20VC Greylock's Sarah Tavel on What Founders Need From A Good Investor and Why Products Need To Be 10X Better & Cheaper



In this episode of the 20 minutes VC, host Harry Stebbings interviews Sarah Tavell, a partner at Greylock, who shares her journey from being an early Pinterest employee and venture capitalist at Bessemer Venture Partners to rejoining the VC world with Greylock. Tavell reflects on her experience sourcing the Pinterest deal, the importance of culture fit in VC firms, and her approach to supporting founders beyond just being "founder-friendly." She emphasizes the value of learning and being a truth seeker for companies, as well as her focus on marketplaces and transactional businesses that offer products or services that are significantly better and cheaper than existing options. The conversation also touches on the evolution of personal branding for VCs and the necessity for venture capitalists to actively contribute to their portfolio companies, particularly in recruitment.

Summary Notes

Introduction to Sarah Tavell and Greylock

  • Tary Stebings introduces Sarah Tavell as a partner at Greylock.
  • Sarah Tavell's background includes roles at Pinterest and Bessemer Venture Partners.
  • She played a significant role in Pinterest's early growth, leading product management for search and discovery.
  • Sarah's venture capital journey began after a stint in strategy consulting and starting a house painting company in college.
  • The 20 minutes VC podcast is sponsored by Lisa, a company offering a direct-to-consumer mattress buying experience.

Welcome back to the 20 minutes VC with your host Tary Stebings and following from our episode with the amazing Josh Elman. We're back in the wonderful world of Greylock for a special feature week. And joining me today, I'm so thrilled to welcome Sarah Tavell.

The quote introduces the episode, the host, and the guest, Sarah Tavell, setting the stage for the conversation about venture capital and her experiences.

Sarah Tavell's Early Career and Transition to Venture Capital

  • Sarah Tavell did not initially aim for a career in venture capital.
  • She experienced rapid growth and subsequent layoffs at her first job post-college, prompting her to explore new opportunities.
  • Tavell's entrepreneurial spirit and interest in investing led a friend to suggest she consider venture capital.
  • Despite an unconventional background, her experiences were well-suited for an entry-level venture capital role.
  • A connection through a friend led to her being hired at Bessemer Venture Partners.

You know, venture was not something that, you know, had as like a career goal for me. What happened actually was that I was at a strategy consulting firm after college that was a startup and what happened? It was one of these stories where it grew really quickly when I joined. And then one of our biggest clients had some budget problems. And all of a sudden, we started this kind of vicious cycle of laying people off. And then all my friends started to leave. And so the writing was on the wall, and I started to look for a new job.

Sarah Tavell explains the circumstances that led her to consider a career in venture capital after her initial job experience post-college.

Sourcing the Pinterest Deal at Bessemer

  • Sarah Tavell's role as an analyst at Bessemer involved sourcing investment opportunities.
  • Her diverse background, including advertising sales and entrepreneurship, was valuable for this role.
  • Tavell sourced the Pinterest deal while at Bessemer, recognizing its uniqueness in a text-focused internet environment.
  • Her interest in e-commerce and user-generated content helped her see Pinterest's potential.
  • The visual focus and list feature of Pinterest stood out to Tavell compared to other platforms of the time.

And you mentioned there about kind of an analyst or an associate's key role being to source and when crowdsourcing questions for Stave's interview. One undeniable theme that did keep coming up was your sourcing of the Pinterest deal while at Bessemer. Yeah. And I mean, crikey, what a deal to source. But what made you know it was special when you saw it? Did you know it was special when you first saw it? And was it kind of metrics design.

The quote highlights the importance of sourcing in venture capital and specifically points to Sarah Tavell's successful sourcing of the Pinterest deal.

The Unique Appeal of Pinterest

  • Tavell met Pinterest's founders when they were developing Tote, the precursor to Pinterest.
  • Although Tote did not excite her, Pinterest's visual and list-centric design was immediately striking.
  • The platform's distinct approach compared to other consumer internet sites of the time captured her attention.
  • Tavell's experience with e-commerce and user-generated content platforms informed her belief in Pinterest's potential.

I actually met the founders of Pinterest when they were working on the precursor to Pinterest, a company called Tote. And I remember meeting Paul was the founder and thinking that he was a really smart, thoughtful guy. But I didn't really get excited about Tote. And then maybe a few months later, one of my friends invited me to use Pinterest. And I remember I logged into the platform. To me, it was like an, like, it just was so different than everything else that, like, was seeing at the know. This was a time when Twitter was growing like crazy. So there were all these consumer Internet sites that were very text focused. And here you had a product that was so visual and the feature that normally was like the side feature for all these other companies, a list, was basically the central feature of Pinterest. And it just was so unique and so interesting.

Sarah Tavell describes her initial impressions of Pinterest, noting its unique visual design and focus on lists, which set it apart from other platforms and contributed to her interest in the company.

Social Commerce and Pinterest's Unique Position

  • Tary Stebings recognized the potential in combining social networking with e-commerce, termed "social commerce".
  • Sought a company that effectively merged these two concepts.
  • Found Pinterest to be a special platform that surpassed expectations in this area.
  • Tary Stebings had a pre-existing relationship with the founding team of Pinterest, which facilitated re-engagement.

"I'd been looking for a company for a while that brought those two things together. And Pinterest just did in a way that was so special and so much better than I ever imagined."

This quote explains Tary Stebings' interest in finding a company that integrates social networking with e-commerce, and how Pinterest excelled in this integration, exceeding her anticipations.

Early Adoption and Recognition of Pinterest's Potential

  • Sarah Tavell was an early user of Pinterest, indicating a strong initial interest in the platform.
  • Used Alexa to track Pinterest's growth and compare it with competitors.
  • Realized users were favoring Pinterest, which was then a small company with a growing user base.

"I was one of the very early users on it. And what happened is I started to use the product and I just kept on tracking it on Alexa."

Sarah Tavell shares her experience as an early adopter of Pinterest and her method of tracking its progress through Alexa, highlighting her proactive interest in the platform's success.

Joining and Contributing to Pinterest

  • Sarah Tavell joined Pinterest when it was a small company and witnessed its rapid growth.
  • The specific number of Sarah Tavell's employee position at Pinterest is not given, but it is implied she was an early team member.

"I was in the something and saw."

This quote lacks specific detail but suggests Sarah Tavell was among the early employees at Pinterest, placing her in a position to observe its significant expansion.

Transition from Pinterest to Venture Capital

  • Sarah Tavell found leaving Pinterest difficult but was drawn back to venture capital (VC) for several reasons.
  • Enjoys working with founders and admires their unique ability to create and realize a vision from nothing.
  • Finds the process of learning about new companies and industries through venture capital invigorating.
  • Appreciates the opportunity to influence important company decisions as a board member in VC.

"Venture is an incredible privilege. I loved working at Pinterest, and the work that you get to do as a product person in a company where you feel so passionate about the product is just a unique thing."

Sarah Tavell reflects on the privilege of working in venture capital and her passion for product development at Pinterest, emphasizing the unique opportunities each field offers.

Choosing Greylock Partners

  • Sarah Tavell aspired to excel as an investor and board member.
  • Valued the apprenticeship aspect of venture capital and wanted to continue learning from industry leaders.
  • Aimed to be a trusted advisor to CEOs she works with.
  • Chose Greylock Partners due to their impressive track record, serious approach to board responsibilities, and alignment with her values.

"I want to be one of the best as an investor, and I want to be one of the best as a board member."

This quote captures Sarah Tavell's ambition to be a top-tier investor and board member, underscoring her commitment to her role in venture capital.

"The team, I think, because every single person at Greylock is a former operator or founder, the culture of the firm really is just very aligned around this kind of idea of being a service organization working on behalf of our companies."

Sarah Tavell highlights Greylock Partners' culture, which is rooted in their experience as operators or founders, fostering a service-oriented approach that resonates with her professional values and goals.

Cultural Fit and Decision Making

  • Tary Stebings expresses the importance of cultural fit when choosing to work with Greylock.
  • The decision to join Greylock was made clear due to the strong cultural alignment.

As strong a cultural fit for me as it was with Greylock. And so it made the decision for me very clear.

The quote underlines the significance Tary Stebings places on cultural fit when making professional decisions, specifically in the context of joining Greylock.

VC-Founder Relationship Dynamics

  • The notion of being "founder friendly" is discussed and redefined by Sarah Tavell.
  • Sarah emphasizes the role of a VC as a truth seeker rather than a yes-man, challenging founders to ensure the success of the business.
  • The importance of reassessing core assumptions and asking the right questions is highlighted.

Good. Oftentimes, what a founder really needs, I believe, is for someone else to be a truth seeker and ask the hard questions or show a blind spot that they might have or push them in some way.

Sarah Tavell explains that a VC should challenge and guide founders by seeking truth and addressing potential issues, rather than simply agreeing with them.

Communication with Founders

  • The effectiveness of communication channels between VCs and founders is discussed.
  • Sarah Tavell suggests that multiple communication channels are used, hinting at a more personal approach.

Gosh, I think that what ends up happening ultimately is you get communication from all possible channels.

Sarah Tavell indicates that communication with founders occurs through various channels, emphasizing the diverse nature of these interactions.

Personal Branding and Platform Choice

  • Sarah Tavell discusses the transition from a personal blog to Medium.
  • The move to Medium was initially resisted but later embraced due to higher engagement and visibility.
  • Greylock's investment in Medium influenced the platform shift.

So when I joined Greylock, the first thing that our marketing person told me was, welcome to Greylock. Get ready to move your blog onto medium.

Sarah Tavell explains the directive from Greylock's marketing team to shift her blogging efforts to Medium, a platform in which Greylock has invested.

And I did an ab experiment. I published the same post on my blog, my personal blog, tweeted it, and on medium tweeted it. And I was just blown away by medium.

Sarah Tavell shares her experience of comparing engagement on her personal blog versus Medium, which ultimately convinced her to prefer Medium for its superior reach and interaction.

VC Personalization and Freemium Model

  • The concept of VCs personalizing their brand and becoming more visible in the community is likened to a freemium model.
  • Sarah Tavell compares blogging and public engagement to offering a taste of the VC's value proposition, similar to how Dropbox offers free storage to potential customers.

And I think of blogging and doing all these types of things as essentially the equivalent of the VC freemium model.

Sarah Tavell draws an analogy between VCs sharing their insights through blogging and the freemium model used by tech companies, suggesting that this approach helps founders make informed decisions about VC partnerships.

Sector Focus and Market Disruption

  • Sarah Tavell expresses excitement about marketplaces and transactional businesses.
  • She is interested in companies that offer products or services that are significantly better and cheaper than existing options.
  • The discussion covers various sectors, including VR, AI, financial services, and healthcare, where disruption is anticipated.

The thing that I have been spending a lot of time looking at and thinking about lately is in marketplaces and transactional businesses, specifically around this idea that I actually wrote about in medium, which is looking for companies that have figured out a way to provide a service or a product for consumers that's ten x better than what already exists and is also cheaper than what already exists.

Sarah Tavell shares her focus on identifying companies that significantly improve upon existing products or services while also being more cost-effective, indicating a broad interest in potential market disruptions across various sectors.

Financial Rewards and Product Improvement

  • The conversation touches on whether financial savings are a necessary aspect of a product that is ten times better.
  • The concept of non-financial rewards is briefly mentioned.

Does it have to save money out of interest? What if you had a ten x better product with a much faster delivery, or a different external element, which makes it a much better sell? Does it always have to be a financial reward too?

The question raised by the interviewer addresses whether improvements in products or services must also include financial savings, suggesting other value propositions may also be compelling.

Building Mid-Market Businesses

  • Tary Stebings discusses the challenge of creating mid-market businesses that can grow into multibillion-dollar companies.
  • Two strategies for such growth include offering free services or providing better and cheaper services.
  • Examples of successful companies that have followed these strategies are mentioned: Skype, WhatsApp, Airbnb, Uber, Netflix, and TransferWise.

"And if you want to build a truly mid market kind of. I'm focused on businesses that will become large, enduring, multibillion dollar businesses."

This quote emphasizes the focus on building businesses that are not only aimed at wealthy customers but can also become large and enduring entities within the mid-market segment.

Importance of Books and Philosophy

  • Sarah Tavell shares her favorite book, "Creating a Kingdom of Ends" by Christine Korsgaard, which influenced her to major in philosophy at Harvard.
  • The book captured her imagination and significantly shaped her academic path.

"Oh, my favorite book is creating a kingdom of ends, which was a book by Christine Korsgaard."

This quote reveals Sarah Tavell's favorite book and suggests the impact that philosophical works can have on personal and academic development.

Venture Capital (VC) Career Path

  • Sarah Tavell discusses the relevance of operating experience for venture capitalists.
  • She believes that while operating experience isn't necessary to be a great investor, it can provide empathy and valuable insights.

"I think to be a great investor, you don't need operating experience."

This quote implies that success in venture capital investment can be achieved without prior experience in company operations, although such experience can be beneficial.

Board Member Value Addition

  • The primary value a board member can add to a company is assistance with recruitment.
  • Greylock, where Sarah Tavell works, is particularly adept at helping portfolio companies with recruitment.

"I think absolutely the most important thing is helping companies recruit."

This quote identifies recruitment as a critical area where board members can provide significant assistance to companies.

Essential Mobile Apps

  • Sarah Tavell highlights the importance of Google Maps in her daily life due to her poor sense of direction.
  • The app is essential for navigation, especially in urban environments like Manhattan where she grew up.

"Google Maps. I grew up in Manhattan, and I have absolutely no sense of direction."

This quote explains why Google Maps is an indispensable app for Sarah Tavell, underscoring the utility of navigation apps for those with a poor sense of direction.

Favorite Blogs and Newsletters

  • Sarah Tavell follows various newsletters and reads blogs by other investors.
  • She specifically mentions a blog by an investor at Jackson Square Ventures, Josh, who writes about marketplaces.

"The blog that I've been reading lately is by another investor, actually, who works at Jackson Square Ventures."

This quote points to the importance of staying informed and learning from peers within the investment community, particularly in the area of marketplaces.

Respected Investors

  • Sarah Tavell expresses admiration for her former colleague Jeremy, highlighting both his investment acumen and personal qualities.
  • Working and learning from respected investors is seen as a privilege.

"But I'll have to tip my hat to my former colleague Jeremy."

This quote shows respect for a fellow investor, emphasizing the importance of personal qualities in addition to professional skills.

Recent Investment Decisions

  • The most recent investment made by Sarah Tavell was in a stealth company, chosen primarily because of the founder's focus and determination.
  • The founder's dedication to users and product, along with his grit, were key factors in the investment decision.

"The only thing he can think about is his users and the product. He's like the definition of grit."

This quote reveals the importance of founder characteristics, such as user focus and perseverance, in making investment decisions.

VC Branding and Freemium Model

  • Tary Stebings concludes the episode by highlighting the significance of VC branding and the freemium business model.
  • The freemium model is likened to a standout quote from the series.

"And my word, VC branding is our freemium model."

This quote captures the essence of the freemium model's relevance to venture capital branding, suggesting it's a noteworthy concept in the industry.

Podcast and Show Promotion

  • The host promotes the podcast, encouraging listeners to follow on Snapchat and sign up for the newsletter.
  • Upcoming episodes and partnerships are teased, including a feature with a Greylock founder.

"Likewise, do not forget to head over to the twentyminutevc.com and sign up for the newsletter so you never have to miss an episode or an update from us."

This quote is a call to action for listeners to engage with the podcast through additional channels, ensuring they stay updated on future content.

Sponsorship and Product Endorsement

  • The podcast episode is sponsored by Lisa, a company that sells mattresses online.
  • Lisa's business model is compared to other direct-to-consumer brands like Tom's Shoes and Warby Parker.
  • The benefits of the product and the company's social impact are highlighted.

"Lisa Lisa is like the Tom shoes or Warby Parker of the mattress industry."

This quote serves as an endorsement of the sponsor's business model and product, likening it to other successful direct-to-consumer brands with a social conscience.

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