On Intentional Work, Level Ventures, and What I’m Investing In

Taking a breather is not something I’m particularly good at but I find that when I don’t listen to the voice inside me that tells me to slow down, it inevitably catches up to me. My doctor recommended I go on bed rest last week (I am welcoming a newborn in just a few days); and having spent the last week bound to my bed has naturally led to some bigger picture thinking and got me reflecting on my work and my life.

We launched Level Ventures in 2016 with the mission to fuel the ambitions of missionary founders by investing in transformative business ideas. Having spent the last year meeting and working alongside hundreds of entrepreneurs, I’m as excited as ever about the power of entrepreneurial teams to transform industries.

And while we made 13 investments in 2016, my work over the past year felt largely reactionary — beholden to other people’s emails, calls, messages, etc. Having a reactionary workflow often meant I lost sight of the big picture and allowed calendar distractions –instead of meaningful, intentional work- suck up all of my energy.

2017 will be the year I slow down to speed up. Having to juggle kids and a professional career forces you to realize that life’s most enduring satisfactions come from a commitment to the long game. So instead of opting for instant gratification, my goal is to see my life and work as a multi-decade project and then reason backwards to small steps I can take today to bring that dream to life.

Being intentional about your work is particularly important when it comes to investing, where organized thinking, a clear vision for the future of the world and a differentiated investment thesis helps increase the likelihood of scoring big wins. In a world where momentum investing and herd mentality can turn anyone into a fast follower, it’s important to pause and make sure you are always acting with conviction.

That’s exactly what I’m hoping to do here, to clarify areas/themes I’m excited about in an effort to organize my thoughts and hold myself accountable to my convictions. This list is a mix of both specific and broad thematic concepts.

What I’m Interested in Investing In:

V-Commerce/Internet-Enabled Brands

The Internet, by enabling ubiquitous connectivity, has enabled creators to build far deeper and more meaningful relationships with consumers and has therefore eliminated the need for mass-retailer gatekeepers to connect the creator/designer with her customer. The creator can now control the conversation, the timing, the voice, the context, and the customer experience in ways that were simply not possible before.

With the Internet, you are no longer constrained by geography or capital (anyone can set up an online shop). The economics of removing these constraints means you can build a business that is very relevant to a specific group of customers and not have to worry about there being enough of them in a given geographic location. By being more specific to your customers’ values and aspirations, the bond and loyalty forged by Internet-enabled brands is incredibly strong.

Technology opens a new dimension of possibilities for brands to engage with customers, and I am excited to see more creators building brands with strong voices, obsessing over user experience and customer happiness, and leveraging the distribution advantages the Internet provides to scale faster and cheaper.

Some of my favorite brands in this category include Glossier, Casper, and Monica + Andy. (Full disclosure, I am an investor in Monica + Andy)

Inefficient Processes Improved by Modern Software

There are still way too many processes that are too damn difficult that can easily be solved by modern software — from monitoring your health insurance to scheduling meetings to planning trips to filling out a prescription.

I’m excited by companies that make customer’s lives easier by automating mundane processes, freeing up people’s time to focus on things they truly care about.

For example, getting a price quote for insurance coverage with your mobile phone is now possible with Cover. Zip Drug helps you avoid long lines at the pharmacy by delivering your prescription within the hour. Sign easy allows me to sign documents on the go, eliminating the need for a printer.

There are still so many areas to improve on and I am excited about the potential for AI to unleash a new wave of innovation here. I hate when I hear a startup defining itself as “AI for XX”. What excites me is not AI itself, but rather the specific use cases in which it will make software work cheaper, faster and more accurately such that inefficient, paper-based processes can be replaced.

Simplification by Curation

When I search Foursquare to find a place for breakfast or Netflix to find a new show my life gets more complicated, not less. Search has grown tremendously but it’s time to start curating. Helping people with discovery is less risky than saying “here’s one option we know you’ll like,” but the latter is a more appropriate use case most of the time. I want a service that tells me exactly what health insurance plan I should get based on my needs. I want a service that tells me exactly what to buy my brother on his birthday. I want a service that tells me exactly which small business accounting software I should use.

Like Benedict Evans said, “All curation grows until it requires search. All search grows until it requires curation.” One of my favorite companies in this category is Cura, launching soon (full disclosure, I am an investor). When David Goldberg’s dad was diagnosed with brain cancer, he went on a mission to discover, learn and search the world over to learn everything he could about what the holistic world had to offer. He was overwhelmed by the amount of information there was and how hard it was to understand. That inspired him to build Cura — they do all the work: find leading alternative care specialists, research products to ensure quality, and deliver everything in one easy to use package so that chronic illness patients can easily take advantage of holistic care.

Flexible Jobs

Online marketplaces are morphing the traditional 9–5 workplace into a project-oriented, DIY free for all. The increase in women in the workforce has placed a new premium on flexibility, and while Uber, Airbnb, and Etsy have led the way, I think there is a lot more to come here.

From new use cases to the backend infrastructure powering these businesses such as Jobble (helps businesses find and vet on-demand workers), I am interested in companies building the infrastructure for a post-job society and challenging the fundamental assumptions around employment and careers.

Modern Family

As a mother of a toddler and a soon to be newborn, I can confidently say that today’s world is not designed to meet the needs of the 21st century mother. Parenting is tough and I’d like to see technological innovation be applied in more creative ways to make our jobs easier. For example, services that make it easier for parents to automate the scheduling and management of everything from doctor’s appointments to paying school fees, platforms that connect parents with their kids, smart products that can help parents deal with sleepless infants, easier access to trusted caregiving, etc…

Products for the 99%

For all the great work that Sillicon Valley has done, it’s also true that a lot of the energy of very smart people is focused on problems for the 1% (delivering cookies to your door in under an hour, at a premium cost) instead of fearlessly tackling ambitious problems. 1% products, such as another on demand grocery delivery service are far less interesting to me than products that save people money by recasting the cost structure of incumbents (through D2C, peer to peer models, etc…). Millennials need new ways to save money and I’m excited to see more founders using technology to reach the mass market with better, cheaper experiences.

Examples that I like in this space are varied, and include: Affirm, Metromile, Price (Full disclosure, I am an investor), Tala, Everytable, and TurboTax.

Voice Interfaces

I’m excited about the emergence of voice interfaces and their ability to blend digital experiences with the real world so seamlessly. When we’ve got our hands full, when we’re driving, working, or are just too tired to look at our phones, voice will be there. The disappearance of tech will lead to a world where the Internet will be part of your presence all the time without tethering you to your phone all day. Poor system performance in the past has meant that voice has been slow to go mainstream, but I think Amazon’s Alexa is a big inflection point here. Their open API also means great companies can quickly grow using Alexa as the hub.

I would like to speak to more founders building products that are voice first.

Future of software development / Programming without coding:

Programming and coding today are regarded as the same thing, because there aren’t tools and platforms that divorce the skill sets. If you want to program an app, you have to code it — there’s just no way around it. In the future, I think software development will be accessible to everyone, empowering more people to create.

I’m generally interested in platforms that allow you to build programs without writing a line of code. Here is a list of companies in this space curated by Product Hunt. I think we’ve just scratched the surface here, and would love to talk to more entrepreneurs tackling this.

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I will be on a brief hiatus as I welcome my 2nd child to the world, but if you are building a startup that is relevant to any of these themes, I would love to talk to you. Please feel free to reach out to me at sari@level.vc and I will get back to you as soon as I emerge from the craziness that is sleeplessness/adjusting to newborn & toddler parenting.