Aaref: “You want to pick a market that calls to you and a problem that you care about and be prepared to commit 5 years, 10 years to that problem space, because if it is a big enough area and you have a good enough team around you, you can find a compelling opportunity.”
Ankur: (00:32) Hello everyone. Welcome to another episode of ZeroToExit. This is Ankur and Neelima. In today’s show, we’re excited to have one of the big names in the venture businesses . Aaref Hilaly is a partner at Bain capital ventures and proven technology veteran with 20 years of experience as a serial entrepreneur and an early stage investor. Most recently, he served as a partner at Sequoia capital for 7 years. Prior to venture, he founded two software companies, which had successful exits. As the president and CEO of e-Discovery company Clearwell he was a member of the founding team and scaled the company to a $100 million in ARR and eventually $400+ million acquisition by Symantec. Previously, he was the founder and CEO of a data center automation company called ‘CenterRun’ which was acquired by Sun Microsystems.
Hi Aaref! Welcome to the show.
Aaref: It’s lovely to be here. Thank you for having me.
Ankur: (1:20)Yeah, it’s so good to have you. Thank you for taking time. I know you’re a busy man. We’ve got a packed agenda today, so I’m going to get right into the meat of the discussion. It looks like you came out swinging right out of college. CenterRun had two consecutive start-ups, typically the type of entrepreneurs that we have on the podcast typically have hiatus in like big and small companies before they start your own company, what are you always a product builder? I gotta do my own type of thing.
Aaref: (1:56) I didn’t really grow up as an entrepreneur starting my own lemonade stand. My family’s from Pakistan. My parents immigrated to England. I grew up in north London. And, it just happened after college. I got a job in New York that led to graduate schooling at Harvard. And while I was there, I decided that I really wanted to be an entrepreneur. And I actually went to speak to one of my professors and told him that, you know, my plan is to move to California and start a technology company. His advice was, well, let’s be honest.
You have no industry experience. You’ve barely been to California. You didn’t know anyone there. This is probably not going to work out well. So why don’t you join a medium-sized company that can leverage your general business skills, kind of find your feet in the industry. And with a track record of, whatever two, four or five years then would that start a company.
And I see in hindsight, that was good advice. I initially took that advice and joined an internet company called at-home networks.(2:57) I became excited at home, one of the early internet portals. The computer with Yahoo. This was before the days of Google. but I hated it. and within a year I was just disenchanted and I, that the company was not very well run. I see with hindsight that, having executed badly on good advice. At the time I looked at it and what, what I should have done was I should have said I’ve chosen poorly. Let me learn the lessons and choose again. But instead my conclusion was, this is a waste of time. Why am I working with someone else? Anyway,I’m just going to do what I wanted to do in the first place. Quit and start a company. And so that’s what I did.
Ankur: You know, risk aversion is like, so ingrained in the DNA that the thought that, well, this may not all work out. I’m going to be in my late twenties, not having made any money, but they did not cross your mind?
Aaref: (3:48)To be honest, I’m optimistic. I assumed it would be something I would do with work. And I just felt that if it doesn’t work, I can always get a job. But if I don’t try, if I don’t try and do something, then that’s something that I would regret.
DON’T FEAR FAILURE
BE FORTUNATE WITH WHAT YOU HAVE AT LAST AND RESPECT YOUR BASIC NEEDS.
KEEP OPTIMISM AND ACCEPT THE WORST CASES THAT ARE THE BEST MENTORS.
REMEMBER: EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITIES ARE ALWAYS EXISTING.
And, you know, I didn’t have a very high burn rate, frankly I mean, a smaller place than San Francisco and, all Honda Civic or whatever. And so I felt like I didn’t need a lot of money to live. You have a mattress and the light bulbs fine, and an internet connection. I see lots of risk aversion and lots of people, but I feel that if you’re fortunate enough to have energy and an education and the imagination, the desire, the drive to want to try something, there’s not a huge downside to it. Worst case you become, You get valuable experience. You become an expert in an area that you’re interested in, and there’ll always be employment opportunities. At least that’s how I looked at it at the time.
Ankur: I think CentreRun was right around the time when I was at Sun Microsystems, as well as in the Java soft team. I took the safe path and chose a big company that would pay me well. What have been some learnings from your first experience that have still stayed true and pass the test of time? Or has the landscape completely changed? Whereby nothing really applies anymore?
Aaref: (5:03)Well, the landscape has completely changed just to give you a sense of how different it is. Those days were the opposite or the mirror image of today. And as an example of that, I would say raising money was really hard. Selling products or convincing or getting users is really hard. No one was willing to believe it but recruiting was really easy. And so there was phenomenal talent available because very few people were hiring. So that, just to give you a sense of how different it was from today. But having said that there are a lot of things from starting, CenterRun with my wonderful co-founders Mike and Basil that I still draw upon today.
START-UP PATH IS VERY UNCLEAR AND UNCERTAIN
FEAR SCARES DUE TO RISK AVERSIONS
FLOURISHING EMPATHY JUST TO HELP ENTREPRENEURS TO CREATE SOMETHING FROM NOTHING
And I’d say the number one thing. It’s just that feeling of what it is like to try and be a founder. And it is just very, very scary. It’s very uncertain, nothing is clear. And, and it’s not just a question of having empathy, which I do use a lot of empathy and respect for entrepreneurs and for people who try to create something from nothing but beyond that it’s, from that understanding, trying to help them in ways help them get to that next milestone, whatever that milestone is. And I think it really helps with that.
Neelima: So with that, we’ll actually jump to your Clearwell journey. To our knowledge, there was no market for e-Discovery when you started, when you became the CEO for a player. Well, how did the idea come about?
Aaref: (6:27)There was a market for your e-Discovery services, not as much for software. And so what we did was we took what people were doing as a service and automated it and improved it through. So. but when we started, we weren’t trying to do a discovery of tools and I think a lot of businesses started this way. We just have a feeling and an insight that, people were using email for lots of things, but basically every communication was now going through a messaging system. So everything that used to be in the very old days, a memo or a hallway conversation would, would now be captured in text and stored, is searchable.
And our feeling was there has to be something you can do with that. That information that could be helpful to people. And, looking back, I say, well, you know, really tight Q the company, the Salesforce squad was maybe the closest to what we had in mind, helping people make better business decisions.
But it was too early. It was pre-social, it was pretty cloudy. It was hard to get the email. People weren’t keen on you analyzing it when you did get it. The reaction people had is the same reaction people would have today. If I said, let me analyze your text messages today. Most people would say, I don’t care about my emails, you know, whatever, especially corporate email, but you’re not touching my texts and my WhatsApp messages, those, those private and people have that attitude towards it. That email was a pre iPhone. And so it was just very hard. And so we spent a couple of years iterating through different applications, looking for different angles on this problem until we stumbled into e-Discovery and found a utility company in Baltimore, Constellation Energy that was willing to pay us $420,000 for our product and that really got our attention and then we started digging into, well, why are they buying it? What are they doing with it? Exactly. And that led us down the path to you, discovery and then becoming a new discovery software company. And once we did that, then we hit product market fit. And it’s just this tremendous feeling where you are doing all the same things you’re doing before, but there’s this kind of massive tailwind behind you and sales just.
Neelima: Are there any interesting stories or if, about finding the product market fit like, when did you know you had the product market fit? Was it customer traction? I’ve been in a company where I saw that It’s really hard to quantify it.
Aaref: (08:51)Product-Market fit is a kind of thing where if you listen to some investor, you think that you either have it or you don’t have it once you have it, you have it for good. And you’re done. And life unfortunately is not that simple. It’s the kind of thing that you discover over time, and then once you have it, you have to constantly rediscover it by expanding on it.
And, and so for us, that initial discovery came from working with a handful of essentially design partners, we were paying us, but it was his hands with companies like Constellation Energy and, and a couple of others. What really helped us at the beginning I think this is a helpful approach for most entrepreneurs is you sell the problem, not the solution. So we had actually one graphic of a lot of information, a big stack of information going into a little bit of information and that graphic of the pain we were addressing pretty much stayed in every sales presentation for the life of the company. It got better. It started out with me, me creating. chart with Andy Byrne(9:48) and so it started with that and then the graphics got fancy, but it was the same. And so we started selling the pain that got us a foot in, then we differentiated in how we solve the problem.
So we didn’t, it wasn’t basic keyword search. We created a new approach. We called it transparent search, which was essentially a very granular way of searching and slicing and dicing your messages and files to get down to just the ones that you needed. And then we built a methodology around it and we went, and this is the second thing after selling the problem that I think is a helpful approach generally in startups, we went and we sold the idea around. This is the right way to do discovery.
We didn’t go and try to sell a product. We view it as like, this is the right way to do it. You want to do this new thing? We called it an early case assessment. rather than saying, you know, buy our software. And I think that concept came from one of our board members, Jim, get to who made the point that every great company is a thought leader in its space. and so pushed us to be thought leaders in the, in the domain. And then once we had that, that differentiation, then it was just a question of scaling up around it and building out the products, building out the sales team, figuring out the channel, evolving the pricing model. and those things are hard, but they’re solvable and that’s how your product market often does it to keep the product market fit and it doesn’t cost you to buy.
Ankur: If my memory serves me, well, I think you went from 0 to 100 million, like a five, six years type timeframe, which is even in today’s crazy mad market is just amazing, but you made that happen many, many years ago but in our business, if the market is huge, you’re going to see like a dozen start-ups that get funded by competing VC firms and all of a sudden, everybody’s trying to copy your product, hide your top talent.
How did you keep on going up and up? What did you learn about keeping the top talent and building an amazing product so that customers had no reason to go to a competitor or were the market’s different back then? Because today in today’s market, there is a multi-billion dollar market opportunity. You can bet there’s gonna be 20 different players. The moment you hit that 20, 30, 50 mil ARR
DON’T WORRY TO MUCH ABOUT COMPETITORS.
COMPETITION HELPS AND FOSTERS MARKET GROWTH.
INABILITY TO EXECUTE KILLS THE BUSINESS RATHER THAN COMPETITORS. HENCE TRY GIVING POSITIVE FORCE IN GROWING MARKET.
Aaref: Yeah, I think it was probably more extreme today. In those days you had a handful of competitors. No one, it wasn’t clear how big the markets were, but everyone thought the markets were smaller than today. When everyone. Yeah, everything’s a huge market. In many ways. The MOC is today, all bigger. in terms of the competition, we didn’t worry hugely about competitors is what I would say.
There were a handful of companies that went up against us. We had a bunch of companies who would literally go to market and say, we will give you 80% of Clearwell at 20% of the price. And I think that is a universal phenomenon in any market. Whenever a company does well. I call them the ankle biters who come out and we’ll do that, but it’s that just puts the onus on you to deliver that much more value to your customer. Your product is commoditizing every day and you have to continually be making it better just to fight that commoditization trend that shows itself through these, these vendors are coming in with basic products at low prices, and that could be open source, it could be consultants, it could be tool vendors, it could be a bootstrap business, all sorts of different options. So I think that’s just a natural part of the competitive dynamics. We had one competitor, in an adjacent market who was our real competitor, because they had a product that really delighted customers. And, I would have loved to have teamed up with them. I mean, I suggested many times to companies called relativity today that the company is worth $4 billion.–
Ankur: It is. Yeah.
Aaref: –First off, I don’t usually worry too much about competitors. It’s more companies. If you’re looking at why companies fail more fail from suicide than homicide. So it’s not your competitors that will kill you, it’s your own inability to execute and sometimes having a good competitor can actually help make a market. I think relativity we’re positive force in growing the overall market. I hope we were as well.
Neelima: So one thing that I heard in your response, which is very unique, is most of the companies do not think about partnering with their competitors. And we come from the cybersecurity space where there are very, very small vendors competing with each other. obviously you were thinking ahead of the time. How should founders start thinking about that? When they see a really good competitor gaining ground over their own company?
Aaref: (14:18) Well, I think whether or not how your approach to competitors should depend on the market, you’re in, if you’re in an established category and it’s a question of it’s a zero sum game, and it’s a question of either you win or the other guy wins, which happens in sub categories. I mean, You could argue, for example, secondary storage is an Established market and you have Rubrik and Cohesity, and they’re just going to go head to head. Then it’s very hard. Basically. It’s very hard to avoid head-on competition. And so it is going to be hand to hand combat in a sense in every account. But in many cases of startups, that’s just not the case. What you’re trying to do at a startup company. You’re trying to create a new category. You’re trying to redraw the boundaries around different business activities. You’re trying to change how people do things. You’re trying to spread new ideas. And in that situation, aligning on areas of mutual interest can be very beneficial because the number one enemy in that situation, if you speak to most people, when they ask, you know, why do people not buy the product?
Or why don’t they use the price? It’s a non-decision, it’s apathy. It’s not the status quo. It’s a homegrown solution. it’s just not having the kind of activation energy to get The user to change what they’re doing. And that’s a common enemy between all companies advocating for something new and It’s very hard to overcome, particularly if you’re just a small company. and so if you can present a common set of ideas, if you can push a common set of ideas around why customers should change And what the right way of doing it is. It can benefit all of them. And so I think you’re better off focusing on that than trying to tear down the other person where you risk freezing a customer decision, because challenge is how you, how do you grow the category?
Ankur: The security industry can use some positive sum game type thinkers. We are at each other all the time trying to destroy publicly or otherwise the other competitors, but, not a lot of people share that perspective. So, thank you for that. You know, you left Symantec, I think within a year, post acquisition, what can the big companies really learn to keep talented founders who they acquired and pay lots of money to just keep them around?
Aaref: (16:43) In my own case, my future was discussed as part of the acquisition. I’m very quick Symantec and real learning experience as part of Enrique Salem‘s executive team for a year. And Rick is now one of my partners at Bain capital ventures. And so it was definitely a meaningful experience for me in general on that question though, I think it’s just to align everyone’s incentives and when I look at successful acquisitions from Instagram to Muraki, to many others where the team has remained in place. What’s happening now in the Palo Alto playbook that’s working well, is that you keep the company as a separate business unit. And you have it run separately. And I think 10 years ago, there wasn’t as much of an appreciation for that. And as a result, Clearwell got carved up and put into functional units. And that is just much-much more difficult for the company that’s being acquired. I think most people have chosen to go to that company because there’s something special about it.
And if you then separate those people and put them in different places, it causes many people to re-evaluate why they’re there and whether they should be but I think over the last few years, that lesson has been learned by larger companies and I see more and more, for example, I just was on the board of this company, LightStep that Service Now just acquired and they have been very careful to keep the team together and allow it to continue operating and I see that as being the new norm.(18:12)
Ankur: Just. The last question on ClearWell, before we talk about the venture side of the house, like we discuss you’re at a hundred million in ARR in today’s world. It might be a deck of corn, maybe, I don’t know, a hundred billion company given the value since our days best, the thought about, I shouldn’t have exited too early or that was too early. Does that even cross your mind? I know Clearwell is an ancient history now, but do you think about it anymore? Like maybe I should have gone IPO?.
Aaref: (18:38) I loved bleeding, clever. It was a wonderful wonderful experience. And I love the team. And of course it crosses my mind as to, should we have continued on as one of these really difficult decisions. I don’t know. To me, how much a company would end up being worth is kind of a, not an issue it’s much more around, just in a way you can most make a difference that whether we could have continued on in. the way that we were. And the thought crosses my mind and it’s one of those hard things you don’t get to live multiple lives. I don’t regret anything that’s happened in the last 10 years. I’m very happy, I wish I could live multiple lives. I mean, there’s so many things that we could be doing today, but very fortunate.
Neelima: So after having two consecutive runs at the company building, you decided to go towards the other side, which made you decide to go into the venture business?
Aaref: (19:30) The day that we sold Clearwell Jim Goetz, who’s on my board from Sequoia, came over and suggested that I think about investing. That started the thought process. And for me, it was a couple of different things and a part of it was the challenge of being an investor, because I hadn’t done that before.
I didn’t know if I could do it. Part of it was the opportunity to help other entrepreneurs in the way that Mike Moritz and Jim Goetz had helped me because in my two companies, they had really been instrumental as board members and helped me grow from being a really clueless founder into a hopefully slightly less clueless CEO.
The opportunity to help other entrepreneurs in that way, it was something that I found. really energizing and then partly it’s just a privilege to be able to work as a cornea(20:17) with such an exceptional group of entrepreneurs and amazing partners and so it was really a combination of those things that led me to join Sokoto.(Sequoia)
Ankur: Got it. we’d love to get some insights on sort of, you must have seen both in Bain and in Sequoia, hundreds of companies, hundreds of founders, lots and lots of pitches. You know, in your opinion, having seen so many things that separates a good founder from a great one.
Aaref: (20:30)I know, there’s no set checklist, which is what makes this job hard. I’d say that when I came into venture, I had to change how I think in an operating role, you make quick decisions. If you make a decision, one way, if you get new information, you can change your mind that the emphasis is more on action.
MAKE AND ADAPT QUICKLY TO GENERATE AND MODIFY DECISIONS.
EMPHASIZE MORE ON TAKING ACTIONS.
THINK PROBABILISTICALLY AND EVALUATE THE POTENTIAL FUTURES
CATER RIGHTEOUSNESS FOR THE VENTURE YOU ARE IN.
KEEP FAITH ON THE PROCESS BECAUSE EVEN THE GREAT COMPANIES LOOKS LIKE OUTLIERS INITIALLY.
As an investor, you have to think more probabilistically. And because you’re really trying to assess what happens in the future. and nobody knows that. So you’re always thinking about potential futures and it’s really difficult because what you’re trying to do is easy. If you meet companies and you just can say no a thousand times, and it’d be easy if you could just say yes a thousand times, but if you’re going to say “No” 999 times and yes once and have that “Yes” Be right. That is very difficult. I mean, that is really, really hard. And you have to kind of try and train your mind to try and do that and part of that training is realizing that not being lazy, it’s is not saying to yourself if it gets to a million in ARR, you know, with such and such monthly growth, or if it’s a founder with this background or whatever it is, that therefore it’s worth investing in.
And the reason it doesn’t work is because the best companies, the greatest companies at the earliest stages do not look like the best companies. They really don’t. They don’t look great. They look like outliers. They look, the hot pools, they’re different, but there are lots of companies that are different and you have to kind of pick your way through that to try and see more deeply what potentially could make this company.
Neelima: I’ve seen some of the VC firms actually doing whole mathematics, decision-making trees to figure out what’s the probability of a company making a successful exit. Is there some math as well? And you more or less said that you cannot really predict, but are there some models that you do run the companies through to think of if the ideas will be at all successful?
Aaref: (22:43) For early stage investing. No, there’s no mathematical model that I’ve ever seen work. That doesn’t mean that data science can’t be helpful in the venture business. Certainly it can be in terms of qualifying opportunities and focusing investors in the right areas. But no, there’s no algorithm, there’s no simple model. I think the firm that has gone furthest in this direction is Google ventures.
Ankur:(CHUCKLES) Maybe that could be your next startup whenever you decide to quit Bain and then you’ll have a Rolodex of clients anyways, in the venture business, you can go and pitch them this idea, what separates a good pitch from a great.
Aaref: I think it’s a pitch that doesn’t feel like a pitch. And it’s one that feels like a conversation with someone who has real depth in the domain, who clearly understands it well enough that they can explain it in a simple way, at a high level, and be able to go very deep with someone who has a unique insight that causes you to stop and pause and say to yourself, “You know, I hadn’t thought about it that way before”. And that that person would have a learning mindset so that as you point things out, or if you challenge them, they don’t get defensive as they engage. and want to understand where your point of view is coming from and whether it has any merit and so those types of conversations, by far the most compelling.
Neelima: (24:32)You had mentioned during our conversation that over the course of your journey, you have come across Canva, DoorDash, and zoom, the meetings stood out for you and then, you ended up not investing. Any stories around that are worth sharing and for our listeners to learn from.
Aaref: (24:38) Well, thank you for bringing up painful memories in the video, the business, the sins of omission are much greater than those of commission to take Canberra as an example, my son mentioned it to me the other day and he said he, because he came up in conversation and he remembered it as isn’t that the product that you came home from work, and I was in second grade and you made me use it for my school project, because you thought it was such a great product. At the time and that you felt like I should, I just had to use it. And I thought to myself, yeah, that’s pretty much a unique product I’ve met, that I felt so strongly about.
And yet we best because the entrepreneur, Melanie(25:14) was a wonderful entrepreneur, based in Australia. And at the time we were focusing our investments in Silicon. The general lesson to me, these companies are outliers.They’re just different. There’s not been a company like Canva before, that has built such a broad user base and monetized in the way that it has come from Australia with a team in the Philippines. there hadn’t been a delivery company. If you like door dash(25:40) and also Instacart, this was a new generation of companies enabled by large pools of labor, casual labor, and mobile phones.
There hadn’t been, I mean, you could just, you could kind of run down the list of, of how each one of the great companies that we look at today when you met them five or 10 years ago. They wouldn’t look necessarily great. And that’s why you have to just keep an open mind whenever you meet.
Ankur: Yeah, I can just imagine how maddening it must be to pass up on those opportunities. It seems very obvious, right? Like, I mean, before Instacart was successful, a web van was a spectacular failure. but you know, it’s so hard to predict the conversions of the market, the right product, the right founders but like you said, I think you got to have enough at-bats(26:27) you? Yeah.
Aaref: Yeah. I mean, I should say that we, when I was, as COVID we invested in is to call it and go dash and zoom. And so we were able to partner with many of these companies, but it’s the initial meeting that stands out as, you know, whether you partner with them or not. And no, one’s perfect. And you, you know, you miss a lot, like with the case with Canva, but it’s the meetings that just stand out in your mind.
Ankur: So last question, before we move on to the tech trends and what the next 10 year look like. if somebody who is right out of the school,that is pretty young and asks you, “Aaref you’ve been in, eight, nine years in venture business. Can you give me your top three learnings in the next two minutes?”What would those be?
A SMALL TEAM OF TRULY GREAT PEOPLE CAN JUST ACHIEVE AMAZING THINGS.
FIND A COMPELLING OPPORTUNITY TO COMMIT 5-10 YEARS IN THE HUGE MARKET SPACE.
DON’T ALWAYS OVERESTIMATE THE CAPABILITIES OF LARGE COMPANIES JUST LOOKING AT IT’S FEARSOME TEAM.
Aaref: (27:14)One is that a small team of truly great people can just achieve amazing things. And you often overestimate the capabilities of larger companies because they look so fearsome, but if you genuinely have a small team, a truly amazing small team of technologists, that is actually a very rare thing because it’s very hard to get that concentration of talent.
And, the second thing that has been clear in the last 10 years is that every market is much bigger than you might think. And so what that says is you want to pick a market that calls to you and a problem that you care about and be prepared to commit five years, 10 years to that problem space, because if it is a big enough area and you have a good enough team around you, you can find a compelling opportunity.So, I think those would be the main two things really for entrepreneurs to keep in mind.
Ankur: (28:07)Just one more thing. Do you subscribe to Marc Andreessen’s thesis that no ideas are bad ideas? It is just a matter of bad timing or in your everyday life, you do run into truly atrocious ideas.
Aaref: Well, that’s suggested every idea is in there evitable. I think there are ideas that won’t happen. And so, but, you know, as with everything Mark says, as a cuddle the core, there’s a real insight. That is,
“You should always be willing to re-evaluate ideas from the past because the world is changing all the time. And so just because something didn’t work before doesn’t mean it can’t work in future.” – Marc Andreessen
Neelima: I, as a product leader, I’m getting inbound from VCs that are you thinking about doing something even though I’m holding a job on LinkedIn, so what’s your take on current, investment climate, are it’s seems like too much money chasing too few deals is this the new normal.
Aaref: (29:01)I think one of the wonderful things about America and Silicon Valley is that it’s one of the few places where talent has leveraged over capital. If you go to a developing country, I and my family’s from Pakistan. You could have, Pakistan is the capital that has the power, and it doesn’t matter how talented you are as a person. It’s going to be hard for you to build something because you just don’t have access to that capital unless you’re born with it. Whereas the great thing about America is that there’s lots of capital and the scarce resources, talent, and because of that talent can get more than fair share of the rewards for what talent produces and you’ve seen that in founders being able to keep bigger and bigger shares of their companies and raise more and more money at higher and higher prices. So, I think the fact that there’s lots more capital today is generally speaking is a great thing for entrepreneurs. I mean, there really has never been a better time to be an entrepreneur.
And I see that when I talk to people because if I talk to an entrepreneur who’s entrepreneur in the 2000s, say 2000 to 2010, they just have a totally different mindset that people who’ve been entrepreneurs 2010 to 2020 or 2021, because for the last 10 years, everything has been great and in the 10 years before that, it was really hard. And that just shapes you suspected(30:18). So I think the fact there’s a lot more capital enabling more people to start companies and keep more of those companies overall for society is a great thing. Now it’s not as great a thing for investors because obviously you have to pay high valuations.
You’re, it’s harder to make returns and all that kind of stuff, but really who cares about investors? I mean, from a societal perspective, I think it’s overall a good thing. The only negative to it from an entrepreneur’s perspective is it makes some things more difficult for the entrepreneur. And then I think significant downsides and the things that make life hard is that it is now harder to recruit talent. It’s harder for the talent to tell what’s a good idea because before raising money was a screen, it was a milestone and it helped guide talent to the best opportunities. Today, anyone can raise money for pretty much anything.
(31:15)And as a result, it’s harder for really great people to find the highest value opportunities. Because it’s a noisy market. And then the other thing that’s more difficult is I think it’s a bit harder for founders to pick their venture capital partners. And I say that because the timelines are so compressed, fundraising happens so quickly and it’s a long term relationship and it really is better for founders. If they can spend more time with investors before deciding who they want to bring that onto their board or.
Ankur: (31:51)So, you know, you presented the bull case but let me present a bear case. I’d love to get your perspective on this and being on the other side, right in the product building business who have, where competition can be all consuming. A bear case here is that too much liquidity is going to not is going to dissuade long-term thinkers that there may not be the next trillion dollar Amazon, because you’re not going to get it. There is enough breathing room to actually really execute for four or five, 10 years because new and new investment comes into you. You’d argue that like, well, it’s good for consumers because you know, prices will drop blah, blah, blah, innovation will spread.
But the bear case is like to truly find something amazing that is built to last. You do need that breathing room. And like I said, I mean being on the other side, Thinking about competition can be all consuming. Like, I have to spend 30% of my time on competition versus customers and building products.
Aaref: Five years ago, raising a hundred million dollars was a big number. It was an unusual thing. Companies didn’t generally do it. They’d have to go public and then deal with earnings in the public pocket. Today, you can just read tech crunch every day. There are people raising a hundred billion dollars, more unicorns in the first seven months of the year, then in all of last year, I think it’s 193 in the first seven months of the year compared to 16 in 2015, 2012, 2013, whatever it was.
And so. I think that I didn’t say that it offers more breathing room. They have more capital. If you have a hundred million dollars on your balance sheet, you can run a lot more experiments and not all of them need to work. So I think it’s more forgiving today for entrepreneurs and before.
Neelima: (33:34)Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. And based on your previous comment, the way I say it, it’s like a founders’ market versus investors’ market. And when I’m trying to get why it’s the employees’ market, rather than employers. What that also helps with, I think in the bull case is that the second round founders start getting more and more opportunities. This is a theory. Are you seeing any changes in the industry where more women founders are running more companies?
Aaref: (34:00) I’m personally seeing more women founders, but there are still not enough women founders. We also need more people of color and more entrepreneurs from underrepresented communities and I don’t see enough of them either. So, I think we have a long way to go on that, but your general point is right that if you open up access and you, we fund more companies collectively and try more things, then that does open the door to more groups. But, we should also be consciously trying to do that. And we shouldn’t just rely on that overall trend. I think that, That’s clearly a massive under top talent pool there. Then, we need to figure out how to give access to and how to create a level playing field.
Neelima: (34:36)Thank you. And I’m a part of certain forums and this is what we talk about, right. I think it’s, it’s the risk taking, and this is the right time to actually start doing something like this. I’ll move to the industry trends. Now are, if you invest in a multitude of verticals but which tech trends are most bullish on nowadays?
AI AND ML (NEW LEVELS OF AUTOMATION ACROSS THE ECONOMY]
DECENTRALIZED FINANCE- CRYPTO
Aaref: I’d say that the couple of trends that I invest in actively, and that it’s very bullish on, would be the impact of AI and ML and new levels of automation across the economy.
Second would be, every application being rebuilt around collaboration, so that sharing’s a first class citizen, one which companies felt, which is a collaborative mapping application announced last week as an example, and then a third area, which is a firm where we do a lot as a firm, although I don’t personally focus on it, decentralized trust models and, decentralized finance. So, generally it is called crypto, where I think there’s a lot of potential.
Ankur: (35:46) Yeah all tremendous areas that I’m bullish on as well. I’m not sure if this is an area of passion as well, but it is fresh off the press. So I have to ask you. But obviously, I’d love to get your take on global warming. There was a report on IPC which basically effectively said that, global rising temperature of about one to two degrees Celsius is inevitable.
What are some of the investments you’re seeing in this area? I mean, obviously Sockeye(36:14) is popular with his lower carbon capital fund, but what are other big innovations that are happening in the venture business that common people don’t know about to address this existential crisis?
Aaref: Yeah, I read the report and it makes the depressing reading really. It feels like just a matter of time before addressing climate issues goes from being the least important thing to the most important thing. And it feels like we’re on that path and it certainly came up on the agenda last year.
It’s not happening fast enough and we need to be doing more, but at least there’s more awareness of it. It also feels like, to solve the problem, it can’t just be the government. It’ll need to be a private industry, certainly in the U S it’ll need to be a private industry. I think the pandemic offers some parallels there.
If you’re in China where you have a certain kind of government, then government action can have a big impact in managing a pandemic with lockdowns. And if you’re in the US then you’re really relying on innovation and vaccines to get you out of trouble. And I think it’ll be a similar or analogous situation with environmental issues where we really need innovation and a commitment from business as well as the government to improve our situation. And, in particular, I think a focus on carbon removal. If there’s minimizing the environmental footprint and there’s lots, we could be doing that every time I see an Amazon box or over our house, like myself, why do we need so much cardboard and is there a less terrible way to get our packages? I don’t think reducing consumption or buying offset credits are going to be enough. We need to significantly remove carbon from the atmosphere. And I think that will drive a whole cycle of innovation
Ankur: (38:14)Awesome. Well, that brings us to the final segment, rapid fire. I’ve got some quick, yes or no quick questions for you Aaref . So if you’re ready, I’ll start hitting those your way.
Ankur: All right. First question. What’s the next trillion dollar industry that either doesn’t exist or is still in infancy?
Aaref: Decentralized finance and carbon removal.
Ankur: Love it. Let’s say you’ve raised a hundred billion in venture funds. Your time horizon is 10 years, whatever long time horizon. You have to return the LPs above market returns and you can pick three entrepreneurs from past or present to give all of that money. Whom will you pick in?
Aaref: Yeah, I have kind of mixed feelings about it because the beauty of technology is that you don’t need a hundred billion dollars that the school group of people with a small amount of capital can make a big difference. But the entrepreneurs that I’ve worked with, the ones that come to mind would be, Tony shoe, a daughter(39:04) who is holding the last mile network, starting with food. Todd McKinnon at Octa, who is creating an identity layer that is much broader than just simple SSO single sign-on. Andy Byrne at Clary that is creating a new and a whole movement around revenue operations. David Velez at new bank, which is a New bank in Brazil that’s completely changing financial services down there and helped me and me early at gartner who created early stage detection tests at the council.
Ankur: Awesome. This is a more, a bit of a morbid question, but must be asked: Does humanity survive next to 200 years?
Aaref: Yes, every species has gone extinct. Agreed. wait, but why? which is a great book “Tim ovens” and now humanity is kind of on a slippery balance beam and you know, we’re trying to walk along the slippery beam and at some point we slip off. I think it’s inevitable. At some point, humanity goes extinct because every species has. But I’m optimistic. It wouldn’t be in the next hundred years.
Ankur: I remain optimistic as well. At least for 200 years, I don’t know about a thousand years, we’ve solved a lot of problems. We solve the for God’s sake, a pandemic that we thought we’ll have vaccines in 10 years and we produce that in one year. So, I think we can get there. What’s the one thing you don’t see founders do today, in their pitch deck that they should, or their pitch in general.
Aaref: I think highlight the non-obvious insight, but is the premise for their business. How are they going against conventional wisdom?
Ankur: Love it. And the last question, which book has had the biggest impact in your life?
Aaref: Golden Gate by Vikram Seth is a poem written in Arabic pentameters about someone who lives in the bay area and works in the tech industry.
Ankur: I’m going to add it to my reading list. Aaref, it’s been a pleasure to have you on the podcast. We really enjoyed this conversation. One hour is clearly not enough. Hopefully, we’ll have you back, but thank you so much for taking the time.
Aaref: Oh! Thank you both.
Neelima: Thank you.
Aaref: Great pleasure chatting to you.
Neelima: This is wonderful. Thank you.