Why this consumer investor is switching VC firms after making partner last year
Maria Salamanca, one of the few Latina investors at a partner level within the often homogenous world of venture capital, is shaking things up. The investor tells TechCrunch that she is leaving Unshackled Ventures, a pre-seed venture firm that bets on immigrant founders, after seven years to become a partner at Ulu Ventures, a seed-stage firm focused on data-driven decision-making and diversity.
In a world where some of venture’s best talent is starting new funds, Salamanca’s job change is an example of how prominent investors may be finding more benefit in joining firms at a partnership level. And it’s also a look at how investors may be rethinking their employment as the market changes and “the generalist VC” perspective isn’t as enticing.
TechCrunch spoke to Salamanca about the job move and more in a Q&A. The answers have been edited slightly for clarity.
TechCrunch: Let’s start with your decision to leave Unshackled. What about the firm changed and made you decide to look outward?
Maria Salamanca: Nothing about the firm changed. It was more of my own growth and trajectory. The fund is fantastic at what it is: we’re generalists and pre-seed. We’ve stayed disciplined through all three funds on that with very few opportunistic bets. The true core of Unshackled is pre-seed bets, huge focus on immigrants, entrepreneurs and even more so when those immigrants still have visa issues and concerns and barriers. And that's kind of the sweet spot of the fund.
What became very clear to me in the past couple of months, if not year, was I have grown in my areas of interest that I want to spend a lot of time on. That tends to be consumer general, web3, a lot of next-gen platforms, whether it be the metaverse, web3 or gaming. To be a really great partner of this fund, I have to stay generalist, I have to stay pre-seed.
There were a couple opportunities that came my way and those conversations...made me reassess my excitement on those verticals. I wasn't thinking that way. It was just like it organically happened, which is why it is still very incredibly bittersweet.
Why not start your own fund?
After spending seven years building at Unshackled, I am keenly aware of how difficult it is to start a fund and the balancing act it is with investing time. At this point in my career, I want to spend more time growing as an investor and further the thesis building I have been doing for years in a more concrete manner. I will get to do that building consumer strategy at Ulu.
You mentioned earlier this tension between wanting to do what's best for LPs versus being self-serving. Can you tell me more about how you balance those different tensions when it comes to your career?
I think really great investors are obsessive about portfolio construction. And everything is kind of backwards from there. You know where you want to focus, where the returns are and what successful portfolio construction looks like. And that's kind of core to like discipline long term unless you kind of end up being on a multi-stage fund.
My guess is that in the market, where we're heading, LPs are fairly over indexed in venture and private money and their portfolios. They're going to have to make some tough decisions on which managers were disciplined and which ones weren't. As an investor who cares deeply about that fiduciary duty to your LPs and ultimately, like, you are a steward of capital, you have to occasionally check yourself on, 'Am I still in the right stage, am I still in the right fund size, am I still in the right fund where the areas I want to focus on are beneficial to the portfolio construction, or is it going to be taking away or creeping up on it in a way that is distracting?'
That’s kind of the way that I thought about it. It became clear to me, honestly...that being at a seed or Series A fund was probably the best place for me to be writing that first check and into consumer companies. It’s a very different personality type and approach to be a consumer versus enterprise investor, from sourcing to portfolio support it’s very different playbooks. Being at a fund where that is acknowledged and accepted and encouraged is pretty important.
Everyone does not need to be a generalist, it’s okay for us to have some verticals and some specialization kind of plays well into that.
Let’s talk about Ulu Ventures. What do you want to do differently between the Unshackled phase of your career and now, this new phase of your career as a partner at Ulu Ventures?
If I hadn't been at Unshackled, I would have probably gone to be an operator because I love building. And that's kind of what I did for the past seven years at Unshackled. I helped build a fund, from sourcing strategy to portfolio management to portfolio support.
We had two investments when I joined, now we have 75 and are three funds in. Neither of the three partners, including myself, were previously from venture careers so we couldn’t copy and paste things. I loved that part of the past seven years because I just felt like I was learning at a ridiculous pace.
As I go to a fund that, in terms of size and portfolio with more history, a smaller percentage of my time will be going toward building and fund building. A lot more of my time is gonna go to probably what I think is the highest ROI for me personally which is really devoting my time to being a really good decision maker, and a good investor. And so like, I am so excited because Ulu is all about decision-making analysis, with two of the world-renowned decision-making analysts.
It’s that internal time to focus on me as an investor. It’s going to be a rebalancing.
The title partner can look so different depending on the venture firm. Talk to me about this and how you navigate those nuances? What kind of partner are you?
I bought into the partnership. Everyone who is a partner by title, is a partner in terms of actual carry and economics as well. Once you enter a partnership, you’re buying into an actual partnership and returns.
With the partnership, you end up having to have this hard conversation. Because I come from an emerging manager fund, I have full awareness that going to a vintage 15 fund is very different from a vintage 2 fund. How you answer the question of a partner is very different: a16z answered in a different way from Benchmark, which answered differently from Sequoia. That is so kind of core to who the team is, as well as what the team strengths are because not every fund is able to match the Andreessen model long term.
There are partnerships where people are both fund builders and strategic persons, and there are partnerships where people come in, everything is built out and the job is just to focus on one stage. Those jobs are not great for people who are builders; some people would like to get that wisdom on their own.
There’s significant value in your career to being in a place where there's massive amounts of institutional knowledge. And then there's also like incredible learning from being at a place where you're building that institutional knowledge. I personally feel like as my career evolves, I'd like to move from that side of the spectrum closer to the other side.
How does this fit in with your campaign for school board in Florida?
Both my former team at Unshackled and the new team at Ulu know how formative education has been to my journey and with everything that is going on in Florida, why running in the district where I grew up was important to me. Education powers our economy and I am so excited to be closer to one of the most diverse school districts in the country. The board itself is not a full-time commitment so it is a role many VCs have done in the past.
You said to me previously that you never want to be chasing the same deals as everyone else in the industry. What are you going to be looking at while working for Ulu Ventures?
The truth is that I'm gonna probably be spending the first couple months building out a lot of how consumers intersect with Ulu’s framework. Historically, Ulu has been focused on enterprise, and a lot of the models that they have built on decision-making has been reflective of the enterprise. So I’m coming in, for the first time ever, and I’d like to think that I would be one of the first people to ever do this in venture by bringing that decision-making analysis to consumer investing.
Tell me more about Ulu’s decision-making analysis?
When you get a deal, you think about all the different pathways and probabilities that a company can go through and the different factors that influence that company's ability to, you know, exit or succeed. You're basically weighing the probability, statistically, on how likely that company has to make it through all those.
It’s kind of like a sensitivity analysis equivalent of all the different things that can impact whether that company is successful. When a founder is deciding what to stress out more about, is it customer acquisition or is it a pricing model? The idea behind decision analysis is that you can actually have an answer to what is more impactful to that company's success long term, and you can tell a founder: your pricing is not going to make or break your success, but your customer acquisition and owning up-market is going to actually increase your chances of success and on the market by 5X. So, Ulu has done that at the enterprise level and that's probably why they have 10 unicorns, but it hasn't been done yet on consumers.
Last question. Add in the downturn, and volatility in crypto, does your job get easier or harder?
I personally am excited about the downturn because I think that when there's so much money in the market, there's so much more noise, that it's actually really hard to kind of get the real value of who you're talking to. The price point on the value of a company isn't everything, but it is one of the factors that plays into if this is going to return the capital that I'm putting into it. And as that goes up, dilution starts mattering more and more. So you just get to make a lot better bets in really great founders if it’s not so noisy when it comes to valuations.
You don’t have to make an investment in two days, you can take a week. Which is a luxury. And that hasn’t been the case in venture for the past couple of years.