After reading Semil Shah’s two recent posts on “Reflecting on the first 100 investments” and “Investment lessons from Howard Lindzon,” I was inspired to share three lessons I have learned over the past three years as part of the Coca-Cola Founders team.
For those who are not familiar with what we do, Coca-Cola Founders operates like a traditional early-stage VC fund. But we aren’t exactly like a VC fund for two reasons: We invest off the balance sheet and we are primarily focused on co-creating companies together with repeat founders.
Our co-creation model is unique. At its core, we follow a basic, four-step process:
- Engage our business units around identifying problem areas.
- Explore the strategic fit with Coke.
- Help land pilots for the solution inside Coke.
- Help scale the solution inside Coke.
All fours steps involve a close collaboration with repeat founders, who are handpicked by us to work on these solutions.
This means we traditionally invest at the pre-seed stage – and sometimes even before the founders even have nailed down the idea for the business. To date, we have co-created 13 startups in 10 countries. Three of our companies have raised Series A (Wonolo – U.S., Weex – Mexico, and EyeQ – U.S.) and another three are on track to close a follow-on round of financing before the end of this year.
Much like a traditional VC, we provide support to our founders in building their company by helping them develop their strategic direction and by connecting them with other Fortune 1,000 companies. It has been a wild and fun ride, and we feel very proud of what we have been able to achieve over the past three years.
We’ve also learned a lot over that time, lessons which I’ll now share with you:
1. Love what you do.
We’ve been fortunate to invest in some amazing companies so far. When we started, we were considered the new kids on the block. We were just another corporate venture arm that would likely shut down after a year. Many VCs advised us that we needed to start by getting a big win under our belt early on by investing in later-stage deals before moving downstream once we found our rhythm and built up a reputation.
However, at the time of our launch, we knew what our strengths and weaknesses were and where our passion was – so we stuck with that. Given that we operate inside a large organization, our budgets are heavily scrutinized and funds are often redirected at a moment’s notice to the highest ROI projects.
So we had many discussions on the best way to manage our portfolio to increase our chances of success. We also had to close down companies or help remove a founder where it no longer made sense. Any investor will tell you these are never easy decisions to make.
So yes, we had lots of up and downs during the past few years. But because we love what we do, and we see the strategic impact that our co-creation model has on the entire Coca-Cola system, we look past many of the lows and get to work every day in search of another strategic win. The lesson then is that if this is your true passion, it’ll pay off. But if you’re not insanely passionate about it, then you don’t do it or you will burn yourself out trying.
2. Consumer tech is much harder than enterprise tech.
In our experience, consumer tech is a much more challenging market to enter than the enterprise sector. A key reason for that is that when a company is in the pre-seed stage, it is much harder to know if there is a real market to go after. With the enterprise tech market, on the other hand, the IT function will be quick to react to the solution and validate the market and it size.
Furthermore, we have come to realize that enterprise tech has a set of rules to play by. Therefore, strategies will emerge to increase your chance of winning. These strategies have been codified to form part of our co-creation process. We believe that with the right understanding of the levers in the ecosystem, a well-nurtured and ever-growing network, and a finger on the pulse of what the real problems our corporation are facing, we have been able to greatly assist our company’s growth while also increasing our portfolio companies’ chances for success.
3. Stay humble, your reputation is on the line.
This may sound obvious, but we have been surprised at some of the egos we have come across, especially in Silicon Valley, where many founders have complained to us about how VC’s have behaved once they had an exit. We’ve heard stories that include checked-out board members who don’t stay up to date on product developments and ask irrelevant questions, investors burying founders in busy work that doesn’t ever get reviewed, to VCs who promise to help a company post-investment and then fail to return emails and phone calls in a timely manner. Warren Buffet said it best: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently”.
I wake up every morning feeling incredibly lucky to have a job that continues to teach me so many new things on a daily basis. I know that there will be many more lessons in the years to come and I look forward to sharing those in future posts.
Marius Swart helps lead Coca-Cola Founders, a pre-seed, co-creation platform for Coca-Cola. Visit the Coca-Cola Founders blog for more of the team's "inside-out" learnings.