Susan Lyne founded BBG Ventures in 2014, just a year after we started Homebrew. New fund managers are generally a pretty collaborative group and we got to know the BBGV team, sharing dealflow and asking each other “is this normal?” when facing a weird one-off situation. While her venture fund might be new, Susan’s resume is deeper and more impressive than most seasoned GPs, spanning executive tenures at iconic companies such as Disney, CEO of Martha Stewart Living and a number of public company Directorships. I learn from her every time we chat, and I’m excited to bring some of that to you via Five Questions.
Hunter Walk: After a successful career on the operating side, what prompted starting BBG Ventures in 2014? What was the original relationship between BBGV and AOL/TW?
Susan Lyne: I was at Gilt from 2008-2013 when NYC saw its first big wave of female founders. The year I joined was the year the Apple app store launched. When I look back on it, I think the iPhone created a sea-change for women—as consumers but also as entrepreneurs. For every new door it opened, every efficiency it created, there was a woman (or 20) who imagined something else she could build on that mobile ecosystem.
Women are consumer problem solvers—it’s in our DNA—and NYC has always been a magnet for women with big ideas. I had an open door at Gilt for women who were starting companies, and it was Gilt founder Kevin Ryan who first suggested I raise a fund. But it wasn’t till I went to AOL that I got serious about it. Two things happened there: I found the perfect person to partner with: Nisha Dua. We had complementary networks and skillsets, and a shared belief that the time was right for a fund focused on women. And I found the perfect sponsor—Tim Armstrong, AOL’s CEO, who believed in the thesis and agreed to back us. Our first fund was 100% backed by AOL.
HW: BBGV invests in startups where there’s at least one female founder. People might think on a sheer numbers game that that’s a disadvantage because you’re excluding a number of talented teams. And that strong companies with a female founder have a number of funding options. Why is your differentiation also a competitive advantage?
SL: You’re not the first person to ask whether the focus on women founders is a limitation. Here’s the thing: We’ve seen or been approached by almost 1800 startups since we launched, so there’s clearly not an issue with deal flow. There are a ton of women starting companies. We’ve invested in companies that have lots of funding options—like Zola, GlamSquad, Modsy, Lola—but also companies that were under the radar. No one was talking about The Wing, Flip, goTenna, when we first backed them, and they’ve all gone on raise from first-tier VCs. What we see is that more and more female founders want women on their cap table: A couple of founders have re-opened rounds for us; one even got a major investor to sell us secondary. We like to think we add value beyond a second x chromosome—operating experience, talent relationships, a direct line to companies that could potentially accelerate your growth. We’re also good listeners, we’re pretty good coaches, and we’re discreet—so if a founder needs to talk something out, we offer a safe haven.
HW: You’ve led, and served on the board of public companies such as Martha Stewart, GoPro and others. There’s a narrative among startups that the public markets should perhaps be avoided because they force short-term thinking. Do you agree? Are IPOs and long-term thinking incompatible?
SL: They don’t have to be. Look at Amazon—Bezos still plays the long game 20 years after the IPO. The reason he can do that is that he was clear from day one about how he planned to manage the company. His letter to shareholders that first year had a “buckle-up” message: We’re going for revenue growth and customer happiness, not near-term profits. I’m sure it pushed away a certain class of investors, but it said to everyone working at Amazon that short-term thinking wouldn’t be rewarded. Part of the avoidance right now is that private valuations have gotten ahead of the market. That, and the belief that staying private gives founders more control. But impatient investors can be just as challenging as the public markets. I think you’ll see more IPOs in the next few years. It’s still the best option for the vast majority of companies.
HW: Gender diversity and sexism have become more urgent topics in the venture industry. Are you encouraged by recent discussions? Many venture funds lack a female partner, let alone gender balance. What’s going to change this?
SL: I’m not sure “encouraged” really covers it. I admire the women who came forward to describe the harassment they’ve experienced fundraising—and I’m glad that it forced a few of the worst offenders to step down. But I’m pretty appalled reading about the NDA’s and ignored complaints that preceded the press coverage.
Look, fundamental change doesn’t happen fast in a community that’s as homogeneous and closed as venture capital. I think the biggest driver will be when a half dozen women-led companies exit as unicorns or IPO. When VCs start realizing they’re missing out on key deals because their networks are too insular—that’s when you’ll see a real drive for gender diversity.
HW: With a significant portion of your career in the media industry, what’s your reaction to the backlash against “journalism”—not just “fake news” but a more general distrust, reduction of authority? Will there ever again be news brands or bylines that we trust and have broad reach?
Yeah, it concerns me a lot. I’m old enough to remember a time when the country had a shared reality. We didn’t agree on what should be done about it, but we all saw the same footage of the Vietnam War and read the same facts about the Watergate break-in. The flip side of that was the huge amount of control it put in the hands of people who owned media companies. I’d never argue that we were better off then, but we saw in the last election how easy it is to use digital targeting to sow mistrust and hate. You end up with a balkanized population that only sees or reads things that reinforce their beliefs. I’m not sure what the fix is. Especially with a president who has contempt for real news-gathering. I see it as a small victory that subs at both the NYT and the Washington Post are up materially since Trump took office. And I have to believe that there are people out there working on an antidote to the echo chamber phenomenon. Bad times produce breakthrough thinking—at least that’s what I’m counting on.
Thanks Susan! Go follow her on Twitter.