LA Venture: Ann Lai on Bullpen Capital’s ‘Weird’ and Wacky Industry Investments

Decerry Donato

Decerry Donato is a reporter at dot.LA. Prior to that, she was an editorial fellow at the company. Decerry received her bachelor's degree in literary journalism from the University of California, Irvine. She continues to write stories to inform the community about issues or events that take place in the L.A. area. On the weekends, she can be found hiking in the Angeles National forest or sifting through racks at your local thrift store.

Ann Lai
Ann Lai

On this episode of the LA Venture podcast, Bullpen Capital General Partner Ann Lai discusses the metrics that matter for fundraising, how she invests in overlooked businesses, and how she bounced back from her experience at Binary Capital.

Bullpen Capital is a VC firm best known for investing in post-seed and pre-A companies. To date, the firm has completed six funds and Bullpen’s latest one closed at $140 million in November.

“At Bullpen, we invest in overlooked categories, underrepresented founders,” Lai said. “So basically anything that is not mainstream, over-hyped and that are real good businesses that have performing metrics, but are maybe misunderstood in the moment.”

Lai said her passion for supporting underrepresented people started at a young age. As a child, she always stood up for her friends that were being bullied. She’s carried that mindset into her career when it comes to the underrepresented founders and companies she wants to invest in.

“It's a different type of underrepresentation,” she said. “Obviously, my background when I was advising, I worked a lot with female founders. All of the stuff I've cared about is women in tech, diversity in tech, you know, diversifying the groups so it's not just white bro, tech guys.”

On average, Bullpen will write checks for $3 to $7 million dollars to companies they invest in.

With a PhD from Harvard and a background in data science, Lai loves digging into the metrics of the companies when she is investing. She says, “A big part of what we (Bullpen) do is figuring out the right metric and doing the re-segmentation of the data, so it's apples to apples. So a lot of it’s like reengineering the data to really understand the story that tells whether a company is good or bad.”

She added, “part of us looking at not super hyped categories is that we also have the luxury of having the ability to work on this (metrics) with the company.”

Lai coined the term “pre-consensus” for the companies Bullpen seeks and attracts. The companies that have “the potential to be” but are still currently overlooked.

In addition to her time spent as a data scientist, Lai was an advisor for over 30 companies from seed through Series C stage where she worked on product growth and fundraising. It was this experience that helped her understand the ins and outs of customer relationship management (CRM). Lai said that Bullpen’s CRM approach is quite thorough.

“Generally when it's for fundraising we go to partners, just because it's a little bit easier,” she said. “So we try to cater the interest very carefully, whether it's the stage preference, category, deals they’ve done, whether they're a new fund, whether they're deploying. We try to have a relatively updated set of info.”

Prior to joining Bullpen, Lai served as Principal for Binary Capital, a San Francisco Bay Area firm that had a focus on investing in early stage, consumer-facing technology companies.

But due to the overwhelming sexist treatment she witnessed at the firm, Lai resigned after a year and a half. Justin Caldbeck, the co-founder of Binary, told her that if she said anything, he would blacklist her from the industry.

Lai hoped her fellow women VCs would lend a hand, but instead felt ostracized by her peers.

“I think that for the industry to get better, we also have to be way better at watching each other's backs,” she said. “Instead of being like, ‘I'm not gonna say anything because it compromises my position.’”

She understood that their silence was based on the nature of the industry, and the lack of power women hold in the VC world.

“There aren't that many women in venture and also there aren't that many women that have enough carry positions in venture firms to be able to say things or do things that are a little bit controversial,” she said.

A few years after she resigned, Lai joined Bullpen and said “we're all equal and have equal carry.”

As a fund, Bullpen invests in edgier startups including gambling and cannabis companies.

Lai said she is personally interested in “weird industries, like dirty industries, things that are hard to digitize. SMBs fall in that bucket a lot of times like lawn care, roofing and interior design.”

dot.LA Reporter Decerry Donato contributed to this post.

Click the link above to hear the full episode, and subscribe to LA Venture on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

This podcast is produced by L.A. Venture. The views and opinions expressed in the show are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of dot.LA or its newsroom.

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