Samantha Wong, Partner at Blackbird Ventures
A school visit by an award winning Australian journalist, Jana Wendt, left the 7th grade version Samantha Wong dreaming of becoming a journalist. Her arrival and departure by helicopter paints quite a fascinating picture!
Fast forward a few years, Samantha is now a Partner at Blackbird Ventures and has a clear passion for supporting the next crop of kiwi tech success stories. Having experienced the excitement of working at an early-stage startup, she has an intimate understanding of the realities of founders trying to take on the world.
Samantha shares some insight into what she loves about working in the venture space, why now is such an exciting time to be involved in the tech sector in New Zealand and some great advice for those potentially considering it as a career path. Thanks for sharing your story, Samantha.
“People give me a tiny little bit of money from their piggy bank, I collect it all together, and then I give it to very special people..”
How would you explain to a five year old what you do?
People give me a tiny little bit of money from their piggy bank, I collect it all together, and then I give it to very special people called founders who invent things that have never existed before.
Sometimes, those inventions turn out to be very useful and make a lot of money because lots of people love it and want to buy it. The founders then give me some of the money that they made from selling their invention, which I then give back to all the people to put back in their piggy bank.
And for the adults, what does that translate to in terms of your day-to-day?
My job is to find ‘wild hearts’ with ‘wild ideas’, ideally right from the beginning. A wild heart is a founder who has huge ambition to build a company that is the best in the world at what they do, who is doing their life’s work, who is hungry rather than proven.
A ‘wild idea’ is one that is so rich with unique insights into how to solve a problem and bring the product to market. It is the sort of idea that seeps into your brain when you hear it and draws the most ambitious people to the company’s mission - talent, investors, partners.
My job is to back those founders with capital and belief. The capital we manage is largely the retirement funds of Australians and Kiwis through superannuation funds, foundations and family wealth.
Day to day that means a lot of meetings - with existing portfolio founders, future founders, potential hires, potential investors for future rounds, operators who might want to work for a startup - and a lot of email. On a good day I might also get some deep work time to read and write.
“When I was very young I wanted to be a journalist. I loved learning and discovering the world, I love storytelling, adventure, truth-seeking.”
What did you dream of doing when you were younger and how did you end up at Blackbird?
When I was very young I wanted to be a journalist. I loved learning and discovering the world, I love storytelling, adventure, truth-seeking. Jana Wendt visited my school in the 7th grade which left a lasting impression: she arrived and departed via helicopter. I thought she must have such an interesting, adventurous life.
In my high school years I had no idea. At uni I studied history and law and ended up in a big corporate law firm. I liked the analytical rigour but felt it wasn’t creative enough - I was always building things on the side.
Eventually I left law and got a job in a fast-growing e-commerce startup - first in marketing, then product management before going out to become a founder myself. My company went through Startmate which is the accelerator owned and then run by Blackbird co-founder Niki Scevak.
While I was between startups, they suggested I might be a good fit for their first hire and that was 6 years ago. I fell in love with Blackbird’s mission and job of investing in startups and it feels like the perfect way to synthesise all of my learnings to date.
“I love working with founders and I love the variety of work.”
Can you tell us a little bit about Blackbird and what you love about working there?
Blackbird is a fund, a community and a startup all in one. The company is just over 8 years’ old now and we’ve doubled headcount in the last 12 months. In 2013 we were managing $16M, today we’re managing over $1B. We’ve invested in 70+ companies through the Blackbird fund, almost 200 across Blackbird and Startmate.
The numbers are bigger but the mission is essentially the same - to identify truly ambitious Aussie and Kiwi founders and back them from the beginning.
I love working with founders and I love the variety of work. Founders are amazing people - optimists, action-oriented, learn-it-alls. I get paid to spend time with them and help remove obstacles from their path or give them a ladder or rope or hopefully a highway to success. It’s honestly a privilege to play a small part in all of these stories.
And intellectually it is so stimulating. Because we invest at all stages of the lifecycle and will invest in basically any technology except life sciences, I can traverse anything from social commerce apps to synthetic biology to quantum computing in a single day.
Lastly, I just love our team. We have been so lucky to hire so many amazing people who share our values and mission. When you are doing something you love, with people whose company you enjoy and respect, it really doesn’t feel like work.
What gets you excited about the New Zealand tech ecosystem and why should more people be considering it as a career path?
New Zealand punches way above its weight in terms of unicorns per capita, so in terms of raw talent, I think there is a lot here. Ecosystems tend to compound in growth once you have a handful of successful companies.
Operators inside those companies get a taste of what success looks like and they start to spin off and start their own companies, taking the learnings of the prior generation to help them move faster and avoid some mistakes.
I think we’re at that moment in time now - where the Trade Mes, Xeros, Rocket Labs, Vends and Lanzatechs are producing the companies that will be unicorns over the next 5-10 year timeframe.
There are 2 main reasons for joining a startup.
Firstly, startups allow you to align your purpose and interests to the mission of the company. Very few corporate careers allow you to personally feel the impact of your contribution the same way.
Secondly, startups accelerate your learning and that means you get more experience faster. Put simply, each year in an early or growth stage startup is equal to probably 2-3 years in a mature company. Because experience directly correlates to pay, you can progress in seniority much faster.
For example, I started in email marketing in e-commerce and six months later I was a product manager of sites that turned over ~$10M ARR, and 12 months’ after that I’d moved to set up the European office from scratch overseeing about a dozen e-commerce projects.
You just can’t do that in mature companies. There is too much risk aversion, decisions are made too slowly, there are too many other “more qualified” people both inside and outside of the company that you have to step over.
“Do the work of your life for something you care about, with people who push you to your limits. ”
What are the key things you look for when investing in a company and how can that apply to people deciding where they might like to work?
I look for two main things:
1) Have they made great velocity of progress?
Capital is always constrained, so you want to try to find the team who can do a lot with a little and move fast. It’s more important to iterate quickly than to make perfect but slow decisions every single time.
2) Are they magnets for talent?
If you can hire great talent your odds of succeeding are exponentially greater. A players like to work with other A players. B players tend to hire C players and so on.
If you can convince A players to join you right at the beginning, when you likely can’t pay the best pay, when people don’t know how to value your equity, when there is no prestige associated with working for a company nobody has heard of then that is a really positive signal.
A couple of exceptional early hires will likely attract others to join as well. A great team can produce the progress which in turn allows you to raise money from the best investors, which attracts other awesome talent to join the company. A positive flywheel gets set in motion which helps make success, not inevitable, but more likely.
Lastly, why should our brightest talent be looking towards our startup ecosystem instead of the tried and true corporate path?
I think I’ve already answered that question! You only have one life - make it count. Do the work of your life for something you care about, with people who push you to your limits.
Framing it in the negative… I think Kiwis and Aussies tend to grossly misjudge the ‘career risk’ of going into startups. I almost only ever see people ‘fail up’ in startup land.
The experience of fast-scaling, iterating quickly, being on the bleeding edge of a technology, building a network that mature corporates don’t have good connectivity into… these are all assets you acquire when you work for or start a startup. They make you very desirable to other employers, startups and corporates alike.
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