Meet a VC: AJ Plotkin .

Nasdaq is highlighting the venture capitalists that built the startup landscape we know today. 

This week, meet VC: AJ Plotkin from FF Venture Capital

Meet a VC: AJ Plotkin


How did you get started in Venture Capital?

You know it's interesting, it actually took a while for me to get to the point in my career where I was working in VC. But I've always been interested in the subject matter and the things that led me to this career. One of the degrees that I got as an undergraduate was in engineering. And from a very young age I was interested in computers and tinkering in my parent's basement with a Commodore 64 and a modem, and was sort of doing all this.

But I actually started my career on Wall Street in investment banking, so I came originally from the finance end. And then after business school I spent a fair amount of time on the buy-side doing some hedge fund work. In 2009 the fund that I was working at started to unwind and I was introduced to a set of people who were starting an insurance company, and that was my first introduction to start-ups. So like many people in VC, the channel that I ended up getting into the actual business through was through the entrepreneurial door.

So I worked with that business for a couple of years and it was sold to an insurance carrier. Then I spent a little bit of time kind of hanging around the start-up and tech scene in New York, advising some companies, some boards, doing some consulting assignments, and making some investments.

And I discovered that I really had a passion for this early stage building of companies from the ground up, so when I set out to figure out what I was going to do for the rest of my life, I met with a couple of recruiters and by serendipity one of them said to me, “What with a blank piece of paper would you actually like to do?” And I said, "I don't know if this exists, but what I really would love to do more than anything is connect with a group of people at the senior level who are seed stage investors, but very hands on, and very engaged in the building of the companies." And so from there I met John Frankel, our founding partner; we were in the middle of raising our third fund at the time and looking to add some people. So I joined the firm as an entrepreneur-in-residence and a few months later became a partner — and the rest is history.

So what's a day in the life of at ffVC?

Well no 2 days are really the same. There's an intensity in this business, such that you're always drinking from a fire hose. A million things are kind of coming at you all at once, so there's a triage element.

My days usually start by trying to deal with my email in bed. I get a lot of stuff overnight; we do a lot of work with people in California and I like to try and figure out how I'm going to prioritize the different competing pulls on my attention during the day. Most of my time is spent working with our existing companies. As I said before, we're very engaged investors, we like to be there and be the first call. We like to be an active participant as our companies face challenges, or land a really big customer, or try and figure out how they're going to position a product and do all the exciting things that they're doing. But I also spend a lot of time dealing with inbound pitches and looking at the next new thing.

We love to find new businesses and meet with all the different people in this community that are doing new and exciting things, and so I spend a lot of time out there in the public doing that.

How many companies have you invested in and out what's the overall investment?

At ff we have 90 portfolio companies and we typically start at Series Seed or Series A. Typically we invest from 500,000 to 750,000 dollars in our first investment, and then we may follow-on up to about 5 million dollars.

What's the focus of your investments, and are there any sectors that your keen on?

We look for businesses that have the capability of changing the behavior of lots of people—or that are solving really huge or difficult problems that are identifiable—by bringing about efficiencies, or the creation of new markets, or an industry-specific structural reform. Our investments touch just about every industry in the economy but right now we're spending a lot of time looking at opportunities in AI, cyber security, and in enterprise software. I personally am looking at a lot of FinTech opportunities, particularly in insurance, infrastructure, and transportation investments, and in some media stuff as well.

You obviously look at many different companies, what's most important when you're evaluating these companies?

There are a lot of things; we see thousands of companies a year and make maybe 20 investments. So the most important thing is having a set of people that have the experience and vision in an industry to know the problem that they're trying to solve very well, and to have the capabilities through the different people that they've assembled to tackle that problem properly.

When you meet with people, there's a sort of infectious passion that is immediately evident when you've got the real thing, and to me that's one of the most important things. Starting a company is very, very hard; it's a long journey to get to the point where you have something that's successful and valuable and there are lots of ups and downs that require a ton of resilience. But I found that the most successful entrepreneurs have such an infectious passion and deep product knowledge of the problem that they're trying to solve, that it spills over into an almost delusional ability to will what they're trying to do into existence.

Let's dive into that a little bit deeper, there's a lot of first time founders listening to us today, what advice do you have for them?

I would say if you're trying to raise Venture Capital, the first thing you should ask is if this a VC-driven business or if it’s a business that should be funded in some other way. But if it is a venture capital type of business, I would say, try and come into a VC firm through a warm introduction. We are out there and in the public and we are very well connected in the tech communities in New York and California as well as elsewhere in the world, and so it's not that hard through LinkedIn and through your networks to try and find a way to be introduced to us rather than coming in cold.

I would also say to come prepared! When you have a meeting with us, it's our job to ask very difficult questions and to poke holes in all the different frameworks and analysis that you've brought to us. So have a tough skin and know that the product of this questioning and answering is ultimately making your business stronger so you can understand and identify the areas of weaknesses and improve.

And the last thing that I would say is that meeting with VCs is kind of like dating — it's a long process, you're going to have a lot of meetings, and ultimately the process should be enjoyable along the way. You should learn something about yourself and about the people that you're meeting with. They might not invest that time but they might be around the table in subsequent rounds or at different parts of your entrepreneurial career. Ultimately, you have to get one person of substance and an institution to say yes, and say, “I'm going to take a risk on this and I want to advance this cause.”

Do you have a favorite start up and if you do, why?

You know it's funny, from the seat that we sit in, our companies are like our children. We share the front row of all the trials and tribulations, and we're there when things are successful and we're there when things are really hard. So my affinities for all of our different companies are different, but I really can't pick a favorite because I really love working with all of them.

What's a common denominator that stands out among all of your portfolio companies, you know that one thing that really attracts you and speaks to the success of them?

I think it really is just the energy and the creativity — and as I said before, the infectious will to just birth something and create something that didn't exist before. The thing that's most exciting about doing what we do, is we get to turn around and say that we were part of creating something that didn't exist — like this market didn't exist before we identified this opportunity, this problem wasn't solved before we identified this opportunity. We hope that in the process that we improve the lives of a lot of people and make the economy more efficient and have a lot of fun along the way.

Watch our Facebook Live video of the interview and learn more about VC AJ Plotkin's background and his firm, FF Venture Capital.

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