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M13 invests in consumer technology companies out of a $190 million fund
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.
Karl Alomar is Managing Partner at M13.
Almoar brings over two decades of executive-level experience building and growing technology businesses and spends his time at M13 across all functions of the business, specifically overseeing the Propulsion Team and running the firm. Karl is a serial entrepreneur, tech investor, and startup adviser. Most recently, he served as COO of cloud infrastructure provider DigitalOcean, where he scaled the company from 10 to 500 employees and from <$10 million to $250 million ARR in five years.
He received his MBA from Columbia and founded and exited two companies, holding the role of CEO/Founder in both, which led him to his most recent role as COO at DigitalOcean. Having also held positions as Board Member, Advisor, Mentor and Investor in his career, Almoar serves as a powerful addition to the team and brings the depth and perspective of multiple experiences in the start-up ecosystem to support founders and entrepreneurs.
VatorNews: What is your investment philosophy or methodology?
Karl Alomar: We’re a consumer tech investor, so we look for technologies that are ultimately directed towards consumers, and the general theme of how we think about investment is we look at the technologies that are driving change in consumer behavior over the next decade. We think about what businesses, and what opportunities, those changes in technology will create in terms of things that consumers are thinking about. What is a ‘nice to have’ for consumers today, versus what ultimately will become ‘need to have’ for consumers in the future. We like the consumer landscape because it's a very significant market in size: two-thirds of consumer wallets are spent on categories like health, food, housing, personal finance. So, these are all areas in which we think technologies will disrupt and change the way in which consumers will experience these different areas. We're really focused on identifying how those changes will take place and investing into those changes in the future.
In terms of how we approach investing, the genesis of this business really comes from a long career in operating across most of the partnership. I personally spent 20 to 25 years as an executive in startups, and started up a couple companies myself; most recently I was COO of DigitalOcean for the last five or six years before I joined M13. In those experiences, I worked with a lot of venture, so I've seen the evolution of venture over the years, and have seen the increasing demands. The need has always been there, but the increasing demand for venture is to be more than just dollars and cents, and actually to really provide much more of a supporting mechanism for founders and entrepreneurs. For example, for me, there’s been plenty times in my career, no matter how good of a founder I may or may not have been, where I have not had the experience or the knowledge to deal with the problems at hand and it caused me and my team to have spun ourselves for months on end on problems that could have been solved very quickly and easily if we have the right support, the right guidance and the right advice. Really what we're looking to do with M13 is build an organization that's really focused on that, on how to help these companies accelerate, make better decisions and, essentially, win in their categories as a result of just having that better supporting management team.
VN: You said you do consumer investments, so what are some of the verticals you like to invest in, both as a firm and personally?
KA: I trend more personally towards the technology-driven side of our investments, and then there's obviously the investments that skew more towards the consumer, which my other partners tend to to gravitate towards. So, we have a breadth of skill sets across the partnership that allows us to address all kinds of business opportunities in this category.
I'll go through specific kinds of vertical categories: I mentioned health, but really we think about it as wellness. The way we think about it is as both physical health and mental health; we think that consumer consumers are paying more and more attention to mental health as we go into the future and there's a lot of technologies and developments that are enhancing our ability, as a society, to deal with that. We also think that the idea of democratizing big institutions, whether it's pharmacies or other methods of delivering health and wellness, like medication, things like that, is an area that is also very disruptive in the wellness space.
On the food side, we're looking at a lot of alternative food options. We think there's a really interesting evolution of alternative foods just in terms of sustainability and also health. Also, we're looking at it as consumer efficiency, so how do you actually create more opportunities for food delivery, for food services, and things like that, into the consumer marketplace? So, it’s a combination of alternative food types and then solutions that actually facilitate eating habits and stuff like that across the market.
On finance, we think about two areas mainly: the long-term future of where digital currency plays a role in the future of finance, but also, on a more short-term basis, how personalized financial services are really disrupting traditional banking and large institutions. Housing is another one, we’re already backing a company that is really supporting the landlord-tenant relationship and providing security and process for that, but we just think about a lot of different forms. We're looking at a lot of different ways in which people are building new housing, or people are managing real estate in general and just how the consumers play in the housing world and housing space. Communication is fifth vertical; in that regard, we're actually looking at the trend of voice in communication, and we're looking at a lot of opportunities to see how voice is going to play a much bigger role, alongside what we already have in video and text. We think there's a whole new set of technologies around voice, mainly driven by the introduction of the AirPods and certain technologies which have made it much easier to deliver content directly into the ears. An extension of that is social protocol which, again, takes voice and looks at how that's gonna play a role in social, driven by the same trends around AirPods and those types of technologies. Also, we we think eGaming continues has a pretty strong growth opportunity and it's definitely a new consumer trend in terms of the way people are gaming and participating in the world of sports.
Finally, it is slightly askew, but something we really think has a major impact on consumers and how they live their lives is the evolution of consumers in the workplace. So, how do you think about your workplace environment as it relates to self improvement, managing your finances or other things that may come through your workplace that are there to benefit the individual consumer?
VN: You said you focus more on technology-driven investments, whereas your partners focus more on consumer-driven investments. Can you clarify what you mean by that?
KA: Within our partnership we have five investing partners, some of whom have done a lot of investments and built businesses that are direct-to-consumer and have dealt directly with consumer relationships. They understand how to build consumer markets, and things like that. And then, on the other end of the scale, you have me, a partner that has been much more involved in really deep technology development and SaaS and technology services to ultimately deliver offerings to large audiences. So, we have a really nice blend, and it's a range, people aren't sitting at the extremes; we have a couple of partners that sit right in the middle, that have a real blend between technology and direct-to-consumer type offerings. We're able to both understand how a consumer behaves and how they'll evolve and how their behavior will change over time, as well as really getting under the hood on the technologies that drive that change.
So, there are going to be some investments we make that tend to be more directed towards consumer services or consumer behavior that are less technical. They always have technology components, but maybe not quite as deep in terms of technology. And then there's businesses on the other end of the scale that still have a consumer impact but are very technical. We have one investment in digital currency that obviously is incredibly technical in terms of how it operates, how it works and how that business model is going to evolve. And so, when you get to more of the technical investments, I tend to focus more on those companies. And when we get to more of the investments that are related to products or services that go directly to a consumer, that may have less technical components to them, then other partners may be more focused on that as they scale.
VN: What's the big macro trend you're betting on?
KA: We really define it as consumerization of major industries. How is power shifting from big, old school institutions to the individual? What technologies are changing the way in which the consumers behave, but also the power they have in that? A great example of that is when you think about things like finance. You’re trying to disrupt these big, old institutions, and the way you're doing that is you're basically saying to your customer, “I'm going to give you more control, I'm going to give you more power, I'm going to give you more capabilities and more opportunity because I'm going to put the strength in your hands.” The relative consistency across all of these verticals is how this technology continues to move, shifting the power of consumption into the hands of the consumer. That is the big macro trend.
There are some parallel trends that go alongside that, which are really just technology trends. Like, we believe in the movement towards voice in consumption methodology, we believe in a lot of aspects around the direction of where food is going to go, the direction of where wellness is going to go, which is towards mental wellness. So, those are some big directional things that we see as macro trends, but the underlying core is this idea that there continues to be a big opportunity, with mobile technology and the like, for the power of big services to ultimately become microservices in the hands of the consumer.
VN: What is the size of your current fund and how many investments do you typically make in a year?
KA: The fund is about $190 million. We tend to split our investments between what we call “core investments” and “feeder investments.” Our core investments are generally Series A or late seed investments; we tend to about seven or eight a year. We think we will do about 20, in total, for this fund. And then, with feeder investments, these tend to be investments that we believe have an opportunity to become core over time. They're a little earlier than we would generally invest as at the Series A level; they tend to be seed or even earlier investments. But these are businesses we really believe in and want to support and we tend to invest in seven to 10 of those a year. So, over a three year deployment period you roll out somewhere in the range of 20 core announcements, and maybe up to 25 or 30 feeder investments over that period.
VN: How much is that in dollar amount for you in initial checks and over the life of the company?
KA: For our core investments, the average check is just under $4 million. We tend to invest about $2 to $7 million in our first check. We have a comfort level to get up to about 10 percent of our fund in any one particular company, so we will go up to $19 million over the life of the investment. But we generally reserve an equal amount to the initial core investment, so let's say we've come in at a $5 million core investment, we'll reserve another $5 million as follow-on. Obviously, depending on the success of the company, we could go beyond that reserve on any one particular company in order to take advantage of a great opportunity.
On the feeder side, our investments tend to be smaller; our average check is about $500,000. So, it will range anywhere from $250,000 to $1 million and, again, we're really just supporting the company and hopefully looking to participate in the company’s Series A or really take a position as the company grows and begins to check the boxes and becomes one of our core investments.
VN: What kind of traction does a startup need for you to invest? Do you have any specific numbers?
KA: It's interesting because it’s not as specific as a preset set of numbers. There's two main drivers for our core investments: the first one is market validation, so we want our founders to prove that the market wants their product. Show me early signs of formulaic growth, show me some engagement, let me understand how your customers behave. Let me understand how you acquire customers and retain customers. And if those concepts have some material statistics behind them, then we can build a model against that and we can get a good understanding of where we think that company is going to land or the opportunity that’s ahead for that business. So, that's what we like to invest in from a core standpoint.
The alternative is we’ve been blessed with the opportunity to really get behind some incredible track record founders, so founders that have really proven themselves before. They come to the table with a great concept, maybe a little earlier in the development process, maybe pre-launch, but, because of the track record and their background and the belief we have in them, we’re comfortable getting behind that and supporting those founders as well.
On the feeder side, we're really investing in potential. We see the potential in what the product could be, or potential in what we believe the founding team could be. We do need the product to have taken some form of shape, but we don't really need full validation because obviously it’s an earlier investment and we recognize that there's some work to be done before the founders are really able to demonstrate the overall opportunity. So, as I said, no specific numbers; it’s relatively unique to different types of businesses. But, as we get into each of these businesses and look at them, we do get a pretty good feel and pretty good set of data to support the concept of market validation.
VN: What do you want to see from the team when you invest?
KA: Team is really relevant to the model that we've built. We believe great teams build great companies, so that's inherent for us. We're really all about the way in which we are able to partner with that team, and the way in which we're able to add value and help drive them and help be a meaningful value-add to what they're working on, wherever their efforts are taking them.
We think of these founding teams as potential partners for us, and we really assess them in the sense of, can we work with them? Will they partner with us? Can we help guide them? The relationship we're able to establish with the founders and the founding team is really very highly correlated to our ability to impact the likelihood of success of the relationship. We're not, by any means, a backseat investor. We really want to be active and supportive and helpful. In order to do that, we have to be working with people that not only welcome that, but also are really able to work with us in a very effective way. So, there are a lot of personality dynamics in the way we think about these businesses and, honestly, we have turned down investments where we haven't felt that the dynamics are correct and we haven't felt we could work with founders very well.
VN: What do you think about valuations these days? Have you seen them be affected by all that’s happened this year with COVID and the market volatility?
KA: I actually don't think there really has been an effect on the macro. If somebody's going out for a seed investment or a Series A investment, valuation ranges are probably relatively consistent. The big difference is an additional layer of diligence has been introduced to the process. Every deal that we look at, you think about it as, “what does this look like the post-COVID world?” So, there's a lot of consideration of the change in consumer behavior as a result of the experiences that everybody's going through this year. It's not just about what is right right now; we realize that we're in an abnormal state of time and that any investment we make is a five to 10 year commitment, not a six month visibility of what's happening today.
We also recognize that coming out of a life changing period like this, there is going to be a different way in which people behave around certain categories. And so, some categories are highly benefited by it, and some categories are hurt by it. We like to think about, how does COVID impact the direction this business would want to take? It causes us to be more cautious about new investments, adds another layer of diligence to the investments, but I don't think it necessarily has changed the valuation. I don't know the stats of this, but you may argue that fewer companies are getting investment, but the companies that we're seeing, which tend to be pretty high quality companies, are highly contested opportunities and there's rarely been a situation where we've come in and seen downward pressure on valuations because usually that's just a lot of interest in firms wanting to invest in their businesses that we’re looking at.
VN: What are some of the categories that you’re now more interested in than you were pre- COVID, and which categories are you maybe less interested in investing in in a post-COVID world?
KA: I'll talk about the general terms because there's always exceptions to the rule. So, in general, any of these digital services, or these assistance services or remote touch services, have become even more needed and exciting. So, everything from food delivery right through to anything that supports remote working environments or digital community, those types of things are obviously very interesting right now, because the idea is that, in a post-COVID world, people will be working from home more than they were before. There will be a different relationship with major cities and people will want more services delivered and brought to them. So, those are areas where we definitely see a lot of innovation, a lot of interest.
Obviously, in the short term, there are concerns about the outlook in the hospitality space. So, a lot of the areas around hospitality or when people are pulled together or brought together, are at risk. Even in a post-COVID world, it's going to take a while for that truly to come back to life in the way that it was before COVID. Those are areas where we're a little bit more cautious and we tend to want to think about the long-term opportunity of a business, because in the short term they may struggle to get the growth they may have seen a year ago.
VN: There are many venture funds out there today, how do you differentiate yourself to limited partners?
KA: We really like to believe that we're on that leading edge of where venture ultimately is going in terms of being this real full service engine. So, our differentiation really, we believe, is our core model. Some of this will sound probably similar to what other people have said, but, as I round it out, you'll see how we've actually made a very conscientious and meaningful difference in how we've done it and that is going to lead to a different type of behavior, especially in the future with other venture firms.
We've really focused on balancing our investment capital with human capital. What we mean by that is, for every investing fund that we have, we also have an operating partner, and we have a very balanced team. We focus very, very heavily on operating expertise. So, our operating partners have incredible experience, and we're very proud to be focused in different categories that will drive growth for a business. Our bench would be the envy of any executive team in a growing company. I mean, it's an incredible group of executives and they include skill sets in finance, talents, but also go-to-market, brand and communications, data, a whole slew of other capabilities and operations that really are the basis of what any core executive team might look like. Everybody that comes from within that team comes with 20 years of executive experience: they’re coming from pretty successful growth companies like DigitalOcean, Naturebox, Virgin.
Typically a fund, especially of our size, cannot really afford to build these types of capabilities, so our fund management fees are generally there to support the investment team. We've matched our fund management fees for the first three years with an outside investment and that's really designed to build these capabilities and provide them, in real time, to our portfolio companies. So, the idea is that, as a portfolio company, in addition to getting our investment, you essentially get to work hand in hand in a very proactive way with this incredible bench of executives that will actually get involved with your business, help you strategically, help you make better day-to-day decisions, and really focus on the areas of maximum impact and get involved in the businesses and support. That is something that we have actually invested in outside of our funds because we specifically believe that it's going to create a high likelihood of success of our portfolio businesses and, as a result, increase our returns in the long run. So, from an LP standpoint, the key differentiation is at we are doing so much to help advance and drive the success of the companies in our portfolio that the likelihood of that success, and the likelihood of long term returns, is much greater. And, as a result, we believe it's going to create greater returns for our LPs.
VN: Venture is a two-way street, where investors also have to pitch themselves. How do you differentiate your fund to entrepreneurs?
KA: On the founder side, it's the same concept: it's the model that really creates differentiation, similar to the LPs. The difference in terms of how a founder sees that is we look at the genesis of how we built the business, which I talked about in the beginning: it comes from a history of operating experience, the history of understanding the needs and having empathy for what founders go through, and we've built a team that is really there to cater specifically to that.
When a founder goes into seed or Series A investment, they have minimal resources and, no matter how good the founders, it's practically impossible for them to be able to do everything in the business. There's always going to be gaps, there's always going to be holes, there's always going to be areas that have blind spots. Just from personal experience, I have spent far too much time trying to solve problems that should be solved quickly, but I just didn't have the experience. It doesn't matter how much experience you have, most founders do have blind spots. That's just the nature of having a lack of resources in your business. And so, what we really act as kind of a sixth person on the bench, where we’re there as a supporting mechanism for the founders. We actually make a real point of being proactive, so working with them, understanding that businesses, helping them see around corners, helping them identify problems before those problems arise, and then actually actively getting involved in strategic, highly impactful projects or things that they need to get done, that we can be very helpful with.
We end up building an incredibly personal relationship. They really think of us as an extension of their team. Even though a lot of venture firms may say they do this, I think this is only really possible if you over invest in this capability within the firm, which is essentially what we've done. That is incredibly unique; I don't know of any other firm that has invested over and above the management fees to do this type of thing at this point, but we do feel that this is probably something that other firms will begin to do in the future as founders become more demanding of the level of support, and the needs that they have in building their businesses.
VN: What are some of the investments you’ve made that you're super excited about? Why did you want to invest in those companies?
KA: There is a company by the name of Bunch, which fits in our workplace vertical. It's a direct-to-manager offering, an application that provides digital coaching, like two minute bites on a daily basis, but it's all driven by AI. It’s this automated system that really learns and understands who you are as a manager and really helps you develop your capabilities. It tracks your calendar, tracks your personality and your traits and begins to help guide you and develop you as a manager, especially with the transition for a lot of Millennials from being in-office managers to remote managers, and so there's a lot of stress that has come with that. There's a lot of Millennials that have illustrated a lack of support or a lack of development in becoming good managers and this type of tool, the way they built this, is really, really great. The reaction that they're getting from these early adopters is just phenomenal. I mean I see the emails that these users are sending to the CEO and they're just glowing praises to the quality of what they’re offering from this coaching application. We got involved in this business relatively early for us, probably earlier than real market validation was in place by any means, and really helped them evolve and develop the product into what it is today, and to get to the engagement and the metrics that they've seen now.
The real motivation here was the quality of the team, and their ability to execute. The CEO is a lady named Daria; she is an academic from the work psychology space, so she's very well educated in the whole concept of social norms around the workplace and work psychology and things like that. She just really has built an incredible team of product and engineering folks that have just continued to iterate and build a really great product very efficiently. You can see the rate of iteration, the rate of learning, and the way they handle and develop the data to enhance the way they're building their products. We're just really impressed by them as a team, really believe in the need for automation in coaching and some way to help managers get better and for people to self reflect. It really supports mental wellness, as people are going into a high stress world and we’re just very excited about that. They're literally launching as we speak; they're in the app store now and we're beginning to see early traction on that, and just seeing some results. We just really enjoy working with them.
There are a couple of applications that are launching later this year where I can’t actually mention their names yet since they're not public, but they focus on voice. One is in the communications space, and the other is a little bit more in the social space, mainly centered around podcasts and making them much more consumable. The communication one is a more centered around direct messaging through asynchronous voice messaging, and both products come with incredible founders that have built and sold business before and have an incredible pedigree. Both of them, again, are very exciting products, really highly engaging. We are fully engaged with them at M13, obviously pre-official launch, but we can see the level of virality of these platforms. We're very excited and we’ll share the names as soon as they become public.
On the finance side, it’s a much more technical play but there is a company by name of Lightning Labs, which is building a platform which kind of like a Stripe exchange platform for consumer transactions on top of Bitcoin. It really facilitates much faster, much less expensive transactions. It could be the vehicle that takes Bitcoin into the day-to-day consumer utilization, which is really exciting. I believe Lightning Labs has about 90 percent market share in that particular platform; they're a very highly technical business but they’re building a really, really great product that is being taken up by a lot of developers and integrated into a lot of applications that ultimately deliver the ability for consumers to transact much more readily in digital currencies versus traditional fiat transactions. We think that really speaks to the future and the way digital currency will ultimately make an impact in the consumer world. It just has to be consumable, and this is a really great platform that facilitates that.
Maybe a final one that we love is in the food space. It’s a company named Shef that is really providing personal home chefs. It started in San Francisco and just launched in New York. You can’t really compare it to restaurants, it’s a very, very different experience to receive a meal that’s cooked in someone’s home, and we’re just really excited about the premise of that platform and the engagement they’re receiving, and their ability to, again, facilitate a lot of income opportunities for these amazing chefs that just don’t have the ability to become professional chefs.
VN: What are some lessons you learned?
KA: The transition from being excited about a company and thinking about a business as an investable opportunity are definitely different. You do learn pretty quickly that some concepts and ideas may just be exciting and awe inspiring but, at the end of the day, you have to look at the fundamentals and you have to start to think about the investment opportunity and can this business really be globally impactful? Can it really build the value that you want to invest behind? And so, that is definitely something you learn, and you learn to differentiate. There are definitely a lot of businesses and a lot of entrepreneurs out there that I love and I really want to support, but they’re just not necessarily viable investments. You have to be able to really differentiate between the two.
Another thing that I've also learned is it's easy to get blinded by market momentum, just in terms of investor excitement about a business. I've seen a couple of times where businesses that have got a lot of investor excitement, they've done some campaign or they've done something that just created a big reaction in the investor community, and you're seeing all the investors chasing and trying to dive into these businesses. It’s really important to always take a step back and, again, focus on the fundamentals. Is this really the right business? Is the team the right team? Are they the right people? And make judgments on businesses without getting blinded by maybe what you would call investor momentum. That can be difficult sometimes because you're always second guessing yourself and you're like, “What am I missing? Everyone's so excited about this, there's got to be something there.” And you often feel obligated to throw your hat in the ring. Be smarter about why you, as an investor, are really excited about a business, rather than just following what other people's excitement looks like. It's really important to find your own lane and really figure out what excites you as an investor directly about a company.
There's a lot of the basics around getting a better understanding of what makes a good team, what makes a good entrepreneur, how would you invest in, what kind of skill sets and capabilities really make for good execution, and things like that. So, those are all just table stakes that you just develop an understanding over time. I learned a lot of that while I was in an operator before I got into investing. A lot of the ideas around reading teams and understanding how people work and stuff comes with that already, so I don’t think I learned more than I already knew, but just applying it into investment decisions is obviously a slightly different muscle.
VN: What excites you the most about your position as VC?
KA: I love being inspired. I love working with inspiring talent, so either young talent that I can help develop and mentor or proven talent that I can learn from. Just being around these people that are all looking to change the world is just really inspiring to me. Honestly, I'm really in awe of anybody that can really build a true, lasting business that has a global impact. How people are changing the world, how they think, what it is that's driving them. What is it that causes them to really have that much of an impact in the world? That's just honestly day-to-day inspiring.
When I was in operating, I had blinders on, to a degree. You look immediately around you at your peers in the industry but you're really in your lane and you're really focused on your team and you're focused on what you're doing right in front of you. But when you take a step back into VC, and you're able to see the full landscape, and be able to see where the talent lives and you find these pockets of genius. It's just an incredible inspiration and incredibly exciting. Just seeing this talent realize their dreams is just really, really exciting for me because it just proves what humans are capable of and that's something that I find very inspiring.
VN: Is there anything else that you think I should know about you or the firm or your thoughts about the venture industry in general?
KA: Venture is a 50 or 60 year old industry, if not maybe even a little longer. For decades, it was pretty stagnant, it was a source of capital, it was a means to an end for founders to get to where they wanted to get to. I do really think that in the last 10 years it’s evolved significantly. Maybe because of the volume of investors out there, the amount of capital that is available for good founders and good founding teams, things have swung to where the founders have a little bit more control over who they choose and why they choose investors. As a result, they’re becoming more demanding. Rightly so, by the way; I don't think that's a bad thing.
The best founders are the ones who can lean on all of the resources available to them to maximize their likelihood of success. We're trying to get ahead of the curve on that change, but, ultimately, we believe that venture is moving from an investing business into a full service business, in which investing is just one component. We really believe that the best founders are going to, ultimately, work with the best investors that can provide them the most real life-like operating value in their pursuit to build the businesses that they're building. This is an unbelievable change in venture that started about 10 years ago and will continue for the next 10 years. Venture in 2030 will be a very different offering to what it was in 2010, and we are right in the middle of that change and so that's something that we're really excited to be on the bleeding edge of and really hope they we’re contributing towards moving the needle on that.
VN: I see a lot of what you’re talking about. When I talk to investors about what they offer to their companies, every one of them says the same thing: they want to offer much more than just money, they want to be a partner. They want to be there with them, they don't just want to give money and then see them again in two years.
KA: Then the next question is, as they do that? What are the actions that support that? That's where we believe we differentiate. A lot of people say the same things that we're saying, but the difference is we've invested in it, we've built teams around it, we've actioned against those commitments, and that is what I believe more people will begin to do as they begin to see a model like ours really having an impact in the market.
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