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Jason Shuman is an entrepreneur and a venture capitalist who has been involved with startups since he was 17 years old, and has always had a deep passion for the industry. He is currently an associate at Corigin Ventures, where he is responsible for sourcing and analyzing deals. Jason discusses the charity foundation he is a part of, why there are so many young VCs these days, branding, and so much more on today’s show.
Well Prepared Pitch Deck – Interview with Jason Shuman
Hi. Welcome to The Successful Pitch. Today’s guest is Jason Shuman, who is a venture capitalist at Corigin Ventures in New York City. Jason has a really interesting background coming from the University of Miami. He has been involved in some startups himself, but he is now a big time VC in New York City. Jason, welcome to the show.
Thank you very much, John. How are you?
I’m good. It’s great to have you. We met through Judy Robinett. The two of you were down in Puerto Rico judging a pitching contest.
We were. We got back from sunny Puerto Rico a couple weeks ago. Now, I’m up here in the cold and windy New York weather.
Quite a contrast. I always like to ask my guests, how did they get started? If you would, take us back to the days when you were in college and you were saying, “Hmm, what am I going to do with my life? I’m going to be a VC in New York.” How did that all happen?
I think, to go back even further, I was born and raised right outside of Boston. I really grew up in a family of nothing but entrepreneurs. They were people that gave me a lot of confidence to go out there and follow my passion of entrepreneurship and starting companies. Really, I started getting into startups at around seventeen years old, when I graduated from high school a semester early. I went to work for an identity theft protection company that my aunt and uncle had spun out of a company my grandfather started way back in the day. They did background checks for the US Federal Government and had been really doing well growing the business. I’ll never forget, they told me, “What do you want to go do?” I said, “I’d love to help create the consumer side of the business and really help build that up.”
It was there that I found one of my mentors in Rob Shavell who had come over from SoftBank. I proceeded to shred papers for about two months and shredded some incredible background checks while I was there. As soon as those were done, they let me run free and really put together a plan and help build that side of the business. I decided to go to the University of Miami for college and study entrepreneurship there. Got my real estate license while I was there and started doing that when I was eighteen. I did identity theft protection again and then actually started my first company while I was in college called Category Five.
It was an eCommerce based men’s footwear company where we made boat shoes and driving moccasins. Grew that out for about two years, including for a year after graduation. Before you knew it, I was consulting for startups and got a phone call that ended up leading to an introduction to a VC here in New York because I was making so many introductions between startups in Boston to VCs in New York. Finally, somebody wanted to pay me for all those introductions and that was Corigin Ventures. Here I am today.
What a great story? I like the spirit of giving so much and making introductions. You really are a walking case study of your network is your net worth.
I think that paying it forward is the most important thing here. Ever since I wanted to get into startups, probably around fourteen or fifteen years old, everyone paid it forward. A big piece of that, it also goes back into my background, which is the fact that I was born with something called primary immunodeficiency. It basically means that your production of white blood cells is a little bit lower than the average human being. I would have to get infusions every three weeks. That whole growing up with a health condition like that led me to really be around doctors and donors a lot of the time for a nonprofit that I was heavily involved in. I was always about giving my time and my energy, and continue to do so today, which is one of the things I love about venture capital, is that we can add value to a very wide range of people. Not only the people that we’re invested in, but people that we just meet as well.
Let’s not be shy about the charity that you’re involved with, because we’re going to put that in the show notes. Tell us how people can be aware and contribute to the charity you’re involved with.
It’s called the Jeffrey Modell Foundation. It is a nonprofit that was started by Fred and Vicki Modell in New York City after their son, Jeffrey Modell, had passed away from primary immunodeficiency back in the 80s. Honestly, they’ve been another set of grandparents to me. It’s really helping out with research and trying to come up with a cure for primary immunodeficiency. They do some great things.
That’s now led to your passion for investing in health-related ventures?
That it has. It’s really interesting. Outside of my own health issues, I’ve had a grandmother with Alzheimer’s, a grandfather that’s had heart issues for a long time. I’ve had mental health issues in my family. I think that in today’s innovation economy, whether it’s the mobile phone or the IoT, there’s all these new different types of technologies that are truly powerful and can really help assist and add value to our healthcare systems and us personally as human beings, as well. I really would tell people out there that the next five to fifteen years, not only do I think that they’re going to be impacted personally, but I think our healthcare system’s going to start to save money because of it. I think that it’s going to improve outcomes and increase access for consumers.
How great? Let’s talk a little bit about Corigin Ventures. To me, it seems a little interesting. They’re a VC firm that does both early stage seed and series A. I usually don’t see that. Usually, it’s just the Angels doing the seed and the ventures doing the series A and B, etc. What is it that makes you guys do both and do you often find that the people you invest in for seed, you become the series A as well?
It’s a great question. Corigin has a unique setup here. Corigin itself actually is a holdings company where, on one side, we’ve got a billion dollar real estate arm. The CEO here is a guy by the name of Ryan Freedman. Truly incredible story, but long story short is that Ryan started to invest in startups about four or five years ago. When he was doing that, he was investing in companies that A, he knew he could add value to and B, that were in verticals that he really understood and had some expertise in. He was being approached by these companies, but he was writing checks between 100k and $1.5 million. With that comes both seed and series A. I think for us, seed in my background, my boss, David Goldberg’s background, we are able to be more hands on and add more value because we’ve been in the trenches before. With series A, we can add value in other ways as well. That includes the check size. We do prefer to follow along with our companies from seed to series A, but you don’t really see us leading too many deals in series A.
Fantastic. Let’s talk about, are you one of the youngest people that has ever been hired by Corigin Ventures?
I guess as far as Corigin Ventures is concerned, I am the youngest person that’s ever been hired by Corigin Ventures. I was actually only the second hire here on the venture capital side. As far as New York City is concerned, I have some other young colleagues, whether that’s Heston Berkman over at BoxGroup, Ash Egan over at CommonAngels, Mike Falb at KEC. You have a lot of young people in venture capital now. I think my reasoning or the way I like to put it is that we grew up with technology. For the most part, we understand consumers that are around our age. It’s a target demographic that a lot of companies want to go after because our wallet’s only going to get bigger and bigger. Between those two factors, I think you’re going to see a lot more younger VCs getting into the game and hopefully, getting some good returns for investors as well.
I think I’m going to look back on this day and brag about being the first person to get to interview you on their podcast, because of the branding awareness that you have that’s so smart, where you talk about VCs like Brad Feld, for example, that have branded themselves. What are your plans to brand yourself? How does that help you get good deal flow?
It’s a great question. I think that the Brad Felds, the Mark Susters, the Fred Wilsons of the world, they have an ability to brand themselves because they’ve been around for so long and they’ve seen so much. Therefore, they’re really talking and speaking honestly about their experiences and their opinions, which really do matter because there’s some substance and background behind that because they’ve seen it and they’ve proved that what they’re talking about can be right. With younger VCs, positioning and branding is a very interesting thing. To me, what it means personally is two things.
One, I like to share my story, my personal story and why I’m interested in certain verticals, how I look at certain verticals, how I try to look at certain companies, so on and so forth. On the other hand, I want to be able to share my story on how I got into venture capital because I think that’s a big thing and a big question that I get a lot as well. If I can, I guess, both A, add value and B, give people my opinion in the same way that the Susters and the Felds and the Wilsons of the world do. Whether it’s right or not, who knows? I’ll tell you what, it’s better to put something on paper and look back ten years from now and be right than not put it on paper at all and everyone just say, “Oh, yeah, I thought that too.”
Absolutely, you have to put it out what you think and feel at that moment. If it changes, that’s fine. You can’t be afraid to know what you stand for because that’s what branding is all about. You’ve shared your story of how you started at such a young age becoming an entrepreneur and leading into that. Is there any other details about how you got the job offer? Was it just strictly making introductions and then getting those connections and then they said, “We want to tap into you because you already have a good network”?
That’s a great question. I was living in Boston. If you ask Sumeet Shah at Brand Foundry, he’ll probably tell you that I was the only free venture capitalist, the only non-paid venture capitalist out there. The reason why is dating back to November of 2014, I started doing a consulting for startups. Prior to that, during what I would call my first failed startup, I had met a lot of venture capitalists. There’s a gap in Boston right now for some seed stage startups. A lot of that gap is in the consumer space. NextView Ventures and Dave Beisel and the guys over at Founder Collective like David Frankel, they do a great job investing in the consumer, but outside of that, there’s not a lot of seed funds that can do it.
I was making those introductions and then at the same time, as far as how I got in, I was adding value before I got in, but I was also maniacally focused about venture capital and startups. I read every single blog post, every single news source I could. I came up with my own opinions. I’ll tell you what, before I went into interviews, which, by the way, the interviews in venture capital are very, very basic conversations with these people. There’s not one size fits all.
Before I went into these interviews, I made spreadsheets on my computer of every single venture capital firm that I was about to go into, every portfolio company of theirs, which partner did it, when they funded them, how much funding they had, the background of the founders. I came up with my own thesis and my own opinion based on what was publicly available about those companies. God blessed me with somewhat of a photographic memory or good memory recall so I was able to pull up some of that in my meetings.
I think that’s one of the things we’re going to tweet out is, “Focus maniacally on what you want because that shows passion.”
It does. Have you ever read the book, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill?
That is one of my favorite books in the world. In November, I was doing a lot of soul searching, candidly. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go into venture capital or work for another startup. Once I figured out that I wanted to get into venture capital, I said I was going to get a job by January 15th because I actually had to get a hip surgery later that month and I knew I was going to be out of commission. It’s like, “Look, go to work and say you will get a job in venture capital by January 15th,” and I said it every morning when I woke up and I said it every night when I went to bed. Luckily I did. It was great.
I love that. That’s the same passion and preparation that founders need to do before they go meet with an investor like you. It’s very complimentary and it shows you’ve done your homework, it shows you’re serious. For you, you did that to get a job. If someone’s pitching you to give them money, they need to do the same kind of focus, maniacal, read every blog post you’ve done. Like what I like to do before I get a guest on the show.
Speaking of that, one of the things you wrote about is, while there’s long lead times, sometimes, or feedback loops, sometimes it’s a short one. You spend some time with somebody helping them with their pitch and their narrative. Please share with me that story and also what you look for in a pitch.
First off, I got started here at Corigin and it was David Goldberg and myself. One of the big things, like I said, is we like to add value to our companies. One of the ways that we like to add value is we like to help them go out and fundraiser, whether that’s to fill out the remaining part of the current round or to go raise series A. When I first got here, there was a portfolio company of ours, whose name I won’t mention, but they were in the FinTech space. The founders are brilliant. When I say brilliant, that is an understatement. They are two of the smartest people I’ve ever met in the world and their solution is pretty incredible.
One of the things is, and I don’t care if it’s a founder in our portfolio or outside of our portfolio, being in the company day in and day out sometimes blurs your vision. It makes it very difficult to tell the story and the narrative and sell it in the way that is most effective for either A, raising capital or B, selling to a certain type of population. Investors are not the buyers of your traditional product. The way that you need to position your company is a little bit different. With this specific company, they came in my first day, we had gone through their pitch and then we went, “Look, let’s, candidly, we need to blow up this deck and we need to start from scratch.”
It starts, to me, by the way, the pitch deck creation starts with nothing but blank slides. Then you write a narrative across the top of each one of those slides and you work your way through that, talking about the problem, talking about the solution, what’s your unfair advantage, why you guys, how big is the market. You make all these pieces of the puzzle come together to tell one beautiful story and why you guys are going to win. I think that’s what gets people excited. I will tell you, though, I spent more hours probably working on that pitch deck and the storytelling and networking my first two weeks than I did sleeping or hanging out with any of my friends that are living here in New York City.
I think that’s so great for you to show how much preparation goes into a good pitch. The analogy I tell my clients is, “It’s like the Super Bowl of meetings. It’s your Olympic moment. You only have ten minutes but think about how much preparation athletes do before they go to a big game or a big Olympic moment. You need to do that same preparation and focus and honing.” Because people think, “Oh, I’ll just wing it. No practice. I don’t really have an easy to follow story line.” You’re never going to get funded.
Ever. I put it this way, a pitch deck will never get you funded but it will not get you a meeting. Meaning, if you make a terrible pitch deck and you send it to an investor, they’re not going to even have you in their office. If you make a really, really good pitch deck, it’s going to get you in their office, it’s going to help prepare your pitch actually better. For me, my opinion and putting those into blog posts, it helps me flush out my ideas. A pitch deck does that for founders and it does that for their pitch. I think that that’s a very good way of getting the process going in the right direction when meeting with VCs.
Let’s talk about the process. Let’s assume you get a warm introduction, because most of the investors that I’ve talk to, that’s their preferred way of meeting founders. Would that be true for you?
You get a warm introduction, and do you like to see the pitch deck first or do you like to have a chat with the person and then have them present the pitch deck? Do you have a preference?
It depends on where the warm intro comes from. If it’s a very trusted source that knows what types of deals we like here at Corigin Ventures, I’ll take a meeting and I’ll look at things fresh as soon as the person walks in. The reason why I like to do that is we’re trying to analyze things on the spot as well. It brings up some interesting questions. I’ll speak personally, my brain starts to move very, very fast and I start to think about things that if I come up with those before the meeting, it’s a little bit different and it doesn’t flow, the conversation as well. If it’s just some good friends of mine that are introducing me to another friend of theirs, I may just take a look at the deck. If it makes sense, I’ll have a meeting. That’s definitely the first step, is getting that meeting.
How important is it for you that someone you invest in lives in the New York area? Or do you invest in people anywhere?
Not that important. We’re willing to invest in any company that has a presence in the United States. One of the other investments we made is in a company called ClassWallet and they’re down in Miami. We had a company portfolio from a Chicago called Stylisted. We had one in the westcoast called Vintana. To me, especially in this day and age, companies and investments can be anywhere but as long as you’re transparent and have an open-minded communication with them.
Great. The things that you are particularly passionate in is anything related to healthcare. I think Corigin is also interested in the Internet of Things, is that true?
The Internet of Things is a very interesting space in a variety of ways too. One of the ways is healthcare, like you had mentioned. The Aging in Place Movement is a really interesting one where baby boomers are becoming seniors by the thousands right now on a daily basis, by the way.
It’s pretty crazy. I think that a lot of them, research shows that a lot of them want to stay at home and not go into assisted living facilities. With that comes a pretty high level of discomfort for the caregivers, meaning their sons and daughters and grandchildren. I think that the IoT is going to play a very major role in how those people remain at their homes and increasing the level of comfort for their caregivers. On another note, I also think that what people currently view as their daily routines or daily activities at their home are going to change completely for the masses because the IoT is really going to take over those daily routines, whether it’s like an Amazon Dash Button or a latch lock. It’s just going to get rid of the inconveniences of your life and just make it so much easier at home.
Nice. Let’s talk about one of your other blogs, which is all about this great word you made up, which is hilarious. Platformation, did I say it right?
Yeah. Was I too young to create a word?
No, why would you ever put that restriction on yourself? I’m sure it’s the first of many you will create. You’ll have your own dictionary, your own book. If I understood it right, it’s basically when you’ve created a platform that’s so successful that it then generates the ability for other people to create platforms, IE, Facebook has generated so many other spinoffs from it. Is that a pretty good definition?
You got it. I think that we’re going through an interesting time. The mobile phone has already received mass adoption. All these other companies and all these other new concepts have been built on top of the mobile phone or the smartphone, specifically, which was built as a platform to begin with. But then there are these other companies out there, like Uber or AirBnB, that were not specifically built as platforms but are now becoming platforms because they have reached such a scale.
For AirBnB, you have Smart Lock companies that are going after those user bases. You have property management companies that are going after only AirBnB owners. You have plenty of companies there. For Uber, you have companies that are trying to put the taxi TVs in the back of Ubers to increase revenue for the drivers. You have a portfolio company of ours called SherpaShare, which is literally just trying to service the drivers and help make them better with managing their finances and keeping track of all their mileage and usage and making themselves more productive and more efficient.
Let me just ask about that. That’s an incredible focus. Talk about a niche. It’s not just financial planning and keeping track of your finances for everybody’s taxes. This is strictly for somebody who is an Uber-like driver, is that accurate?
Yeah. Really, they’re going after 1099 workers as a whole. That is probably the strongest use case that they went after originally. I think that they were maniacally focused at going after those people. I think you get a lot of natural word of mouth marketing that goes around there. They see such a great value proposition that they become more likely to tell friends about it and then to eventually, if the market size gets large enough over time, the spending and the lead generation that may come through a platform like that, the possibilities are really endless for them. They’ve just created such a sticky product that it’s really incredible.
I love what you just said about that. This is what I’m constantly telling the people I work with on their pitch, which is, “Don’t try to cover everything that you could possibly do. Pick your lowest hanging fruit. Show the investor, like Jason, how are you going to make your money with one niche first, get that before you start talking about everybody else.” This applies to everybody who’s 1099, but we’re going to focus on Uber drivers or taxi drivers first, and then we can go into waiters and things like that.
It’s unbelievable. I think I’m a perfect example of somebody who was once a young entrepreneur that failed to focus. Every time I go in and I speak to college students at campuses across the country, the one theme that I actually speak about the most is the idea of being focused. The reason why is you can’t boil the ocean. If you come into our office, one of the biggest mistakes that …
What did you say? You can’t boil the ocean?
You can’t boil the ocean. It’s easier to boil a cup of water than it is to boil the ocean.
That’s such a great imagery. We’re going to tweet that out, “You can’t boil the ocean.” That’s fabulous.
The reason I say that is that, if you come into our office as a 24, 25 year old or 23 year old first time entrepreneur, there are plenty of advantages. One of the disadvantages that we see though time and time again is a lack of focus. If you come in and say that you want to go after two, three, four different target demographics, you want to be a B2C company and have a B2B side to your business. Our heads start to spin and it’s just a huge red flag for us. It’s a mistake that I think a lot of first time entrepreneurs make and then they realize, and that’s why their second venture is a lot more successful, because they know that they just need to absolutely dominate, saturate one market, take that business model that they’ve realized is A, working but B, scalable and repeatable, and then move out into other cities. I think the more I get to hang around incredible entrepreneurs, like Sam, the founder of Zeal, I get to see that because they expand on a city by city basis. He is very patient to put the pedal on the metal and go into that next city unless he knows he’s ready.
What I like to use the analogy is, people don’t remember this probably, but Amazon used to just sell books.
That is true. That was a long time ago, but that is very true.
Until they figured that out and mastered that, they didn’t start selling anything else. That’s my favorite example of focus. Jason, do you have any other advice you want to leave our listeners with? Any other books you want to mention or anything at all about giving a good pitch?
I’m definitely available for any specific questions that anybody has. Feel free to tweet me. You may put my Twitter out there, it’s @BoatShuman. Happy to answer questions. I really think that fundraising is very difficult. The media in movies like The Social Network and the TV shows like Silicon Valley, they make fundraising and entrepreneurship seem very easy. I think I want to tell people that startups are not easy and they’re not exactly a ton of fun. They’re a lot of hard work and it takes a very special human being to do a startup and it takes a very special human being and a very special type of business model to go get venture funding. Venture funding is not for everybody. I think just make sure you’re going into the fundraising process prepared. Focus on it, make it a full time job and continue to learn throughout the process and make iterations based on feedback. Hopefully, you’ll get there and we’ll see you be successful. Because at the end of the day, even if we pass on the deal, we’re all rooting for you.
That’s so great. I like what you said, “It takes a very special type of human being to be an entrepreneur, as well as an investor.” That’s certainly who you are, Jason. Thank you for being on the show.
Thank you very much. I appreciate you having me.
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