One of venture capital’s first solo capitalists — before that was a term — is leaning further away from that approach. “Every couple of years, we’ve tried to come up with something new,” says Uncork Capital’s Jeff Clavier. This time, it’s several new partners who will be taking Uncork into some new investment territory — and a promotion for its other remaining partner, Andy McLoughlin.
Uncork Capital announced that Susan Liu and Tripp Jones have joined the firm as partners as part of the firm’s push into more of a multi-stage investment strategy, the partners say. Both will be writing their own checks out of funds that most recently included two $100 million funds announced in 2019.
News of the moves was first reported in the Forbes Midas Touch newsletter over the weekend.
Liu joins from Scale Venture Partners, where her sourcing of investments like Lever, TalkIQ and WalkMe helped her make the 30 Under 30 Venture Capital list for 2018. More recently, she invested in Papaya Global, a unicorn out of Israel, and was founding CFO of All Raise, the non-profit focused on supporting more women in startups and VC. Jones spent ten years at August Capital, investing in companies including BARK, Hipcamp and SendBird, among others.
“What really appealed to me here is I get to be closer to the entrepreneur’s journey because I get to be one of the first ones that believe in them and write them an early check,” says Liu, who will focus on software-as-a-service and business application startups for Uncork.
A former Midas List investor, Clavier launched SoftTech VC, as it was then known, as a seed and early-stage focused firm in 2004. What started as an angel fund for solo investing went institutional in 2007; Stephanie Palmeri would join in 2011, then McLoughlin, the former cofounder of collaboration startup Huddle, in 2015. The firm rebranded to Uncork two years later and raised its first opportunity fund to back its portfolio later in the journey.
Today, Uncork invests out of two $100 million funds it raised in 2019, its sixth early-stage fund, and second opportunity one. Palmeri announced she was stepping away from investing at the firm in February, for plans TBD in venture capital and angel investing. (In a message, Palmeri said she was proud of her decade at the firm and still personally invested and supportive of its success.)
Moving forward, Uncork plans to follow a “barbell” investment approach of seed and earliest-stage investing mixed with later stage opportunities, with about one-third of such investment going to companies not previously backed by Uncork. Uncork’s typical check will still remain $1.5 million to $2 million for an ownership stake of 10% to 12% in a business, says McLoughlin. But that’s increasingly flexible as seed-stage valuations and round sizes soar. Clavier remembers passing on Twilio at a $3 million pre-money valuation. Now they debate whether $17 million or $18 million seed round valuations are too rich. “The strategy hasn’t really changed, it’s just the numbers have,” McLoughlin says. (Two of his portfolio winners, LaunchDarkly and Human Interest, which recently raised $200 million, were sub-$1 million initial checks.)
“It’s totally cliché, but over the last five years, ‘institutional seed’ has really become the new Series A,” wrote Jones, who brings a focus on consumer, marketplace and fintech companies to Uncork, in an email. “People have asked me how I got comfortable moving from Series A to seed. My response is easy: ‘I didn’t move, the industry did.’ In a lot of ways, I will be focused on the exact same thing I have been for the last decade.”
While Uncork itself is growing alongside the industry, Clavier, 53, says he has no immediate plans to step back. “One thing that VC firms really screw up badly is transitions, so it’s better to make sure you have everything lined up so you can transition when you want to do it,” he says. The firm founder continues to invest in “weird stuff” in frontier tech, as McLoughlin quips.
Still, it will be interesting to see which partners are listed on Uncork’s next several fund go-arounds. Given its investing cycle and stated pace, the firm is likely to be announcing new funds within the next year. Though its partners maintain now that they’re still investing out of the 2019 funds – and wouldn’t be allowed to talk about active fundraising if they were – a firm actually taking three years to deploy a three-year fund would be something of a throwback in today’s venture market.