Last weekend we met with Brittany Laughlin at the Go Youth Conference in Lisbon. After her amazing talk on Sunday morning we invited Brittany aboard the Ship to chat a bit about non-profits, the venture capital world, rejection and, obviously, about Portugal.
From 2007 to 2009, Brittany worked for American Express a “Corporate job in a Corporate world” and today is working as USV’s general manager dealing with startups and innovative ideas on a daily basis. Between point A and B, she faced lots of different challenges and built her story on some amazing projects.
Brittany’s first startup adventure happened In 2009, when she co-founded Gtrot, a social travel planning service. Three years later she shifted course into a non-profit endeavour before even dreaming about the VC world.
The Former InclineHQ, today Vets in Tech, “supports the current and returning (US) veterans with re-integration services, connecting them to the national technology ecosystem”. Brittany founded the NYC Chapter and shared some of the story with our crew.
Build companies not based on the vision, but on its purpose.
Why choose the non-profit route?
At the time, the idea wasn’t necessarily to make it a non-profit, but to help people finding jobs.
“We knew people needed help finding jobs and we felt we could help out with that. A lot of companies were paying recruiting fees at the time, and there was a business model already in place, so initially we wanted to do that. We then found out that many veterans found jobs at companies that couldn’t afford the placement fees, and we didn’t want to keep them and be forced to say – ‘you can’t get that job because we won’t be paid our placement fee.’ The reason we started all this was to help people, so we looked into the option of being a non-profit and every time we managed to get a placement fee we would use that money to fund operations.”
Brittany wasn’t looking for a fat paycheck but was “interested in helping to solve a big problem,” and that was the reason behind going the non-profit route.
Just like Matt O. Brimer said on his talk at GYC, you should “build companies not based on the vision, but on its purpose” and the same happens many times with your career too. Brittany changed her business because of its purpose, and forced a change in her life for the same reason.
In January 2013 and new change happened in Brittany’s life. Time to talk a bit about USV and her new role as General Manager of a VC firm.
The venture capital world from one side to the other.
Many people wonder, what’s the role of a VC in a so-called startup environment?
Brittany shared some thoughts on this topic, stating that not every company needs a VC. There are other tools to raise money and get a business going, for instance: crowdfunding. On the other hand, VCs might come in handy if you aim at building something massive, but “if you manage to grow a business without it, great. You get to own 100% of your company, which is awesome!”
According to Brittany, however, there is another way of looking at VCs. Imagine “ideas that may never work if they have to be a business straight away”, like the following example:
“Veniam delivers advanced networking technology that connects infrastructures, people, and moving things to each other and to the Internet. The idea was very out there and ambitious, with tons of cars signed up and several buses too, but they needed the money to buy the hardware and distribute it, as well as to help prove the idea/concept and whether it worked or not. I think Venture Capitals are great to make these happen, because they couldn’t exist without it, yet if they were to pull through they’d have a great impact.”
But there are lots of responsibility and ethical issues associated with the job of Venture Capital firms. We asked Brittany to share her thoughts on the “dead ends”. That solitary place, startups find themselves when the believers, believe no more and the role of investors when certain companies reach that unfortunate point.
“In the Venture Capital industry we plan for failure” – This is a very crucial starting point for both parties involved – the founders and VCs. Lets make sure everyone knows this is how it works; as Brittany said: “You’re lucky if you have one company out of ten that becomes a fantastically huge runaway success.”
We’re in until the very end, even if it means helping shut down a business.
The truth is that VCs “want to help the entrepreneurs as much as they can, whilst also making their businesses successful”, and for that reason at USV, “we’re in until the very end, even if it means helping shut down a business. Simple stuff like giving them money to formally close the business and properly pay their employees, etc…”.
At some point every single VC knows they’re taking a risk and that’s what a venture capital is all about. Brittany was clear about what USV believes in: “the way we see things, we don’t believe it works to jump Ship when things go south”. And we agree, not only because she sounded like she was one of our Crew members, but mainly because this is the responsible and ethical way of facing the companies VCs vest in.
If you think things are always that stormy when it comes to the Venture Capital world, you’re wrong. The unexpected does occur at times, and when it does, it makes any VC company’s day.
“I’ve seen companies we thought were goners, come back”. It doesn’t happen that often, but Brittany talks from experience: “I’ve seen that twice in two years, when a final product sprint made the difference and all the investors that wouldn’t give them the time of day came back knocking and asking for a piece of it. It’s much better to support the whole way through, even if it doesn’t work out.”
Unfortunately not all companies manage to recover and get back on track and sometimes it’s time to start something new, meet new people and invest your time, efforts and money on something else. What better than to seek advice from a Venture Capital pro and a solid entrepreneur?
So much enthusiasm! You understand the need to be global.
The strange people of the South, what about them?
Brittany obviously knew, at least, one of the portuguese startups before travelling to Lisbon: “I knew Veniam” but also shared her feedback on the brief introduction to the Lisbon scene and we are proud to share it with the world:
“So much enthusiasm! You also understand you need to be global because of the Portuguese market size (10M). So, ‘scale’ is the word in Portugal, and the companies seem to know that pretty well”.
The general mindset was one of the key factors that impressed Brittany, as well as the diversity of teams and the English proficiency. “I’m amazed at how everyone speaks English here. It’s really cool and makes it a lot more international, and that’s something we miss out on a lot in the U.S.”
According to Brittany, in the U.S., it’s sometimes difficult to get such diversity of perspective in one company, mostly due to immigration laws. USV is an investor for a Berlin-based company called OneFootball (http://www.onefootball.com), and the diversity was granted from the very beginning: “Out of their first 30 employees, they had 17 nationalities, and I don’t think any of our US companies were that close before becoming huge.”
The diversity and global mindset seem to be the unique selling points of an emerging startup scene like the one booming in Portugal, and mostly in Lisbon: “That happens here a lot too, which is cool and gives you a different perspective on how to serve a global customer”.
It looks like the Portugueses startup scene is causing a great impression lately and we’re proud to be part of it and for sharing it with the world.
Although things seem to be booming in Portugal we decided to challenge Brittany to talk about Rejection. We have heard some wise words about this topic at the conference but here are some of the thoughts we gathered:
Rejection is like a muscle: the more you it’s tested, the stronger you get, and that gives you the strength to move on.
Rejection? Let us learn instead, then do it again and do it better.
This is how Brittany Laughlin sees it:
“Sometimes it feels like we’re waiting for permission to become an entrepreneur, like: ‘Oh yes, I funded your business, so now you can go build it!’ – You can’t wait for that!”; and we totally agree.
We heard a funny story about Brittany some time ago, when she decided to print a bunch of different business cards before attending the South by SouthWest conference. She did that in order to get the right job title to the right people. She wasn’t sure about what she wanted to do, so she just owned those job titles and went along with it. “I made those business cards myself, and went for it because I had to make things happen for myself.”
We didn’t ask Brittany if things did in fact go as she’d expected, but we spoke a bit about rejection. She has an optimistic approach towards rejection, where “rejection is like a muscle: the more you it’s tested, the stronger you get, and that gives you the strength to move on. It sucks, but it’s part of the game. Once you realise people are not rejecting you personally, you understand that maybe you’re not pitching to them from the right angle, that you have to change your story, or find another customer, and then you’ll start seeing it as an opportunity to learn.”
— Ship (@startupship) April 19, 2015