WESTPORT, Conn. – For the first time in recent memory, Venetia Kontogouris went away where no one could reach her. For four days, there was no cellphone, no pager, no Blackberry, no fax machine, no PC no communications device that would put her in touch with a portfolio company or colleague at Trident Capital.
Her family excursion to Alaska was a rare moment for this managing director (especially now that the pressure for portfolio company profits has intensified), who often works marathon days, and at least part of most weekends. Born into an entrepreneurial family in Greece, where her father built many businesses, Kontogouris has continued the legacy of work and family in America.
Throughout her 20-plus years in the venture business, she has tried to balance the heavy workload with her family life -sometimes pushing it to extremes. In 1979, her first year in the venture business, Kontogouris spent a Friday on the West Coast visiting portfolio companies; three days later in New York, she gave birth to her first child. “I call him my venture boy, because I was pregnant when I got into the business,” she said.
Kontogouris is a rarity in today’s venture capital world: a managing director who is foreign-born and a woman, who has a top job with a major fund (Trident, with $1.4 billion under management).
“I prefer to go out into the market rather than waiting for the market or customers to come to my desk,” Kontogouris said. “I like to be in their environment, on their premises, to look at their management team.”
A Woman’s Intuition
Kontogouris has an intuition about entrepreneurs. She says she can separate the wheat from the chaff relatively quickly, almost like knowing within five minutes that your blind date isn’t going to work out.
Known for her charisma and candor, Kontogouris is not impressed with an entrepreneur’s credentials. “I don’t care how wonderful their Ph.D’s are, and I don’t care how wonderful the technology is,” she said. “Look, we could study the market to death, but if you don’t have the customers, you won’t be successful. I’m very customer driven.”
She looks for entrepreneurs who have “the passion, vision and stamina to survive the ups and downs of creating a successful venture.” Identifying these entrepreneurs is a very unglamorous, yet necessary, winnowing out process.
“I didn’t get into the business to make a lot of money but for the satisfaction of creating and building successful companies. This is a very long commitment in this business,” she said. “You have to be there for the long haul. The VCs who came into the business [in the last few years], many of them didn’t have the experience.”
Kontogouris has been outspoken on many issues. She was quoted in a business magazine during the dotcom hey-day as questioning the merits of such rampant funding, and she has questioned the lofty compensation packages many executives demand. “When I ask, How can you have this kind of expectation?’ they look at me like I’m a strange object,” she once said.
Kontogouris works in the Westport, Conn., office of Trident, a national VC firm that focuses on information technology. In March it closed Fund V, a $725 million venture capital fund concentrating on investments in early-stage companies. Prior to joining Trident, she was head of product development for Dun & Bradstreet’s Marketing Services and director of marketing for national accounts and financial services. And she also held sales management positions for AT&T and IBM Corp., and launched her own start-up company in the telecommunications industry.
The majority of Trident’s prior investments have been in early-stage companies and leveraged buyouts in software, business services and Internet infrastructure companies. Trident’s partners work in tandem on accounts, with two or three involved in the due diligence process on a prospective company. “Some VC firms have too many egomaniacs who [work as partners]. We’re much more aligned as a team. We’re very diligent about our investments today. It takes a lot of energy,” she said.
Kontogouris, who serves on 12 company boards, said she has funded one company this year and feels no pressure to make deals. Too many bad companies were funded in the dotcom frenzy, she said, and the market is still digesting some of that excess.
But despite all the carnage, she maintains there are opportunities out there. “I’ve always believed that the right companies will still get funded, no matter the economic times.”