Felicis Ventures has, in its roughly 13 years of existence, established a reputation in venture circles as a smart early-stage investment firm that’s willing to make bets almost anywhere in the world. Founded by ex-Googler Aydin Senkut, the San Francisco-based firm has also demonstrated a knack for attracting talented investors into the fold, including another former Google executive, Wesley Chan; Sundeep Peechu, who held various product roles at Intel before joining the firm in 2010; and Renata Quintini, an investor who Felicis eventually lost to Lux Capital (which more recently lost her to her own firm, Renegade Partners, which is reportedly raising a $300 million debut fund).
We talked this morning with yet another member of Felicis, Niki Pezeshki, who, following several promotions, has just became the youngest partner in the firm’s history. For aspiring VCs out there, we wondered how Pezeshki landed the role — and how he’s managing to win deals. Following is part of that conversation, edited lightly for length.
TC: Everyone wants to work in VC. How did you land this gig?
NP: Out of undergrad [at the University of Southern California], I went to work for [private equity firm] Vista Equity Partners.They hire, like, four people out of undergrad every year at USC. I was in Austin [where the firm is based] for three years. It was amazing. I didn’t know what I was getting into at the time — Vista has blossomed into this incredible fund — but it grounded me in the fundamentals of business and what is a good software investment. I think it made me more numbers-focused than a lot of other venture capitalists. I may get flamed for saying this, but I come to the world of venture with a much more numbers-driven and formulaic approach to understanding business that I think helps me pick good investments.
TC: How did you wind up in the Bay Area?
NP: My family is from LA so I came to California to work for Climate Corp. for a year; I worked in sales strategy and operations. I wanted a bit of operating experience. But I love investing so much; I wanted to go back to it. So I got a job with [PE firm] Summit Partners, where you’re doing hardcore outbound sourcing and learning how to reach out to people and get conversations started and figuring out [who you should be learning more about] out of hundreds of founders.
While there, Felicis randomly reached out to me through a friend of a friend, who said, ‘You should meet Sundeep,’ and they told Sundeep, ‘Sundeep, you should meet Niki,’ and though I hadn’t thought about venture, a lot of what they were doing really resonated with me. In many ways, I’m doing what I was doing at Summit, but with a much wider aperture.
TC: You were just promoted to partner from principal, up from senior associate, where you started in 2016. What does that mean on a practical level?
NP: A lot of the role won’t be much different than in the past year. I think from an external-facing perspective, it gives me more credibility with founders and investors. It’s one more thing that I can use to win great deals.
TC: What’s one competitive deal that you’ve won already?
NP: Modus in Seattle. It’s a [tech-driven] escrow startup that is to the title and brokerage industry what Compass is to real estate. I led the Series A deal for that company and I’m on the board and I got lot of credibility internally for that. I think they were thinking of promoting me next year or the year after, but they were like, ‘Dang, Niki just led a competitive Series A round. Let’s give him ammunition.’ [Laughs.]
TC: How did the deal come together, and what do you think won them over?
NP: I think three things: bonding with the founders, conviction about their company and speed. I’d heard that they were going to be in town for two weeks, fundraising, and I knew their goal was to leave the area with a term sheet. A lot of firms are fairly bureaucratic and it’s hard for them to spin up their team and do due diligence that quickly, but Felicis has a small team and I had conviction about the space already, so when they came through, I told them how excited I was to do something on their timeline.
We also bonded over [an up-and-coming] DJ. It’s also about creating that human connection with founders. I have a bunch of friends who are founders who say it often feels very transactional, their relationship with investors. You want to support these people.
TC: You don’t have tons of operating experience. You aren’t alone in this, but plenty of VCs will argue that to founders that it’s crucial. How do you counter this?
NP: Some founders do want more operational expertise, others don’t care that much unless the VC once ran a multibillion-dollar company. If you’re Martin Casado [of Andreessen Horowitz] and someone really loves Nicira, I’m probably not going to win against him.
But I’m relatively young compared with other partners, and I’m really passionate, and I think that comes across in the fundraising process. I think founders know that I will take a call any time, and help them build an amazing model for their business, and really help them prep for their next fundraising process, and help them with any VP recruits.
I’m still building my track record, so founders know that I care and that my incentives are aligned with theirs. If a founding team is successful, I’ll be successful versus someone who is already sitting on 15 boards and will show up once a quarter and try to own the room and who is less invested in whether or not the company does well because [that investor] has already been successful. I want every single portfolio company to do incredibly well. I want that to come across. And I think it does.