Originally from beautiful Eastern Pennsylvania, Sydnie began her career as a singer / songwriter performing at weddings, festivals, and local taverns / pubs while attending Penn State University.
In 2014 she packed up her '99 Grand Cherokee and moved across the country to fulfill her childhood dream of living in the Rockies. She felt like she could leverage what she had learned through building her music business to pursue a path that would challenge and stretch her in new ways.
In 2018 she graduated with a BS in Business Strategy and after a stint in management consulting, joined Kickstart full-time. Sydnie is particularly interested in SaaS solutions, marketplaces, and platforms disrupting the healthcare space, and is passionate about empowering female founders and the next generation of entrepreneurs. She continues to perform at local venues on a weekly basis (pre-/post-COVID-19) and can otherwise be found in the mountains with her Rhodesian Ridgeback, Storm.
What led you to venture capital?
I sort of stumbled into venture by accident… which I've actually learned is more of a common path to VC than I would have expected. During my sophomore year of college, my now good friend Kyle Harrison added me on LinkedIn and asked if I would be interested in applying for a student-run VC fund called Campus Founders Fund (powered by Kickstart). I hardly knew what VC was at the time, but had previously interned with a private equity group and was curious about early stage investing. I decided during school that I wanted a career that would challenge me and offer a lot of variety. I quickly realized that VC checked those boxes for me in a way few other careers could. I got to know the Kickstart team while on CFF and later joined full-time! (Still thanking Kyle today.)
How do you source companies for potential investment? What's the biggest mistake you see entrepreneurs make when seeking investment?
I'd say we source the majority of deals through our internal network along with active involvement in the community. In terms of discussions with early investors, here are some of the mistakes I see:
Not nailing the pitch. This might sound obvious and maybe even cliché, but nailing your pitch really does give you an immediate advantage. There are a lot of resources that can provide guidance here, but here are some good rules of thumb IMO: 1) practice in front of someone who is far removed from the work you do to help craft a crystal clear / easy-to-follow message, 2) determine and prioritize 2-3 key takeaways you want your audience to absorb, and 3) avoid unnecessary detail that will distract from those key takeaways.
Not doing your homework. The Venture world is complex, and there is a natural lack of parity between founders and VCs. First-time founders who take the time to educate themselves on the process, as well as understanding the focus of the groups they are meeting with, are able to engage with investors with confidence. They also avoid early mistakes that can introduce significant hurdles in the future (see #6 below). Venture Deals is a great resource: written by Jason Mendelson and Brad Feld from Foundry Group - geared toward founders to help bridge knowledge gaps and enable more transparent and trust-based conversations.
Not having a clear investor criteria. Many say that a VC relationship is like a marriage. There will be amazing times, and there will be hard times. Identifying what is important to you when it comes to this relationship is critical. Take the time to get to know your prospective investors. Ask for reference calls. When times get hard, which they will, you want to have partners who you trust and who are aligned with you and your mission.
Seeking more capital than needed. It's tempting to want to raise a large round out of the gate to have solid padding and to prolong the next fundraise in order to focus on your business. But even the most experienced and disciplined founders will admit that constraint fosters creativity. There are always exceptions, but when you're pre-product with $5M in the bank, capital efficiency is a lot easier said than done. As you nail down your target raise, think about what you can realistically accomplish in 12-18 months on a scrappy budget. Help investors to feel confident in your ability to do a lot with a little and to spend their capital wisely.
Being married to your solution. This one might sound counterintuitive at first - it's obviously important that you have a ton of conviction around your product. However, founders who are obsessed with problem solving tend to be better equipped to make the right pivots at the right time in order to stay ahead of what the market really needs / wants.
Not considering long-term impact of early decisions. Poor structuring of the cap table. Giving up too much equity. Bringing your sister in-law on as a co-founder before realizing you make incredible friends but terrible business partners. Not questioning whether VC is in fact the right funding resource for your business before pursuing VC dollars -- mistakes like these can pose real challenges for your business and for future fundraising. It's worth noting that if you have a compelling business, there are usually work-arounds, but life is a lot easier if they are avoided up front.
We all know how challenging it can be as a female founder to have access to capital, is Kickstart Seed Fund doing something to change that?
I love this question! We have a portfolio full of companies led by amazing founders. Something we’re really proud of is that 13.5% of our companies (20% in our latest fund) are led by female founders (compared with 2.7% on average). In a study of over 350 startups, Mass Challenge and BCG determined that women-founded businesses deliver more than twice as much revenue per dollar invested compared with those founded by men. According to Forbes, private tech companies that are run by women render a 35% higher ROI than those run by men.
Diversity fosters creativity and innovation, and with a highly collaborative portfolio, I love seeing so many women at our annual Executive and CEO Summits (shout to our Director of Platform Karen Zelnick for totally nailing these events always). Karen also regularly organizes Women Executive dinners to foster a community of mentorship and leadership. We love sponsoring Sego Awards - our founder / managing partner Gavin Christensen was a recipient of the Sego Advocate Award in 2019. I was also honored to participate as a judge for the SLC round of SoGal's Global Pitch Competition last October and was just blown away by the amount of talent and innovation I was able to witness. I could go on, but the moral of the story is -- I'm really proud to work alongside men and women who evaluate opportunities on merit alone while also actively advocating for incredible female founders.
Do you have any other tips and info for female founders to help them get more access to capital?
Well first, a shameless plug, Kickstart just announced the close of its fifth and largest fund to date ($110M). While the challenges we currently face as a result of COVID-19 will undoubtedly test us all, we intend to actively invest through the current pandemic crisis to support the brave entrepreneurs who gather strength from adversity and provide leadership through uncertain times. If you are working on a business and are ready to pitch and/or seeking advice, please reach out!
Utah has a rich and growing community focused on supporting women through organizations like Sego, SoGal, Braid Workshop, Womenpreneurs, Women Tech Council, and of course W Collective - just to name a few! There are tons of phenomenal investors and entrepreneurs involved locally. Attend events, build your network, get plugged in… we need you!
More broadly speaking in terms of approaching the fundraising process as a woman - a few quick thoughts. I believe every founder should seek male and female mentors and advocates. Especially in the early days, you will receive gobs of feedback, criticism, and advice. Find the confidence and humility to sift through and hang onto what is valuable and relevant for you. I also think it's important and valuable to keep the storytelling in our own heads in check. "That was harsh feedback," "Did they just 'mansplain' my own business to me?" "Did he not shake my hand because I'm a woman?" In any scenario, if we approach an opportunity with a belief that we are disadvantaged, that may be our biggest liability. If you do encounter an investor who authentically discounts you based on your gender, then it's an obvious bad fit (I do believe these are increasingly rare encounters btw, particularly as we see more and more women in diligence/decision-making roles). DO pay attention to how you feel, trust your instinct, but be objective and assume the best in people. Focus on crushing your business. Be aware of the statistics, but not consumed by them (and also recognize encouraging stats!). Own your story, nail your pitch, and don’t wait for permission. Get out there!
What is a perfect day in Salt Lake City for you?
Oooh. Okay. First I do a sunrise Mount Olympus trail run with my dog. Grab brunch at The Rose Establishment with friends. Hit City Creek, splurge on a new pair of Freebird shoes. Dinner & live music at Lake Effect, then a Jazz game to top it all off.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Being crystal clear on what my values are, being grounded on those values, and having the awareness and humility to course-correct quickly and often. Also being open to relationships with people from every possible human category.
What is your greatest fear?
Letting life happen to me.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Being in my head on the regular.
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Lack of empathy. Everyone has a story.
Which living person do you most admire?
The list is pages long, but probably my dad and my 16 year old sister.
A few additional resources to consider checking out:
Venture Deals by Jason Mendelson and Brad Feld
Zero to One by Peter Thiel
The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
The Innovator's Dilemma by Clayton Christensen
How to Start a Startup
20 Minute VC
The Full Ratchet
Kickstart is the most active venture capital firm in the Mountain West with over $250 million AUM. Founded during the Great Recession of 2008, Kickstart has funded over 100 startup companies. Kickstart's mission is to fuel the best companies in Utah and the Mountain West by providing smart capital, a connected community, and expert guidance. For more information, visit www.kickstartfund.com.