August 16, 2022
Out of the billions of VC dollars that poured into Latin America in 2021, only 4% were allocated in seed and pre-seed rounds. For the investors at 17Sigma, that's where the biggest opportunity to find the next big thing lies – and LatAm is the perfect place to find it.
17Sigma was created almost a year ago and is investing US$ 30 million in entrepreneurs and projects in the early stages. It already has over 10 startups in its portfolio and plans to reach up to 40 in the next few years. The fund is based in Argentina and led by Bianca Sassoon, who was previously at Kaszek and has become the first woman in Spanish-speaking LatAm to lead a VC fund.
Today Bianca and I talk about:
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Bianca, this is really awesome. You worked for another fund -- we all know Kaszek, and you got to work with companies like Chiper, Kavak, NotCo, and Nuvemshop. So, like, the ecosystem is, like, maturing. And similar to how, like, there are people that are executives at companies and they go out and start another company after that, based either on their experiences, lessons, or learnings, it's kind of something that's similar to 17Sigma.
You got to see from the inside a venture fund that was scaling, you got to work really close to entrepreneurs. So talk to me a little bit about what you've learned in those years, and what made you want to create 17Sigma.
So, first of all, Brian, thank you very much for inviting me here. I love the podcast and what you guys are building at Latitud. So, my years at Kaszek were amazing, a fast-track learning experience, and what ultimately made me find my calling. Before joining Kaszek, I only had investment banking experience. So, being able to work at one of the leading VCs alongside industry veterans, spearheading Spanish-speaking investment at a time when they were flourishing, was a huge learning opportunity. And I'll always be extremely grateful for that.
What did I learn? Hard to put that into words, really. Activity-wise, I wore several hats, from leading multiple investments to portfolio help, fair market value analysis, and fundraising. But the inherent learnings went way beyond that.
What motivated me to part career paths? It became evident to me that more pre-Seed and Seed funds were in desperate and increasing need. So, I had a clear passion and dream. I was really extremely lucky to find the perfect match: Pierpaolo Barbieri, founder and CEO of Ualá -- Argentine-based, US$ 2.5B Neobank, with presence in Mexico and Colombia --, who happened to be a close friend and was himself an active angel investor.
For me, it's an honor to run 17Sigma as a managing partner. And Pier plays a fundamental role as founder. And I believe our complimentary experience is a unique value for entrepreneurs looking for early-stage support across the region.
So listen, Bianca, this is a brand new endeavor that you've got. It's funny because I remember talking to Pierpaolo, actually inviting him, and he was like, "no, let's do it in a couple of months from now because I've got something going on."
And one, he was super busy. Makes sense, he's building a big tech company. But also, he wanted to let people know about 17Sigma when it launched. That was about a year ago. We're coming up almost on a year. Talk about the journey so far. What do the first couple of months of a fund look like? Walk me through, like, the process of, like, I need to find LPs for the fund. Okay, now that I've got LPs secured, we're gonna start deploying the capital. Walk me through those first, like, a couple of months from idea, "okay, I'm gonna start a fund", to "now, we're like, actually doing this thing."
Wow, Brian. I can't believe it's only been a year. By all means, it seems like a decade. This last almost a year has been the best year of my life. With all the ups and downs, it has been the absolute best. There have been so many learning experiences, as you say, there have been so many cycles. From first, the legal entities and the LP process to the actual investing, helping entrepreneurs, building a brand, and everything that has to do with that. It has just been an amazing rise.
Today we've already invested in 13 companies. And I'm so happy to be a part of their journeys. And counting. And so grateful today to our team, to the ecosystem in general, to the relationships we've built with our funds, with our LPs, and of course with the entrepreneurs, moreover. I think we've seen and we've validated the need for an early-stage fund, and that's great. To see how entrepreneurs were really looking for more serious VCs out there, with really hands-on help, really fills me with joy.
So, Bianca, when you're starting a fund and starting from scratch, you have the kind of cold start problem, of like: "how do we get this going, how do we get people to believe in us and write those first checks as LPs?"
So walk me through a little bit more on how were you able to convert some of those initial investors into LPs, to support and back 17Sigma.
So, that's a great question, Brian. So, when Pier and I decided to start this adventure, we decided to do an invitation-only fund, and invite firstly Ualá's investors. Pier wanted to give back to his early supporters at Ualá, it was very crucial for him to do that. Part of what he is today is, of course, thanks to his investors.
So, we were very fortunate that most of them, individually or through their funds, decided to back us. Mostly because they knew Pier, many because also they knew me or started to know me. Because of my track record from Kaszek, because of all that I've done, and all the relationships that they started to know and that referenced me. They gained comfort and decided to back us through 17Sigma.
So we're very fortunate to have them on board, and that's how our fund was built. By all means, we're very grateful. It was done at a very quick speed. By all means, very fortunate to have done that. And it was very different, I believe, from many other funds' trajectories.
Yeah, let's talk a little bit more about what makes you different and, kind of, what the value proposition of the fund is. You mentioned that the speed of closing the fund was rather fast. Sometimes, these things can take a long time. How fast was it? How long did it take from, kind of, the first phone call to an LP to closing the fund?
So, the first phone call started in September. So, I left Kaszek in July and started with the fund's paperwork, lawyers, and constitution all in August. The first calls were in September. We did the first closing in October. So, we already started to deploy in October. So that was quite fast indeed, I believe.
To be all honest, I wanted to be back to investing as soon as possible. That's where my passion is and I wanted to be back to business.
Yeah, so, that is pretty fast. Talk a little bit more about the fund's size, and then also, if we can get a little bit more into what the unique value proposition of 17Sigma is. You're investing really early. Why focus on that?
So, in terms of fund size, initially, we were targeting something, to be honest, a bit smaller. We were raising something between, initially, US$ 10M and US$ 15M. We thought it was a great sweet spot for pre-Seed and Seed. It did get bigger. Our LPs did... We were very lucky and grateful to have a great problem to solve. So we did keep it at US$ 30M. And we're very lucky and we do still think it's a great number to be investing in pre-Seed and Seed throughout LatAm. And it gives us a lot more flexibility in terms of what we can do.
In terms of value proposition, that is indeed a great, great question. So, I believe that, as I said before, both Pier's entrepreneurial and my VC complimentary experiences, together with the whole team we're building, are a great value add for the entrepreneurs. We help them through multiple stages throughout their businesses, from building their core teams and products to continue scaling and rating fundraising materials. So, just naming a few things about what we do.
We work super ad hoc with each company we partner with. Each team's situation and market are distinctive, and we love that. I think that's what keeps 17Sigma's DNA so unique. We want to get our hands dirty, and what we don't know, we learn.
Of course, we also help a lot when our companies are fundraising. As we were just speaking before, we're very fortunate to have well-connected LPs and [a good relationship] in general with funds, and so on. But if our work were only to be making connections, it would not only be extremely boring, but I'd personally retire.
I think that 2022 reminded us all that healthy unit economics is what's really important, and a real investor should help companies in achieving that. And I think that, as a piece of advice to founders, I would always due diligence the funds you're speaking with. I think it's really important for founders to also understand who they're partnering with. And I think that the best way of doing so is talking to other startups that the fund has invested in.
So, I think that it makes total sense to be diligencing the investor. I think a lot of founders don't actually spend the time and think about that. Founders oftentimes, when it's their first time, are just kind of, like, happy that an investor is interested in them, right? Or that the investor is considering investing in their company. Why is it important to be diligencing a fund when you're a founder considering taking on a partner?
So, I think, of course, like, if you're a first-time founder, you get really excited with that first term sheet, or first term sheets. But I think it's really important to know who you're partnering with, and by all means, you'll be partnering with this fund, or funds, for the next ten years. And you need to know that, at the end of the day, these funds are people. You need to know who you're partnering with, the values of these people, the values of the fund, who you'll be working with for the next ten years. This can last more than a marriage, in most cases, right? So, I do think this is extremely important and, sometimes, what unfortunately founders get too excited about and tend to just overlap.
I'd take this extremely slow, and cautiously. Just as a fund does a due diligence, or should do a due diligence, you as the entrepreneur and the [owner of the] project, should do the same diligence on the fund. How should you go around this, Brian?
For example, we at 17Sigma proactively, when we're in due diligence with a potential investment, as we ask for references for our founders, we also give them or open our kimono to them to any startup in our portfolio they want to speak with and [get] reference on how we work with them. Sometimes we suggest startups in the same space, or I guess in the same stage, whether it's pre-Seed, Seed, or now more advanced.
But I would encourage them, if they're working with whatever fund, to do the same. Or proactively ask, or to LinkedIn other founders. Founders are generally very open about speaking with other entrepreneurs and helping with their experience. I do very much encourage that. Again, these relationships last more or may last more than a marriage. And, in most cases, sometimes, for example, in market contexts like this, do sometimes get complex.
100%, I mean, I think there are a couple of things to unpack here. One, actually I think it's a good sign as an investor when you see someone diligencing you. And I think it actually, also, can shift the power dynamic a little bit, which is usually in the favor of the investor. And so, I think that's a good signal to show, as a founder, that you're thinking about it.
I'm curious to hear your thoughts on how, in 2021, there were a lot of shotgun marriages, to use the analogy of lasting longer than a marriage, because of the speed of how deals were being done. Have you seen one? And, in this current environment, is there more of an excuse to, like, spend a little bit more time because the euphoria of investing has kind of slowed down and the pace is not quite as fast? Is that giving founders and investors a little bit more time to actually go through the dating phase, before they're getting married?
I actually think it does. And I think, in total honesty, it's really good. I think it's really good for the ecosystem today, and I think it's something really healthy. I think 2021 was, by all means, an outlier. 2019 and 2020 were great years in terms of funding, industry, and everything. 2021 was an outlier indeed. And I think going back to healthy due diligence pacing, both for funds and founders is, by all means, the right move.
Also, I think, and I think you know this more than everything, Brian, seeing the glass full for this downturn, we have been witnessing great entrepreneurs now in 2022. They're really passionate founders, and have true conviction and market sense. I do think that in 2021 we did see a lot of opportunistic founders. And it's not a career path for anyone. It requires a lot of discipline, patience, hard work, and sacrifice. And you know that first-hand, more than everyone else.
I was actually having breakfast yesterday with Mariana Donangelo, who was at Kaszek, and a few other of the Kaszek team members, and also ALLVP and Nazca. The question that came to the table was: is there a lower volume of entrepreneurs starting companies right now? Is that something driven by the slowdown? Maybe the opportunistic founders are, like, kind of on the sidelines because when there's, like, easy access to money, maybe you'll jump from your cushy job and go start something.
What's your thought and how are you seeing pipeline and deal flow over the last kind of six months, maybe comparatively to the six months before that? Do you think there are fewer founders starting companies and are you seeing less pipeline because of it?
So, that's a great question, Brian, and something that actually I've been thinking about a lot since the beginning of this market downturn. We have been seeing ripple effects, even in the early stages. There has been a decrease in the pipeline.
But I think, attached to the above question, I do see it as healthy as well. I did see that in 2021 there were lots of opportunistic founders that, as you well said in the question, because of the environment and lots of things, just were more eager to go from their cushier jobs into the market, and did not really have a sense of what [being] an entrepreneur really meant in terms of, again, the sacrifice, the hard work, and the founder-market fit that you have to embrace and take.
For that, I think now the entrepreneurs we're seeing in the earlier stages, starting a company now… We're seeing more resilience. And I love that. And, in terms of opportunities, Brian, nothing has changed. There is still an infinite amount of building blocks to be built. There are still huge markets for disruption. So, the opportunities are still there for whoever wants to take them. And, by all means, they're here.
Pretty much every sector of the economy is going to be improved by, you know, advancements in technology. So, that hasn't changed. So, do you think that, like, this vintage of founders that are coming through and building a business during this kind of slowdown is separating the weed from the chaff? In terms of, if you're starting a company in a moment when there's just less abundance of capital, it's because you're kind of starting for the right reason, because you feel compelled to do it, not because it's an opportunistic thing that you can just do because the money is there.
Definitely so, definitely so. I think that if you're starting a company now... Again, I don't think there's a right answer for this, because of course not all companies started in 2021 were started for the wrong reason, I don't like to put everything in the same basket. But I do think that if you're starting a company now, you're sure of what you're building, right? Because everyone knows money is more scarce, valuations have become more healthy and stabilized. At least, in terms of a trend in 2019 and 2020. So, I guess the answer would be, in short, yes, I do think that now we're seeing a cohort of more resilient or with true conviction founders, going for really big TAMs, where really moats can be built, and going for things they truly believe in, versus some opportunistic things that we've been seeing.
Let's talk about some of the challenges and opportunities in pre-Seed and Seed investing. If you look at the stage you're investing at, a lot of these times these founders don't have a product-market fit yet, right? So how, as an investor, can you be supportive in those early days? You mentioned things like unit economics. Oftentimes, the founder hasn't even built something that they know it's going to scale.
How do you, as an investor, approach that and how are you supportive of those founders in those early days, while they're really trying to figure out what exactly is it that they're gonna build?
So, I think, again, we're very, very hands-on, in a very ad hoc manner. So, for each company, it's a world. So, I guess for most companies in most pre-Seed stages, we're very much into building teams. I think teams are everything in terms of success. So, we're very cautious and very hand-holding in team building. Then, in terms of product and product development, we try to help in everything we can, from of course the initial bits of it to then scaling once it's there. But I agree that unit economics and everything else comes later on. But our idea is to be a part, help, and value add throughout the whole growth stage. So, I guess it's really a case-by-case scenario.
What would you say... If you look at the similarities of the companies you invested in your portfolio, what are you evaluating so early on? And what do those companies you invested in have in common?
I guess 17Sigma was born with the conviction that Latin America has the potential to be a world leader in digital disruption. So, we only invest in building blocks because there are still so many to be disrupted and developed in the region.
This can only be achieved by partnering with exceptional teams, going after huge addressable markets, and creating TAMs and moats to build a more dynamic and competitive ecosystem. And honestly, Brian, here at 17Sigma what we most look at when investing are founders. Finding well-rounded teams -- eloquent, analytical, and passionate, all together -- is rare.
You mentioned the keyword building blocks, which I think is interesting because one thing that we look at, at Latitud, is oftentimes there are just, like, infrastructure problems that exist. [We] Take for granted in the US, for example, that you can spin up a company in, like, a few days and it's ready for investment. Then you walk across the street... You don't even need to walk across the street, you hop on your phone and you're setting up a bank account for a company.
Those are, like, infrastructure things that are essentially building blocks. Like, you need those things in order for there to be more companies. And there's all this friction that doesn't even allow you to start a company, let alone receive money to pay salaries to people.
So, when I think of building blocks, I think of infrastructure, I think of, like, baseline challenges. When you look at your thesis, and going back to that phrase "building blocks", what are the key buildings blocks that need to be built out, where are the opportunities for founders, and how does that fit into your thesis as 17Sigma?
So, loving that question, Brian, because it's exactly how we think about it. From what you're doing at Latitud Go – that in our opinion is a huge building block because of course companies and startups need an easier way to get constituted – and from what Pier has built in Ualá – 70% of the Argentine population was unbanked and of course needed a solution there –, to everything that we take for granted in, for example, the US and Europe, that in LatAm are huge opportunities. Again, yet to be disrupted.
And I think that, in the US or in other countries, there can be of course great startup cases of "nice-to-have's", I'd call them. But in Latin America, there are still fundamental things that have to be disrupted and have to be created, that are just a core part of our society, that still haven't existed.
Starting from finance, for example, we've invested in Flevo, which does higher education financing. Which, as we know, right now in LatAm just is something that's non-existent. To, as I've mentioned previously Sincero, we're also investors on Ontop, which helps you get remotely paid and hired everywhere.
I think those are examples of what I mean when I say building blocks, and together with Latitud Go, Ualá, and so many others, are just examples of what I think are the core necessities of today's societies in LatAm.
And from there, of course, let's hope in a decade or two we can build "nice-to-have's". But today I think the core TAM, at least, is at those building blocks.
Yeah, I think it's a great opportunity. When I talk to investors that are, like, unfamiliar with Latin America, a lot of times, if you think about the companies that get funded in the US, like, we don't need another photo editing app, we don't need another, you know... And there are a lot of these products that are built, you know, that their features or their things are, like, built for the 1% or whatever.
And the reality is that, in Latin America, you have an opportunity to kind of build for the masses, right? And I think that actually is going to produce better venture returns because you're building for a huge swathe of the population, and they are fundamental things. I mean, health insurance, improved access to financial services... All these things are -- and building blocks is a great phrase -- fundamental. They're foundational things. And so, that's one of the advantages of being an investor in Latin America, that the impact of the companies you're investing in can be tremendous.
And so, I want to take a step back and mention that you're at this early stage of investing. You've probably already made some investments. How big is the portfolio now?
13 companies, and counting. 13.
So, you're investing in a pretty good clip here. What are you advising those existing companies in terms of making sure they're well financed, given that in the current market there are some investors that are saying "oh, you should cut costs, you should make sure that you extend your runway"?
I'm sure the conversation's different depending on when they raised their last round. But what are you seeing, what are you advising portfolio companies in terms of, like, just preparation for ensuring sure that they can kind of... Because, in your case, you're investing so early, it's like, how do they make sure that they can kind of cross that death valley? It's called stage financing for a reason, so, how do they make sure that you get them to their next stage of building?
As I said, as we're super hands-on and really speak with most of our companies on a weekly or sometimes on a several tallies basis, we exactly know where they're at on operation and on cash position.
So I think, of course, we have some investments now in later stages, in which we opportunistically did invest a bit out of our exact pre-Seed and Seed thesis, and went opportunistically [Series] A. [Companies] Which are well funded, for example, Jeeves, which raised earlier this year and closed its series C, and is well funded and doing really well. It's not in a cash position of constraint and it's expanding very well across the world.
Actually, to our more early-stage companies, we do take a close eye on and do educate them on what is a healthy cash burn, what are healthy metrics, the context of fundraising, and what is a good runway to be looking at under these circumstances. So I guess, again, it's a really ad hoc solution and we really, again, although we have 13 companies, we really do look at the pace of our investment to see if we do have, again, the arm's length to continue to invest. We are actively hiring at 17Sigma to be able to cater to our companies' needs and to continue to give that hands-on support. We do think that, again, early-stage investment does need [it] and it's key to 17Sigma's DNA.
How do you manage, like, portfolio supporting being a small fund and having the operating capacity to support a growing portfolio? I mean, that's something we massively struggle at Latitud because we have, like, a pretty small AUM. It's not like we have tons of management fees, with which we can, like, hire professionals to, like, focus on HR, and growth, and... I mean, it's one of the reasons we wanted to build a decentralized fund.
How do you think about servicing your portfolio, and how do you think about building a venture team? Like, how large is the team, and how big do you expect it to get?
Today we're four. We are looking, again, to increase the team. But I think the fundamental part here is that, first of all, we all wear multiple hats. We all have different expertise, from Pier's expertise to my VC and investment banking expertise, to the rest of the team's expertise. I think we are all very complementary, we do want to be in that complementarity, we all do wear multiple hats, and we do want our team to want to get their hands dirty and what they do not know, learn. Including ourselves, and including myself. So, I think that's very important.
But, second of all, we also know that our entrepreneurs will grow. So, today we might have, of our startups, three, four, five in the pre-Seed and Seed. Very intensive, like, hands-on needs, requiring lots of help. But that also will mature, hopefully.
As time goes by, they'll require support, but a different type of support. Which will be less hands-on, or different. And patience is the name of the game here. We're not in a rush for deploying. So, we're now here to support those companies. And if those companies continue their fundraising stages, we'll have a new, let's say, cohort, a new bunch of pre-seed funds we'll be very hands-on on.
Of course, if we see opportunities we will invest, and we're very passionate about what we do. We're all here to put the extra mile, the extra hours, and the extra full sole in it. But I guess it's a timing thing, and we're here for many decades to come, so we're not in a rush.
Kinda wrapping up here, I wanted to ask about, like, how do you think about portfolio construction for a US$ 30M fund. You've done 13 investments so far, maybe you could talk a little bit more about check size and volume of investments in the fund? And then, I know that you said you're not in a rush to deploy it, but what is the expected time to deploy? So we fast forward a few years, how many checks, how much is reserved for follow-on, how do you think about pro-rata rights? Just to kind of get an idea of, like, what the approach is there at 17Sigma.
So, our check sizes run from US$ 200K to more than US$ 1M for first-time checks. We're doing, I guess, 50% for first-time checks, reserving 50% for follow-on checks. The aim would be to do between 30 to 40 investments throughout our first fund, it would be our ideal scenario targeting.
So, I think results as a fund will accompany us if we do things right. That's why we focus 100% on that. We don't believe that we're smarter than the rest, but, yes, fully committed to that extra mile, both as a team and to the founders we invest in. That, we believe, will make the difference in the long run. We're firm believers in the potential of Latin America to achieve 17Sigma's results, understood as extremely rare and statistically unlikely events, and we're here to bet on that magic for decades to come.
Just so that everyone knows the significance of 17Sigma, because I don't know, and so, maybe I'm not smart enough to know what's the significance there. If you could just tell everyone how you came up with the name, and how that represents, kind of, the brand that you're trying to build.
Of course, so, a Sigma event is a standard deviation actually in markets, and, by all means, we're here to rate those types of movements. We want to create something very big, very impactful, and we're here to disrupt the ecosystem, by all means.
Cool. I like these origin stories. When there's kind of a more nerdy story behind it, it kind of represents that you guys are also looking for probably some nerdy founders out there, that are building massive businesses and trying to solve big problems.
So Bianca, as [the responsible for] a woman-led VC in Spanish-speaking LatAm, talk about how your experience as a woman in tech changed the way you see the ecosystem or, maybe, how you evaluate potential businesses and teams.
So, thanks, Brian, for this question, first of all. I may get more vulnerable here, but it's a matter close to my heart and which is also a huge responsibility for me. I think I've talked about this with you before, but I was actually raised by my mother and my grandmother. So, for me, a women-driving environment and my voice being heard, even at a young age, is something I've taken for granted most of my life.
Unfortunately, professionally, things and more challenging and sometimes unjust. And then, believe me, I don't have by any means a mild attitude [towards that].
Here at 17Sigma, what drives the way we evaluate teams and businesses is knowing that diversity generates more creative and better results. By all means, I think this happens not only in VC but in general -- the more opinions you have on the table, the better ideas and opportunities will be created.
So, there's no denying that disruption has come from the hands of those in the position to invest or be invested in. Unfortunately, even today, those are still mostly men, as there's still a huge gender gap.
I was looking at the numbers this morning, and 31% of the founders that we've invested in at Latitud have a female founder on the team, which we could say, unfortunately, that's good. Unfortunately, that's, like, good and better than the average. But yeah, it's still quite a... If women make up half the population, it's something that's still a fairly large gap.
But I think it's something that clearly, in the last couple of years, has seen a much larger increase in awareness and importance of the topic. So I think that it's everybody's responsibility to kind of support this and make this a reality. And one thing we say at Latitud is diversity is actually not a charity at Latitud, it's a strategy. Going back to your point about the different perspectives, and kind of the richness of decision-making when you have multiple perspectives. And I think that's something that's definitely a feature inside a company. And so, I think it's great that there's another fund that's being created, and that it's led by you, and I'm sure this is something that you're going to make a huge impact in.
No, and I love what you're saying, Brian. That, exactly, diversity is not a charity. By any means, it is exactly the opposite. It is what will make startups and funds strive, by any means. So, and I love the number that you're saying. 31% is actually amazing. Yes, there's still a huge gender gap, but if we all aim for those ratios, we're doing a lot for the ecosystem. So, congratulations, I'm loving that. And, actually, I'll steal the "diversity is not a charity", if you'd allow me. I love that phrase.
Of course, of course, it's not mine, it's everybody's. Well, thank you so much. Appreciate you coming on the podcast and thanks for sharing a little bit more about your experience. I think it's great we have more funds active in the region, helping to fund and support the next generation of companies. So thank.
No, thank you. Huge respect for what you're building at Latitud. Loving this, and loving being invited. So thank you very much, Brian.