The Global VC

Unconventional Investing Promotes Innovation & Empathy — Interview with 500 Startups EIR Tristan Pollock

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500 Startups Venture Partner and Entrepreneur-in-Residence Tristan Pollock is open to new experiences, and he hopes you are, too.

500 Startups EIR & Venture Partner Tristan Pollock
500 Startups Entrepreneur-in-Residence & Venture Partner Tristan Pollock

“My focus is, ‘I’m really excited about this thing, so let me share it with people who are also excited about it,'” said Pollock.

Tristan’s bio describes a person who has a strong interest in ecommerce, but conversation reveals that creating and sharing are his passions. After opening up, he confesses what he calls his “hidden agenda:” the ongoing search for products, services and people who combine novelty and value.

“Behind the things I do, there’s usually some passion about why it’s interesting or cool and how it might help people or open their minds,” he explained, “but I also want to reduce judgment and increase empathy.”

Building Startup Brands Offline

To Pollock, one of the surest ways for entrepreneurs to connect with consumers is also one of the oldest ways: open a store.

“In startups, offline channels are often overlooked, but they could actually be higher converting and a lower acquisition cost than some of your online channels,” said Pollock. When someone enters a physical space, “you can more closely target people to have that one-to-many effect you get online.”

Pollock validated this theory when he co-founded Storefront, a platform that connected brands, makers, retailers and artists with listings for brick-and-mortar spaces that were ready to receive customers. The service closed earlier this year, but it matched customers with hundreds of pop-ups that rolled into millions of square feet that generated tens of millions in revenue.

“We created it for designers and brands that wanted to put on more experiential things, instead of just doing retail as a commodity, which is basically Amazon,” said Pollock. “If you’re going to a physical space, you’re going for the experience — there’s a show, a whisky tasting, you’re meeting the maker, you can try on the clothes.”

Sharing space with another person creates a connection, no matter how tenuous. Even a novice seller knows that the simple act of eye contact can be all it takes to tip a customer into your sales funnel.

“Psychologically, you build this relationship with someone when you meet the brand or the maker offline,” said Pollock. “With that channel, you can really focus and make the relationship stronger.”

Offline marketing isn’t new, he acknowledges. “Thousands of years ago, the markets in Morocco were temporal retail; people were going there because it was a one-day experience where they could go out and purchase all these things.”

Pollock, who hails from a family of makers, said today’s consumers seek connection and authenticity. “People don’t want to go to McDonald’s or Starbucks,” he said. “They want to go to Four Barrel and buy products made by artists in their neighborhood and people who care about what they’re doing.”

“It’s like people suddenly remembered how important it is to be human,” he concludes.

A Day In The Life Of A 500 Startups Entrepreneur-in-Residence

As an EIR, Pollock works directly with founders in 500’s accelerator, “mentoring and coaching the companies that we have on-site for the 4-month program.”

Early in the program, he meets with members of his “core squad” weekly, “and then ad hoc after that.” The EIR role at 500 is different than traditional VC firms, “where they pay you be around and ask for first dibs on whatever company you start next as you vet new investments,” said Pollock.

“They also want me to share my time and knowledge with the companies going through the accelerator,” he said. “It’s good to have a variety of people you can turn to for advice who are a couple of steps ahead of where you have to go down certain paths, whether it’s revenue-generating, talking to VC, or whatever.”

Beyond his primary EIR responsibilities, “I’ve been doing some seed deals in the experiential space, including a couple of cannabis companies,” said Pollock.

Vicetech: It’s About Social Impact, Not Partying

Editor’s note: the following reflects Tristan’s personal theses and opinions, and not necessarily those of 500 Startups.

Marijuana legalization is likely to be on the ballot this fall in California, and if early polling is any indication, it’s going to pass.

For progressive investors in a state with almost 40 million consumers, a change in pot’s legal status could create opportunities.

“Coming from a social impact background, what I think is interesting about vicetech is that I’m very in tune with these types of founders,” said Pollock. “With anyone I’m investing or supporting, I’m looking at those sorts of people who understand the impact of what they’re doing.”

I look at vicetech and see people who are increasing open-mindedness.

In his experience, vicetech entrepreneurs are largely empathetic risk-takers with high EQs who care about others.

“When you go to festivals or Burning Man, some people look at it as partying, but it’s also a huge opportunity to open minds up about different types of people,” said Pollock.

“In vicetech, ‘sex drugs and rock & roll’ is the subject line, but the body is what’s really important,” he said.


What sort of investments is he looking for?

“I’m looking for things that are more paradigm-shifting, which is why I like the experiential vicetech stuff and what has been called ‘frontier tech,'” said Pollock. “I’ve also been exploring spacetech through industry events.”

As a creative person with varied interests, “I’m kind of tinkering,” said Pollock.

What won’t he invest in?

“Anything that I think is boring. There’s a lot of people pitching ideas that are only marginally better than some other idea,” he observed.

Why have a slightly improved bus or a somewhat fast train when you can build a hyperloop?

Although he’s seen technical products and development tools that made him “excited,” he’s more interested in maintaining an optimum life-work balance.

“I don’t need more excuses to sit in front of my computer, so I made a conscious decision to stay away from that stuff,” said Pollock.

Although Pollock recognizes that most VCs and entrepreneurs are wary of backing unconventional plays, he said embracing bold, new ideas promotes both innovation and empathy.

“A lot of people aren’t willing to put themselves out there because they don’t have the leverage,” said Pollock, “but I’d like to see more people take that risk and for us to be more accepting of them.”

500 Global Team

500 Global Team