Aydin SenkutFounder and Managing Director of Felicis Ventures BSBA’92
Aydin Senkut learned a lot from watching Google cofounder and Alphabet CEO Larry Page up close. That was one of the benefits of joining Google while the search giant was still in short pants. In 1999, when Senkut was offered a product manager job at Google, the company had around 30 employees and had been incorporated for just one year.
Senkut (BSBA’92) noticed how Page sought new ideas, and how often he turned things down to stay focused on what mattered.
“He constantly challenged the status quo and asked people to do impossible things,” says Senkut. Once the inconceivable became reality, he says, employees would think, “‘If that worked, what else can work?’ That happened hundreds of times at Google.”
When Senkut left Google in 2005—by then he’d been its first international sales manager and was a senior manager for web search and syndication—the company’s value had surged past $80 billion.
“A lot of leadership is inspiration,” he says. “If you are going to ask people to do something difficult, you’d better go out in the field and show them that it could be done; you can’t just be sitting in an ivory tower and barking down orders.”
Now, Senkut is the one showing it can be done. As the founder and managing partner of Felicis Ventures, a boutique venture fund, he helps determine which companies seeking financing are worthy of his firm’s investment. Since incorporating in 2005, Felicis has invested in more than 150 companies, with 55 of them earning notable exits (being snapped up by big names like Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft) and 3 hitting the New York Stock Exchange with initial public offerings, including Fitbit and Shopify. Nine of the companies have been valued at over $1 billion; 30 at more than $100 million.
LIFE AFTER GOOGLE
After Google, Senkut took a break—traveled, spent time with family—but he was still in his thirties; he didn’t want the company to be “the final chapter in my life.” He thought about becoming a venture capitalist. Today, the venture market is chock full of Silicon Valley success stories looking to turn their tech industry know-how into investment triumphs. But in 2005, Senkut kept hearing the same thing. “They looked at my background and said, ‘You don’t really make a typical venture capitalist.’”
They were right. After a brief post-Questrom stint with Hoffmann La-Roche’s finance department, Senkut switched to graduate school, then joined high-performance computing specialists Silicon Graphics (now SGI) as a business development manager, before jumping to Google. He’d built a career managing product teams and clinching sales deals. Most venture capitalists at the time, he says, had made it big in banking or were successful entrepreneurs. They asked him why he didn’t just go it alone; it drove him to start Felicis. “I want to demonstrate and show that somebody can think out of the box, can think different, and yet can still succeed.”
Senkut says he’s never dabbled. “I’m in or out, and if I was going to be in, I was going to be in all the way.” At the start, that meant doing everything, down to designing Felicis’ logo, website, and business cards. “People thought I was a huge fund,” he says. “They didn’t even know it was just me. I didn’t even have an office; I was working out of Starbucks. It was a very humble beginning.” With its first $4.5 million fund, Felicis backed the personal finance company Mint(bought by Intuit in 2009 for $170 million) and the social media marketing firm Wildfire (purchased by Google in 2012 for $350 million).
Even today, with Felicis two years into its fourth fund (this one at $120 million) and three other people on the investment team, Senkut remains concerned about the small details. Every design and color choice in the company’s Palo Alto, California, office, which looks more Silicon Valley than Wall Street—open, filled with light—is deliberate, he says: orange for optimism; white for transparency.
It’s the same way, he says, that the entrepreneurs Felicis backs have thought about every detail.
THE IDEAL FOUNDER
Felicis’ investments have an emphasis on technology advances in the mobile, e-commerce, enterprise, education, and health sectors. Sometimes, the right entrepreneurs walk through the door, says Senkut; sometimes, his team tracks down companies in the areas they’re excited about. Most of all, they’re looking for the right founder.
“Capital is not really that scarce. There’s a lot of capital that wants to go into these exciting start-ups, and people forget that at the end, this is all about the founders,” he says. “We’re basically a supporting business, right? So if our founders are successful, we are successful. The founders build their companies, we help them, maybe we give them advice, we give them some capital, we make some connections for them, but at the end, it’s all about them.”
Besides, you could “have an amazing company, but [if] you don’t get along with the founder, I think that would be miserable.”
Good founders, says Senkut, have an innate understanding of what makes their product great and clear ideas of how to improve it and objectively measure future accomplishments.
The standout entrepreneurs also understand that not everyone cares about their product as much as they do. Senkut says wannabe founders need to find investors who share their passion for a particular field. There’s little chance of encouraging a “random investor to care about this if that investor or person does not already have some inclination. . . . You have to keep networking and keep meeting new people until you find enough people who are interested in your area.”
But even a shared affection doesn’t guarantee compatibility—as anyone who’s been stuck next to a dinner party bore knows. You need a hook, says Senkut. Forget the lengthy product briefings; can you get someone’s attention in one paragraph, in 30 seconds?
“You have to get very, very, very good at telling the story of what it is that you’re trying to do and what the product does and why you’re doing it and why it’s going to be great and special. It’s not always very obvious to people, but being able to nail that is, I think, the absolute key to their success.”
A DASH OF FAITH
Finding entrepreneurs who check all those boxes is as much an art as a science. It’s easy to crunch some numbers on a company or market, but as a venture capitalist, Senkut says, “you’re working with incomplete information, and most importantly you’re working with people, so there is a very organic element.” He has to be comfortable making decisions without access to reams of facts and figures—these aren’t companies with years of financial records to sift through.
And some of those decisions might not pay off—or they may stink—for years to come. “One day you’re a fool, the other day you’re brilliant,” says Senkut, because the companies go through ups and downs. “It’s not a straight line—it’s the same thing in careers.” His own career was like that, he says—no great leaps in job titles, but shifts here and there, sideways moves, the steady accretion of new skills.
At times, decisions felt wrong: he was at Silicon Graphics during its slow slide toward delisting from the stock exchange, but wouldn’t have landed a job at Google if he hadn’t met a key friend there. You need to have “faith the dots will connect,” he says.
On the Felicis website, the company touts its greatest contribution not in dollar figures—though you can find them, and they’re impressive—but in something seemingly more intangible: “meaningful connections at critical moments.” Senkut gives the example of working with Rovio, a Felicis investment and the company behind Angry Birds. In 2010, when Rovio decided to get into physical merchandise “about 10 days before Christmas,” it called Senkut. He, in turn, dialed up the CEO of Shopify—another Felicis investment. An Angry Birds store launched within a week, says Senkut, the virtual shelves bare soon after.
Like his former boss, Larry Page, Senkut has made a habit of making the improbable become reality. In 2015, Forbes placed him at 39 on the Midas List, its annual ranking of venture capitalists betting on tech companies and “earning outsized returns for their investors;” others making the grade included Jim Goetz (who backed WhatsApp) and Peter Thiel (PayPal cofounder and early Facebook investor).
“Never take what is thrown at your feet as the sole, final alternative.” Too many people, says Senkut, resign themselves to plodding through work and life, rather than thinking, “‘What I really want to do is this, even if I’m going to fail or hit the wall four or five times; I’m not going to stop until I figure that out.’ Unless you do that, you don’t know if something is possible. The journey, and the process of doing that, teaches you a lot.”