An Interview with James Cham, Partner, Bloomberg Beta
James Cham is a venture capital investor with Bloomberg Beta, a firm focused on investing in the future of work. James invests in companies working on applying machine intelligence to businesses and society. Prior to Bloomberg Beta, James was a Principal at Trinity Ventures and a VP at Bessemer Venture Partners, where he focused on consumer services, enterprise software, digital media; and served on the boards of CrowdFlower, Open Candy, LifeLock, ReputationDefender, Sonic Mule, and BillShrink. He was previously a management consultant at The Boston Consulting Group and a software developer. James received an MBA from MIT’s Sloan School of Management and Computer Science degree from Harvard.
How did you get into the world of Venture Capital?
After the startup that I was a part of got acquired, I went to business school. A good friend of mine introduced me to a firm called Bessemer, where I got my introduction to venture capital and how I ended up investing in startups.
And before Venture Capital you were a software developer?
That’s right, I was a software developer in the late 90s to early 2000s. I was part of that transition from client-server over to web-based, enterprise applications, and I wrote a bunch of mediocre code and made a bunch of bad design decisions that other people suffered for as a result. So I’ve been through enough cycles to least understand what that feels like from a potential customer perspective.
Why did you invest in LaunchDarkly?
Let me take a step back. When we raised money from Bloomberg to start the fund nearly five years ago, one of the core claims was that we are living in a world where everyone’s a knowledge worker. In that world, we should look at the best knowledge workers around. We should copy their techniques to find ways for them to scale what they’re doing. And of course, the best knowledge workers in the world are software developers. This is in part because some of the best software developers are a mix of lazy and smart — they spend all their time avoiding working on applications and instead work on frameworks and systems infrastructure. So broadly, that is what we’re excited about.
LaunchDarkly is exciting for two core reasons: One, there was an immediate sense of recognition of a problem. When I first heard Edith pitch the idea, I thought “Oh my goodness! I wish this existed when I was being yelled at as a software developer or when I was managing projects.” There’s a sense that this should exist and this is the right way to do something. I think most software developers do this. You build your own bad bug-tracking system or slightly lame issues-tracking system. And I had done something like a features flag product for some other project, but I didn’t call it that. There was a sense that Edith understood this and saw this more clearly than I did. That’s one excitement.
And then there’s the other reality which is the excitement of seeing a leader like we did. There’s a point when you meet her and say, “Oh, she’s not just someone who has built something interesting, but she’s someone you can see leading something important.” That’s another important part of what made it exciting for me. As I’ve gotten to know her better, that’s only been validated more and more.
You met LaunchDarkly through Alchemist. What are your thoughts of Alchemist in general?
The thing that is most helpful about Alchemist is that it’s more systems driven. The people around it are quite credible and thoughtful. You look at the set of advisors: These are people who aren’t really famous and lightly involved, but rather accomplished and very deeply involved. From my perspective, that makes the process of diligence and validating people much easier.
There’s always a sense about Alchemist that you’re being as positive as possible about the opportunity, but at the same time you don’t lie. That’s an important thing for an investor and really helpful.
What is the approximate size of your fund? How does that compare to other funds in a similar stage?
As the markets are fragmented, even in the earlier stage, judging how we compare to other funds does become more complicated. But the core physics of our first fund was $75M, and the second fund is also $75M. Our first check sizes range between $100K to $1M, and we participate anywhere from friends and family rounds to right before the Series A.
Does your fund have a specific vision or focus? I know you’ve touched on the future of work prior, but is there more to that?
We talk about the future of work, in part, because historians of science would say that it takes two generations of managers for any new technology to really make an impact on the economy. At the start of our fund, we were twenty years into the Web — networked computers, which is another way to think about it. We were convinced that it is only now we’ll see massive changes in the way people work, because now you have a bunch of people creating businesses that are suited for the Web.
Within that vision, we have a focus both on productivity for knowledge workers — we see a lot of opportunities to integrate and learn from developers — and the way software ends up changing the way that people do business. New tools will be required to support this new kind of business, which include developer tools up to enterprise software.
We also believe that machine learning, model building, and AI in general are different than normal software development. I think they have profound implications that we haven’t understood yet, not just on all the cutting edge research we’ve done, but especially around the way that people make good software and machine learning models. Machine learning model building is different than software development. The economic characteristics are different, meaning machine learning will give rise to new business models. So somewhere out there, there’s going to be a person that is the Bill Gates or Marc Benioff of machine learning. They are going to do a mix of marketing, technical, and product insights and come up with a different way of providing machine learning or AI-driven businesses in a different light. They are going to charge in a different way or sell it in a different way. That’s the innovation or change in the way that people do business that we’re most excited about, and where we spend a lot of time.
How does your fund differentiate itself from other funds?
On the one hand, the money is a commodity. The money is the same, and so the way you differentiate is you bundle different services along with it. Some of that is the personality of the partners and the way that they relate to other people. A part of that is also a set of things that we focus on. I think, we think through more than other firms ways that founders can make a dent in the universe through the way they talk about themselves. On that side, we’ve thought a lot out. And we work with our companies a lot around that.
So much of it depends on the specific relationship that each partner has with the founder that that investor has invested in, especially at the seed stage. There aren’t magic formulas.
How do you individually differentiate yourself from other individual VC’s?
The right way to compete along those lines is not to compete. Instead, I’m most interested in angles that people aren’t thinking about yet. And I’m most interested in thinking through angles that are poorly understood.
So if someone has just another generic SaaS company that’s growing at a certain percentage, then I’m probably not the right person for them. An old friend of mind would say that there’s two types of VCs. There are VCs that if they weren’t VCs, they’d be bankers, and others who are VCs because they spent too much time pitching. I’m definitely part of the second camp. There are a whole set of ideas that should be enabled and would be if someone stuck their neck out and said they believed this founder could create something special and make the world better. And that’s what I try to do.
What makes an investment compelling for you? Is there something in particular that makes an investment more compelling than not?
There are all the things that people talk about: traction, the team’s experience, potential, etc. I think those things are all really important, but the thing that might be underappreciated is that core insight. Sometimes the founders don’t understand what the core insight is. There is nothing quite as exciting as sitting with a founder and discovering together what actually makes them special. And oftentimes that core insight can be communicated in a paragraph or it could take a lifetime to get there. For me, that’s what I’m looking for that. It’s going to be in areas where I have enough preconceived notions that someone could surprise me.
What is the number one red flag for you that would make you pass on an investment?
The moment I feel like I can’t trust someone is probably the number one reason why. When it’s close or we thought we should have invested, that tends to be the number one surprising thing about most folks that we pass on. Investing in a company is not something you take lightly. We take it very seriously and it’s a relationship we take very seriously as well.
What separates the great founders who get an investment from you vs. the good founders who don’t quite make the cut?
There’s a way in which the best founders help you believe. Whether it’s helping the investors believe or first customers or the first employee or the co-founders. And that way of getting someone to believe, it comes in all sorts of ways. It’s not generic. It comes in many sizes and forms, but that ability to impose your will on the universe. It only works if you can convince other people.
Would you be more likely to fund a very experienced team with a mediocre idea or a team of novices with an amazing idea?
Nuance matters a lot here. I think that there are plenty of times when the very smart, experienced team can take a mediocre, initial idea and because they are so customer-oriented or technically visionary that they end up building something better, smarter, or more interesting. However, generically, I hunt for people who have extraordinary insight and how they get there. The insights do not have to manifest themselves with the first product, but they manifest themselves somehow that makes them extraordinary.
Is there any piece of advice you would give founders who are fundraising that you think does not get shared enough?
I think founders forget how much power they have in a situation. There are cycles that founders get in where they end up feeling like this is just another boring sales call. But what the founders are doing is they’re sharing their most precious things. They’re sharing things that they probably care more about than almost anything else in the universe. When they pitch, they should treat it that way. That investors are lucky to get a view into this. The moment the founder forgets that, humans can smell it. You have to continue to be resilient and continue to believe because investors, although we do it through a financial instrument, at the core, we’re declaring we have faith in someone and we have enough faith that we’re putting our money and our goodwill behind it.
If you think about Edith and the way that they were together and the way that they communicated and seemed to take what they do seriously, even when things are difficult, that’s the sort of thing that an investor is looking for.
What areas are you excited about now and in the future?
I’m excited for when things that we call AI-related start being machine learning-related and get boring. When everyone understands how to engineer a bunch of problems, things get boring, and that’s when you end up with a lot of product innovation. I’m very excited about that!