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Min Wanli had a career path much coveted by those pursuing a career in computer science. A prodigy, Min was accepted to a top research university in China at the age of 14. He subsequently obtained Ph.D. degrees in physics and statistics from the University of Chicago before spending nearly a combined decade at IBM and Google.
Like many young, aspiring Chinese scientists working in the United States, Min returned to China when the country’s internet boom was underway in the early 2010s. He joined Alibaba’s fledgling cloud arm and was at the forefront of applying its tech to industrial scenarios, like using visual identification to mitigate highway traffic and computing power to improve factory efficiency.
Then in July 2019, Min took a leap. He resigned from Alibaba Cloud, which had become a major growth driver for the e-commerce goliath and at the time China’s largest public cloud infrastructure provider (it still is). With no experience in investment, he started a new venture capital firm called North Summit Capital.
“A lot of enterprises were quite skeptical of ‘digital transformation’ around 2016 and 2017. But by 2019, after they had seen success cases [from Alibaba Cloud], they no longer questioned its viability,” said Min in his office overlooking a cluster of urban villages and highrise offices in Shenzhen. Clad in a well-ironed light blue shirt, he talked with a childlike, earnest smile.
“Suddenly, everyone wanted to go digital. But how am I supposed to meet their needs with a team of just 400-500 people?”
Min’s solution was not to serve the old-school factories and corporations himself but to finance and support a raft of companies to do so. Soon he closed the first fund for North Summit with “several hundreds of millions of dollars” from an undisclosed high-net-worth individual from the United Arab Emirates, whom Min had met when he represented Alibaba at a Duhai tech conference in 2018.
“Venture capital is like a magnifier through which I can connect with a lot of tech companies and share my lessons from the past, so they can quickly and effectively work with their clients from traditional industries,” Min said.
“For example, I’d discuss with my portfolio firms whether they should focus on selling hardware pieces or software first, or give them equal weight.”
Min strives to be deeply involved in the companies he backs. North Summit invests early, with check sizes so far ranging from roughly $5 million to $25 million. Min also started a technology service company called Quadtalent to provide post-investment support to his portfolio.
The notion of digital transformation is both buzzy and daunting for many investors due to the highly complex and segmented nature of traditional industries. But Min has a list of criteria to help narrow down his targets.
First, an investable area should be data-intensive. Subway tracks, for example, could benefit from implementing large amounts of sensors that monitor the rail system’s stauts. Second, an area’s manufacturing or business process should be capital-intensive, such as production lines that use exorbitant equipment. And lastly, the industry should be highly dependent on repetitive human experience, like police directing traffic.
Solving industrial problems require not just founders’ computing ingenuity but more critically, their experience in a traditional sector. As such, Min goes beyond the “Ivory Tower” of computer science wizards when he looks for entrepreneurs.
“What we need today is a type of inter-disciplinary talent who can do ‘compound algorithms.’ That means understanding sensor signals, business rationales, manufacturing, as well as computer algorithms. Applying neural network through an algorithmic black box without the other factors is simply futile.”
Min faces ample competition as investors hunt down the next ABB, Schneider, or Siemens of China. The country is driving towards technological independence in all facets of the economy and the national mandate takes on new urgency as COVID-19 disrupts global supply chains. The result is skyrocketing valuations for startups touting “industrial upgrade” solutions, Min noted.
But factory bosses don’t care whether their automation solution providers are unerdogs or startup unicorns. “At the end of the day, the factory CFO will only ask, ‘how much more money does this piece of software or equipment help us save or make?’”
The investor is cautious about deploying his maiden fund. Two years into operation, North Summit has closed four deals: TopScore, a 17-year-old footwear manufacturer embracing automation; Lingumi, a London-based English learning app targeting Chinese pre-school kids; Aerodyne, a Malaysian drone service provider; and Extreme Vision, a marketplace connecting small-and-medium enterprises to affordable AI vision solutions.
This year, North Summit aims to invest close to $100 million in companies inside and outside China. Optical storage and robotic process automation (RPA) are just two areas that have been on Min’s radar in recent days.
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For years — decades, even — there was little question about whether you could become a venture capitalist if you weren’t comfortable financially. You couldn’t. The people and institutions that invest in venture funds want to know that fund managers have their own “skin in the game,” so they’ve long required a sizable check from the investor’s own pocket before jumping aboard. Think 2% to 3% of the fund’s total assets, which often equates to millions of dollars.
In fact, five years ago, I wrote that the real obstacle to becoming a venture capitalist has less to do with gender than with financial inequality. I focused then on women, who are paid less (especially Black and Hispanic women), and who possess less wealth. But the same is true of anyone of lesser means.
Consider that one or two partners trying to raise a $50 million debut fund have to come up with $1.5 million. They’ll collect management fees off that $50 million fund — the standard is 2% annually for the fund’s investment period — but they have to use that $1 million per year to pay for everyone’s salaries, along with rent, auditing, legal costs and back-office administration fees. That doesn’t leave much, which is why having something to start with helps.
LPs: The ≧1% of a fund capital commitment you expect from GPs makes it hard for POCs to raise funds.
Consider that “for a $20M fund, a 2% commitment with 2 GPs is still a $200K commitment for each partner.” This is out of reach for many of us. https://t.co/bguXpa3CiY
— lolitataub (@lolitataub) October 29, 2020
Thankfully, things are changing, with more ways to help aspiring VCs raise that initial capital commitment. None of these approaches can guarantee success in raising a fund, but they’re paths that other VCs have effectively used in the past when starting out.
1.) Find investors, i.e. limited partners, who are willing to take less than 3% and maybe even less than 1% of the overall fund size being targeted. You’ll likely find fewer investors as that “commit” shrinks. But for example Joanna Rupp, who runs the $1.1 billion private equity portfolio for the University of Chicago’s endowment, suggests that both she and other managers she knows are willing to be flexible based on the “specific situation of the GP.”
Says Rupp, “I think there are industry ‘norms,’ but we haven’t required a [general partner] commitment from younger GPs when we have felt that they don’t have the financial means.”
Bob Raynard, founder of the fund administration firm Standish Management, echoes the sentiment, saying that a smaller general partner commitment in exchange for special investor economics is also fairly common. “You might see a reduced management fee for the LP for helping them or reduced carry or both, and that has been done for years.”
2.) Learn more about what are called management fee offsets, which investors in venture funds often determine to be reasonable. These aren’t uncommon, says Michael Kim of Cendana Capital, a firm that has stakes in dozens of seed stage funds, because they also offer tax advantages (though the IRS has talked about doing away with these).
How do these work? Say your “commit” was $1 million over 10 years (the standard life of a fund). Instead of trying to come up with $1 million that you presumably don’t have, you can offset up to 80% of that, putting in $200,000 instead but reducing your management fees by that same amount over time so that it’s a wash and you’re still getting credit for the entire $1 million. You’re basically converting fee income into the investment you’re supposed to make.
3.) Use your existing portfolio companies as collateral. Kim had at least two highly regarded managers launch a fund not with a “commit” but rather by bringing to the table ownership stakes in startups they’d funded as angel investors.
In both of these cases, it was a great deal for Kim, who says the companies were quickly marked up. For the fund managers’ part, it meant not having to put more of their own money into the funds.
4.) Make a deal with wealthier friends if you can. When Kim launched his fund of funds to invest in venture managers after working for years as a VC himself, he raised $1 million in working capital from six friends to get it off the ground. The money gave Kim, who had a mortgage at the time and young children, enough runway for two years. Obviously, your friends have to be willing to gamble on you, but sweeteners certainly help, too. In Kim’s case, he gave his friends a percentage of Cendana’s economics in perpetuity.
5.) Get a bank loan. Rupp said she would be uncomfortable if a GP funded his or her commit through a bank loan for several reasons. There’s no guarantee a fund manager will make money from a fund, a loan adds risk on top of risk, and should a manager need liquidity related to that loan, he or she might sell a strongly performing position too early.
That said, loans aren’t uncommon, says Raynard. He says banks with venture capital relationships like Silicon Valley Bank and First Republic are typically happy to lend a fund manager a line of credit to help him or her make capital calls, though he says it does depend on who else is involved with the fund. “As long as it’s a diverse group of LPs,” the banks are comfortable moving forward in exchange for winning over a new fund’s business, he suggests.
6.) Consider the merits of so-called front loading. This is a technique with which “more creating LPs can sometimes get comfortable,” says Kim. It’s also how investor Chris Sacca, now a billionaire, got started when he first turned to fund management. How does it work? Say a fund manager is getting paid a 2.5% management fee over the life of a 10-year fund. Over that decade, that amounts to 25% of the fund. Typically, management fees decline over time, to 2% and even slightly lower because you are typically no longer actively managing it but rather managing out the bets you’ve made in the first few years.
Some beginning managers blend that management fee — say it’s 20% over the fund’s duration — and pay themselves a higher percentage — say 5% for each of its first three years — until by the end of the fund’s life, the manager is receiving no management fee for it at all.
Without carry, that could mean no income if you aren’t yet seeing profits from your investments. But presumably — especially given pacing in recent years — you, the general partner, have raised another fund by the time that happens so have resources coming in from that second fund.
These are just a few of the ways to get started. There are other paths to take, too, notes Lo Toney of Plexo Capital — which, like Cendana Capital — has stakes in many venture funds. Just one of these is to structure to use a self-directed IRA to finance that GP “commit.” Another is to sell a portion of the management company or to sell a greater percentage of future profits and to use those proceeds, though VCs Charles Hudson of Precursor Ventures and Eva Ho of Fika Ventures avoided that path and suggested that first-time managers do the same if they can.
Either way, suggests Toney, a former partner with the Alphabet’s venture arm, GV, it’s important to know one’s options but keep in mind, too, that what you start with may ultimately prove irrelevant.
Said Toney via email this week: “I have not seen any data on the front end of a VC’s career that wealth indicates future success.”
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