Q&A with Pelion Venture Partners' Holly Preslar

Holly Preslar is a Senior Associate at Pelion Venture Partners, based in Salt Lake City, Utah. Prior to joining Pelion full-time, she worked as a technology transfer specialist and at Intel Capital.

What drew you to venture capital and working with startups?

After graduating from BYU, I joined the University’s Technology Transfer office. I managed finance and license compliance and helped researchers file patents and find entrepreneurs who could commercialize their work. I was advising CS professors who had spent 10 to 15 years on some niche topic. They were the experts and it was my responsibility to make their technologies become viable products. I really just jumped in, learning as I went. It was a lot like venture in that way. I loved learning about cutting edge research and building relationships with founders. After 4 years of that, I wanted to apply this knowledge as an investor. I chose BYU’s MBA for its robust finance program as well as the links BYU had with Salt Lake City VC community.

Besides that, I’m a career changer. I was a pianist. I've competed as a mountain skier and I know how to play the piano. Performance and athleticism take risk. I found a similar attitude in venture capital for balancing risk and reward. It's so refreshing working with people who take chances on new technologies and products. They're willing to take a leap of faith to make things happen. That energy and support makes venture a fantastic career.

Why Pelion in particular?

Before Pelion, I was part of Cougar Capital, a student-run venture capital and private equity fund run by MBA students at BYU. We joined syndicates with local firms in Utah as well as other firms around the country. I met a number of investors and members of the Utah VC community as our Director of Legal Affairs. Cougar Capital helped me land an internship at Pelion while I completed my business degree.

I valued finding a firm that struck a balance between freedom and mentorship. Trust came quickly at Pelion. When I joined, I was expected to work independently. I was really excited to have that opportunity as well as an effective support system. It was unique from the other firms that I’d worked with through Cougar Capital. Most VC firms have regimented responsibilities and a structured path to advancement. At Pelion, you can move as quickly as you want to. Even though I had an unconventional background in technology transfer, working with computer science researchers had primed me for the B2B SaaS world. I was able to bring those insights from the moment I joined. Pelion recognized that value irrespective of how long I’d been there.

What was the recruitment and hiring process like for you?

It’s tough to find your place in venture. I came in as an intern but I did two internships between my 1st and 2nd year at business school: 6 weeks at Pelion and 12 weeks at Intel Capital. I saw both sides of the buy side from an early stage firm to a large, strategic corporate VC. That was very powerful because it helped me narrow down the kinds of places that I wanted to join.

I wasn’t sure that as an intern I would get an offer at Pelion. People always told me that there were 3 main things for getting a job in VC: it’s all about timing, luck, and hard work. The hard work you can put in, but timing and luck is variable. I maximized what I was in control of. I helped diligence companies, attended board meetings, created slide decks, and I stood up a software platform with our LP base. It’s all about proving you can do what needs to be done, that you can adapt and learn quickly.

You can’t get disappointed - remember that your input is only a third of the puzzle. It came together quickly for me, but there are people I know who are great and it still hasn’t happened for them. Keep hoping that the timing and luck will work out. Be persistent.

How did you pick between the early stage and later stage corporate VC?

I liked both and it was helpful having tangible experience to better compare the differences. At Intel, I worked on the M&A side. There are benefits that come from structure and more capital, but it also lacked the energy that I felt being close to the entrepreneurship community. Pelion was fast-paced. Companies would come in with 6 or 8 term sheets all ready; we had to do diligence that night if we wanted to join the deal. The seed stage is crazy because there is so much risk and anticipation. Seeing a vision and product at its early iteration excites me the most.

It’s also important to distinguish between qualitative and quantitative analysis. There’s more qualitative analyses at the seed stage. You’re making a decision on the team as much as the product and market. You're looking out into the world, shaping your investment theses from the more companies you see, and backing businesses with conviction. I am glad I was able to test both stages before I made the decision to join Pelion.

What is it about B2B SaaS that most interests you?

I like finding industries that haven’t been disrupted. In the enterprise space, we’re finding ways to bring in software in to streamline and automate processes. Especially in Utah, we see a lot of companies in this space.

We’re also looking more into healthcare IT. We’ve been a healthcare investor but not in the technology stack - I think partly out of fear and inertia from healthcare stakeholders. There are so many procedures from distributing health records to ordering medical supplies that should be more digital. Hospitals and physicians still rely on many legacy platforms that do everything but nothing well. I’m looking at a few pieces in this puzzle like companies that work with reimbursement contracts and provider-payer relationships.

How would you describe an average day in your role?

No day is average and that’s what makes venture so rewarding and challenging. I split the day into 3 areas:

Portfolio work. I’ve been at Pelion for 2 years and work with 6-7 companies directly. We’re based in Salt Lake but we’re a national firm. I travel to board meetings and company headquarters to help with operations as needed. That can manifest through talent development and hiring or marketing strategy. It just depends on the company and how hands on they want us to be.

Sourcing. I split that into networking and thesis-based work. I’m often at events, meeting entrepreneurs and domain experts. For our investment theses, I’m researching healthcare and other verticals to identify main pain points in those spaces. I also spend time on our overall fund finances. I examine IRR and our exit numbers to put those results into our marketing.

We don’t have platform. Honestly, I’m not sure how that would work here. Every deal at Pelion has a primary (the board member) and another supporting board member. No one works with the entire portfolio but we intermix when it makes sense. We like to structure it that way to ensure knowledge transfer and for the portfolio companies to be comfortable with the rest of the team. We try to be as open as possible with our time and resources.

What kind of guidance and support do you receive from female associates, partners, and mentors?

I am one of the founding members of Pari Passu with Minna Wang. When I started in VC, I didn’t know any female investors and Minna wasn’t at Kickstart yet. We’re trying hard to build that community in Utah. And I think it is growing, even if it just starts with more women being aware of VC as a career option. In undergrad, I didn’t know what it was. Pelion has 7 investment professionals. We just hired a new female associate from business school, so it’s great to see how we are changing internally as the broader ecosystem shifts.

What have you learned from co-investing with other firms?

It’s similar with thought diversity on any level. Having co-investors that you trust enhances your firm’s decision-making. We’re Utah-based but invest nationally with many different prominent investors. It’s great to talk with them and access their knowledge. When I was one of the only women in Utah, there were women in the Bay Area and NYC that I was able to connect with. Joining those communities helped me become a better investor and tap new deal flow. The VC ecosystem is small but increased inclusivity is becoming one of its strongest features.

Have you faced major challenges in the space?

There are some challenges you’ll face as a new investor. Finding your voice is hard when you come from a different field and are fresh out of business school. It’s hard to have confidence because you don’t have credibility from a major exit yet. At the beginning, I had to remind myself that I was in the room at the table for a reason. My firm wanted me to be there. I sometimes struggled with asserting an opinion or giving advice because it had the potential to be wrong. But in venture you don’t know who is right for a long time, so your opinions do matter and you should share it even if it’s different or contrarian. It could be the wrong opinion that leads to the best outcomes.

What advice do you have for young women who want to enter VC - on the investing, operations, or platform side?

I always go back to timing, luck, and hard work. And if I could talk to a young version of myself, one of the most important things I’d remind myself is to have an opinion. You can develop that skill if you are mindful. If I had known I would be going into VC, I’d have practiced forming thoughtful opinions quickly and speaking on them with confidence. You’re not going to have all the data. Some of the best VCs are able to pattern match and form opinions on the fly from the research and startups that they know. You can practice that.

At the same time, it's important to have an appreciation for entrepreneurs and their journey. That’s the whole reason any of us are here. If you can, spend your time getting to know people in that community through business school, events, and even cold reaching out. There’s no substitute for genuine relationship-building.