Q&A with Laconia's Geri Kirilova

Updated: Aug 18, 2018

Geri Kirilova is an investor at Laconia Capital Group, based in New York City. Prior to Laconia, she worked at Techstars and interned for two European-based venture capital firms.

What attracted you to venture capital and working with startups?

I was studying abroad in Prague when I started working at Credo Ventures. I ended up in vc by accident. A friend who had previously worked there recommended that I look into the firm. I was immediately struck by the energy that everyone brought with them to their projects. After Credo, I moved to another fund called LAUNCHub in Sofia, Bulgaria. LAUNCHub was a seed stage firm in a budding Eastern European ecosystem that wasn’t really institutionalized yet. LAUNCHub connected me to an international network of people in the entrepreneurship community. That eventually led to an introduction with the partners at Laconia.

At the time I was a sophomore and junior at NYU Stern where everyone was focused on traditional paths like banking or consulting. All of a sudden, I was with people who had built products for the sake of building them and were trying to figure out monetization and commercialization strategy. There was a genuine passion that founders and investors brought to their work. It was unlike anything I’d done in school and I liked the unique, unstructured challenges.

What in particular attracted you to Laconia?

Laconia is focused on late seed, pre-series A B2B software companies that are headquartered in northeast major markets. We’re looking at companies that have a product ready. They’re generating revenue but need more capital and runway to really hit the milestones that are necessary for a series A round.

Anyone who has met Laconia’s co-founders, Jeff and David, will immediately know the answer to that question. So much of your work comes down to your colleagues. It’s not like working at a large consulting firm where you can switch teams for every new project. Who you work with at a small emerging fund is fixed. If you don’t believe in the team and in the partners, you will have a tough time succeeding there.

In addition to Jeff and David’s personalities and managing style, it’s the operating experience that they bright to the table that I found really compelling. They understand key components like customer segments, sales process, and team structure. They have a way of looking at sales and operating strategy as it applies to early stage companies with a great degree of detail.

They’ve done an incredible job of aligning their experience and strengths to the fund focus. Sales and marketing - that’s what founders need at this stage. When you have a product built, it’s a question of getting from 20k to 250k in MRR with a systematic and repeatable sales cycle. It makes all the difference whether you can reach break-even trajectory before raising a Series A round.

You spent some time at Techstars before joining Laconia as an associate in 2017. Can you tell us a little bit about that.

I was at Techstars between interning at Laconia and joining the firm full-time when they were gearing up for fund II. I didn’t know whether they would have the capacity to hire me, so I was exploring other opportunities and Techstars was a good way to expand my network and gain some operating experience. No matter what I ended up doing afterwards, it was always going to be beneficial to meet tons of founders, startups, investors, mentors, and operators.

Techstars immerses you right into the ecosystem. It gives you the experience of working with 10 startups very closely at once. As an investor, you’re within arm’s length of your startups. You are often really involved during the first 12-18 months but it’s not the same as being in the office. It’s a different level of intimacy and exposure at an accelerator. I liked that Techstars was a startup operating bootcamp.

I would recommend Techstars especially for people who haven’t been in the startup ecosystem, as it offers a foot in the door, assuming you have the financial runway to do so given its limited stipend structure for associates.

What do you do on a date-to-day basis at Laconia?

Let me zoom out and explain Laconia’s structure further. We’re a small team with 4 people. Three of us work on the investment side and another person runs the asset management division where Laconia advises family offices, foundations, and endowments on their venture strategy. My role spans everything from investment process to sourcing, due diligence, negotiating, closing, and on-boarding new portfolio companies. I also work on fund operations like preparing fundraising materials and leading communications with prospective LPs.

Something that’s probably unique to my role is my involvement with regular business activities. When you’re running a fund, you’re essentially running a small business. We have vendors like fund administrators and lawyers who help, but they still interface with someone at Laconia. I help handle operating tasks like marketing, expenses, vendor management, intern hiring, and anything else that might come up, making this a part investment, part operating role.

External networking is another major aspect of my role. Like many VCs, I’m attending events and building relationships that will be helpful for our portfolio companies and firm visibility.

Are these responsibilities things you learned from others or did you have to be scrappy and figure out how do things yourself?

A little of both. On the investment side, I was building off my previous vc experiences, but I feel like this is the kind of job where you’re constantly learning. I had my first venture capital role in 2014. It’s now 2018, and I still learn new terms or encounter different approaches to problem-solving. You can’t be afraid to ask questions.

The way we split work at our firm, everything is divvied fairly with thoughtfulness. For example, if there’s a deep operating question from a portfolio founder, Jeff or David would be better equipped to take the lead. But when it comes to the day-to-day, Jeff and David give me the freedom to accomplish the work that needs to be done for the firm.

While you have this genuine collaborative environment at Laconia, have you had encountered any other kinds of challenges?

Thankfully, I haven’t faced some of the really traumatic obstacles that others in the industry may have faced, but there are always challenges around navigating the founder/junior VC relationship.

I think some founders perceive meeting with associates as an inefficient way for them to raise money. There’s a mentality of everybody wanting to get to the check writer - which is valid - but I think the nuances get lost there. Partnerships operate very differently from firm to firm. There are firms where certain partners don’t have the same weight as other partners, or firms with much smaller and tight-knit teams where the hierarchy is less defined. In the latter scenario, even associate can greatly influence investment decisions.

I’ve had some of my portfolio companies ask if they should respond to a cold email from an associate. I always say yes because you can’t always know their firm’s decision-making structure. Associates are the eyes and ears on the ground. They can share market insight and give you advice before you get to the partner. There’s an unfortunate reputation that associates have for wasting time with founders, and while there are definitely instances where investors can’t add value, you may always encounter someone who is genuinely interested in helping.

The obstacle is getting the same level of trust and credibility in front of founders that a partner would. Whether there’s a gendered component to that in any given scenario can be hard to determine, but the seniority challenges seem fairly universal.

You’re often at events speaking about Laconia and your work in venture. Is that something you choose to do and see as necessary for a successful investor?

So much of venture is network- and referral-based, so a lot of my event-going is oriented toward expanding Laconia’s reach & accessibility.

As a firm we’re really committed to and really believe in transparency and collaboration. Founders will often tell us, “I don’t know what decision-making looks like. How do I get my first meeting?” VC and raising capital can be a black box, so anything we can do to put our process out there is tremendously important to us, whether that’s speaking on a panel for a group of first-time founders, opening our doors on a weekly basis for mentor meetings, or publicly sharing our investment process.

With all that founders have to worry about as they build their companies, understanding the politics of this industry shouldn’t be a concern.

That really reminds me of reading Ryan Caldbeck’s long thread about navigating the world of venture as a first-time founder…

Definitely. There was one tweet that really stuck out to me: apparently at many firms, if the founder sends a thank you note, it can kill deal because it signals desperation. I tweeted back to Ryan and said: “That’s an absolute nightmare. If it’s true, please send those founders my way.” I had a hard time swallowing his tweets.

After a good meeting, we expect to either receive or send a follow-up note. If we don’t hear from a founder within a few days, either initially or in response to our note, we will take it as them not being interested. Like I said earlier, we’re all busy people. No one should have to waste time figuring out the nuances and etiquette of venture capital.

Have you found any mentors - whether that’s Jeff and David - or people at other vc firms, and what are ways that you connected with them and continue building those relationships?

I would definitely say that Jeff and David have been excellent mentors in addition to being good bosses. You make a lot of genuine friends in the industry because venture takes over the distance between your personal and professional life. Your work friends become real life friends and vice versa. But I think how you really get to know someone and build a strong relationship is by working on deals with them. You see their in-depth process and how they think about deals. Once you have that relationship, those people become serious resources as sounding boards.

There are also many community-oriented people in the New York ecosystem. People host events and do meet-ups. There is a ‘women in vc’ network as well as ‘young women in vc’ groups. All of these micro-communities make it easier to find people whether they are older mentors with experience and professional wisdom or peers who you can learn from.

In general, my approach to mentorship is community-driven. Rather than relying on one or two specific mentors, I have a pool of multiple trusted friends and colleagues who I can reach out to on various topics and of course make myself available to return the favor.

Would you say the meeting people IRL is the best way to build relationships that may lead to a venture role?

From what I’ve seen, in New York in particular, the trickiest entry point into venture is a principal-level job. There are a fair number of firms nowadays that hire for analyst and associate roles, so that seems to be easier than someone trying to enter venture, say, 6 years out of college. When you’re a lot more experienced, getting hired into vc is based on the relationships that partners have with you and whether they trust you to bring deal flow and operating expertise. You’re rarely hiring a stranger, so unless you have strong relationships, it’s challenging.

To get into vc, you should already be in the ecosystem in some capacity. Whether you’re at a startup or a part of hackathons, people need to know you. That’s always the advice I give people. When people ask me out to coffee and say that I’m the only person they’ve met in venture, I tell them to do another 30 coffee chats. You need to go to events and get involved first before applying for jobs. For people who have functional expertise in something like marketing, sales, or growth strategy, you should mentor and advise startups. You should volunteer at an accelerator. You should hold office hours at a co-working space.

A lot of vc roles aren’t listed even though more firms are moving towards transparent hiring. I see it as a capacity issue. You don’t have the ability to interview 300 people. You want to interview 5 people who come strongly referred and hire one of them. So you need to position yourself before you start your search. That puts you in the best position to hear about these roles and be referred. Of course, there are exceptions, and I’m always happy to hear that someone applied to a job posting and got hired, but I think those scenarios are exceedingly rare.

Any advice for young women who want to enter venture capital - on the investing, operations, or platform side?

Do your diligence on the firms you’re considering and make sure you’re choosing for the right reason. There are a lot of misperceptions about the vc and startup life. It is incredibly rewarding … but at the end of the day, it’s a job. It’s real work that can be challenging and grueling. You can’t be in it for the fame and TechCrunch glory because you’ll be disappointed. If you’re truly interested in the work, it’s addicting.

Do you think you will stay in venture capital for the long haul?

Totally. I could see myself staying in venture forever. I love working with early stage companies and I have a lot of flexibility in how I do that now. To summarize what’s great about being in venture and being at Laconia:

1. I’m constantly learning new things every day

2. I’m working with really smart, intelligent, kind people, whether they’re founders, colleagues, or co-investors

3. I’m in a position where I’m consistently growing my network

As long as those 3 things are true, I really do plan on staying in vc and contributing to the New York venture community.