Megan Holston-Alexander

Marlon Evans: GSV Labs

Megan Holston-Alexander
Marlon Evans: GSV Labs

GSV Labs is a leader in envisioning, constructing and supporting critical space and innovation for entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley...

First, I have to admit that I'm incredibly late posting this interview! I originally chatted with Marlon late in the summer and kept letting the weeks get ahead of me. Please don't judge me, Marlon! 

GSV Labs is a giant in Silicon Valley. The sheer number of startups they support (currently 185) and the value-add (through curriculum and mentorship) they offer to anyone they work with is truly unprecedented. There is rarely a time when more than a couple of weeks pass that I don't meet an entrepreneur who has spent some time in the GSV offices. What Marlon & team are doing with their space and expertise is allowing for an immense amount of innovation in a number of different industries. Check out my interview below!

*As usual, I've had to do some trimming to the interview to make it a readable length and format*

Megan:   Thanks so much again for meeting with me today. Let’s start by having you tell me a little bit about GSV Labs and your role at the organization.

Marlon:  Sure. I'm the CEO of GSV Labs. GSV stands for Global Silicon Valley and our mission is to bring Silicon Valley to the world and the world to Silicon Valley. We've been around for about five years now and work with about 185 startups currently. But over those five years, hundreds and hundreds of startups have kind of passed through our doors. We are trying to build a community and foster an environment where corporations, startups, investors, mentors, advisors and universities can all be under one roof and can connect with each other across disciplines. The idea is that if the resources are literally within walking distance, it's going to accelerate the innovation that occurs.

Megan:   Can you tell me what startups have to do to get involved with GSV and once you select startups that you want to work with, what type of support you give to them while housed at GSV Labs?

Marlon:  Most of the startups are coming to us via referral. Whether it's our investor from our network or our mentors, they will send us their portfolio of startups. And that's really great because when we get referrals, that means that there's been some sort of external validation within our community. We also have startups come to us through our corporate partners. For example, Intel and AT&T run accelerators that we help facilitate.

Then we have our own application process and each quarter we accept about 10 to 15 startups into our accelerator. These are primarily earlier stage companies - pre-seed and seed companies. They get  more curriculum than our other firms who may be further along and referred form our corporate partners. One the other hand, our more advanced companies tend to look for more on demand mentors that can help them think through a specific problem, like entering the China market. It's very specific, and so our model for the more mature companies is not a one size fits all. It's “let's sit down, tell us what your needs are, where are you trying to go, and then let's map our services to support that.”

Then the earlier stage companies are going through the more traditional three month acceleration program where they get product-market fit, business model canvassing,  UX/UI, and pitch coaching.

Megan:   Since you work with so many startups, I'd like to ask you about the diversity issue in Silicon Valley. I'm not sure what the makeup looks like of your 185 current startups, but why do you think that they're so few entrepreneurs of color and women entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley? Is there anything that you've noticed that would contribute towards that problem?

Marlon:  I think part of it is that there aren’t evenly distribute opportunities. And this is part of the vision around GSV Labs - that innovation is happening all over the globe. If you're an investor in Silicon Valley, because you can just go outside and throw a tennis ball and hit ten startups, you probably are going to stick to your community of folks and the people who are referring you potential investment opportunities. And usually your community reflects you and where you went to school, and your background. It becomes a very insular structure. And the only way to kind of open up that structure is to add more diversity to it and that's really the challenge...getting that access to the capital that's necessary to do that.

Megan:   So how do you open it up to more diverse candidates What do you do?

Marlon:  I realized if we're just going to be relying upon referrals and corporates telling us which startups that we're ultimately working with, we're just going to perpetuate the same cycle. Because there's been some sort of validation that's happened on the front end, it’s likely those making the referrals are using a similar model that's been done in the past.

The accelerator is much more diverse than our general population because we are looking at university students. We're looking at folks who are just about to raise their first round of funding and we feel like if we can empower them and get them plugged into our network, we're going to increase the likelihood that they'll actually get funded. We also know that if they were on their own, they would be knocking on doors and might not be getting responses.

Megan:   One thing I've also heard from another VC is:  "Well, you know, we invite entrepreneurs of color to come in and pitch, but a lot of times their pitches aren't that good, or they don't know how to do this particular thing or talk about that particular thing." So that's why I think accelerators are super important to give them that skillset of pitching, because they haven't been serial entrepreneurs. They don't know all of the details which is a function of opportunity and access to people who can tell you or show you what it's all about. If you've never even heard of venture capital in your life, how are you going to know what you need to do?

Marlon:  I think that's absolutely right. And that’s the reality of where we are. My dad told me when I was growing up, "you just have to be a little bit better than everybody else. You can’t just hit the bar; you have to exceed the bar." And it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with where you went to school or what have you, but to your point, when you're in that meeting and you're giving that pitch, it has to be on point, or the preconceived notions will start kicking in, and so that's just the reality.

Megan:   Yes, definitely. I think support services to help entrepreneurs get to a place where you can then go to market for funding is really important. So, with all the companies that you work with, can you tell me about a few of your favorites? I don't know if you can pick favorites. But maybe I can tell you a little bit about what I'm interested in and you can tell me if there are any companies that you work with that would be really cool for me to look into.

Marlon:  Sure.

Megan:   I have a “help people” background. I'm a social person. I like companies that are doing innovative things to help people and make lives better. You know I always tell myself 'I don't necessarily want to support companies that just make rich people's lives easier, but that can make everybody's lives better." I really like fin-tech. I love the idea of financial inclusion and mobile payments and how all of those things work.

Marlon:  I think based on what you described, we have some companies focused on education. It's ed-tech sustainability, which for us is clean-tech, mobile, big data, and then entertainment. Within entertainment there's gaming, AR and VR. I would say the majority of the companies that we work with outside of ed-tech and clean-tech, are not necessarily thinking kind of impact-first, though.

What I get most excited about is how some of these horizontal technologies are going to disrupt legacy industries. So what are AR and VR going to do education? What is artificial intelligence going to do to personalized learning? What is it going to do for health? I don't think we're quite there yet because some of it is fairly new, but the more interesting thing for me is seeing the applications of using virtual reality for mindfulness or we have one company that's using it to get people to quit smoking. That wave is coming and we're kind of moving away from that lab structure and just saying: 'Here are the technologies that we think are going to be driving the future innovations.' What we really want to get smart about is how those technologies can be applied to different verticals.

Megan:  Wow! I totally agree. That's perfect. Let’s change gears for a second. As I mentioned, my goal is to become an investor. I’d love to hear what advice would you give to somebody like me, who wants to become a VC from your perspective and working with so many vc-backed startups? What advice would you give me about them and what they need? What holes need to be filled in that you hear your startups talking about?

Marlon: That's a tougher one, because I think what VCs are realizing is that they need to obviously go beyond just writing a check. Entrepreneurs have other needs beyond capital. How do you grow from four to fifteen employees? What are some human resources things you need to think about? And what about financial modeling. I mean there's a whole suite of services that every startup needs, and depending on the makeup of the founding team, you may not be able to quite understand what those needs are without having this kind of broad array of experience. So from the VC perspective, I think drilling down into one particular area is smart but having a generalist understanding of how you grow and accelerate a business, I think is paramount as well.

Megan: So, essentially, diversity of backgrounds and experience working at VC firms is most helpful portfolio companies. 

Marlon: Yes. As an individual going into the market, having an investor that is able to say 'I've done, X, Y, and Z in these different areas that I think will help you" is so important.  The best entrepreneurs are going to be able to find funding whether it's your firm or someone else. Why are they going to go with you? Well, it's because you understand what they're going through, and you have the resources to be able to help them. If it's not you personally, somebody within your firm can do that. I think that the market or the world of VC is going to start really morphing into what we basically do as an accelerator. You look at the Andreessens of the world and these larger firms, they're offering everything to their entrepreneurs. I think that's where the industry is going.

Megan: Thanks so much Marlon! I am so grateful for your time today and appreciate your insights!