accelerator : Female Founders & Funders: Joanne Chen, Partner at Foundation Capital
We are thrilled to be sharing a series here on L-SPARK’s blog that features incredible female founders and funders. While we are leading up to International Women’s Day, we believe that women should be celebrated all year so we’ll be posting these female founder and funder posts on a regular basis.
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Joanne’s passion for technology developed early, when her mathematician dad and computer scientist mom taught her how to program. By the time she was nine years old, she had turned her skills into a business and made her first webpage for a client.
Joanne began her career as an engineer at Cisco Systems and later co-founded a mobile gaming company. She also spent many years working on Wall Street at Jefferies & Company, helping tech companies go through the IPO and M&A processes, and at Probitas Partners, advising venture firms on their own fundraising process. She was an angel investor for two years at Hyde Park Angels prior to joining Foundation in 2014.
Joanne is now a Partner at Foundation Capital in San Francisco.
Joanne, what have been the biggest lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
JOANNE: Companies as a concept is a made-up concept. It’s not a tangible concept, it’s a group of people who come together to work on a common cause — that’s really all it is. The group of people around that cause is the CEO and founding team. The investment we’re making is more of a judgement on the entrepreneur.
When I think about the companies that have been really successful, the people involved have been incredibly “gritty” and they’ll run through a brick wall if it’s necessary and if you look at their ability to learn, most of these CEOs have an amazing ability to learn over time.
For most of us, we have to experience certain events in order to apply learnings to another situation — that’s a basic way to learn. Some people don’t have experience BUT they can still apply the appropriate knowledge. Great CEOs can learn faster than the company is growing. A company grows and changes so much over time. There’s no school that can teach that – you need to teach yourself that.
So, in short, grit and the ability to improve.
What sort of companies have you invested in at Foundation Capital?
JOANNE: Mya – in the conversational AI space – is specifically relevant for the times right now. I have been observing the trends around conversational interfaces for some time and it’s been interesting. Having grown up in China, and having spent time there, the ability to message through an interface seemed important and was a growing trend there. It was obvious in 2015 when more people were using messaging apps than social apps.
The difference between China and the US is around labor constraints. It’s a natural progression in my mind — that we need to power machines to communicate in this space. Now we can program machines in the same way that we would talk to someone else rather than having to traditionally program them.
Over time, I’ve been tracking Mya because they were awesome. They are a recruiting assistant – they help recruiters save 75% of their time by taking over much of the intake process. What’s interesting is that Mya also plays in the blue collar space where there is a higher turnover in the job space. This can also be a largely volatile space so removing the manual work from the process can save companies a lot of money and reduce inefficiencies.
Mya realized that candidates prefer to communicate via text. The conversation happens on their time and they are much more likely to follow-up, etc. And, recruiters are saving tons of time. One of their customers is Adecco who is a recruiting firm. Mya will help them make their processes much more effective. I really liked the CEO as his background was steeped in the industry so we led a $15M series B.
On the consumer side, Tubi TV. We also invested in Netflix but Tubi offers a free Netflix. It’s ad-supported and they offer on-demand content across all of the viewing platforms. We invested in this company because on the studio side, studios being the show makers, they are in a world of hurt. Historically, they’ve monetized their programming via cable television and then went on to sell that to Netflix. Netflix is becoming more like a studio now so the original program creators are now looking to “What’s next?”
Tubi is now looking to be the new space for those studios to still access a monetized channel. The public likes it because it’s free and advertisers like it for the reach. Growing 3x year over year and are working with the large studios. Hopefully they’ll be headed toward something really interesting.
Your talk at SaaS North was focused on conversational AI – can you tell me a bit more about that and why you’re passionate about it?
JOANNE: It was a macro-trend that was very, very obvious even two years ago. People want to communicate via messaging – that was obvious in China and now in the US. A lot of where that is headed is ripe for automation. For example, if you’re calling T-Mobile and asking where your phone is, that is going to take some time and will cost the company money. A chat bot can provide a perfect opportunity for automation.
From a new services provided perspective, brands like Coca-Cola never knew who their customers were because they were selling via a retailer. With contact technology, Coca-Cola can have a one-on-one conversation with their customers through a personalized experience. They can build relationships with their customers and someday, cut out the retailer.
As a woman who is immersed in the tech & entrepreneurship space, what advice do you have for the girls who are growing up today that may be interested in exploring this area?
JOANNE: There has been a lot of activity – negative activity – in the space. I’m glad that these conversations are happening because the first step to making sure we have a great ecosystem is to make sure we have these checks and balances in place. That’s a good start.
For girls who are thinking about this space… I was lucky enough that my parents pushed me hard to study computer science and engineering, which made it much easier to get into this space, so one way is to think about a STEM education.
Another way, is to not think about the barriers but rather focus on the opportunities. For me, I never thought, “I’m the only woman in engineering… in tech… in venture…” I just thought about this is where I’m meant to be and I didn’t want to stop until I got there. That tenacity helped quite a bit.
The other piece that is important is that these women and girls get the right kind of mentors to help them. I got really lucky along the way as I had so many incredible women guide me through the process without realizing it. Without those people, this wouldn’t have been possible. Parents, bosses, advisors, investors… having those helped. Too many can be confusing and not helpful but a handful of folks who are invested in your success is incredible helpful.