College Savings App UNest Taps New President As It Dives Into Crypto
Since its founding in 2018, UNest has focused on helping parents save money for their kids. Offering customers flexible accounts to go toward things like college tuition, wedding expenses or a down payment on a house, the North Hollywood-based fintech startup might seem like more of a low-risk institution.
Yet in the next few weeks, UNest is jumping headfirst into the world of cryptocurrencies.
On Thursday, the company announced it has hired Jon Walker as president to help lead the app’s expansion as it looks to hire more people, grow its product offerings and raise more funding. In the newly created post, Walker will work alongside UNest founder and CEO Ksenia Yudina.
In an interview with dot.LA, Walker said his first job is to spearhead the launch of UNest Legacy—its upcoming product allowing users to invest in crypto and individual stocks—as well as expand the company’s presence in Utah, where he resides.
“Our goal is to help families build a lasting financial legacy,” Walker said. “Crypto investors tend to be younger and more diverse than retail stock investors, and we believe that this is becoming more and more mainstream.”
Before joining UNest—which counts former NBA player Baron Davis and actress Laura Dern among its investors—Walker served on the leadership team at KPMG Spark, the accounting giant’s bookkeeping and tax preparation service for small- and mid-sized businesses. He joined the firm after KPMG’s 2018 acquisition of Salt Lake City-based online bookkeeping startup Bookly, where he was a board member and part of the founding team.
He also participated in exits at Utah-based startups EcoScraps and GroSocial, and held positions at venture capital firms Signal Peak Ventures and Kickstart Seed Fund—all based in the “Silicon Slopes” area south of Salt Lake City, which earned that moniker thanks to its booming tech startup scene.
Walker hopes to poach from the region’s deep tech talent base as part of a hiring binge for UNest this year. The startup plans to double the size of its workforce to 70 employees by the end of 2022, including new engineering, marketing and operations personnel.
“Utah has become quite the vibrant ecosystem in regards to startups and the VC community,” Walker said, adding that there are no plans to move UNest’s headquarters there.
UNest is aiming to grow from 400,000 users currently to 1 million by the end of the year. The company is fresh off a $26 million Series B funding round last fall, led by Houston-based The Artemis Fund, which took its total capital raised to $40 million.
Walker said he is tasked with executing an even larger Series C raise by the end of 2022, and laying the foundation for a possible IPO in the years to come. “That’s definitely on our roadmap,” he said of a public offering.
Walker said that UNest also plans to partner with one of its investors, asset management giant Franklin Templeton, to introduce a product focused on ESG (environmental, social and governance) stocks.
UNest isn’t the only family savings startup on the fintech scene; its competitors include Chicago-based EarlyBird and San Francisco-based Backer. After it bought out two similar apps—San Francisco-based Littlefund and New York-based Kidfund—in recent years, Walker didn’t rule out more acquisitions for UNest.
“Right now, our focus really is on hyper-growth mode,” he said. “If the right opportunity comes along that makes sense for both parties, I think it’s our fiduciary responsibility to shareholders to look at opportunities that present themselves.”
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Pejman Nozad, a founding managing partner at Pear VC, joins this episode of LA Venture to discuss Pear VC's current initiatives, including its accelerator and fellowships. He's seen as one of the most successful angel investors in the area, and for good reason: he has made more than 300 investments in his lifetime.
"I'm a child of revolution and war and difficult times," said Nozad of his upbringing in Iran during the revolution.
Nozad went to college before dropping out. That's when his brother told him about his dream to go to America. After his brother was denied a visa multiple times, Nozad went himself to the embassy and got lucky; the woman in charge of the process liked him enough to approve him.
"When you're in [your] early twenties, you don't analyze much of the future. And then your risk-takers. I came to America in 1992 with $700 and I didn't speak any word of English," said Nozad.
Nozad went from working at a carwash, then a yogurt shop, to a (now famous) Persian rug store in Palo Alto. Many of his clients happened to be CEOs and venture capitalists; Nozad wanted to be part of that community.
"I was very lucky because I had access to people who normally nobody can see them, but I was hanging out with them at Sunday barbecues while selling carpets," said Nozad.
In his early days as an investor, Nozad bet on companies that included Dropbox and DoorDash. He said he took inspiration as a venture capitalist in lessons he learned from his time playing professional soccer in Iran.
"In soccer, you can score minute one, or you can score at minute 90. Both of them [are] one goal and you can win the game. So, when you go to fundraise, don't get disappointed if you hear a lot of nos, because the yes could be the last meeting after the whole two months," he said.
dot.LA Engagement Intern Joshua Letona contributed to this post.
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- Here Are Los Angeles' Top Venture Capitalists - dot.LA ›
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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