5 Questions for Mark Suster: VC, Entrepreneur & Blogging Phenomenon

Mark Suster is a venture capitalist, serial entrepreneur and owner of one of the best office views in Los Angeles. He also has become a blogging phenomenon, joining the pantheon of VCs whose every word is devoured by startup CEOs.

He and I have spoken and emailed a few times informally, but it was about time to put something on the record. So what follows are 5 Questions for Mark Suster:

GRP Partners once was known as Global Retail Partners, and is known for deals like Starbucks, Costco and P.F. Chang’s. What’s a tech guy like you doing there?

I’d love to set the record straight on this. We did a lot of that retail and consumer stuff in the 1980s and early 1990s, but our first independent fund was in 1996. Since then, We’ve backed Overture, CitiSearch, LastMinute.com, DealerTrack, Bill Me Later and more. We invested in HealthDataInsights, which is just ripping it up. We also did Qualys, a software-as-a-service company that’s got double-digit millions in revenue run rate.

So we’ve done a tell of a lot of tech, and almost a third of our portfolio is in financial services. If you look, Red Herring did a study of around 2,000 venture firms, including around 800 or 900 serious ones. We ranked #23 on that list, and it wasn’t based on Starbucks or Costco. My partners have been very successful in retail, but most of our success over the past 15 years has been elsewhere.

2. Ok, let me flip the question: A lot of those big tech hits — like Bill Me Later — were done before you joined GRP in 2007. Why did they need you?

First, I should say that GRP funded both of my companies, so I had an eight-year relationship with the firm.

The VC market is changing: Less money is required to start a business, entrepreneurs have more options, there are more seed and so many ex-Google people out there with money… I think GRP realized that having an entrepreneur involved as a partner would give them better access to a lot of those deals. Also, an entrepreneur could help out with operational issues at existing portfolio companies. It’s about having balanced team DNA.

For most VCs, it’s good to have walked in an entrepreneur’s shoes. But, before getting here, I didn’t realize how important it was to have the other, more traditional, finance skills. For example, helping companies with debt financing, or putting together difficult financing structures. My partners know that stuff like the back of their hand. VCs can bring more to the table than some entrepreneurs sometimes realize.

3. Most of your GRP investments have involved advertising. Is that your sweet spot, or just coincidence?

A little bit of both. I don’t personally word it as advertising, but what I try to say is that it’s performance-based marketing.

The advertising sector last year did $245 billion, of which 10-12% was online and measurable. There’s a huge amount of money trying to become more measurable, and doing that creates a discontinuity that creates opportunities.

It’s also partially a result of my geography. I personally have a lot of experience in software-as-a-service, but that’s not too big in SoCal — which is where I spent most of my first three years fishing. Instead, there’s a strong focus here on making money, so there are more monetization-focused companies here.

4. So should you move, or fish elsewhere?

It’s beginning to happen. This month I’ll probably do between 75k and 80k uniques on my blog, so I’m now getting unbelievable dealflow from all geographies. It used to be that if someone from Silicon Valley flew to LA to raise money from me, it was because no one on Sand Hill Road wanted to fund them, or they wanted me to pay a higher price. Now, I’m getting phone calls from NorCal from people who say they read my blog, like how I think, are typically nervous about working with VCs but like that I’ve walked in their shoes.

5. Charlie O’Donnell recently tweeted that you might be the new Chris Dixon who was the new Fred Wilson of VC blogging. So, who’s the next Markc Suster?

I realize that I’ve been pretty good at marketing over the past year, or past two years if you look at community stuff I’ve done in LA like LaunchPad and mentoring entrepreneurs. But, the reality is that marketing will help me with deal-flow for the next three years, but I’ll ultimately be judged in seven to ten years. That’s what I really care about.

It’s great to have a larger top end of the funnel, but I’d love to have Fred Wilson’s track record of investments over the past five years. In fact, I was in Silicon Valley recently and a prominent VC asked me to come to his office and help show him how to market himself better. Flattering, but I would immediately trade any national profile for his track record over the past 15 years.

But back to your question: In terms of the blogs I read, I’ve been most inspired by Brad Feld. Particularly when I was an entrepreneur, he wrote stuff that was helpful to me in my job, like his whole term sheet series. I really appreciated it.

There’s this new term out there, “earned media.” Well, Brad earned my respect, and as an entrepreneur I would have done anything to work with him because I felt I had an affinity with him. I still read everything he writes. And everything Fred Wilson writes too.