An Interview with James Cham, Partner, Bloomberg Beta


James Cham is a venture capital investor with Bloomberg Beta, a firm focused on investing in the future of work. James invests in companies working on applying machine intelligence to businesses and society. Prior to Bloomberg Beta, James was a Principal at Trinity Ventures and a VP at Bessemer Venture Partners, where he focused on consumer services, enterprise software, digital media; and served on the boards of CrowdFlower, Open Candy, LifeLock, ReputationDefender, Sonic Mule, and BillShrink. He was previously a management consultant at The Boston Consulting Group and a software developer. James received an MBA from MIT's Sloan School of Management and Computer Science degree from Harvard.

How did you get into the world of Venture Capital?

After the startup that I was a part of got acquired, I went to business school. A good friend of mine introduced me to a firm called Bessemer, where I got my introduction to venture capital and how I ended up investing in startups.

And before Venture Capital you were a software developer?

That's right, I was a software developer in the late 90s to early 2000s. I was part of that transition from client-server over to web-based, enterprise applications, and I wrote a bunch of mediocre code and made a bunch of bad design decisions that other people suffered for as a result. So I’ve been through enough cycles to least understand what that feels like from a potential customer perspective.

Why did you invest in LaunchDarkly?

Let me take a step back. When we raised money from Bloomberg to start the fund nearly five years ago, one of the core claims was that we are living in a world where everyone's a knowledge worker. In that world, we should look at the best knowledge workers around. We should copy their techniques to find ways for them to scale what they're doing. And of course, the best knowledge workers in the world are software developers. This is in part because some of the best software developers are a mix of lazy and smart -- they spend all their time avoiding working on applications and instead work on frameworks and systems infrastructure. So broadly, that is what we’re excited about.

LaunchDarkly is exciting for two core reasons: One, there was an immediate sense of recognition of a problem. When I first heard Edith pitch the idea, I thought “Oh my goodness! I wish this existed when I was being yelled at as a software developer or when I was managing projects.” There's a sense that this should exist and this is the right way to do something. I think most software developers do this. You build your own bad bug-tracking system or slightly lame issues-tracking system. And I had done something like a features flag product for some other project, but I didn't call it that. There was a sense that Edith understood this and saw this more clearly than I did. That’s one excitement.

And then there's the other reality which is the excitement of seeing a leader like we did. There's a point when you meet her and say, “Oh, she's not just someone who has built something interesting, but she’s someone you can see leading something important.” That’s another important part of what made it exciting for me. As I've gotten to know her better, that’s only been validated more and more.

You met LaunchDarkly through Alchemist. What are your thoughts of Alchemist in general?

The thing that is most helpful about Alchemist is that it’s more systems driven. The people around it are quite credible and thoughtful. You look at the set of advisors: These are people who aren’t really famous and lightly involved, but rather accomplished and very deeply involved. From my perspective, that makes the process of diligence and validating people much easier.

There’s always a sense about Alchemist that you’re being as positive as possible about the opportunity, but at the same time you don’t lie. That's an important thing for an investor and really helpful.

What is the approximate size of your fund? How does that compare to other funds in a similar stage?

As the markets are fragmented, even in the earlier stage, judging how we compare to other funds does become more complicated. But the core physics of our first fund was $75M, and the second fund is also $75M. Our first check sizes range between $100K to $1M, and we participate anywhere from friends and family rounds to right before the Series A.

Does your fund have a specific vision or focus? I know you've touched on the future of work prior, but is there more to that?

We talk about the future of work, in part, because historians of science would say that it takes two generations of managers for any new technology to really make an impact on the economy. At the start of our fund, we were twenty years into the Web -- networked computers, which is another way to think about it. We were convinced that it is only now we’ll see massive changes in the way people work, because now you have a bunch of people creating businesses that are suited for the Web.

Within that vision, we have a focus both on productivity for knowledge workers -- we see a lot of opportunities to integrate and learn from developers -- and the way software ends up changing the way that people do business. New tools will be required to support this new kind of business, which include developer tools up to enterprise software.

We also believe that machine learning, model building, and AI in general are different than normal software development. I think they have profound implications that we haven’t understood yet, not just on all the cutting edge research we’ve done, but especially around the way that people make good software and machine learning models. Machine learning model building is different than software development. The economic characteristics are different, meaning machine learning will give rise to new business models. So somewhere out there, there’s going to be a person that is the Bill Gates or Marc Benioff of machine learning. They are going to do a mix of marketing, technical, and product insights and come up with a different way of providing machine learning or AI-driven businesses in a different light. They are going to charge in a different way or sell it in a different way. That’s the innovation or change in the way that people do business that we’re most excited about, and where we spend a lot of time.

How does your fund differentiate itself from other funds?

On the one hand, the money is a commodity. The money is the same, and so the way you differentiate is you bundle different services along with it. Some of that is the personality of the partners and the way that they relate to other people. A part of that is also a set of things that we focus on. I think, we think through more than other firms ways that founders can make a dent in the universe through the way they talk about themselves. On that side, we’ve thought a lot out. And we work with our companies a lot around that.

So much of it depends on the specific relationship that each partner has with the founder that that investor has invested in, especially at the seed stage. There aren’t magic formulas.

How do you individually differentiate yourself from other individual VC’s?

The right way to compete along those lines is not to compete. Instead, I’m most interested in angles that people aren’t thinking about yet. And I’m most interested in thinking through angles that are poorly understood.

So if someone has just another generic SaaS company that’s growing at a certain percentage, then I'm probably not the right person for them. An old friend of mind would say that there’s two types of VCs. There are VCs that if they weren’t VCs, they’d be bankers, and others who are VCs because they spent too much time pitching. I’m definitely part of the second camp. There are a whole set of ideas that should be enabled and would be if someone stuck their neck out and said they believed this founder could create something special and make the world better. And that’s what I try to do.

​What makes an investment compelling for you? Is there something in particular that makes an investment more compelling than not?

There are all the things that people talk about: traction, the team’s experience, potential, etc. I think those things are all really important, but the thing that might be under appreciated is that core insight. Sometimes the founders don't understand what the core insight is. There is nothing quite as exciting as sitting with a founder and discovering together what actually makes them special. And oftentimes that core insight can be communicated in a paragraph or it could take a lifetime to get there. For me, that’s what I'm looking for that. It’s going to be in areas where I have enough preconceived notions that someone could surprise me.

What is the number one red flag for you that would make you pass on an investment?

The moment I feel like I can’t trust someone is probably the number one reason why. When it’s close or we thought we should have invested, that tends to be the number one surprising thing about most folks that we pass on. Investing in a company is not something you take lightly. We take it very seriously and it’s a relationship we take very seriously as well.

What separates the great founders who get an investment from you vs. the good founders who don't quite make the cut?

There’s a way in which the best founders help you believe. Whether it’s helping the investors believe or first customers or the first employee or the co-founders. And that way of getting someone to believe, it comes in all sorts of ways. It’s not generic. It comes in many sizes and forms, but that ability to impose your will on the universe. It only works if you can convince other people.

Would you be more likely to fund a very experienced team with a mediocre idea or a team of novices with an amazing idea?

Nuance matters a lot here. I think that there are plenty of times when the very smart, experienced team can take a mediocre, initial idea and because they are so customer-oriented or technically visionary that they end up building something better, smarter, or more interesting. However, generically, I hunt for people who have extraordinary insight and how they get there. The insights do not have to manifest themselves with the first product, but they manifest themselves somehow that makes them extraordinary.

Is there any piece of advice you would give founders who are fundraising that you think does not get shared enough?

I think founders forget how much power they have in a situation. There are cycles that founders get in where they end up feeling like this is just another boring sales call. But what the founders are doing is they're sharing their most precious things. They're sharing things that they probably care more about than almost anything else in the universe. When they pitch, they should treat it that way. That investors are lucky to get a view into this. The moment the founder forgets that, humans can smell it. You have to continue to be resilient and continue to believe because investors, although we do it through a financial instrument, at the core, we’re declaring we have faith in someone and we have enough faith that we’re putting our money and our goodwill behind it.

If you think about Edith and the way that they were together and the way that they communicated and seemed to take what they do seriously, even when things are difficult, that’s the sort of thing that an investor is looking for.

What areas are you excited about now and in the future?​

I’m excited for when things that we call AI-related start being machine learning-related and get boring. When everyone understands how to engineer a bunch of problems, things get boring, and that's when you end up with a lot of product innovation. I’m very excited about that!

An Interview with Toni Schneider, Founding Venture Partner, True Ventures

A Swiss native who studied computer science at Santa Barbara City College and Stanford University, Toni Schneider started his career as a software engineer working on NASA virtual reality simulators. He went on to become a startup founder and CEO, and an executive at Yahoo!, before joining the True team as a founding Venture Partner. Toni is well known for his role as CEO of Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com. He helped WordPress become a globally known brand that powers over 30% of all sites on the internet. For his work, Toni was recognized at the Crunchies as CEO of the year.

When he is not running one company or advising another, you can find Toni in his VW van crossing the US with his family, coaching San Francisco Little League baseball, or tinkering with old cars.

How did you get into the world of venture capital?

I got into it first as an entrepreneur and founder, raising money from VCs. I did that for three startups. Then I switched to VC while also still being CEO of a startup. True Ventures is the only VC firm I’ve ever been with. One of True’s co-founders, Phil Black, was a close friend of mine. He was thinking about starting a new VC firm and asked me if I would be interested in being part of it. So when he started True together with Jon Callaghan, I said yes and dove in to learn from them how to raise money from limited partners and make venture investments as we pulled together True’s first fund in 2006.

That’s so interesting to be on both sides. You began on the entrepreneurial side pitching to VCs and now you are a VC. How do you think that transition helped prepare you? Does it help you identify what you are looking for in a company that you want to fund? What a red flag would be, that sort of thing?

It's probably both good and bad. The good part is that I was able to bring a founder’s perspective to how we structured True. Our goal was to be very founder friendly. I could share honestly what it was like to sit on the other side of the table from a VC. That helped in creating a firm where we really think of founders and entrepreneurs as our customers and where we do everything we can to provide a good service to them.

Another advantage is that when I look at startup teams, I have a good hands on feeling for their abilities because I’ve run several startups and hired and managed many startup teams.

The disadvantage is that it comes with biases. I had a certain experience as an entrepreneur and certain things that worked for me and certain things that failed. That very much shaped my thinking around startups. While it gives me a good point of view, I also have a harder time going outside of my own experience and being open to different approaches to starting businesses.

What for you personally makes a startup look like a good idea? What is something compelling to you as a startup you would fund?

For me it always starts with the team. I look for strong founder qualities, which in my mind are the ability to be very charismatic, and to have a really exciting, big, long term vision combined with flexibility when it comes to everyday execution that's going to be very zig-zaggy for a startup. There will be new challenges every day. So you look for somebody who's comfortable asking for help and being adaptable near term, but has an audacious long term vision that they don't waver from. The charisma and communication skills will help attract a lot of people to their startup.

Finally, someone who has a lot of depth in their area of expertise. This is something I always look for. As I dig into an idea, do I feel, “Wow, this person is three steps ahead of me and has really thought it through and knows everything about the space they’re about to get into”? Any good idea is going to have more than one team chasing after it, and I want to bet on the team that has a lot of depth.

There's a lot of emphasis for future founders on idea generation, but it honestly sounds like the idea comes second to more of the team, from what I just heard you say...

First step is to be in the right place at the right time for your skillset. There are other factors that play into it, but without the right people, none of it is going to work.

The second step is the product and the idea. The product needs to be unique and truly compelling and have a story that can be articulated in a simple way. What does the product do? Who is it for? What makes it unique? It's surprising how often founders can’t answer those three basic questions in a straightforward manner. I want to invest in a product that gets me personally excited, that I believe will have a positive impact on the world, and that will make customers say, “Wow, I want that, that’s different. That’s a totally new approach.”

For the third step, like everybody else in the VC business, I look at the market. Is this something that if it works out - there can be a ton of risk associated with, frankly we want a ton of risk - but if it works out, could it be a very big business? Is it a big market that seems ready for a massive change? That has to be in place as well, otherwise you can have an amazing team with an amazing product, but without big growth and revenue potential it won’t be a VC scale opportunity. That's not what we’re in business for.

What was the number one red flag that would caution you away from investing in a team or a startup?

On the people side, it's teams that don't seem to have the right chemistry or the right understanding of what their roles are going to be, or teams that don't have a track record together. That for me is maybe not a red flag, but definitely a yellow flag.

The biggest red flag usually comes up during initial due diligence. It happens quite a bit that I'll think “Wow, this is a really good idea, I'm going to dig in,” and when I do, I realize that there are already a bunch of teams doing the same thing and the idea quickly doesn't seem so original. It feels like more of a rehash or tweak of another idea. That usually throws cold water on a project for me. That’s the biggest red flag, that an idea isn’t that unique.

It's only one percent of startups go on to become really big. You really do have to filter out ones that you don't think are capable or have a clever idea.

Yes, and even when everything fits, even when you check all the boxes that I just described, it's still hard. Because nothing ever plays out exactly the way we plan and hope. Another filter we use at True is that we focus on one type of deal. We do two to three million dollar seed rounds. That’s it. If it’s something that is a really good idea with a good team, but two to three million dollars is not enough to get it off the ground or it’s already past the seed stage, we won't do it even though it might be a great opportunity. We are really trying to stay focused on one stage of investing, do it well, and have a whole portfolio of companies that go through the same stage so they can all learn from and support each other.

Seems like True has a specific focus on seed round innovative companies, what else do you look for?

We’re not thesis investors. We don’t have certain sector or certain type of business that we look for. We’re not a “SaaS fund” or a “Crypto fund”. We invest behind great founders and then double down when things are working. For example, we were early investors in Fitbit, a couple of years before hardware startups and connected devices became a trend. We weren't looking for that trend, we just liked that team and particular idea, and when we saw it working for them, we followed on with a bunch more hardware investments like Ring and Peloton. We follow wherever our founders take us. Recently, we've invested in robots, satellites, and biotech, which are all new areas for us. We try to be very open-minded about what the subject matter might be.

You really do try to treat founders and startups that work with you very well. Is that how your fund differentiates from others? There are certainly quite a lot of VC funds around here.

One thing that makes us different is that we invest earlier than the majority of VCs. We're really close to an angel stage, but we're a full service VC firm. We are there in the very beginning, often when it’s just two or three people with an idea, and we have our founders’ backs all the way through. Most VC firms want to see revenue traction and product-market fit before they even look at something.

The second thing we do that differentiates us is we are focused on the personal needs of a founding team, not just the business needs. We know what you will need as a founder, as a leader, to get really good at your job, to get through the ups and downs of doing a startup. If something goes wrong, we want to be your first phone call. We don't want to be the kind of investor where you feel like, “Oh God, something went wrong, how do I break this to my investors? I don't want to talk to them.” We hope to have a trusted relationship so that even when things don't go well, we're going to be there and help you through it.

Part of how we do that is to connect all the founders within our portfolio and they help each other improve. That's our founder network and platform. We have events and tools that facilitate direct, open, and honest collaboration. It’s optional, but most of our founders take advantage of this amazing peer network. I think it’s super valuable and quite unique among VC firms.

What made you to want to invest in Laura and her startup, Atipica? What made them stand out from the pack of other investments you were evaluating at the time?

Laura and Atipica really hit a lot of the boxes I mentioned earlier. She’s a very charismatic founder with a big vision, a great communicator with deep knowledge in the area of diversity, inclusion and hiring. She had spent several years working on the idea and product, talking to a lot of companies about their needs, so she had depth of expertise. We started working together a little bit over two years ago. It was still early days in diversity and inclusion tools and she was well ahead of many of the people we talked to. She had a small team, pre-revenue but she already had some pilot customers. So it was the right stage for us and we felt like our seed investment could help her build out her team, get the product launched, and get to the next stage.

The hiring and recruiting sector in particular was interesting to us at the time. We had just had a successful exit to LinkedIn with Connectifier, and I was and still am on the board of another investment we made in this space called Handshake. They’re in the college recruiting space and doing very well. So I was personally excited about hiring tools and got quickly interested in Laura’s vision to make the recruiting and hiring process become more fair and inclusive and help companies understand why they're having such a hard time building diverse workforces.

Is there any piece of advice that you would give founders who are up and coming next generation founders that you don't think get shared enough currently? Something that people are failing to focus on when they're thinking, “I want to become a founder”? Is there some aspect you see time and time again they forget and you would caution them to focus on?

Try and get as much perspective as possible. When I was an entrepreneur raising money, I felt that I knew and loved my team and my business, and I could pitch them all day long. But when I went into VC meetings, I was new at it and had never heard any other pitches. On the flip side, those investors had heard tons of them, yet I had no idea how I stacked up. I've definitely seen founders come through True who think they nailed it but they didn't. And I’ve seen founders completely hit it out of the park with us and were like, “Was that OK? I have no idea!”

My advice is to connect with other founders and see other pitches, or at least get some information on how high the bar is. I think that's how you get better. Don't try just work on your own idea, on your own pitch within your own bubble, but really try and see what else is going on out there, who's doing really well and connecting. How are they doing it? What's the subject matter?

A lot of what you're describing was actually the impetus behind why Alchemist got started. The founder, Ravi, felt the same thing, a lot of startups didn't really know how to compare and weren't really swapping notes and sharing. Alchemist has become like a community where you can share ideas, help each other out and that everyone is trying to get the best out of everyone else.

Exactly. The most worthwhile part of being a part of a program like that is learning from each other and getting perspective.

Then the last thing I'm really curious about is seeing how you get to see all the upcomings startups, tech products and services. What areas do you personally think are going to be the most exciting and you are most excited about in the upcoming near future?

I get that question a lot and actually I don’t know. Literally someone will walk through the door tomorrow with an incredibly exciting idea that we couldn't anticipate. All the super interesting things we have gotten really excited about are little bit out of left field. We're trying to be truly open to new people and ideas because our next great investment can come from anywhere.

About the Alchemist Accelerator

Alchemist is a venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage ventures that monetize from enterprises (not consumers). The accelerator’s primary screening criteria is on teams, with primacy placed on having distinctive technical co-founders. We give companies around $36K, and run them through a structured 6-month program heavily focused on sales, customer development, and fundraising. Our backers include many of the top corporate and VC funds in the Valley—including Khosla Ventures, DFJ, Cisco, and Salesforce, among others. CB Insights has rated Alchemist the top program based on median funding rates of its grads (YC was #2), and Alchemist is perennially in the top of various Accelerator rankings. The accelerator seeds around 75 enterprise-monetizing ventures / year. Learn more about applying today.