Thinking About Bodega

As investors, we hope to help founders see around corners in order to assess and predict outcomes. Startups, especially early stage startups, are in the weird position of simultaneously trying to reduce known risks while embracing new risks. Today, one of our portfolio companies launched and was met with a strong, unexpected reaction, one I didn’t anticipate. This post is primarily about trying to understand that lack of anticipation on my part, and secondarily, providing some insight into why I believe in this company.

The company is called Bodega and their goal is to use technology to extend commerce to spaces where today you can’t put a store, or where an existing impersonal vending experience can be improved upon. Bodega’s vision is that these flexible devices can do several things at once (and here’s some more in their own words):

  • Provide better item inventory driven by local preferences, data analysis and curation
  • Support not just sales, but item rental, item exchange and so on
  • Be price competitive with delivery-service alternatives
  • Give store owners, property owners and individual entrepreneurs a chance to run a micro-business in an updating of the classic vending model

Bodega’s vision is not, and has never been, to compete with or replace the urban corner store. Bodega doesn’t want to disrupt the bodega. Some instances of today’s press coverage suggested that element, a soundbite which, exacerbated by Bodega’s naming, pissed people off as another example of tech startups being at best tone-deaf, and at worst, predatory. This article in Forbes explains Bodega well while appropriately critiquing the challenges they face in succeeding. We – and the other investors – committed capital, sweat and reputation behind a team that absolutely is working on a problem that matters to them and we believe can be meaningful to customers. And that’s the founder-market fit we seek.

So, About Our Name is CEO Paul McDonald’s explanation and introspection of the Bodega brand. Let me tldr by saying I agree with Paul’s commitment here to listen to and understand the feedback. And I believe they want to build a durable and thoughtful company where the decisions they make – brand included – represent their values.

But even though I looked at this name for several months pre-launch, why didn’t I anticipate the ways it could be interpreted? When I first heard it my biggest concern was, would anyone outside of NYC understand it? The early part of my childhood was in Queens, NY and bodegas were beloved, but did it translate outside of the five boroughs? The team’s market research suggested that it did – and in doing so they also spoke with consumers of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

Once that research came back positive, I was sold. It didn’t occur to me that some people would see the word and associate its use in this context with whitewashing or cultural appropriation. I heard it in a different way than some others are hearing it today. And that leaves me wondering why, because as an investor, and even more importantly as a human being, it’s an awareness that I need. So like the founders, I too want to listen and better understand the lines between homage and respect versus exploitation and insensitivity. Today tells me it’s a personal blindspot and to assist founders, to help them see around corners, I need to see clearly.