Episode 14 Show Notes
The meteoric rise in the value of cryptocurrencies seems to be the topic du jour. Whatever your thoughts on the value of crypto, the blockchain technology underpinning it is likely here to stay. In today’s episode, we interview Aly Madhavji, managing partner at the Blockchain Founders Fund, and he discusses the investment opportunities within the broader blockchain industry. He touches on the diverse use cases of blockchain, and where the industry is headed.
Key Points to this Episode
- Aly’s extensive background in blockchain as Senior Blockchain Fellow at INSEAD, advisor to the UN, and manager of a venture fund
- The importance of a global reach when investing in blockchain and where the unicorns are found
- The fundamentals and differences between blockchain and crypto
- Why he thinks we are not in a crypto bubble
- How we are in the early innings of blockchain growth and fascinating use cases in a variety of applications
- Venture funds and issues with the current structure of performance fees
- Pros and cons of accelerator programs
- What he looks for in a perfect founder
JM: Hi, I’m Jenny Merchant, Co-founder of PitchBoard and welcome to The Pitch Podcast. We’re here to have thoughtful discussions with forward thinking managers who are taking unique approaches to professionally investing capital. Through these conversations, we hope to introduce you to new ideas and strategies that will help you better manage your own portfolios.
Before we begin, we want to remind our listeners that everything in this podcast is for educational purposes only. Nothing here is tax, legal or investment advice. We don’t endorse any products, services or opinions made by our speakers. Some statements in this podcast may contain forward looking projections. These projections do not guarantee future performance and any past performance does not guarantee future results. Finally, nothing in this podcast is an offer to buy or sell securities. Speak to your own advisor before making any financial decision.
Hi, this is Andrew from pitchboard. I had a great conversation with Aly Madhavji, managing partner of the blockchain founder’s fund. He talked about the outlook for cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology. The problems with the traditional venture capital industry and what he looks for when evaluating a Startup. I hope you enjoy it.
Ali, Welcome to the podcast. It’s great to have you on.
Thanks so much for having me, Andrew.
So, I gave a brief overview of your background. I’m sure our listeners would love to hear more about you. How did you come to be a blockchain expert and what else can you tell us about your business background and your educational background?
Yeah, absolutely so, I’ll start with, you know, the latter part of that question first, right? So, I started off my career at PWC, first in the assurance practice in Toronto, New York, and then moved into corporate turnarounds across North and South America.
So, helping companies that are about to go bankrupt return to profitability. Lived in Brazil for a while as well doing that. After that, I did an MBA in INSEAD and a short stint at PayPal and while I was at NC, decided to go down the route of moving full time into the crypto and blockchain space.
You know, had already been involved, before that, you know more time. So, we started the crypto exchange race through rounds of capital, growth. The team got 40 people. I sold my stake in the business at the end of 2017, and then we started blockchain founders funding ScaleX Ventures in 2018 and now since then, it’s been a rocket ship.
We now have 55, over 55 portfolio companies across the world’s six continents, covering all sorts of things from Edtech, Active impact Edtech, music and media entertainment, supply chain FTP gaming.
A lot of defy as well, all sorts of things. We also consult the United Nations on emerging technologies, including blockchain, and how this can help to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goal. Goals, as you mentioned earlier, also worked with INSEAD around, also helping that institution to be at the forefront of this technology.
It’s just such a fascinating, fast-growing space that we’re also always just trying to learn and keep an open mind to where this could go. Learn with our founders. We also have hypotheses on different parts of the industry, but as some of you will know it. An extremely dynamic and fast-moving industry that keeps it exciting for us, right so?
And so, the name of the fund or at least one of the funds is the blockchain founder’s fund. How much of your focus these days is on blockchain companies?, and what is our component of your time that’s spent on companies that are non-blockchain companies?
Yeah so, we are focused on blockchain and crypto, but because we’re so early stage we’ll have companies that are filtering to use blockchain or could sort of fit into our ecosystem and want to support our companies really well that we might still go into. Realistically, we’re well over sort of 80% blockchain, and crypto will also because we’re so early we’ll have companies sometimes that decide not to go down the blockchain route after sort of diving deeper into it and experimenting with it, which is totally fine. There have been cases where we’ve recommended our companies to actually scrap the blockchain stuff that they were working on and actually just focus on selling the product that they have and driving revenue that they were building and then come back and add that layer back in later once they have some more growth and traction.
And so that does happen, right? And then our split. We’ve got a number of companies that are blockchain that don’t touch the crypto industry, right? So those would be like Agtech then tech. You know music and entertainment, but they are not related to crypto. And then we’ve got companies that service the crypto industry. You can think of that as, like, say, white-label credit cards for the industry or other things, and then we’ve got. More crypto native companies that are DeFis and NFTs, you know, gaming, that sort of thing.
And your focus is global. If I’m correct, right? You don’t just, but what are the advantages, particularly with the blockchain industry of having a global focus?
I think the big difference is when you look at, say, traditional Fintech, or look at the sort of, you know, the traditional VC industry. You can pretty much count the number of unicorns that have come out of the outside of the US or now. In a couple of other places say China, India, there’re very few unicorns that have actually come out elsewhere right there. There’s some out of the UK as well. But you know, outside of that, like those have been like very dominant markets, especially Silicon Valley, and you just don’t have that infrastructure, that scale, typically, as much outside of those places.
Now when you look at the blockchain industry, it’s completely different, right? So, you’ve literally got unicorns popping up all over the world, right? Do you know Vietnam? It could be, you know, Sub-Saharan Africa, could be anywhere. And that’s partly because these industries and these companies can start global from day one in some ways, they have alternative ways of financing which can also include like say token raises, et cetera, that can really change the dynamics of these companies, and you’re running a decentralized finance company or a gaming company.
You don’t need to be out of Silicon Valley anymore to get the funding. It can grow out of LA right, for example. Can be you know, anywhere in the world and you can get funding from people all over the world and it just changes the dynamics so much that you’re starting to see that shift quite a lot in the blockchain industry versus say, traditional industries.
Of course, infrastructure everywhere is getting better in general, and you start seeing you know a bit better support at early stages. In some more developed markets now building emerging markets is a big problem. Early-stage capital even in the blockchain space, but especially in non-blockchains space, early stage is still very hard for founders, and you probably meet founders all the time that tell you no one was interested.
We had the same business plan, the same thing, we just hadn’t executed everything. And then people are willing to pay 20 times more… 50 times more… when they had traction and growth. But at that point, the money is also less valuable to them in some ways, right? That’s sort of a big part of the problem that we’re trying to solve in the blockchain space. It’s probably an industry that also has that problem. I think quite significantly overall at that early stage and then you see just tons of interest from like late seed onwards as there’s a lot of.
Are there areas of the world that you’ve identified as potentially the next Silicon Valley? Any emerging markets where you look, and you say you know the way it’s developing? Where the infrastructure is improving that this could be a meaningful rival, or at least start producing. Unicorns that it could be comparable to with Silicon Valley produces.
It’s a good question. I mean; I think it’s pretty clear that China has made a pretty big dent in this. They answered that whole sort of Startup belt in China, right? And there’s been a lot of unicorns.
It’s a very insular market in a lot of ways. There are not that many global Chinese start-ups. Although Tik Tok clearly you know, crack that code and then India you’re starting to see. Also, I think something similar came probably a little later than China, but you’re starting to see a ton of unicorns come out of India right now.
And that’s been, I think, pretty interesting, but I think as I was sort of alluding to earlier with the blockchain space, a little different because you might actually have customers all over the world from day one. You’re not actually needing to sell directly locally, you know from the start, and that changes the dynamics of this quite a bit because that also means that you can sort of be a global company pretty early. It adds its challenges. It has a lot more complexities in alot of ways, but you do have that difference in this market.
You know when you aren’t a gaming start-up and you’ve bought customers all over the world very quickly and you’ve got this industry that’s so excited about, you know new and innovative things that you’ve got people waiting for what you’re doing when you launch right? And you didn’t really. You don’t typically have that ecosystem excitement community outside of that as much.
So, when a lot of people hear the word blockchain, I think a lot of people think Bitcoin, and you probably get this a lot. How do you think about it? The prospects for cryptocurrencies on the one hand and then blockchain technology is separate from that on the other hand?
It’s a good question. I mean, the good thing is like we’re involved across the board, right? So, we’ve got companies literally across that entire spectrum, and also on the board of two public companies in the crypto Bitcoin mining space ones, uh, NASDAQ listed company called Mechanical Technologies, the other one’s crypto star which they’re trying to stock. Change venture company. We do get this question a lot.
In reality, they’re very different, in a lot of ways, right, you look at when you talk about blockchain adoption. A lot of people are sort of thinking about enterprise like, so if you’re looking at you know, the corporate mainstream a lot of times you’re thinking about like enterprise and government and it’s very different, right?
Those are not necessarily going to be public chains. They’re not going to necessarily be as transparent, but there’s still a value at and I think that’s where people get confused is like Blockchain technology innately helps to solve multi-party trust issues and, in many scenarios, if you think of like a supply chain and having 50 middlemen as part of a process you now can actually trace and track more effectively.
And there are cases like this, right? Like Walmart has improved their ability to audit their supply chain by over 99% when they’ve implemented blockchain. Like that’s insane. There’re cases where they’ve gone from needing to go through paperwork that would take them seven days to now taking seconds to trace through and that’s quiet. And still, create value.
Then there’s this whole sort of other markets where you’ve got a bitcoin, I think is still a different use case. A lot of people are sort of looking at it as a reserve. I think tremendous value there I think, especially with a lot of the printing and other things going on.
I think it definitely has a clear sort of position that it’s been building and then you’ve got sort of the Crypto, sort of like DeFis, NFTs you’ve got like DOW is like so decentralized. Autonomous organizations have been gaining a lot of traction these days. That market in a lot of ways. Some of it will go along with sort of that mainstream sort of regulation. Follow it closely. Some of it will probably go in a different direction, right? And DOWs how do you regulate them? I mean, they’re self-regulated.
Governments can enforce stuff on Kokoda. It’s all sort of auto executable code that probably creates an interesting dynamic in the long run of that sort of divergence in the market. And what happens? It’s exciting to see. I think that you’ve got this market. That’s sort of evolving and creating on its own in some ways. And then you’ve got sort of that middle part, and then you’ve got sort of that conservative part that we talked about this art, right?
So, there’s a lot of different exciting things happening in this space, and you’ve got to keep a pulse on the parts that interest you or really sort of deep dive into it.
What do you say to investors who worry that especially with the parabolic price rise, we saw with Bitcoin, and then the big pullback we’ve seen so far? We worry that it’s. That it’s yet another financial bubble at first. How do you sort of respond to that?
Good question. At the end of the day, we do not sort of predicting you know prices on Crypto, though we do have companies that launch tokens from time to time, a lot of our, I mean most of our sort of exposures on the equity side of companies that some of them aren’t involved in crypto. Some of them are related to the crypto industry.
At the end of the day, like no one, actually, lost money in Bitcoin over a multi-year period. Investing and with a long-term outlook. Yeah, right. And I think that’s a very positive sign. I mean is it a bubble? Some people could argue that personally, I don’t think it’s a movement. I think it’s the change in the way things are going. I mean, you’ve got unprecedented printing right now, and in pretty much most major governments.
And you’re seeing if anything, everything around us is a bubble, right? You’ve got housing prices in some countries going up 30% a year. You thought lumber going up over 100% in the last 12 months? I mean, you either are bubbles like you look at equities and you see companies with barely any revenues. Or things like that with multiples that have never been seen before, and you’ve got unprecedented high multiples even on blue chips, right? And so, you’ve got a lot of challenges, I think with bubbles across all of those and so.
Does Bitcoin counter rock that in some ways as a programmable nonprintable currency you know what the inflation rate is? You know what the max amount is never going to change. I think that provides a lot of comfort to a lot of investors and in reality, that confidence is built. In a lot of ways, by the community and by that trust that’s been built up, I would say. Over the last decade or so.
Are you surprised by how mainstream crypto has become with so many large companies? Sort of adopting it or announcing their intention to adopt it?
In sort of the short run as you see it, sometimes not as much ’cause you see one and then you see another and you’re like OK, you know like it makes sense, but thinking back to when we got into this industry like never would have even conceived fully that this was where it was going right? And this quickly.
I mean, you know when you think about, you know north of a, uh, a trillion-dollar market cap and major companies and the biggest sort of people in the world, you know, talking about this constantly and all the biggest regulators exploring this. I mean, it’s really gained a lot of attention and I think that’s a good thing. The thing you’re starting to see, I think a lot of change in industries where this technology can have a big impact, right?
And I’ll give you some examples in the ag-tech industry, so if you look at agriculture in emerging markets, 50% of GDP is driven by the agricultural sector, but only 2% of lending goes to that sector and this is because there are no asset registries. There’s no way to track collateral or credit or any of these things. And we’ve got companies like Agrio that do use satellite imagery measures, geospatial mapping, and soil moisture, and they predict agricultural crop yields, and they build credit profiles for these farmers and then enable financial institutions to lend to these people using collateral, which is future yields.
That’s quite fascinating. That solves a big problem in the music industry.
You know I mentioned one of our companies are tracking over 70 million monthly active users now and solving the problem between reported plays and actual plays in the music industry between streaming services and artists and labels, right? Just solving such big problems, that haven’t been able to be solved with existing technologies because you have these multi-party trust issues, and then you’ve got, in that more crypto native space.
You’ve got solutions that are DeFi solving big problems around trust and lending and creating huge opportunities for people you’ve got in the gaming sector. You could argue that economics and the gaming sector has been a mess for many years. And now being able to actually play to earn and own those things rather than, you know when you pay real money in a game for a sword, and you don’t actually own it and you can’t sell it. I mean, in some way it’s kind of crazy. I mean, you can imagine for economy work like that it wouldn’t work well, but that’s how the gaming sector economy works, right? And now that you’ve got new and innovative ways with NFTs and game economies you can solve some of these problems.
It’s also making a very big change, mainstream, what’s interesting, you know, and you were mentioning whose sort of looking at these all these big things that are interesting and lucky from my perspective are I get to talk to a lot of fortune 500 companies that are looking at this space are looking at deals that are trying to understand how this impacts their businesses’.
Also, a lot of governments and things like that, and so it’s fascinating to just see these conversations pick up more and more and more. And they were there still a couple of years ago, but it’s definitely increased, 100 fold in terms of interest and seriousness around these topics.
You run a venture capital firm, buy some funds. What problems do you see with the existing venture capital model and what is your approach been to address those challenges?
Yeah, it’s a good question. I mean there are several sorts of big challenges that tend to come up around the VC model, but you know one of those things that it’s all alluded to earlier was there’s still a big lack of capital for early-stage founders. I mean, you can pretty much go talk to the most successful founders right now or what you would quote successful, right?
If they’re sort of series, B3C sold their company and go ask them at an early stage when you had this idea when you wanted to build it out were investors lining up? And they’ll probably tell you no. They’ll probably tell you that no after no, and they still had great businesses’. They had great backgrounds, they were still the same person in a lot of ways that they are now, but there’s just a lack of early-stage cap. And then as they have traction and prove out all of these different factors and everyone wants to invest, right? And you know, I think that the joke is, you know, everyone wants to invest in a business that has 10 million in revenue for at a $1,000,000 valuation, right? ’cause? Of course, there’s no risk, but it makes no sense, right?
What’s your take on the historical Toon 20 model that you see in the VC area? Has that worked or the real problems that you see with that? Right?
Very good question and I’m sure this is going to get me into a lot of trouble with other funds, but. The big problem is the top 2% of VCs actually make 95% of the return. That’s from a data perspective. What that means is 98% of the VCs make 5% of the returns. If you take the flip side of that
And that essentially means that most VCs are essentially in a fee collecting business of you know, making that 2% every year without actually hanging that success. To that upside of driving returns, and I think very few people would actually complain about that 20% side going, even though a little higher. If it helped to drive returns and those rough returns were larger right, and that’s why you can see sometimes even larger or more successful funds with trackers can go to 30%, or you see hedge funds even go to 30% because they’ll drive very fast and they’ve got that track record, and sometimes you’ll even see like 1/3rd, for example.
And I understand that you also see issues with the traditional model of accelerator programs, and you have your own program to address those challenges. Can you talk a bit about that?
That’s a good question, I think. There are a few, really really good accelerators out there and drive a lot of value, and I obviously can’t name all of them, but you know by common error we have companies go through there. I think they drive a lot of value. You know we’ve heard great things. We’ve got a bunch of investments in companies that run through I-Com, or companies that you know, we came in before Y-Combinator, you know, seeing a lot of great things come out of like SOSVs accelerators. Trying to accelerate or mocks they’ve got a few that have been really good. We’ve seen some really strong like 500 batches as well, and the value that they’ve added to those companies.
There’s a lot out there now, right? Probably a lot of these accelerators is the only thing that they’re doing in a lot of cases, there’s a running like a three-month program, which first of all, it’s not very long and doesn’t necessarily help the start-up sort in of long term. They’re running a lot of group programming, right? And if you think about it, if you’re a CEO with 20 years of experience at a major fintech or at Visa master or whatever, right? And now you’re going into a bunch of group PROGRAMMING’S, or 90% of the stuff. Is this group programming where you’re going into a session?
Well, how do you fill the top of the funnel? You know you’re a fintech CEO and you’re now in a session with an AG Tech CEO and a supply chain CEO and a music tech CEO and all sorts of others. How is this actionable right? And that’s really the question and so. There’s a problem with it. How then do you take that, and activate it? And can you actually get it to a granular level that’s hyper-targeted towards your industry and your customer personas, etc.?
With that type of support, effectively I think this creates a problem, and you’ll hear this from a lot of founders. If you talk to a lot of experienced founders, they either don’t go through accelerators or when they do, they’re usually disappointed because they have that general business knowledge like they’ve got 20 plus years in business right and? That’s not what they needed, and for some people that are the first time, you know just out of school and accelerator can be great as well. ’cause it might give you some of that business foundation.
You know, I think that creates a real problem. So how we differ from that is we don’t run any group programming with zero. We never put all of our founders in a session or multiple founders in a session. What we do is we get very hands-on with our companies across three things. So, we chopped them every week. We have multiple meetings. Sometimes you’ve got actionable items always going between us.
We work on project plans together. We work on strategy on those and then we look at product-market fit. How do we drive users and revenues like these are the key things and what are we doing specifically around these right and though we end up coming up with goals with our companies, you know if they’re super early stage, let’s say? They get the 1st 100K of revenue or the first 50K of revenue, right? But then it’s how do we go do that? So, then we go work with them to build those customer personas have three key personas that we’re gonna go after together.
Then it’s how do we go to target and fill the funnel of like 500 hyper-targeted leads? For example, for each of those personas? And then how do we launch a bunch of automation? And test and see sort of what’s happening with those. Get them through the final get-on calls, see where it’s falling off, fix it, and then drive those total conversions. Figure out what’s actually working out the other personas that weren’t working as well, or figure out how to adapt them, and then double down on the stuff that’s working gives you an idea of how hands-on we are, and then the third part is making sure that our companies are well capitalized and so we help them sort of getting ahead of a lot of the fund-raising staff.
Get out to the right investors even before they’re raising. Start building. You know relationships. Get them aware of what they’re doing and then what’s been really interesting is when our companies are ready to raise a lot of our companies are raising in four weeks, five weeks, six weeks start to finish on their rounds when you talk to a lot of founders that are taking six months, eight months, or they’ll tell you they’re always raising. That’s a real distraction in our opinion. When you’re a founder and you need to always be fundraising or spending a big chunk, your time fundraising. And I know this because when I had my own company, I hated the fund-raising stuff. It was something you just had to get done. But it is a distraction. In the business, and so we want our founders to focus on their businesses. But like streamline and just brush that fundraising part when they need to and get them in front of all the right people to drive that more successfully.
When you’re looking at a potential investment in your mind, what is the ideal founder? What’s their path that they took to get there, or personality traits? Those boxes are a perfect founder in your mind?
So, we have about 90 different things we look at and there’s a lot of things not only on the founder of another company and what they’re doing in the market, etc right…
Our founders can vary a lot like what we want to see though is that they’re extremely passionate about what they’re doing. They really are going to stick around and be resilient and see that as a trade. They’re not just going to quit when things get bad. A lot of our founders are very experienced. A lot of refiners might have 20 or 30 years. 15 years of experience in their industry. But we’ve got first-time founders as well. We have founders that are actually just recently in at school, for example, or just dropped out of school things like that.
So, we do have a pretty wide mix. We also have founders you know some, some are very technical, and some are less technical and have a CTO sort of onboard or something. So we got a pretty wide mix across that, We do also measure things like what we think is around the market and industry, and not necessarily and we don’t necessarily always have answers to that. We’ve got companies in augmented reality fashion, like what is the market for that look like? I mean, who knows? I mean the industry is being created in real-time, right? And so, you know, we have hypotheses around these things, but a lot of it can be pretty cutting edge. You know we rate sort of part of the thought process on the company.
The idea of the traction and the financials like we’ll still look at these things even if they’re not there like a lot of our companies. They actually in our internals get rated zero on traction because they haven’t launched, but that’s fine. We’ve come into a lot of companies, product market, fit, launch.
We also look at how could we actually pivot or improve the start-up. So, this is a pretty interesting sort of factor that we look at in a lot of our cases, we’ve met founders that have said, “Hey, we’re building out a product. It’s going to take us a year and a half to launch”, and we’ve gone through it and said, “well, no, you’re actually building 5 products and two are ready to go, and let’s launch them in the next three weeks and they would actually buy into that and launch and actually build traction on that and then go back and build these other features as part of that product”.
But like they didn’t see that, but we did.
We’ve got companies that were focusing B to C that we’ve pivoted to be to be, and now they’re making millions in revenue a month, right? And that was part of a sort of working together and figuring out how to target that. And then we also look at how coachable is the founder, and this is a pretty unique one that we look at because we work so closely with our founders; we want to make sure that they’re coachable.
We don’t want them to listen to everything that we say. We’re actually wrong all the time. A big part of this is to be wrong. Like we need to figure out. We need to discuss. We need to learn from each other, but we want to always be intellectually determining, like what is the best path to go?
We don’t want to spend a lot of time always, so one of our rules as well as if it’s a low risk, let’s not even bother discussing it much. Let’s just go down the road. If it’s super-low risk and not time-consuming, let’s just test it right. We don’t. We don’t need to spend a bunch of time discussing. Let’s just talk, try it, and so that’s a big part of what we do. We also only work with founders we like so.
It’s just like, well, you know we want to keep what we do fun as well. We all work hard, and a big part is we really just want to connect with the people on a human level that we work with and that’s a big Part of founders that we back and that’s I think a different way of looking at things as well, right?
Yeah, it’s important to enjoy who you work with, right? I mean, as with any, even a nine to five job, right? As people say, you know you’re you can spend more time with your coworkers and your family, so it’s gotta be the same thing with the founders. You deal with you mentioned B to B&B to C. How do you see the landscape as far as where the? More attractive companies do they tend to be in the business of business sector? Do they tend to be? This consumer, or are you excited by both?
It varies. I mean we have a lot of companies that will have products that sort of go down both like one will be to be another part, though I have maybe more be to see where probably our mix ends up at about 70% B to B or B to B to C and about 30% as B to C.
We’re on both sides, right at the end of the day. We do see challenges sometimes on B to C companies that don’t know how to scale and growth hack like needing to spend a lot of money to acquire users. And that’s just always a challenge of the start-up, especially when you’re in an emerging market where you can’t go raise as easily as you might in like very developed sort of VC. Sort of ecosystem. I see I can create challenges, but it’s all stuff that you can get around right? If you figure out how to grow hack, you figure out a target.
We have companies that have spent $0.00 on marketing that already make millions and millions a month in revenue, right? And so, you can do it. You just gotta figure out what do you do to actually scale and target your users in more creative ways without needing to send admail.
OK, well on that note we’ll wrap it up. This has been a fascinating discussion. Thank you so much. Ali Madhavji. This has been it’s been great to chat with you and I know I’ve learned so much. Thanks, as always to our listeners, I’m sure they’re going to learn a lot from this episode as well, so thank you again and we’ll see our listeners here soon.
My pleasure and thanks so much for having me on.