'I Just Really Liked Their Vibe:' Serial Entrepreneur Brian Lee on How He Landed L.A.'s Biggest Exit and What Drives Him Crazy About Other VC's

As one of the founding fathers of the L.A. tech scene, Brian Lee is used to having entrepreneurs pitch him on ideas. What does he look for? It's not so much a business plan or even an idea. He says he goes off a vibe.

That's how he ended up being the first investor in the deal-finding browser add-on Honey, which was bought late last year by PayPal for $4 billion in what ranks as the biggest acquisition L.A. has seen to date.

The low-key Lee, wearing a baggy black hoodie, talked about that and other topics in a wide-ranging conversation in the decidedly un-sleek West L.A. street level office where he oversees BAM Ventures, the early-stage consumer-focused fund he co-founded in 2014. The onetime Skadden Arps attorney co-founded LegalZoom in his condo in 2001 and after that became known as the business guy celebrities go to to launch their consumer brands, such as Shoedazzle with Kim Kardashian in 2009 and The Honest Company with Jessica Alba in 2011.

Lee also discussed whether Honest, where he stepped down as CEO in 2017 after the once high-flying unicorn raised a down round, grew too fast and what Moviepass, the widely mocked movie subscription service he backed that folded last year, should have done differently.

How did you first find out about Honey?

I gave a talk to some entrepreneurs at MuckerLab and George [Ruan] and Ryan [Hudson] approached me as I was coming off the stage and I really liked their vibe. I believe we were the first capital into Honey and then followed on to that investment, which was interesting because to be really honest – and I'm not sure how honest I should be – not a lot of venture capital firms took them seriously. It was tough to raise capital for that business, partly because they were just a browser extension. A lot of venture funds turned them down because they've never seen an extension company scale to that extent.

When you say you got a vibe, can you explain what you mean? Was it really more of a vibe than what they exactly said?

Yeah. That's what we invest in, we invest in people. There's certain criteria that we look for in founders, a proprietary kind of checklist that we go through to determine whether or not these are the founders that we want to back.

Can you share what you look for?

I can't without fear of being sued [Laughs].

But can you share what about their vibe attracted you?

First there was this quiet confidence they had in spades. They knew exactly what they were building, and how they were going to get there. It gave us a lot of confidence to back them. Every time we met with them the numbers were growing, and we knew the future was very bright for Honey very early on. I thought they were very intuitive when it came to the next steps for what they were going to do.

By nature of your business you have very successful companies and a lot of ones that don't work out. You were an investor in Moviepass, which got a lot of press. What did you see in Moviepass that appealed to you?

It was disruptive, with great entrepreneurs. I really liked their approach. It's just the economics were never quite figured out. Moviepass is one of those ones I look back on and I still to this day think it should have worked. It's just that the model itself maybe shouldn't have been all you can eat. Maybe it should have limited how many times you could go, or when you could go, maybe not opening weekend.

"Moviepass is one of those ones I look back on and I still to this day think it should have worked."Shuttershock

When you say the economics were not figured out, isn't that something you would want to have figured out before you invested?

Not necessarily. We invest in entrepreneurs. So long as the idea seems like a big idea we will invest and try to figure out the business model at a later date. I don't think anyone can tell you that they thought Google or Facebook would have been what they are today in terms of the monetization engines that they've created. They were out there building social networks or search engines. I don't think they ever really thought that the end result would be selling ads. I can't imagine [Google co-founder] Sergey Brin woke up when they started Google saying it was going to be the largest ad company in the world.

Do you think that this emphasis on profitability being more of a focus now is detrimental?

Yes and no. It comes in waves and that's the thing about venture capitalists in general. When it's time for growth they want you to grow at all costs and when things tighten up they want you to get profitable at all costs. It shifts like the wind and it just drives me crazy. For me, we just want to build great businesses and that depends on the business model. It shouldn't be macroeconomics.

Another company you personally invested in as well through BAM was the luggage company Away. What did you see in that?

I thought it was a category that was sleepy. It was old, and it was stodgy and this millennial brand was coming out of nowhere and taking up a lot of the mindshare of the consumer. I thought it was a great product, so I thought they could get big.

The co-founder and CEO, Steph Korey, recently returned as the co-CEO [after an expose published in December in the Verge detailed a toxic work culture]. Did you think that was the right move?

Absolutely. Founders always make for the best CEOs at least until the time comes where the company scales beyond the founder. Sometimes you get those rare instances where the founder can be CEOs forever. You get your Michael Dell's and your Bill Gates and your Mark Zuckerberg but that's rare. Usually the CEO will get to a certain stage and you have to bring in professional management at some point.

Were you concerned about the culture at Away? There were some serious allegations raised.

I don't know much about that. I can't comment on the culture of the business. I haven't spent time there.

Is that something you focus on at your level, the culture of companies?

No, I would say that we don't really focus on the culture of the company that we invest in because there is no company when we invest. Typically, we like to invest in entrepreneurs that we think will create a great culture. We don't sit there and say we want to pick an entrepreneur that will create a horrible culture.

As you go forward with all these companies what lessons do you take forth from your time at Honest Co.?

We love mission-driven businesses, when people are very passionate about the company they work for. I believe in great teams, and I think we had a wonderful team at the Honest Company that really helped build that business. Mostly, singular purpose is a great thing for a business.

Do you think that you were not focused enough there and were trying to do too much?

Maybe a little bit, but I think we built the business with great size and scale and I think we brought in professional management at the right time.

Did you grow too quickly?

No, I don't think so. I think we grew at the pace that was allotted to us. I mean the consumer speaks volumes and they awarded us with growth.

What do you mean you grew at the pace that was allotted to you?

If the consumer is demanding your product then you're going to grow. The consumer fell in love with the Honest Company's products and mission, and we had great success.

Brian Lee and Jessica Alba, founders of the Honest Company, at Disrupt Conference in 2012. live.staticflickr.com

When you're coming up with new products, where do you get your ideas from?

Everywhere. Ideas come to me at the most random times. I'll give you a typical story, for let's say Art of Sport [which Lee co-founded in 2018]. I went to the drugstore and I was looking at sunscreens, which on a mass level is dominated by three brands and the number one SKU for each one of those is the sport version. The sport is in bigger font than the brand logo, so I was thinking to myself, "Are people buying the brand or are they buying it because it's sport?" I walked around the corner and I was looking at the deodorants and a third of them were sport related. I went to the body wash section and it was the same thing. But what occurred to me was that none of these brands – although they're great brands – were authentic sports brands. Old Spice was started in 1929, and now it's Old Spice Sport. It just didn't feel very authentic to me so I thought it was time that an authentic sports brand entered this category.

You were involved in LA's tech scene very early. How do you think it will be different in the next couple of years than it has been for the last decade?

It's a great question because even when I started LegalZoom 20 years ago – and I started it out of my condo – there was zero venture capital in the city, no angel investors and there were probably five engineers and we got lucky because we got one of them. In the earliest days of the L.A. tech ecosystem you had to fend for yourself. You had to build a profitable business very early because there was no capital. So anytime you look at early stage companies in L.A. back then they're monetization engines. LegalZoom was profitable really from day one. I would argue it wasn't until Snap came into the picture that we finally got some capital into the city, where it was more a question of scale, as opposed to monetizing immediately. That really changed the landscape for all of Los Angeles. Going forward, more and more capital is coming into the city which attracts more and more talent. I think the ecosystem is definitely taking hold.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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Can the company that popularized the online shopping cart reinvent the real thing?

Amazon unveiled its first smart grocery cart on Tuesday morning. The new "Dash Cart," as it's known, uses cameras, sensors and a scale to automatically detect and log items on a digital display behind the handle. The technology makes it possible for shoppers to leave the store without going through a traditional checkout line.

The end result is similar to the Amazon Go grocery and convenience stores, without the elaborate technical infrastructure of those stores. The Dash Cart works on its own, requiring no sensors in the shelves or specialized cameras overhead.

In that way, it solves at least part of the mystery of why Amazon has been developing conventional grocery stores, without the Amazon Go technology.

"We built this predominantly as an alternative to things like express checkout, where you still end up waiting in line, or fumbling with self-checkout machines," said Dilip Kumar, Amazon's vice president of physical retail and technology, in an interview this week. "The experience will be designed to be seamless, very convenient, very easy for customers to understand."

Amazon's new "Dash Cart" uses sensors to determine which items are placed in a cart, allowing shoppers to check out automatically, without going through a traditional line. (Amazon Photo)

The Dash Cart is slated to debut later this year at the company's new Woodland Hills, Calif., grocery store, which is currently being used to fulfill delivery orders.

Unlike the Amazon Go technology, the Dash Cart won't entirely replace traditional grocery checkouts in the stores where it's used. Amazon says it's designed for small- to medium-sized grocery trips. The cart fits one to two grocery bags.

Amazon is one of many retailers and technology companies looking to streamline the process of shopping and checking out in physical stores. Such initiatives are driven in part by a quest for new cost efficiencies given the traditionally razor-thin profit margins in the grocery business. The approach has taken on added significance given requirements for social distancing and contact-less transactions due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Smart shopping cart startup Veeve, for example, was started in 2018 by a team that includes two former Amazon employees who were among the first to experience the Amazon Go technology. They saw an opportunity to take the checkout-free shopping experience to a wider market with smart carts instead.

Microsoft and Kroger, meanwhile, have been testing a system that lets shoppers scan items with their smartphones as they shop, for a faster checkout experience.

The global market for smart shopping carts is projected to grow to more than $3 billion by 2025, from $737 million last year, according to a report by ResearchandMarkets.com.

It wouldn't be hard to imagine the Amazon Dash Cart ultimately making its way into Whole Foods Stores. It would be more of a stretch, but not entirely impossible, to conceive of Amazon licensing the technology to other retailers. It began selling its Amazon Go technology to other businesses earlier this year.

But the company isn't detailing its plans for the Dash Cart beyond the expected debut in Southern California later this year.

"We will see where this goes," Kumar said when we asked about those possibilities. "We think customers will love this experience, and then we'll just build from there."

Privacy and personalized ad targeting are two of the big questions surrounding this kind of technology. For example, if a shopper puts a can of tuna in the cart, then takes it out, will that same person later see an ad on Amazon.com suggesting a different brand of tuna? Kumar acknowledged that such targeting is possible "in theory," but said that's not the focus of the Dash Cart.

"The focus of the cart is to be able to generate accurate receipts and make sure that we save customers time," he said.

Another big question is the impact of this type of automation on jobs. On this topic, Amazon's retail automation has been a lightning rod for criticism.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) called Amazon a "clear and present danger to millions of good jobs" when the company unveiled its first Amazon Go Grocery store earlier this year. Amazon disputed that contention at the time, calling it "both incorrect and misleading to suggest that Amazon destroys jobs."

The company maintains that the smart grocery cart will not reduce the number of employees in the store, compared to traditional grocery stores of similar size. In addition to having traditional grocery checkouts, the company says it will have associates dedicated to helping customers use the Dash Carts.

Shoppers who use the Dash Carts will scan a QR code in the Amazon app to log in to the cart before they begin. The system will automatically charge them using the stored card in their Amazon account when they exit through a special "Dash Cart Lane." They'll get a receipt via email after they leave.

Similar to the Amazon Go technology, which knows if a product is replaced on the shelf, Amazon says the Dash Cart will also sense when items are taken out, removing them from the list.

In addition, the cart will integrate with Alexa Shopping Lists, showing shoppers the items they've saved to buy via Amazon's voice assistant, indicating the aisle in the store where the items are located, and letting shoppers check items off as they go.

Amazon's "Dash" brand has been used previously for products that automate e-commerce ordering, including the now discontinued Amazon Dash gadgets and its Amazon Dash replenishment service, which is embedded in household appliances and office equipment, automatically reordering detergent or ink, for example, when it senses that supplies are running low.

This story first appeared in GeekWire.

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