500 Startups continues to grow, both in the number of international folks joining our team, as well as individuals elevating into new leadership positions. We’re happy to welcome Elizabeth Yin to the 500 Investment team, where she will be running our Mountain View accelerator program! Prior to joining 500 Startups, she started a company called LaunchBit, which was an adtech company that she sold last year to a larger adtech company. In another life, Elizabeth worked on products at Google and has a BSEE from Stanford and an MBA from MIT Sloan. We’re really lucky to have her.
With Batch 13 kicking off this Monday, I caught up with Elizabeth to learn more about her journey, insights and experience working at 500.
You’ve come a long way from founder in Batch 2 to now Partner at 500. Congratz:) Who were some of your greatest mentors along the way?
From a personal perspective, my best mentors were my parents (both immigrants who came from different countries) who worked hard and made Mountain View (yes, Mountain View) their home, where I grew up. A handful of my teachers from middle/high school and my co-founder at LaunchBit Jennifer have also been very influential to me over the last couple of decades.
What initially drew you to join 500’s accelerator program back in 2011? What was the experience like back in the day? Fast forward to 2015, how do you think it’s changed?
Honestly, Dave and Christine’s integrity is a big reason I wanted to join the 500 accelerator. I’d been burned by an investor before and had heard other stories too of unscrupulous investors, so I knew that there were good investors and bad ones. I only wanted to work with good ones.
The 500 Startups accelerator has changed A LOT!! (and is constantly a work in progress). In 2011, honestly, 500 was just starting out and didn’t have anything! There wasn’t even carpet let alone everything you would expect from a top accelerator. We’ve come a long way since then. These days, for example, each accelerator company gets two coaches — a customer acquisition coach and a startup coach, who help you with essentially marketing/sales and fundraising, two of the biggest problems startups face. I can’t think of any other accelerator that gets this hands-on with its companies. We also have tons of content during our program — we have speakers coming in constantly to talk about tactical issues such as “How to optimize your email marketing?” or “How to recruit technical talent?” Companies can pick and choose what to attend based on what’s relevant to them. Lastly, we have hundreds of mentors in our network, and these people come in and out of the office, holding office hours around the clock. So, a lot has changed since when I went through the program, and we are still working to do more for our companies.
But some things haven’t changed. Our commitment to diversity has remained the same. We scour the world — literally — looking for the best founders. We look for a wealth of experiences in our founders and have invested in a range of people across age, race, gender, geography, vertical experience, etc. I recently ran the numbers, and even as far back as my batch (2), 35% of the companies in my batch had at least one female founder.
I was amazed in my batch that you could put a group of very different people together and four months later leave Demo Day as a strong, united family, and this consistently happens in every batch.
How has the approach to fundraising changed since then?
The fundraising scene has changed a lot since I raised. 2011 was the rise of AngelList (a 500 company), which has singlehandedly changed the angel investing scene. It enabled individuals to become powerful enough to help fund early stage companies without the need for VC money. With more fundraising options for early stage companies, it has made it a bit easier for startups to raise some money and make progress on their businesses more quickly than ever before. This trend will continue with the recent announcement that unaccredited investors will be able to start investing in startups. This is great for the startup ecosystem.
What this means for institutional investors (including 500) is that we need to become more valuable. Money is becoming commoditized. The best founders can raise money from anyone these days. If you don’t provide more value to founders than cash, then you’ll go extinct. So, hence, why we work so hard on our programs here — our accelerator programs as well as our new Distrofund. Our programs provide tactical fundraising and customer acquisition help, which is in many ways more valuable to our founders than the small amount of cash that we invest.
The tech industry keeps renewing itself, where are you excited to see it headed?
I grew up in Mountain View and got my first taste of the tech industry when I was a teenager interning at a different startups during the dot com boom. So I’ve seen a lot of changes. Even though the dot com boom was a gold rush, this current era is actually much more exciting, and here is why:
1) Software is moving to main street.
When I was a child, the tech industry was a small sector and limited to very geeky people. I was drawn to it, but I never thought that most of my peers would be in the software industry. You know software is moving to main street when the best jobs are all in tech and people who don’t have a tech inclination or background are working in it. It’s because tech has moved into every industry.
Marc Andreessen famously stated, “Software is eating the world.” Tactically speaking, what this means is that in the next five years, you will not be super successful in any major industry without having and using great software. We already see this happening. You cannot be a successful cab driver without being on Uber. You cannot be a successful hair stylist without being on Mayvenn or StyleSeat (both portfolio companies). To Jamie Dimon’s point, old-stodgy, bureaucratic banks will also have to adapt or die — they, too, will not be successful unless they make their banking, lending, re-financing, etc super easy and accessible online.
This also means that we’ll see a new wave of entrepreneurs. We’ll see SMBs and tech businesses blend together, and this is already happening. Homejoy (a portfolio company) is an example of this — tech companies are everywhere and are a blend of traditional businesses done better with tech.
2) Startup ecosystems are moving beyond the Silicon Valley
500’s vision is to help build startup ecosystems worldwide — this is why we fund entrepreneurs from everywhere and give talks and run Distrocamps in various cities around the globe. There are a lot of people who say that Silicon Valley can’t be replicated, but I disagree. It may take time, but I think we are already seeing major startup ecosystems explode that didn’t exist 10 years ago. In the US, places like New York, Austin, Boulder, and Portland are great examples of this. If you have 1-2 billion dollar companies grow up in a city and cultivate a culture of giving back by way of investing and mentoring, then you can jump-start an ecosystem. This is exciting, because in a time when you read about how no one has jobs anymore and simultaneously read about how the tech industry can’t hire fast enough, I think this trend will help revitalize cities worldwide.
What are some really exciting companies you’ve seen come through 500?
Since I’ve only been on the 500 team for one accelerator batch, I’m not super familiar with most of our companies yet. One company from the last batch that I’m really excited about is called ProSky. They are an online platform for hands-on internships. I love this concept, because there are tons of college students these days graduating without “useful” skills and cannot find a job. On ProSky, students can do projects for companies so that they can obtain useful skills and then companies can use the platform as a recruiting tool to try to attract the best students to their respective companies.
We recently spoke on a Diversity Panel at General Assembly, do you think SV is doing enough to change the ratio?
This is a work in progress that will take more effort and more time. I think awareness that there is a problem is the big first step. For a long time, lots of people would say, “Oh, SV is a total meritocracy. Women just aren’t interested in doing startups.” But now, lots of female founders are going public with their personal stories of weird things that happen to them while running their companies. We need to have more of these conversations to head-on acknowledge problems in the industry.
What is your definition of a successful entrepreneur?
I see entrepreneurship as a career not a one-off project/company. Entrepreneurs need to have a lot of “at-bats” in order to learn, grow, and build successful companies. So, for me personally, my definition of a successful entrepreneur is an entrepreneur who sticks with entrepreneurship through his/her life and is in some way able to make an impact on lives.
What is some advice you’d offer to a founder applying to our accelerator program?
At 500 Startups, we value unit metrics quite a bit! By unit metrics, we’d like companies to get a sense of things like their monthly recurring revenue, the lifetime values of their customers, the cost to acquire those customers, and churn. To be clear, most startups don’t have an accurate view of their unit metrics, and we realize this will change over time. But monitoring key metrics is the first step to running a good business, so knowing your unit metrics backwards and forwards is a good indicator of who tracks KPIs closely and who doesn’t. And secondly, we want to get a sense of how much do your users/customers love your business and how much room is there to pay for marketing — those initial unit metrics give us some sense of this.
Wishing Elizabeth and team a great start to Batch 13 on Monday!