Jordan Odinsky (Edition #3)
Jordan Odinsky (Investor & Head of Platform at Ground Up Ventures)
** Please note that when this interview was released, The Takeoff was called Casting Ventures. We have since rebranded to The Takeoff. **
(I participated in the program as a Campus Partner last spring. Feel free to shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about the program or application.)
Quick note from the moderator: I’m super excited to release our first interview Edition of 2020. Jordan’s work at Ground Up Ventures, including running the Campus Partner program, is unparalleled, and I am excited to share some of his stories and advice in this interview. In the interview, Jordan discusses just what Ground Up Ventures is, shares a bit about his background, discusses the Israeli startup scene, offers advice to college students interested in breaking into venture capital, and much more.
Check out the interview on Medium, here!
Michael: To start, I think it’d be awesome to get an overview of what Ground Up Ventures is and what your role is at the firm.
Jordan: Ground Up Ventures is an early-stage venture capital firm that invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups in the US and Israel. We’re a young team that brings a fresh, hungry, and energetic approach to the founders that we work with.
I have two primary roles within the firm. I’m an Investor and the Head of Platform. On the investment side, I am a core member of the investment team, which includes everything from sourcing investment opportunities to doing diligence, negotiating terms, and then supporting the companies post-investment.
On the platform side, my responsibility, along with the partners, is to set the strategy for how we can be most helpful. Platform is a growing trend in the venture community that is focused on how firms provide value to the portfolio companies after investing. Our mantra is that we want the companies we invest in to view us as an extension of their headcount. That means we’re on their Slack groups, WhatsApp chats, have weekly or bi-weekly catch ups, and more. However the company wants us to be helpful, we’ll be there. This gives us a great advantage to offer relevant assistance proactively instead of reactively, when it might be too late.
Michael: Great, and that sounds really amazing on the platform side of things. One thing that you touched on earlier that I want to follow up on: Being that Ground Up invests in both American as well as Israeli companies, and I know that you’re located in Israel, how important has being in Israel been for you and just how amazing is the Israeli startup scene?
Jordan: Actually, Israel, more specifically Tel Aviv, is the leading startup hub outside of the US. There are a lot of reasons for this. You can find a bunch of different articles with some idea of why that might be, everything from military experience to just the personality and character traits of Israelis are different from other people around the world. I moved to Israel about five years ago from New York. What is really special for me is that there is a very small venture community here in Israel. It’s very tight-knit. Everyone knows each other. And, that’s true not only in Israel but in most places around the world. Venture communities are quite small. But, I think it’s true even more so here in Israel.
The venture community in Israel is very much concentrated. Many venture capitalists here work in the same office buildings and areas. I think from a community perspective, it is much harder as a non-Israeli to go ahead and break into the tech ecosystem here because you don’t have the same networks as most of the others do. But, on the other hand, everyone is extremely collaborative and helpful in bringing you into their trusted circles of friends and connections. So, the most special thing for me has really been that sense of collaboration, which I actually think is quite unique to Israel. Everyone is super helpful.
I also think that the types of companies that we see coming out of Israel are very different from the companies that we see in America. Whereas Israel’s strong suit is enterprise software, everything from PropTech to cyber security to semiconductors, it’s mainly enterprise-focused. Whereas in America, you have a great mix of enterprise startups and consumer startups. For example, there are barely any Israeli direct to consumer companies. For every one Israeli consumer company, you probably have 25 or 50 US consumer companies. So, I would say as an investor here, you just get a different set of how to look at things and how to evaluate things.
What’s great for us at Ground Up is that we are able to be supportive both in Israel and in New York, given we have team members in both locations. A lot of Israeli companies actually choose the US as their primary market, so for us to have a presence in both Israel and in New York, and specifically in the US, has been extremely helpful for the founders we work with. These founders may not know who their early customers are, or where to even find an apartment, among other things. We are able to be helpful on a much more personal and professional level in both locations, which has been really unique and interesting for us.
Michael: One other question I have on the venture front is: Just how competitive is the early-stage venture capital landscape? Do you think that there is too much money chasing too few great deals? Or, do you think that there is an ample amount of capital for the number of great opportunities/companies being founded?
Jordan: I actually think that venture is quite collaborative. VCs share a lot of deals amongst each other, which is really special. In venture, firms are always bringing others around the table because we rarely see one firm do an entire round themselves. Usually, firms go ahead and say, “We’ll do $X and will bring in someone else, or a number of other firms, to do the rest of the round.” So, I think that venture is quite collaborative. I think what is most important for funds, and especially younger investors, is the question of, “How do you prove your value up front and show the value that you provide in all deals, particularly the deals with co-investors that you really want to collaborate with in the future?” I think that showing that you are good at what you do, that you’re a great investor, and that you’re adding a lot of value is the key to being more in the collaborative loop among venture capitalists. That’s on the first front.
On the second front, on the question of whether or not there is too much capital, it is obviously very different in the US and Israel. We actually just released a report titled State of Seed (Israel 2019) that highlights the main trends, investment activity, and outlook of Israeli seed-stage investors. We asked the respondents the question of whether or not they think that there is too much money in the market right now, not enough, or just enough. We also asked if they are seeing the quality and quantity of deal flow get better or get worse. The data right now is showing that there is either just the right amount of capital available or too much capital available. It’s split between those two opinions. Take what you will from that.
Michael: What first got you interested in investing? I’m wondering if you had any experiences prior to Ground Up Ventures, either in an operating or investing role, that sparked your interest in venture capital?
Jordan: That’s a great question, and it’s a story that I actually wrote a blog post about. There are two things. The first thing is that for me, when I moved to Israel I was right out of college and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. My wife turned to me and said, “If you didn’t have to worry about money, what would you do?” My response was that I wanted to be a Shark on Shark Tank. I then had to research what exactly is Shark Tank, and only then did I figure out that what the investors do on Shark Tank is actually called venture capital. Obviously, the venture capital that we do and the venture capital that they do on Shark Tank are very different, but I kind of had to learn the hard way about what venture capital actually was. That’s how I kind of got started. From learning.
I got my first job as an intern at a fund here in Jerusalem on their marketing team. I quickly got a full-time offer and did a lot of interesting work and projects for them. I soon realized that I wanted to be more on the actual business of investing and helping the companies. I ended up leading platform for that firm.
I was managing the relationships with all of our portfolio companies. At the time, we had 120 portfolio companies and had invested about $700M. Now, I think the numbers are closer to 200 portfolio companies and $1.2B in invested capital. Getting to see all of that growth was really special for me, and getting to help so many people gave me good intuition and context as to what is actually happening in the startup ecosystem and what investors really want to see. Coming at venture capital from the platform angle and breaking into the industry through platform was a really interesting move. It definitely gave me a lot of insight and helps me give value to the founders that we invest in.
To help answer the second half of your question: Why I want to do venture capital. I actually wrote a Medium article about this (Check out Jordan’s post about “Why Do You Want To Be A VC?”). I remember that when I was in college, I had an interview for a summer internship at one of New York City’s largest real estate firms. In the interview, I was asked the question, “Why do you want to do this?” I had to come up with a response because I had no idea why I wanted to do real estate. What was I supposed to say? That all of my friends were doing real estate so I wanted to do it also? That real estate is what good Jewish boys do? I ended up making up some lame answer like, “Well, I really like playing RollerCoaster Tycoon, and I think that doing that in the real world would be really cool.” Obviously, I did not get the job.
After I got into VC, one of my mentors asked me why I wanted to be a VC. The answer to this question was really clear for me. My answer was that, first off, I love startups but, mainly, why would I ever want to work at one company as a founder or employee when I can have a hand in helping and growing a dozen, two dozen, or three dozen companies. I’m in it for the growth, for the fun, and for the adrenaline. I’m here to provide as much value as I can. And, all the more, being able to wear so many different hats across so many different companies is what gets me excited in the morning.
To know that there is something new, fresh, and exciting for me to work on every day is what gets me excited. You never know what you are going to do as a venture capitalist. And, then when you do something great that actually moves the needle for a portfolio company, it is the greatest feeling.
Michael: Back to your role as the Head of Platform at Ground Up Ventures: How much do you interact with the people running platform for other venture capital firms? How much collaboration is there on that front? Do you ever learn from these other people who are involved with their firm’s platform, seeing what works and doesn’t work for them, and then implement your findings at Ground Up?
Jordan: Great question. I am a Co-Chair of an international group called VC Platform Community. We are a group of over 600 “platform people” from hundreds of funds. The whole point of the group is to share with each other, ask questions, share best practices, and share resources. We have a Summit in New York City every year, and the idea of the summit is to learn from the people that are doing a really great job running platform at their respective firms.
The last Summit was fully sold out within the first couple weeks. The waiting list was massive and over 200 people attended. The Summit is our time to get together, collaborate, and brainstorm so that we can all walk away with tangible ideas that we can take back to our respective firms and implement to make our firms run better and the founders that we work with more effective and happier. It’s definitely an extremely collaborative community.
Michael: Awesome! The Summit sounds amazing. I’d love to transition over to some questions geared toward college students interested in tech, startups, and venture capital, as that makes up the majority of our reader base. One question I have on that front is: What advice would you give to a student who is interested in getting involved with venture capital? I know, obviously, that Ground Up Ventures runs an amazing Campus Partner program that I was lucky enough to participate in, but what advice, from a super broad overview, would you give to a student who wants to get into VC?
Jordan: As you said, I think our Campus Partner program is an incredible opportunity for students who are interested in venture capital (Applications for Ground Up’s Spring 2020 batch of Campus Partners are live! Learn more about the program and apply, here!). Aside from that, I think the first big thing is the question of, “Should I work at a startup, or should I go and try to get an internship or become an analyst at a venture capital firm?” The advice that I was given a long time ago was that you should optimize for what you want to do.
Meaning, if the whole job of a VC is to become a great investor, you don’t further yourself as a great investor by working at a startup. So, if you really want to do investing, go do investing. If you really want to work at a startup because you want the startup experience, go work at a startup. But, don’t think that by working at a startup you’re then going to have an easier time getting into VC. There is no one path to getting into VC. Everyone has a different story of how they did it. So, don’t try and follow anyone’s path because it is not necessarily your path. That’s number one.
Number two is like I said, the advice that I was given was to optimize for what you actually want to do. If you want to do startups and your reason for doing VC is that you find startups fascinating, go work at an early-stage company and help them really move the needle in building that company from the ground up (no pun intended). If you want to do investing, then try your best to get an investing role. You should really optimize for what you want to do.
I would say the third thing, and Semil Shah who is a very popular investor summed this up perfectly (check out Semil’s post about context, here), is that what most people don’t realize is that the biggest skill of really great investors is that context is everything. I am only saying this because Semil said it before, it is not my original thought, but it really resonated with me. As an investor, particularly as a venture capitalist, you really need so much context about what’s going on everywhere, who’s doing what deals, what their thesis was, and so on. You need to collect as much data as possible to try and help your own thinking. One of the best ways of doing that is being on Twitter and joining the conversation there. I don’t think that enough people realize that.
I have learned more from Twitter than I probably would have learned from getting an MBA. And, I say that comfortably. I think that Twitter has been the greatest classroom for me, it has been the greatest networking tool for me, and it has really helped me with gaining context. I can’t tell you how many times in the day-to-day of running our firm I hear: “Did you see who did this deal?” or “Did you see that Company X raised $Y.” It helps a lot with pattern recognition, and when we then meet a company who is doing ABC, we can say, “Oh, you know who just raised a lot of money doing something similar? I wonder if we could speak to their investor to find out…”
You just have to know so much about everything as an investor, and Twitter is the best way to do that. A lot of students, and I think a lot of people in general, who want to break into VC don’t necessarily know that. They don’t know that Twitter is where VCs hang out, especially American VCs.
Michael: Great! Off of that, and the answer to this question may very well be Twitter, but: What is the best way for a student to make an impression on VCs and startups? Do you recommend writing blog posts, spending time on Twitter, getting active in clubs on campus, or are there other ways that students can stand out and catch someone’s eye, either on the venture side of things or on the startup side of things?
Jordan: I would say that if the goal is to end up in VC, you should build out a network of VCs. Go get advice from people, speak to VCs, and ask them if they are hiring. If they’re not hiring, ask what it would take for them to hire. VCs are much more likely to hire you if you bring them great deals, so I think that what is most important is to go out and find great deals. Not just deals, as there has to be quality over quantity here, but great deals. As soon as you can go out and find great deals and show those deals to investors, it becomes a totally different game.
Now, the question is: How do you go out and find great deals, especially when you don’t have a deal flow network? What worked really well for me, in the beginning, was providing value upfront. If you go ahead and say, “There is this really cool app that I love. I am going to reach out to the founder on LinkedIn and ask him if I could email him with a page of feedback that I have on the design and user flow. Let me just provide value and ask the founder if there is anything I could do to help the company,” you will have the opportunity to make that founder interested in your career, which can be incredibly helpful. Once you have provided value to their company and the founder becomes interested in your career, you can see if they know of any VC internships.
The second thing that I think is really helpful is being associated with a brand. For example, one of the key messages that we try to drive home with our Campus Partners, especially with the current cohort, is when you’re reaching out to people, say, “I want to understand if this is a fit for Ground Up Ventures.” That changes the dynamic of the conversation. You are no longer just a random person looking to get on a call. As a founder, you now feel as though you might get something out of this conversation, get an investment, get a VC around the table, get an introduction, or get something else of value instead of just giving something. If you can associate yourself with a great brand that’s known to give value to founders, then you are immediately ahead of the game.
Michael: I think that resonates really well. Before we finish up, I have a few quick questions that are on a more personal level, focused on mental health and wellness. These are questions that I really like asking founders and investors: Is there anything that you do to stay on top of your mental and physical health, whether that is going to the gym to work out, meditating, eating healthy, or something else along those lines?
Jordan: I hate physical activity. I don’t work out. I do like to walk a lot though, and I like to take a lot of my calls while walking. I live about two miles away from our office so when it is nice out, I have no problem taking calls, scheduling calls, and just walking home from the office. In terms of meditation and how I take care of myself, I am an Orthodox Jew. I go to synagogue every single day, usually multiple times a day. I think that there is a really interesting perspective that religious people have on their lives and professional lives. I think that professional and personal growth are often intertwined. For me, specifically being someone who values living a religious life, religion has been great for me all around. Religion has helped my thinking and has helped me in a bunch of ways.
Michael: Is there anything else that you would like to touch on before we finish up?
Jordan: I would just say don’t be shy. My one piece of advice for college students, that I wish somebody would have told me when I was in college, is that if you are just nice and respectful and send a great, well-thought-out email to someone asking for advice, you can get advice or hop on a call with pretty much anyone. You just have to be persistent, respectful, and have a well-thought-out way to approach that person. So, don’t be afraid! Go make a list of the top five people that you would love to meet and email them saying that you are a big fan and just want to chat and ask some questions. Make it as easy as possible for them to say yes.
APPLY: Apply to Ground Up’s Spring 2020 Campus Partner program, here!