It’s not often that a venture capitalist gets emotional in front of a group of LPs. It’s even rarer for the investor to willingly recall that story with a journalist as Jake Saper, general partner at Emergence Capital, did recently.
Saper tells the story of when, prior to the pandemic, the early-stage enterprise software investor held an annual meeting at the firm’s office. Saper was tasked to introduce Rick Nucci, chief executive and co-founder of the firm’s portfolio company Guru, as a featured speaker for its LPs.
Philadelphia-based Guru makes collaborative knowledge management software that uses AI to help sales teams learn and improve their performance. Emergence led Guru’s Series A round in 2017. The company has since raised about $71 million in total funding from Emergence, Accel, FirstMark Capital, Thrive Capital and others.
The seven-year-old company lists its values on its website, and they include living a life of gratitude, not taking oneself too seriously, embracing the journey of life and learning and growing along the way.
Saper says the company’s values are as much about how to build a sustainable, successful company as they are about building a sustainable, successful life.
Saper sits on the board of Guru. But to prepare for the LP meeting, he researched the company by looking up employee reviews on the jobsite Glassdoor. The reviews were inspiring, Saper recalled. He cited one that said, “Guru has made me a better professional and a better person.” So when he introduced Nucci, Saper admitted he was overcome and cried in front of the LPs.
He says the reason was because Guru is the sort of values-driven company he wants to support, and which he thinks his investment peers should also get behind.
“The reason I feel so strongly about [Guru’s values] is because they’re similar to the values my wife and I try to instill in our family,” he says. Saper and his wife Dannie Herzberg, a senior director of sales at Slack, have a daughter named Sadie, who’s now 15 months old.
“I want Guru to be around long enough for my daughter to work there,” Saper tells Venture Capital Journal. “I want her to have that same experience as the reviewer on Glassdoor. I want to invest in companies that I’d be proud to have my daughter work at.”
Emergence Capital, which raised $435 million for its fifth early-stage fund two years ago, recently promoted Saper to general partner. It also promoted Carlotta “Lotti” Siniscalco to principal. The firm typically promotes from within, and Saper has become the sixth active general partner on staff, joining Jason Green, Gordon Ritter, Kevin Spain, Santi Subotovsky and Joe Floyd. (Co-founder and general partner Brian Jacobs is active on the firm’s older funds, but is not on the roster of Fund V, having founded seed-stage Moai Capital last year with his own money.)
Saper has been with the firm since 2014. He focuses on companies that fall into what the firm calls coaching networks, such as Guru. Coaching networks is an investment theme he helped develop in which AI is not seen as a threat to job security, but as a way to help workers succeed in their professions.
Saper’s start-up history goes back to when he was raised in Austin, Texas by his parents who were serial entrepreneurs. Their experiences no doubt rubbed off on him. Saper recalls his foray into launching a business was when he sold rocks door to door from his Radio Flyer wagon.
Soon after graduating from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in political science, Saper moved to India where he launched a start-up developing large solar power plants in India, Africa and the Middle East. He says the experience helped him develop empathy for the entrepreneurial spirit after being told no (and occasionally yes) from investors and bureaucrats worldwide.
After three years in India, he then moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, attended Stanford University, where he earned an MBA. He also joined Kleiner Perkins, working as an investor on the firm’s Green Growth Fund.
He says he was drawn to Emergence because of how the firm, founded in 2003, develops partners from within. The firm also remains committed to the companies it backs.
Saper notes that Subotovsky still sits on the board of Zoom, and the firm remains a large investor in the company more than a year after its IPO. Also, Ritter still serves as chairman of Veeva Systems, an enterprise cloud software developer that went public seven years ago. After nearly seven years at the firm, Saper himself currently sits on eight boards, including Guru, as well as DroneDeploy, Ironclad, Textio and Vymo.
He says he recently signed a term sheet for what he called “a competitive Series A deal.” He declined to disclose the start-up, but he said “the company has a fully remote team” since before it was the norm to do so within the pandemic.
As for investing during covid-19, Saper says he sees the pandemic accelerating the need for enterprise software and notes that collaboration software is often at odds with productivity software. For example, team members might interface via one communication app, like Slack, but then switch over to another, like Google Docs or Adobe Creative Cloud, to collaborate on a shared document, often bouncing between the two. He says he anticipates seeing what he calls “deep collaboration,” in which future software products allow the user to stay in the flow for communication and collaboration.
In the meantime, he says he is looking for the next iconic values-driven company like Guru.
“There’s lots of ways to make money in this business, but I want to strive to partner and support entrepreneurs who are building companies I would be proud for my daughter to work at,” he says. “I try to live holistically, our start-ups should, too.”