Lightspeeds co-founders on their 17-year-long overnight success story

Lightspeed Venture Partners is having quite a year, between the sale of AppDynamics to Cisco for $3.7 billion on the eve of its IPO (Lightspeed wrote its first check);to the March sale of publicly traded Nimble Storage to Hewlett Packard Enterprise for just north of $1 billion in cash; to the IPO of the enterprise software company MuleSoft in March (the company is now valued at $2.8 billion); to the March IPO of the consumer tech company Snap, which is currently valued at $28 billion, despite a terrible earnings call earlier today (Lightspeed famously wrote the company its first check and remains itssecond largest outside shareholder).

Other exits look to be coming up fast, too. According to Bloomberg, for example, mens retailerBonobos is in talks with Walmart. Meanwhile, the personal styling service Stitch Fix is reportedlyweighing an IPO.

Success is nothing new for Lightspeed, though its string of hits has certainly helped cement its status asone ofSilicon Valleys most elite firms. To learn a little more about the firms earliest days, how exactly it helps startups and whether it thinks the pace of innovation right now can keep up with the amount of capital flooding the market, investor Semil Shah of the seed-stage firm Haystack sat down withLightspeed co-founders Ravi Mhatre and Barry Eggers at a StrictlyVC event late last week. You can check out a bit of video from that sit-down below. Here are other outtakes from the conversation that you mightfind interesting. Their chat has been edited for length and clarity.

SS: When you started Lightspeed, what was the mood like in the Valley?

BE: The year was 1856. [Audience laughs.] It was the early 2000s. We were sort of in the middle of the venture desert, for those of you who were there. Wed gotten out of the bubble, and we were all waiting to see what was next, and it was a long wait. And thats where we sort of looked around and realized most of the people wed known who were doing Series A deals had either closed shop or gone through a generational transition or just werent around any more and there was a big vacuum for Series A deals. Thats when we said,hey,we need to go and stake out that real estate, so thats what we did.

SS: You were raising a first-time fund, though you had some venture experience. Presumably thathelped?

RM: Barry and I and Peter [Nieh] and Chris [Schaepe] wed all known each other to some degree before. Wed all gone to school [at Stanford] around the same time. When we went to fundraise, I remember it was alittle scary. We didnt have a salary. Wed all done a little venture but not a lot. And there wasnt as much venture capital firm formation as there is now, so we spent a lot of time meeting with LPs and they spent a lot of time looking at the four of us. [They wanted to know that we were] likely to stick together because it takes a long time to build a platform and a brand.

People spent a lot of time trying to figure that out about the four of us. Retrospectively, Id say, almost 20 years later, [we were a good bet].All four of us, were still working with each other. When we get mad, we might go and wrestle each other. But by and large, were working together and [are very much a team].

SS: You were enterprise investors, but you eventually added a consumer practice. Was that a tough sell? Did your investors want you to stay in your lane, so to speak?

BE: Because the four founderswere all enterprise investors, the first thing we wanted to do was stake out and establish ourselves credibly as [enterprise-focused]Series A investors.Its different, establishing yourself in enterprise versus consumer. Its more of a body of work that helps you get there. But at least we had Riverbed [Technologies] as a SeriesA deal; it became one of the prominent deals of the early 2000s and that helped give us a platform.

RM: The bet LPs made on Lightspeed was really on the four original people and didthese people have enoughconnective fabric to work together over a long period of time. Once they were convinced of that, once we said we wanted to go into consumer, it was less [about having to convince LPs] but find the right person to join us who could spearhead the consumer effort. [That person would ultimately becomeJeremy Liew.]

SS: AppDynamics was set to go public and was scooped up.What did you envision for that company?

RM: There was no company when we invested in AppDynamics. It was Jyoti Bansal, who was the founder. I think Barry knew Jyoti and I got to know him and we decided to fund him and through the funding, he was able to incorporate the company. Then we called [fellow VC] Asheem [Chandna] at Greylock and said, weve got this really bright guy and were going to get behind him to start a company. And we walked him over to Greylock and they also got excited and invested.

SS: Why invest so early?

RM: We do have a philosophy, that success isnt just about product design but also business design.

When youre designing your architecture and technology stack early, you want it to have a really strong foundation, so when you bring a product to market itll have some sustainable underlying value that allows you to improve it for years to come so you can improve your business. Well, you also want to design your business so it can be durable and set up to grow really fast without becoming destabilized. So when we get involved early, we think a lot about business and company design. Thats where,as a venture firm, we can bring in institutional knowledge and our network and people on the business side who have experience and know what the patterns of success look like, rather than [having founders]reinvent the wheel.

SS: Companies are staying private a lot longer. How do you deal with an entrepreneur who doesnt want to go public?

BE: We havent had that problem yet. Sometimes they get a day away from going public and they get acquired, like AppDynamics, but mostly [our portfolio companies] want to [get to an IPO].

SS:In the broader market, theres a lot of narrative around founders wanting to avoid public markets today, though.

RM:I think theres an element, when you have companies, because theyve grown fast, they havent put exceptional rigor into the kind of business metrics that they operate to, and frankly, it can be easier to just stay private. Its sometimes more comfortable. But our feedback to entrepreneurs is generallythat going public isnt the end game [but its good to be preparing for it from the outset]. You have to do a whole host of things to be what we call public-company ready in terms of the sophistication with which you operate and run your financial processes and your controls, such that you really can understand and say in advance, This is the path were going to be on, then meet those expectations.

If you want to build something thats going to last, [you need to set]the foundation for the things that are going to let you build a company that can be independent long term. If you dont want to go public because you dont want to do the hard things, thats fine. Butmaybe that means your company doesnt have the strength required to get profitable; maybe its something thats not going to keep growing. If you cant figure those things out and you stay private, it just means your chances of being a long-term independent company probably go down.

SS: Is there too much money in the market or no?

BE: Yes, theres definitely too much money in the market. This isnt the hedge fund market. Venture capital isnt a scalable asset class. When we add capital to the market, returns go down. When we take out capital, returns go up.

SS: Do you feel like were out of touch in the Bay Area? Do you have any concerns about this region right now?

RM: Ive definitely drunk some of the Kool Aid. Ive been here since 1981.

The innovation cycle is a little strange, though. Its a weird place in time, dimension and space right now. I mean, weve had a bubble financial market, but in the last five to seven years, weve had this thing where the innovation aperture just keeps getting bigger and bigger. Take Uber, a $50 billion company. I guarantee you that even five to seven years ago, if you said to a VC, Lets use computer technology to change the taxi industry, youd have gotten laughed out of the office. Whether its SpaceX or Stemcentrix, there are all kinds of areas where digital technology is transforming these industries where technology never really had relevance before.

So I think its maybe a little overdone that always happens. But I do think the innovation cycle is extremely robust and that Silicon Valleyand the Bay Area [remains]sort of ground zero [for innovation]. Its the heart of where people think about whats never been possible, so Im bullish on that.

Theres probably too much capital, and that means prices will be high. But when you find these new disruptive things, even when prices are high, you can generate huge returns if you can figure which are the real deal and which are the pretenders that are going to fall off the curb.

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