'In a World Where We're All Scared It's Easy to Forget There are Opportunities': L.A.'s Glitziest Venture Capital Team is Still Hunting for Deals
Ben Bergman is the newsroom's senior reporter, covering venture capital. 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. Follow him on Twitter.
M13, named after one of the brightest star clusters in the Northern Sky, has considerable star wattage of its own and is decidedly the most L.A. of all the L.A venture capital firms.
Co-founders Carter and Courtney Reum together boast around 170,000 Instagram followers and in more normal times frequently post pictures with celebrities at parties or from their travels around the world. Carter has been linked to dating Paris Hilton, who was interviewed by Courtney onstage at the Upfront Summit in January. Sir Richard Branson is a limited partner in the firm as is Arianna Huffington.
But, now that glitz appears on hold as the brothers grapple with a pandemic that hit right as the Santa Monica early-stage consumer technology firm was in the midst of deploying the $175 million in its second fund. COVID-19 has hurt consumer companies especially hard, including once high-flying brands in M13's portfolio like Bird, FabFitFun, and ClassPass (M13 is also an investor in dot.LA.)
But Carter, 39, says he is intent on finding opportunities in how consumer behavior is changing and intends to raise a third fund next year. "Capital will be harder to get," he said. "We're hopeful that a premium will be put on what we bring to the table."
The brothers founded M13 in 2016 after they sold their spirits business, Veev, for a hefty multiple to a St. Louis beverage conglomerate. They built a reputation of putting in very long hours and expect the same from their employees. And they also share the same enviable resume: Columbia undergrad followed by Harvard Business School topped by a brief investment banking career at Goldman Sachs.
They are also relentlessly polished and on-message. When asked during a February office visit to describe the last time they disagreed about something, they looked at each other and there was a long pause. They were never able to come up with an answer.
Before coronavirus, M13's warehouse-chic Santa Monica headquarters was a bustling hive of activity, filled with people scurrying from meeting to meeting. The firm also has an office in New York a few blocks away from Gramercy Park and a partner, Gautum Gupta, based in San Francisco.
But on March 12th, all the offices closed and workers went home, connected only by Zoom, Slack, and telephones. Before focusing on business, Carter said it was essential to make sure employees had what they needed to adapt to the new reality.
"We said we didn't want to talk about anything related to work until we had the people thing settled," Carter said.
He said it was important to realize the uniqueness of the situation. Many employees are preoccupied with worrying about loved ones and are filled with anxiety. Some know multiple people who have died.
"This is different from running a remote culture when things are great," he said.
M13 set up a #CoronaCare slack channel focused on how to take care of people during the crisis. Carter says it's more important than ever for leaders to be very clear about what they expect and to formalize processes because it is impossible to walk over and chat with someone at their desk.
"You have to get in the habit when you finish a call with someone where you agree on next steps," he said.
M13 prides itself on its culture and the Reums still want to maintain it as much as possible when everyone is working remotely. They also wants people to still look forward to "going" to work everyday, even when they are stuck at home in their yoga pants.
The firm has been doing two virtual standup meetings per day, with employees dancing or celebrating St. Patrick's Day. There's also a 30-day ab workout challenge and Carter makes it a point to spontaneously make a video call with at least two employees a day to check in on how they are doing.
Beyond the Zooms and Slacks, there is still a fund to deploy and Carter says M13 is actively hunting for deals. It helps that valuations, which had ballooned in recent years, are now coming back to earth.
"In a world where we're all scared it's easy to forget there are opportunities," Carter said. "We are absolutely still writing checks."
Carter and his team are focused on how consumer behavior is changing and what businesses will benefit, and what people will need versus what they merely want. He cites two M13 portfolio companies seeing a rush of interest that he does not think will be short lived.
"Daily Harvest is booming right because people are not able to get food from local grocery stores," Carter said. "Capsule had one of its highest sales weeks because people don't want to go to pharmacies."
Carter does acknowledge that many of his companies will not be as well positioned for the present reality or even the post-COVID world.
"All of us will have companies in our portfolio that will be forced to close," he said.
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