Serial entrepreneur Ev Williams has made a fortune over the years, and now wants to invest some of his riches into startups. But not just any startups — the co-founder of Blogger and Twitter is looking for companies that are built to make positive changes in the world through a fund called Obvious Ventures.
This will be Williams’ third project using the ‘Obvious’ name. The first came from the group that worked on what would become Twitter back in the day. Obvious Corp., which was the second iteration, was formed with long-time collaborators Biz Stone and Jason Goldman, and spawned Medium and Jelly.
For his next “Obvious venture,” though, Williams has a different team and focus. He’s joined by entrepreneurs and investors James Joaquin and Vishal Vasishth, whose focus will be on identifying and putting money into companies they believe could make a positive change in the world.
We all know Williams’ background: He was one of the co-founders of Pyra Labs, which created Blogger and sold to Google in 2003. After that, he founded Odeo, a podcasting startup that pivoted into micro-publishing and later became Twitter. Now he’s working on a new type of publishing platform with Medium.
Joaquin’s experience in tech goes back decades, as he co-founded a company called Clearview Software, which was acquired by Apple in the late 1980’s and became the basis for its Claris suite of tools. After six years at Apple, he went on to co-found When.com, an events and calendaring service that was acquired by AOL in 1999. He has also served executive roles at companies like Ofoto and Xoom since then, while also doing some investing.
Vishal Vasishth also has a mix of executive roles and investing. Before he started investing in startups, he was the former Chief Strategy Officer at Patagonia. He then went on to work with Steve Case’s Revolution Ventures and later became a founding partner of SONG Investment Advisors, an India-based venture firm where he invested in the developing world.
Those three are the founding team of Obvious Ventures, they’ve also brought on an additional investing partner and have a large team of advisors. Sami Inkinen, who was co-founder and COO of Trulia until its IPO in 2012, will join to focus on making investments in healthy living. And Virginia Sapp is on the team as their operations manager.
Advisors to the firm include Stone and Goldman, as well as folks like Andrew Shapiro, Dean Ornish, Ido Leffler, Leonardo DiCaprio (!!!), Lyn Lear, Marco Krapels, Warner Philips, and Zem Joaquin.
The firm is still in the process of raising its inaugural fund, according to Joaquin. But it’s already made investments in 11 companies, of which nine are being announced.
Those investments include plant-based protein startup Beyond Meat, mobile service professionals software maker Breezeworks, web-based architecture startup Flux, mobile transportation startup Loup, biomimetic computing company Magic Leap, plant-based cheese company Miyoko’s Kitchen, nutritional supplement company Olly, hourly work marketplace Workpop, and small-business payroll solution ZenPayroll.
That’s a pretty wide range of companies, but there are a few common themes that Joaquin says the firm is looking to make investments in. The first is what they call “sustainable systems,” which involves finding new ways to generate and process resources — like for instance, making LEED-certified architectural plans easy via Flux.
The second investment theme the firm calls “people power,” which would mean helping people to be more productive and making their work more efficient. ZenPayroll, Workpop, and Breezeworks all fall under that category.
The firm also hopes to promote “healthy living,” which will mean looking into startups that help consumers eat better and exercise more. Beyond Meat and Miyoko’s Kitchen would fit the bill, while also providing more sustainable ways of creating food products.
Williams, Joaquin, and Vasishth have all put money into the inaugural fund, which will also include participation from other investors. For now, though, they’re keeping quiet on how big that fund will be once it’s closed.
Even so, they plan to make investments in a general range of $1 million to $5 million, generally looking to lead with the first institutional money into startups that fit its investment profile. And like most early-stage firms, they plan to keep a fair amount of cash in reserve to do follow-on investments.
While Williams is the biggest-name partner, his role will be somewhat limited due to his day job at Medium. Williams will still help make investment decision for the partnership, but Joaquin says most of the day-to-day operations and board work for the venture firm will be handled by Vasishth and himself.
Doing well by doing good isn’t exactly a new investment strategy, and there has been some evidence to suggest that socially responsible investing can produce outsized returns, at least in the public markets. We’ll see if the thesis carries over to early-stage investing as Obvious makes its bets on “world-positive” startups.