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TCT Exclusive: Zach Davidson, Partner Ops @ Village Global

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:

Zach Davidson

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.

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


Series A

Series B

Series C

Series D

Series E

Series G

Sources: Crunchbase, LinkedIn, Twitter

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