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Protocol Pipeline
The inside story of the venture capital and startup world by Biz Carson.

Can you put a price on a pitch?

Can you put a price on a pitch?

Hello and welcome to Pipeline. Thank you to everyone who shared last week's newsletter on how firms can make this industry more inclusive. Keep taking action. This week: Pay to pitch is back, so is the IPO market, and why remote startups may not be all that hot.

If you were forwarded this email, be sure to sign up here.

Overheard

  • "If it became another tech bro app, I'd be super bummed," says Roadtrip creator Matt Mazzeo. Built with Brian Wagner, Roadtrip is the new app founders and VCs can't stop playing with. Inspired by Turntable (RIP), the music-listening app is in beta and only a few weeks old, but already has the feel of the next Clubhouse (including the FOMO-inducing tweets.)
  • Contrarian alert: Actually, VCs don't dig remote startups. A survey from NFX found that despite 74% of founders saying they were going to move to majority or fully remote teams, nearly 60% of investors said it made them a less attractive investment.
  • "That 'pop' you hear is money going out of your pocket and into the hands of the bank's best brokerage clients," says Benchmark's Bill Gurley. The IPO market came back strong for a week with ZoomInfo, Vroom, Shift4 and Warner Music Group all seeing impressive pops after they started trading. But Gurley, a cheerleader of direct listings, says those spikes are a reminder of how inefficient IPOs can be: "I am really surprised we haven't seen a derivative suit with one of these underpriced IPOs brought on behalf of ex-employees."
  • Investors are creeping on your changelogs. Greylock's Sarah Guo tweeted that tracking changelogs is one of her favorite ways to get updates on what a startup is doing — and what they're actually shipping. It drew investor attention to apps like Linear, which said that the majority of the investors it spoke to had been tracking their changelog for some time.

Biz on Biz

The pay-to-pitch debate is back

Would you pay a few hundred dollars (or several thousand) if it meant you could get investors — from a Sequoia scout to Barbara Corcoran — to directly review your business idea? That's the bet that a new startup called Vintro is making after it publicly launched last week.

  • Think Cameo, but for business. Like the celebrity entertainment app, Vintro has a spectrum of business leaders, from high-profile investors to startup founders to marketing gurus. Founders submit a 60- 90-second business pitch, pay, and then their chosen reviewer sends back a few minutes of feedback in return. If both sides want to continue the conversation (whether for mentorship, more advice or investment), they can stay in touch (that part is free).
  • There are some big names (and high prices): "Shark Tank" star Barbara Corcoran ($6,670), Square co-founder and billionaire Jim McKelvey ($5,000), and former Trump adviser and Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn ($3,350). (Corcoran and McKelvey didn't respond to requests for comment.)
  • But the majority cost less than $300, said Vintro founder Noor Sugrue. Of its 430+ reviewers, over 65% charge in the $25 to $300 range, she said.
  • Some investors are also donating the proceeds. A spokesperson for Cohn said he will be donating any fees to the Harlem Dream Academy (and reiterated there are other ways to get in touch via his website). 8VC's Alex Moore, one of the cheapest at $25, is donating his proceeds to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Angel investor Zach Coelius will donate his $135 to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (or he'll accept volunteer hours through the Vintro for Volunteers scheme).

"At its core, it's a platform that allows anyone regardless of your background, regardless of where you came from or who you know, to have access to some of the world's most important decision makers to help bring your idea to life," Sugrue said.

  • She's currently a college freshman at the University of Chicago, but the idea came to her when she was in high school watching "Shark Tank" with her family. "It got me thinking about the entrepreneurs that didn't make it onto the show, and about the countless great ideas that are born every single day and don't go anywhere because their creators lack access to the necessary resources," she said.
  • Vintro doesn't have a CEO, but her dad, Christopher Sugrue, is the chairman of the company. He made headlines for his ties to the Refco bankruptcy through his hedge fund PlusFunds, including a $263 million default judgment levied against him in 2012. No charges were ever brought against him, though, and the Refco bankruptcy cases were all closed earlier this year. The company is split between teams in Chicago and the U.K. now.

But is charging startups to pitch investors a good idea? It's been a controversial topic for the last decade. Supporters think it can be a good ROI and provide access for entrepreneurs who don't have a way into investing circles, but critics argue that it takes advantage of inexperienced founders.

  • "There is a special place in hell for any rich, powerful or successful person who preys upon founders by asking them to pay to pitch them," Jason Calacanis responded in a Twitter DM when asked about Vintro. "Also, if you look at the list of folks, it's generally greedy losers." Calacanis was one of the earliest and most vocal critics of the practice when in 2009 he called on angel investing groups to disclose what fees they charged.
  • But pay-to-pitch groups have made a comeback as founders have fought for funding. A 2018 report from The Information showed that groups, such as the Keiretsu Forum, which runs global networks of angel investors, were incredibly active investing groups. Keiretsu backed over 200 startups in 2017 alone.
  • Vintro isn't quite the same as angel investing group charging. To start, every buyer isn't necessarily looking for investment, but help with product ideas or marketing or feedback on the idea itself. Vintro also has a disclosure on every page that its reviewers are acting in a personal capacity, and it makes no promises that pitches will lead to an investment. But it does revive the decade of debate of whether any investors should be charging founders for their time, regardless of whether it is to give feedback or hear a pitch.

Sugrue argues that critics overlook the hidden costs of pitching. There's a cost to entrepreneurs flying out to Silicon Valley to pitch or spending months sending emails when $50 can get a guaranteed response on a faster timeline and potentially a new business connection, she says.

  • "I think that there are real costs associated in the real world that are kind of hidden and invisible because people think that that's the way it has to be," she said. "So I do think that while Vintro is not perfect, it is a huge leap forward from the current status quo."

But it'll also have to work to convince its reviewers that it's on the right side of opening access without profiteering from it.

  • "I do believe in the mission of the company, which was to create opportunities for entrepreneurs who don't have access," says Mira Labs founder and Sequoia scout Ben Taft. He signed up on a whim as a favor of a friend and admits to not having logged into the platform or even reviewed a pitch yet. But he adds that his "feedback would be making sure that the platform continues to really find a balance between qualification and profit because it walks a fine line."
  • "If I did stay active on the platform, I probably wouldn't feel comfortable charging for it," he said. "I'm not sure I believe in that."

Where do you stand on pay-to-pitch? Email me, and I may include a few responses in next week's issue.

The Transformation of Work Summit

Workday

Protocol's Transformation of Work Summit

How can tech help identify and match in-demand skills with job opportunity? Speakers include Future of Work Caucus co-chairs Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE), Representative Bryan Steil (R-WI), CEO of Jobs for the Future Maria Flynn, CEO of Burning Glass Technologies Matthew Sigelman and CEO of Colorado State University Global Dr. Becky Takeda-Tinker. Presented by Workday.

Register here

Inside Track

  • In a new podcast with Floodgate's Mike Maples Jr., Manny Medina shares his journey from being a shrimp farmer in Ecuador to the founder of Seattle-based sales unicorn Outreach.
  • So you want to fund Black founders? Kapor Capital's Brian Dixon on the three steps firms should immediately take.
  • If you're not investing in diverse founders, you're a bad investor, says BLCK VC.
  • What does good retention actually look like? Investor Lenny Rachitsky polled a bunch of VCs to see what numbers startups should be aiming for. The Twitter conversation between a bunch of product leaders who debated the results is worth a read, too.

Need to Know

  • It was a bad week for CEOs. The Wing's Audrey Gelman stepped down, as did the CEO of CrossFit and the founder of Reformation. Not to mention the start of a reckoning in the media with leaders at Bon Appétit, Refinery29 and Man Repeller stepping down.
  • At least delivery companies can still raise cash. On the heels of the Grubhub/Just Eat Takeaway.com merger, DoorDash is rumored to be raising hundreds of millions that would value it at more than $15 billion. Not to be left out, Instacart is now worth $13.7 billion after raising $225 million from DST Global and General Catalyst.
  • Facebook is getting into the investing game, but not to make money. Axios spotted a now-deleted job listing for a head of investment at Facebook's experimental product division, but the fund is mostly to keep an eye on startups and it isn't really expecting to generate VC-level returns. (Disclosure: My husband works at Facebook on an unrelated team.)
  • From Protocol: VR centers and arcades were growing quickly before the pandemic. Now, the industry is seeing furloughs, layoffs and pivots.
  • This week in VC history: It's the five-year anniversary of one of the greatest headlines published in tech journalism history: "Jack Off to Executive Suite, With Dick Out."
  • And your weekend reading: The Wall Street Journal published a fascinating oral history of "Party Girl," the first popular movie to ever stream online. Maybe that's your weekend viewing, too.

Five Questions for...

MaC Venture Capital's Marlon Nichols

What's a secret obsession of yours that most people don't know about?

Gummy-textured candy, specifically Haribo brand. If I'm not disciplined, I can easily polish off an entire 1.8-pound bag by myself and in one sitting. That size package is clearly meant to be shared and to be consumed over time. SMH, but the struggle is real.

What was your path into becoming a VC?

My professional background is somewhat eclectic. After graduating from Northeastern University, I joined a seed stage enterprise software company and later helped grow that company into the U.K. and Europe. Then I worked in post M&A integration consulting for the Blackstone Group. Later I led strategy consulting projects for blue chip media and entertainment companies. My path to venture really started in business school where I had the privilege of leading the school's pre-seed evergreen fund. Post graduation I joined Intel Capital where I ultimately became an investment director and completed my Kauffman fellowship. After about five years at Intel Capital, I co-founded Cross Culture Ventures, which is now branded MaC Venture Capital. We're a little over 5 years old. I'm having a ton of fun!

What's one piece of advice you received that you're glad you ignored?

Be patient. It seems like most times when someone is threatened by your existence (because you may outshine them, or seem smarter or seem more talented than them, etc.) they tell you to be patient. I'm glad I had the correct sense of timing, self belief, ambition and follow through to build when I believed the time was right. Had I not ignored that advice, there is no way that my venture firm gets started or sees the early success that it has experienced.

What's one of the worst predictions you've ever made?

My worst prediction was that smart cups that tell you exactly what you are consuming would be a thing. This was at the beginning of the IoT and health tech movement. Let's just say it didn't quite pan out.

What's one problem you wish an entrepreneur would solve?

I've been paying attention to the fitness tech space and have been searching for a platform that enables 1:1 personal training, but at scale. If you're an entrepreneur building that, I want to talk.

Thanks for reading this week's Protocol Pipeline. If you like what you're reading, sign up here to get it in your inbox. Send story tips and Pipeline feedback to biz@protocol.com. Otherwise, stay safe and stay healthy. Make sure to give your companies Juneteenth off. See you next week.

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