Photo by Christopher Michel
I had the pleasure of being interviewed by my good friend Robin Haak. We had a super wide ranging conversation covering everything from adventure travel to risk taking in general, spirituality, startups and much more.
By way of background, Robin is the Founder and Solo General Partner at Robin Capital. He is a former General Partner at Revaia, First-Time €250 Million growth fund in Paris. He’s a serial entrepreneur: he co-founded Axel Springer Plug and Play, Jobspotting, Wo\men Inc., and built SmartRecruiters, a profitable US unicorn in San Francisco. He invested in over 75 companies, including 5 unicorns, with the first check-in N26, and others like Algolia, Aircall, Frontify, and more. He’s also a member of the advisory board at Stepstone.
Happy watching or reading.
Robin: So, let’s start, I saw that you recently went to Antarctica. Tell us about it. I think Colin O’Brady was the first one to go and do this. I was watching him speak about it on stage and then I saw that you’d done it.
So, first let me tell you a bit about me. I like to do these crazy adventure travel type trips, where I’m alone off grid, and I take my backpack, my sleeping bag, and my water filtration system and a knife. And I have mostly done these trips in warm weather environments, like Hawaii, or in Costa Rica, or in various rain forests and jungles around the world alone, with a friend, or with a guide or a team.
Two years ago I was contacted by Kevin Ryan, who’s obviously another unicorn founder and an amazing New York Tech founder. And he said hey, I’ve been asked to sponsor this scientific expedition. And the objective of the scientific expedition is to find out if there’s a way to predict who’s going to do well in these extreme environments ahead of time, because in 2016/17, there was a team of British Army Reserves that completed a 67 day expedition from the Hercules Inlet via the South Pole to the Shackleton Glacier, and despite the fact that they were all young and super fit, they didn’t do particularly well, in fact many of them failed and didn’t make it.
He asked me, is there a way to sponsor a similar expedition where we have a group of 50% male 50% female, some people on a vegan diet and some people not on a vegan diet. And we’re doing two tasks, one is the full 60 days and the other one is the last degree for two weeks. As a sponsor, you can join this part of the expedition in the last degree and it’s like two weeks on the ice fully disconnected. And I thought, this is right up my alley.
I was invited by a good friend who I thought I would enjoy my time with, so I’m like okay, let’s do it. And you know, it’s less than 200 kilometers so I’m like oh, this is not going to be really hard. You know, I could walk 20-30k, or even 40k a day, right, like wow, yeah, for days. I was really wrong. This was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
So first of all, it took a fair amount of training. In the spring of 2022, I went to a place in Norway to actually train. You pull a 100 pound Pulk, which is a sled that you use to carry your food, your tent, your fuel etc. You need to learn to walk with it. You need to learn to make your tent, you need to learn to melt the ice to make your food and a bunch of other skills that quite frankly, you wouldn’t have to use anywhere else especially with this kind of equipment.
You need very specialized equipment to deal with what is a negative 30 temperature but feels like negative 50. And you don’t just need different layers, you need things when you’re resting and when you’re not resting, and so you need to buy the equipment that has been tested to make sure it fits and it works.
So in January, we put December 30 2020 to fly to Chile and actually spent time with the team. That’s a team of 10 people with three guides for the last degree and there was a separate team doing the full 50 or 60 day walk from the coast to the pole. They had done this before. Most of the guys have done this many times before. The guides are there seasonally and the season is very short. The season is mid November to mid January. We were actually part of the very tail end so it’s a very short summer, which is the warmest and best weather time to do this. It’s also light 24/7.
So, we then flew from Podesta, the southernmost tip of Chile to a staging area called Union Glacier Station in Antarctica. And we got everything ready. And from there, we flew to where we started our walk. We started the walk and it was way harder than I thought it would be because it’s a combination of starting at 10,000 feet altitude or 3000 meters which is reasonably high and has low oxygen and you exercise 24/7.
Eight hours a day more than eight hours a day you’re doing eight stints of one hour you walk for 15 minutes, you stop for 10 minutes to rest, and you eat, and you do that eight times. You have to eat. If you don’t eat, you’re gonna pass out because you’re using up 7500 calories a day. I lost half a pound a day, every day that I was there, despite eating 6000 calories a day. And, you walk 40,000 steps a day. And then when you finish the day, you need to make your camp plan for tents, make a ditch and melt the ice, so you’re exhausted.
So it’s super cold and super hard. Way harder than I thought. But ultimately, it was an amazing exercise. Especially as there were a few things that you don’t really get to do in this modern age.
It’s all about disconnection, right? We all live in a world that’s hyper connected. It’s very rare that you have two weeks with no cell phone, no news, no WhatsApp, no emails, no calls, no nothing. And, in Antarctica you’re either alone or with your friends. I would talk for one or two hours a day with amazing people and build amazing relationships, or I’d just be alone with my thoughts.
So it kind of felt and I don’t know if you know what a Vipassana meditation retreat is, but it kind of felt like an act of Vipassana meditation retreat. And it was an exercise in aloneness, and gratitude. I just took the mantras, I did meditation, and I felt extreme infinite gratitude to be in this environment, with my team and I was grateful to have my friends and a team of workers that can support me. Who allowed me to do this and doesn’t need me to be there at all times.
I have a family that’s there for me and my friends and my crazy endeavors, and I have such gratitude to be able to experience something so unique, where there’s literally nothing I mean, it’s infinite ice and white in every direction, and there’s no life.
There’s nothing I mean, it has downsides. It means you need to poop in a plastic bag in negative 50 degrees and carry your poop with you for two weeks, which is not the most pleasant thing I’ve ever done. It’s extraordinarily exhausting, but it was amazing. And yeah. I think it’s a real privilege. It was an amazing silent meditation and amazing bonding experience with people in the team, and with the friends that I made that went on this trip with me. Having done it, I’m definitely not doing it again. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, including creating a startup and running it for, you know, decades. And yeah, amazing. So I think my next adventure is going to be a warm weather adventure. And I haven’t decided what it is. I’m not doing this again.
Robin: When you start a start-up, you know that it’s hard, but not that hard, right? In this particular case, I’m pretty sure you knew that it would be very hard, no?
Fabrice: I didn’t think it was gonna be that hard. Actually, no, it was way harder than I expected. Okay, no, it was exactly like a start-up. I did not know what I was doing. I did not know what I was getting myself into. I didn’t have the right equipment for it. I had to learn along the way, you know, it was exactly like a start-up.
Robin: And do you then think you think this is DNA? Or do you think it’s cognitive i.e. how you grew up? This is also a question in start-ups, right? But also here, you must be, to a certain point, a bit crazy to do it, right? What is the thing that makes humans become founders, but also do this kind of exercise for fun?
Fabrice: Yeah, I’m gonna answer the question with a few things I’ve learned. You can always push yourself more than you think you can. And I think that’s true. In every environment, you can go to the gym and lift more than you think. You can push yourself more in this environment while walking, or in a start-up, you can work 100 plus hours a week for years on end. If you really have to, like if push comes to shove, you’re always able to push yourself more.
Now, not everyone is made of that same stuff. And in fact, the objective of this of the study was to find out who actually makes it who doesn’t, i.e., can you tell ahead of time based on their physiology, blood tests, etc, and their DNA and their personal mental profile?
Clearly, there’s one thing I think founders have in common is that we’re more tolerant to risk than most. I’m not saying we’re risk seeking, right, like it’s always on a risk adjusted basis. And in fact, I don’t think we take that many risks as start-up founders. But I think by taking a bit more risk than most people, we are highly rewarded.
I love these types of extremes. I think I like it. I definitely have a predisposition for it. I like it in work, you know, building start-ups, and in life like extreme heavy skiing, kite surfing, being an adrenaline junkie, and these sports that make you feel the most alive. I like being on the verge and feeling a sense of purpose, accomplishment and meaning that is unparalleled.
Now, not everyone is wired that way. Some people don’t like it. So, where does it come from? That’s unclear, yeah. I’m not even sure it’s nature or nurture, I think it may just just be a random number generator X Factor. You know, look, if you have three siblings in a family – they can all end up being completely different despite having the same genes, same nature, growing up in the same environment, the same nurture, the same parents, the same teaching philosophy, and yet they’re completely different. And so I suspect that there’s this other X factor that makes a subset of the population more risk taking, thrill seeking and adrenaline junkie ish, but also more optimistic.
I think the other characteristic that defines founders, and for people with these things is feeling optimistic that the odds don’t apply to you, right? For example, the five year survival rate of a start-up is like 5%. So you have a 95% chance of failure after five years. And so you have to be delusional enough to believe that you can change these odds, and you’re gonna make it happen. And if you have that level of confidence in yourself and ability and optimism, it probably applies to other things like skiing. It’s dangerous, but not for me. I’m so good. I’m gonna do it, it’s gonna be fun and it won’t be dangerous. It’s the same with kitesurfing. And the same with all the crazy shit I do. I used to go kart race as well, motorbike race, and play paintball, remember…
Robin: Yeah, I remember you had a paintball field in New York when I visited you twice…
Fabrice: Yeah exactly…
Robin: So, yeah, you were talking about the grit, resilience, optimism needed for this Antarctica expedition. You said the British army guys didn’t perform as well as expected.
Fabrice: Because they’re 25. And they’re super fit. So you would have thought that they would have done well. So here’s the lessons we learned from this. On average, women did better than men. Because women have a bit more body fat than men. And when they were walking, they would burn fat and not muscle. And so, when you start burning muscle, your body fully shuts down. So, on average, women did better than men. Number two, you could not be on a vegan diet in an extreme environment. After a week, everyone who had a vegan diet basically died they literally either gave up or switched to a non vegan diet.
Robin: Yeah, even Mike Tyson switches before fights from vegan back to meat…
Fabrice: Yeah. So it’s okay. In a normal, safe, boring environment, you know, you’re OK in a city where you’re burning 2000 calories a day. But it doesn’t work when you’re burning 7500 calories a day. And so that was another interesting lesson. And by the way, within a week, it was clear, like, it was like, the guys on the vegan diet were just falling apart and dying. So they didn’t want to go any further, so they either switched or dropped off.
Again, if you’re living in a city, and you can take supplements, etc. then maybe it’s not a big deal. But, you know, if you’re in an extreme environment, it doesn’t work. And by the way, if you go back 20,000 years, we were all omnivores, right. Like we were hunting the mammoth and we’d have feast and famine. We were on the Paleo diet if you want, and we needed a little bit of everything. But that was found in nature including, you know, deer and mammoth and whatever else that we would be interested in fascinating because you could find them and eat like a king. And then you know, for three days, you’d be hunting the next bit of food until you caught one.
Robin: I’ve got one more thing. It’s so interesting to hear. And, you have to think of two more questions. One is, because I think people would love to hear if you have a certain point of fear before you do something like this. Will I make it or not? What if the helicopter has to pick me up? There must have been a certain amount of fear before you started. And so my first question for the people who may read this, is how do you overcome fear?
And two, there is Will Smith, who knows why he’s more successful, right? He says he’s not more beautiful, and he’s not stronger. He’s not everything, but he says, “the only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill” and this is similar. “The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be out-worked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me, you might be all of those things you got it on me in nine categories. But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple, right?” Will Smith
So the one is, one is overcoming fear and starting and the other one is endurance while you’re in it, bracing pain, so maybe you could speak to these two things.
Fabrice: For the first point, I’m not sure I’m the right person to speak to this, because fear is not a feeling I have often, if ever, experienced in any context. Frankly, I don’t remember the last time we’ve been afraid of anything.
Robin: This means you went there (Antarctica) and you had zero fear that maybe you would have to get a helicopter to pick you up or something like a Plan B?
Fabrice: Yeah, there was a Plan B. You can get an emergency evacuation. Look. Here’s why I never had fear. Imagine, my first start-up essentially failed, right? Like I went from zero to hero back to zero again when the tech bubble bursts. And so I went from being worth, on paper, hundreds of millions to being bankrupt overnight. But I didn’t fear that, I mean, what’s the worst that’s gonna happen to me? You know, I’m top of my class at Princeton, I used to work at McKinsey. I’m gonna get a job at Goldman private equity or I’m gonna work in McKinsey. I’m gonna run digital media.
Robin: But you could have died in Antarctica, no?
Fabrice: You know, it did go wrong, my body failed, I had to be evacuated. But I also have confidence if I have infinite belief, which goes to point number two and my resilience and grit. Like, I will stay on the treadmill as long as it takes to get there and I had no question in my mind that regardless of how much pain and suffering I needed to endure, I was going to make it and so I didn’t even consider the alternative. Like it didn’t add on I was like, it’s not within the realm of possibility. Failure is not an option.
Robin: This is my last question around your expedition. Thank you so much for sharing the experiences. So, you talked about gratitude and you talked about Vipassana and, so, is there some belief in the divine or anything you rely on when you do these kinds of things that’s higher?
Yes, I have a meditation practice where I meditate daily. Frankly, this just reinforces the way I’m built. I’ve already built optimism and gratitude and I just reinforce that through singing the mantras and moving energy within me etc. I think its these moments when you you feel like you’re communing with the divine.
I’ve experienced more psychedelic experiences and in these moment moments of silent meditations I think. At silent retreats I don’t feel like competing with the divine. I don’t become one with whatever the universal source or energy and by the way. It doesn’t feel religious in that traditional way. It wouldn’t be anything close to Christianity.
Robin: Is there a sense of unity that we are all one, and that all things are connected that you feel in these deep experiences?
Fabrice: Absolutely. But I wouldn’t call it religious in the traditional sense. Is there a sensation of something greater than oneself and universal? Absolutely. But you know, I wouldn’t call it anything. It doesn’t fit the descriptions of any of the religions I can think of including Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. It’s pretty much all of these things and under the traditions from Kabbalah, to Tantra to Taoism are things I’ve read and and I’ve implemented elements of these into my personal practice.
The only moments where I feel connected to everything are when I take whatever psilocybin or magic mushrooms or acid or Ayahuasca. I can recreate a lot of these experiences through pure meditation but it’s not the same. It doesn’t feel like I’m completely connected in the way that your individuality disappears right, like the entity disappears, and you have like an ego death and you become one with everything.
Robin: That’s interesting because earlier you spoke about daily gratitude and now you’re talking about the ego. When it comes to the ego, most people think that having an ego means you like being superior but just to clarify for everyone, you’re talking about breaking the ego so that you come back to the pure you where you can connect to everything right?
Fabrice: Yeah, but to be specific, I am in this form and body. I’m Fabrice who’s the tech founder and as all these other characteristics, and you’re very aware of what that identity is. There are moments in these more spiritual practices where you forget you’re in that individuality and you become one with everything. And that’s why you get the sense of unity. Where we are all connected, and we’re all the same. And I don’t mean that just as whole humans I feel that same way about all plants and all animals and rocks and wood and everything basically all things created in this universe feel like they come from the same underlying source. That’s that again, I don’t think it resembles anything that you read in any of the Testaments old or new or any of the religious writings.
Robin: Let me change the topic now. I remember we had an interview when I was working with Jobspotting 10 years ago. It was about becoming a founder and you stumbled into it. And grit is the common denominator. So yeah, I would love it if you could tell me about yourself.
Fabrice: Sure, so I’m French. I was originally born, and I grew up, in Nice in the south of France, which is the most beautiful place in the world. You can play tennis every day, go skiing every weekend, eat delicious food etc.
But, in 1984, at the tender age of 10, I got my first PC. And it was love at first click, I know that we were meant to be together forever. And, from learning programming, I started building PCs, I ran a bulletin board service. So kind of like a system that people can connect to by modem and get answers through the internet. It was like a silo, well, islands. And it was super fun. And I became a fan of the two big tech founders, or maybe of the ‘80s, which were obviously Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. And then Michael Dell in the early ‘90s. And it was obvious to me that my destiny was going to be in tech.
Now, what’s interesting is, I didn’t do any of this because I thought about what made sense based on a Macroeconomic analysis of the future. No, it was my hobby. And I got lucky that my hobby became a multi trillion dollar category, which led me years later to be at the right time, the right place with the right skills in ‘92.
In ‘92, I went to college at Princeton. I was 17 and I studied economics and math, which I felt were the most useful things for me to learn at that point in time, and I finished off my class by building a computer export business from the US to Europe, which allowed me to pay for college.
I left Princeton at 21 in ‘96, and I was shy, introverted and had never managed a team. So, then I went to McKinsey and Company for two years. It was kind of like business school except they pay you and I learned all the things I needed to learn. Like how to work in a team, how to interact with people that don’t necessarily have the same IQ by explaining complex concepts in simple ways. I improved my oral and written communication skills. I worked on my public speaking sales, which led me to build my first venture backed tech start-up back in ‘98.
At 23, I went on to build the “eBay of Europe”, raised 63 million venture money and had 150 employees in five countries. It was really like 10 million a month in GMV. And for a hot minute, I felt like I was on top of the world.
But then, of course, the bubble burst, I lost everything. And then, in 2001 I was humbled and I had to decide what to do next. And I realized, you know what, I didn’t do this for the money anyway. I like creating something out of nothing. I like the zero to one. I see myself as a tech founder. And this is the most fun thing I wanted I could be doing. And yeah, I will be a big business, the fact that there’s no money in it doesn’t matter. This is what I meant to be doing. I’m going to be doing it.
So I went out. So the constraints I had then was that I needed to build a company that can be profitable, quickly, without VC money. In 2001, given the venture ecosystem, it died. So I went on to build a ringtone company called Zingy. Now, I didn’t feel any particular affinity for ringtones. It was a means to an end, in that I was able to be a tech founder. And I needed to be able to do it with no capital.
I saw that it was profitable in Europe and in Asia. And that there was an open opportunity in the US. So I launched Zingy in July 2001 in New York. And it was extremely difficult the first few years. I mean, there was no way to connect with the carriers. There was no way to deal with them. There was no delivery, the music licenses were almost impossible to get. And it was like an infinite slog, I mean, I lived in New York essentially on $2 a day for two years. I slept on a couch in the office. We rented the office, so I could only afford four pieces of ramen noodles per day. I invested every last penny I had. I borrowed $100,000 on my credit cards, I missed payroll 27 times. It was extraordinarily tough, but ultimately grabbed the victory from the jaws of defeat when on August 15 2003, we became profitable.
And from there it became a rocketship. So revenues were $1 million in 2002, to $5 million in 2003, then $50M in 2004 and $400M in 2005. I sold the company because I had learned my lesson from the bubble bursting. It was better to do it too early than too late. And I sold it for $80 million in the summer of 2004. I stayed on as CEO actually for 18 months, because I’ve never been part of a publicly traded company before. It’s actually interesting.
I left in late 2005 to go and create my next company and probably should have taken a vacation between the three companies. I didn’t take a single day off, Which, admittedly, is probably a mistake. But I was in my 20s. At that point, I sold the last company when I was 29. So at 30 and leave to go build the next company. And what’s interesting, by the way, is that the most meaningful point in my life is not the day I sold the company and made like 40 million bucks as a 29 year old. It’s the day we became profitable. Because the day we became profitable, we became masters of our own destiny.
And I knew that at that point, we were saved and we could do whatever we needed to do to go forward. The day we sold frankly, I was so busy because we were growing. We were like a total rocket ship. You know, I thought that we would continue to live in my studio apartment. With the money, I bought some tennis rackets, a TV and an Xbox. That was all I needed. And I kept living in the same apartment for like three more years because I was just too busy.
And then went on to build OLX and OLX took me back to my first love of marketplaces and network effect businesses. And it is the largest classified site in the world today. It’s what Craigslist should have been if it was made in the right way, meaning that it uses pre-moderated content, it’s mobile first, friendly to women who were the primary decision makers in all household purchases, and is a leader now in every emerging market. OLX now has 11,000 employees in 30 countries. It’s the leader in Brazil and online America and India, Pakistan, all Southeast Asia, in Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Romania, all of Eastern Europe and the UAE and all the Middle East. And in Portugal. I sold the company back in 2010.
And actually, again, I stayed for three years with the buyer. But it was interesting, they gave me a billion dollars to play with to go in, you know, grow it, buy the competitors, merge with them and do all the fun things.
Then in 2013, even though I was on top of the world, I was like, you know, I like to zero to one. I want to go back to zero. And so I left OLX in 2013, gave all my physical non-financial possessions to charity and went down to 50 items. I started couchsurfing and sleeping on friend’s couches, living in Airbnbs, like literally, I had nothing left. I had no house, no car, everything I owned I could fit in my backpack or my tennis bag. I started thinking about what to do next, and I realized that I like building companies and I like investing in companies.
That’s when, together with my business partner Jose, I created FJ Labs. Jose was also a co founder of the eBay of Latin America, which I helped co-found back in ‘99 with an Alec Oxenford, who was the other co founder, who became my co-CEO at OLX. So I’ve known them both since ‘99.
I’d already pooled my angel investing with Jose for many, many, many years. And so, in 2013 we created FJ Labs, which was really a holding company. And then we started being approached by third parties who wanted exposure to marketplaces. We raised our first external capital of 50 million with one LP in 2016 and deployed on June 16 2017.
Then in 2018, we took our fund to 175 million with like 20 LPs and then we just closed in March of 2023. Fund 390 million with like, 50 LPs. And basically what FJ Labs is – it’s a fund that invests in marketplaces. I have always worked in tech businesses, but the nuances are that we really behave like Angel investors.
This is like Angel investing on a venture scale. That’s what Jose and I were doing. We don’t lead and we don’t price. We don’t take board seats. We decided to win our meetings, whether or not we invest. And we tried to be super helpful to the founders both on strategy, but perhaps most importantly, in fundraising, which is very valuable in this environment.
What we do is highly differentiated. Frankly, no one follows the strategy of specificity to the marketplaces and network effects. We decide in our one-to-one meetings in one week if we should invest or not, and it’s taken on a life of its own. We now have 1100 investments. We’ve had over 300 exits. And that’s what we’ve got after 26 years, since we were Angel investing since the very beginning.
We have a 40% realized IRR, I think it’s 39% of the exact on, on the 300 plus exits. And we have a team of over 30 people, including 1111 people on the basketball team. So it’s really grown and taken to life on its own. And it’s doing really well. And it’s been super fun. And in a way, building a fund from scratch is kind of like another start-up, you know, I just went on to build a new company, basically.
Robin: Yeah, running a fund is very much like running a start-up, especially if you have always been an entrepreneur.
Fabrice: Yes if you have a fund, you’re an entrepreneur, I mean, it’s all the same things, building a team building culture, raising money, running a P&l. That’s exactly like running a company. So, again, if I joined Sequoia or Basler, or whatever, then I would just be a VC. But here we’re building a company. And I hope to create something that is a legacy institution that will outlast me.
That way, OLX outlasts me. But we’re also pretty different and very entrepreneurial beyond the fact that we’re entrepreneurs building a fund. Right now I’m personally cobuilding. I mean, I’, the Executive Chairman and co-founder but it’s like the company I’ve been leading called Midas, which is a yield bearing stable coin, backed by US Treasuries. And I’m spending half my time on that too.
Robin: Yes, I heard about that on another podcast, and we won’t go into it here, because when we will, then we will go down the rabbit hole. But it’s super, it’s super interesting. You and your co-founder have a very unique situation. And for that reason I mean, I joined and I met a couple of the people that you work with, and I really like all of them and your co-founder, especially too, and I love this entrepreneurial spirit. What do you think other than this investment strategy and being an angel, this particular about funds?
Fabrice: You mean how we evaluate?
Robin: Yes, I think you’re one of my favorite investors in the world. And obviously OLX is the number one go-to marketplace. But I don’t think that people who don’t know what I know, amazing you are. You’re very different from any other investors. Right. So can you speak on that question?
Yeah, I mean, first of all, as I said, we behave like angel investors, right. So, we do a few things very differently. One is, if you look at our deal flow, we get about 300 deals a week, but 100 come from other VCs. So, every 12 weeks, we share deals with the top 100 VCs in the world in every category, and every industry. And we have back 2000 founders, and we’d love 100 companies, and they sent us deals, that’s another 100. And when we have a cold inbound, we actually look at it. So the conversion rate is lower. About a third of the deals we get is 14% the deals we do, but we will reply to everyone. We will tell people, and no VCs don’t have this ethos of transparency. Get back to people in a timely manner and tell them yes or no and why. And, you know, it’s about scope. If it’s too early, the valuation is too high. We didn’t like you know, we don’t think you have the right team to execute on best, like full transparency, both in the yeses in the nose.
We evaluate companies on four selection criteria. Do we like the team? Do we like the unit economics? We’re very unit economic driven. Do we like the terms? And we’re price sensitive. We have a very clear sense of what is fair. And we’re going to tell them where they fall on that yesterday. And obviously we say no to 98 to 99% of the companies we see. But that transparency and turnaround I think is very unique. And then the reason or value add like many VCs will promise what they’ll do for you, as a founder will help you and they want or we know what we can’t do worst of all funds.
You know, we’re 300 million AUM we can’t afford we’re not we don’t have psychiatrists, recruiters, headhunters, whatever, like we bite the one thing we know how to do very well is we will help you fundraise we don’t lead so we can act and art because we’re sharing deals with the top 100 VCs in the world. Every 12 weeks, they want differentiated deal flow. So we will take the very top 25 -30% of the companies in the portfolio, and we will introduce them to the right VCs. And this is when when VCs love it, they see differentiated deal flow, founders love it, they get to talk to Bessemer and Sequoia and Andreessen, we love it, the companies get funded and in return, we get invited to the best deals with the other VCs. It’s highly, highly differentiated.
But I think all of us are differentiated. We’re not ownership sensitive. We give you full transparency of where we sit, where you stand. And we tell you where you stand. Even if you’d like us to help you raise the next round and we don’t believe you’re ready, we’ll tell you what needs to change. And also, we’ve been operators before, so we know what it’s like to operate and what difficulties you might face, and we can give you the proper advice. And then we can give you the proactive advice for fundraising. Sequoia is never going to introduce you to Andreessen, because they see themselves as competitors, we see ourselves as friends for everyone, we will help, we will introduce to you whoever you need to be introduced to to get funded.
Robin: So, if I would like to work at FJ labs, what is the criteria?
Fabrice: I mean, the problem is, it’s mostly driven by whether we have an opening. Or an opening in an associated role. But we do have a two year analyst program. And so, if you’re graduating from college, we look for super smart, super ambitious, super thoughtful people. Someone who has strong opinions held loosely, and is willing to change their mind. Someone data driven and who has ideally worked in startups before.
We’re all nerds, we’re all kind of weird. We’re all video game players that code. So we look for people that are gonna fit our culture and you know, we’re highly diverse. Well, we’re highly diverse in backgrounds, gender, racial mix, etc. We’re not diverse in the fact that we’re all high IQ, all highly driven.
Robin: Understood. Maybe we take the other side, the LP view? Let’s be nerdy here. And let me put it in a challenging way, if you have no stake in ownership and the recent fund is 250 million, it’s probably harder to get good returns, no?
Fabrice: Oh, absolutely not. There are a lot of studies out there that show that the more diversified your fund is the higher your returns. So with that in mind, we have constantly had a 39% IRR for 26 years, including a range of investment at 4x the return basically across everything – cycle, time, category, geography etc. Because if we’re going to have 6 or 700 companies, we will all do well in the end. Yes, venture follows a power law. So, you want to be in the top 20 companies and we will be in them. But we are never going to have 10x ones. Right? Because obviously, if you have 10 companies and one is 100x. The other nine are zeros, you have a 10x month. We will never have that. But, because of our discipline on valuation, and the fact that we’re selling secondaries all the way up. And, we have very high DPI, we’re the highest DPI fund out there at the seed or pre-seed stage. Because we sell on the way up, we sell our winners, which is basically the complete anti VC strategy. We will always be at three, four upfront. Excellent.
So, over 20 years, we’re going to be at top 5% if not top 1% over each fund. We’re going to be a top quartile fund. We’ll never be top decile because we’ll never be a 10x fund. But we’ll never not return capital. Our returns are outstanding. Like I’ll stack them against anyone else out there. Diversification means you will do well. And there’s a lot of data on why the more diversified you are, the better you do. Even though we don’t have ownership requirements. We don’t require many of the rights that other people do it we’re not on the board. We actually think being of the board is a both a waste of time.
Robin: So, let’s start from scratch, what does your portfolio look like?
Fabrice: We are 70% seed A, 20% B and about 10% pre-seed. We are very rarely pre-seed. And the reason we’re not pre-seed is that we don’t invest in competitors. And we don’t want to place a bet on a category until we think there’s an emerging winner. Sometimes the original winner is at seed. Sometimes it’s at A, sometimes at B, sometimes it’s later, but like pre-seed we might have seven companies doing the same thing. With great teams coming at us, it’s hard for us to make a bet. The only exception to the pre-seed side is if you’re a second time founder or we’ve worked with you on something before and now you’re doing something new. In that case we’ll probably back you unconditionally.
We cover every vertical, every industry, every geography. So we’re 55% US, in Canada we’re 25%, Western Europe – 10%, and 10% in the rest of the world, i.e. Brazil, India, Vietnam, Philippines, Namibia, Nigeria. I mean, it really is the rest of world. And every industry.
We have a specialization on network effect businesses and marketplaces and the core thesis these days is mostly around B2B marketplaces, but we’re not limited to it. There are five sub-pieces of B2B marketplaces like inputs like digitizing offline supply chains, so you know for petrochemicals, steel, gravel, whatever. Helping SMBs compete with large chains and SMB enablement, writ large. Number three, friend-shoring and moving supply chains from China mostly to India. So it’s like India to India, or India to the rest of the world. Number four is B2B labor marketplaces to support all of these. And number five, is the infrastructure. So last mile, sort of logistics companies like Flexport, or shipbob, and things like that, that support all of these different marketplaces.
But we will do more than that. We have a policy whereby if you’re a founder that has done right by us, and you’ve had an amazing exit with us, and we backed your first company, no matter what you do in your second company, no matter the valuation, no matter whatever, you get a check.
So, we backed the founders of Vettery, they sold the company to Adecco for over 100 million and we made 8.3x. In a couple of years, we were very happy. The founder then went on to build an electric flying taxi company called Archer and he got a check. He took that public, sold it and now he’s building a humanoid robot company to put robots in factories. Of course, I have zero expertise in this area and you gotta check, but I didn’t even take an evaluation call, I just sent the money. I did not listen to the pitch, I did not read the deck, I cannot evaluate it, I have no skills to evaluate it, but he got the check. And that’s true of many of the non traditional investments we’ve made.
Robin: So, let’s move on to the last chapter. Jose also said this, but it’s true because I read all your blog posts. And you told me that when you talk about something you might go to bed and then three days later you write something down. That’s what I feel when I read about your macro, macro is your hobby, right?
Fabrice: Yeah, it’s definitely a hobby.
Robin: So there were two blog posts that are related to one another. I think one is from Harvard a year ago where you were projecting where we are going and why now is the best time to invest in an early stage startup and you had an assumption and then there’s one very recent where you speak at a global economics conference about different threats. You spoke about why you think that we may not get a soft landing and you go into the importance of purchasing power. You go into depth, you go into the threats of global warming, and so on. So, now I would love to hear your thoughts on the one global thing you should do with your cash right now.
Fabrice: Yeah, so the reason I’m more bearish than consensus on macro economics is because it’s the one thing I’ve been constantly right about for the last year. Actually let me take a step back in February 2021. I wrote a blog post entitled “Welcome to the Everything Bubble”. I said that overly loose fiscal monetary policy, the zero interest rates, negative real rates, everything’s overvalued. And I mean, everything. Real Estate, crypto, and FTS late stage.
Everything is overvalued. If it’s not bolted to the ground, sell it, which clearly was the correct recommendation and we listened to our own advice. We sold as many secondaries as we could. Which of course, is a fraction of what we wanted because we’re in private markets and you need to be a buyer. And we were very proactive in selling in 2021.
I wrote the next few blog posts. This one is “welcome to the great unknown” and the one after that is called “winter is coming”, where I correctly predicted that interest rates would go a lot higher than people expected and for a lot longer, right, like, whatever the first blog post, people thought that the terminal rate of the Fed funds rate will be 3.6%. And I’m like, I think it’s gonna go above five, which has proven to be true. People thought rates would have started declining this year, and I thought it would continue to go higher. And I think now rates are gonna stay higher longer than people expected. And this will become the new normal.
I also predicted a year ahead ago that Credit Suisse would default. And they defaulted. As part of the things that I’d see. So where do I see the risk right now? One is that the consumer is exhausted, and the US savings rate is at a low point. Credit card balances are at the highest level ever. As interest rates are rising, mortgage payments, as a percentage of income, are at the highest level ever. The percentage of people living paycheck to paycheck is worse than it’s ever been. The amount of people needing help from their parents is high too. So the consumer is exhausted. And I think we’re going to finally see that consumer growth that was driving a lot of the economy slow down.
Number two, commercial real estate is about to hit a wall between 500 billion to 800 billion a year for commercial real estate refinancing. So when people buy commercial real estate it is financed over 30 years, but in three tranches, and it’s fully refinanced at the end of 10 years. So you have 800 billion in refinancings that happen at the end of each year, and that’s happening now at significantly higher rates than it was before. This obviously means a lot of these commercial real estate projects, especially with 50%, occupancy or less, are gonna go under, and they’re gonna be taken over by banks, which would be a disaster.
This is also true by the way of the s&p 500. As in general, you have all these companies that borrow cheaply, during the last few years that are refinancing now. They are in much higher debt and at a much higher rate, which is going to decrease profitability.
We have a massively inverted yield curve right now, which has been a predictor at times of a recession. The only time it wasn’t was in 1966. Also, by the way, in the last 70 years, we’ve only had one soft landing, which was ‘93 and ‘94. So the probability that we get a soft landing instead of a recession where you raise rates as high as you have right now, at the fastest speed rate ever, well, it’s unlikely, it’s only happened once.
And I guess last but not least, geopolitically. I could very well see you know, Azerbaijan invade Armenia. Serbia to invade Kosovo, the continuing crisis in Ukraine is gonna last forever, keeping food and oil prices high. And plus, of course, now you have Israel and in Palestine, so geopolitical turmoil is increasing.
It’s hard to imagine, with all of this, that we’re gonna have a soft landing. That said, my personal analysis of this remains – this is the very best time to invest in early stage start-ups. Right now, all the posers, the people that were getting rich, quick, are no longer building start-ups. So the bankers, the consultants, lawyers, the doctors, etc. Right now you have the true believers.
They’re building companies, yes, they’re raising money, it’s hard to raise capital, you raise a lower valuation, you probably exit at a lower valuation. But you’re careful with your cash, with burn, with unit economics, and you’re building a much more sustainable company. You’re facing way less competition. In 2021, if you had a good idea, you were facing 7-20 other people doing the exact same thing with a lot of money. Now you have one or two. When you win, you’re gonna win the entire category. And even though the extra votes will be lower, you’re going to do amazingly well.
And so if I think in the last decade, the very best time to invest was in 2008, 2009, 2010, you know, companies like Instagram, WhatsApp, Uber, Airbnb all came in the 2000s.
Actually, when was the best time the best actually? Oh, 2001, 2002, 2004. And so I am willing to bet that the very best time to invest in startups for the 2020s will have been 2022, 2023 and 2024. And you’re obviously gonna know at the end of the decade in the early 2030s, or at the end of the 2020s. But now, it’s an amazing time. Early stage and late stage have not repriced and you’re seeing a lot of structure. So, seed A, even B, is an amazing time to be investing.
And, where to hold cash? It’s easy. There’s one answer and one answer. Do not invest in stocks today. Do not invest in bonds. Do not invest in real estate. Anything else. Everything else you have a high risk of falling. Put it in early stage tech startups, barbell strategy, the seed to lab type of portfolios.
Robin: And maybe become an LP in venture funds or become an angel, right?
Fabrice: LPs are so pro cyclical. It drives me crazy. And in 2021 you had all these people with money in VC, when it was the worst time to have money in VC. Today if you’re a GP trying to raise money, you’re struggling like hell, because everyone is over committed. No one has cash today is the time to be deploying. Yeah, absolutely. If you have cash today, this time be investing in tech.
Robin: Then, my last question on the macro level is, just to give perspective, what do you think could happen if it’s not a soft landing? You know, like Michael Berry and a couple of others have a lot of shorts running until June next year. What do you think will happen if there’s a crash?
Fabrice: I think my timing is that there will be a recession in a year or so. And then the Fed will start cutting rates again. And I think we set the stage for, for recovery. And so actually, I think that’s why investing in it again, I’m talking about private assets, public assets. I mean, there’s been a run up recently because od AI etc. and I’m not a public market valuation expert, so not the right guy to talk about it.
But there’s a fundamental difference between looking at everything that happens on the macro level and what Berry and the like, investors, are doing, betting on the prices of assets. In the real world, I think we’re going to have a recession, it’s likely that real estate and bonds, and defaults going up, and stocks falling. So I’m investing in start-ups and T bills to be clear. And nothing else. I have no starter bonds. And cash. You sell the T bills, and you use it as cash. Everything should be T bills or startups nothing else.
Robin: Wow, that was amazing! Thank you so much Fabrice.
Top 10 Quotes:
- On Antarctica: “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, including creating a start-up and running it for decades.”
- On Antarctica: “Okay, it was exactly like a start-up. I did not know what I was doing.”
- On being a founder: “You can always push yourself more than you think you can.”
- On being a founder: “Clearly, there’s one thing I think founders have in common is that we’re more tolerant to risk than most.”
- On Antarctica: “Fear is not a feeling I have often, or if ever, experienced in any context. Frankly, I don’t remember the last time we’ve been afraid of anything.”
- On founding his first tech company: “At 23, I went on to build the “eBay of Europe”, raised 63 million venture money and had 150 employees in five countries. It was really like 10 million a month in GMV. And for a hot minute, I felt like I was on top of the world.”
- On being a tech founder: “I realized, you know what, I didn’t do this for the money anyway. I like creating something out of nothing. I like the zero to one.”
- On founding Zingy: “I lived in New York essentially on $2 a day for two years. Slept on a couch in the office. We rented the office, so I could only afford four pieces of ramen noodles per day. I invested every last penny I had. It was extraordinarily tough, but ultimately we grabbed the victory from the jaws of defeat when on August 15 2003, we became profitable.”
- “What’s interesting, is that the most meaningful point in my life is not the day I sold the company and made like 40 million bucks as a 29 year old. It’s the day we became profitable. Because the day we became profitable, we became masters of our own destiny.”
- “We have a policy whereby if you’re a founder that has done right by us, and you’ve had an amazing exit with us, and we backed your first company, no matter what you do in your second company, no matter the valuation, no matter whatever, you get a check.”
If you prefer, you can listen to the episode in the embedded podcast player.
In addition to the above Youtube video and embedded podcast player, you can also listen to the podcast on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/episode/3CKURWiwPFqXkAxP4x6KjR?si=83f8a66492c24b87