Crosscut’s newest pool — whose investors include The James Irvine Foundation, Top Tier Capital, and numerous family offices — is also roughly five times the size of the firm’s second fund, which closed with $16 million in 2012. (The outfit collected just $5.1 million for its first, proof-of-concept, fund in 2008.)
Is it Crosscut, or L.A., or a combination of the two? We recently asked cofounder Brian Garrett, who cofounded Crosscut with fellow managing directors Rick Smith and Brett Brewer — all of whom are joined in the newest fund by managing director Clinton Foy, previously a venture partner. Our conversation has been been edited here for length.
You’ve just raised a lot of money, considering where you started seven years ago. How do you explain it?
A lot of it has to do with the general momentum of L.A. ecosystem. When [local VC] Mark Suster announced [his firm, Upfront Ventures’s] $280 million fund last year and hosted its [invite-only] Upfront Summit [in February], I think everyone became more aware of what’s happening here. I don’t think they’d thought it was a long-term or a sustainable [shift] until then.
There’s also a lack of competition relative to the opportunity here, and, more specific to us, there aren’t a lot of micro venture firms that have four managing directors – two of whom have 15 years of venture experience. [Editor’s note: Garrett and Smith were previously partners at Palomar Ventures.]
What are your biggest hits to date?
We’ve had seven exits out of 18 investments in our first fund, four of which produced 9x returns, including [the e-commerce site] ShoeDazzle. We sold our stake when late-stage investors were buying. We had local market knowledge about how competitive that market was getting. We also sold [the digital ad company] Pulpo Media to the public company Entravision for a 9x return; we sold [the e-document repository] Docstoc to Intuit for a 9x – we were the first money in. We also made another secondary sale that hasn’t yet been announced.
We’ve had two liquidity events in our second fund, too, with the sale of Lettuce to Intuit for a 4x, and the sale of Gradient X to Amobee [a mobile ad company acquired by SingTel in 2012] for 2x our investment.
You mention ShoeDazzle, which you’d funded when it was valued at less than $10 million. Sounds like you were smart to get out when you did, though did you the miss out on the chance to invest in founder Brian Lee’s next startup, The Honest Company?
We did. We were at the tail end of fund one and didn’t have a lot of money left, and some sharp-elbowed Silicon Valley VCs took the whole round. We definitely should have gotten money into Honest Company.
How do you view secondary sales generally?
We look at them on a deal-by-by deal basis to evaluate whether to hold or sell. We have a stake now in a company whose valuation is similar to where ShoeDazzle’s was when we decided to sell, but we’re holding because we think it will be a multibillion-dollar company.
We look at the market landscape and who the buying audience will be and whether the next plateau of value creation is worth the risk it will take to achieve.
Where do you think it’s not worth the risk?
In ad tech, for example, we think you’re either first in a new category and you get a big exit via an acquisition from Google or Yahoo, or you’re in the walking dead zone, along with tons of other good, profitable ad tech businesses that no one wants to buy because it’s become so hard to defend any particular intellectual property or sustain a differentiation.
You were long juggling Crosscut with a startup you’d cofounded, a fashion and media platform called StyleSaint. Meanwhile, Brett was a senior VP of corporate development at the company Adknowledge. Are you both still doing double-time?
Brett and I are now full-time with the fund. Brett [quit Adknowledge] six months ago; I’ve been full time since August of last year, when I set out to raise the fund. I quickly realized I couldn’t wear both hats.
Wolpert — who sold companies to Adobe and RealNetworks and launched Disney’s earliest online businesses before joining Accel Partners as a venture partner and cofounding Amplify.la — is explaining why, after more than seven years as a full-time investor, he just founded his fourth startup.
The L.A.-based company is three-month-old Hello Tech. Its big idea, the one that Wolpert couldn’t let go: remote tech support for consumers who own or want to buy products like Sonos speakers and Nest thermostats but who need help in keeping them up and running.
“These are homeowners with disposable income who don’t how how to get through the newest digital security service or latest update [to their other products],” says Wolpert. “It’s much more than, “Let us catch that virus.” He adds with a laugh: “Most investors we pitched said, ‘I would buy this for my parents so I don’t have to do this anymore.’”
It’s really no joke. The tech support market — valued at $21 billion — appears to remain wide open at the moment.
Services like Geek Squad, the Best Buy subsidiary, have largely alienated U.S. consumers over the years. Meanwhile, no brand has managed to capture much of the market in its place. A sampling of Hello Tech’s current competitors include Student@Home, a London-based company that sends IT students to customers’ homes; iCracked, a two-year-old, Redwood Shores, Ca., company that sends out help to consumers who’ve damaged their Apple products; and Geekatoo of Mountain View, Ca., an Angie’s List-like service that connects product owners with “verified geeks” and which Wolpert doesn’t seem to take very seriously.
“You ask for help, then within 24 hours, someone like Tom at ComputerRepair.com arranges to come out and you pay him directly. It’s not an end-to-end service. We imagine something much tighter.”
Just don’t ask how it works. Aside from Hello Tech’s funding – it just raised $2.5 million co-led by Accel, Upfront Ventures, and Crosscut Ventures – Wolpert isn’t ready to disclose much, saying he prefers not to share “some of what we think will be the secret sauce.”
Indeed, he declines to answer numerous questions about how Hello Tech will manage supply and demand, how it will market the service, or how the company can ensure that its remote workforce represents the standards Wolpert envisions.
Wolpert offers instead that he cofounded Hello Tech with two former Disney colleagues who he has known for 19 years: Minah Oh and Sascha Linn. He says Hello Tech will run “much like other marketplace models,” meaning it will take a percentage off every transaction and that users will rate the technicians who visit them. He also says that Hello Tech will launch in six cities to prove out its model, starting this spring in L.A.
Asked a related question about the company’s road map, Wolpert says only that, “We have some clever ideas and we don’t want to tip our hat to the market.”
Likely, by “market,” Wolpert means Ron Johnson. As PandoDaily notes, Johnson, a former SVP of retail operations at Apple, also recently launched a company that’s largely operating in stealth mode.
It sounds as if it’s targeting the same, big opportunity, too. Back in October, Johnson talked with the Wall Street Journal about providing customers with the ability to touch and try expensive electronic goods before making a big purchase.
Johnson told the outlet: “That’s when you typically want something more than fast delivery; you might want a little help . . . There’s a place for high touch in a high-tech world.”