I have the pleasure of interview Daniel Pianko. Daniel is co-founder and managing director at University Ventures. With over a decade of experience in the education industry, Daniel has built a reputation as a trusted education adviser and innovator in student finance, medical education, and post-secondary education. A frequent commentator on higher education, Daniel’s insights have been featured in national media outlets including The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, TechCrunch, Inside Higher Ed, and The Chronicle of Higher Education
Jean: Can you share your story about how you got into the VC space?
My first VC-ish job was spending a summer as an intern for my now partner Ryan Craig. Ryan was nice enough to let me work for free for him at Warburg Pincus the summer between my first and second year of business school. The deal that I happened to work on became a home run — it was a unicorn before that term existed. I remember struggling with taking an unpaid internship despite having had a successful career pre-business school, but it was one of the best decisions of my professional career.
Jean: What kinds of startups do you typically work with?
We seek to identify and back entrepreneurs who are solving the greatest problems in higher education. I love working with entrepreneurs who have a real vision for the problem they are trying to solve. In our sector, it’s critical that entrepreneurs understand that only the highest quality operators win.
Jean: What do you look for in the management team of your investment companies?
We look for a senior leadership team that complements one another. Rarely can one person do it all — and that means building a team where a visionary product person might have a great operating officer.
Jean: Can you share a story of one of your successful angel or VC investments? What were some of the highlights?
The first investment that I made on my own was in a friend’s startup in Brazil — but not just Brazil, a city called Fortaleza which is not on anyone’s map. At first I thought it was crazy — why should I do an investment in not just Brazil, but one of the less developed portions of the country? Well, I visited (I can only imagine that I was one of a very few investors to visit Fortaleza) and saw these long lines in the hallways of the university that my friend had started. When I asked “why the lines?” The answer was “to pay.” Apparently students would save enough every two weeks to pay their fees. I figured that if people were willing to go to such lengths to get an education, this was a great investment. I signed up and we sold the company to DeVry a few years later.
Jean: What is one piece of advice you would give to a startup?
Do one thing really, really well. Then, once that’s nailed, move on to the next mountain to climb. Generally, the problem we see is entrepreneurs who want to do too much, not too little.
Jean: What are your “5 Things I Wish Founders Knew Before They Pitched to Me” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
1) No matter what, make it happen. A founder called me once and after an initial conversation, I was interested and I said I’d love to meet. I had a last minute cancellation the next day and he said, “I’ll take that time slot.” It meant that he would need to catch a redeye that night. We invested in his company, which became Synergis Education.
2) The descriptive “all hat and no cattle” applies in investing. I’ve seen too many pitch decks with no numbers in them to analyze. Most investors want to see a compelling narrative of a problem to solve, but they also want to see the data. Have clear and realistic numbers in your pitch deck or don’t expect a call back.
3) Know the VC that you’re pitching. Before meeting with an investor, learn enough about them to be dangerous. I only invest in companies that offer solutions in higher education to employment. If a K12 company emails me and says “I know that you don’t invest in K12, but can you help?”, I always refer them to my friends who invest in K12. If you send me your K12 pitch without knowing that it’s not right for me, I’ll generally ignore it. Folks in the former category get a real shot at a meeting; the latter just wasted an email.
4) You never know who you’re pitching. One of my favorite non-pitches happened was when I visited Touro College of Medicine and met a young dean who started telling me about all of the data that he was collecting on student competencies and achievement. This happened almost 10 years ago. The dean, Dr. David Lenihan, wasn’t seeking an investor — he just wanted to show me the cool stuff that he had built. Well, Dr. Lenihan was decades ahead of anyone by thinking about how to disrupt the really hard parts of higher education, and about five years later, I was able to convince him to leave Touro and realize his vision in the private sector through what is now a company called Tiber Health. Remember, it’s not always a pitch. Sometimes, it’s just a cool product.
5) Never send an axe. One entrepreneur who I knew would send an axe in the mail (yes, an actual axe — like the kind that’s used to chop down trees) to potential partners and customers. The axe was an attempt to demonstrate that he was going to cut their insurance costs. Rather than being impressed, the recipients of the axe were just scared. Bottom line — don’t send an axe. Think of investors more like recipients of a drip campaign during an enterprise sale — keep sending updates, develop the relationship, show progress, and at the right time the deal will happen.
Jean: Which noteworthy business leader, political leader, or prominent figure in entertainment/sports/etc. would be eager to have dinner with, and why?
Lin-Manuel Miranda. He’s disrupted the Broadway musical with a play about America’s Founding Fathers featuring minority actors rapping. How cool is that?
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-Published on August 22,2018