328. Why the Pacific Northwest Will Win Big, Tapping the Enterprise Talent Pool, and Investing in Apps over Infrastructure (Cameron Borumand)

Cameron Borumand on TFR

Cameron Borumand of FUSE joins Nick to discuss Why the Pacific Northwest Will Win Big, Tapping the Enterprise Talent Pool, and Investing in Apps over Infrastructure. In this episode we cover:

  • The Story of FUSE
  • Spinouts in VC
  • Attracting & Building Talent Networks
  • Why Cameron avoids the Zoom Pitch
  • Enterprise Apps v. Infrastructure

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Transcribed with AI:

Cameron Borumand joins us today from Seattle. Cameron is founder and general partner of Fuse VC. Last year, Fuse closed their inaugural $170 million fund focused on early stage investing. Cameron has led investments in Round, Carbon robotics, WellSaid Labs and Jigx. Cameron, welcome to the show!

Excited to be here, Nick, appreciate you taking the time.

Of course! So Cameron, you know, Fuse has a unique founding story. You and your partner’s spun out of other firms Ignition and E ventures and you created Fuse to focus on the Pacific Northwest. Tell us a bit about why you spun out and in created Fuse.

Yeah, absolutely. And so myself and my partner’s Kellan Carter and Brendan Wales, we were all working at firms. Previously, myself and my partner Kellan where the firm called ignition partners. Ignition was a fund that was based here in the Pacific Northwest with an office down in San Francisco as well and invested for two decades thematically across primarily enterprise software. And really what we started to see out of the last fun was a lot of great businesses being founded here in the Pacific Northwest companies that had spun out of Microsoft and Amazon the two behemoths but also the next generation of SaaS software leaders, whether it’s Tableau Smartsheet, DocuSign, and then all the industry vertical leaders like Costco or Boeing, Zillow, Redfin, and so saw this vibrant, startup eating talent ecosystem being created up in the Pacific Northwest and given we were based here, how to our local network here, we’re getting access to these businesses and investing in the founders and so myself and my partner Kellan, we’re doing that Ignition. Our other partner Brendan Wales joined us from a firm called E ventures, now called Headline in San Francisco. He had been working there for nine years investing in pre seed, seed, and series A stage businesses. He’s gotten to know us him and Kellan hosted 50 different dinners and events down in San Francisco. And we looked at a bunch of different opportunities together. And so Kellan and I spun out of Ignition, and we thought, hey, if we’re ever going to bring someone else on, there was one person on the list and that was Brendan Wales. The problem was, he had just had a kid he was based in San Francisco. And you know, the concept of a regional fund, to be honest, didn’t get him super fired up. Originally, he was from Atlanta, he’s he’d always dreamed about going back to Atlanta and starting a fund. But he’d always struggled with the quality of companies in a region being high enough to support a fund. And that all changed when he came out here and spent time with us he visited and got to meet a lot of our companies, a lot of our limited partners. And I think it really clicked for him when we were traveling around Seattle, looking at places that he might potentially lived. And the local pizza shop, the owner of that was an LP, the local grocery store, the local jewelry store, all of these businesses were founded by entrepreneurs who are limited partners in in our fun, and we’ll talk a little bit about why that strategy matters. But he fell in love with the ecosystem. And so he moved his entire family, including two small kids in the middle of COVID, up to the Pacific Northwest. And we haven’t looked back ever since.

I have a lot of friends in the industry that have spun out from other firms and created their own. I’m not a spin out myself. Can you talk about that process and maybe the challenges to spinning out and starting a new fund?

Yeah, we were very lucky in the respect that Ignition was, had two general partners, a guy named John Connors based up here in Seattle, and a guy named mixed reality based in based in San Francisco and permanently John was had reached a stage of his life in his mid 60s, were committing to another 15 years on lifecycle, the dark side 10. But we all know it typically takes way longer than 10 years, coming to another 15 years as a key man didn’t make sense with his life and where it was going. And but at the same time, he wanted to continue to be involved. He wanted to do what the fun stuff, right, which is helping when and then post investment, working with the companies closely on the operating side. And so this was a unique opportunity for for John, who had been running ignition to continue to stay involved. And then for myself, Kellan and Brendan, to take steps up to what we had been doing but at the same time, go out and get this group of a lot of strategic executives to become limited partners in the fund. June 30, was our last day technically Ignition or in July 1 or first day Fuse. And we showed up to the same office, same desks, same laptops, the same back office that’s supported Ignition for the past two decades supported us. So all the existing infrastructure was built from day one, which was huge for us. It took that entire headache out of the picture and we could focus on building the fun hiring great people and, and making investments. It was a completely clean spin out, though. No economics tied back to to ignition and a completely new management company owned equally by myself, Kellan and Brendan. And so we wanted to make sure it was done cleanly, but at the same time getting the opportunity to leverage this existing infrastructure was was an opportunity that we were very excited about.

Was there some overlap in in the LP base? Was that helpful? Were you able to go back to, you know, some of the LP’s on Ignition?

You know, Ignition’s LP’s were mostly pension funds, very, very large institutions, I think they’re $200 million fund constituted, you know, 10 to 12. Around their limited partners, and so very concentrated in for a fun one and emerging manager, particularly as we spun out, we spun out February 24th, started fundraising in 2020. That was about a month before you started to hear things like just two weeks to stop the spread. And given the time, you know, a lot of those traditional pension funds weren’t taking a lot of meetings with emerging managers. And so we actually decided to, you know, we looked at are some of the most successful funds that had been built out there in the world, and they built incredible networks and communities. So we thought, hey, how do we accelerate our timeline there, to build a network and really own the Pacific Northwest ecosystems. So we went out and pitched a lot of strategic executives to be limited partners in the fun, which was a very different strategy than our previous firms who had who was mostly institutions. And so we went out and got executives at Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks, Costco, Smartsheet, Nike, Boeing to become limited partners in the fun, but not just with their capital, but also committing to spend the time with the companies that we back. And so it’s, you know, from day one, after we invest in a company, they have a, a subset of companies that, you know, large enterprises that they can sell in to get access to and also leverage for talent. And so surprisingly, you know, and I think this is surprising for a lot of it not a lot of overlap between the two LP bases.

I see how that can be really helpful for the portfolio. Cameron, curious, do you have any advice for prospective fund managers in new firms with respect to partnership dynamics?

Yeah, you know, these partnerships are tricky businesses. And I’m lucky to work with Brendan and Kellan. Two folks that I love coming into work hanging out with them. We’re in the office every single day, we have a lot of fun. We, you know, the nice thing is when one of us is low, the other two are typically high and vice versa. So we always are there to have each other’s back. Because as you know, Nick, raising a fund, particularly in the weird environment that it’s been over the past few years can be challenging. But if we go to work, and you believe in what you’re pitching, you believe in the people you can, you can get it done. And we decided early on to create a firm that had aligned incentives. I think we looked at a lot of other firms and our peers at other firms and where things started to get tricky. If there was certain, you know, certain misalignment of incentives, or you have people that were there to build a resume could go to a different firm. And so from day one who said, Hey, we’re going to own the management company equally. Everyone that we hire on our team here has a track to be a full partner and a check writer. It’s not a two year in-out program. And so hopefully we’re able to attract a great talent that wants to spend their careers here.

Awesome. So Cameron back to Fuse here, what type of companies does Fuse invest in?

Yeah, we invest in pre seed, seed, and series A businesses primarily with ties back or based in the Pacific Northwest, but not exclusively. And really, it’s a the types of companies are a function of the talent in this region. You have probably one of the best cities in the world for enterprise software talent. There’s no city in the world that has as much enterprise market cap as Pacific Northwest, obviously, that’s driven by Microsoft and in AWS within Amazon. But as you drive on Amazon’s campus, the first sign you see is Google Cloud. They put their massive sign on the side of the building right as you head into the South Lake Union part of Seattle where Amazon is paced. You have Salesforce as HQ to with their acquisition of Tableau, Uber, Facebook, Snapchat, all these businesses have massive engineering offices up here. And so the the technical talent here is is really second to none. So enterprise talent is one. The second is vertical software. We see great vertical software companies spinning out of, you know, real estate, Zillow, Redfin, advanced manufacturing, insurance, health care. And then lastly, b2b marketplaces, given you have Amazon, and one of the biggest marketplaces in in the world Base here. The amount of talent you have spinning out to start interesting ideas is quite high. And then the overlay across all that is AI machine learning. We think about that is essentially how these businesses leverage data no long term. And so if you’re a business enterprise software, vertical software, how do you leverage predictive analytics to help track long term stickiness?

Perfect. And is there a sort of check size range or an ownership target?

Yeah, anywhere from 500k to 10 million is our average check size range investing in rounds, that first round, where it’s a couple of folks spinning out of a company, here’s the 500k, go build it, especially for entrepreneurs that to have some sort of an unfair advantage or saw something in their previous careers. And we really at that stage, we look for founder market fit. And then on the later side, we’ll invest will lead rounds will take board seats, we’ll try and be the most active and engaged board member around the table. And it’s been a lot of fun in the majority of our investments, about 97% of the capital has been invested in the Pacific Northwest. And then we’ll continue to back these businesses, to the extent we can over the long term.

Series A’s are getting bigger out there, Cameron, they’re not what they were a few years ago, I remember like a Series A being in the, I don’t know, 30 to 40 range. And now many of them are 60. Plus, you know how to, does that affect your strategy at all, or, I guess you guys, you know, raise this fun probably, during the environment where round sizes were growing and valuations were expanding.

That’s probably the biggest challenge that we’ve had investing in series A’s out of $173 million fun to knock it over concentrated on average, we’re leading like a $10 million round with a $6 and a half, $7 million investment, if it gets higher than 10. It’s like, we’re investing we’re leading the rounds, we’re getting all these entrepreneurs early, but it’s not a super strong lead check for the businesses raising 15, if you’re coming in with like, six and a half, seven and a half, and that’s one of the things will will change. And fun too, is just being able to lead an investor $12 million investment on a $15 million round. But the process that we’ve been running here over the past few years is given it’s so focused on a region, at any given time, there’s about 35 to 4000 companies that we’re actively tracking. And we’re actively tracking, we’re meeting with them constantly trying to find ways to add value. So as these businesses start to turn the corner, we want to be the first call in there to where you you’re able to invest before their fundraising, you know, the majority of the companies that we’ve invested in, they didn’t have a deck when they’re just people to come in for meet and greets. And, you know, maybe that second or third meet and greet. And it turns into a fundraising meeting. And we’re trying to figure out how to actively put money in that business. But given they’re not, they’re not fundraising, and we don’t ask them to put together a deck because if they do that for us, they’re going to send it to a bunch of people. Because why not? We’re able to invest it I think you’ll prices that are fair to the founders and us our average pre money valuation and fun one was 20 million, which we’re incredibly, incredibly proud of. And, and I think the founders having it with some of the other founders that we’ve backed previously, they see the value add and particularly at the precede seed stage event at the series A as well. Investing way before there’s a deck when it’s not obvious going to work over the next six months to a year helping them hire their first killer Head of Customer Success, or maybe their VP of sales or you know, one of our businesses button, for example, which is a medical supply marketplace. One of our limited partners introduced us to the former CEO of McKesson, medical. McKesson being one of the largest businesses in the world. It’s moving medical supplies. This guy ran almost a billion dollar p&l at McKesson, we introduced them to the button founders, then he joined button is the president of that business. And so for the next round investor coming in, you having a well built team at the series, a ready to scale makes it obvious for the next round investors. We spend a lot of a lot of time on that.

You talked about your LP’s a bit before and you just gave that example. They’re curious, you know, the primary winning criteria for fuse when founders choose you sounds like you really get a lot of leverage out of your your network, but we’d love to hear a bit more color on that.

Yeah, it’s been fascinating. I mean, given we’ve started our careers in this ecosystem, John Connors, who is the CFO of Microsoft, he’s on the board of Nike on the board of Splunk, one of the best Fortune 500 rolodexes on the planet is with us as an operating partner, he was running Ignition, we’ve just been able to meet a lot of these great strategic executives and in the area. And so having them as limited partners, it’s probably more similar to Chicago, but it’s not like in San Francisco where if you’re an executive, a big tech company, you’re probably getting a bunch of different these private markets opportunities. And maybe you have your hand in in a few different venture funds or PE funds. Up here. A lot of these people are really attaching their names to Fuse. They want to talk about it. They want to share it on LinkedIn, they want to share it with their friends with their community. We launched a fuse app recently so all of our founders can go on their phone loans at any given time and see every single company, listen to a podcast, see how much we owe and see our memo, but most importantly, show open roles. And so we try and be one of the most over communicating firms in the world, in terms of how we talk to and communicate to our limited partners, every time we make an investment, we sent him a detailed note how we met the company, why we invest it, and then again, most importantly, how the fuse community can help. Because you just never know the n plus one networks that exist within a community. This president of McKesson, for example, we didn’t know that that was a connection of a fears limited partner. But if by over communicating by keeping these people informed, and engaged, unique opportunities come up. And so it’s it really comes down to three things. One is customer access for the types of companies for the companies that we back to his talent access to the companies that we back. And then lastly, and this was a bit surprising, 6 of the 20 investments that we’ve backed over the past two years were actually sent to us by our limited partners. And that was shocking. I mean, if you told me when we started the fund that any or LP’s will be sourcing any investments, I would have said no way, no chance. But that’s been the case. And so we’re gonna continue to expand on that. And subsequent funds this this group of strategic executives.

That’s great. That’s great. Cameron, you’ve got a unique take on how Zoom has changed the pitching experience, when these kind of generous LP’s send over these startups investable startups, which is great. What’s your point of view on sort of the positives and negatives here?

Yeah, I think the positives is you’re able to treat with travel time decreasing with with us not having to travel all around Seattle, or up to Vancouver, British Columbia, or Portland as much for the first meetings, it’s helpful, because you’re able to just meet more entrepreneurs, it’s a great thing for the entrepreneurs because they can increase their velocity of, of how many venture firms they can meet with by cutting on travel time. I mean, I remember the trek from San Francisco down to Menlo Park, like an hour and a half, you know, they don’t have to necessarily do anymore. But where it starts to get a little tough is when you’re actually ready to make a decision and getting to know the smaller subset of firms later in the process. I mean, these are people that on average, can sit on your board for eight years, which is longer than the average US marriage. And so you really are you want to date these people before you get married and over Zoom, especially as it gets later in the process. And you’re presenting to like a partner meeting and you got 25 faces on these little tiles on a screen? How do you actually get to know the person that’s going to sit on your sit on your board. And I think right now, you know, a lot of these financing processes are optimized for time. And so, you know, there’s not enough stories out there of how these board members can be a potential thorn in the side of these new startups. And there’s a big difference between the working styles of a lot of different people in terms of how involved they are, how active they are with the management teams. And so while the rest of the world is doubling down on Zoom and remote investing, we’re going big on on local, getting to meet founders in person and going on walks with them, having them and their significant others over to our homes for dinner, and just really getting a sense of who these people are. Because in early stage investing, we think the most important thing you’re underwriting is the team. And it’s just tough to get a sense of if this person is going to be a killer going to run through the brick wall in order to make their company successful when times are tough. Over Zoom. You know, sometimes we early on when we were investing in Vancouver, British Columbia, which we will lump in the Pacific Northwest, we couldn’t get across the border code because of COVID, we did make a few investments over Zoom, we subsequently got to know those founders, but we prefer to meet founders in person whenever, whenever we can for those reasons.

Again, Cameron, you’ve had a variety of roles and experiences both within and outside venture, what would you say is the most helpful advice, teaching or maybe a framework that you received early in your venture career?

Yeah, that’s an that’s an interesting question. I think for you know, early in venture and just even in my earlier career is just figuring out what your world class set and and doubling down on it. You know, coming out of college and going into sophomore investment banking, I thought I was a numbers guy. I thought I was going to build these models and, you know, help these companies raise money and tell their financial story really clearly. Because I got into investment banking, a small boutique bank in San Francisco, I realized, Hey, I liked the chase. I like going to these conferences. I like emailing the founders beforehand, because there’s founders that didn’t respond, I like pulling up their LinkedIn profiles, finding their picture online and going up and chatting with them. So a bit more on the sales side and venture you got to do three things well, right you got to access four thing is one two is winning and then three is shepherding working with these companies, both investment and that first piece early on in my career, I really gravitated towards, like how do you find that entrepreneur business one to people that that are even maybe still working at their predecessor company, or maybe just spun out, there’s no online presence, you know, they’re not on Product Hunt, the web traffic, isn’t there? How are you going to be the first person in the world that gets access and meets that company? And then how do you prove your value to them, and worth and so you get the chance and opportunity to work with them. That’s what I figured out that I was world class but loved I love doing, I was never going to be the best modeler in the world. I like Excel, but we just wasn’t, wasn’t going to spend my all my days in it and be the best at that. But my favorite part of my job right now.

So Cameron, you invest in a lot of vertical enterprise software? Have you observed sort of common success factors that you’ve seen play out across the businesses in your portfolio that have had success?
Yeah, the number one thing has been team and culture, you know, particularly teams is we back these entrepreneurs early on, there’s a few things that we that we look for, and in the founder and the CEO is one, two, they have an absolute obsession with driving customer value, you know, especially early when the product is half built, and it’s never ready for enterprise consumption. The founder just needs to be all over these early customers that like we invested in this one company based up in Calgary and are our firms called cement. The founder had this solution for customer engagement for large. Initially, telcos, he actually went to their office, one of their first few customers sat in the office and said, I’m not leaving, I’m going to be in the office for the next 10 hours in the lobby, like a coffee shop down there. If you have 15 minutes, it’d be great if you could come down and spend some time and hear about our platform that we’re building. And so those types of stories of, you know, early on, how do you get a product into a large enterprise, you just have to have that, that hustle factor and be absolutely obsessed with driving customer value early on, because he knows that, you know, the product experience might not be a 10 out of 10 in the first few years. And the second thing that we underwrite and look for in these kind of enterprise software companies is the founders ability to hire a players or a players B players hire C players. And so the way we diligence, that is, throughout the process, we’ll introduce them to potential people that they have gaps. They’re looking to hire VP of sales, we’ll send them a few VP of Sales candidates that are open and looking for roles, just to see how the entrepreneur jumps all over it or doesn’t jump all over it. And whether it’s a fit or not, they end up hiring doesn’t matter. But just the level of communication, you know, are they being transparent? Or is it a good process for that candidate? And are they focused on building a killer team, or they’re younger, for example, it’s a 20 year old, 20, something year old founder, and we introduce them to an exec that has some gray hairs in their 40s 50s 60s Do any insecurities start to come out about managing people with more experience, that’s something that we want to identify very early on, particularly with those younger founders. So obsession with customer value, one into ability to hire a players is two things we really underwrite.
In the example, you just shared, you know, how do you produce a bench of top quality sales leaders, you know, when there’s a need for for a sales hire, at the timing, that you’re engaged in diligence with the startup?

Yeah, we’re we spend a lot of our time recruiting, you know, we don’t have a separate recruiting arm or practices on staff, but it’s just done by the entire investing team. And so we’re constantly when we talk to any of our limited partners in sales roles. For example, we’re always asking, Hey, who’s who’s the up and comer that you’ve seen whether whether on your team or or outside that you think would be open to going and working at a startup one day, and so we’ll proactively have those conversations. And so at any given time, we’re tracking five to 10 potential head of sales candidates, potential Head of Customer Success, candidates, you know, VPs of engineering. And so when we invest, we’re able to go more founders are from from day one, how we can make those potential introductions and make it obvious for the next round investing. So right now, it’s, it’s done, you know, just with our time and our strategic network, so these 250 executives that back fuse fun one,

I kind of want to touch on the counterpoint. So are there any common mistakes or decisions or even characteristics that you’ve seen, you know, cause businesses to falter?

It’s when you have founding teams that are building a product that are so they’re so in love with the products where, you know, there might be an opportunity to, to pivot slightly or to change maybe the messaging or to just have a little bit more focus around the product, and they’re just not able to get the customers excited. You know, I think clarity and storytelling is something It is really incredible down in San Francisco it’s the I think this best city in the world for for storytelling for marketing. In the Pacific Northwest, you have a little bit more of a called the Nordic ethos. But the founders they they want to focus on building and don’t miss sometimes they need a little bit of help getting the story out and telling that big hairy audacious you know, slap you in the face story that can get customers but also potential hires, very excited. And so storytelling is something that we we spend a lot of time on with our, with our companies. But you know, if you if you don’t have that Northstar vision for what you’re building, set with early customer feedback, and you just put your head in and focus on on building a product and not getting that customer feedback early, that that’s when we see some some struggles.

Awesome. Cameron, I’m going to run through a rapid fire round here, on a couple different subject areas, I’m going to give you two options. And I want your quick response on each and then we can figure out which ones to circle back on. These are a little extreme. But we’re starting out with seed stage venture, more solos, more firms and more fragmentation, or increased consolidation?


Tech investor returns, web 2.0 vs. Web 3.0.


Number of VC funded unicorns in the next decade, Seattle or LA?


Who wins in enterprise software infrastructure versus application layer?

Application layer.

And the better investment the serial or the first-time founder?

That’s got to be in both as well.

You got to choose!

All right, well, serial.

Okay, serial. All right. So you think both web two and web three but it doesn’t sound like the firm is doing much in in web three?

Yeah, we made one investment in web three, my partner Brendan Wales, his who’s in tracking this stuff for a long time now. And so his prior for made made investments in the space before it started to get super hyped up. And we’ve made one but so we’re continuing to track this space. But I wouldn’t say it’s a massive, we are shifting focus. Brendan is very good at it. And he’ll continue to leave that for us.

Very good. And then sort of double click on the infrastructure versus application layer and tell us why you chose application.

Yeah, you know, I think these large companies, Microsoft, with Azure, AWS, Google Cloud, they’re innovating at such a fast pace on the infrastructure side. And a lot of the infrastructure tools that they’re coming out to market with their providing for free to get people on their cloud products. And so we’ve had a thesis that apps layer companies being built that can drive real business process change, and have low time to value for their customers will continue to outperform, you know, pure infrastructure companies over the next decade, particularly one of the things that we do is we get them plugged in to those large tech companies, Microsoft Azure partnerships team, the Amazon partnerships team and Google Cloud. Because if you can show that you’re pushing real consumption on Azure, for example, and you’re an app slayer company, and we’re vertical, selling into a vertical, they now have these vertical teams, and they will incentivize the salespeople to go push your product. And so we’ve seen this done really well on insurance and healthcare and financial services, to where Microsoft can be one of your biggest partners, and biggest drivers of revenue, if you know how to work the internal machine and an engine there, if you’re an Apps player company. And so you know, there will continue to be big winners and both. But you know, I personally do a lot more investing on on the apps layer than on the infrastructure side.

Okay, Cameron, this question is called three data points, I’m gonna give you a hypothetical situation with a startup, you can ask three questions for three specific data points, let’s say your approach to invest in a seed stage enterprise SaaS startup, companies based in Seattle, the sector is healthcare, they have $250k of ARR. They’re growing 20%, month to month. And again, the catch is you can only ask three questions for three specific data points in order to make your decision with three questions to ask.

Found your background would be one, two would be breakdown of that 250k between pilots and commercial in production contracts, particularly in healthcare. You know, a lot of these health care providers will will try software and moving into production is a whole separate challenge and, and then lastly, how they’re accessing the data or systems that they need to integrate into. Again, these healthcare companies data is everywhere. Existing ERPs and systems are not easy to integrate with. It can be a little bit of a slow moving beast. And so just that that helps us get a clearer understanding of how long it’s going to take to move from a pilot to production to mention, again,

Cameron if we can feature anyone here on the show, who should we interview and what topic would you like to hear them speak about?

One of our mentors is a guy named Otter Nyan, who runs Frazier Healthcare Partners who’s built an absolute behemoth in the healthcare world. Right. Wes Gillespie at IA Ventures I don’t know if you’ve had him on, but I think he’s quietly one of the best investors in the business.

Cameron, do you have any tools or hacks that are a secret weapon?

Boomerang. Boomerang on Outlook for follow ups. I like to know people, if I send out time to an entrepreneur we don’t get, I don’t get a response. I like to be proactive and follow up on that stuff. And so a Boomerang is a good one.

And then finally, here, Cameron, what’s the best way for listeners to connect with you?

Email is great, where our emails are on our website, and mine is cb@fuse.vc. So feel free to reach out we’d love to chat and love to connect.

Cameron, this is a huge pleasure. You know, congrats again on the $170 million inaugural fund. Sounds like you guys have got quite a system here with really engaged stakeholders. So a great learning lesson for me and appreciate the time.

Appreciate you taking the time and hopefully we get to chat again soon.

Thank you, sir.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai