We’re thrilled to announce this week’s exclusive with Zach Davidson, Partner Operations at Village Global! A recent USC grad and professional magician, Zach now works with Erik Torenberg, learning the ins and outs of venture capital and community building while supporting portfolio companies, managing deal flow, and working with the broader GP team at Village. We sat down to talk all things cap table related, including:
- How starting a magic business at 13 years old inspired his career path 🪄
- Working under Erik Torenberg, co-founder of Village Global and OnDeck 🏗️
- How COVID-19 shopping trends inspired his winning Hackathon team 🦠
- The tools and technologies he uses to stay organized and spark creativity 🛠️
- Cap table advice for early-stage founders ⼏
All right, Zach, thanks for sitting down with us, let’s dive in. You graduated from USC recently, and you've landed a job working with Erik Torenberg at Village Global. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got this job?
My story is definitely non-traditional, but my entrepreneurial ambitions originated from a childhood hobby of close-up magic. I started a performance-based business at age 13, performing at private events, and magic was the catalyst that led me to pursue more creative outlets. A friend recently mentioned a quote that resonated: “Any technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic.” That’s basically what drove me to want to work in tech — if magic is the art form that makes impossible things look real, technology is what makes “impossible” things actually real.
So while at USC I immersed myself in the university’s startup ecosystem. Over the summers I also worked at a couple of boutique private equity firms and a seed-stage startup which solidified my interest in working with early-stage companies. I joined USC’s Marshall Venture Fund as one of the only undergraduate Analysts, which is really where I began my journey into the venture ecosystem, and I was hooked.
I started meeting founders and investors in LA and the Bay Area, I started using Twitter as a networking tool, and — based on the advice from a close friend in the industry — I started to “do the venture job before I had the venture job” (h/t Nick Abouzeid).
Eventually, the opportunity came up to work with Erik and Nick made the introduction that resulted in the job. I’m forever grateful for the opportunity.
We’re a big proponent of hackathons. Can you tell us about the Hackathon you won at USC? What was the inspiration for the product, Grocery Guide?
When COVID hit and lockdowns started in L.A. back in March, my final semester of classes shifted entirely online and I was left with what felt like infinite amounts of time. Living at home with my parents, one of the most common worries was whether or not it was even safe to go grocery shopping. No one really knew anything about Covid, and while you could find the number of cases in your city, the data wasn’t easy to digest.
So I teamed up with a few friends to spin up an app called Grocery Guide — a product helping consumers find the safest grocery store using real-time Covid data. Users would open up the app and choose the area and time they wanted to shop and we’d recommend which stores were safest based on foot traffic, Covid cases, etc. At scale, since we had real-time data on foot traffic in and out of the stores, we’d be able to help guide the flow of traffic throughout the city, ultimately creating a safer environment for all.
While we didn’t end up pursuing the project long after the hackathon, it definitely added a more lighthearted spin to the strangeness of Covid lockdowns.
More broadly though, I think hackathons are a great way to flex your product development skills — something clearly important for a good investor. You have to be able to empathize with founders, and that’s exactly what building something yourself allows you to do.
The product mindset extends outside of empathy for the founder though. Just as founders have a product they’re pitching to investors, investors have a product that they’re pitching to founders — they need to convince the founder why their investment is worth more than the next VC.
Honing your core value add as an investor, just as a founder clarifies their product’s value prop, is incredibly important as capital becomes commodified; founders should leave meetings with you understanding what exactly you bring to the table and how you’re different.
Congrats on the win, sounds like a worthwhile product. Shifting gears a bit, what have been your biggest takeaways from working with Erik so far?
Working with Erik is like drinking from a firehose — there’s always something to be doing, something to be learning, in how he thinks about supporting companies at scale, how he builds communities and more.
I was drawn to the unique structure & strategy of Village Global, how he thinks about community building at On Deck, and how prolific and philosophical he is as a person. Early in my career, the best thing I could do was align myself with someone in a position I’d one day like to be in, and Erik’s there — he’s a full-time investor who’s also incubating a company. Many say venture is an apprenticeship business, and I wanted to learn from Erik.
Zooming out, our firm, Village Global, is a “network-driven venture firm” — we source, diligence, and support investments as a network. At the founder level, we invest in a lot of companies and work hard to build community between them through events, workshops, and retreats (Covid permitting, of course). We think founders can learn a lot from one another, so that’s the first network. At the investor level, we source and diligence companies through a network of successful founders, operators, and angels we call Network Leaders — basically scouts — who we partner with to find the best founders around the world in whatever market their ambitions take them. Finally, at the LP level, we’re backed by some of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs — Reid Hoffman, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and more — who we can call on in special cases to support our companies as well through exclusive events and sometimes direct investment.
So one takeaway from all of this is just how valuable your network and the communities you’re a part of can be. They can open doors you never thought possible; it’s a truly incredible thing to be part of.
But more broadly, Erik has instilled in me a positive-sum mindset, and has reinforced the importance of “playing long term games with long term people''. Thinking in a positive-sum way implies you can grow the pie instead of fighting over who gets a slice. A lot of people play zero-sum games, where my gain is your loss (or vice versa), and this, frankly, isn’t a great way to look at the world. Instead, thinking about things through the lens of creating win/win scenarios, or lose/lose, you better align incentives and values.
Another thing I learned from Erik is around community building, and more specifically around the idea of value and values. Put simply, communities give their members some sort of value, and cohere around shared values — the part of your identity that is attached to being a member of that community. As it relates to the identity piece, you want to instill a sense of belonging — make people proud to say they’re a part of that community. If you can have some sort of legible credential attached, even better. Building communities at scale is tough, but Erik has truly cracked the code.
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It sounds like you’re learning a lot. Where do you see yourself in the next few years? Will you eventually move into an investor role, maybe an operator at a portfolio company? Or do you see yourself scratching an entrepreneurial itch as a founder?
I’m exploring different paths, and finding the right one for me is one of my main goals during my time with Erik. My role is a “tour of duty,” so to speak, and after a couple of years, I will transition into something new — whether it be a role at one of our portfolio companies, another role within Village, an investing role at another firm, or starting my own company, I know the learnings I’ll take from Erik and Village will be invaluable.
Erik talks a lot about building a personal moat, a unique and compounding advantage that helps you build career capital in your sleep. It’s about finding your ikigai, your reason for being, that thing that’s easy for you but difficult for everyone else. It’s the thing that makes you special.
Though I’m still finding my personal moat, I’ve solidified my focus on pre-seed/seed stage investing for now, and I think the network-based scout approach is the best way for a firm to be generalist in thesis while specialized in portfolio company support. Talk to me in 10 years and we’ll see if it works!
There’s been a general uptick in pre-seed and seed rounds and valuations as a macro trend since you joined Village Global. What else are you noticing in early-stage fundraising?
Well first off there is a ton of deal flow and it’s a great time to be building a company!
One thing I’ve noticed, and I say this with all due respect having never started a VC-backed company, but I think sometimes incredibly talented founders don’t think big enough. That’s not to say the companies they are building aren’t important, interesting, or solving a specific problem, but I think there’s too much of a focus on “wedge” products vs. transformational outcomes.
So what do I mean by this? As it relates to building a multi-billion dollar business, Peter Thiel talks about the importance of owning a niche and expanding outward in concentric circles. The way to build a massive business, he says, is to aim for a monopoly, because “competition is for losers.” We get so caught up in this strange, mimetic competitive environment that we begin lying to ourselves how big the markets we’re operating in really are.
Going back to the positive-sum line of thinking, I think there are ways to build massive businesses that benefit everyone on earth, not just the end customer. I think we need to be taking bigger, riskier bets on transformational companies. And whether you call it deep tech, “moonshots”, whatever the term, we need to stop just focusing on the narrow ends of markets and look to fund companies that truly change the world for the better.
Speaking of how you work, what does the rest of the “Zach Tech Stack” look like?
I am a devout user of Superhuman — they have totally ruined Gmail for me. I'm also a big Roam Research fan (biased, of course, since Village is an investor). I consistently take notes throughout the day, and Roam has some pretty interesting features that help me map out projects and draw connections across our portfolio. In terms of calendar, I use an app called Vimcal — shout to the founder,John Li, he's the man. They bill themselves as Superhuman for calendar, keyboard first with tons of shortcuts.
Also, Kishan Bagaria is the founder of this company called Texts, it's basically Superhuman for all of your texts. It combines your iMessage, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Whatsapp messages all in one interface and has features like “mark unread” and reminders that help me stay organized.
Beyond keeping me organized, I’ve found that technology enables creativity in a way that I might not be able to unlock on my own. Roam in particular allows me to map out prioritization frameworks and keep a consistent journaling practice.
In truth, like magic, I would be nothing without technology.
Thank you for your time and thoughts, Zach! We’re excited to watch your career unfold!
Follow Zach on Twitter (@NotZachDavidson) for more insights into all things tech, startups and fundraising!
Deal News 1/9 - 1/15
- OneRail: $6,700,000 led by Bullpen Capital, Chicago Ventures. OneRail is a final mile orchestration platform that matches the demand signal (POS, ERP, eCommerce) with fulfillment networks in real-time.
- Slim.AI: $6,600,000. Slim.AI helps application developers create, build, deploy, and run their cloud-native apps with zero friction, complexity, and waste.
- LEX Markets: $6,000,000 led by . LEX Markets is a commercial real estate securities marketplace that takes commercial buildings public through single-asset IPOs.
- Longève Brands: $5,000,000. Longève Brands is a line of shelf-stable, pea protein products for those who like to cook.
- Sprockets: $3,400,000 led by Lytical Ventures. SaaS company with a sophisticated solution to hiring the right applicants.
- Human AI Labs (Hu.man.ai): $3,200,000 led by Differential Ventures, Suman Kanuganti. Safekeep the thoughts and memories that define you with a Personal AI that Recalls Your Life.
- Darvis: $2,750,000.. Darvis identifies physical spaces and operational KPIs to improve operations.
- Alula: $2,200,000 led by Andy Dunn. Alula develops a digital platform designed for cancer patients and caregivers.
- Roboflow: $2,100,000 led by Craft Ventures, Lachy Groom. Roboflow is a developer tool for building computer vision models faster and more accurately.
- Capsule: $2,000,000 led by Array Ventures. Capsule is a startup that makes tools for editing short-form videos.
- Atalanta Therapeutics: $110,000,000 led by F-Prime Capital. Atalanta Therapeutics is a biotechnology company pioneering new treatment options for neurodegenerative diseases.
- Delfi Diagnostics: $100,000,000 led by OrbiMed. Delfi Diagnostics detect cancer early, when it is most curable, using high precision non-invasive blood tests.
- Elucida Oncology: $44,000,000 led by . Elucida Oncology is developing targeted C'Dot Drug Conjugates (CDCs) for patients with primary solid tumor and metastatic cancer.
- Earli: $40,000,000 led by Khosla Ventures. Earli locates cancer early, so it can potentially be cured.
- Bryte: $24,486,817 led by ARCHina Capital Partners. Bryte is a sleep technology company that designs and sells restorative intelligence products and services.
- Mosaic.tech: $18,500,000 led by General Catalyst. Mosaic.tech provides predictive reporting capabilities, leveling the playing field, and giving startups insights for large enterprises.
- DecisionLink: $18,500,000 led by Accel. DecisionLink is focused on relentlessly driving market transformation towards value-based customer engagements to create customers for life.
- Stacklet: $18,000,000 led by . Stacklet is a cloud governance company that provides operational efficiencies.
- Nacelle: $18,000,000 led by . Nacelle turns slow eCommerce sites into lightning fast PWAs which convert 25%+ better
- Molecula: $17,600,000 led by Drive Capital. Molecula is an enterprise feature store that simplifies big data for machine-scale analytics and AI.
- CookUnity: $15,500,000 led by Fuel Venture Capital. CookUnity is a meal subscription and delivery platform that connects private chefs with consumers.
- Tradeswell: $15,500,000 led by SignalFire. Tradeswell develops an operating system for real-time commerce.
- Rho Business Banking: $15,000,000 led by M13. Rho Business Banking is a digital banking platform for startups and high-growth companies.
- RecVue: $13,191,580 led by Cota Capital. Next Generation B2B Monetization Platform
- Nayya: $11,000,000 led by Felicis Ventures. Nayya is an insurance benefits experience and management platform that addresses health plan challenges.
- Outer: $10,500,000 led by Sequoia Capital China. Outer is a direct-to-consumer outdoor furniture brand.
- Snowplow Analytics: $10,000,000 led by Atlantic Bridge. Snowplow Analytics provides enterprise-strength digital analytics across multiple platforms
- EQRx: $500,000,000 led by . EQRx is a biotechnology company that focuses on re-engineering the process of drug discovery to make them affordable.
- Tessera Therapeutics: $230,000,000 led by Alaska Permanent Fund, SoftBank Vision Fund. Tessera Therapeutics is an early-stage life sciences company.
- Valo Health: $190,000,000 led by PSP Investments. Valo Health is a biotech company that is recreating the future of medicine.
- Webflow: $140,000,000 led by Accel, Silversmith Capital Partners. Webflow is a visual web design platform, CMS, and hosting provider for building production websites and prototypes.
- You & Mr Jones: $60,000,000 led by MerianChrysalis. You & Mr Jones is a platform that creates and distributes content which helps businesses build their brands.
- Landing: $45,000,000 led by Foundry Group. Landing develops a membership-based network of fully-finished urban apartment homes.
- NuProbe: $42,000,000 led by BioTrack Capital, Yonghua Capital. An early stage molecular diagnostics company.
- airSlate: $40,000,000 led by Morgan Stanley Expansion Capital. AirSlate features a no-code business automation platform.
- Modern Treasury: $38,000,000 led by Altimeter Capital. Modern Treasury offers a payment operations platform used to simplify and modernize business payments.
- Jellyfish: $31,500,000 led by Insight Partners. Jellyfish is a management platform that enables engineering leaders to align engineering work with strategic business objectives.
- Descript: $30,000,000 led by Spark Capital. Descript is building a platform for creative tools, making audio and video creation as fast, accessible, and collaborative as Google Docs.
- Carbyne: $25,000,000 led by Elsted Capital Partners, Hanaco Venture Capital. Carbyne is a real-time emergency communication platform that provides public safety technology for emergency infrastructure.
- Neat Capital: $22,500,000 led by Left Lane Capital. Neat Capital is a FinTech mortgage lender setting out to make financing a home as frictionless as using cash.
- NeuroFlow: $20,000,000 led by Magellan Health Services. NeuroFlow is a HIPAA compliant digital health platform that optimizes the way behavioral healthcare is delivered, tracked, and assessed.
- Noctrix Health: $17,000,000 led by OrbiMed, Treo Ventures. Noctrix Health is an early-stage medical device company that focuses on developing a revolutionary therapy for a chronic illness.
- Brace: $15,700,000 led by Canvas Ventures. Brace provides technology solutions to drive innovation in the mortgage servicing industry.
- Lumiata: $14,000,000 led by Allegis NL Capital, Defy.vc. Lumiata provides AI-powered predictive analytics for managing healthcare costs and risk impacting millions of lives.
- Own Up: $12,000,000 led by Brand Foundry Ventures. Own Up provides a software solution that enables residential lending from various lenders.
- Checkout.com: $450,000,000 led by Tiger Global Management. Checkout.com is an API-based platform providing online payment solutions that improve the user's checkout experience.
- MX: $300,000,000 led by TPG. MX is a fintech data company that aims to connect people with their financial data in a way that automates their money experience.
- Curve: $95,000,000 led by Fuel Venture Capital, IDC Ventures, Vulcan Capital. Curve is a banking platform that consolidates cards and accounts into one smart card and app.
- Rapyd: $300,000,000 led by Coatue. Rapyd is a payments platform that inserts fintech services into any app and simplifies the complex offering of local payment methods.
- Workato: $110,000,000 led by Altimeter Capital, Insight Partners. Workato is an enterprise automation platform that helps organizations work faster and smarter without compromising governance and security.
- Komodo Health: $44,000,000 led by . Komodo Health is bringing transparency and market intelligence to healthcare and life sciences.
- Cockroach Labs: $160,000,000 led by Altimeter Capital. Cockroach Labs is a software company that develops a cloud-native SQL database for modern cloud applications.
- Blend: $300,000,000 led by Coatue, Tiger Global Management. Blend is a digital lending platform that supports and simplifies applications for mortgages, consumer loans, and deposit accounts.
Sources: Crunchbase, LinkedIn, Twitter