Column: How We're Investing in Entertainment Tech in a Post-COVID World
As COVID-19 vaccinations continue and restrictions slowly lift, consumers and companies alike are confronting an entertainment industry changed by the pandemic.
Creators, technologists and investors are working hard to understand today's evolving demand and meet it creatively. It is hard to overestimate the impact of the pandemic on entertainment. Movie theaters remain dark, concerts are cancelled or postponed and many TV and film sets are still on hold.
Entertainment providers have become more creative in developing effective business solutions — including filming TV shows from home, making movies available online and offering virtual concerts. In some cases, they have ended up reaching a larger audience than in the pre-pandemic era.
Since the timeline for the vaccine rollout is uncertain, it is critical that investors look at which startups best understand today's consumer demand, and which are in a good position to grow their business as the pandemic begins to ease.
At Pegasus Tech Ventures, we've been keeping an eye on some of the trends shaping the entertainment and technology worlds. Here's what we see emerging in the future of the industry.
Short Form Video Has a Social Life
Consumers around the globe are looking for new ways to express their creativity and reach out to friends and followers through short-form videos. We've seen the pandemic expand this trend dramatically. According to a recent consumer survey by TheSoul Publishing, 84% of audiences said they spend more or the same amount of time watching short-term videos during the pandemic than ever before.
The startup Triller has gained the attention of such consumers, in part due to the well-known names of its investors and celebrity endorsers, including Snoop Dogg, The Weeknd and Lil Wayne. As TikTok has been banned in many countries around the world, Triller — a Pegasus Tech Ventures investment — enabled users to develop music-driven, short-form content. It is a good example of an innovative startup that has the right platform and content to meet what consumers are looking for today. Having its U.S. headquarters in Los Angeles helps reassure users about their privacy and security.
Hollywood Talent Is Meeting Technological Know-How
As the pandemic drags on, continuing the shutdown of TV and film shoots as well as live events, it's become clear that Hollywood's future is inextricably tied to technology. We have our eye on startups that combine the work of technologists and creatives to launch innovative brand experiences for pop culture audiences. As a result of the pandemic, consumer expectations have risen and we look for startups that meet these expectations.
Caravan – founded in partnership with Hollywood's Creative Artists Agency – is one such company. The startup studio has a mission of identifying gaps in culture and entertainment, where the company can offer next-generation media experiences. It's tapping into a trend of direct-to-consumer market growth and building on its unique connection to celebrities, including musician Carrie Underwood, who recently launched her Fit52 platform with the company. Keep an eye out for new products from Caravan.
Combining Engaging Entertainment with Easy-to-Use Ecommerce
While online shopping was already a rapidly growing industry, the COVID-19 pandemic has rapidly accelerated the shift from physical stores to ecommerce. Consumers spent $861 billion online with U.S. merchants in 2020, up an incredible 44% year over year, according to Digital Commerce 360 estimates.
Popshop is an innovative platform that works to take advantage of this consumer trend, combining the engaging features of a Triller or TikTok with the easy-to-buy ability from a QVC or the Home Shopping Network. It's one of several such startups in this space, including talkshoplive and WhatNot. What sets PopShop apart is its interactive and easy to use interface that enables its users with unique shopping experiences. Generation Z and millennials are looking for a fun and convenient shopping experience — giving the company an opportunity to grow in the U.S. and abroad.
It's more challenging than ever to predict winners and losers in the entertainment industry. Smart investors should understand today's consumer trends and which startups are in the best position to service market demands. Another key factor to consider is their founders' expertise, connections and passion – since an amazing team is the most likely to succeed despite unpredictable headwinds.
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Though Silicon Valley is still very much the capital of venture capital, Los Angeles is home to plenty of VCs who have made their mark – investing in successful startups early and reaping colossal returns for their limited partners.
Who stands out? We thought there may be no better judge than their peers, so we asked 28 of L.A.'s top VCs who impresses them the most.
The list includes many familiar names. Dana Settle, founding partner of Greycroft, and Mark Mullen, founding partner of Bonfire Ventures, garnered the most votes.
Settle manages West Coast operations for Greycroft, a New York firm with $1.8 billion in assets under management. She is one of only nine of the top 100 VCs nationally who are women, according to CB Insights.
Mullen is a founding partner of Bonfire Ventures, which closed a $100 million second fund in September to continue funding seed stage business-to-business (B2B) software startups. Mullen has also been an angel investor and is an LP in other funds focusing on other sectors, including MaC VC and BAM Ventures.
Below is the list of the top ranked investors by how many votes each received from their peers. When there was a tie, they appear in alphabetical order according to their last name:
Mark Mullen, Bonfire Ventures
Mark Mullen is a founding partner of Bonfire Ventures. He is also founder and the largest investor in Mull Capital and Double M Partners, LP I and II. A common theme in these funds is a focus on business-to-business media and communications infrastructures.
In the past, Mullen has served as the chief operating officer at the city of Los Angeles' Economic Office and a senior advisor to former Mayor Villaraigosa, overseeing several of the city's assets including Los Angeles International Airport and the Los Angeles Convention Center. Prior to that, he was a partner at Daniels & Associates, a senior banker when the firm sold to RBC Capital Markets in 2007.
Dana Settle, Greycroft
Dana Settle is a founding partner of Greycroft, heading the West Coast office in Los Angeles. She currently manages the firm's stakes in Anine Bing, AppAnnie, Bird, Clique, Comparably, Goop, Happiest Baby, Seed, Thrive Market, Versed and WideOrbit, and is known for backing female-founded companies.
"The real change takes place when female founders build bigger, independent companies, like Stitchfix, TheRealReal," she said this time last year in an interview with Business Insider. "They're creating more wealth across their cap tables and the cap tables tend to be more diverse, so that gives more people opportunity to become an angel investor." Prior to founding Greycroft, she was a venture capitalist and startup advisor in the Bay Area.
Erik Rannala, Mucker Capital
Erik Rannala is a founding partner at Mucker Capital, which he created with William Hsu in 2011. Before founding Mucker, Rannala was vice president of global product strategy and development at TripAdvisor and a group manager at eBay, overseeing its premium features business.
"As an investor, I root for startups. It pains me to see great teams and ideas collapse under the pressure that sometimes follows fundraising. If you've raised money and you're not sure what comes next, that's fine – I don't always know either," Rannala wrote in a blog post for Mucker.
Mucker has a portfolio of 61 companies, including Los Angeles-based Honey and Santa Monica-based HMBradley.
William Hsu, Mucker Capital
William Hsu is a founding partner at the Santa Monica-based fund Mucker Capital. He started his career as a founder, creating BuildPoint, a provider of workflow management solutions for the commercial construction industry not long after graduating from Stanford.
In an interview with Fast Company, he shared what he learned in the years following, as he led product teams at eBay, Green Dot and Spot Runner, eventually becoming the SVP and Chief Product Officer of At&T Interactive: "Building a company is about hiring correctly, adhering to a timeline, and rigorously valuing opportunity. It's turning something from inspiration and creative movement into process and rigor."
These are the values he looks for in founders in addition to creativity. "I like to see the possibility of each and every idea, and being imaginative makes me a passionate investor."
Jim Andelman, Bonfire Ventures
Jim Andelman is a founding partner of Bonfire Ventures, a fund that focuses on seed rounds for business software founders. Andelman has been in venture capital for 20 years, previously founding Rincon Venture Partners and leading software investing at Broadview Capital Partners.
He's no stranger to enterprise software — he also was a member of the Technology Investment Banking Group at Alex. Brown & Sons and worked at Symmetrix, a consulting firm focusing on technology application for businesses.
In a podcast with LA Venture's Minnie Ingersoll earlier this year, he spoke on the hesitations people have about choosing to start a company."It's two very different things: Should I coach someone to be a VC or should I coach someone to enter the startup ecosystem? On the latter question, my answer is 'hell yeah!'"
Josh Diamond, Walkabout Ventures
Josh Diamond founded Walkabout Ventures, a seed fund that primarily focuses on financial service startups. The firm raised a $10 million fund in 2019 and is preparing for its second fund. Among its 19 portfolio companies is HMBradley, which Diamond helped seed and recently raised $18 in a Series A round.
"The whole reason I started this is that I saw there was a gap in the funding for early stage, financial service startups," he said. As consumers demand more digital access and transparency, he said the market for financial services is transforming — and Los Angeles is quickly becoming a hub for fintech companies. Before founding Walkabout, he was a principal for Clocktower Technology Ventures, another Los Angeles-based fund with a similar focus.
Kara Nortman, Upfront Ventures
Kara Nortman was recently promoted to managing partner at Upfront Ventures, making her one of the few women – along with Settle – to ascend to the highest ranks of a major VC firm.
Though Upfront had attempted to recruit her before she joined in 2014, she had declined in order to start her own company, Moonfrye, a children's ecommerce company that rebranded to P.S. XO and merged with Seedling. Upfront invested in the combination, and shortly after, Nortman joined the Upfront team.
Before founding Moonfrye, she was the SVP and General Manager of Urbanspoon and Citysearch at IAC after co-heading IAC's M&A group.
In an interview with dot.LA earlier this year, she spoke on how a focus for her as a VC is to continue to open doors for founders and funders of diverse backgrounds.
"Once you're a woman or a person of color in a VC firm, it is making sure other talented people like you get hired, but also hiring people who are not totally like you. You have to make room for different kinds of people. And how do you empower those people?"
Brett Brewer, Crosscut Ventures
Brett Brewer is a co-founder and managing director of Crosscut Ventures. He has a long history in entrepreneurship, starting a "pencil selling business in 4th grade." In 1998, he co-founded Intermix Media. Under their umbrella were online businesses like Myspace.com and Skilljam.com. After selling Intermix in 2005, he became president of Adknowledge.com.
Brewer founded Santa Monica-based Crosscut in 2008 alongside Rick Smith and Brian Garrett. His advice to founders on Crosscut's website reflects his experience: "Founders have to be prepared to pivot, restart, expect the unexpected, and make tough choices quickly... all in the same week! It's not for the faint of heart, but after doing this for 20 years, you can spot the fire (and desire) from a mile away (or not)."
Eva Ho, Fika Ventures
Eva Ho is a founding partner of Fika Ventures, a boutique seed fund, which focuses on data and artificial intelligence-enabled technologies. Prior to founding Fika, she was a founding partner at San Francisco-based Susa Ventures, another seed-stage fund with a similar focus. She is also a serial entrepreneur, most recently co-founding an L.A. location data provider, Factual. She also co-founded Navigating Cancer, a health startup, and is a founding member of All Raise, a nonprofit that supports and provides resources to female founders and funders.
In an interview with John Livesay shortly before founding Fika, Ho spoke to how her experience at Factual helped focus what she looks for in founders. "I always look for the why. A lot of people have the skills and the confidence and the experience, but they can't convince me that they're truly passionate about this. That's the hard part — you can't fake passion."
Brian Lee, BAM Ventures
Brian Lee is a co-founder and managing director of BAM Ventures, an early-stage consumer-focused fund. In an interview with dot.LA earlier this year, Lee shared that he ended up being the first investor in Honey, which was bought by PayPal for $4 billion, through investing in founders and understanding their "vibe."
"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…. [Honey's founders] knew exactly what they were building, and how they were going to get there."
His eye for the right vibe in a founder is one gleaned from experience. Lee is a serial entrepreneur, founding LegalZoom.com, ShoeDazzle.com and The Honest Company.
Alex Rubalcava, Stage Venture Partners
Alex Rubalcava is a founding partner of Stage Venture Partners, a seed venture capital firm that invests in emerging software technology for B2B markets. Prior to joining, he was an analyst at Santa Monica-based Anthem Venture Partners, an investor in early stage technology companies. It was his first job after graduating from Harvard, and during his time at Anthem the fund was part of Series A in companies like MySpace, TrueCar and Android.
He has served as a board member in several Los Angeles nonprofits and organizations like KIPP LA Schools and South Central Scholars.
"Warren Buffett says that he's a better businessman because he's an investor, and he's a better investor because he's a businessman. I feel the same way about VC and value investing. Being good at value investing can make you good at venture capital, and vice versa," Rubalcava said in an interview with Shai Dardashti of MOI Global.
Mark Suster, Upfront Ventures
Mark Suster, managing partner at Upfront Ventures, is arguably L.A.'s most visible VC, frequently posting on Twitter and on his blog, not only about investing but also more personal topics like weight loss. In more normal years, he presides over LA's biggest gathering of tech titans, the Upfront Summit. Before Upfront, he was the founder and chief executive officer of two software companies, BuildOnline and Koral, which was acquired by Salesforce. Upfront backed both of his companies, and eventually he joined their team in 2007.
In a piece for his blog, "Both Sides of the Table," Suster wrote about the importance of passion — not just for entrepreneurs and their businesses, but for the VCs that fund them as well.
"On reflection of the role that I want to play as a VC it is clearly in the camp of passion. I really want to start my journeys only with people with whom I want to work closely with for the next 5–7 years or more. I only want to work on projects in which I believe can produce truly amazing change in an industry or in the world."
Lead art by Candice Navi.
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Ben Bergman is the newsroom's senior finance reporter. Previously he was a senior business reporter and host at KPCC, a senior producer at Gimlet Media, a producer at NPR's Morning Edition, and produced two investigative documentaries for KCET. He has been a frequent on-air contributor to business coverage on NPR and Marketplace and has written for The New York Times and Columbia Journalism Review. Ben was a 2017-2018 Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Economic and Business Journalism at Columbia Business School. In his free time, he enjoys skiing, playing poker, and cheering on The Seattle Seahawks.
On this week's episode of the L.A. Venture podcast, hear from Chang Xu, partner at Basis Set Ventures, a $140 million fund focused on AI and automation - technology that transforms the way people work.
Basis Set Ventures focuses on four pieces: infrastructure, collaboration, automation and autonomy. Chang spends a lot of time on infrastructure, and she breaks it down into four themes: raise the ceiling, lower the floor, open space and data privacy.
By raise the ceiling, Chang says there's "always going to be better and more secure and faster fundamental building blocks for infrastructure to the tune of database systems and streaming data and...infrastructure as code."
Lower the floor is about no code and low code, which, for example, could allow for not-trained people to build their own apps without relying on software developers. Chang predicts a proliferation of tools that she says will enable "people to create regardless of their technical abilities and their starting point."
When I heard "open source" I figured she meant "free." But, Chang says, open source "is almost table stakes for how infrastructure is discovered, bought and sold today."
Lastly, Chang says they see "data privacy as a really large tailwind and emerging space" because it is tackling the challenge of adhering to privacy regulations, but at the same time innovating fast, while taking advantage of the growing amounts of data companies are amassing.
Chang and her partners aren't just stuck on tech, they're also keenly interested in what makes a lasting and impactful founder. She says her firm's research has revealed that "successful founders are humble operators, agile visionaries and seasoned executives. And the less successful founders...are passionate outsiders, overconfident storytellers and stubborn individuals."
This interview goes deep into machine learning optimization (ML Ops), what Chang learned from her many years at Upfront, like how to craft a good narrative and practical advice for startups on how to form a board.
Not incidentally, Chang is L.A.-based, though the Basis Set operates out of San Francisco.
Chang Xu is a partner at Basis Set Ventures. Previously, she was a principal at Upfront Ventures, the oldest and largest SoCal-based early stage venture capital firm. Prior to joining Upfront, she was a founder and operator. She was the first product manager at the Minerva Project. She co-founded and was the COO of Onion Math, an edtech startup in China that has raised $90 million to date. She started her career at BCG where she advised clients across technology, retail, healthcare and private equity. She holds an MBA and AB in Applied Math and Computer Science, both from Harvard. (bio from Basis Set).dot.LA Sr. Podcast Producer & Editor Laurel Moglen contributed to this post.
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