New Venture Fund Binary Capital Focuses on Mission, Not Just Metrics

Binary Capital, started by Justin Caldbeck, left, and Jonathan Teo, closed its first fund on July 17, raising $125 million in just three and a half months.
Binary Capital, started by Justin Caldbeck, left, and Jonathan Teo, closed its first fund on July 17, raising $125 million in just three and a half months.Credit Peter DaSilva for The New York Times

In 2011, after raising more than $3 million in early-stage funding, Chantel Waterbury, founder of Chloe & Isabel, which makes handcrafted jewelry, was still being hotly pursued by investors.

“I sent everyone the standard email, which was basically, ‘Sorry, not now,’ ” said Ms. Waterbury, whose New York-based company sells its wares exclusively through independent merchandisers.

One such suitor was Jonathan Teo, at the time a general partner at General Catalyst Partners. “I finally agreed to meet just because I wanted to prove him wrong,” Ms. Waterbury said.

Mr. Teo, 34, has an impressive résumé. He was born in Singapore and earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Stanford University before rising up the ranks at Google to become an engineering manager by age 27. In 2008, he joined Benchmark Capital, where he was instrumental in the firm’s investments in Instagram and Twitter.

After meeting Mr. Teo, Ms. Waterbury had a change of heart, and General Catalyst ultimately led $8.5 million in Series A funding for her company. “A lot of people come in and just want to understand your metrics,” she said. “He actually took the time to understand the mission, which is very important to me.”

This notion — that the best entrepreneurs are driven by a bigger vision — is front and center in the investment strategy at Binary Capital, a new venture firm founded by Mr. Teo and Justin Caldbeck, 37, his friend and a former managing director at Lightspeed Venture Partners; Mr. Caldbeck’s deals include investments in BloomReach, GrubHub and TaskRabbit.

Binary Capital closed its first fund on July 17, raising $125 million — a hard cap — in just three and a half months. It turned away nearly half as many dollars. The goal of the fund is relatively straightforward: invest in 15 to 20 very early-stage consumer technology companies that have the potential to have a global impact.

The partners plan to contribute to that impact by giving a portion of their carried interest to charitable organizations chosen by their entrepreneurs. Eventually, they also hope to team up with global nonprofit groups to use their technology and resources for causes in the developing world.

While these efforts align with their own aspirations, they also resonate with the current crop of young entrepreneurs they’re looking to do business with. “They want to succeed commercially, but also want to succeed at improving the lives of others, and they want to do that at scale,” Mr. Teo said.

Improving the lives of others can take many forms. In the case of Ms. Waterbury, it’s helping young women be entrepreneurial. “This is a real passion project for me,” said Ms. Waterbury, who paid her way through college selling Cutco knives door to door.

Sean Rad, the co-founder of the matchmaking mobile app Tinder, hopes to help people make more meaningful connections, whether for romance or business.

But he had no interest in making connections with investors until Mr. Teo tracked him down through an acquaintance and persuaded him to grab a cup of coffee. “Thirty minutes for coffee turned into a two-hour conversation, which turned into a friendship,” Mr. Rad said.

While he is still self-financing his company, he said Binary Capital would most likely be his first call should he look to bring investors into the fold. “Many entrepreneurs see venture capitalists as a checkbook and a Rolodex,” he said. “The best investors are the ones who can add value to your company, and maybe see things you can’t.”

As they did in their previous roles, Mr. Teo and Mr. Caldbeck will take what they call a “scrappy” approach to finding companies with real potential. “The deals we want to do aren’t already in play,” said Mr. Teo, who was an early investor in Snapchat. “We want to make them happen.”

In addition to working the usual channels — conferences, professional networks and references from entrepreneurs — Mr. Teo and Mr. Caldbeck try to turn up ideas by looking for snippets of interesting programming on GitHub, a site for sharing code; seeing what apps are trending on App Annie; and keeping an eye on where developers are going to work.

“They have extraordinary hustle,” said Judith Elsea, managing director at Weathergage Capital, a firm in Palo Alto, Calif., that invests in venture capital funds, including Binary Capital’s debut. It’s difficult for new funds to win a spot with Weathergage, she said, but the firm made an exception after taking into account Mr. Teo and Mr. Caldbeck’s references and track records.

“We have pages and pages of anecdotes from entrepreneurs telling us about them going above and beyond,” she said. “They are unique in that they are willing to go in very early and invest a lot of their time before they even write a check.”

This is no accident, noted Mr. Caldbeck. “If you’ve had some success as a venture capitalist, you get a lot of inbound emails from entrepreneurs,” he said. “But if you look back on the best deals, it’s with the entrepreneurs who say, ‘You show me why I should take your money.’ ”

Mr. Caldbeck has many of his own stories about tracking down elusive entrepreneurs and going to great lengths to win their confidence and support their efforts.

One story that made an impression on Alan Marty, a managing director with Legacy Venture in Palo Alto, goes back to 1996. Mr. Caldbeck tried to walk on to the Duke University basketball team as a freshman. When no such spots were open, he went to work as team manager, cleaning up after players and biding his time until, a year later, the head coach Mike Krzyzewski invited him to suit up his sophomore year. Mr. Caldbeck spent his junior year at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and came back to play for the Blue Devils his senior year.

“Now that’s just gritty,” Mr. Marty said. While his firm, founded in 1999 and on its seventh fund of funds, typically focuses on well-established venture capital firms, it backed Binary Capital’s first fund. “They have the unique skills, network and strategy to become one of the premier venture firms,” he said.

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