435. How a Sports Journalist, Car Washer, and Rug Salesman Built a Tier 1 VC Firm (Pejman Nozad)

435. How a Sports Journalist, Car Washer, and Rug Salesman Built a Tier 1 VC Firm (Pejman Nozad)

Pejman Nozad of Pear VC joins Nick to discuss How a Sports Journalist, Car Washer, and Rug Salesman Built a Tier 1 VC Firm . In this episode we cover:

  • Entrepreneurship, Venture Capital, and Building a Firm for Generations
  • Entrepreneur Mindset, Sales Skills, and Storytelling
  • Investing in Startups, Pro Rata, and Valuation
  • Evaluating Startup Potential, Including Market Size and Founder Quality
  • Investing, Exit Strategies, and Building Relationships with Founders

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Transcribed with AI:

Pejman Nozad joins us today from San Francisco, California. He is the Founding Managing Partner at Pear VC, a pre-seed and seed fund investing in AI, Consumer, B2B, Healthcare, Enterprise, Biotech, Climate tech, fintech, SaaS, DeepTech, and Web3. Over the past two decades, he has been a seed investor in some of the most iconic tech companies including Doordash, Dropbox, Applovin, Gusto, Guardant Health, Branch, Aurora Solar, Soundhound, CourseHero, and others. He was included in the Forbes Midas List in 2021, 2022, and 2023 and ranked #1 in the world on the Forbes Midas Seed List last year. Pejman received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor in 2014 for his contribution to America as an immigrant. He started his career in Tehran as a sports journalist and played soccer. He has attended 6 FIFA World Cups, two of them as an accredited journalist to cover the games. Pejman, welcome to the show!
Hey, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it. It’s a pleasure to be here with you and your audience.
It is such a pleasure to have you, sir. We’ve had more on the programme. And I’ve been very excited to get you on to learn about your background and your whole story. I know that you have a really interesting one. Maybe we’ll start out with you know, what was your first job when you came to America?
Yeah, it’s interesting. You know, I grew up in Iran when I was 10 years old. The revolution in Iran happened in two years. The war happened eight years of war between Iran and Iraq. So my teenager life was surviving a war which was brutal. And I was a very good student. I was a better soccer player. As you mentioned, I played for big clubs in Iran. And then I started to write for sports magazine. Then I became very popular because I was like, 1718 years old analysing soccer and people really love my writing, to give me an opportunity to host Iran’s most popular sports radio talk show. So imagine you’re 18 years old and LeBron James or country sits in front of you. So it was amazing time for me and I learned a lot. I went to a top university in Irvine, but after two years, I dropped the university. I served in the army. Luckily, the army was the team was playing in the Premier League in Iran. So I played most of the time for that team, rather than being in the military base. I went to Germany, my parents left Iran before me with my brother. They lived in Germany. I went there, they gave me a scholarship to play soccer. But few weeks into being in Germany, my brother pushed me to go to the US Embassy for no reason. And I actually first say to my brother, you’re crazy. I don’t speak English. I have a scholarship here. And my parents are here. It says just go and get a visa but don’t go so they interviewed me the counsellor asked me why you want to go to America. I said, I want to go watch NFL MBA. I was very truthful. So I just arrived here in 1992. With no plan, I had only a few $100 $700 cash and didn’t speak one board angry. So as you might have heard that was actually in love with the girl back home in Iran and I thought I’m going to lose her. So I called her everyday from a payphone here in San Carlos. And in the 1992 there was no internet phones and pig calling around cost like two $3 per minute so the money was gone. And I had no plan so I figured out that I have to get a job. I managed to buy a 1973 Chevrolet $450.05 payments of $150 because I didn’t have money to pay and I drove every day for an hour to San Jose. I’ve washed cars for 1011 hours and drove back so my first job in America was washing cars, but I tell you I was the best car wash iptable has ever seen. Nick I wash cars like no one else.
Amazing. Amazing. And I heard that you were homeless at one point like
how would ya right after that i i My English improved I landed a job at the yoghurt shop I ran out of money I slept on the street in my car and I begged the owner to let me sleep in the attic above the yoghurt shop so it’s real attic imagine above your roof there is there’s an attic over there’s no window no air. So waking up every morning 5am Open up the shop to 5pm go to college come back. Yeah, again surviving. But you know, something was telling me if I can survive this I can do many things in my life. And you know something magical happened one night I saw an advertising for Persian rug store in downtown Palo Alto I called I got that job. And I started to sell rugs And again, I became a really good rug salesman. Persian rugs basically you come as a paid when I bought a home in Palo Alto, and San Francisco and we look at rugs together. But ultimately I bring drugs to your home, 90, more than 95% of transaction happens at people’s home. By coming to your home, obviously, for our two hours, we get to know each other, to talk about different things. And I realised six, seven years into it that all of my customers are cup venture capitalists and founders, these are really really important people like John Doerr, and who is up the road and I was hanging out with them having barbecue selling rugs, and you know, I was reading of what they do, obviously, they were wealthy people, but mostly, I didn’t know that you can create companies based on knowledge. I thought, like, you always built things like this, or like this, and you sell it. But you know, when they’re explaining what they do, I thought, well, just this is unbelievable community I have, I’m very lucky to have this access. And I want to be one of these people. So started to ask a lot of questions. This is late 90s. Like none of these things that today. It wasn’t available, it was only Sand Hill Road. And Ron Conway was the only angel investor in the world. So no podcasts, no podcast, no TechCrunch, no YC none of these things that are available today in the in the hands of venture capitalist entrepreneurs was it was not possible. I decided that I this is an opportunity of lifetime. And I started to learn and I convinced the owner of the rock shop to partner with me because I didn’t have money. So we started to invest in startups late 90s when it wasn’t really fashionable to be angel investor. And you will make terrible investments. We didn’t know what the heck we were doing. And but I kept going and you know, my, my network grew I remember I, I invited the entire Sequoia Capital Partners to drug gallery I invited 100 entrepreneurs and people love that interaction never happened before in that environment. So day by day, I got to know the business I learned rolled around me and you know, fast forward that was fortunate to invest in some really category defining companies. As you mentioned, I was the first investor in Dropbox and you know, applecart, unhealth, Soundhound and MC gusto and many others. And then I made money I started to do angel investing professionally. And I realised around 2009 2010 That founders raised initial capital, but venture capitalists, leave them alone right after and I thought there was an opportunity, not because intentionally, it was already either busy, but I’ve never done that early work, like idea gets you to product market fit. And I realised there’s an opportunity to build an institution to serve founders at that stage, you have an idea? Maybe prototype? How do you build a team? What does operational plan look like? Who are your first 10 customers? How do you get to those first customers? How do you grow as a leader? What are the important things like really be the partner early days, I knew my skills were not adequate to be the best build that firm because I it was certain to me that in order to build long lasting firm, I need a partner who has been an entrepreneur and but then she products so I reached out to my current partner more. I didn’t talk to anybody else. It took me four years to convince her I actually funded Maurice company husband’s company 2000, the year 2000. And her company in 2003, we became really good friends. I actually syndicated Mars two and a half million dollar seed round in 2003. And this was a time that I had to take Marr to my friend’s home and offices to eBay headquarter, so I got to know her through the whole process. And she successfully sold that company. And then in 2013, we partner our first office was at Cooper Cafe. We want to build the best seat from ever existed in the history and we want to help founders build category defining companies, but more importantly, a firm bigger than two of us we want to build the firm for generations. And Mark and I think we are young and young. I’m a college dropout. She’s a Stanford PhD. She started three companies in tech, believe it or not, I never worked for a tech company. She She has 14 patents, I have zero patterns, but I have a lot of scars on my body. So this is where we are the firm is 11 years old and I can tell you more about what we do.
It’s a remarkable page man. What would you say is the the most important lesson you took away from your experiences working at the yoghurt shop for at the carwash or selling rugs?
I truly believe whatever you do in life, if you become the master of it, something magical happens. I rest assure you there’s no better rock salesman than me. The history I was just in my life was into it. Same thing today, I designed my entire life around. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a social life of a family of a beautiful kids. But I wake up every morning thinking about founders and how make this how can I make this firm successful? So I’m all in I design everything around selling rugs, I was I was designing everything my life around selling yoghurt, live there, and grow. So I think if if you’re if you’re cleaning windows and you become the best window cleaner and roll one day, you’re gonna have a company that will clean Empire States Windows page, man,
what would you say is the biggest change or evolution that has occurred at pear since your founding?
So it was two of us. I think pair was page one and mark now you’re 24 people we grew as a team, the DNA hasn’t changed is always about being partner for entrepreneurs very early on taking a lot of risk and stick to them through thick and thin. But we built in, you know, extraordinary team, you know, today pair, it’s a pre seed and seed specialists means that’s the only thing we do. We we are investing out of a $432 million fund, which is maybe among the largest preceding dedicated pre seed and seed fund in the world by a non multistage firm. And our investment team has have started and sold 10 companies the likes of Cisco Instacart, Zynga Yahoo. Plaid, so a lot of know how early days, we build a platform team that support the investment team. For example, we have a talent team of four senior recruiters led by Matt Birnbaum, who was a head of global talent of Instacart to Instacart, from 300 to 3000 people. So we have we have hired 99 People in the last 12 months for our companies for free, just like extra ordinary help for our companies. And these are when I said companies are a team of two or three, we hire two or three machine learning engineers for them. You just pretty amazing work we do. And in you know, the seniority of recruiting team is amazing. One of them, for example, was just working for Elon Musk. That’s the Talent Team, we have a go to market team that really helped them to really understand how you go to the market, who are the first customer what do you run to sales and just really lot of workshops. We are building, kind of the product marketing team at pair. So this is the layer supporting the investment team. Surrounded by a concept we call pair studio, we really believe in building a community. So we have two offices, one next to Stanford one we just opened in San Francisco, the one in San Francisco 30,000 square foot is the biggest VC offices in the country. But it’s really not a venture capital offices is home for tech builders. We Our aim is between these two places, we built the most active and engaged community of tech builder. So part would be home for our portfolio part would be you call me say page one. I know an amazing engineer moved from Chicago to San Francisco, he or she is working on their idea they need a place. So we’ll give the give them home. And it’s a lot of lot of activity happens over there. We just hosted a hackathon with open AI last Saturday, we had 792 people applied and we selected 170 people and they came from 9am to 9pm Hack then with partnership with open AI. So there’s a lot of activities over there. So that’s basically where periods Today we’re 11 years old. And you know, we always think is day one at Bear, there’s so much to build so much to do.
Web page, man, you’ve said that the founder journey is very hard and very frustrating. But you hope that folks will learn to see all these obstacles and challenges as transformative experiences. How do you tease out that mindset in founders prior to investing? You know, do you have any insights that you can share with listeners that would help you know them get clarity on the mindset of the entrepreneur?
You know, we as a team spend a lot of time to get to know the founders, as you mentioned, there’s not much early on. We like founders who are master of their own universe. What does that mean? means like, if you’re building a company, I give you an example in space, you just no deeply better than anybody else. What the pain is, what is the market? Who is your customer? Same thing if you’re any other sector. So we want founders who have deep domain knowledge about the market, the type of the customer and the pain. That’s one thing. I think we really like founders who are really committed for a long time and visionaries and you know, typically when you talk about the vision people talk about what they want to do by series A Not, you know, 1020 years from today, if you look at some of the most legendary entrepreneurs of all time, including Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk, and even Steve Jobs, they were telling us things that we never imagined will be happening. Like, I saw a stat last night that Elon Musk said, I think at the time, they had 100 million dollars revenue that he said in 20 years, all cars would be electric. I think it takes longer. But you know, the company has, I don’t know, $89 billion revenue and growing, or a news letter that Jeff Bezos says in ad’s to shareholders is one day all transaction, merchandise people won’t buy things on Amazon. So I think we look for people who see future before us that they can articulate that in the right way. We like founders who have history together. That’s very important for us. That doesn’t mean if you have met last few months, we say no, but it’s it’s a very good sign of a really good team. You know, we like founders who can attract talent, you know, if you look at and these are coming for, you can attract talent, if you if you’re building something really extraordinary, and you have the vision, you know, smart people have so many options. The the top 1020 People at meta at Facebook have been there 80% of the time, they’ve been there like 16 1718 years. Wow. It just like if you look at those people still they’re sitting in people that are Microsoft, like 40 years over there. Satya Nadella, the CEO has been there for 32 years, as Sundar at Google has been there for 20 years, they’re actually act as a founder. So it’s pretty extraordinary. What leaders of these startups at the beginning can attract early on when when you hire these people early on, you are not a big company, but the ability to articulate your vision will be helped will help you to just get amazing people. And the last thing we like people who really truly believe the company and their team is above anything else, including themselves
page, Ron, you’re known for your sales and negotiation skills, you hone them while selling drugs clearly. How important is how important are sales skills in the founding team?
I think it’s very important, I think, I think I actually reverse sell to just storytelling. I think it’s really, really important. I actually when I look back, I never sold rugs, I never sold the rugs itself. I always I always explain the impact of the rug in your home. That what is it that does it to you. So if you buy a tie, you really don’t buy a tie, you buy your look with that tie. You always imagine yourself what is that to what this tie do to me my look with the certain suit you have in mind. So I think storytelling selling is really impact of particular product or particular roadmap. For me it’s very important. I think the best founders you know, they’re great storytellers. Look, just just watch what Brian Chesky even today does with Airbnb it just remarkable every time he comes with a new things that I’ve never seen the world like this, you just keep telling stories and growing is own if the market for Airbnb.
You know, the journey, the journey to building a successful company is rarely linear and up to the up into the right. It’s often up down flat. It’s frustrating. How do you advise entrepreneurs that are going through these challenges and getting pressure, you know, from other investors or other parties to you know, grow 20 to 30% month over month?
I don’t think there’s any advice that can make entrepreneurs resilient, you’re either resilient or not, I think just in you, but obviously sharing stories and learning from the other founders who have gone through it, I think gives kind of encouragement to the founders. They’re not the only one going through these things. You know, you mentioned building a startup is kind of a roller coaster, especially emotionally, things going you’ll wake up in the morning, you know, your investors say yes to you. And then at noon, your design partner says no to you. So you have to just be ready for it. And you know, being entrepreneur is not for everyone.
Do you have a standardised approach to working with and supporting companies? You mentioned things about platform and stuff, but I’m more interested in your engagement you know, if you lead the investment, is it standard? Is it always custom?
It’s very customised per company. You know, I’m very lucky to have like amazing partners who are investors deep domain expertise. I don’t have any particular vertical expert in it. Just have some understanding in the market and history of being an investor for 23 years. So I always have one of my partners with me who has domain expertise He’s has been an entrepreneur before build companies before. And you know, I just do whatever it takes for founders, I typically focus on what matters next three to six months, I always ask founders, one of the three things you need, and I move mountains to just at least do one of them.
I’m curious for some thoughts on pro rata. So when a business does not have product market fit, and it’s still figuring things out, how do you decide whether to invest more money?
Boy, it’s really come back to the relationship you have with the founders and how much understanding you have on the product roadmap, the team, the finances, we have been multiple times bridging companies doing pro rata, sometimes we don’t, it’s not it’s not it’s not a blind pool of capital. But a good investor is always in the loop is always in communication with the founder. And it all goes back to the trust you build from early days, the founders trust you and they can share a lot of information. You know, I remember, we we did the seed investment in DoorDash. And then Sequoia camp Series A, we did Series A, but at Series B, which was at the time, nobody believed in kind of food delivery is a big market. Uber was ahead of DoorDash, John Doerr came on board for Series B at $600 million valuation, and this is fun one, this was only 50 million, we put our perahera was 1.4 million, which it was, it’s either shocked at this is back in 2014, I think or 15. Even some of our LPS shocked at why it first time manager $50 million on put money at Series B typically you do see them series and goodbye. But yeah, you know, it came back to the relationship. We had Tony the CEO and the rest of the team, our understanding where they are the plan and really believe that this could be an outlier, you know, the company went out and you know, we exited that $47 billion market cap. So when you look back $600 million, that’s like no brainer, but it was a very, very hard decision at that time.
Yeah, I think, you know, maybe I got this answer. But I’m curious, is there a top limit on valuation, that you’ll execute a pro rata on, you know, to maintain sort of a seed return profile? Or if you know,
I, I think I learned that, you know, this is given everybody knows power law there, you do this portfolio construction, you talk about it, you execute it, but at the end of the day, there are only one or two, just return the fund. That is not fun. Our funds, every fund is like that historically, if you look at Kleiner Perkins fund was one of the best performing fund was like Genentech was part of that in theory. So I think we as much as the, you know, the size of the fund matters of how far you can go. But we are not shy away to invest. We just invested in vanta, Series B, which was, you know, over one and a half billion dollars valuation.
Wow. When do you think is the right time to preempt and lead a next round of financing versus going to market and taking a pro rata?
I think when you have this insane belief that this company is going to return their fund, somehow you love the team, the execution is flawless. Customers love the product.
That’s when you preempt? Yes. You know, aside from overall size of a market or an opportunity space, what are some of the key elements that you look for? That gets you really excited about sort of the business and the opportunity?
You know, typically we we early on, we called potential customers wanted to just see, do they pay for this? Is this a real pain or not? So that’s a great indication for us because the product is not built most of the time. So we just do kind of analysis if this works, you know, sometimes the market it’s it’s not big enough, but that has potential to grow. Indoor that started at the market was food delivery when America was $3 billion dollars. Total market today is 75 billion and growing, ascending with Uber, taxi business was at 40 billion. Now it’s close to $200 billion. Same thing with Airbnb. And it’s hard for an investor to predict that. It’s really the founder who can come and articulate and I think no founder has come and say, I’m starting DoorDash the market is 3 billion and it’s going to be $75 billion in like 10 years, this never happened. But I think the way they run their businesses and you know, I typically want to dream about every opportunity and I just think in my wildest dream how biggest company can become
amazing. On the other side of you know, what are some of the key factors that may be less obvious but give you more hesitation when you’re assessing Single Market?
You mean what, what gives me pause about a particular market that is big enough or not?
Yeah, if you’re looking at an opportunity, and let’s, let’s just assume that the founder is strong. But as you dig in on the market side, or the opportunity side, are there some common factors that come up that make you sceptical of the ability for that market to be, you know, to grow to be a good profile, nice customers, sticky, etc.
I think each company IT sector is their friend, I just, I think the companies who cannot become really big, they’re multiple factors. But the pain is not big enough. And it could be for a certain type of the customer, but not all the customers in that space. And so and we always do, we actually have a great blog that you do bottom up kind of market sizing in stock. That is a great guidance. And I encourage founders to look at it on our blog on our website. And it gives you a really good kind of the homework how you study a market.
Page. Man, I have this opinion that it’s very hard to evaluate a person in a business when you’re chasing them. Our thesis, a new stack is constructed in a way that we don’t have to chase. Most often the founders are pursuing us for investment. You’re based in the Bay Area, and you invest in many Bay Area companies. How are you able to appropriately diligence and learn about a founder in a company that is being chased by many firms and quickly gets oversubscribed?
I think one we both have very competitive offering to founders. So I think once we get a chance to founders to see what we’re doing, and this is a combination of having specialist investment in sector and our platform, plus the history and the size of the capital we have, and the performance of the fund, we try to go meet them if it’s necessary. We don’t invest in any company that we haven’t met, we typically they should, we should either go they should come to meet us, or we go to meet them. You know, if you look at history of pair, we build a lot of sourcing platforms. And we get to know them really through a long history before even they start the company. So for example, my partner Vivian, who leads healthcare and climate at pear started an amazing programme for female engineers who are leaving big tech companies or academia and wants to start a company is a free programme for 15 weeks when matched with mentors, workshops, Speaker Series, you get to know each other and you can go raise money from anyone. So she spends 15 weeks with them. And then the team gets involved. So we get to know them long before even the start company. So it gives us some advantage. We do the same thing for purging founders for PhDs, for product managers. So majority of the companies that they invest, they have history with that.
Love it pays around a lesson that you shared from your experience at the rug store is don’t be afraid to be different. Lean into what makes you unique and find a creative way to use it to your advantage. You’re more defensible that way, too. My question for you is when you look at other VCs and your own approach, what makes you different?
Yeah, it’s good question. I remember when, you know, when I when we started to this angel investing, our office was a beautiful rug Gallery, which is most beautiful rug Gallery in the world on University Avenue. And yet, when people came, I made sure that we serve Persian tea in a beautiful way. It was a beautiful gold tray with dried nods. And it wasn’t like putting a tea bag in the hot water, we brewed tea. And in many years after farmers are patient, we really love that interaction with you. Because typically we go to use all glass and Sandhill Road offices, which is great. But when we come to you, it all started with T our families and our culture. Before we even talk about product market fit and market size and what we built it was like this kind of amazing relationship with we had with you and you know, I learned that I could have said or I could have, you know, hid behind my differences, which is the rock salesman in the rock shop in downtown Palo Alto, you know, investing in high tech companies, but I thought there is there’s something about me the rock business, my culture that, you know, is my strength and it’s it’s proved to be right. And today is that same thing. I’m still Serpenti I think founders I came from nothing and I think founders really relate with that. Nothing scares me and I really believe that you can create your own opportunities. And founders are everyday create opportunities for themselves or for team members. So I think I relate a lot with that. Numbers,
what’s your position on taking board seats on your investment,
we typically talk to the founder see what they want, we even write a big check. I think if there’s no relationship with the founders bought it, and no boards, it’s, it doesn’t matter, you don’t have to trust, I think you need to just make sure at the time you make that investment, that trust is already established. And I think we have a great working relationship. So it just doesn’t matter. We have it or not, even if you write a bigger check these days, is not a requirement. We want to be involved. And I think we prove to them that we are helpful. And we build a great vision, I want to make sure that founders think pair is the extension of their team. So as a founder, you have your generic team, you have your sales team, you have your go to market, Google, you know, marketing team, you always have a pair team at your service. And if they don’t really believe that’s the case, I don’t I think you’re just wrong partnership to start
with. So you always make sure you have a team and support you’re saying, Yeah,
I just think like, I just wanted to make sure that you know, Pear is the extension of the team of the of the startup. So as a founder, you have your engineering team, your sales team, your marketing team. I want founders believe that pair is one of those teams, and we are at your service. If that’s not the case, I think it’s the wrong partnership to start with.
And then we talked a lot about the relationship and investment. We talked a bit about post investment. How about the exit process? You know, do you get involved in the exit process? You know, when your companies decide to sell or explore an IPO?
Typically, when there’s a smaller anatomy, I’ve been very much involved with, you know, smaller acquisition, when they get to the size of Dropbox and DoorDash of the world. No, I mean, they have big boards there. They’re soon to be public company at that time. We’re not that much involved, although we’re still involved, like, I help a lot with our companies with a series B, C, and beyond and, you know, building the board and hiring executives. But no, we’re not involved that early on. They’re very much involved in their past seed series A they will be the one to just transact and there’s no path to IPO. We get very much involved without
page round. If we can feature anyone here on the show. Who do you think we should interview and what topic would you like to hear them speak about? Oh,
I think you should, you should interview Leo Messi and ask him. How does he do what he does for two decades?
It’s pretty remarkable.
it’s funny. I’ve got a I’ve got a Miami Messi Jersey downstairs. Trying to get them on the show. Page man, what book or article would you recommend to listeners, something you found helpful.
I always think the the book of I keep reading the power of now. by Eckhart Tolle. It just allow you to step back and look at the world from, like 30,000 feet. It’s a great book to read, and I recommend everybody to read it.
Amazing. Do you have any habits, tactics or techniques that are a secret weapon? Yes,
I make Persian tea that people love.
I gotta try this tea. I’m a huge tea drinker. I’m curious how good it is. And then finally here, page, man, what’s the best way for listeners to connect with you and follow along with pear
space mod at Paragon VC. Very simple,
amazing. Well, page man, you know, I’ve been waiting to do this interview for many years. I really appreciate you coming on the show and sharing all your insights and wisdom and in your backstory with us. So thank you, sir.
Let me thank you so much for having me. I’m actually it made me jealous because I don’t have messy shirt. So I have to think about it. You have the pink one or the black and pink one.
It’s black with pink striping? Yeah,
that’s amazing. Yeah. Well, thank you so much, Nick, what do you do for the ecosystem is just pretty amazing for both founders or the venture capital community. So I just want to thank you.
Thank you, sir. Appreciate you saying that.
All right, that’ll wrap up today’s interview. If you enjoyed the episode or a previous one, let the guests know about it. Share your thoughts on social or shoot them an email, let them know what particularly resonated with you. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that. Some of the smartest folks in venture are willing to take the time and share their insights with us. If you feel the same accomplishment goes a long way. Okay, that’s a wrap for today. Until next time, remember to over prepare, choose carefully and invest confidently thanks so much for listening