Aditi Maliwal — Upfront Ventures

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

One of the newest partners at Upfront, Aditi Maliwal, tells us about her path to partner, her investments in Chime, BetterUp, and her time in Google corp dev.


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Great. Hey, Aditi. Hey. So we’re here with Aditi Maliwal. You’re one of the newest partners at Upfront and before Upfront you were at Google both in Corp Dev and as a product manager. And prior to Google, you were at CrossLink Capital and you led the investments in Chime and BetterUp. Well done.

Those were exciting. Yeah. Still are very exciting. Yeah. So, you know, we had Kara on the podcast and we talked about some of the basics about Upfront being a $400 million dollar fund. So to three to five million dollars sweetspot for a check size. But I’m super curious. You’ve had these great successes, great experience. Great experience. How did you choose Upfront?

That’s actually a very fun question for me to answer. So Kara, as I like to say, was on my personal board of directors before I even was thinking about coming back into venture. So when I was at CrossLink, I met Kara at South by Southwest. And so over time, I’d come to Kara to talk to her about a variety of things from job opportunities I was looking at or investments I was looking at, or friends who were starting companies that I wanted to send her way.

And it was actually spending time looking at a couple of ideas in the women’s health space. And Kara said to me, you know, I’ve spent quite a bit of time in that ecosystem looking at a couple different companies. Are you if you are interested, instead of having instead of building a company in the space, like why don’t you come and join upfront and potentially think of funding some of these companies?

And she was like, why do you come down to L.A. and spend some time with Mark, spend some time with the broader team, came down, spend time with Mark, spend time with Greg, Kobe, Kevin, Eve and Michael. And then ultimately there were a couple of key things that sort of got me hooked onto the the front story here.

I think the team is truly very transparent in the way that they work and the way that they do things to play up to the pun. We are very upfront.

Upfront. I mean, but transparent sometimes is code word for like direct or correct. The firm is very direct.

And, you know, people are not sort of hiding behind v.c lingo or people don’t expect and the firm very much functions in that we are truly a find that works together because we’re not afraid of being direct with each other and whether it’s positive, whether it’s something that’s like providing critical feedback, whatever it may be. And so that was something I learned through the process. I mean, the second thing, which is kind of a strange way to think about venture, but I talked to a bunch of venture funds and I went through a process.

And venture funds aren’t actually that innovative. We invest in innovation, but they aren’t actually quite as innovative. And Mark and Kara, Greg, Eve, Kobe, Michael, Kevin are all really part of this like very innovative story here where, for example, like, you know, partner meetings you to run a certain way and ran a certain way for 12 years. And a couple of people push back and like, this is really not the way that is most effective.

We should be spending more time doing some of looking at pipeline and we should spend less time on pipeline, more time on problem trials or whatever it may be. And we’ve iterated on what our partner meeting looks like a whole bunch of times. And then we’ve also iterated on a variety of different processes internally, which I think was something that I learned and saw through the process, which was just incredibly different from every fund that I spend time with. And I think that’s truly led by Mark.

How is your process easier process for decision making on where to put your investments changed?

So I would say that the way. We even go through the process, as we will tell an entrepreneur right in the beginning, kind of where our heads at when I used to work in Menger, I think I was also in a position where I sort of take a meeting and then be like, great, I’ll come back to you. You know, after we’ve sync it up as a team now and I’ve seen this sort of with some of our other partners is people will be a lot more open to giving feedback in the meeting itself and sort of having a real conversation around, hey, these are the areas that I’m kind of stuck on.

Or these are the areas I know my partnership is not going to get excited about. And then kind of walking them through what our process even looks like as a firm.  I’m going to walk you through my steps today in this meeting as to what I’m going to do and then come to a decision by this date, which I think is something laying that out well in advance is, I would assume, helpful for an entrepreneur.

Yeah. Being able to say we’ll come to a decision by a date is. Yeah. Is a strong statement.

Yeah. And unusual. Yeah. I’m curious about this question of innovation because. Well, working even at our fund I feel like it’s the it’s the least tech company I’ve worked at. What do you think lies ahead in terms of innovation for Risi, is it? Is there something you can see that would be it’s like a step function change or is it changes like how you run your meeting and how the processes handled?


I mean, having worked at Google, I’ll tell you, I mean, people talk about GV a lot, obviously, and people talk about a lot of funds now starting to use data science for things like sourcing and then, you know, hiring an entire engineering team and having like people mining or scraping the Internet for signals that are then going to tell you where people are performing. I mean, that’s obviously like one side of it. And there are folks who are investing in that.

I think other areas of innovation that lie within venture is I mean, this is a people run business.

We’re not going to see the same prototypical successful investor with the exact same background. And I see that see this a lot at upfront in that all of us, I think, have had some have spent some time operating. And obviously we have a few partners who are founders, but we also have some partners who’ve only ever invested. And that’s, I think, the appreciation that people can come from different backgrounds.

So that’s where I believe venture capital has to spend a lot of time thinking about.

And right now, you guys are an eight person fund. Yes. Or a partner. A partner. So that’s what I meant. And so for for finding those pockets of innovation, I think that was really well said. Do you do need one person to be the champion? Can you share more about how that works?

Yeah. So I think the so the way that we actually go about some of our decisions is every partner at upfront. All eight of us are empowered to make our own decisions, which is very much if I got very, very excited about it, one particular deal I would run point on sort of making sure I understand my company that I’m excited about. I understand the thesis.

I’ve potentially built some muscle in terms of understanding that market. And then in a way, I’m coming into the partnership, educating my partnership. I think traditional funds are kind of like, you know, stacked in a way. It’s like you have your associate, your principal, your partner, your managing director, and then you go to icey.

That’s really not the way we work. We have to associates it upfront and they kind of have the opportunity if they want to jump in on a deal or if there’s something that I think Josh or Alice might be particularly well-suited to all say, like, hey, I’d love to bring Josh into this. And if Josh is interested, Josh can decide. And then oftentimes Josh will bring opportunities to me as well. And so we get to work together there.

It’s nice also that upfront has promoted a couple of its principles to partner, which is this is pretty you don’t see it all the time.

We’re not at every firm, but also only to associates. And eight partners. Yeah. I hadn’t thought about it that clearly. Totally. It’s the it’s the upside down pyramid. And I think and the way to think about it is that we’re not.

Your traditional venture fund in that, you know, every partner has an associate dedicated to them. I was an associate. Not that long ago.

And I also have run my own deals before, and the expectation is I get this experience to run my deal.

And so I think that inverted pyramid is sort of functionally empowering you, but also reminding you like you’re responsible.

Yeah, you’re on it. Responsible, you’re leading this. Can we go back a little bit?

And before that, you’re the only person I’ve ever met who has a personal board of directors. Can you talk about that for a second?

Yeah. So I don’t think people don’t officially formalize it. And so I’ve probably been one of the very few people who’ve decide who’s decided to formalize it. My personal board of directors includes Kara, And then there are two others were on my personal board of directors. And they were one is obviously a family member, my father. 

He’s also actually an investor. He runs a private equity fund in India. And the other person is actually someone who’s a close mentor and has nothing to do with my professional world and is somebody that I go to for sort of seeking guidance on the transitions especially.

I think the transitions are always times when we are a lot more introspective. I think when we’re in it, it’s we’re doing the job. It’s harder to be as introspective when it’s going well.

Yeah, it’s not going well. There’s a time for introspection.

Well, can I ask a little bit about how how your previous experience has informed your current themes you’re looking at in your current work.

Yeah, absolutely. when I was at CrossLink investing earlier on, I invested in Better Up and chime amongst a couple other companies and that sort of got me pretty excited, I think in the categories of fintech and people call it future of work.

But I think of it around employee engagement, employee retention and thinking stronger around like how to make somebody in the workplace a better worker or empower them to be more efficient.

And so I do spend time in those categories. Those are interesting to me today. And actually carrying those on. I when I went into Google, I ended up actually spending within Corb Dev and then in product spending time on payments specifically as well. That was definitely to Cat. That was a category that sort of translated through.

And so tell me just what you were doing at Korp, Dev. So yeah, mostly corp dev is doing acquisitions. Yes.

So the way Corp Dev works is it was mostly doing acquisitions. We have yet to do an M. We mostly do ways. And we do have we do uniquely make a few strategic investments off balance sheet. So this is different to GV Capital G. And I got to work on actually some of those when I was there as well. And so what Kaup Dev was doing and what I specifically was doing is sort of being the eyes and ears. Spending a lot of time outward, facing finding new three new themes, new opportunities, investment areas, either product investment or us acquiring a company in the space.

So, you know, we looked at things like what is the future of news?

Whereas a-r going, how do we think more about social, you know, social, something Google didn’t necessarily focus on and Corp Dev would be having these thoughts about what’s the future of news.

Yes. And then bringing it back to the executive team or. Yeah.

Most executives obviously see a variety of different companies that will come through their product managers as product managers spend a lot of time thinking about what the competition looks like in the ecosystem.

But when you have corp dev, which is usually eyes and ears for the company out there kind of meeting with folks, you also get an indication of how these businesses are doing, which I think is differentiated. But also at the same time, oftentimes, I don’t know, podcast became very interesting in 2016 like that sort of kind of exploded in 2016.

It’s so interesting. You’re so low in 2016 when it did explode. Google didn’t have a Google podcast app and we. And then we had a team that actually ended up building that and they spent time thinking about it. But we thought we went out and met with sort of every podcast company and got to know just a lot about how did these businesses work and like where did Google have an opportunity to play? Like, again, do we play that role of aggregation?

Do we play the role of building our own series? We were production content studio, whatever it may be.

And then how did you interact with, like Google Ventures? The nice thing is we’re all in Mountain View. We do have everyone Corb Dev, G.B. and Capital G.

The nice thing. Yeah, depending on where you live. Yeah. Really? So everyone had a space in Mountain View. We personally. The way that Google Corp Dev interacted is we had really good relationships with g.d and capital G. Capital G is run by David Laue, who was formerly the head of Corp Dev at Google and so has a very strong relationship with the with the actual team itself.

And then in addition to that, you know, I think that GV in Capital G make decisions and make investment choices very independently. They function as sort of standalone funds, from my understanding, and corp dev functions very much as we to your point, get through to a stakeholder, buy in and spend a lot of time with internal management to make our decision. We don’t have our decisions are sort of made as the business less as us as an individual entity.

How did you decide between those two paths between investing in M&A?

to be clear, we did not do very many investments. Our predominant business was are predominantly we spend time acquiring businesses and a lot of talent, too, obviously. But I think the decision really came to is this business that we are looking to potentially acquire, invest, direct.

Would it be directly beneficial to a specific product area? Is it enhancing a product area or taking us into a different line that that product area might be exploring in the future?

And just for practical advice. How do you get to APM at Google? Good question. 

I think most people are pretty open on LinkedIn. I mean, I still view LinkedIn as like one of the best resources. And then I would say a lot of PMS are actually also angel investors and have Ángeles profiles. 

Also does e-mail me and I will usually I can find it in to some different product area. Great, great.

OK, so you were at Corb Dev. You doing the A’s? And what why did you move to be APM?

I just felt you spend a lot of time being the eyes and ears of the business. But I wasn’t spending time in the business. 

And actually, I’m from Singapore, so I grew up in Southeast Asia.

I grew up between India, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Originally from India. But spent my most formative years in Singapore.

And so there was a there is a team within Google called the Next Billion Users Team. And so I joined to be a product manager on the next billion users team.

So are what we call the next billion user markets were India, Brazil, China, Indonesia, amongst others. So to have the opportunity one to spend more time in the ecosystem that I grew up in and then building a product for them, I just thought was incredibly unique. And I got to be really part of the core working business. And so that was why I wanted to be APM. Did you run this past the board?

I did. I actually did run it past the board, the virtual world of China. I actually did run it past the board and a few board members not naming which ones pushed back and said, you know, do you really want to be a product manager? You’re not going to spend any more time talking to, you know, startups and spending time with founders. You’re actually going to spend a lot of time talking to users and spending a ton of time sort of.

What was the best part about being a p_m_ was sort of running the user research trips and like getting to go into the market and see testing features with users and kind of getting a very immediate sense of feedback, which, by the way, is such a different feeling from venture capital when. You could kind of not see feedback on businesses that you invest in for a long time because these feedback loops are so much longer. 

Yeah. And like before I move off Google.

You have talked some about how Google has really informed your current investment thesis or one of your theses of sort of things being built by Google being things you want invest in. Tell me more about how Google plays in. Yeah.

So I think of Google as this incredible ecosystem. It’s obviously over a hundred thousand person company now, but they have physical space. They own land. We have our cafeterias and all their things. But Google itself is actually a builder of incredible software that is built for Googlers. So Googlers will spend a lot of time using internal tools to sort of make their days more efficient or make their or to find things, whether it’s internal search, whether it’s obviously we have hangouts and a variety of other products like that.

I have been thinking more about the internal I sort of made a list of every single internal tool that I used when I was at Google and then kind of broke it down into which category of the user’s workflow it falls into and whether there are interesting businesses in each of those categories. So sort of like I would say, breaking apart. What I think was a very cohesive machine in2 if they ever thought about selling any of that product to other companies or other businesses, they could actually be very profitable standalone companies.

But that’s not what Google does. And Google builds a lot for the hundred thousand person company.

Got it. So this is more like companies that are addressing this need. Google’s too proud, too likes to build everything itself. But if there were a company, they were building better. MOMA is the Google internal search to share some yowling something like that? Yeah.

So those are sort of. So those are kind of categories and that kind of goes into this like broader thesis of, as we call it, future of work.

Yeah. Yeah. I mean Google had thousands and thousands of people in just in like their H.R. people obst about.

Exactly. Yeah. Like more than 5000 people and just the people.

I just think that’s incredible. Yeah. More than 5000 people in people up. Yeah. They have.

I mean I don’t remember the exact number, but people people at Google is a very large team. Just because people are at the core of the business like that is one thing I will give Google a lot of credit for is the way that I just think employees are so empowered at the company.

And I think like you see this a lot today, especially like obviously Google is like in the media a lot.

And people are talking about what’s happened. And not to say everything is. I mean, there have been many not so positive things that are going on there. But I think Google is one of those companies that gives employees an opportunity to speak.

I think there have been I think I can think of many, many large organizations around the world where as an employee, you just aren’t given a plot or you aren’t given a voice.

You get fired or you. Exactly. Exactly. Not to say not to be so blunt, but that’s like very much the case.

I’d love to hear a little bit. FinTech has had a really good week this week and whenever this airs, credit karma just got bought for $7 billion and you had some fintech focus. Yes. Tell us about your investment in China and how you thought about that and where that might have moved to today.

Yeah, I mean, chime was an incredible opportunity. Very, very. It was a very early company.

When we looked at it, we at CrossLink, I worked very closely with the partner, Jim voie, and we led their series A.

And at the time, Neil Banks weren’t a thing. People were not talking about Neil Banks, the term neo bank, I don’t even think existed. And you just. And, you know, we spent a lot of time thinking about. I remember Jim and I being spending time in a conference room talking about how miserable my Bank of America OP experience was and how withdrawing cash was sort of the easiest thing that I could do with them. And really, that was very not very much all that was created on the product itself.

And you know, nothing against Bank of America because the app has definitely increased, increasingly improved since then. But I think we’ve done a lot of time talking about that. And in turn, we spend a lot of time thinking about customer acquisition. We spent a lot of time thinking about how China would go out and build their consumer base. And funnily enough, when China was starting off.

They were obviously they were focusing on this on a similar millennial demographic. But one of China’s early investors also gave them access to Dr. Phil. And so they were spending a lot of time advertising. They spent some marketing dollars on advertising with Dr. Phil. And so that gave them access to a different audience. And so, you know, for a while, China kind of had these two very different groups, target user groups. And when we were making the investment, I remember Jim and I talking a lot about like moms in the Midwest and how they could potentially be chime like real times, Digg users.

What ended up happening and I think about this a lot as then I went on to think about this when I was being a p_m_ is that oftentimes like free channels of marketing are ones that you sort of need to really think about whether you take them. And sometimes they can kind of lead you down a path which doesn’t necessarily end up being quite so fruitful, or in some cases you just realize it’s not the right demographic for your product. So anyway, we ended up making that investment in time then, and Jim and I worked very closely with Chris and Ryan on that.

And, the most interesting thing I think about Chime is I don’t know. I like to do this well, go on Glassdoor and sort of look at employee reviews of some of the companies that are invested in better upping one and China being the other. And China has some of the most positive employee reviews and they have such incredible employee engagement and retention. And Pete, there are almost no negative reviews online on Glassdoor on time. And I just think that just gives me so much happiness in the business and the culture.

You’ve done some great investments, like what are those tools looking on Glassdoor, I think is a great one.

But like, how do you just do better? Almost like basic analysts work.

So I actually love using App Annie, for example, like I think App Annie truly gives me some incredibly helpful data in terms of traffic. And I think traffic can be. So I’ll give you an example. Wish dot com. So wish dot com. Their app was not growing very fast.

It was from about twenty fourteen to twenty sixteen mid-2017 stayed relatively stagnant. Twenty seventeen in the app. In app. And you suddenly see this uptick and it’s kind of crazy that like what’s going on suddenly app anay is like showing me that this company is starting to do like really really well. They are getting they’ve then gone on to like go and reduce their shipping time. They’ve also maybe hit their stride on a user demographic like you’re starting to think like, hey, who was wished all com actually built for.

And it turned out that women between the age of 15 and 18 turned out to be a very profitable demographic for them. And that’s how they focus. So I use a lot.

I spent a lot of time on basic analytic tools. So like I do use app and it’s very traditional. I use similar web. Sounds weird, but I do use them. I also use Alexa like Alexa, the web analytics product. And then the other thing, Glassdoor is great. Like Glassdoor is sort of your hacky way to figure out, are people happy there if people aren’t happy?

You probably have a bigger fundamental issue than like I can’t raise 10 million dollars in my series A and then I think that you can also go on. Funnily enough, some companies have Yelp reviews, so they actually have like Yelp listings and then you can go look at those things. So I look at a lot of inside voices like I really want to hear the voice of the person in there. And then I’m not not at all shame. I’m very shameless.

I’ll put it this way. And we’ll LinkedIn message employees all the time and just be like, hey, I’d love to chat with you here.

If you manage to say, as I’m reviewing the company and just saying. So you talked about about getting to know a space we’re investing in. We all know how fun that is to climb the steep learning curve. How do you figure out where do you start and how do you figure out? For example, the competitive landscape, which can sometimes have hidden things all around it?

So if I start very simply, keyword search is pretty phenomenal.

Thank God for that.

It’s true how many times people not mentioned the predator that appears at the top of the stack.

Exactly. So keyword search really does work. You know, it’s interesting. Twitter has recently been in a very interesting source for competitive analysis.

So I’ve been spending time looking at enterprise banking. For example, banks or sort of infrastructure products that are building for enterprises. And I.

Started doing a search on Twitter for this, and you will find that there are people who are talking about it and you can spend time reaching out to them and everyone by the way, everybody does think of themselves as an expert on Twitter, apparently.

How about like better up better app is a is interesting to me because right now it feels very crap like there’s actually I don’t totally know it better. It’s sort of coaching. Yeah. Coaching for employees. Right. That that space seems so crowded. Yeah. I know you’re focused on on employees. What did you call it. Engaging you have.

Yeah. Yeah. Great. So how how now do you sort out the the many different people in this space.

Yeah. So I think of better up really as like one of the I do think of them as sort of the first mover in the space.

They kind of like people have always had L.A. departments, like large organizations have had l.a.’s Cup business units. And I think better up especially and like Alexia Netty spent a lot of time realizing that audience, but now each time realizing they just saw it pretty much right there, which was this is not actually enabled by technology. And like we need to find a way to truly enable this and also increase accessibility.

So I think a lot of times learning and development was very much spent on for the high performer or the executive team. But when in reality at larger businesses, you have people who are growing up the ranks and you want to empower them the right way. So I think better up really did create a category that didn’t necessarily was not tech enabled at the time. That being said, I think, yes, you’re right.

There are a lot of people trying to go after that one. Do you see the success of one company? You’re kind of like, you know, if I were a founder, I would say, like, hey, that seem like an interesting category. There’s not necessarily going to be a winner takes all. Like, why don’t I try to build something similar? So I think, like the way for me now to sort of sort of find the signal to noise is.

I think I think of the employee as the center of every business. Are there ways that you incentivize them through perks? Are there ways that you sort of make processes in their lives more efficient? Like, are they shipping code constantly if their shipping code? Can they do it faster? Can they do it? Are there better communication tools? So there are many. I think of even future of work and I think of even like the employee as the center as like this broader theme by every day and every part of my working day has different ways by which it can be made more efficient.

has your your personal board or your actual, you know, parents or anything? What are some what is Kerry told you? What it was Ben’s advice that really stood out for you.

So it’s interesting, actually, Mark and Greg to my other partners actually gave me this advice right when I joined, which was go-slow.

I think there’s a tendency right when you get back into or get into venture or go get back into venture, which is guns blazing.

I have no boards like I have a lot of space. I’ve a lot of time. I’m gonna write 17 checks in the next seven years or whatever. Not even like in the next five years may get crazier.

I don’t know. They’ve sort of said to me.

They both gave me advice from a different perspective and kind of both came to the conclusion that like going slow helps you build that muscle, which is the filter muscle.And so that was like a piece of advice that truly stuck out to me. And then something actually even said to me,

was like, go with your gut. Like, you can only trust the only thing you can trust is yourself in this process. And like, obviously, we’ve taken a bet on you in the same way that you will take a bet on the founders. You go going back. But he was like, your gut instinct has led you to some good investments and has led you to some mediocre investments.

However, there have been the thing, the only thing that you had and those moments were your gut instinct. Obviously, information, let’s not forget that.

Those are two things that I still think about every single day as I’m evaluating a company, whether I’m like, okay, is this somebody I want to spend time with? 

I like it. One more just before we wrap up. I have no data on this. I said anecdotally in L.A., the women in venture have this disproportionate like have played had been badass athletes. And you were the captain of your squash team, D1 Stanford squash team, right?

Yeah. I mean, being an athlete is only made me better and I think like more focused on my job. I don’t know what it’s like not to be an athlete. So let me put it in context that I have always had schedules, I’ve always had routines, I’ve always had discipline in terms of like there is a goal and there we’re working towards the goal. I think the one thing about being an athlete is we always knew like we want to go to nationals and make sure we win at Nationals.

And we don’t like certain positions that we wanted to play or certain like positions we wanted to end that. I think the big thing that the or one of the big takeaways from being an athlete there is actually creating mini goals is incredibly important in the journey and like these mini milestones and then celebrating them. I think those are two things that like we’ve that I really like learned from being an athlete. And that’s like what I in-court in corporate in my daily life today.

Oh, that’s lovely. Do any mini goals right now to share? Well, one mini goal that I’m always that has sort of like come up recently is finding I think there is.

We’re establishing our office in San Francisco and we’re sort of establishing our presence up there. That’s I kind of set up the office a few a couple months ago. And so one of the many goals is making sure that people know that we have a presence there, kind of getting that out there in the ecosystem and making sure that entrepreneurs have a place to come and work out of two that are within our ecosystem or sort of extensions of. And so if your founders want to come work in our space like more than welcome to it’s just me up there right now.

I love it. L.A. is expanding to San Francisco. Take that long. S.F. lat long. L.A., S.F..

All right. All right. Thank you so much. This has been terrific. Thank you. Thanks to D.C.. Great to have you. Thank you.