Entrepreneurs are often lauded as “disruptors” in their fields. But what about funders? Early stage venture capital firm Obvious Ventures is betting on a way of investing that disrupts the process at its core. The Silicon Valley-based firm makes investments in what it calls “world positive” companies, or “startups that create new solutions to big world problems in a profitable and scalable way.”
The Obvious team knows a little something about disruption. Co-founder Ev Williams is best known for cofounding Twitter and later Medium, while James Joaquin, another cofounder, helped create innovative ventures that were sold to Apple, AOL and Kodak.
Obvious Ventures invests in three main focus areas: sustainable systems, people power, and healthy living. In a world of quick profits, it takes a decidedly long-term view when choosing companies to support—to date, it has invested in about 45 portfolio companies via two funds totaling $300 million.
“Entire industries are being re-imagined,” says Andrew Beebe, managing director at Obvious Ventures and a successful entrepreneur in the renewable energy space. “We think we can outperform as a venture fund because of our focus on world positive companies.”
Obvious is also thoughtful about ensuring that its companies remain true to their mission. To that end, it pioneered the “World Positive Term Sheet,” an addition to the standard deal agreement that codifies the core values of a company. The intention is to make sure investors and founders are aligned on key values that will determine how the company is managed in the years to come.
In late 2017, Obvious certified as a B Corp. In many ways, this move was, well, obvious. Certified B Corps are for-profit companies verified for their positive impact on all stakeholders, including people and planet—which is very much in keeping with Obvious’ own mission.
B the Change spoke with Beebe about what it means to be world positive, where the rest of Silicon Valley is headed, and companies that are doing remarkable things.
How do you balance finding “world positive” and financially sound investments?
I’ll give you an example. We are investors in Proterra, which designs and manufactures zero-emission electric buses. I think 10 years from now, the idea of a diesel or even a natural gas-powered municipal bus is going to sound kooky. Our opinion is that investments in diesel hybrid engines or natural gas conversion are bad investments. We’re making a somewhat contrarian bet; we’ve said everything is going to become electric, so we’re gonna bet on those companies.
That is a viewpoint that differs from the norm, but it also happens to be one that would be championed by sustainability leaders or people thinking about the environment. We think the reason this company will grow and be worth billions in the future is because of their world-changing impact.
Another example would be that we don’t invest in enhanced oil recovery, which will likely make money in the short term, but will be economically disastrous in the long term. We look for things that will be resilient over time.
That’s not to say there isn’t a shorter-term aspect to what we’re doing, too. We’re investors in Planet Labs, which designs, builds and operates the largest constellation of Earth-imaging satellites. A lot of what they do is centered on mapping that is environmentally helpful; that mapping already has been sold to farmers, creating strong revenues. That’s a “here-and-now view,” but we believe it will remain relevant in 20 or 30 years, too.
What companies are you jazzed about right now?
One of my favorite companies is Plant Prefab, which is a sustainable prefab-housing company that is making beautiful LEED Platinum houses financially accessible to more people. A real tribute to their work is that wealthy people, low-income people, and everyone in between are buying these homes.
Another is Diamond Foundry, which grows real, certified cultured diamonds in California. This company is one that shows how we’re not always in the traditional “sustainability” box. But we think radically disrupting the mined diamond trade is a really good idea. It makes it possible to have diamonds but not buy one that could be helping fuel wars or harming people in the extraction process.
How do you know “world positive” when you see it?
We don’t require hard metrics in sustainability or impact from our portfolio company for specific reasons. First, it’s super hard. When you ask a vegan cheese company, “Please tell us your positive impact each month,” how do you figure that out? Is it how many cows didn’t have to get milked? Is it how much methane from each cow that didn’t get produced? But then, of course, you’d have to offset that with the emissions from your delivery trucks. It’s just too hard.
That’s the practical reason, but there’s also a strategic reason: Companies will pivot. And when they change, you have to rejigger all of those impact measures. What we do is simply ask the question, is this company likely — regardless of pivot and because of the value of its leadership — going to continue to have a positive impact on the future of humanity? On the human potential? After that point, our decisions are economically driven.
What other ways do you work with your startups you invest in to help them succeed as they grow?
In our early-stage investments we often we have board seats. I would say we are infinitely involved. We are, hopefully, the first call for entrepreneurs when they hit a snag; when they’re trying to recruit somebody; when they’re thinking through a management challenge; or when they’re considering a major, or even minor, change in strategy. All of our partners have substantial entrepreneurial experience. We’ve been there, so we understand how to be as strong a practical support mechanism that we can be.
We created the “World Positive Term Sheet,” which is an addendum that we recommend entrepreneurs attach to their own term sheets, that clearly states and asks investors to agree that a world positive company is the kind of company we want to build. It’s a statement of intentions that includes, for example, committing to a diverse workforce or aiming to become a B Corp.
It gives the founders a way to get buy-in upfront that, when they make values-based judgements, it doesn’t have to solely and exclusively be based on near-term financial outcomes. It gives founders the chance to say, “Luckily, we’re all OK with this, because you all signed that term sheet that said we care about all stakeholders, not just shareholders.” It’s all about expectation-setting so these values don’t get lost later in the heat of working for a high enough valuation and fundraising. It’s kind of like the prenup to the marriage that is taking on an investor.
Do you all have a sense that Silicon Valley as a whole is moving this direction?
I think this is the question of the day, the year, and the decade. I think we are at a fork in the road. I think we’re seeing great, small steps that people are making as a result of the exposure caused by journalists who are uncovering a lot of bad practices that have been going on for a long time.
There are many models and mechanisms that can make a positive difference. Ultimately, a lot of those mechanisms are meant to catch people doing bad things and help make it easier for people to feel safe. But we need behavioral change, too.
What do you say to people who call impact investing “cute”?
That’s one of the reasons we don’t talk about being an impact investor; what investor doesn’t want to have an impact? What if you were to ask an early investor in Tesla or in Proterra if they thought their investment was cute? They don’t care whether it was cute; they made a thousand-fold return.
You can call it whatever you want, but in reality, you just missed out.