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Q&A with CRV's Justine and Olivia Moore

Olivia and Justine Moore are investors at Charles River Ventures (CRV), based in San Francisco. Prior to CRV, Olivia and Justine worked in Alternative Investments and Manager Selection at Goldman Sachs. In 2015, they co-founded Cardinal Ventures, a Stanford University, student-run startup accelerator. They also run Accelerated, a startup and VC newsletter. You can follow them on Twitter: @venturetwins.


What drew you to venture capital and working with startups?


We have a unique background that starts with our mom, Darcy, who was a VC in Chicago back in the 90s. After we moved to Oregon, she stayed involved in the community by angel investing and attending pitch conferences, and we got to tag along.


Even though we had some early exposure to venture, it still felt like a whole new world in Silicon Valley. We got involved with the Stanford Venture Capital Club during our sophomore yea, primarily doing projects for local firms. After working with VCs and talking with students, we saw an opportunity to make an impact on campus by creating a program for student entrepreneurs who wanted to explore an idea seriously but weren’t ready to drop out and raise capital or join a full-time accelerator.


So we started Cardinal Ventures, a ten-week program for student founders to get mentored by and learn from other founders, operators, and VCs. While we were running that program, we interacted with entrepreneurs and Bay Area VCs. We realized how much we liked working with early stage companies and connecting them to resources and mentors in the community. This led to a few internships with First Round Capital and Cowboy Ventures, which proved to us we wanted to go into venture full-time.


Why CRV? Can you walk me through the hiring and recruitment process?


After graduating, we actually went to Goldman Sachs for one year. We had done two summers (sophomore and junior year) and were pretty much locked in by the time we were seniors. Recruiting has changed since 2016, but firms like Goldman would give you exploding offers that ended in a few days or less. Because we were doing the deferred program at Stanford Business School, we thought we’d head to Goldman and then go back into VC after business school. But a number of people reached out to us asking whether we were going back into VC or if we knew anyone who would be a good fit for their firm, so we decided not to wait.


As for CRV, we had interacted with the firm through Cardinal Ventures and really liked everyone there – a few of the partners were some of our first speakers and pitch day judges. We knew that it was somewhat unlikely that a firm would hire two people at the same time, as venture firms typically have small teams. But the partner we were talking to, Saar Gur, knew that we did good work as a duo. Olivia was deep in the process at other funds but was asked to come in and meet with the team. We were especially excited by the chance to focus on consumer startups.


What about your background helped in the VC recruiting process?


It’s different at different firms – particularly at later stage or private equity firms, a pre-MBA role can look similar to investment banking, where you spend a lot of time on financial model. At CRV, we typically invest at the early stage, and our main value comes from our network and our ability to source deals. Our time at Goldman was extremely beneficial because we knew how to analyze markets and look at financials. This was helpful in getting a sense of the kind of spaces and themes we should pursue, and because it allows us to do pretty deep diligence once we’ve found interesting companies. We were also pretty fresh out of Stanford, and still had a good relationship with founders there via Cardinal Ventures and other groups.


We also had a Medium page where we had done some blogging around topics we were excited about. After we joined CRV, we started a weekly newsletter called Accelerated that keeps us in close touch with high school and college students, and recent grads. We do a weekly recap of tech news, an overview of investing trends, features on awesome students and recent grads, and tech and VC jobs and internships. It’s been an authentic way for us to connect with talent and share opportunities and insights - we also get deal flow through the newsletter.


Stanford has a number of venture adjacent organizations like StartX and Dorm Room Fund. Why did you create Cardinal Ventures? How has it grown and changed since 2015? And now as board members, what do your responsibilities look like?


We were involved in the financial branch of Stanford’s student government, Stanford Student Enterprises (SSE). SSE has its own endowment of $18M, and operates as an independent 501(c)(3) non-profit. We were the Chief Financial Officers of SSE – as well as coming up with an investment strategy for the endowment, we helped create programs that could utilize the endowment’s annual payout. Not many people know this, but StartX also started with SSE funding before spinning out.


As StartX continued to scale, we heard that it was tough for founders to join while they were still students. They were competing against more experienced founders and often couldn’t work on the company full-time. We built Cardinal Ventures for founders looking to stay in school and build their companies up simultaneously. This includes founders who have been working on a company independently for a while and might drop out and raise funding, but also founders who started experimenting with an idea in a class and just want to explore it more.


At the beginning, we were running off the student government budget. We ran a pilot with six teams who received $1,000 each in non-equity funding. A few years later, we’ve now graduated almost 100 student startups, and CV companies have raised more than $60M in funding. Since we don’t take equity, corporate sponsors make it possible for the program to run. The team currently led by Tina Jiang has done a great job of raising $200,000 in sponsorships from funds like Pear and Sequoia as well law and accounting firms. We remember when we were raising our first few sponsorships - we were so anxious to ask people for $5,000!


It’s been really fun to see Cardinal Ventures alums go on to raise venture funding and grow into big companies – Nova Credit, OhMyGreen, and Athelas are a few examples. We’re now advisors at Cardinal Ventures, where we help support the management team from our roles at CRV and make introductions to potential investors and advisors.


I love getting the Accelerated newsletter in my inbox every week. But I, like a lot of people, am subscribed to too many listservs. How is Accelerated different from other tech and VC job newsletters? What are you doing to keep the content fresh and interesting?


We’ve written almost 70 issues of Accelerated, and love putting it together every week. It’s a pretty natural fit for us because it’s our job to stay updated on what going on in tech and VC, but it also helps us form great connections with millennials and Gen Zers, and get feedback on companies that we’re looking at. We actually sourced one of our recent investments from a reader who sent the company to us.


Not long ago, we were those students thinking about how to get a VC internship, or whether we should intern at a startup. We know how busy and overwhelmed we were, and how opaque the industry seemed as outsiders. So when we write, we put ourselves in the mindset of a college student that just has 10 to 15 minutes for newsletters. We keep the content relevant to the things you need to know if you’re recruiting. How can Accelerated help educate you on the market? On themes in different sectors? Can we help you find summer and full-time opportunities that you didn’t know about?


We have almost 8,000 subscribers, many of whom reach out to us directly with questions or ideas. We run a Slack group with a few hundred of our readers where we have deeper conversations and give us feedback, and we also have more than a hundred readers who are scouts with us on their campuses. We text and email with them regularly, and we can adjust the content of the newsletter to the kinds of things they are wanting to read about. Sometimes readers will tell us they got a job through the newsletter, which is always super exciting to hear.


We’re also helping companies find talent. We regularly get 2-3 emails a week from VCs or startups asking us to include a job posting. They find out about Accelerated when someone in their network forwards them the email and so on; it has a chain reaction.


Brandless opened a pop up store in NYC - that’s consistent with more D2C companies expanding into physical locations (as you noted here). Why do you think brands are replicating online strategies as physical experiences?


We’re really excited about the Brandless pop up! Uppercase, one of CRV's portfolio companies, has helped D2C brands make their first entrance into physical store space. They’ve already helped open over 5,000 stores for companies like Casper and Everlane. Part of the reason we made the seed investment was a strong market trend. We’re seeing high-end residential and commercial properties that were developed before the 2006-2008 housing bubble still sitting vacant. On the tenant side, the idea of signing a 20-year lease doesn’t make any sense. Brands want better terms and the flexibility to move around; that’s true for emerging D2C companies and even bigger brands who run pop ups.


For digital first brands, pop ups and physical locations offer a first touchpoint for people who’ve never engaged with their products – they essentially serve as show rooms. These spaces are designed to differentiate their product; help consumers understand the brand and its values; and give consumers the information to make purchasing decisions that happen online. Stores are also hosting events and setting up community gathering places. Brands went digital to avoid expensive physical real estate and retail workers. But many are realizing that there are consumers who want and benefit from the high touch experience of going in and talking to someone before making a purchase.


One example - when we visited SoHo, we stopped by Bonobos and talked to the store manager. She told us that one of the biggest use cases for the store is men who’ve recently moved and need new professional wardrobes. They have no idea what to wear and how to put together outfits. That type of customer would have little success online. Coming to the Bonobos store and chatting with a salesperson who helps you find the right outfit, that converts someone to a customer for life.


CRV has invested in a number of startups including Airtable, Classpass, Freenome, Pillpack, Scribd and Udacity. With your joint focus on consumer and mobile, what investment verticals are you paying attention to?


That’s a great question. We really enjoy doing deep dives into sectors, talking to a bunch of companies, and then publishing some of our analysis on our blog. In the past, we’ve written about topics like live entertainment, communal living, fertility, and vertical marketplaces. More broadly, we’re really interested in the rise of Gen Z and young millennials, and their unique consumption habits both in terms of media and products. There will be some really interesting platforms built around this. And even though many millennials are post-college now, their purchasing power is really ramping up and driving changes in areas like housing, healthcare, and transportation.


A few specific themes we are interested in now – we recently published a piece about our portfolio company Bird, which launched a program to allow operators to buy and run their own fleet of e-scooters. We call this model a “business in a box,” and have seen it pop up in a few categories – it combines the operational support and financial mobility of a franchise with the digital network of an on-demand business. We’ll also be publishing pieces soon around infrastructure for D2C brands to allow them to better fulfill customer demand while maintaining a flawless experience, and tools for freelancers to manage their operations and financials.


We’re always keeping an eye out for the next great social product. We think some of the vertical social networks that encourage hyper-engagement even amongst small communities to start are really exciting. We also see a lot of potential for social commerce to drive both revenues and consumer activity.


What are some challenges that you've faced as junior investors?


A main challenge for us, and we think for many young people entering venture, is that it is incredibly network-based. We’re conscious of the fact that we’re younger and haven’t worked at Google or Facebook for five years before going into VC, so we don’t have those established connections . Building Cardinal Ventures for so long and VC internships certainly helped; we’d invite entrepreneurs, investors, and operators in the community to be speakers and mentors. They were very generous in making introductions for us and sort of accelerating our entrance into the ecosystem.


Another challenge for all investors is how to establish yourself as thought leader. Entrepreneurs are busy, and have huge constraints on their time – so it’s important to prove that you’ll be helpful and prepared when coming into a meeting.. We try to do this with our newsletter and by writing blogs. So far, it’s paid off - we’re identifying trends and getting meetings with founder opportunities we wouldn’t have seen otherwise.


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


We've found that being thoughtful is the number one thing that will differentiate you as an investor. Lots of investors have preconceived notions from years of experience in the market, which can be really helpful but at some point also limits what you look at. We try very hard to look at every opportunity with fresh eyes - markets can change and some founders are so strong that they can just push through and be successful in areas where startups have struggled in the past. We try to come into every meeting with a prepared mind, which is something Saar taught us, but also to be good listeners and don’t form strong opinions until we’ve really investigated the data.


Another piece of advice, especially to students looking to get into venture or tech, is to try to establish expertise on a topic that you’re excited about and then create content that demonstrates your knowledge. We get a ton of emails from students looking for a venture job who send along a resume. This is helpful, and we always love meeting students, it’s even more impressive if that student has created a deck on a company they are excited about, writes a blog about startups on their campus, or has their own newsletter. This shows real passion and is a big differentiator.

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© 2018 by Nikita Singareddy