Work as Though Success Is Not a Guarantee” with Jeff Ransdell

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Ransdell, founder and managing director of Rokk3r Fuel ExO, a $200 million venture capital firm based in Miami, Florida’s Wynwood Arts District

Jean: Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share your story about how you got into the VC space?

Prior to founding Rokk3r Fuel, I spent roughly two decades working in the financial sectors from the traditional Wall Street perspective. Over the years, I worked my way up to the role of Managing Director and Market Executive for the Southeast Wealth Management Division of Bank of America Merrill Lynch, where I ultimately was responsible for more than $130 billion of global private client investment assets and oversaw more than 2,000 employees. Throughout my years ascending up the ladder of Merrill Lynch, it became increasingly clear to me that where real money could be made was in the private markets, before a company ever went public. So come 2012, I began investing in companies, employing a thesis I had fleshed out over a number of years. In 2017, I formally launched a venture capital firm: Rokk3r Fuel ExO.

Our fund aims to apply all that my partners and I have learned over decades about hedging risk and spotting great opportunities from within the traditional finance ecosystem to the creative economy.

Jean: What kinds of startups do you typically work with?

Our fund’s focus is in early-stage ventures. Ideally, we want to get in as early as we feel comfortable with because then we can continue to invest in different phases of the startup’s life cycle. We believe this approach mitigates risk and yields the largest possible returns for our Limited Partners. We like to think of ourselves as Series A creators. It’s really our wheelhouse. As for verticals, we favor startups whose products solve problems in the sectors of finance, advertising/marketing and real estate/construction. Ideally, these companies incorporate technologies such as Internet of Things, big data, artificial intelligence, machine learning and blockchain in their solutions/platforms.

Jean: What do you look for in the management team of your investment companies?

Are the members of the team coachable? Are they humble, and willing to acknowledge that it takes concerted effort to make a startup successful? Another thing my partners and I prioritize is track record. I’m not so concerned about whether there’s a track record of startup success. But founders should be able to tell me what professional milestones they’re proud of. If they can’t talk for at least five minutes about what they’ve accomplished, then they’re probably not very successful, or destined for success. Extraordinary people do extraordinary things.

Jean: Can you share a story of a successful Angel or VC investment? What were some of the highlights?

We consider our investment in Hyp3r among our most successful so far. Hyp3r, if you’re not familiar with it, is a San Francisco-based marketing-tech company whose platform uses geofencing and principles of big data and analytics to engage customers. Besides the fact that Hyp3r has achieved every milestone set forth by Rokk3r Fuel and is on a clear acquisition path, highlights include: Fast Company naming it the seventh most innovative company in the world in the sector of social media; and Hyp3r joining the Salesforce Accelerate Program. We’re very excited by the company’s growth trajectory.

Jean: What is one piece of advice you would give a startup?

Know where your company is in its lifecycle and make sure your growth metrics are commensurate with that evolution. Founders often launch ventures with a combination of bootstrapping and family-and-friends seed money. That seed money is an investment in an idea, passion and the vision of the founders. But when a startup begins to approach the milestone of raising a Series A round, what founders need to be armed with are tangible facts and figures. At institutional investment stages, you can no longer just say you’re a great company with a bright future ahead — you have to prove it. Never underestimate the scrutiny you’ll receive when you get to the big leagues.

Jean: Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?

“The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz. I’m continually impressed by the achievements of a16z, so when I heard Horowitz was publishing this book, I had to give it a shot. The real-life examples of triumphs and victories detailed here were tangible reminders that there is no one path to success, but lessons to be learned all throughout the journey towards that goal.

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. Less is more. Founders tend to get nervous, and they talk to feel better. But that can be disastrous, if at least counterproductive. I was recently in Montreal, serving on the selection panel of the Holt Fintech Accelerator program, and some of the founders talked so much that members of the selection committee were unable to get a word in edgewise to ask questions before the allotted time with each startup was up. A good rule of thumb: Be brief, be brilliant, be gone.
  2. Data matters. When probed about financials, some founders are quick to mention Amazon, Uber or Tesla as a roundabout way of saying that sometimes great companies don’t have robust profit margins for years. But let’s be real. You’re probably not Amazon. So come prepared with real business metrics.
  3. Passion is critically important — so is humility. You could be the smartest person with the greatest startup ever, but if you’re arrogant, it doesn’t matter. If you’re Google, people might be a bit more forgiving. But you’re probably not Google, and investors will turn away because there are few things worse than arrogant founders who refuse to take heed of well-meaning pointers and guidance. When I started my fund, I made a list of what I’d want in my first founders. The first three requirements: No assholes, no assholes, and no assholes.
  4. Be prepared. I once took a meeting with a startup whose founders had been persistent for months about getting in contact with me and showing up at events they thought I might be at. We met in my office, where the CEO gave us his spiel, then began a demo of his startup’s platform. It didn’t work. It wasn’t even 50 percent functional. He and his co-founders were shocked. And so was I, but due to the lack of transparency. As an entrepreneur shopping around what’s essentially a work in progress, your best bet is telling me off the bat that you haven’t completely perfected a product, rather than pretending the demo will play out smoothly, then balk when it doesn’t. In the latter scenario, your credibility is shot. And there’s really no coming back from that.
  5. Work as though success is not a guarantee. I recently complained to one of my founders about how tired I was as I headed into my fourth day of subsisting on just a handful of hours of sleep. He said, essentially, “Stop whining, Jeff.” Since he co-founded his company more than three years ago, he told me, he has pulled an all-nighter at least once a week every week. I respect that kind of drive, and the company’s revenue reflects his no-holds-barred attitude.

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.

Former President Barack Obama. He did more for our country than any other president, at least in my lifetime. He made everyone who occupies the United States feel like they belong here. And he effected real change. He was unafraid to put his legacy on the line to say that everyone deserves to have health insurance. I would hope that the experience of getting to know him over a breakfast or lunch would inspire me — to be more courageous, bring positive impact to the world, be a better version of myself. I’m driven by the prospect of making even just a tiny little difference in the world by supporting entrepreneurs pursuing groundbreaking ideas. Just a little bit would be enough. For one, I realize startup culture remains a boy’s club, and I’d like to play a role in changing that, and spearhead this initiative at least in my community. I hope someone sees that and they think it’s something they’d like to do, too. I want to be more impact-focused than money-focused. That’s exactly what it seemed like President Obama stood for: doing the right thing for to benefit real people.

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Jean: This was really inspiring! Thank you so much for your time.

-Published on September 18, 2018