Building Something Special (in VC)
By: Ali Afridi
In the startup world, an aspiration many of us share is to be a part of building something special. A product or business that becomes a stalwart in its industry and innovates to better serve its customers and partners. Through my own journey, I believe that Equal Ventures has the potential to be one such institution in the venture industry, and I’m thrilled to rejoin the team after a few years on the operator side.
I was originally a part of Equal for several years as the firm was established. I left a few years ago to scratch my operating itch — getting an opportunity to work with multiple venture studios as an EIR and then ultimately taking over as CEO of a VC-backed startup spun out of one of the studios.
During my time building, I was lucky to work with some incredible operators, experts, and advisors — from the founders and investors of multi-billion dollar enterprises to builders who have scaled their products to millions. I got to see many flavors of founder support — from individuals going above and beyond personally to firms with large platform teams of operational experts.
In parallel, although Equal wasn’t an investor, I had a chance to work with the team closely throughout the process given our history. Getting to see various founder support approaches in parallel gave me an even deeper appreciation for the Equal approach.
As I rejoin the team, I wanted to share the aspects of the firm that most stood out to me while on the other side. Beyond sharing with others, I’m hoping that this serves as a guiding light on the areas I’d like to double down on at the firm, especially related to better supporting founders at the earliest stages.
What makes Equal Special
1 — Proactive research & industry connectivity are the backbone of the firm
Unlike many VCs that use research primarily for diligence, Equal’s approach flips the model by proactively conducting research across its core verticals. The firm actively seeks out market shifts & catalysts, pain points across value chains, and emerging opportunities for new ventures.
This research enables the firm to have a point of view on markets often in advance of meeting founders (a “prepared mind”) as well as a deep bench of industry relationships. This enables a more thoughtful partnership with founders as they build their own companies. The depth of discussion is unparalleled when this industry context and prepared thought is already there and driving the firm’s own hypotheses on the approach needed to win in the space.
Founder pitches at Equal are less oriented towards trying to convince the firm of a market opportunity, but rather more on aligning around the approach and product necessary to build an industry-defining company. This research-driven approach has led to many of Equal’s investments. Some where the prepared mind research reports have been shared publicly include:
- Research on the Inventory Apocalypse led to the investment in Ghost
- Research on an OS for Clean Energy Developers led to the investment in Odyssey
- Research on the Future of Digital Grocery led to the firm incubating Starday Foods
2 — Students of business and industry; Enabling founders with frameworks and best practices
Continuous learning and self-improvement are core to Equal’s DNA. For several years at the firm, we had a monthly book club where we’d read and discuss a book related to prominent companies, emerging themes, or investment practices. In parallel, the firm’s bi-weekly industry briefings dive into the latest developments across all our core industries.
This culture is meant to enable the team to become the best investors they can as well as to develop toolkits and frameworks to support founders with their unique challenges. The goal is to better position portfolio founders — many of whom are first-time entrepreneurs — to be better positioned to deal with the upcoming challenges and be poised to win in their categories.
A great example of this is Equal’s Seed Strategy Session. Every portfolio company goes through the exercise following their initial investment. Founders collaborate with the Equal team to define key hypotheses and risks, lay out the stages for their businesses and steps to get them to their ultimate vision, and set the plan for the upcoming 18 months. Beyond driving alignment between investors and founders, this process also enables the founding teams to be aligned on strategy and the most important activities to focus on. Even the most seasoned founders in the portfolio — those who have built unicorns in the past — have raved about the value of these exercises.
Ultimately, as VCs, the firm doesn’t pretend to know how to run the business better than founders but it has a vantage point to share learnings and best practices from best-in-class companies, benchmark their performance against others in similar spaces, and share frameworks and processes they can leverage to build an industry-defining company.
3 — Low velocity and high concentration allow for deep alignment
For an early-stage firm, Equal’s investment pace is SLOW by design. Each investor at the firm makes on average just 1–3 investments per year. This low velocity allows the firm to focus more time on research and working with the companies the firm has invested in.
A common issue I ran into when working with investors who made many investments was that they often lacked the time to understand the nuances of our specific space and the challenges we were running into. It’s a common complaint I’ve heard from other founder friends with different investors and a natural dynamic that comes about when you have to work with a lot of companies. In our case, my co-founder and I often felt we were getting broad-stroke advice that wasn’t as applicable to our situation. We’d sometimes come away thinking we’d just have been better off re-reading a Paul Graham blog post.
My experience was always different when I swung by the Equal offices. Even though the firm wasn’t an investor, the questions they asked and parallels they brought up from other industries often unlocked interesting new ideas for us to experiment with or new tactics for us to try. Especially when you’re working in spaces that can be difficult to understand to an external observer, this level of support can go a long way.
4 — Building long-term relationships that transcend current roles
If health and circumstances permit, I fully intend to still be working in the industry on new ventures and technology in 50 years. I’ve always believed that every relationship we build in this industry is special because it has the potential to be a lifelong one — even if we don’t get to work together today, there may be a company or opportunity in the future where we can.
Equal has a similar ethos embedded in how it operates in both the tech ecosystem as well as the industries in which it invests. Connections are always viewed as long-term relationships, rather than short-term engagements related to a company or a role. The intention is always to build a strong relationship with the people we work with, being there as a support channel not just with the company side but also other curveballs and challenges that arise in life.
A great example of this is ‘Equal Cubs’ — a term the firm has used internally out of inspiration from the eponymous Tiger Cubs. Since its very first year, success amongst Equal’s alumni of interns and collaborators has been tracked and celebrated. Many of the firm’s former interns have gone on to start their own companies or work at storied VC & PE firms like Bessemer, Insight, and General Atlantic.
I felt this first-hand while I was away — Rick was my reference call when it came to investors or EIR opportunities and also my first call whenever I was struggling with a career or business decision. Everyone at the firm genuinely cares to see former colleagues succeed and achieve great heights in their personal careers even if you are no longer with the firm day-to-day.
While it’s too early to proclaim that Equal will make the jump to being an iconic institution, I believe the firm has built an incredible foundation over its first 5 years and am excited about the journey ahead.
I’m honored to be rejoining this team and having an opportunity to partner with founders on building their own iconic institutions. If you’re a founder building in one of our core verticals (Retail, Insurance, Supply Chain, or Climate), please reach out to email@example.com.