VIDEO: Fireside Chat with Tristan Pollock Venture Partner 500 Startups

Cheryl Mack

We sat down with Tristan Pollock, Venture Partner of 500 Startups, a leading global venture capital seed fund and startup accelerator based in Silicon Valley.

500 Startups have invested in over 1,200 companies including Twilio, TalkDesk, CreditKarma and Vonjour, and their biggest exits have come from Makerbot at $403M, Wildfire at $350M and Viki at $200M. 

Other than Silicon Valley, they have locations in Mexico City, Israel, San Francisco, London and Oslo. 

Tristan is also the co-founder of Storefront, which helps popup stores find short-term rentals, and was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list in 2015.


Engineer, entrepreneur and growth marketer Chandini Ammineni from 500 Startups is speaking at StartCon 2016. Chandini’s combined knowledge in engineering and marketing contributes to her extensive user acquisition skills in all areas of scaling startups. 


Q: So where did you meet your co-founder?

Actually, Eric and I worked on another startup before, basically the social impact media network, called Social Earth and that was definitely not a VC backed company. It was something that we cared about, we saw an opportunity for. Mainstream media in the U.S. it’s a pretty boring thing and doesn’t really cover like hard-hitting stories and tell the stories of people that are creating real change. Instead, it’s like “oh, look, this person got shot,” and “this dog bit this guy,” you know and “oh, this house got set on fire.”

Mainstream is probably somewhat similar in most parts of the world, TV media. And so we were like, we want to change this. We want to cover stories that are like solution journalism and that are actually helping people change things for better. 

So we kind of organically grew this for about 3 years and got about 200 contributors in 25 different countries, kind of became this kind of Huffington Post of impact, before that existed, and then sold this company into another larger media company.

In part one; we had built something valuable as far as the community and one of the ‘go to source’ for impact news. The same time, journalism was very hard, and even The New York Times hasn’t really figured out the business model around that, to support a full staff that they should. So that was the kind of transition into Storefront, that Eric and I had worked together on Social Earth and then moved in to working on this.

Q: What’s one thing you’ve learnt from starting Social Earth?

Content. I don’t want to stroke my ego, but I’ve spent a lot of time on content and figuring out what people were reading, what was interesting to people, catching trends, which I think it’s almost like a good startup sense in general of what’s interesting right now in certain industries, and what are people talking about and what’s going to be big and talked about in the next like 3 or 5 years as trends kind of go.

 Hear from 500 Startups  again at StartCon 2016!
Hear from 500 Startups  again at StartCon 2016!

Q: Let’s talk a little more about marketplaces. We’ve seen Amazon come up and really take over the market, but what about some of the smaller marketplaces that are cropping up, how have you seen things evolve?

Marketplaces specifically, I guess we’ve seen this layer built on top of marketplaces, you know, now you have Pillow to manage AirBnb, or Breeze to rent cars on top of Uber or Lyft. So I think that’s one interesting thing, I think you also see marketplaces move to kind of hybrid business models, where perhaps they were just doing transactional before, and now there’s ways that make sense to have a subscription plus transactional or lead generation plus transactional. So I think we’ve seen things like that which kind of support margins, which are traditionally a bit lower in marketplaces. Offering additional concierge services is a big one too.

Q. What about some of the mistakes you see [in startup marketplaces]?

One of the hardest is focus. When you are trying to start out and serve many customers you may never know who your customers are. So, with Storefront we kind of broke our customers down in both supply and demand. You could also see us as a triple-sided marketplace because we also needed a person to supply space, and to be successful, they needed consumers to walk into their store.

We found our sweet spot was medium sized businesses, and they were becoming our best customers and we thought, how do we get more of these? We could get more of all of these, but the big guys have money, but they don’t really need us. And the small guys want more but they want to pay the least, they want that “startup discount”.

Seems like that’s kind of clear, but also, what do people look like, what sort of category they are in, you start like narrowing down who your best customers are, and how you acquire them better. But there are a million things you could be doing.

Q: Yeah, let’s now talk more about the value of targeting broadly vs focusing on one thing doing it very very well.

One thing about targeting broadly is that you get the chance to start narrowing things down. Let’s try a variety of things. You’re kind of fanning the flame. You’re opening up and closing in on things. You might do a lot of different smoke tests around different marketing channels like that, and you open this up and you say, is this marketing channel working? Part of that is whether you are targeting the right customer or through the right funnel,  but maybe you need to give them about a month to know if you are able to confirm your hypothesis. 

But the more you do that early on the better.

Q: How can you build and make your community thrive?

That’s one of the most important parts in marketplaces. Community is very important in a market place. For every first Thursday we would ring new artists and everybody would feel good. That kind made us to be admired by customers which was awesome.