Q&A with Spero Ventures' Ha Nguyen

Updated: Aug 31, 2018

Ha Nguyen is a Product Partner at Spero Ventures, based in the Bay Area. Prior to Spero Ventures, she was an operating partner at Omidyar Network and before that, was a product executive at five early stage startups including eBay.

What attracted you to venture capital and working with startups?

I never thought I’d be a VC. I had spent sixteen years in Silicon Valley as a product leader. In 2000, I became one of the first PMs for eBay and developed tools for sellers during five years of the company’s hyper growth, including launching eBay’s “Buy It Now” feature. Since then, I’ve led product and design for 4 early and mid-stage startups. I’ve always been a builder - I really enjoy creating company culture, business models, and products.

Two and a half years ago, when I was exploring my next career move, I was chatting to startups about head of product roles. None of them were particularly mission-driven. My most rewarding experiences were at eBay and Stella & Dot because they aimed at bringing economic self-empowerment to their users. Both companies also had great cultures led by female CEOs and had diverse leadership at the executive level and throughout the organization, which is unusual for Silicon Valley. When I was at these companies, I was excited to get out of bed every day because the work I was doing was bigger than myself – it had purpose. I was creating communities and generating economic opportunities for hundreds of thousands of people. I didn’t come across a startup that energized me in this way.

Around that time, my old boss from eBay - Shripriya Mahesh - had just joined Omidyar Network as a partner. She said if you want to do something mission-driven, come here. Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, has always endeavored to make the world better by investing in companies and founders that expand access and opportunity. I wanted to be a part of something like that. I could scale my impact because I wasn’t just working at one company but many mission-driven companies. I started as the Entrepreneur-in-Residence… 2.5 years later, I’m still here!

We spun Spero Ventures out of Omidyar Network this year. While Omidyar Network is a philanthropic investment firm that combines a dual-checkbook model of venture investing and grants, Spero solely invests in for-profit startups that we believe can achieve venture returns. With Pierre as our sole LP, we look for investments that will also achieve massive impact when these companies hit scale.

What drew you to Spero?

The big difference between Spero and other firms is that we’re an evergreen fund with a single LP. At a typical vc firm, you’re raising funds from a lot of limited partners. They’re expecting a return on that money. You’re beholden to only looking at certain types of investments because you need to return back to the fund or the LPs won’t re-commit. It’s a purely capital-driven approach.

Pierre, of course, cares about returns but he also deeply values impact and whether the companies we’re funding will go off and build a better future for humanity. We’re more patient with our investments because we don’t have traditional constraints. Some big moonshot opportunities might take longer; we have more time because our LP understands that.

This is a subtle difference but Spero Ventures has 4 of 5 team members that are female. Shripriya and I have children, as does Rob Veres, our male partner. I’m proud that Spero champions women. We’re a champion for the underserved. I observe that in who we service, how we provide capital, and how we evaluate opportunities that other firms disregard - it is because we have a unique vantage point. And since we’re new and small, I can shape the culture I want to create at Spero. We’re collaborative, respectful, supportive of our founders, and not ego-driven.

What does your role look like on a typical day?

My role is unique because I’m an operating partner rather than a deal partner, though I do invest. I split my role into 1/3 investing like sourcing and evaluating deals. Another third is working with our portfolio around product. This is really where my prior experience comes in - design sprints, product talent decisions, ideation, user testing. I spend the rest of my time on brand building and network-building activities. We offer lots of programming to bring our network/community together. Within that context, my days can look completely different. I might spend an entire afternoon in pitch meetings, or a full day in office hours chatting to startups about go-to-market strategy or product offerings. I may spend a full day or two running a design sprint with one of my companies. Then I might spend a week coordinating marketing and programming efforts for one of our larger events such as our Product Leader Summit or CEO Summit.

Much bigger firms like Andreesen Horowitz, GV, and Social Capital have operating partners. For a $100M fund, you typically don’t see operating partners. The reason I get to straddle the operating and deal role is because I’ve worked with Shripriya for so long. She knows my passion, she trusts me. And she feels that there’s value I can bring to the ecosystem and network from an operating perspective.

What are some of the areas that you’re investing in, and how do you know when you’ve come across a potentially successful product?

Our message is what really resonates with founders. Our POV is different from impact investing. At Spero, we don’t even like to use that term because of the connotation that these investments are for the social good but provide subpar or low returns. That’s not the case. We believe that the best startups of our generation will have great returns and great societal impact. When you look at a person’s hierarchy of needs, we believe that the fundamentals of life will stay the same: well-being, work and purpose, and human connection. We think of companies like eBay, Tesla, Airbnb, and LinkedIn: mission-driven companies that improve these fundamentals at scale.

Spero invests in areas like digital health, ag tech, future of work, and next gen social platforms and tools. Tech that brings people together. If we constrain our investments to these three fundamentals - well-being, work and purpose, human connection - then we believe we can have a great impact. And we’ve found that this message particularly resonates with Millennial founders.

As a product person, I’m thinking about whether that product delights. Is it 10x better than its competitors? Is it the kind of life-changing product that they can’t wait to share with their family and friends?

I’m also looking at the founder. Are they in it for the right reason? Do they have the hustle, talent, and skill to go through the tough entrepreneurship journey? Some of the most successful founders will say that their companies almost died multiple times. Through sheer will, they pulled their startups out of the abyss. My old boss, Jessica Herrin of Stella & Dot, would say that success is really just a string of 1000 failures strung together. It’s true and that’s why we look for resiliency in our founders.

Have you faced major challenges as an investor?

There are many challenges from a firm perspective. These days the rounds are so crazy and valuations are sky high. We take a long time to find, evaluate, and sign a deal because we care a lot about mission and validated impact. As primarily Series A investors, we’re looking to lead 3-4 deals a year. Disappointingly, there have been a few times where we love a company and want to fund them but can’t lead the round because of huge valuations.

The other challenge is striving to be known and pushing out Spero’s message. It’s a distribution issue to figure out the best ways to raise our profile. I think about it like the Rule of Seven in brand building: a customer needs seven interactions with a brand before they recognize it and take action. We need to make sure people don’t just hear about Spero once but many times.

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

Know why you want to be in venture. People say that want a job in venture and when I ask them why, their answers aren’t too compelling. Don’t do venture if you’re in it for the money or for the fame. People think vc is glamorous, that you’re just meeting founders and investing in companies. The day to day isn’t always rosy particularly when you’re deep in due diligence or when your startups hit roadbumps and you need to step in and help where you can.

Your why has to be bigger. You have to want nothing more than to help founders be successful. They will be going through journeys in the valley of despair, and you have to be there as a partner and as a friend through the struggle. A lot of new people might miss that. Venture is not about you - it’s about the founder and their company and their impact. If that’s your why, then a career in venture may be a good fit.

*I typically interview analysts and associates, but I made an exception for Ha as she's new to venture and comes with a breadth of product experience.