Q&A with Bee Partners' Kira Noodleman

Updated: Sep 18, 2018

Kira Noodleman is an investor at Bee Partners, based in San Francisco. Prior to Bee, she worked as a program and product manager for Google’s Project Ara and led teams working on mobile applications and wearables in South America.

What attracted you to venture capital and working with startups?

My interest in VC came organically from working as a product manager prior to business school. I spent several years as a PM for startups and corporations alike. Before I went to business school, I led a team working on Google’s Project Ara, a global, interdisciplinary initiative to bring modular smartphones to the remaining six billion people without mobile internet. I was living in Buenos Aires and later San Francisco, working with partners in India and China, to design and develop an MVP to launch in Puerto Rico. The project was really exciting. Just the idea of having a basic smartphone that could be personalized on the hardware level required a high level of persistence and creativity.

Because we were so focused on go-to-market, our team operated like a startup. We were defining rules in uncharted territory and taking educated risks. I knew I was drawn to that kind of high-energy environment, and returned to business school with an interest in the startup ecosystem. During the second week of school, I went to Berkeley’s club fair and heard a pitch for LAUNCH, an accelerator run by Haas MBAs. I was immediately hooked. The accelerator was only in its second year of operation - there were plenty of more established organizations to join - but I knew this was where I wanted to immerse myself.

I devoted most of my time to LAUNCH. I recruited teams and developed resources alongside my main responsibility of pairing startups with mentors in the Bay Area and carrying out our programming based on the Lean Launchpad methodology. Each class of startups ended their program with a demo day, where founders pitched for funding in front of investors. I became close with Executive Director, Rhonda Shrader. She’s an incredible advocate for the Berkeley entrepreneurship community. She saw my excitement and dedication, and pulled me aside to ask whether I had considered an internship in venture capital. I didn’t expect it to be a career move for me. I knew VC was competitive and I was set on joining a startup. But she made an introduction to an investor, and I’m glad she did because it led me to exploring more opportunities in VC.

I ended up with an internship at Bee Partners that led to a full-time job opportunity. They didn’t have a role open when I started but the summer went really well and I received an offer. I didn’t expect venture to be the right step for me, but I’ve loved it so far.

Why Bee Partners?

There are lots of ways to answer this question but for me, it was a couple of big things:

1. I really like what they look at. They started forming a thesis when I was an intern that machines will win. Machines are better with things like precision, but it will be people who own the ingenuity and instinct. That hypothesis leads Bee Partners to a deep tech and B2B focus. As someone who comes from a hardware, software, and wearables background, I find the enterprise space most interesting. I think it’s more focused and strategic than B2C.

2. A lot of firms say they’re pre-seed but we actually back up that claim: we write the first check 70% of the time. Since we’re in the early stage, we’re actually investing in founders, their mission, and what they’re capable of. We call it an unexpected partnership model - we’re all hands in. It manifests in a multitude of ways but I think it’s best explained by the fact a majority of our seed companies get to series A.

The managing partners have been founders and they take partnership seriously. We have Tim, who leads portfolio operations, and has been an 8x founder. Michael has a private equity and investment banking background and started Bee Partners out of Haas. Garrett comes from real estate. They’re all very different but I really like them as people. That was one of the most important aspects for me - joining a team I could learn from and grow with every day.

How did your previous roles as a PM and consultant provide you with an applicable skillset for venture capital?

Venture capital is seen as an industry that lacks process. Even if there’s a cadence, you’re managing deal flow, evaluating pitches, and supporting teams as needs arise. Coming from a product background, I’ve always worked on interdisciplinary teams - with QA, business analysts, designers, devs, and project managers. I’m used to that kind of scaffolding. I know how products are built from prototype to solution delivery.

Not only have I experienced the customer interview phase, product testing, and go-to-market, I’ve also thought about how products evolve. I’ve lived that experience and not all investors have. It helps me evaluate a pitch. I’m thinking about whether the founder has done this before; if they haven’t, do I think this a founder with the market insight and capacity to learn to develop product to drive the solution? Think of it as problem/founder fit: an entrepreneur doesn’t have to be deep on product but they should know the problem. I can suss out the potential for a founder to execute.

I also draw on my past experiences to add value across our portfolio. I know how to kick off network effects. I can support a team structuring their B2B sales strategy. I can run sprints for a website and product revamp. All of these are important ways to help startups operate at their best.

You've spoken extensively about crypto and blockchain. As entrepreneurs pioneer in uncharted territory, what are you paying attention to? How do you separate the signal from the noise?

It wasn’t long ago that I was new to blockchain. To really understand crypto, I spent months living, breathing, and sleeping this stuff. I’ve always had an interest in emerging technology, but when ICOs raised more than $7B in 2017, I was sure that this was the dawn of an insane wealth generation cycle. For the first time, retail (in other words, non-VCs) were getting ahead of traditional investors. VCs were for sure paying attention and Bee Partners was no different.

So once I left business school, I buried myself in blockchain and surfaced with a white paper. Though things have shifted in the last six months, a lot of what I came up with was foundational and still holds true. I did a ton of work up front to get my feet on the ground and now I feel very competent.

There are four key things we look for in a crypto-related investment:

  1. Needed database

  2. Multiple database writers - which makes sense for big corporations and massive networks

  3. Lack of trust across users

  4. There's a strong case for not having an intermediary

It has to pass these four criteria before we even look at their white paper, team strength, quality of running code, scalability potential, user adoption, and user experience. Governance is another big question. If you’re open source, are you using a foundation or a board? Can the decision-making mechanisms scale over time as asset holders increase?

I don’t want to get into too much detail, but my thesis is more broadly about digital assets over physical. Blockchain is about disintermediating trust with assets, but to get assets onto a digital chain without a certification process requires trusting whoever is inputting the data. It adds another layer of complexity. These are the questions I’m asking and I’m excited about what the future holds for crypto.

How would you describe an average day in your role?

The beauty of the job is that every day is different. I’m often meeting with founders at the office or in the city. Some of these are deal screenings, other times I’m supporting portfolio operations or just helping a founder discuss ideas. I’m attending many events. I sit on panels and judge pitches as well as moderate panels with founders. I actually host a monthly event series with 2 partners from Bee in a group called CalFounders. We’re an informal advisory board for Founders from UC Berkeley. It’s a good deal flow source for us but it’s just as valuable for community building. I spend about 6 hours a month on CalFounders and helping manage our events. I also play a central role in developing our female founders network.

I’m working on another big project: a white paper for our broader thesis as a firm. As I mentioned earlier, we believe machines will win but there’s a lot of depth to that statement. The white paper looks at technical evolutions and how they’ve occurred over hundreds of years. We’re basically creating a model for this evolution and putting our research out there with a ton of data.

You mentioned how much you enjoyed working with your colleagues at Bee Partners. What kind of guidance and support do you receive from your partners? What about other women in the venture community?

I receive support all the time from the partners at my firm anytime I need it, including nights and weekends - and I am incredibly grateful. I feel like I can ask them anything, and since I am insatiably curious this works out well. I usually ask my questions after doing research so I can be sure I am using their time wisely - one of our core values is that time is worth more than money. Plus there are constantly brand new situations I'm facing for which there are no "right answers" or ways to do substantial research on my own, so I get support there as well. A good deal of my learning also happens through osmosis and simply attending meetings I'm curious about or finding ways to help on projects they're working on, as all 4 of us are super busy and moving a mile a minute.

I really enjoy working with women in venture, and always learn a lot from my interaction with both women founders and funders (investors). I was recently on a Plug and Play panel called FoundHer to give advice to female founders. It’s really important to me to activate the female entrepreneurs within our portfolio as well as those outside of it. You know, it’s tough. What we have to do, ultimately, is invest in more women and encourage them to start more companies. I’m looking to get involved with AllRaise, and I know they have an influx of people wanting to help.

I’ve had male friends in my networks tell me that that they’re having conversations about supporting female founders but they find it hard as men who just work with other men. I’ve helped them identify concrete approaches to deploy capital into more female entrepreneurs. More men bringing visibility to this issue and making the case for partnership means we’re taking steps in the right direction.

I also created a female founders slack channel for my firm, and for the Bay Area Young VCs slack group. It’s not just a space to have a pulse on female founders and VCs, but to celebrate their wins like Katrina Lake having a $1B company. Or to break down how male and female founders are asked different questions as they’re raising. I want to make sure that the conversation around diversity and inclusion is accessible to all men and women in the community; a Slack channel is an ideal place to continue the dialogue that’s going on at our events.

I see a lot of energy around investing in more female founders, but I feel like there’s a still an opportunity for all the women out there who have ideas but haven’t taken the leap to starting a company.

I agree with you. There are communities I’m a part of like Women in Product and Women in Early Stage Companies that can give confidence to a woman like that. But you’re right, there’s not a group for women who have ideas and need the right push to do it.

Have you faced major challenges as an women in venture and as an investor?

I feel very grateful that I’m in a community of men who are aware. If anything, there’s been a positive correction that makes me feel included, comfortable, and empowered. It doesn’t happen often, but once in a while founders talk down to me and ask me to run their slides. I think we should always ask and expect founders and VCs to treat those around them with respect.

If nothing else, this is a boys’ club. I’ve been in tech and business school, environments that are mostly male. You have to learn to hang with the guys. I think that’s something that comes naturally to me growing up with a brother. The way I see it, a lot of opportunities arise because you know someone. I hope to be in this job for life, and one way I think I can be successful is by finding these opportunities that perhaps some men don’t see.

Right now, we’re raising our fund and I’m supporting some LP meetings. A small pool of our LP money comes from women. After I was on the Plug and Play panel, I was approached by a female LP who wanted to learn more about Bee. It’s true, there are many more male LPs and I’m conscious of how that could translate into investments. But I am hopeful that for Bee I can play a role in increasing our investor diversity.

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

This is a challenging question for me because I accidentally fell into vc. But for those seeking a career in venture capital, I advise you to play the long game. Build relationships with investors by showing them how your projects and activities will make you useful. Demonstrate skills that align with the responsibilities of an analyst and associate.

I also wouldn’t recommend venture capital right out of school. Make sure you have a few years under your belt and know how to apply your experience to startups. Once you know people, you never know the doors that’ll open but they won’t be a real opportunity if you don’t have applicable experience. Venture capital is hard but I’d start with that bigger perspective: focus on relationships and having the right core skills.