On this week’s episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Maisha Leek, Managing Director of Forum Venture Studios. Maisha has had an amazing career in corporate innovation, company building and venture capital, and we talk about the new Venture studio model and some of the things that she’s seeing in the world of venture. Let’s get started.
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Interview Transcription with Maisha Leek, Managing Director of Forum Venture Studios
Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I’m your host, Brian Ardinger, and as always, we have another amazing guest. Today we have Maisha Leek. She’s the managing director of Forum Venture Studios. Welcome to the show, Maisha.
Maisha Leek: Thank you Brian. I’m excited to be here.
Brian Ardinger: I’m excited to have you because you’ve spent a lot of time in all the different cross sections of innovation. So corporate innovation, company building, venture capital. Can you tell us about your path and journey in this innovation space?
Maisha Leek: Sure. I’d love to say it was all brilliantly planned. There’s a lot of trial error, error, error, error, and then trial again. I actually got into this world in the interesting route. I was for a long time in Washington DC and I was a policymaker and a fundraiser. And in DC we had oversight of most of the science and innovation agencies. So, everything from NASA to Noah to National Science Foundation, which is about the $54 billion proposition, which is a lot of responsibility.
And we work with your tax dollars, placing the best bets we could to jumpstart the economy or to just position the United States to be competitive. And so that turned in everything from investing in commercial space flight. You see that now with SpaceX and Virgin Galactic and other companies. Those aren’t the only ones. And investing in the advancement of batteries, which leads to all of the electric vehicles that we have now and, and sort of their ability to compete with their combustible counter parts.
I knew I was far from all the action that everybody was in, in Silicon Valley and wanted to get closer to it, but by happenstance, met the founder of United Masters. Which was a music and tech company. And did not know what I was doing, except that I was an operator. I knew how to build out teams and build out a company and spent my time doing that.
And we had the right as Silicon Valley goes investors. So had Ben Horowitz on our board. And David Drummond on our board. And was really active in managing those relationships. When I was thinking about what to do next after spent some time at that startup, I had an executive coach and friends, they were like, you got to get into venture.
I’m like, that sounds really boring. And their suggestion I think is really apt for folks who are thinking about it. They suggested I would be good in the space because I had experience to do this on Capitol Hill, operating across a range of subject matters. And knowing to be sort of a generalist that can go deep in certain areas and analyze information and make quick judgements.
My first experience was at Adventure Studio at Human Ventures. And that really influenced what I decided to do after that. And most of my time in the venture space, outside of being an angel investor or participating SPVs has really been in the venture studio space.
I love it because of the close connection you can have with the founder and the founding team. It’s not sort of like write a check. I’ll call you once a month kind of thing. We’re in it with them. But it also leans into the place where I’m strong. Which is I’m a really great operator and being able to do that with founders and helping them not make the same mistakes I’ve made in other companies that I’ve built or independent of that, also gives me great joy.
So, I’ve done four Venture Studios – Nike Valiant Labs, Human Ventures, New Lab, which are across the series of categories. New Lab is Frontier Technology. Nike is really best to describe with CPG. Human Ventures, which is in large part direct to consumer. And Forum, which is B2B SaaS. And they all have their challenges. But again, I love the model. I’m an evangelist for the model.
Brian Ardinger: Let’s talk about that model. You know, people who’ve followed the show and that have heard more and more about Venture Studios, and if you’ve been in the space, you’re hearing different flavors of what Venture Studios are.
So can you talk about what is a venture studio from your definition and what were the differences between the different ones that you’ve started and where you’re at currently with Forum.
Maisha Leek: The term studio, when it’s combined with venture, actually originates from Hollywood, which I did not know. Essentially, like the idea that the studio from ideation to putting it into theaters would be responsible for the build.
Like they collaborate with some folks, but they wanted to sort of own the vertical of the product that went out to market. And Venture Studios do just that in a venture context. We are building small businesses as fast as possible.
You do different things depending on the category, and there are few ways the model sort of shows up. On one extreme, they’re starting with just the idea and there’s no founder. On the other extreme, you’ve built out a business and you’re hiring in a CEO. Most of the venture studios I’ve worked with sort of lean to the front end where we really are interested in and get really excited about the founder. And really help them determine what to build.
And that’s really a question of what the problem is that they want to solve. It’s not really starting with a solution. And then we take them through a process to de-risk it, diligence it, figure out who the real customers are. What needs to be true for the MVP, and then bring it out to market. Most venture studios do that.
I think that where we get variation is the degree to which the idea is evolved before the team that’s going to live with the problem goes out into the world. I think that’s where folks tend to have differing points of view about what’s most important. And a lot of it’s logical. Venture Studios exist because we have a better risk profile than a founder doing it on their own.
I can get into why that is, but you can imagine it’s just our expertise. And depending on the Venture Studio and their point of view about what they have to offer in terms of the early ideation, you have some organizations or groups who really want to use every insight that they have and stand up a company. And others who believe that the founder who’s taking the risk should do most of that work. That’s how folks are making those choices from what I’ve seen.
Brian Ardinger: Yeah, that seems to be some of the key differentiation. It’s how much additional resources perhaps are put towards it. So, some venture studios are very much hands-on. They have a team of developers that the founder can work with to build out, you know, early-stage prototypes and things along those lines. All the way to, obviously capital’s involved.
But it, it’s interesting to see even the last three or four years, how that model has evolved. You know, some of the earlier venture models, you know, High Alpha out of Indianapolis or Highland Beta Toronto, they’re looking at different models. You’ve got Nobody’s Studios out in New York and the Philippines.
And then you’ve got, obviously some of these, what were more traditional startup accelerator programs, whether it’s Techstars or others that are, are looking at kind of a venture model where again, it seems to be how do we find the early founder with some magic sauce. And then put the magic sauce together to create companies together. Rather than looking for a company out there, which would be more, I guess, a traditional venture model in general.
Maisha Leek: It’s interesting. I love how you put that last point. The debate, I think, amongst people who are in the venture studio space is like, well, what matters more, the idea or the founder. I think that the way they’re setting up venture studios is really an answer to that individual group’s point of view on that question. I personally believe that the founder is the one thing you cannot de-risk. Human beings are human.
And you know, you can pivot a company, you can pivot a strategy, you can change who is sitting where. But when it comes to the founder, you really wanna have conviction before you build. And I think a ton of folks are seeing that as the whole game. In large part, because early-stage investors are only looking at the team, right? So, it stands to reason that where venture studios can really play the game super, super well is making sure they’ve got that really, really tight, and then getting into the idea and the problem space from there.
Brian Ardinger: And that makes perfect sense. You know, at the earliest stages, most ideas are crap, and they have to be worked through. And so the uncertainty itself, you’re looking for somebody who can work through that uncertainty and adapt to the changing things that they learn along the way.
Maisha Leek: A hundred percent. And somebody also who has a game plan for themself, which I find doesn’t come up as much. But you know, I was talking to a founder this morning that was having a rough day, early on a Monday. And essentially, am I making the right choice for my life? How do I do that?
Having a plan for all of those rough moments, it’s like one of the most important things an investor or even a studio or a founder can put together before they even dig into the idea, because it’s your right. The way a business shows up today. Fifteen years from now, it’s going to be completely different.
And really having a game plan for how to address the uncertainty, the significant amount of volatility that you’ll face and keep your head is probably some of the most important details about being a founder that I don’t think get enough of your time.
Brian Ardinger: So obviously a founder’s a core component to creating any new company. What are some of the ways that you both source founders and what do you look for.
Maisha Leek: This is the best question. It’s also the hardest. There are a range of approaches. I think that over time you start to build a network of founders that trust and know you.
And when you say that you’re standing up the studio and that you want to build, they tend to refer people that they’re really excited about. Just starting from scratch. I mean, you really do want to spend time doing what we’re doing right now. Demonstrating your capabilities in conversations and writing. Really posting a ton. Trying to draw people in.
Being a judge at competitions. Talking to your network of other investors. There are a ton of folks that are further down the line and they meet founders who are too early for them to consider for their deals. I’ve talked to my entire network about getting folks to refer those folks to us.
And then also not being afraid to look in places that you don’t suspect. And so at the studios that I’ve worked with, we always have a complete open door. We do not require a warm intro for you to engage us. That’s intentional. You’re a needle in a haystack. I don’t want to have the door closed. And when I have talked to every and anyone about the studio model, about what we can offer, about how to think about joining us.
From a profile perspective, there’s what I’m looking for and then there’s like where those people are. I have the same challenge any startup has. Who is your customer? Right? I went to the first one. There are about like three types of people, right, that are very stages of availability. There are folks that are experienced founders who seek out venture studios because they’ve had to do it alone before.
And they know that doing it alone is not worth it. it’s not efficient. They want to move quickly, understand if there’s real meat to their idea, and dig into that fast. They tend to come to venture studios actively, actively always talking to founders despite how deep they are into their build. It’s just going to be top of mind for them.
There’s a ton of people who don’t see themselves as founders but have all the experience. These are my favorite to cajole and to taking the risk. They tend to be a human, we used to call them the person behind the person, right? These are folks that have COO roles or Head of Biz ops or revenue, or chief of staff roles. They spent a significant amount of time learning how to build a business by being the number one, number two, or the sidekick to the person that’s doing it.
They’ve got to learn the category really well. They have a ton of insights, and they might be thinking, well, my next role is to sort of be the number two. Invariably though, based on that experience, they have strong points of view about what’s missing from the market. They just had to do it. And they have all the experience of an experience founder, and I’d like to almost always pull those people in and have them think about what it might look like if they were in a leadership chair.
Brian Ardinger: In that particular environment, are founders coming to you with an idea or a series of ideas that they want to explore? Or are they coming to you saying, hey, what do you know out there? What are you seeing from an opportunity perspective? And I’ll sift through that and pick one that might resonate with me. Or what’s that, I guess, spectrum of coming in with an idea versus coming in with a blank slate.
Maisha Leek: it’s a mix of both. The last like profile of somebody who might come to us as like an entrepreneur, someone who’s been inside a big company, and they’re always the first task with standing up the new thing. And so, you’re hearing the mechanics like that folks have internalized.
To your point about ideas, it depends on the studio, right? But I’ve seen folks come in with a strong point of view. I know exactly what I want to build. I know exactly the problem I want to address. Sometimes that’s exciting. Sometimes that’s problematic. Our process in the early days is designed to tear your idea apart. And so, if you’re wedded to it, it can be a bit challenging.
And then folks that don’t have an idea, I’ve spent time with a number of business designers helping them think through the problem that they’re really excited about and pulling out the thread that might be the one that we want to dig into. The trick of all of that in terms of founders is like, you should have a strong point of view about a problem space. You don’t have to have the idea fully formed.
So, you should know I’m fired up about logistics. I’ve spent 10 years as like the head of business development here and I really want to pull this apart. I have less experience than that, but I have actively been tinkering. Because I think that this problem that I’ve experienced is really a challenge. Those are the best people. They’re ready to go. They’ve got a chip on their shoulder and something that they want to address. And Venture studios a really great place for them.
Brian Ardinger: Yeah. I often talk to founders and that, and like you want to find those founders that want to spend time with that problem and or customer segment because not necessarily having a solution around it, but you know, they know they’re going to be spending 5, 7, 10 years of their lives. You want to get up every day focused on that and really digging into it versus, I’m just chasing the next greatest trend because it sounds like the next thing to do.
Maisha Leek: Fastest way to burn yourself out or to get frustrated really quickly. Because we’re talking about years and years of your life. You got to love the problem or the customer.
Brian Ardinger: You mentioned on the corporate entrepreneur side of things, and have you seen different flavors of this Venture Studio model being deployed, I guess within a company versus externally Forum Ventures?
Maisha Leek: I have, yeah. I have a ton of friends that are leading innovation teams inside big companies, and they frequently connect up with Venture Studios primarily because we can help them move faster. Internally for the corporates, what can be an amazing opportunity can also be your challenge.
The innovate team, is a great opportunity to build against the problems either facing the business internally, like so you’re building for inefficiencies within the business, and you want to build tools, services, platforms, whatever.
And then some who are only thinking externally around mark, market cap or market share. It’s like, all right, we are really tight with these customers. We want to expand to these others. Let’s build out small brands that can go help us expand our reach, essentially. And the challenge for folks inside a highly matrixed organization that are building a studio or building an innovation team is really like who amongst your colleagues can actually play in that sandbox?
It’s not always what you think. They are of the generals. The guys and gals who’ve been around the company forever. They know where all the bodies are buried. The new sandbox has switched on. They’re like, great. I want to jump in there and play. They’re the deal maker inside the company. Not always. They’re great, right? But not always the profile, the founder you want to look for.
You’re really looking for folks that really are ambitious about standing up something new. Are great storytellers inside the company but aren’t wedded to company culture in a way that will slow them down. There are a ton of tricks for leaders of innovation teams that are internal on how to draw those people in and protect yourself from the rest. That’s a story for another time.
Brian Ardinger: The other topic I want to dig into, obviously venture studios require money or capital and, and they differ than a traditional, I guess, fund investment and that. Can you talk about the Venture Studio model from the investor side. And why that particular path versus, I guess, a traditional fund. And what’s different and, and what’s good or bad about the different approaches?
Maisha Leek: Like I’ve heard people describe it a few ways. Some LPs describe it as like investing into an index fund. When you get a batch of companies at a cheaper rate. That’s fine. Feels a little off brand. I think that for investors in large part, the value is that you get a de-risk asset faster and equity in that de-risk asset cheaper than you would finding a company on your own.
And so, I find that LP is into venture studios have been brought along on that narrative journey. They can see the numbers. I mean, Venture Studios at this point have so much track record. I mean, we’re perhaps like maybe 20 years in in terms of Venture Studios being around. Don’t quote me on that. And essentially the track record, you know, suggests right that companies that come out of venture studios have like a 30% higher success rate than the ones that are stood up on their own.
They return to fund faster, they have a 72% chance of raising their subsequent rounds C day and CB that, you know, all of the conditions are really right to make it something that’s super, attractive as an investment. And investors into studios I think are, are dialed into that. And more and more now that more and more venture students are coming online across a series of categories.
Brian Ardinger: Talk a little bit about how you see the Venture Studio, the life cycle of a company. So, if it’s one thing, if you build it yourself and you go out and raise venture capital, you’re building all your teams yourself, you’re scaling it. Where in the Venture Studio model, obviously kickstart it and stand it up, does the company itself, when does it go on its own or does it continue with the studio or talk about those inflection points.
Maisha Leek: Yeah, I think it’s a, that’s actually a strategic question for the studio, and also a good opportunity to provide advice to founders that might be listening in. Essentially, the best studios in my experience, have a time boxed plan for your journey. Doesn’t have to be rigid.
There’s less likelihood of success when it’s a sort of a meandering X metric that we’ll move you through. I mean, really strong venture studios have a plan for after your company is built, the MVP, the number of people that you need on your team, how we’re going to prepare you to go into the market to raise money, the number of customers we want you to have, and then move you through.
Your question was about like what’s the long tail of support? Really great Studios show up in the way that great funds would. Once you’re a portfolio company, our interests are aligned with yours. We are a hundred percent dialed into your success. If you need something. Phone home kind of approach. And I think that having the staffing or the plan for that is really helpful for a founder to hear when they’re evaluating venture studios that they might engage with.
Right after I have my set of customers, after I’ve done my raise, what is our relationship going to be is the right question to ask there. But I’ve seen a range of folks on how they navigate that. Sometimes it’s ad hoc, the GP is the only person interacting and sometimes it’s, there’s a real plan with a platform team that folks are tapping into as they’re on their growth journey.
Brian Ardinger: What are you excited about? Are the particular trends or the particular things that you’re really digging into in 2023 and beyond?
Maisha Leek: Yeah. I am personally super excited about logistics and transportation. I think that personally that it’s an exciting moment for a few reasons. One, the technology allows us to do this more efficiently than we ever had. The migratory patterns that we saw post covid are pretty fascinating. We once had Class A, class B, class C cities. It’s sort of turned that entire dynamic on its head. It’s sending people your way, Brian.
Brian Ardinger: Exactly.
Maisha Leek: Yeah, and I love that. I don’t know what that means, but I love it. I’m very excited about it. From a macro perspective, you know. I’m a millennial, right? So, this is like, I guess the fourth or fifth global crisis that I’ve lived through.
What’s really exciting about that, to the degree that can be exciting, is I think that folks are in a very salt of the earth, meat and potatoes way, rethinking their relationship with work and their responsibility for their own careers and lives.
And I think it’s going to lead not surprisingly to a surge of people starting their own businesses because they want to be, they want to take ownership right for their futures. And I’m really excited about that. I also think that the conversations that younger generations, gen Z, for example, are having around work, will lead to hopefully the resurgence of labor unions.
I think that there is a period of time where we sort of walked away from that because you know, the worker and the employer were really at a better eye to eye level sense and I think that we’re seeing a lot of the convulsions out of the tech sector teach us that that’s not the case. And we do need a fair arbiter to make that work.
I come from a long line of union workers. And so, in the venture world, I’m excited that venture studios are no longer taboo. I was mentioning earlier when I first told people I worked at Venture Studios, they were like, oh, it’s not a fund. And now all, every day I hear somebody talking about getting into the space. I think that’s great.
I think Venture Studios will be the really strong gateway to capture those other three trends that I mentioned. You know, people are reconsidering their relationship with work, their expectations of what good company stewardship have changed, and just our needs from an infrastructure perspective have shifted because our behavior and venture studios are going to be best suited to dig into those problems and questions for us.
So that’s what I’m really excited about. We’ll see, I’ll watch this back in five years and see if I was right about anything.
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Brian Ardinger: I’m excited about it because anybody who can help move ideas faster into the ether and create value along that way, that’s what we’re all about. So, I’m excited to hear your journey in the future. And in the interim, if people want to find out more about yourself or about Forum Ventures, what’s the best way to do that?
Maisha Leek: I am hyperactive on LinkedIn and getting more and more active every day. Definitely DM me. Definitely reach out. I’m also an angel investor and I’m standing up a syndicate in the next little bit here. I’m really, really, really obsessed with small businesses and founders. I mean, my family has come from five generations of entrepreneurs. It’s really game changing work, and I’d love to be a part of that. So hit me up there.
Brian Ardinger: Excellent. Well, Maisha, thank you again for being on Inside Outside Innovation. Looking forward to continuing the conversation and best of luck.
Maisha Leek: Thank you, Brian.
Brian Ardinger: That’s it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.
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