Conductive Ventures secures third fund to support non-traditional founders

Conductive Ventures raised a $200 million Fund III to continue its focus on investing in founders where other venture capital firms did not see the potential.

You might remember our profile of the firm back in 2018 when it officially launched with a $100 million enterprise fund. Carey Lai and Paul Yeh started the firm in 2017 after Lai had been with IVP and Yeh with Kleiner Perkins.

Today, Conductive has 24 companies in its portfolio and boasts that over 50% of them are based outside the Bay Area and two-thirds of the founders are immigrants or minorities.

From the beginning, the pair wanted to let founders know that they didn’t fit the typical “Sand Hill Road model” of venture capital firms and were eager to invest in entrepreneurs who were not able to initially get funding. Therefore, these entrepreneurs were forced to be capital efficient because they didn’t have the networks or access for whatever reason. These turn out to be companies that have “real revenue,” Lai said.

Yeh, who came from Taiwan when he was a child, says a lot of the entrepreneurs they see who are minorities and immigrants “are so scrappy.”

“They are not blindly chasing growth; they are figuring out the best way to do A/B tests and only powering money after something’s figured out,” he added. “These entrepreneurs are not looked at by traditional firms. A lot of times they just get passed with a very cursory look, whereas we see a lot of possibilities and potential because we understand it’s more about the hustle and how much it took them to get there. We can see the effort they put in as opposed to beautiful PowerPoint decks and polished storytelling.”

The firm’s third fund will invest at the Series A and B levels and is a particularly special one for Lai and Yeh, with Lai noting that they didn’t want to be a “one fund wonder,” and as long as you don’t screw up, firms can generally raise a second fund. However, the third fund only comes about if the first fund was successful.

From the first two funds, Conductive saw seven exits, including three IPOs from Desktop Metal, Proterra and Sprinklr, one point distribution with Rally and three M&A events with Oculii, Dor and TravelBank.

With all of those, Lai said the firm was able to return a “significant amount of cash” back to its limited partners in the fourth quarter of 2021. Coincidentally, that is when they thought it would be a good time to ask the LPs to sign on for a new fund.

Lai and Yeh expect to invest in between 15 to 20 companies from Fund III and write checks, on average, between $5 million and $10 million with some reserved for follow-on.

“One of the great things is we can really look at the pitch that we want, and then decide when to swing,” Lai said. “We don’t have to swing at every single pitch. I think that’s one of the biggest benefits of not raising too big of a fund. Second, the types of companies that we invest in again usually aren’t that attractive to ‘Sand Hill Road firms’ because they have their own bottom. In many respects, we are playing a different game.”

Indeed, a few of Conductive’s entrepreneurs were eager to discuss what having the firm in their cap table meant to them.

Thompson Aderinkomi, co-founder and CEO of Nice Healthcare, told me that he has previously been in a healthcare technology company, spent four years working on it and following a Series A round, was ousted from the company by the investors, which left a rather bitter taste in his mouth when it came to VCs. Then he met Lai.

“His approach was so different from those I pitched in 2012,” Aderinkomi said. “Despite the fact that my industry is not one they heavily focus on, they focused on business fundamentals, and as someone with a finance background, it was refreshing to talk numbers and logic with them.”

Aderinkomi also liked Conductive’s global approach and the fact he could easily relate to them as a founder who came to the United States from Nigeria — “I stand out in a room full of founders,” he added.

Duke Chung, co-founder of TravelBank, said if he started a third venture, he would definitely get it in front of Lai and Yeh again. The company signed a term sheet with Conductive to lead its Series C in 2020. Chung recalls the diligence period was at the beginning of the pandemic, and TravelBank’s business had “slowed down substantially.”

“Many VCs would have walked away from our term sheet, but Conductive called me and said that in ‘good times or in bad times,’ we always stand by our founders,” he added. “They did exactly that to continue to support our deal as agreed to, and our round was closed during the pandemic. I will always remember that about Conductive and who they are.”

U.S. Bank then acquired TravelBank in December 2021. Added Chung, “Because they stood with us throughout, it really inspired me and my co-founders to work hard and pivot our business accordingly to find our way forward, despite the travel headwinds. People tell me ‘Let me get this straight, you are a business travel provider and you were acquired during the pandemic?’”

Meanwhile, Steven Jiang, co-founder and CEO of hireEZ, told me Lai, Yeh and the team were available for anything, anytime, and even during the due diligence process, found ways for the company to save money.

“Carey and Paul respect and trust entrepreneurs based on their business performance instead of their connections in the VC world or their storytelling capability,” Jiang added. “I am an immigrant and engineer founder. It was challenging for me to get pre-built connections and trust with VCs. Carey found it shocking that he never heard about us while our ARR has been tens of millions with over 170% year-over-year growth. Carey understood and appreciated how we ran business. He made a decision so quickly while other VCs still wondered ‘who is that guy.’”