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This week on the L.A. Venture podcast, hear from Mike Jones, the founder and CEO of studio and venture firm Science Inc. Jones is considered an expert on scaling and robust business strategy. He runs Science Inc. with Peter Pham, Greg Gilman and Tom Dare.
Starting in the late 90s, Jones began creating and managing his own businesses. He created UserPlane, an instant messaging service that was acquired by AOL early in his career. Following that, he was the turnaround CEO of MySpace— helping the company navigate losing its legacy status — and has invested in a number of notable brands, including GoodReads, Maker Studios Inc., HelloSociety and DogVacay.
Science is often considered an incubator. It was also the first investor in Dollar Shave Club and has also helped scale Mammoth Media, Arrive Outdoors, pray.com, Liquid Death and PlayVS. Jones has also been named one of the most influential people in Los Angeles.
Science has a venture funding studio, a blockchain fund and a late-stage SPAC. The company is best known for its venture arm, which is investing out of its $100 million Fund III.
Jones also works with these companies as an advisor. He says it's important to him that the founders he invests in are willing to learn and be highly adaptable to new strategies.
His background at MySpace, he says, gives him a unique perspective on the future of social media. He says he has respect for Snap founder Evan Spiegel, but adds he thinks social media needs to be more empathetic.
"in a world where when you and I meet up in person, we have millions of micro expressions on how we're communicating with each other," he says, "like pheromones, and all the other components that go into two people standing next to each other and actually having a conversation. We have to rebuild that digitally."
This is why he argues that founders' intent and message are so important.
"The thesis of an authentic brand is 'I make this product because I believe it's the right thing to do. And it has a purpose'," he says, beyond profit.
Mike offers his insights on investing, the 2020 ecommerce boom, the future of NFTs and his passion for cyrptocurrency.
"One thing that's 100% true is I've never seen retention correct itself. If you need to change retention substantially, you need to make substantial changes to the business." — Mike Jones
dot.LA Engagement Intern Colleen Tufts contributed to this post.
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As Thanksgiving approached, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti implored residents to stay home and halt all nonessential travel as COVID-19 cases skyrocketed.
But on Thanksgiving Day, Peter Pham, one of L.A.'s most prominent early-stage investors and the co-founder of Science Inc, a Santa Monica startup studio and early-stage venture fund that manages over $100 million and recently launched a $310.5 million SPAC, posted a selfie of himself atop Las Vegas' High Roller ferris wheel.
He was clutching a can of Liquid Death, the bad boy-themed canned water brand that has improbably become Science's buzziest startup. Pham guzzles six cans a day, because he says he does not trust municipal tap water.
"I'm not afraid of dying," Pham told me recently. "There's risk for everything and COVID is a risk that I feel very confident in my ability to deal with. I could be wrong and that's OK. I am OK if I fucked up and I die from it."
Pham has been transfixed by COVID since March, often tweeting dozens of times a day and sometimes much more – about his aversion to lockdowns and school closures, blockbuster treatments the government is allegedly ignoring, and the rocky vaccine rollout. He has also made it his mission to help distribute millions of PPE to medical workers.
"I like to go deep on things, like OCD-type deep," he said. "I like to learn and I like to fix things. I can get obsessed."
Pham stands out from most, but certainly not all VCs – who strive to remain as bland and non-controversial as possible, according to Tom Nicholas, a Harvard Business School professor who wrote the book, VC: An American History.
"Being neutral makes sense in an industry where investments are frequently syndicated," said Nicholas. "There's a lot of downside to being a contrarian and very little upside."
Pham says he does not care about being liked or offending others.
"It's opt-in, dude," he said. "If you don't like it, don't fucking follow me."
Pham says his tweets are a perfect reflection of his personality, which he admits can be scattered. But it is more than worth it, he says, because he is intensely loyal and "goes to the mat" for friends, colleagues, and founders that Science is backing.
"You know what you're going to get with me," he said. "You're going to get an erratic person who's passionate beyond belief."
Pham has scored the sort of exits that give him the license to speak his mind in the elite venture world, none bigger than the Dollar Shave Club, the direct-to-consumer razors and grooming startup that put Science on the map when it was bought by Unliever for $1 billion in 2016.
Peter Pham is one of L.A.'s most prominent early-stage investors and the co-founder of Santa Monica venture fund Science Inc.
"Peter is definitely wired differently than most VCs I've met," said Michael Dubin, founder of Dollar Shave Club, "I think of Peter as an expert networker and fundraiser. He's highly social. He loves people. He's the first one on the dance floor, as he says on his Twitter bio."
Dubin says Pham is not the sort of investor to labor over the details of a company. Instead, Pham stands out for two qualities – he is a gifted "hype man," which is very useful when you're trying to build any company but especially consumer brands. And most of all, he possesses probably the most valuable skill in tech: The ability to quickly raise vast sums of capital.
"He is incredible at raising money," Dubin said. "When you're a VC looking to invest in companies and Peter Pham calls you, you definitely pick up the phone and listen to what he says. It doesn't mean you believe him, but you definitely pick up the call."
To Dubin, it makes sense that Pham has been consumed with trying to find light at the end of the COVID tunnel.
"The way Peter's brain is wired, it doesn't surprise me he is on the leading edge of trying to find helpful interpretations," Dubin said, before pausing to add: "It doesn't make him right. He's not Dr. Fauci."
'The Biggest Scandal in the History of COVID'
Pham talks frequently about his "research" and the hours he devotes to pouring over scientific papers even though his scientific training is limited to majoring in biology and pre-medicine during his undergraduate years at the University of California, Irvine. He planned to be a doctor but changed his mind junior year when he decided it required too much structure.
"I was premed, so I actually understand science," he said.
Pham has been especially vocal about the antiparasitic drug Ivermectin, which he went so far as to give to his housekeeper's ailing 80-year-old friend, which he shared on Twitter.
"It's a cheap drug that clearly is helping," Pham said. "That's been my crusade for the last couple of months."
A recent paper in the Journal Lancet found "limited evidence" that Ivermectin was effective in treating COVID patients. The FDA has warned people not to take the drug because it has not been tested outside of the lab.
Pham has no such patience, posting frequently that the drug needs to be widely distributed immediately.
"That will go down as the biggest scandal in the history of COVID," he declared.
Last month, amidst the chaotic vaccine rollout in L.A. County, Pham shared that he devoted a day to visiting five vaccination sites and more than 30 hours researching and talking to friends in health care.
Asked how he has so much time to devote to COVID, Pham said that he stays up until 3:30 a.m. every morning and only sleeps four hours a night.
"My partners are amazing and they know that I like to help people," Pham said. "Making money is not my goal in life, but I'm not neglecting my startups and my company."
Michael Jones, the former MySpace CEO who recruited Pham to work at Science Inc. in 2011, says he has no concerns about Pham's work habits.
"Peter has his own unique style of working, Jones said. "He complements our firm in a really unique and special way that I think benefits a lot from our investors."
'Sit This One Out;' Other Prominent Investors Push Back
In early March, Pham hosted his exclusive annual gathering of top VCs at Gjelina, a tony restaurant in Venice. The guests of honor were the suddenly very wealthy founders of Honey, an L.A. startup that sold to Paypal for $4 billion at the end of 2019. Pham hoped that the conversation would stay focused on the dinner's purpose – raising money – rather than the mysterious virus that by then was consuming people's attention.
In the early days of the crisis, Pham repeatedly played down the seriousness of COVID, arguing that it only affected the old and sick, something Balaji S. Srinivasan, an angel investor and entrepreneur and former general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, pushed back against.
Pham now freely admits he underestimated the threat of COVID and he is certainly not the only one to do so, but he says the important thing is to learn from new information when it becomes available.
"I didn't think it would be that bad in March and obviously I was wrong," Pham said. "I'm not dogmatic in anything."
To Pham's credit, in March he also started raising money in the tech community to buy and distribute badly needed PPE as a founding member of C19 Coalition, which has delivered more than one billion units of masks, face shields, and other equipment.
But those early overly rosy assessments have not deterred Pham from continuing to downplay the risk from COVID, advocate for herd immunity, and accuse the media of hyping up the threat.
In August, he tweeted that the worst of the pandemic was over, when U.S. case numbers were a third what they were this month. In November, he said hospitals "will continue to be fine," a month before ICU capacity in Southern California plummeted to zero percent.
Chris Sacca, a venture investor best known for being a judge on Shark Tank who is a limited partner in Science, shot back around the time ICU was hitting 0% capacity, telling Pham to "sit this one out."
Pham says he can't recall what he was tweeting about. He deleted the original tweets that Sacca and Srinivasan were referencing.
"I should autodelete my tweets, to be honest, but I use it for search because my memory is so bad," Pham said. "I have ADHD with the memory capacity of the bottom 16th percentile of the population."
Pham does not appear to be exaggerating. Two weeks after we spoke for over an hour on two Zoom video calls, Pham had no memory of us ever talking.
"My memory is horrible," he said.
Pham says his lack of memory is one of the reasons he is perpetually upbeat.
"I'm always optimistic because I forgot what happened yesterday," he tweeted last month.
He says his lack of memory is also why he is so blunt and unfiltered.
"People are trying to create this persona online, which is weird and a lot of work and I think you have to have a good memory, and I don't have that," Pham said. "I don't care. I just say it."
The one thing Pham never talks about is family, which he says he avoids doing for privacy reasons, especially as he has gotten more involved with the sometimes shadowy world of cryptocurrency. He also won't reveal his age or the city where he grew up for "security reasons."
Pham may not fear COVID, but he lives in constant fear of being hacked.
The Embodiment of the American Dream
Pham often says he has lived the embodiment of the American dream and it is not hard to see why.
His father served as a fleet commander for the South Vietnamese Navy during the Vietnam War and in 1975, weeks after the fall of Saigon, the U.S. Navy evacuated Pham's parents and four older siblings to California.
Pham was born in a refugee camp about a month later.
The family grew up poor in a cramped one-bedroom apartment, the reason he says he has been dismayed many public schools have closed their doors during the pandemic. His parents both became social workers while the siblings took on odd jobs to put food on the table.
Pham was a straight-A student in high school and applied to only one college, the University of California, Irvine, which he picked because it was close to home.
He put himself through college, waiting tables at Red Lobster, selling computers at Circuit City and helping people install Windows operating software on their computers.
Pham found he was much more interested in tech than being a doctor and after adding a business management minor to his biology major, he bounced around 13 enterprise software and hardware startups for the first nine years of his career in business development.
Biz dev, as it is known, is largely sales and marketing. Above all, it requires hustle and building and maintaining big networks of individuals who can help your company – things Pham discovered he could do with ease.
His first major success came in 2005 when his friend Alex Welch recruited him to do biz dev at Photobucket, an early digital photo sharing platform that is now mostly forgotten. Pham was hired as the fifth employee and three years later News Corp. acquired the company for $300 million.
After those exits, Pham had the credibility to raise major sums of capital from top Sand Hill Road firms — and that is exactly what he did in 2010 when he teamed with serial entrepreneur Bill Nguyen to start Color – named for their love of the Apple logo — the photo-sharing app.
"He's probably the best sales person I've ever met in my life, which is saying a lot because people think I'm a pretty good salesperson," Pham said. "He can convince you of anything."
Pham and Nguyen quickly amassed $41 million from Sequoia Capital, Bain Capital and Silicon Valley Bank before they ever launched a product. That was far more than Instagram, which was founded the same year with just half a million in seed funding, or about what Color spent just on acquiring the domain names color.com and colour.com.
Color also rented a cavernous office with a hand-built skateboard ramp in Palo Alto with room for 160 employees even though they had fewer than 40.
The New York Times featured the company as a prime example of another bubble in start-up investing. (It also warned about Airbnb in the same article, which had a much better fate.)
Unlike Instagram, which was built around users seeing photos of accounts they chose to follow, Color users viewed photos by location. But it turned out that was not what users wanted at all and the 2011 launch was a dud. Nyugen fired Pham three months later. Pham said he quit.
Apple bought Color in 2012 for $7 million amidst bizarre allegations of an abusive work environment, which was not only far less than the $167 million valuation Color had raised at in 2010 but also a long ways away from the $200 million Google had offered to buy the company in early 2011, according to Techcrunch.
Reflecting on his Color tenure now, which is omitted from his official bio, Pham says he barely knew Nyugen before they started the company – a mistake he would never make again – and describes their partnership as a "shotgun marriage."
"It wasn't a marriage that lasted," he said. "We were different people."
Pham defends the premise of Color as ahead of its time, pointing out that Snap launched a map feature two years ago that emulated what Color was trying to do.
"We were just early, and of course execution of this thing," Pham said. "Shit happens. Startups fail. It just didn't work."
But it did not take Pham long to get another job offer. Three months after his departure, Pham bumped into his old friend Jones at the Lobby Conference, an invitation-only consumer and enterprise tech gathering held annually in Maui.
They had been kicking around the idea for years of creating a Santa Monica version of Bill Gross' longtime startup studio, Idealab, which is in Pasadena.
"I wanted to do Idealab, but on the west side of town, because I like the beach," Pham said.
Up to that point, Pham and Jones had been consumed with other startups, but now they were both jobless and Pham wanted to move back to L.A., where he grew up and his family lived.
"Most people thought it was insane to leave the gold rush in the valley at that time," Pham said. "But what we wanted to do is be closer to building the business, not just writing the check."
Jones says he had no reservations about teaming with Pham, despite him only being a few months removed from being fired from Color.
"I wasn't at Color and I don't really know any of the background of Color," Jones said. "What I knew is that I knew Peter for a very long time."
Jones also recruited his longtime attorney Greg Gilman and former Myspace colleague Tom Dare to round out the founding team. Science Inc. launched with $10 million in venture backing from investors including Google CEO Eric Schmidt and another $30 million from the Hearst Corporation.
The now defunct Gawker tech gossip spinoff, Valleywag, marvelled at how quickly Pham was able to escape the Color fiasco.
"Why the hell are people still giving this guy money?" reporter Sam Biddle asked. "In just a couple short years, Pham has failed upwards, meteorically, from industry laughingstock to managing hundreds of millions of dollars."
But Pham soon proved the doubters wrong.
In its first year, Science had the sort of breakout success that it has never been able to top in the decade since.
Science incubated a small startup that sold razors and grooming supplies direct to consumers with quirky marketing campaigns with a $100,000 check. The next year, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers led a $1 million seed round. In 2016, Unilever acquired Dollar Shave Club for $1 billion and yielded its founder, Dubin, a reported $200 million payday.
"Peter was instrumental in helping us fundraise," Dubin said. "He knows the art and science of raising money. He's extremely connected. We just would not have raised the money we did if it had not been for him."
Science has also scored big wins with DogVacay, which merged with its larger competitor Rover in 2018, and FameBit, an influencer marketing platform that was acquired by Google in 2016 before being shut down last year.
These days the firm's buzziest startup is decidedly low tech. Liquid Death, featuring the slogan "Murder Your Thirst," packages Austrian mountain water in aluminum cans. Pham says he was drawn to Liquid Death after a friend showed him the brand's edgy Facebook page.
Science incubated the brand in 2019 and led the $2.26 million seed round at a pre-money valuation of $5 million. In September, Liquid Death raised another $23 million Series B funding at a pre-money valuation at $82 million.
Mike Cessario, the creative director turned founder and CEO of Liquid Death says the first time he met Pham at Science's offices he struck him as "a really smart guy who talks a million miles a minute."
"Peter has stepped up with us to make sure we can get the best deals we can get where we are not being taken advantage of by other investors," Cessario said.
Pham is rarely seen without a tall can of Liquid Death by his side. He says he consumes six a day because is worried about drinking the tap water where he lives.
"I don't trust the water in Manhattan Beach," Pham said. "It's got PFAS in it – plastics forever. If you don't know what that is, Google it. It's going to blow your mind."
Unlike with Nyugen, in Jones Pham says he has found someone who he will be friends with for life. Pham says he has finally found the role that perfectly suits his unique personality. At Science, he is in-charge of business development. Crucially, he has no direct reports.
"I don't like managing people," Pham said. "I was CEO once. It's not my thing."
Last month, Science Inc. announced that it was launching a $270 million SPAC to focus on direct-to-consumer, mobile and entertainment companies.
'It's All Over in 60 Days'
These days Pham has been traveling to Miami, which comes with the dual advantages of being a place unencumbered by the lockdowns he hates and also home to a rapidly growing startup scene that he says reminds him of L.A. 10 years ago. Ever the networker and promoter, Pham hosted a sunset cruise there this month for tech founders and investors where they sipped on Liquid Death.
Pham continues to advocate for Ivermectin and has also been pushing the yet-to-be-approved Novavax Vaccine. He enrolled in the vaccine's phase III trial and says it is his "favorite" vaccine because it is easier to store and can be used on immunocompromised patients.
Far from a distraction, Pham says his passion about COVID and helping secure PPE has brought the unintended effect of further expanding his professional network.
"It opened up a whole new network of entrepreneurs and spaces and industries that we're now looking into investing in," Pham said. "It all comes full circle. It turns out if you do good things in life, you get rewarded."
While so many Americans are relentlessly dreary after nearly a year of the pandemic, Pham is more sanguine than ever.
"I still am optimistic it's all over in 60 days," he tweeted this month.
"We will all be having easter dinner with family," he added last week.
Lead image by Eduardo Ramón Trejo.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with Science's closing amount for its SPAC and a clarification from Pham on Color.
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Michael Jones and Peter Pham, the founders of Science Inc., officially joined the SPAC frenzy on Tuesday, with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) of their own valued at $270 million.
In an announcement, Jones and Pham said their SPAC, Science Strategic Acquisition Corp. Alpha, would debut on the NASDAQ today by selling 27 million units at $10 a share. The SPAC plans on merging with a company in the direct-to-consumer (DTC) services space and/or mobile and entertainment sectors.
Science Inc.'s SPAC is the latest in a surge of so-called blank check companies that debut on the stock market with the primary goal of merging with a company to take it public. Over the last 12 months or so, more than 320 SPACs have emerged. Last week, Fifth Wall filed to launch a SPAC, Fifth Wall Acquisition Corp. I. The electric vehicle charging station provider EVgo announced it would go public through a SPAC merger earlier this month; last November, the Santa Monica-based e-scooter company Bird Rides was also reportedly exploring a possible stock market debut by going the SPAC route.
For Jones and Pham, joining the SPAC game represents the latest move in a strategy that means further involving themselves in working with later-stage companies. Since launching Science Inc. in Santa Monica, the company has grown to include a startup incubator, as well as two venture capital funds with a combined size of $175 million. Portfolio companies include Dollar Shave Club, the esports platform PlayVS and Liquid Death, a canned mountain water startup.
dot.LA caught up with Jones hours after his SPAC went public to discuss why Science launched a SPAC and what he thinks of the current SPAC market.
Michael Jones is the co-founder of Science Inc.
What motivated Science Inc. to join the SPAC game and launch one of its own?
We've always looked at investing as being a lot of value on what we consider the kind of "barbell ends": the A) super early phase which we've made a big practice out of, and then B) there's a huge amount of value on the very late-stage side.
So we started looking at that strategy and we started looking at SPACs as the vehicle for that strategy, because obviously late-stage funds are a fairly crowded space. We looked at this SPAC vehicle, maybe five or six years ago, but we hadn't done anything with it.
You mentioned looking at SPACs five or six years ago. But five or six years ago was such a different time for SPACs. In 2015, there were just 20 SPACS that IPO'd, and in 2014, there were just 12 SPACs that IPO'd. Fast forward to 2020, and 248 SPACs went public, while another 75 IPO'd this January alone. So why did you think now was a good time to join the SPAC boom?
You're exactly right. Previously, these vehicles were often led by non-operational, non-strategic sponsors. You know, when Chamath [Palihapitiya] started working on the Virgin Galactic SPAC, we started seeing just the quality of the sponsors entering the SPAC universe being extremely strong. It suddenly became a really interesting and appealing sector to spend time in. It's also correlated with the fact that later-stage capital has become very available to startup founders. So these companies are obviously staying private way longer. They're raising money without bankers, from peers within the venture community.
I think when they look at doing typically what's a very complicated roadshow process to go public, it's frankly easier for them to stay private longer. But also when your sponsors are like us and are approaching companies and they already know us, it becomes a much more comfortable way to enter that process, which is much more efficient than the traditional IPO methodology.
Over the last year or so, we've seen more SPACs IPO than any other period in recent history. Most recently, in L.A., Fifth Wall launched a SPAC of its own and electric vehicle charging station provider EVgo merged with a SPAC, as well. From your perspective, what's driving the SPAC boom?
One thing that's driving the largest SPAC boom is you have very high quality managers and the other teams that want to get involved in stocks. I think that's one piece of it, which is that we're just at a point in our careers where a lot of us are excited to spend time in those later-stage public markets today. You have venture companies that have stayed private for so long. I think you have a pretty decent appetite from public investors, hedge funds and the like to participate in those fast-growing venture-oriented businesses. Because these companies have been able to raise these hyper late-stage rounds and avoid going public for so long, a lot of hedge funds and a lot investors are looking for their way into the startup world to get access to those fast growing companies. So, it provides a lot of interesting capital right now for us.
Do you see a strong tie between the SPAC boom over the last 12 months to the pandemic and the pandemic's effect on the economy? Or do you see the pandemic and larger economy not influencing the SPAC market?
I think the only tie-in to the last 12 months is that — and I'm sure you see it, too — meeting people every day is just a lot easier than it used to be. In order for us to do our SPAC, we ended up doing it exclusively through Zoom, and it was a really efficient process. Not that I wouldn't have had any hesitation to fly to New York and spend time with investors, of course, but this is just very efficient for a lot of people. So if you combine the fact that investors can meet a lot of prospective investments at a very rapid pace, with the stock market which happens to be at extremely high positions, as well as that appetite for later stage startups, you just end up with a really good combination for this to happen right now.
Do you see the SPAC boom easing or slowing down once most people in the U.S. are vaccinated?
I don't. I suspect it'll continue to grow. I think the quality of deals and the quality of managers are increasing. It'll be a meaningful way for a large licensed company to find their way into the public market. It will bring smart, strategic individuals into the public markets who will hopefully assist in creating greater growth once those companies are public.
The other thing that I think it will probably do, which will have a nice benefit for venture capitalists, is I think it will force large-scale incumbents to acquire companies more rapidly. if you look at a business like Him's, it's a really interesting business that was started as a men's specific pharmaceutical product company. It has now expanded to be a fairly impressive telehealth business. And you think to yourself: "What companies should have acquired Him's? What businesses should have bought that company before they became public?"
I think what this will teach is that incumbent companies that are looking to grow shouldn't wait on buying, you know, earlier mid-or-late to startups. They should be active and because SPACs are going to be a very viable alternative for those startups to grow and find capital, it probably will force incumbent companies to spend more — or probably drive the average M&A price up. So, it's just going to create a lot of liquidity around the venture sector broadly.
The Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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