like to have co-investors, and less than 5 percent becomes less relevant and less interesting for us from a return on time perspective. But if there's a great business that we have an opportunity to invest in and own 4.2 percent of them, we'll do that. At seed it's usually less, probably 1 percent or 2 percent of the company.

VN: Where is the firm currently in the investing cycle of its current fund?

SB: Smack dab in the middle. I think we've deployed a little less than half of our first money in capital, so the $150 million is for both initial and follow on investing. We have a four year investment period and we started about two years ago.

VN: What percentage of your fund is set aside for follow-on capital?

SB: Being early stage, you typically reserve about half of the money for follow on. So, a $3 million check, you're going to put another $3 million in the proverbial bank, or even $4 million.

VN: What series do you typically invest in? Are they typically Seed or Post Seed or Series A?

SB: Seed through B is our focus. We tend not to focus on pre-seed. With out seed activity we like to follow institutional seed investors at that stage and maybe we'll put in $100,000 or $200,000. Pre-seed tends to be too early for us to really sink our teeth in and I think there's lots of other ways to fund businesses there. Our core is Series A. We do some B and we'll opportunistically look at later stage things.

VN: In a typical year how many startups do you invest in?

SB: It definitely varies. It's an easier question to answer with respect to main fund investments, where we're actually taking a board seat. The answer to that is probably up to three personally, and collectively we're three partners, so call that nine new investments a year.

If you're rotating off a company, or there's an exit, sometimes it frees up time and sometimes you're maxed out. It depends on the year. So, collectively maybe we'll only invest in four or five new bigger companies in a year, or as much as eight or nine. The last 12 months have been very active for us, almost unusually so, and it's a super exciting time. On top of that, we'll probably write between six to 12 seed checks in a year.

VN: Is there anything else you think I should know about you or the firm?

SB: Given there's a lot of different models in corporate venture capital, again, as I mentioned briefly, the thing that attracted me to BDMI and one of the things that I really enjoy about the group, is that I really do think we've really got the best of both worlds approach.

We have a lot of the advantages of being a corporate strategic investor, in that we can add value and we a big platform for companies in our sector that can be extremely additive, both as a value add investor, de-risking the investment, hiring, partnerships and technology. We get access to other companies and platforms that other VCs don't necessarily get access to. So I think there's a lot of benefits there. At the same time, we're incentivized in a way that I think is very healthy, which is that we're investing for return and not for strategic value. The word ‘strategic’ is very loaded. If we see a right of first refusal, or some kind of path to control, we run the other way because we want companies to be worth as much as possible. We're not investing as a stepping stone to acquisition or anything like that. We are a financial investor with a specific focus. A lot of corporates are structuring their funds in very different ways, so that's something that's relatively unique to how Bertelsmann and BDMI are set up.


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