Spark Capital’s Kevin Thau on Flexibility, Usability and Anti-thesis Investing
What makes VCs tick? How do they view the world, and what are the experiences that have formed those perspectives? Are they thesis-driven? Theme-diven? Seeking, as we are, exceptional founders and operators looking to disrupt big industries? Kevin Thau, General Partner at Spark Capital, thinks practically. A straightforward question of, “Would I actually use this?” has already led Kevin to invest in some of the most innovative companies of the last decade, among them Medium, LOLA, Haven and CTRL-Labs. Kevin most recently led Spark’s investment (alongside us, Lerer Hippeau, First Round, BoxGroup and Brainchild) in Mirror, a new connected fitness platform that combines a responsive mirror with best-in-class content to bring the boutique studio experience in home.
Last week, we had the pleasure of hosting a dinner for New York’s most ambitious operators - from companies including Blue Apron, Homepolish, Dia & Co, Handy and GLAMSQUAD - which featured Kevin as the guest of honor. Kevin was generous enough to share his experiences in the trenches, both as a seasoned operator and proven investor, and he left this roomful of aspiring founders with some pearls of wisdom on the value of staying nimble and not getting bogged down by a specific vision.
Part of what sets Kevin apart from other investors is his operational background; before getting into the VC game, Kevin spent 20 years in various operational roles at startups that defined new markets, including graphical computing, messaging, mobile technology and social media. He saw his share of successes and failures in the field, perhaps most notably during his eight-year tenure at Openwave, where he saw the company’s rapid rise through a heavy focus on M&A, IPO in 1999, and eventual demise in 2008 (though Kevin had left the company before its final leg).
Shortly after his Openwave days, Kevin was among the first handful of Twitter employees, where he worked as director of mobile products and then as VP of business and corp dev. Twitter was no sure bet in those early days, but Kevin took the job based on his conviction in mobile as the future, and he saw Twitter as one of the first companies taking a truly mobile-first approach.
The most important thing Kevin learned from his ups and downs in the operator seat, he says, is the ability to roll with the punches - through the inevitable ebbs and flows, successes and failures, and pivots of startup life. He warned our guests not to become too beholden to a single idea or viewpoint. Doing so, he says, can often blind you to the changing realities of your market or to potential distribution channels. Kevin pointed to Twitter, which, for a very long time, had hung its hat on the notion of a strict 140-character maximum, leaving very little room for users to include images in their posts. An early Twitter (then called Odeo) intern, Kevin Systrom, looked beyond the confines of the impermeable Tweet box. He saw demand for a photography-based platform with fewer limitations, enabling users to share and comment on one another’s images. Yadda, yadda, yadda, Instagram was born, and Twitter has since eased its sanctions on images and characters.
Kevin applies the same open-minded approach to his investments. His is a very anti-thesis-driven process that prioritizes practicality and usability over strict adherence to companies with a particular business model or category focus. Here are the three main points Kevin thinks about when faced with investment opportunities:
1. Product usability. The first thing Kevin looks at is whether he would love to use the product himself, or if he’s not the primary user (LOLA, for instance), having strong conviction in the product and its use case. For LOLA, Kevin thought about his three daughters and the types of products they’d be most inclined to use. He admired the momentum behind LOLA’s brand, and the ability of its founders to quickly build a strong community following for their differentiated products.
2. Founder conviction. Kevin is always looking for visionary founders, who exhibit that “get 'er done at any cost” attitude, and who can build a great team by inspiring others. In the case of Mirror, Kevin says he encountered a “product experience so well designed that every attention to detail you uncover [got me] more and more excited to a point where [I] awkwardly started laughing out loud.” But more than that, he was wowed by founder Brynn Putnam, who he dubs a “force of nature.” A former NYC ballerina, Brynn started her own line of boutique fitness studios (Refine Method), and then set about building her first Mirror prototype as a way of bringing the studio experience in home.
3. Timing. “Is now really the right time for this business? Would it be better suited for launch 10 years from now?” The timing component is a very nuanced aspect of all investment decisions, Kevin said, leaving a lot of gray area. Some companies can pull off being ahead of their time, as was the case with Twitter and its pioneering mobile-first approach. Mirror, on the other hand, couldn’t have taken off without the advancements in mobile or embedded systems that have occurred over the last five years.
While Kevin’s roots have kept him in San Francisco, he’s very excited by the growth of NYC Tech over the last decade. Some stubborn bystanders like to label NYC as "not being technical,” Kevin notes, but he doesn’t see a big difference between the two cities. His recent investments in Mirror, LOLA and CTRL-Labs are testament to his eagerness to jump into NYC’s tech ecosystem, and he’s always on the lookout for opportunities here that push him to think differently about established markets.
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Primary extends a huge thank you to Kevin for being so transparent about his experiences, and for encouraging our table of entrepreneurs to stay nimble and be open to new ideas. We’re grateful to have such inspiring operators and investors in our community.