Q&A with Bloomberg Beta's Minn Kim

Minn Kim is a San Francisco-based investor at Bloomberg Beta, a seed-stage venture capital firm focused on the future of work. Prior to Bloomberg Beta, she worked on Bloomberg LP’s Strategy and Corporate Development team in New York.

What attracted you to venture capital and working with startups?

My path to venture capital was a happy coincidence. I started my career at Bloomberg LP in New York, where my first role was a mix of product and data analytics. Then I moved to the Strategy and Corporate Development team, where I was introduced to the head of Bloomberg Beta, Roy Bahat. I was already learning more about startups and had an interest in moving out to the West Coast. So when Roy asked me to join the team, I couldn’t say no to a great opportunity.

How have your previous roles in product and corporate strategy helped you as an investor?

When I started as a data analyst, I worked on Bloomberg’s core Terminal product -- which for anyone unfamiliar is financial services software used largely by institutional traders. I didn’t have a finance background, but in order to understand the product and our users, I jumped in and learned a lot about the capital markets -- or the Terminal’s “yellow keys” -- which has helped me better understand where venture fits in.

On the Strategy & Corporate Development team, I learned from incredible people who had backgrounds in consulting and finance and exposed me to everything from business strategy, commercial modeling, and how to evaluate opportunities for the short- and long-term. Today, I use a combination of all these things at Bloomberg Beta -- from looking at potential investment opportunities to working with founders on sales and customer acquisition strategy.

What is Bloomberg Beta’s unique value add?

We treat customer service as religion. When we invest in our founders, we see it as we’re now working for them, which means we’re there to help in any way. Because we invest in the earliest stages, we’re also hyper-focused on go-to-market. We want to know, who is your first customer? What’s your pricing? How do you think about marketing and press?

On top of that, Bloomberg Beta is a single LP fund. We’re not a corporate VC or an evergreen fund; we’re a traditional VC firm making independent financial decisions and happens to be solely funded by Bloomberg. We’ve been around for nearly five years now, and we’re on our second fund of $75M. Of course, one of the benefits of the Bloomberg affiliation is our ability to tap into expertise and leaders in adjacent industries outside of tech. So we’ve had everyone from major political figures to academics and authors speak to our founders on ideas and learnings about the future of work that extend to startups and the technology industry.

Why did Bloomberg Beta choose to focus on the early stage?

When we were created five years ago, the team really wanted to work with great people. Early stage lends itself much more to building relationships with founders because often when entrepreneurs come to us, there isn’t a team of 10+ people. They’re often at a concept stage. These are extraordinary people who’ve identified an opportunity, and we’re there to believe in them and support them. That relationship-based investing is special, and we intentionally wanted to do that in the early stage.

For founders that don’t have product / market fit, would you still work with them if you believed they had the right understanding of the problem and solid management skills?

We have made those investments before. So much of early stage is investing in the team. Sure, there’s the product idea and market potential, but we are primarily considering whether these entrepreneurs are extraordinary people. If there’s an opportunity in the space, we need to believe that they will be the leaders in it.

I know you’re interested in future of work - what are some of the big trends you’re seeing in this area?

Two things come to mind when I think of future of work:

On the one hand, you can think of large industries like manufacturing and shipping. All of these older industries are undergoing massive digitization. One of our earliest investments, Flexport, is a software company in the freight forwarding and logistics space. That was a huge industry where processes were still pen and paper-based a few years ago. Deploying software has made shipping logistics much more efficient and transparent, and that’s really exciting. We have similar investments in agriculture, manufacturing, and robotics.

On the other hand, you can think of all the functions within a corporation: sales, engineering, HR, etc. All of those departments have knowledge workers that can become more productive in their day-to-day with software tools. Our focus from the beginning has been machine intelligence. Being able to apply machine learning in sales, recruiting, or accounting… that has so many downstream effects.

IBM’s not a startup but I know we were thinking a lot about future of work during my time there. One project that comes to mind: the IBM-Maersk blockchain partnership for cross-border supply chain.

I mean, these big companies are really impressive. IBM’s been around for more than a hundred years. These long-lasting corporations have found ways to disrupt themselves. IBM supporting older industries as they modernize and update their digital infrastructure is an example of that.

Are you more interested in looking at future of work vertically or horizontally?

The nice thing about the focus on the future of work is that it’s broad yet constrained. We have investments in our portfolio that are both horizontal and vertical. It’s more important where you start. If you do become a successful company, there are likely natural adjacent areas where other people will want to use your product anyway. I’m more focused on the first place where you’re able to get traction.

When you’re diligencing companies, how often are you taking to the end users?

The diligence process is quite standard for each deal, but how we go about the process for each potential investment will be different. It’s a give and take with founders. We want to have a balance of direct communication with them to understand their team and vision, alongside our own hypotheses of the world and the market. We’ll talk to our expert network, as well as potential customers and end-users. If we don’t have the right people in our network, we’ll ask for them.

Are there areas other than future of work that you’re interested in?

Future of work is broad enough that it keeps me pretty intellectually occupied. I’m personally interested in productivity, which is still future of work-related but more about the individual. It extends to intelligent robotics, neurotech, and cognition. I want to know when I’m more efficient. In the evenings, my reading comprehension is poorer. It’s harder to absorb things. Going off that, can I optimize my cognitive load for different hours of the day based on the tasks I need to do?

There’s a strong parallel to fitness trackers and wearables. We use Apple Watches and FitBits to measure 10,000 steps per day. We have a benchmark for sleep. I’m not aware of a benchmark around cognitive load. And if there is something like that, I think that’d be a super exciting investment opportunity.

Bloomberg Beta is currently a bicoastal firm, but are there any plans to go international?

We’ve made few direct active investments beyond the Bay and NY areas. It goes back to the customer-first orientation. We prefer to have ourselves and our founders close enough to meaningfully collaborate. In the Bay Area, our founders can meet up, and we have events to bring them together. We know these locales. Another thing - we know we’re not experts in everything; we’re low ego and we’re okay to bow out if we don’t think we’re the best fit for an investment. So never say never, but we haven’t made efforts to go beyond our current regions.

I was reading some of the early posts on your blogs (from 2015), and you wrote quite a bit about podcasts. What are you listening to and what do you recommend?

For policy wonks: The Weeds with Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, Sarah Kliff and other guests. It takes out the politic heaviness by emphasizing empirical research and outcomes.

Tyler Cowen, a professor at George Mason University and columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, hosts a show called Conversations with Tyler. The episodes run the gamut, covering philosophy, economics, literature, etc. He has these long-form discussions about big ideas. I highly recommend.

A fun one… The Verge’s Why’d You Push That Button. It’s a podcast about random things that everyone does on their devices but no one admits to. Why do you look at who watches your Instagram stories? Why are you scrolling through Venmo to see who is hanging out with whom? These are curious habits we all have and they do a great job of exploring the psychology behind it.

All of us on the Bloomberg Beta team are huge podcast junkies. We’ve also invested in a podcast company that was acquired by Apple, Pop Up Archive (with an amazing female founder who is now a senior product manager there).

Have you faced any challenges as an investor and women in VC?

Interestingly enough, I don’t face typical challenges. Part of that comes from being on a small team of six. We have an ‘anyone can say yes’ policy. My opinion matters, and I use that in a productive way. I didn’t know that was uncommon until I talked to my peers. We’re not hierarchical and I think that’s an extension of the broader Bloomberg culture. I’ve always worked in teams where my contributions outweighed my lack of experience.

There’s no guidebook to being a good investor. People who are famous VCs made investments a long time ago, and they worked out. There are lots of steps in between, but there’s no faultless blueprint of ‘if you do A, you get B.’ Sometimes A gives you C. That was tough for me because my first roles had clear expectations and metrics. Bloomberg Beta is young enough that we’ve had early indicators of success. But I definitely had to get comfortable with the unstructured nature of the job and long feedback cycles. We’re in the business of hypothesis testing. We make decisions and see how our hypotheses holds up. It’s the way I approach this job - some investments will be winners, others won’t, but I’ll learn something each time.

To close the loop on the question about challenges as a female investor… I’ve noticed more about me being a Korean-American and being young than my gender. Maybe that’s because I came from working in majority male environments, but I’ve also been lucky to have female managers, Angela Sun and Jill Lewandowsky, in my two previous roles who were amazing. They’re still sources of inspiration now.

My peers - both male and female - have been great sources of mentorship. I also recommend observing people who are one step ahead in their career path. I use their decisions as guideposts because that’s far more tangible than trying to map myself to someone with 12 additional years of operating and investing experience.

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

Do what you’re doing. Seriously. Venture is a small industry and if you really want to be in this space, you should talk to investors. Just by interacting with them, you’ll learn about their investment priorities and the cultures at their firms. Investors also talk to one another, and great conversations will lead to more introductions. If you’re not making yourself known somehow, it’s a lot harder to jump in.