I had the pleasure of interviewing Christina Bechhold Russ, a principal at Samsung Next Ventures who focuses on early stage investments in software and services, particularly in mobility (for her thoughts on mobility, see her recent blog post in the WSJ), consumer, and IoT. She is also the co-founder and Managing Director for Empire Angels, a New York City based angel fund with a focus on supporting young entrepreneurs. Christina is passionate about increasing opportunities for a young and diverse set of entrepreneurs; as such, she is a mentor for Startup Sesame and is a member of VFA’s Rise Committee that aims to increase diversity in entrepreneurship. A regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and a TEDX speaker, Christina has experience not only in discussing who/what is up-and-coming in venture, but also in guiding future entrepreneurs.
Jean: Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share your story about how you got into the VC space?
I’ve always loved small businesses and technology — my first summer job, as a rising 8th grader, was with a healthcare software startup in my hometown, Cincinnati, Ohio, where I taught classrooms full of doctors, nurses and administrators how to use Windows. I also taught myself HTML and ran a little web design business — for my friend’s band, a local non-profit, a wine and cheese shop I worked at another summer. I worked part-time at a digital media startup in Boston through much of college. I like to build things. I also love travel and culture, and ended up on Wall Street after graduation, structuring developmental finance deals in emerging markets. I got to use my Spanish and work with clients all over the world, from Costa Rica to Papua New Guinea. Five years in, I had a number of friends joining startups or starting their own companies. People would ask me to invest, but I frankly wasn’t comfortable just investing in my friends because I liked them. A good friend from college was in a similar position, and we decided to get a small group of people together to hear pitches and talk about them together. Over time, and very organically, that grew into Empire Angels, a fund and network of young professionals investing in early stage companies together, with a focus on supporting young entrepreneurs. We have the youngest membership of any angel group in the country, and have invested in a wide variety of consumer and enterprise companies over the last 6 years. We’re fortunate to now have a number of later stage companies and exits, and it’s a really engaged, fun group of people. I found myself more excited to work on Empire Angels on my nights and weekends, so a few years later I left finance and joined an early stage consumer hardware company in New York for a year. Samsung NEXT reached out when they were looking to building their investment team on the East Coast, and I was intrigued by having access the resources of a market making technology company with the autonomy of an independent fund. 3 years later, I moved to London to kick start our UK expansion.
Jean: What kinds of startups do you typically work with?
At Samsung NEXT, I generally work with Seed to Series B stage, and across mobile, consumer electronics and display technologies. That’s frontier tech in AI and AR, all the way to mobile enterprise SaaS and consumer digital health.
Jean: What do you look for in the management team of your investment companies?
Honesty, self-awareness and entrepreneurial drive. One of my favorite questions to ask (which I learned from another investor) is, “Why did you want to be an entrepreneur?” The best founders have thoughtful, often passionate responses. The worst say something along the lines of, “I thought it was cool/I want to make money.”
Jean: Can you share a story of a successful Angel or VC investment? What were some of the highlights?
Functionality isn’t the barrier to adoption in consumer IoT, it’s all the small stuff — selecting what you need, installing it, setting it up, troubleshooting when something goes wrong. Puls, in whose Series B I invested last year, does on demand installation, setup and repair of connected devices anywhere you need — home, office, coffee shop, wherever. They started off with repairing mobile devices, and have since expanded into everything from TV mounting to connected home. Their technicians are professional and highly skilled, and the company’s top priority is customer satisfaction, resulting in an incredibly high NPS score. In addition to direct to consumer, they work with Walmart, Target and Samsung, and aim to cover the entire US within the next year. It’s a great, driven team who is actively solving a huge pain point for consumers.
Jean: What is one piece of advice you would give a startup?
Prioritize your, and your team’s, personal wellbeing. Startups are stressful, high pressure environments, with rewards that can be few and far between. Don’t burn out; take care of yourselves.
Jean: Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?
Danny Meyers’s Setting the Table is about hospitality, but his insights on building culture and managing people are applicable to any business. Restaurants and startups have a similar failure rate, and much of that can be attributed to overlooking the importance of caring about what you’re doing, with and for whom you’re doing it. It’s one of the few books to which I frequently return for a refresher.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Founders Knew Before They Pitched To Me” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Do your research. This isn’t a Tinder date where you’re trying to pretend you didn’t spend last night Googling every detail of your match’s existence. Preparation actually wins you points here. I’m most impressed when a founder throws out a mutual point of interest, or asks about the portfolio (“I saw you invested in The Infatuation — I love their restaurant guides! What made you interested in the content space?”) Know everything you can about the person you’re trying to sell on yourself and your idea.
- Have a plan. Partner meetings aside, in which you’re making a formal presentation to a group, most pitches are pretty casual. Never ask, “So, how would you like to do this?” Take control by sharing an outline of how you’d like the meeting to flow. “I’d like to walk you through the market, team and product, show you a demo, and then we can go through any remaining questions. Does that work for you?” Always bring a laptop with your pitch desk and/or demo cued up, as well as every adapter you could possibly need to project, if needed.
- No may only mean not right now. Timing is everything. What’s interesting to an investor is heavily influenced by what else she’s looking at. Always ask if you can keep someone posted on your progress; seeing your name in my inbox on a regular basis, I’m likely to open an update every once and awhile. Be sure to highlight the TL;DR items.
- Don’t leave before asking these three questions.
- What is your ideal exit for my company? We have to be aligned on what kind of outcome we’re aiming for.
- Where do you expect me to be in 12 months? Proves I can explain what I’m looking for.
- What is your least successful investment? Investors should be self-aware, too.
5. I want to invest in you and your company. My job is to find great founders and companies, give them money, and help them grow. I want nothing more than for you to walk in and blow me away.
Jean: Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
I admire a variety of people for different reasons. I’d love to sit down with Ginni Rometty (chairman, president and CEO of IBM) or Anna Wintour (Editor of US Vogue and Artistic Director for Condé Nast) to understand how they’re adapting traditional industries; Jeff Bezos (Founder and CEO of Amazon) on how he thinks about risk; Christiane Amanpour (Chief International Correspondent, CNN) on reading people; and Christine Lagarde (Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund) on how she balances short vs. long term needs. Mostly though, I’d like to hang out with Taylor Swift.
Connect with me on Social Media:
- Connect on Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/christinabechhold/
- Follow on Twitter: https://twitter.com/CMBechs?lang=en
Jean: This was really inspiring! Thank you so much for your time.