Blake Robbins (Edition # 27)
Blake talks about breaking into venture out of undergrad, life as a Midwest VC, how students can prepare themselves to enter today's job market, Ludlow's investment in 100 Thieves, and more.
|Michael Spiro||Aug 10, 2020||2|
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Interview Guest: Blake Robbins (Twitter: @blakeir)
Role: Partner at Ludlow Ventures
Edition #: This is Edition #27 of The Takeoff
Quick Note: This interview was recorded via a phone call between Blake and Michael (that’s me) last week.
Michael’s favorite quotes from the interview:
On making a resume into a portfolio: “Over time, I ended up basically going to SpaceX and Nest and a couple of others, all while in college, and my resume ended up looking almost like a portfolio.”
On breaking into Ludlow: “I basically then just asked if there was any way I could get an email address my senior year and just reach out to people, take interesting notes, and send them back to them. Thankfully they were actually pretty receptive to that and that was how my first month with Ludlow went”
On cold emailing: “I don't think anyone is upset when they get a cold email. Worst case scenario, they disregarded it. Best case scenario, they respond.”
On one of the reasons Blake loves VC: “I think my favorite part about venture, and especially early-stage venture, is that you can be a generalist and spend time in every single random area that you never would have even thought of.”
On being a Midwest VC: “The difference is, we never have homecourt advantage, or at least we rarely have homecourt advantage. For us, it's always staying super scrappy. Going back to the last question and discussion on being scrappy and reaching out to people, I still do all of that stuff. I cold email founders all the time”
On gaming: “I think there are so many different ways to build on top of a platform that people continually hang out in. That's how I view gaming more broadly right now.”
Michael: To start, could you give a brief background on how you got into the world of venture and, in particular, came to be a Partner at Ludlow?
Blake: When I was in college, I actually quickly realized that venture was what I wanted to do. I'm not sure too many of the people who read this are set on being in venture. I went to Michigan State, and venture was literally not a thing there. Startups weren't a thing, either, but I went to a career fair during my freshman year and that career fair was all Fortune 500 companies. I realized everyone hated their lives at these companies and I was like, I can't do this.
I basically tried to find another thing, or another job for me, because I was like, “I want to do business, but I don't want to work for a Fortune 500 company; there has to be something interesting there.” I discovered startups purely through TechCrunch. I just started reading technology newsletters and news and things like that and realized that there were smaller companies raising money that might want to hire people.
When I was in college, I basically just started reaching out to a bunch of startups and being like, “Hey, can I help? I'm an ambitious kid, and I really want to learn and actually want to love what I do. It seems like what you're working on is really interesting, and I'd love to learn from you all." That worked super well. I got a couple of different internships in college through that. Over time, I ended up basically going to SpaceX and Nest and a couple of others, all while in college, and my resume ended up looking almost like a portfolio.
I always say that I couldn't invest in any of these companies, but I could invest my time and by the time I graduated, that would probably look good on a resume. I was one of the first business interns at SpaceX. It was very early in the lifecycle of SpaceX. Nest was right around when they were getting acquired. All those things started to look really good on a resume by the time I was graduating.
During my senior year at Michigan State, I finally reached out to Ludlow through a mutual connection, Ryan Hoover at Product Hunt who I had gotten to know while I was in college. I read his blog and basically just became friends with him. I pinged him because Ludlow was an investor in Product Hunt and I was like, "Is there any way you're comfortable vouching for me or making an introduction?" Thankfully, he did, and so I met with Jonathon and Brett at Ludlow and they were like, "We'd love to have you intern for one of our portfolio companies or work at one of our portfolio companies," and I said, “No I want to work for you.” They told me, “That's not a thing. We're not looking to hire anyone at this time.”
I basically then just asked if there was any way I could get an email address my senior year and just reach out to people, take interesting notes, and send them back to them. Thankfully they were actually pretty receptive to that and that was how my first month with Ludlow went — I just had an email address and would take meetings and send notes to Jonathon and Brett. After a month, they told me that I should work more full-time with them, so I started spending two days a week with them. From there, I ended up joining Ludlow full-time and have been here now for close to 5 years full-time.
Michael: You were able to build up your resume and get people to take a bet on you when you were still a student. Do you have any advice for how students who don't have much work experience can get folks to take an interest in them and really take a bet on them?
Blake: I think the biggest thing is that people are super receptive to people who have ".edu" email addresses. Take advantage of that and email literally everyone. I think the one thing I was super shameless about was emailing people cold, constantly. I basically had no fear. During my senior year, I was basically sending cold emails to everyone, and I actually used Twitter a lot in college too. I would Tweet to people publicly and be like, “Hey, would you be willing to meet with me?” More often than not, people would respond because they didn’t want to have this ambitious kid sending a tweet and them not responding to it.
That worked super well. I was just super shameless and was like, "Why not? What's the harm in me talking to or reaching out to these people? The worst that happens is they don't respond. It's not like they hate me or anything.” I don't think anyone is upset when they get a cold email. Worst case scenario, they disregarded it. Best case scenario, they respond. I would say, more often than not, I would get responses from people that I would cold email and message.
Every one of my internships I got in college was either through Twitter or cold emails. SpaceX was a random email to a person on the team that I wanted to join. For Nest, I just tweeted to the recruiting person, asking if they were hiring any interns. Ludlow was also through Twitter and building relationships. For me, it has always been learning in public and being shameless about it — going out and trying to get people's attention.
Michael: I really love all of that. I got my internship this summer through a cold email. I obviously got in touch with you through a cold email. And, one of my co-founders at The Takeoff (Lukas) put together a guide on cold emailing a few weeks ago. It's definitely something that we do a lot of, and I think something that you touched on, being able to utilize and put your ".edu" email address to work, is a great point. A lot of people want to help out students and even if someone doesn't respond, it's usually just that they are super busy. So, being persistent and following up can definitely help on that front.
Just to go more in-depth on Ludlow, what exactly is Ludlow? What check sizes do you write? And, what industries or verticals do you focus on?
Blake: Ludlow is an early-stage venture firm. We're a team of 3. It's a $50M fund. We typically invest in seed and pre-seed rounds, as our initial check. The fund is generalist. I would say that my public-facing persona spends a lot of time in gaming and the future of entertainment and things like that. But, overall, the portfolio is generalist.
I spend time in literally every single area that you can think of. To be honest, I think my favorite part about venture, and especially early-stage venture, is that you can be a generalist and spend time in every single random area that you never would have even thought of. You might end up talking to a manufacturing company or an enterprise SaaS company or the next social app. That's a standard day for me, jumping between all these different industries and technologies.
I think the best part about this job is when you learn about something new that you didn't even know existed. When you learn about an industry that is hidden in plain sight, that's very exciting and interesting. You start to learn a whole lot more about a lot of random places through venture.
We [Ludlow] are much more focused on people, more than anything else. If we try and explain our thesis through anything else, it won't make sense. We are very focused on investing in people.
Michael: I think the learning and curiosity mindset that I've read and listened to you talk about before definitely goes a long way in the venture space.
I grew up in New York, I go to school in St. Louis, and I was interning for a firm down in Baltimore this summer. I'm curious, from an investing perspective, how does being in the Midwest and in a city that isn't considered a startup or tech hub impact the investments that you make? Do you ever feel that you're at a disadvantage in terms of deal flow because you're not in San Fransico, New York, Boston, or another tech hub?
Blake: I'm not going to lie and say that it's all rainbows and sunshine, but for me, I love putting my head down and staying focused. I love being in the Midwest. It's where I was born and raised and so it always has a sweet spot for me.
I was super fortunate to be able to stay here post-college and do what I love to do. I think it's the same dynamics as a New York venture firm investing in companies on the west coast. They also have to deal with being proactive, trying to stay top of mind, and sourcing deals. The difference is, we never have homecourt advantage, or at least we rarely have homecourt advantage. For us, it's always staying super scrappy. Going back to the last question and discussion on being scrappy and reaching out to people, I still do all of that stuff. I cold email founders all the time, saying, "Hey, what you're working on is super interesting. I'd love to find ways to be helpful."
Twitter is also incredibly helpful for staying top of mind. Twitter and talking with other investors all the time is the best way to alleviate some of the stress that happens purely from not being on the coast. We get to be much more intentional about our time, and when we do travel to the coasts, I don't know post-COVID, but pre-COVID, we were able to handpick what meetings we actually wanted to have, because we weren't there that often.
For me, it's very much put my head down when I'm in the Midwest and stay super focused and be very intentional about how we spend our time. That's always how we view it.
Michael: I really like everything you touched on there. Time allocation, especially in a job like venture, where you obviously have so many different things that you can focus on at any given point in time, definitely goes a long way. We kind of touched on this earlier before hopping into the interview, but I listened to your interview with Patrick O'Shaughnessy a few weeks ago on Invest Like the Best. In that interview, you spoke a lot about investing in gaming and how to best monetize video games. For our subscribers who maybe haven't had the privilege of listening to that interview with Patrick, could you dive in a bit on why you're so excited about gaming as an investor?
Blake: I grew up playing games and have always been super interested in games. They've always been basically this third place for me. The first place is home, the second place is work, and games for me has always been the third place. Games are where I hang out with friends, meet new people, and things like that. So, I've just always been really interested in gaming from that angle.
I think over the past five to ten years, we've seen a really big shift happening within gaming. Historically, games were just viewed as hit-driven businesses, almost like movies. They've started to shift towards being games-as-a-service or platforms, whatever you want to actually call it, and they actually look much more like social platforms.
Fortnite feels like a social platform at this point, where there's one game inside it, Battle Royale, but people are just loading it up and hanging with their friends within that environment. The same thing happens in League of Legends, Counter-Strike, and other games. They have real staying power. They're no longer just this thing that exists for a year and then consumers buy a new one. There still is that type of game, but I think that game is going away.
And so, the idea of investing in a company that has real staying power but also has incredible retention from its users is amazing. I think there are so many different ways to build on top of a platform that people continually hang out in. That's how I view gaming more broadly right now.
Michael: Awesome. One question that I'm super curious about is how that viewpoint and thesis on the space brought Ludlow to invest in 100 Thieves?
Blake: Wow. This is a long story, but I'll keep it short. One of our LPs is Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cavs and Quicken Loans. I have gotten to know Dan well throughout my years at Ludlow, and we were starting to look at the eSports and competitive gaming space, which led us to talk to a bunch of different teams. Ultimately, we came back and were like, “Maybe we should try and incubate our own team or partner with someone who has an audience already.”
And so, I reached out to Nadeshot, who's the CEO of 100 Thieves and a big YouTuber. I actually reached out to him cold, through Twitter. I just DM'd him and was like, “Hey, would you ever be interested in taking on venture money for this business?” He didn't respond for a decent amount of time. I was super persistent, just going back to what we were talking about before. I probably sent him six or seven DMs over the course of two weeks, before he finally responded. I probably looked crazy to him, but I just had so much conviction that this was the right move for him. I was just like, “Please just get on a phone call with me. Let's chat.”
Thankfully, he was willing to chat, and he saw the bigger vision for 100 Thieves. That's sort of the early days of 100 Thieves. I'm still on the board there and am very actively involved. In the very early days, it was just approaching Nadeshot and figuring out how to make 100 Thieves into something bigger.
Michael: I love all of that. The persistence definitely shows across the board. These last few questions are more of advice related questions for our subscribers, many of whom are students.
I think a lot of our subscribers, and students in general, are feeling quite anxious about where the job market will be when they graduate in the next few years. I know there is obviously no one, set answer to this question, but I'm curious if you have any recommendations or advice for how students can best prepare themselves to enter the job market that may not be as strong as it has been over the past few years?
Blake: I think the job market is always going to be competitive, especially within tech, venture, finance, and things like that. They are naturally competitive spaces. If you're interested in tech and software, there has arguably never been a better time to be building software. If you look at the public markets right now, software companies are doing incredibly well. I think there are a lot of opportunities there.
Being persistent, trying to make yourself stand out, and adding value are all important. When I was in college, I started to make shortlists of what companies I really wanted to work for. I would figure out my top five companies and really target those companies and get to know people within all of those companies and build relationships within them. A lot of it is being super intentional: What companies really interest you? What are your goals? What's your dream?
Trying to identify those companies and build relationships with people within those companies early on will pay huge dividends. The truth is, figuring out what you actually want to do is important. Then, trying to meet as many people as you can, within those companies, is probably the best route that I would recommend. I think ultimately, companies are going to be hiring, it's just going to be slower and more competitive.
Michael: That all really helpful and great insight. Do you have any books or podcasts that you would recommend to our subscribers, maybe about venture, maybe about startups and entrepreneurship, maybe about psychology, or just life in general?
Blake: If you're interested in venture, there's a book called Venture Deals by Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson of Foundry Group. It's very good. It actually goes through both sides of the table for venture: essentially saying, this is how an investor would perceive this term sheet and this is how a founder should perceive this term sheet. All the nitty-gritty stuff that isn’t actually covered that often. I would always recommend Venture Deals.
One of my favorite books is Shoe Dog, on Phil Knight. I think it’s a lot of people’s favorite book. As far as podcasts go, I would absolutely recommend listening to Invest Like the Best from Patrick O’Shaughnessy. The speakers that he has on there are incredible, and I think he's doing one of the most interesting things within this space. I'd also recommend The Twenty Minute VC by Harry Stebbings. Other than that, I recommend reading everything from Paul Graham, Bill Gurley, and Josh Kopelman. There are gems within those blogs as well.
Michael: Those are all really great recommendations. I think Venture Deals was probably the first venture capital related book I read. I probably listen to Invest Like the Best and The Twenty Minute VC every day. I learned a ton. That was great!
Blake: If anyone reading this ever wants to reach out, don't hesitate to do so. I'm always around and am happy to be helpful in any way I can, as long as I have time.
We hope you enjoyed the interview with Blake and learned a lot. We certainly did :)
You can find Blake on Twitter @blakeir.
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(Blake Robbins’ student advice)