Former Tesla and Lyft exec Jon McNeill just launched a fund that plans to spin out its own companies
Lyft’s former COO Jon McNeill has had a fairly storied career as an operator. A Northwestern University economics major who worked at Bain & Co. out of college, he went on to start and sell five companies before being introduced in 2015 to Elon Musk by Sheryl Sandberg and spending 2.5 years as Tesla’s president of global sales and service.
He was apparently so good at his job that Lyft’s investors asked him to join the car-share company to help it. There, he helped build up the company’s management team, got it through its public offering, then decamped last year roughly four months after its IPO and just 18 months after he’d joined.
At the time, the move left some shareholders scratching their heads. It also drove down the price of Lyft’s shares. Now, McNeill says he had too many ideas percolating to stay. He has so many, in fact, that he just cofounded a business that will launch other businesses.
It’s called DeltaV — an engineering term for a change in velocity — and the idea is to formulate startup ideas, get them up and running, then when they’re at the Series B phase of life, seek outside funding, while hanging on to roughly 80 percent of each company.
It’s a tall order, but McNeill thinks he has the team to do it.
Along with McNeill, DeltaV was founded by Karim Bousta, who spent eight years with GE before joining Symantec as a vice president, where McNeill lured him away to Tesla, then brought him to Lyft as its VP and head of operations. (Bousta has also been working in recent months as an operating partner with SoftBank Investment Advisors.)
DeltaV also counts as a cofounder Sami Shalabi, who spent nearly a dozen years as a top engineer at Google after it acquired a company he cofounded called Zingku; Michael Rossiter, a business operations exec who, like Bousta, worked with McNeill at both Tesla and Lyft; and Henry Vogel, who has cofounded a number of companies and was among the first partners at BCG Digital Ventures, the corporate investment firm. (Vogel was also McNeill’s roommate when the two were college freshmen.)
As important, McNeill also thinks DeltaV has the structure needed to pursue the founders’ collective vision of investing in fewer companies that they themselves start and grow. Specifically, the five have rounded up $40 million from a dozen investors — mostly family offices — for an evergreen fund. What that means: investors are committing to allow them to recycle capital, rather than aim to return it after a certain window of time. (Most traditional venture funds, for example, have a 10-year-long investment period.)
Evergreen funds have never gained much traction in the venture world, even while — or because — they alleviate expensive management fees. Still, there are precedents for what DeltaV is trying to do and, in fact, McNeil volunteers that they largely inspired what the team has built. Indeed, after spending time with tens of accelerators, incubators, and startup studios, McNeil says he walked away the most impressed with what two firms have created: Sutter Hill Ventures in the Bay Area and Flagship Pioneering in Cambridge, Mass.
Both operate evergreen funds, and both have enviable track records. Since its 2000 founding, Flagship Pioneering has formed and spun out 75 companies and 22 of them have gone public since 2013 alone, McNeill notes. Meanwhile, Sutter Hilll — a much older outfit that also sources ideas internally, then tests them against the marketplace with the help of roughly 40 in-house engineers — has founded 50 companies, at least 18 of which have gone public. (The cloud-based data warehouse company Snowflake may be Sutter Hill’s next big win. It was valued at $12.4 billion when it most recently raised a round in February, and its CEO, Frank Slootman, suggested then that the company’s next financing event would likely be an IPO.)
We don’t know the ins and outs of how Flagship or Sutter Hill are structured, and it wasn’t McNeill’s place to tell us.
But for its part, DeltaV doesn’t collect fees. Instead, its investors own a stake of the company, alongside the founders.
Further, while evergreen funds often provide limited partners with the ability to exit or change their investment in the fund every four years or so, DeltaV doesn’t restrict them at all. Investors instead have board representation and will have a say in how much is recycled versus distributed, and can distribute or shares driven by their needs, without any set windows.
Whether the arrangement proves lucrative for everyone will take years to know, of course. Our sense of things is that DeltaV itself aims to become a public company at some point.
In the meantime, it already has four startups in the works, including one that should be out of stealth mode by early summer and another that the firm hopes to introduce to the world this fall.
The first is a pricing and profit optimization service that aims to help e-commerce players better compete with Amazon. The other is an automotive service business. McNeill wouldn’t share more than that right now, though he adds that a separate idea — one that revolved around the gig economy and the “future of work” — has been shelved for the time being, given the impacts of the coronavirus
It begs the question of why McNeill thinks right now is a good time to start DeltaV. He laughed when we asked about this earlier today, acknowledging that our national state of affairs wasn’t something that many anticipated. In fact, he and his cofounders firmed up their plans just in January and hit the fundraising trail roughly five weeks ago, just as the United States began to come apart at the seams.
Even so, while the coronavirus has forced the team to change some of their priorities in terms of the companies that Delta V eventually hopes to launch, McNeill believes in the old adage that there’s no time to start a company like during a major downturn. As he told us on a call, “We’re actually accelerating a bit in terms of making much more forward progress,” particularly where it concerns the firm’s profit-optimization startup.
As McNeill explained it, he and his cofounders “want to make this a very long-term, durable business. We want to create dozens of companies over time.” They’re all operators who know a thing or two about repeatable processes, he added. Now, he said, they’ve just codified what they’ve been doing all along.
If you’re curious to learn more, McNeill has just written a bit more about starting DeltaV here.