February 29, 2016

[Investor Q&A] Rob Go of NextView Ventures: Searching for Golazo

Rob Go is a Partner and Co-Founder of NextView Ventures, a seed stage VC firm. Rob and the NextView team have played a key role in filling a previous void in the Boston tech scene in terms of providing entrepreneurs access to early stage capital before they are ready for their Series A. Prior to starting NextView, he was an investor with Spark Capital.  

Tell us about your background?  

I was born in the Philippines and grew up in Hong Kong.  My Dad was an entrepreneur.  He ran several businesses over the years, and in a way was a real role model for me.  He had a Burger King franchise, an insurance company, and a bowling alley.  But his most successful business was a series of indoor amusement parks in Hong Kong. Think of it as a Chuck-E-Cheese without the pizza.

I learned a lot from my Dad, but part of what I learned was a tolerance for risk and a willingness to put yourself out of your comfort zone to pursue an opportunity. He passed away a few years ago, but I think of him often and wrote a blog post reflecting on what I learned from him

Being around business prompted me to study economics.  My brother went to Duke 10 years before me and was there when Christian Laettner and Grant Hill won back to back championships, so I figure I’d go there too (they won a national championship my senior year).

I should say that it was at Duke that I met my wife Nancy, which was the biggest lottery jackpot in the history of jackpots.

Rob and Nancy Go

Rob and Nancy Go on vacation at Martha's Vineyard.

What did you do for work right out of college?

My first job out of college was at a consulting firm in Boston called “The Parthenon Group”.  Incidentally, my partner David Beisel worked there a few years before, as did Josh Schanker, the founder of our portfolio company BookBub.  It was a classic case of not being able to connect the dots going forward.  I made a lot of terrific friends then, and the founders of Parthenon were among our first investors at NextView.

I started a company called Letslink when I was at Ebay. At the time, Friendster and Tribe were doing pretty well, and Facebook was just taking off.  But we saw an opportunity to build a social network that was focused on the Japanese market and was mobile.  But this was pre-smart phone, so mobile first was a pretty clunky experience.

Ultimately, we failed because we weren’t sufficiently committed to the project and had too much of a distributed team.  Also, none of us really knew what we were doing as it related to the Japanese market.  It was a decent idea though, and we were able to intersect some interesting people.  One of my co-founders was Adam Blitzer, a guy I knew at Duke who ended up being a founder of Pardot.  Things worked out ok for him :)

How did you end up at eBay and what did you work on there?

Honestly, I moved to the Bay Area to pursue love.  I met my wife in college, but we didn’t start dating until 2 years after graduation.  I had been pursuing a relationship for years, but it wasn’t until a couple weeks before she was moving west for B-school that she decided to tell me that she was open to dating.  Well, after all that time, I wasn’t about to let the opportunity slip through my fingers.  So I quit my job and moved west.  Thankfully, the founder of Parthenon was college friends with Meg Whitman, and the firm had done some work with eBay.  So after interviewing at a few different companies, I ended up joining the product marketing team at eBay.

eBay was an amazing experience.  It was an amazing collection of people who have gone on to do incredible things.  Product was strangely organized at eBay where what one would think of classicly as Product Management was sort of split between a business PM and a technical PM.  I was more on the business side, focused on products that related to “Finding”, which included the search engine, data structures behind products, some merchandising functionality, and other stuff related to the product discovery flow.

Honestly, the company had no business putting a rookie like me in a role like that.  It was interesting timing.  Before I joined, eBay had always had an abundance of demand, but a shortage of supply.  So most of the focus of the company was on cultivating the supply side.  Plus, the supply side technically paid the bills.  But shortly after I was put into this role, the balance tipped and there was a shortage of demand.  The company had very few levers to pull on the demand side.  They could buy more traffic, or they could fix what everyone knew was a broken finding flow.  So that’s how I was able to do some really cool things at a time when I was way under-qualified to do so.

How did you get into venture capital and join Spark Capital?

This sounds kind of ridiculous, but they called me out of the blue.  I literally got a call when I was in an interview at Gazelle for a product role.  It was totally the right place, right time.  That said, I think I got the call in December, and didn’t get my offer until May or June, so I was totally on the bubble, I suppose.

I worked closely on a few investments at Spark and supported a bunch of different efforts.  I worked closely with their investment in Signpost in NY, which continues to be a thriving SaaS company.  I also worked closely with Clearpass, which was a horrible victim of the financial crisis.  I also came really really close to sourcing Groupon for the firm back when they first pivoted from being ThePoint, but we got outbid by Accel. I think Zuck literally called Andrew Mason to get the deal over the finish line for them.

What prompted you to move on and become a Co-Founder and Partner at NextView Ventures?

It was a few things.  First, there was an obvious market opportunity driven by a) the falling costs of starting a software/internet company, b) the generational shift happening in Boston venture, and c) the dearth of true early stage capital in this market.  Second, I knew two guys Dave Beisel and Lee Hower that I really saw myself building a firm with for a long long time.  There was just something about our chemistry and shared ethos that drew us to one another, and has led to a really unique bond and partnership.  Third, I wanted to build a firm and shape it from the ground up.  I guess it’s the product guy in me that wanted to build a great product for entrepreneurs and the entrepreneur in me that wanted to be a founder and build my own business, even if it’s a venture capital business.

What are the top traits you look for in terms of investing in a company or founder?

First, I look for great founder/market fit.  I want to know that the problem that the founder is solving is one that she is uniquely passionate about and uniquely qualified to pursue.  I like to think about the particular challenges of a business and then try to think about whether the founder has the particular super-powers necessary to overcome those challenges.

Second, we look for Golazo potential.  Golazo is a spanish slang for “A Beautiful Goal” in football (American soccer).  At Venrock, they called it the “glimmer of greatness”.  We want to invest in companies that have some potential to be industry transforming and truly great, wonderful companies.

Third, we need to invest in companies that can have capital efficient beginnings.  Great companies mostly take a fair bit of capital to grow to become massive companies, but as a seed investor, we need the company’s first steps to be ones where a lot can get accomplished and a lot of value can be created with relatively short dollars. Otherwise, we don’t really get rewarded for the risk we take as seed investors.  

What sectors of technology, industries, or trends are of interest to you?

We’re particularly interested in three broad areas.  First, we are excited about the recent advances in machine learning, and are interested in companies both consumer and B2B that take advantage of these developments to create magical end user experiences.  Second, we are excited about the proliferation of internet connected devices, and are investing in companies that are both end-user focused devices or eco-system businesses to support a future of ubiquitous computing.  Third, we get excited by consumer focused companies that create more seamless interactions with customers and reduce previously challenging points of friction.

What is the current fund that you are investing from?

Our second, a $40M seed fund.

Which investments are you involved in?

Within our most recent fund: Scratch (now HelloShopper), an intelligent shopping assistant.  Peach, vertically integrated women’s intimate apparel. Dia&Co, plus size women’s fashion.  Paintzen, a labor marketplace for the painting industry. And a couple others that are in stealth.  

What excites you about the Boston market and how has it evolved since you’ve been in the venture capital industry?

Boston has always been home to amazing human capital, but I feel like more recently, the strength of the younger generation of entrepreneurs is really exciting.  You have great horsepower from founders and can build terrific teams of young, hungry, but very experienced folks.  When Scratch was building their early team, they were able to bring together folks from TripAdvisor, Wayfair, Gemvara, and even recruit folks from Silicon Valley to Boston (their lead designer was previously at AppAnnie). We’ve always had smart, hungry people, but now the direct experiences match the raw horsepower.

Which companies outside of your portfolio in the Boston area do you find interesting?

PillPack and Draftkings.  Both have extraordinary founders that have great product/market fit.  I regret not working with TJ and Jason.

Greatest misses - what company(ies) have you passed on that you wish you hadn’t?

I wish that when I was at Spark, I had more experience and conviction to really jump up and down and pound the table for Groupon.  That would have been an amazing investment even if the company didn’t fulfill its full potential.  

Who do you admire or who has been the greatest mentor for you?

I’ve learned a lot from watching folks, like my partners, Bijan and the other guys at Spark, and Michael Dearing who I worked for at Ebay and now runs Harrison Metal. But I regret that I have never had a very strong mentoring relationship with anyone.  It’s a bit of a regret of mine, but I try to learn from everyone I interact with, both those further along in their career than me as well as peers that I’ve been lucky enough to get to know.

Outside of being a VC, what are you personal interests or activities?

This isn’t particularly popular in our world, but I’m a committed Christian and spend a fair bit of time working with faith-based organizations.  I was on the board of my church Highrock for a number of years, and I also help out regularly with a faith-based tech accelerator called Praxis based in SF and NY.  They are an amazing organization actually and I’ve learned a ton from the folks in that organization.  We also support a handful of other humanitarian organizations focused on Africa, the middle east, and the Philippines.

I also have two beautiful little girls. Josie is almost 7 and Clara is 4.  I pinch myself every day when I think about how lucky I am to spend my life with these girls and my wife Nancy.  With whatever free time I have, I try to stay active. I play basketball on tuesday mornings with a bunch of entrepreneurs at the CAC (although I haven’t shown up in a while), and I grew up golfing and try to get out as much as I can in the summer.  I also am picking up skiing this winter, although I’m terrible and mainly just hope to avoid injury every time I get on a mountain.

One of Rob's daughters in front of Apple's headquarters

What types of movies do you like to watch and books that you like to read?

I love brainless action movies and dystopian fantasies.  My wife jokes that I tend to like books written for teenage boys and girls like The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner. I actually was lucky to be on a panel with Ki Hong Lee from the Maze Runner movies last year, which was fun.

I have a random rule that any time I see a celebrity or pro athlete I try to say hello and strike up a conversation.  Just last week, we were on vacation at the same hotel as Michael Kelly from House of Cards.  I was so excited as he is probably my favorite character in the series.  Really nice guy too - apparently, the next season is going to be absolutely incredible.

Keith Cline is the founder of VentureFizz. Follow him on Twitter: @kcline6