'Be the Cockroach' The Boost VC perspective: With Maddie Callander
For my master Anthropology at the VU Amsterdam, I am doing three months of fieldwork in San Francisco, where I am researching Tech Startup Culture. Through observations, informal talks and interviews like this one, I try to discover the daily practices and motivations of the humans behind the startups. My focus is mostly on the work-private life situation and the entanglement between humans and their business.
Since the bulk of my research has been focused on entrepreneurs seeking funding, I found it an interesting addition to also get some perspectives from the other side of the table. I talk with Maddie Callander, VP Accelerator & Portfolio at Boost VC, which is an early stage pre-seed firm and accelerator in San Mateo, CA. They are focused on investing in cryptocurrency, virtual reality/augmented reality and other sci-fi tech including ocean tech, space tech, human augmentation, robotics, and 3D printing. ‘Making sci-fi reality is our thesis,’ she explains.
Prior to joining Boost VC, Maddie built out the private aviation department for a high end real estate community in Big Sky, Montana. When she moved to San Francisco, she was intrigued by “venture capital” and the notion that talented people with new products or ideas could get funding to grow the business outside of a traditional bank loan. With her background in operations and a desire to play a role in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, she joined Boost VC in 2015. Now she works with entrepreneurs every day, running the accelerator program and managing their portfolio of 250+ startups. ‘I am very curious and love working with the current 21 accelerator companies in Tribe 12, so I get to experience and deep dive into all these startups and industries.’
Boost VC is unique in their willingness to take risks to invest in startups at the earliest stage in the craziest sci-fi technology.
Boost VC was founded in 2012 by 4th generation venture capitalist Adam Draper and his co-founder Brayton Williams. For Boost VC, no idea is too crazy. Adam dreams of building an ironman suit and Brayton leads their exploration into the Crypto frontier. Boost VC is unique in their willingness to take risks to invest in startups at the earliest stage in the craziest sci-fi technology.
At their core, Boost VC is really about building a community, a family of founders, where entrepreneurship is a team sport leveraging peer support and feedback. ‘Since many teams are working with the same technology, they can leverage the technical insight of the community to solve problems faster.’
There is definitely a superhero theme in their office. In addition to Ironman, I recognize a other Avengers in the office decor. I ask Maddie about the ongoing theme. ‘The founders are the superheroes of their industry,’ she explains, ‘There is a problem in the world and they are on a mission to solve it with their startup. Our job is all about funding and unleashing superheroes.’
When I ask her about the entrepreneurial characteristics of the superhero founders at Boost VC, she answers that they are extremely talented. ‘It is also important to understand the “why” behind founders because it is what drives them to solve a big problem. Especially when they are really trying to break boundaries and change the world, it is a long road and they need to be ready for the journey!’
‘The founders are the superheroes of their industry.’
Boost VC operates out of Hero City — a building with “hero” in the name. Across the street is Draper University of Heroes, a school for entrepreneurs founded by Adam’s Dad, Tim Draper. For the entrepreneurs in this ecosystem, the ability to take risks is critical to their success. ‘The biggest challenge I see for entrepreneurs is learning how to have a growth-mindset. Teams have to love learning and be resilient, creative, resourceful, and focused… like a cockroach!'
There are ‘Be the Cockroach’ signs around the office. This is a critical reminder to founders that in these sci-fi technologies they are still early and that they need to rely on the characteristics of a cockroach to survive until the tech makes it into the market. When I ask Maddie about the entrepreneurs that fail, she says ‘They often stay in the industry or join teams that they worked with during their time at Boost.’
They need to rely on the characteristics of a cockroach to survive until the tech makes it into the market.
Boost VC is just over six years old and they are seeing their teams raise money and grow. ‘We see that the VR market and the crypto space is picking up.’ Teams are finding pain points in traditional industries that can now be solved with technology. ‘It’s exciting to see these opportunities emerge.’ (You can see their whole portfolio here)
Throughout the day, the office is filled from as early as 5 am till midnight. Boost VC has invested in founders from over 30 countries and many of their international startups have distributed teams that work in different timezones. There is an open culture about avoiding burnout and keeping healthy. ‘Everybody has stressful times, there is no way to avoid that. It is important to find a way back from that with food, exercise and sleep.’
When Maddie is not supporting her cockroach founders, she is an evangelist for the emerging technologies Boost VC invests in as well as an advocate for building diverse startup communities where women are included and equal. While tech and startups tends to be very male dominated overall, Maddie sees that ‘There are many female VR and crypto leaders that inspire me everyday and are role models for all of us in the industry.’ For example:
All early stage tech startups are full of risk, especially in sci-fi tech. ‘It is possible women are smarter than men,’ says Maddie, ‘Often building a startup is not the smartest or most logical decision… So it takes a little bit more of a push to encourage women to take the risk, to trust their vision for the future and go build something great.’
‘We need to bring more awareness to the opportunities in the sci-fi tech industries and go build the next big tech companies, diverse and inclusive from the very beginning.’
Maddie is actively seeking to fund, mentor and support diverse entrepreneurs in the sci-fi tech sectors Boost VC invests in. ‘We need to bring more awareness to the opportunities in the sci-fi tech industries and go build the next big tech companies, diverse and inclusive from the very beginning.’ She often receives questions from female founders wondering if they are qualified to apply to the accelerator, Maddie tells them: ‘yes, apply! Wayne Gretzky said it best: You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.’ There are studies that say that men apply for a job when they qualify for only 60% of the requirements but women apply only if they meet 100% of them. Maddie sees the same happening at the accelerator.
Maddie believes that we are just starting to see real data on women’s rates of success as startup founders. ‘Who knows? women might actually be better at it!’ she says with a smile on her face. Since Stitch Fix went public in 2017 (the first female-led technology company to IPO since Jan 2014), Eventbrite in 2018 (let by Julia Hartz), and Glossier (CEO Emily Weiss) and Rent The Runway (CEO Jennifer Hyman & Co-Founder Jennifer Fleiss) raise significant investments to become unicorn startups in March 2019.
But the overall investments into companies with at least one female founder is still low, explains Maddie, only $15.76 billion or 12% of total venture capital dollars invested in 2018. In addition to the funding gap, a Harvard Business review study shows female founders also face bias in the way VCs frame their questions during a pitch — focusing questions to male entrepreneurs on promotion (hopes, achievements, advancement, ideals) and questions to female entrepreneurs on prevention (safety, responsibility, security and vigilance). This difference in word choice does impact funding. Pitches that focus on promotion get more capital on average than those focused on prevention.
But the overall investments into companies with at least one female founder is still low.
‘Although we saw an increase in venture capital to female founders from 2017 to 2018,’ Maddie says, ‘We have a long way to go.’ She shares her excitement for the latest tools and communities to support diverse founders are finding support with the recent formation of Allraise.org and the launch of the Women in VC global directory for women in venture capital.
‘I want to live in a world where women are empowered to build disruptive sci-fi tech companies and add incredible value to the world through their vision, hardwork and creativity.’ Maddie is just getting started on her mission!