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Episode 06

Accel’s Amit Kumar and Ivan Zhou on being an effective startup partner when things don’t go according to plan

A conversation with the Partners at Accel

No founder's journey is a straight line. In the throes of ups and downs, having guidance from someone who understands your experience can be invaluable. In this special episode of Spotlight On, Accel’s Amit Kumar and Ivan Zhou discuss their shared founder journeys and transition into VC, and dive into how they worked together to steer Ivan’s startup, Mayhem, through its most challenging times.

Mayhem (formerly Visor) was a social gaming platform that joined Accel Family in 2018 and was acquired by Niantic in 2021. In April, Ivan joined Accel as an early-stage partner, mirroring Amit’s founder-partner journey. Their discussion explores the resilience needed to navigate turbulent times, a central theme in their founder experiences. This episode unpacks some of the most critical qualities of early-stage founders and operators – the determination to solve real problems, the importance of establishing strong foundations, and the willingness to rethink strategies when things don’t go according to plan.

Conversation highlights: 

  • 00:00 - Ivan’s background and first startup attempt
  • 04:44 - Uncovering the problem and passion that would inspire Mayhem 
  • 07:25 - What Ivan and Amit were looking for in an early-stage VC partnership
  • 11:40 - The importance of building a company around a problem, not a category
  • 18:09 - Lessons learned in a pivotal moment when Mayhem nearly failed
  • 21:16 - How adversity as a founder helped both Amit and Ivan become better partners
  • 30:50 - Ivan’s discovery of his passion for supporting other founders
  • 39:17 - The core verticals and traits Ivan is looking for in future founders

Featured: Ivan Zhou and Amit Kumar, Partners at Accel

Learn more about Accel’s relationship with Ivan and Mayhem:

Explore more episodes from this season:

Access Spotlight On Season 1 episodes here.

Read More

Amit Kumar (00:07):

Welcome to Spotlight On, I'm Amit Kumar. I'm here with Ivan Zhou. Ivan is our newest partner, but before this was an Accel entrepreneur. He started the company Mayhem. I was very fortunate to be your lead investor and board member, and then we had a nice exit to Niantic and then after a few years I convinced you to come and do this job. So I'm really excited that you're on the team. And I just want to go over your background and the journey that brought you here.

Ivan Zhou (00:31):

Yeah, so born in LA and my parents were both researchers, and came from China. Really, the immigrant story. I came here because there were more opportunities and they did research at UCLA, and USC, and then we had the opportunity to move to the Bay Area because my mom could come to Stanford and actually do research there. And we came here and kind of throughout my childhood I always had this inclination towards discovering new things, watching them do science, do research, coming back home, talking to me about it. And so it was interesting. I actually wasn't exposed to the technology industry the way I think a lot of other people would be. I think people talk about learning to code when they were super young. Growing up with a computer that actually wasn't me. I actually grew up in the lab. I would go with them to Stanford. I would actually be in the lab pipetting and doing kind of wet lab work throughout high school.

(01:30): I spent a lot of time there. And then in college, I actually studied biology for quite a while, but during that time I went to Berkeley. Tons of interesting projects were being worked on by my friends, by my peers, and a lot of those were mostly software. Actually the first company I actually tried to start on my own was, and this is before working with Anhang before even having a co-founder was in college. At the end of my time my last year, I tried to start a healthcare company. It's called Navi. And it was this idea of helping kids be healthier by building software for schools to track their nutrition, their PE class scores, all of that. Just this idea of tracking people from when they were younger and then following them longitudinally. Terrible idea. It didn't work out. We didn't know how to settle.

(02:26): We were scrounging together friends to help me build the product. It was really rough and I think I did everything wrong. It was probably the worst kind of checking every box of what not to do, but I loved it. I think that was when I knew that this is what I really enjoyed doing because I was so terrible at it and it turned out so poorly and I still wanted to do it. But after graduating, I knew just being kind of the independent immigrant kid I had have to pay my bills. And so got a job in finance, but the entire time I was in finance, worked on a lot of side projects and Anhang at the time, who was my co-founder, he was at Facebook and he was there since 2012, 2013. It was about four or five years in. I just kept telling him, you should quit. You just got to leave, man. This startup stuff, it's gold. It is way better than anything you could be doing at Facebook. Of course I was wrong. Facebook's pretty great and he was working on some cool stuff, but I was able to convince him to spend some time with me. So while I was working these finance jobs, what I felt like I was really doing was hacking on side projects.

Amit Kumar (03:37):

Convincing an already successful person to leave their cushy job to start a company. Man, you're a natural for venture. Okay, and you guys started hacking on projects together. What was the process that led you to what eventually became Mayhem?

Ivan Zhou (03:53):

We're living together. We're roommates, so we would spend eight hours during the day hacking on different things and then we would just spend eight hours playing video games. That's the truth. I think we both, he played a lot of doda, I played a lot of StarCraft, a lot of Counterstrike. And we would just after dinner, start playing, we'd play until 2:00 AM 3:00 AM We'd go to sleep, wake up, we'd repeat. We'd repeat that for two, three months and we kept trying to find something to work on that wasn't gaming. Both of us really loved playing games, but we looked at the industry, looked at the markets, did our intellectual analysis and didn't really like the opportunities there, but just we couldn't stop thinking about things that we would want for ourselves as gamers. And so that led to us building the first product, which eventually became Mayhem.

Amit Kumar (04:44):

How do you talk to founders today about navigating the idea? That's sort of a truism - solve your own problem and really the Airbnb insurance idea was your own problem. Yeah. How does that inform what founders you look for or what sort of connection they have to the space of the company that they're building?

Ivan Zhou (05:00):

So I think the solve your own problem advice is actually pretty good in a general blanket way if you don't know where to start. But I think if you abstract it a little bit, the thing that I found to be true after looking at our journey, but also the journey of other founders is people that just, they notice a wrinkle in the world. They notice it's like a smooth sheet, but there's just something wrong and they can't stop thinking about that wrinkle. Often you care enough about that wrinkle, it's your own problem, but it could be something you've noticed at work, it could be something you've noticed in your friends or family and you just want to take an iron and you want to iron out that wrinkle. You just want to be like, why is it like this? For our example, when we're playing video games, we want to get better. We're out there looking at post game tape, we're looking at our data and it's like, this is terrible. Why can't I just have someone who's better than me help me get better? The obsession with figuring out why does that wrinkle exist? What are all the things that contribute to it? What could I do right now to try and make that smooth? That obsession is, I think what's interesting. So when I talk to founders and they're navigating the idea, MAs, a lot of times I try to look for guide them to finding something that they get that obsessed about.

Amit Kumar (06:22):

So this is around the time that you and I met. What was your impression of Accel through the process? Obviously it was a really exciting company and you and Anhang had credible backgrounds at the time, and I think what people need to understand is eSports was this really just emergent wave that was hitting, all the teams were raising funding.

Ivan Zhou (06:50):

Overwatch had just launched and I think Activision Blizzard was very serious about funding the eSports scene.

Amit Kumar (06:56):

And at the time I was a new investor at Accel. I think this was around 2017 when we met. 

Ivan Zhou (07:02):

Yeah, I think so. 

Amit Kumar (07:02):

I just joined in 2016. I've been leading a bunch of our work around consumer gaming and eSports and then we sort of intersected what was that interaction for you? Talk about it from the founder point of view, and I'm happy to share what we saw in you, but I'd be curious, what was your point of view and experience through that process?

Ivan Zhou (07:25):

Before meeting Accel, we had raised a little bit of capital from before we had just gone through YC. So my experience with investors generally was this early stage kind of small funds, small amounts of capital and early things are very uncertain. So we're kind of just giving you money to try things and I think coming out of YC, we really felt like we had something that was kind of working. We had the beginning of an insight and some proof points that we believed really deeply in. So when we met you, we talked a lot about what those insights were and I remember we brought you over to our apartment, unplanned showed a demo. The product we have ultimately launched wasn't even there yet. And the difference I think that I felt was you weren't just thinking about, Hey, where are the pieces that we don't, other than certain pieces or what do we not know yet, but a lot more about, wow, what's really working and if this thing works, how big can it really get? And to such a degree that even got us really thinking and really excited and I think that's what I remember really deeply. And also just the kind of candor and directness of being willing to just come over. This was obviously we were originally just going for a walk. It turned out to be a two hour thing and we were still early enough that we wanted to find a partner who was willing to be boots on the ground with us, but also help us think about what being really big and successful looks like.

Amit Kumar (09:06):

I remember sending Vas and Ping who were the other folks that were looking at gaming more seriously. Hey, I think I've really found something. And I remember we did a quick follow-up meeting with the group and there were just so many incredible ingredients and the most important ingredient of course was you and Anhang,

(09:28): And I think you guys had a really authentic connection to the space, had a really unique point of view, but it felt grounded. I remember when you finally came in and did the full presentation at Accel. It was a really special moment because I'm getting all these slacks from the other partners being like, Hey, this is a really good startup. It was a really good one. We like them. This is great. But also it just all connected. I remember you talked about Nintendo Power and not to date myself too much, but I definitely had a bunch of copies of Nintendo Power because how else were you going to beat Super Mario? Three? 

Ivan Zhou (10:04):

You needed a guide.

Amit Kumar (10:06):

A guide was really helpful. Yeah, I think I just grinded it out until I finally beat it. But that analogy and the modernization and digitization of it, it felt like it needed to exist and I felt like you had the team to go build it. Sometimes you run into teams where they actually have the vision, but maybe they don't have the background or ability to go build the product because this was such a technically complex product. I mean, I remember in the blog post that we wrote when we made the investment, I sort of called it out the ability to real time extract the visuals, parse those, decode those, and then put it through your AI engine to understand well what's actually happening here and get a semantic understanding of what's happening in the game such that you could route back real time and give me feedback. I mean, to be honest, you were a few years ahead of your time of where it feels like this whole thing is going anyways.

Ivan Zhou (11:02):

Yeah, absolutely. I think the kind of problem statement that carried us the entire time was people enjoy playing video games and they want to get better at these competitive games. And we just looked at the end state as players ourselves were like, there's a lot of intermediary tools, whether it's guidebooks or you can go and look at your, you can watch your video recording yourself, but in a future where you take all of this to its natural conclusion, what would it be? Right? And we just tried our best to make the technology work to get us to deliver that solution to our users.

Amit Kumar (11:40):

It's so interesting because now we're both sitting here, both investors and partners at Accel, and we both look at consumer and always, obviously you have a reputation of being a great consumer guy, but in nothing that you've told me actually up to this point where you like, well, I wanted to do a consumer category. And the thing I sort of think about, I'm curious, your reaction to it is I don't think there is a category called consumer. I think there's gaming, I think there's healthcare, I think there's climate, there's consumer-oriented companies out in climate, but to me the strategy has always been you go deep in a category, you become the expert, you meet all the founders, you sort of see everything in the space, and you sort of try to find a deal or a company that's worth investing in that you want to be a part of that you've sort of done the homework and identified for yourself where the opportunity is. And I'd be curious, did you ever feel like, well, I'm a consumer guy now, or was it actually, I just have a problem that I really like solving?

Ivan Zhou (12:40):

Yeah, it was absolutely the latter actually. I remember we took, and this is one of the things about Excel that was fantastic in my experience at the time, and now I know from the inside, which is we would talk to investors and they would try to be like, so are you an eSports company? Are you a gaming company? Would actually, it would be part of the conversation and I'd be like, why does that matter? Does me telling you that change how you're going to think about this? Because we don't think about it that way. And actually it really is this, you start from who are you building the product for? What is the problem or what is the value that ultimately you want them to experience? And there's a lot of input into that. How deep is the problem or how many people have this problem.

(13:27):

But ultimately I think that's where you start. And then from there you kind of layer on, that's your foundation, it's in concrete, and then you build on top of that and what solution you're using, what technology you're using, those will change. When we were building Mayhem - at Twitch, there was this open source software called OBS that lets you broadcast. And so we kind of forked that and used that to be able to get the stream from your desktop to our servers. And then we used open source computer vision. We use the best technology we had. And then if we had built that today, we'd be using some version of LLMs to translate the content and put it into text. And so I think what really matters is having that foundation first. And actually when we spend time, even now when I spend time with founders, actually I finding a lot of my questions end up coming back to how much clarity does the founder have about that foundation? 

Amit Kumar (14:27):

We made the investment and it was smooth sailing from there. Nothing ever went wrong.

Ivan Zhou (14:31):

It was just up into the ride. And

Amit Kumar (14:34):

So wait, tell us

Ivan Zhou (14:35):

What happened. I would say we partnered up at the exact moment when everything was going well. I think we had a few Reddit posts that had gone viral. The product was a few months from launching publicly. We had lined a bunch of streamers for launch day and everything. I think in terms of the idea maze and navigating that up to that point had felt like we had decided on the right turns. And then ultimately were, right now when launch came, we worked with our streamers planned for that day, did this really big launch.

Amit Kumar (15:19):

We were built on Overwatch. Yes. That was the main game that we were going to build on top of.

Ivan Zhou (15:24):

That's right. Overwatch was the game, an Activision blizzard game that was very popular at the time, felt like it had a ton of legs, and could have been the next League of Legends in size. So we picked that game and we launched the product. A bunch of streamers were using the product on stream so the viewers could see them getting feedback in real time and they were so excited.

Amit Kumar (15:47):

It was like an overlay. It was overlay. It was an overlay while you're playing Overwatch.

Ivan Zhou (15:50):

Exactly. 

Amit Kumar (15:50):

Assessing your gameplay and telling you insights and feedback that you may not have known and basically leveling you up.

Ivan Zhou (15:57):

That's right. Yeah. The analogy we like to think about is it's literally having a best friend who's way better than you, stand next to you and just kind of point things out to you as you're playing.

Amit Kumar (16:07):

Well, if you were founding the company today, we'd be calling it a co-pilot.

Ivan Zhou (16:09):

We'd be calling it a co-pilot.

Amit Kumar (16:11):

It was a gaming co-pilot.

Ivan Zhou (16:11):

That's exactly right. Which is an amazing thing. Now I can use that analogy in everyday conversation and people get it, but that's right. It was your best friends sitting next to you giving you feedback. And there were actually, by the time we had gotten to launch, there were actually other competitors too. People had kind of picked up on this, a few other companies, startups that they're kind of pivoting into this space. It should exist. Exactly. And even to this day, I still believe it should exist again, this idea of a wrinkle, being obsessed with something so much that you're going to figure this out. So yeah, I still believe it should exist, but we had built this product. There was a lot of energy behind it. We launched streamers, were using it, people were seeing it on stream, they were downloading it, and our graph was just, all our charts were just going crazy. And it was I think probably the best week of the startup journey up to that point. 

Amit Kumar (17:17):

Connecting the dots forward.

Ivan Zhou (17:19):

Yeah, there was a launch celebration where I, I am a big admire of Steve Jobs as many people are, and he had this quote of only being able to connect the dots backwards, looking backwards. And I had felt at that moment that we had hit everything on the head. Everything we said we were going to do, we did. And in my confidence, hubris…

Amit Kumar (17:48):

Yeah, that's the word.

Ivan Zhou (17:49):

That's the word. We did a toast and I was just like, look, I think we've been able to connect the dots going forward. I think we can keep doing that, man. 

Amit Kumar (18:00):

I remember that.

Ivan Zhou (18:01):

Of course.

Amit Kumar (18:01):

That was right around the, it was like a block away from here, right? It was at the house. The whole house. Everybody worked from the house. 

Ivan Zhou (18:09):

It was incredible. I remember up to that point, it felt like the exact, if I could write a chapter about my Silicon Valley journey, that's what it would've been. But we launched and then within about a week we got a cease and desist from Blizzard, and we were excited at first and we were preparing to respond. And then they actually reached out to all, I'm not sure if it was all Overwatch players or if it was the millions of people that had used the product at that point, but it was an email, and it actually just literally said, everyone will be banned for using any unauthorized third party software, including Visor. So they named us in the email. It was clearly us that kind of catalyzed that.

Amit Kumar (19:00):

This was bad news. 

Ivan Zhou (19:01):

Bad, it was bad.

Amit Kumar (19:03):

I mean, at some level I suppose they were always going to respond, but I think even we were caught off guard by how negative they were to something that was at some level, we weren't accessing game data. It was just basically what was at the surface because a screen reader, it was super demoralizing for the team and for you.

Ivan Zhou (19:23):

Yeah, it was very rough. I think the reaction initially was what do we do? Because people aren't going to risk their accounts at that point, we weren't at enough scale to push back, and so we just saw usage drop and we had to scramble and figure out, do we try and update the product? Do we draft a public response? Do we just reach out? What do we do? And that was the start of I think a very challenging nine month period. It was very hard where we questioned not only the product and the vision, but the foundation, not only this product and what we thought it could be, but even down to that core thing that I mentioned earlier, is this even something that could exist, that should exist? This wrinkle is just going to be there now in this world. 

Amit Kumar (20:21):

Well, this led to a really important moment in our relationship, which was the fateful dinner at Mourad. Mourad is a lovely restaurant in San Francisco, but they have very slow service and they course out their meal. And so this is sort of where we did our end of year dinner, and it's something I try to do with as many of my founders as I can as an end of year dinner. And I remember I took you and on Hung out there, and I think at this point, maybe four or five months had passed, maybe four months, maybe it was like four months or so had passed. And man, you guys were just in the doldrums. You guys were just, you guys had been sucker punched and I think I just felt like I needed to shake you out of it. And I remember over the course of a very long three or four hour dinner, which Mourad definitely played their part in because the service was slow as expected.

Ivan Zhou (21:12):

I think you might've slipped them a little bill.

Amit Kumar (21:16):

No, no, no, they're just slow. It's okay. But yeah, I remember the conversation and it was a really important, it was actually a really important moment in my career. Mayhem was actually my first board seat. And obviously when you get in the seat at a place like Accel, you want it to go well and you want to get off to a fast start. And we were all excited about you and Mayhem, and I just remember wanting to just bring you back to we're still great and at the end of the day, we still have pretty much all the money that we'd invested in the company. You have us, you have have the whole firm really behind you and wanting to support you. And most importantly, we have you in a Hong and the really incredible team that you guys had built and it was just like, we need to get out of this.

(22:06):

I'm done moping. Let's get back to what makes us great. And it's talking to customers and building product. And if you do that, I think we have as good a chance as anyone to build the next big or important thing. And I remember being an entrepreneur and a founder, and I also started a number of companies. Certainly my first one sounds very similar to yours. I feel like we made every mistake you can make and eventually got very fortunate to be backed by Excel. And we were backed by Excel, we were backed by Greylock, but working with top tier VCs and Top Tier isn't just the brand, it's just how people conduct business and how they interact with you and how they support you when things aren't going well. And I remember wanting so much to be the investor that I wish I had, and at that moment I promise you certainly that wasn't the outcome or the path that I'd wanted necessarily, but I wanted you to know that we still had your back and we were still excited to go on the journey with you. And to be honest, I think it's one of the best moments in my career and certainly probably a moment when I first felt like I could really do the job. It's easy to be a great partner when things are going great. I think what you really find out is what kind of partner you can be when things don't go according to plan.

Ivan Zhou (23:26):

Yeah, absolutely. What was the lead up to that for you? Did you psych yourself up and prepare, this is what I'm going to say to kind of get them out of their funk? I'm curious.

Amit Kumar (23:37):

I think you tend to have to prepare for moments like that if you're lacking in conviction or you want to land it. I was so convinced that we had such a good thing going, I just needed you to see it or re-see it in a way, I sort of felt like if we got three or four hours together away from the office and away from the Accel office, I felt like I could just drive home the message and hopefully just shake you up a little bit and just be like, guys, we're still great. Let's go after it. And it's funny, I started a bunch of companies, none of 'em ended up being that important and we had ups and we had downs. And I think that's sort of the benefit of having been a founder before. And certainly there are many successful paths to becoming a venture capitalist and many folks that I've seen who've been great venture capitalists and great supporters and partners to founders. But I have to tell you, going through the founder journey has really equipped me to handle the ups and handle the downs in a way that I would want to be supported. But yeah, no, I had a lot of confidence going into that meeting also.

(24:51):

I really liked you and Anhang. I mean, I really wanted to see you guys be great. It kind of wasn't about Accel at that point. It was much more about you guys and wanting to see you be the best version of yourself. And if I could get you further along the path to that, I would've been successful.

Ivan Zhou (25:09):

Yeah, I think that that definitely came through this idea of being the best version that you can be. There isn't this our arbitrary kind of scorecard. It really is having that relationship, believing in the founder, believing in the partners you have on board, that you just need to make the most out of it. You only have a few moments like these in your life and you just have to go all in.

Amit Kumar (25:35):

Now you ended up finding a new product called Mayhem, which was sort of a social community platform, and we built that out and eventually you made the decision to sell it to Niantic. Can you talk to us about that and that process and what was that like for you?

Ivan Zhou (25:50):

So when we built Visor launched it and saw the traction, I think a part of us understood or relearned the feeling of, oh, this is what product market fit, at least the beginning of it can feel like. And so once you shook us out of that in that moment, I think the next four or five months we're spent almost chasing it a little bit again, but going back to our roots. So like, hey, we tried a bunch of different things at that moment that took us down these paths where we didn't actually have a wrinkle that we cared about. It was just ideas. And so we actually went back and we're like, you know what? We still want to get better. It is just coming back and reaffirming actually the foundation is right that we do want to get better as gamers and other people do, and there's still room here to run.

(26:38): So from there we ended up building this product. You mentioned this community product that actually still helped people play in tournaments, leagues, helped them get better. But through playing the game on our platform and we saw growth again, we actually saw that fit hit again because we were still right, I think about that foundation and it wasn't as explosive, but it was pretty consistent. And we ended up hitting this, I would say maybe we caught an S-curve and we kind of got to the top of the S-curve and we saw growth slowing. It was still there, but it wasn't the type that we had confidence would continue to accelerate. So we were experimenting. So at that point had a couple of different ideas expanding to new games or trying new formats. And in that process got to know throughout the years, got to know a lot of other people in the industry, whether that's Discord or the Xbox team or the folks Google that worked on gaming.

(27:39): And so in that process, thinking about ways to find channels to grow ended up also meeting some of the more unique game publishers. And Nantec was one of those. A lot of these companies were trying to crack the same thing we were, which is how do you grow with these kind of cohorts of communities? And when they leaned in and we were talking about what they were trying to do, and we were trying to do some of these opportunities to work more closely together in the form of an acquisition or partnership came out of those conversations. So when we took a step back and ultimately actually had a few parties that were interested, we had to ask ourselves a few things. One is just how do we feel ignoring all other inputs? Me and Anhang sat in a room and we just talked about did we feel like we had gone as deep as we could with this wrinkle, this thing that this foundation that we really cared about, and if not, what ideas did we still have to keep going?

(28:48): And then we also thought about our team and we thought about how excited were they and how excited could they be as we continue to build the product. And then the third was really what is actually the best way to continue to execute on this problem that we wanted to go solve? And so thinking through all of these things and coming out the other end, I think we realized having hit maybe a plateau in this S curve, the next S-curve might be to actually be more deeply embedded with one of the games themselves. We had learned how hard it is to build and build for this problem when you didn't own the IP and you were kind of a platform on the outside. 

Amit Kumar (29:32):

I started a company called Cardspring. We sold it to Twitter in 2014 and we sort of became part of Twitter commerce.

(29:39): I remember my relationship with Accel was almost deeper after that. It's not just this sort of discreet experience. You come in, you pitch, you become the founder, we back you, we invest in your business, there's an exit and it's like, okay, we'll see you. We almost spent more time together. We started, you of course became part of our starters program. We took you on our pre-founder retreat as one of our speakers. And really something I started to notice was founders really were drawn to you and you had the sort of natural aptitude of wanting to support other founders and share lessons from your journey. I mean certainly I think you would have a certain set of advice, but having been through the adversity of having a product not work and then having to navigate the idea maze, I feel like it just gives you a wonderful foundation to support founders. What do you think that is? And certainly you're part of a couple of different communities which are really fantastic like the YC community, but talk about that aspect of you and the discovery of that part of yourself.

Ivan Zhou (30:50):

It actually started when I was in YC in 2018 where in my batch I had a few founders that when we would do our group office hours, I would hear them talk about their product and I would watch them be founders and do their work. And it's like a game recognizes game. It was just so incredible to see them and I got so energized, I wanted to spend more time with them. That's kind of how it started. And then they'd run into hardships. I'd run into hardships, they help each other out and actually made my first angel investment at the time in two of those founders just by virtue of loving what it was like to spend time with them and be on the journey together. And so that continued to carry. I didn't do too many investments while I was building the company, but once I joined n Sold the company, joined Niantic was able to do that with Accel. And so spending a ton of time and doing it with a little bit more of velocity gave me the opportunity to really figure out what types of founders do I really resonate with?

(31:57): Why is it at the early stage that I get a lot of energy versus the later stage? And so it actually comes from the experience of having the ups and downs because no founder's journey is a straight line. And actually many times when you're in the ups and downs, you're not actually looking for someone to tell you what to do to get the tactical advice. No blog post or podcast is going to say, Hey, for you in this one particular situation, this is how you're going to get out of it.

Amit Kumar (32:22):

Except this podcast.

Ivan Zhou (32:26):

Exactly. It's actually the ability to sit there with a founder and really understand them, not just empathize, not just be like, Hey, I know it sucks. It is not just that. It's more like the journey. I've been on the journey, you're on the journey now. I'm here with you on the journey together. And it felt good being able to do that even when I wasn't investing.

Amit Kumar (32:53):

How did you think about sort of post Niantic? You had a great run there. Your sort of remit kept growing, you had all these really unique experiences while you were there. How do you think about going into the investing world? And I know it wasn't the most obvious decision because you could have been another founder again and we would've been delighted to back you, and certainly I made sure you knew that, but I remember sitting with you and just thinking, man, you could be really good at this. You could be a really good supporter of founders. And how do you think about taking that path and making that decision for yourself?

Ivan Zhou (33:31):

I think the through line ever since I was born in LA actually, is that my parents were scientists. And I actually think of myself not so much as a founder or an investor, more as a scientist. And so when I looked at the journey of building products or investing in companies, all of these things, the actual nugget was the scientific method is you look at the world and then you form a hypothesis about how it could be different or why it should be different. And then you run an experiment and you see what happens. Almost all progress in humanity is that cycle, and I love that cycle. And so I spend time thinking about in that journey of doing that multiple times, as a founder, what did I actually really get energy from? It's not like the entire time. It's amazing. And I realized the energy really for me came from that beginning portion.

(34:23): It was looking at the world, spending time with people and forming a hypothesis and getting really, really excited about it, figuring out what that foundation was for the experiment and the actual kind of running of the experiment, which in this case is building the product, launching it, executing on it. I realized I could do well but didn't give me as much energy and it's kind of this relative scale. And so when I thought about what I wanted to do next, I realized I'd only be really excited to do the experiment, so to speak, start a company again, if I cared so much about the hypothesis that only I could run the experiment, it could only be me. The lesson from the hubris connecting the dots forward is there are many people that are much, much better than me out there. And the excitement of being able to work with them, even to think about the hypothesis and for them to be the ones that actually run the experiment, and for us to take the results back for the first time, I felt like that would give me more energy. And to be able to do that at Accel with so many different founders was hard to say.

Amit Kumar (35:34):

What's it been like? You've been here now. Is this your seventh week?

Ivan Zhou (35:40):

You just talk to founders and write emails. Yeah. Well, you do write a lot of emails. 

Amit Kumar (35:47):

How's it been different? I think it's one of those, I mean, for me, to be honest, I was sort of very fortunate that I picked Accel. I mean, my journey is very similar. I had a relationship with Andrew Bracha that actually started way before I was an Accel founder. I actually pitched at my previous company, which turns out he's a really good investor, so he decided to say no to that, but we were able to slip one past the goalie on the next pitch. So he funded card springing subsequent to the exit to Twitter. He ended up bringing me here, and I think I had a lot to learn about venture capital and certainly there were many things that I probably didn't understand super well, but I did know I trusted him and there were certain things that I was looking for that Accel ends up having, which I didn't realize are super unique, such as it being such a conviction based shop versus a consensus shop. It turns out that's actually a really good fit for me. I didn't even realize how fortunate I was that that was the right fit for me. I'd be curious what's been different or surprising about being on this side of the table?

Ivan Zhou (36:55):

I think the Accel culture and the partners here have been funny enough exactly as advertised. I would say. I mean, you and I have known each other for long enough that you've been able to give me a lot of the perspective on how decisions are made. What does a founder that is a fit for Accel look like? What are opportunities that are exciting? And the last seven weeks have been really a renewal of that. I've been able to see a lot of that play out. And I think the things that have been surprising really have been the psychology of transitioning from being a founder to being an investor.

(37:37): I think the best investors are able to turn what is a very transactional at the end of the day and moment to something that's not, and that's a lot more about the relationship and the motivations. And they not so much like, oh, how are we going to invest? Right? Investing is just almost like an incidental thing because a founder and myself, we've just found this fit and want to go on this journey together. And that's been an interesting thing to balance, I think, because not everyone practices venture that way. And the other thing is really not having my hand on the wheel anymore. I mean either shotgun or maybe in the backseat, maybe in the trunk, depending on where we are and the founder's driving the car. And it's hard just knowing that that is the right setup and as much as I want to help or I want to think of ways that I can, there are ways that that should show up. And it's different from when I was a founder.

Amit Kumar (38:45):

Yeah, it's been really special to have you in the seat and it's been really special to look at companies together. I think you bring, I'm almost like, well, it took me a lot longer to be quite useful in meetings, but you've been really insightful in the pitches so far, and I think the questions you ask and how you assess those companies, what are you looking for? Obviously you and I look at a lot of consumer oriented companies. What are some of the things that you look for in founders that Accel looks for in founders?

Ivan Zhou (39:17):

It starts with at least a really deep understanding of the journey the founder's taken to navigate the idea. A, I think that's where whenever we're taking a pitch in my head, I'm almost constructing the maze as the founder's talking and trying to see, okay, the founder's taken a left turn here. Maybe they tried going down this path and maybe they had to even leave this maze and go to a different one. And I think I get most excited, or my questions usually are around the founder's journey through the maze. You tried this, you had this insight, you tried this iteration of the product and it didn't work out. Why is that the case? Or have you thought about going down this path? And often I get excited when the founder actually leans back and almost pushes me back in my seat and draws the maze even more aggressively in my head.

(40:07):

For me, actually, here's how I thought about it. Here's why this thing wouldn't work. Here's exactly where we think we should go. And most importantly, here's what I haven't explored yet. Here's don't, here's the part of the maze that I think is out there, but I'm not quite sure exactly how that would fit yet. That kind of intellectual rigor and honesty combined with their aggression to go figure out the world. That's really exciting. I think when I feel like the founder's almost waiting for the world to happen to them and just like, oh, we're tried this thing and we have this idea. It's harder to get excited.

Amit Kumar (40:39):

Yeah. Are there categories or companies that you're excited about? Obviously AI is sort of omnipresent, and I think this podcast might be sponsored by AI at this point. What are you looking for? What are pitches or categories that are getting you excited right now?

Ivan Zhou (41:00):

So I've spent a lot of time building consumer products, but really I think about it as products that are maybe playing at the application layer. So whether it's a consumer product or an enterprise product, I'm a little bit more agnostic to it. I think we talked about this, it's a lot more about what is the problem, can we define the problem very clearly and who the customer is and build up from there? And I think you mentioned AI, maybe we can talk about that a little bit. I think the transition that we're seeing today is really, really interesting. If we go back in time, there was a moment in time when hardware build out and compute was the unlock. And because of that, unlock a ton of software companies were built, and then the next cycle was the internet. And what the internet did was it connected everyone. When it brought everyone together, then it unlocked social really. And a lot of these experiences that were really exciting.

(41:56): And I think of this new inflection as intelligence. So we have compute, we have connecting everyone and we have intelligence and LLMs, this AI inflection point is bringing intelligence to the forefront. And so I look at applications in the sense that now that intelligence is this infinite resource in many ways, what applications could be built? And I think in the enterprise space, what's really unique is the ability to solve for extremely high utility and extremely high efficiency because intelligence allows us to now use software to automate or replace a lot of workflows or operations in a way that it really could not have been done before. And then I think in the consumer side, what's interesting is the intelligence now can sit in and help you enjoy your life better. Whether it's listening to music, watching content, like coming in and actually augmenting it, not replacing you, not necessarily creating music on its own completely, but actually helping you enjoy those experiences more.

Amit Kumar (43:12):

Cool. Well, Ivan, I think it's been a really fun journey getting to know you and evolving our relationship from investor and founder to partners to friends. And we're really excited to have you on the team, man. So congratulations and excited to do more work with you.

Ivan Zhou (43:28):

Yeah, you too.

Meet your host

Partner
Focus
Fintech, Healthcare, Developer Tools

Amit Kumar

Amit Kumar is a Partner at Accel, a leading venture capital firm. He focuses on early stage investments in fintech, healthcare and developer tools.
Read more on Accel.com
Partner
Focus
AI, Consumer, Cloud/SaaS
Season 1 of the Spotlight On podcast, by Accel
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Early Stage

IPO/M&A

IPO/M&A

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