Julia Kahky is an investor at Panoramic Ventures, based in Atlanta, Georgia. Before joining Panoramic Ventures, Julia held positions as an analyst at General Motors and Morgan Stanley. You can follow her on Twitter: @JuliaKahky
Bonus: Julia Kahky was also a guest on one of our GoingVC Podcast episodes! You can tune in using the link below:
Episode 14 - The Importance Of Having Fun, and Why All Experience Is Valuable - a Conversation with Julia Kahky
What drew you to venture capital and working with startups?
I’ve always had a passion for working with startups - I am drawn to emerging companies' fast-paced and strategic elements. I think the real catalyst for me was when I worked in the telematics division at General Motors where I was responsible for developing business cases for ancillary revenue streams utilizing the connectivity of our vehicles. I spent my time working closely with startups, understanding their value propositions, and contemplating growth and go-to-market strategies. I loved the dynamic nature of the work and the passion that founders had for their products. I knew from then that I wanted to work in a strategic role across various industries.
As silly as it sounds, I’d watch Shark Tank and think of questions to ask the founders and determine for myself whether or not they’d get a shark to invest. I loved tracking the companies and following their journeys, seeing if my predictions were correct.
My inner monologue is always thinking of ways to innovate tasks and systems to increase efficiency - while working at General Motors, I’d often recreate templates and spreadsheets so that they integrated with other processes and reduced manual effort. Even as a Girl Scout, I’d try to think of new ways to sell cookies, and in middle school new ways to sell school supplies, and in high school how to motivate the clubs of which I was president to succeed. Innovation and efficiency have always been in my blood.
How did you land your first role in VC and how/why now at Panoramic Ventures?
Breaking into VC is no easy feat - there were a lot of rejections and a lot of frustration. I didn’t have the traditional investment banking background geared towards later-stage growth firms and didn’t have the operational experience for early-stage investment companies. I had joined the innovation group at GM and worked as a Business Development analyst which provided a great foundation for understanding what it takes to get a startup off the ground. I highlighted elements from my various roles at GM like my working with startups, my leadership presentations, my experience in sales and marketing, and my time in business development.
The interview process was integral in determining the type of firm I wanted to join. Throughout the process I learned that I was drawn more towards early stage rather than growth equity; I realized I had no desire to live in San Francisco, and I wanted to work with a smaller team where I would have more responsibility and development opportunities.
What does an average day look like in your role? And how do you organize and prioritize your responsibilities?
Each day is different which is what makes this role so exciting - some days I am reaching out to founders to learn more about their businesses; other days I am helping organize industry research for a potential investment, and another day I might be developing a go-to-market strategy for one of our portfolio companies. One of the reasons I joined Panoramic is because we truly are activist investors - we not only take board seats, but we also help devise strategies for the companies in which we invest to help them scale. I’ve found that Panoramic spends more time during diligence than other firms that I’ve spoken to - which I believe enables us to make deeply informed investment decisions. When looking into companies, we try to make sure that we answer any questions that may arise during the conversation, so I spend a lot of time proactively thinking about any potential issues and collecting research in affirmation or negation. Some days, I learn more about specific industries to better understand and sound more informed when conversing with founders. It’s hard to boil down a specific day into a cookie-cutter answer - and that’s why I love my job so much!
What do you think are the most important skills you brought to venture from your time as an analyst/an instructor/a marketer?
I was fortunate to have joined venture capital after graduating from a rotational development program - so I had the opportunity to work in four different roles at GM before joining Panoramic. I learned about business development, telemetrics, APIs, user testing, and budgeting/forecasting in my first role. When I worked in the audit group, I learned about key questions, executive summaries, and synthesizing information. In the sales and marketing group, I got exposure to sales and marketing strategies and learned more about the automotive business than I could have asked for. After graduating, I moved into a business development role within the innovation team and really appreciated the hard work that entrepreneurs and founders face in developing and launching a new product. I learned about pricing strategy, go-to-market, market sizing, research and development, and fundraising.
Coming from a background in corporate finance was extremely practical because I better understand the inner workings of a fully developed business. I was able to see how the different groups within an organization work together to functionalize processes. I’ve found that my time spent organizing a budget and forecast for cost centers has helped me analyze forecasts for startups, my ability to summarize findings has eased my time preparing investment memos and working with sales and marketing has helped me contextualize and strategize marketing strategies. I’m grateful for my time working at a large corporation because it has helped me view startups from a macro perspective.
What is your favorite part about doing what you do now? And if you’d like to share, what’s your least favorite part?
What is so enticing about the venture capital industry is the vast knowledge you acquire through completing deals. Since starting, I’ve worked in the cybersecurity, fintech, healthcare, salon, automotive, film, logistics, supply chain, insurance, (and more) industries. It’s impossible to become an expert, but as an investor, you have to get as close to one as possible to be able to intelligently make decisions. I love being able to dive deep into a market for an afternoon and then be able to communicate those learnings to others - whether it be at my firm or in casual conversation with colleagues.
My least favorite part is definitely communicating with founders that we will not be moving forward with an investment. I think it’s important to provide feedback in doing so, but I never want to be the person who might discourage a founder from pursuing her dreams.
Have you faced major challenges as an investor? (Any obstacles you had to overcome?)
I actually noticed this today - I think one of the most difficult things I’m going to face as an investor is keeping quiet. I’m someone who is opinionated and vocal about those thoughts - when I delve into a company, I feel the need to speak out in favor or against a company, sometimes more than necessary. What drew me to venture capital is the need to form a decisive opinion about something with relatively limited information. During hour-long conversations in which we are intended to discuss four or five companies, I find myself wanting to continue a conversation about one business for longer than allotted.
There is, however, an art to selective input. Each fund has a certain amount of capital that it can allocate to each business, and each meeting has a certain amount of time it can allocate to each company. There are hundreds of companies out there, but you can only gather so much information in so much time - it’s important not to become too attached to any companies because there are multiple reasons why a firm might invest in one. As I continue to grow as an investor I am continuing to learn about how best to dedicate energy and how to redirect energy from one company to another.
Are there spaces/sectors you’re particularly excited about right now?
I’m really interested and excited about agriculture technology. I spent a large part of my high school career studying nutrition and access to clean and healthy food and think that the investment in this space will reduce food deserts and allow people to maintain a healthier lifestyle. I’m also really excited by companies that are incorporating blockchain technology into everyday functions - I think that the more ubiquitous that cryptocurrency becomes, the more potential it has to grow into more industries. And finally, I’m heavily following innovation in the mental health market - as mental health becomes less stigmatized, more research is being conducted and utilization is increasing in the market. Today millions of dollars are being invested into traditional healthcare fields, and seeing a shift in thinking - incorporating mental health into “traditional” health - is going to dramatically improve the lives of millions of people.
What are some of the “unspoken rules” in venture investing (if any, in your opinion)
Something really important to remember in venture capital is that the ecosystem is very small - you may meet with a founder today and pass on their idea then meet with them five years from now with a new company that you’re interested in. Relationships are so important in this industry - throughout your time in investing, you’ll hear the same names, meet the same people, and be invited to phone calls with people you’ve already met. In order to maintain all of those relationships, it is crucial that you are always honest and willing to lend a hand whenever possible.
What are some of the things that you're doing to improve diversity and inclusion in the portfolio and ecosystem more broadly?
So much of venture capital is building your network and promoting deal flow across companies. Whenever I meet an investor at another firm, I am sure to let them know that I am interested in investing in minority and female founders and that if they have any companies in mind to please send them my way. By developing this brand, I hope to continue attracting more female founders to our firm.
One of the reasons I was attracted to Panoramic initially was because of their partnership with the SoftBank Opportunity Fund which invests in underrepresented founders.
We’re beginning to see a shift in the startup ecosystem which is more receptive to female and diverse founders, but there is still so much progress to be made. I want to be an advocate for all founders who feel like they don’t have someone who looks like them in pitch meetings. Sometimes just having a face you can relate to enables you to feel comfortable enough to have a successful pitch.
What advice would you give to young women who want to enter VC - on the investing, operations, or platform side?
For all women in general, make sure you are being unapologetically yourself. During the job search, it often seems like we need to confirm to fit a specific mold in order to be hired - but in the long term, this isn’t realistically feasible. Working in any field, you will be spending a large percentage of your time with your coworkers, and having to maintain a facade will detract from the energy you can provide to your work. Additionally, you don’t want to be working with people who wouldn’t hire you for you. I’ve performed standup comedy for 6 years and make sure to incorporate that into all of my interviews - I want to make sure that the company that hires me knows I’m going to bring lighthearted conversation in addition to my grit. You never want to find yourself in a work environment in which you feel the need to apologize for your personality.
Additionally, I think the most important thing to remember is that interviewing is a two-way street - the company is trying to determine whether you would be a good fit, but you also want to make sure you can see yourself growing and enjoying the work. Make sure to look for opportunities to grow your career, learn new skills, and build your network. Don’t settle for opportunities if they lack certain criteria you set for yourself. Careers are long-term - you want to make sure that you are setting yourself up to be happy and successful 10, 15, 20 years from now.