Tina Hoang-To put herself through college selling cars at Capitol Honda in San Jose, Calif.
“I was very good at it,” notes the Santa Clara University grad. “I’ve been wheeling and dealing since 18.”
Now, 20 years later those sharp sales skills are more than evident. And she’s putting them to work in her newly-adopted hometown of Seattle, a place she’s fallen in love with after just a few weeks. Her native San Francisco Bay Area is fading in the rearview mirror.
“There’s too much tweeting in San Francisco, not enough building,” she says.
Hoang-To is the co-founder of Kin Ventures, a 4-month-old Seattle-based venture capital firm that’s targeting $100 million for its first fund. That’s double what the partners originally set out to raise last fall, with a first close happening just weeks after formation. The firm’s list of limited partners includes heavy hitters in the venture capital business such as Twitter co-founder Ev Williams, former PayPal and Yammer executive David Sacks and Initialized Capital managing partner Garry Tan.
Why the buzz?
A lot has to do with Hoang-To, who strikes a much different pose than the stereotypical venture capitalist. An immigrant entrepreneur who was born in a refugee camp before her Vietnamese parents settled in Silicon Valley, Hoang-To describes herself as a “super scrappy” founder.
“I didn’t grow up in a rich family,” she says. “I had to earn everything.”
Raised by her grandparents while her parents worked two jobs, she lights up when talking about the operational challenges that entrepreneurs face and how Kin Ventures can help.
“Founders like to work with founders,” says Hoang-To, who founded San Francisco-based online marketplace Wedding Spot in 2013 and sold it to HoneyBook three years later. She then went on to work as an executive vice president at Silicon Valley powerhouse TCV, then as a partner at Ev Williams’ Obvious Ventures.
“This generation of founders care less about the establishment,” said Hoang-To, adding that entrepreneurs now seek investors who roll up their sleeves and help companies grow. “You want someone who’s going to be a champion, and a team member to you over the next seven to 10 years. It’s a long journey.”
And that latter point gets to another reason why investment dollars are flowing to Kin Ventures.
It hopes to differentiate itself through a unique investment model — serving not only as an investor, but an in-house recruiter for its portfolio companies. After all, tech talent is the name of the game in the startup world where so-called “10X engineers” can make the difference between success and failure.
The other half of Kin Ventures is Ben Herman, a longtime L.A.-based recruiter who founded the diversity recruiting platform Canvas.
While Hoang-To expertly deconstructs business plans, Herman is a consummate people person, knowing how to size up founders and identify gaps in engineering teams.
When Kin invests, Herman’s network of engineering and executive talent comes along. The firm has struck a deal with GT Partners — a recruiting firm that Herman started in 2012 — which allows the firm to get some upside on Kin investments in exchange for helping to place top talent at portfolio companies.
Herman’s talent pool is deep, topping more than 1,000 high-level engineers. And that network is helping Kin get into deals like Logixboard, a fast-growing Seattle logistics software startup that closed a $32 million investment earlier this year from Insight Partners, Redpoint Ventures, Founders’ Co-op and others.
That deal marked the first for Kin Ventures, and it’s already showcasing the power of the recruiting model.
Within days of the investment in mid-January, Kin started funneling resumes to Logixboard
In the first 30 days, Kin helped Logixboard identify 50 engineering candidates. Of those, 25 resulted in interview requests, with one candidate recently accepting an offer and another offer pending.
“The quality of the candidates is like nothing we’ve seen before, and it is a huge value add to us given we are building out our product roadmap quickly,” Logixboard CTO Eric Dillon tells GeekWire. The influx of qualified candidates resulted in “a significant acceleration and time saving in this competitive market,” Dillon added.
Other venture capital firms certainly emphasize recruiting, touting longstanding relationships and trusted networks.
But Hoang-To notes that Kin Ventures acts differently, operating as an extension of the company’s recruiting team. A graphic on Herman’s LinkedIn page summarizes the approach: Where capital meets talent.
“I just think we’re bringing something really special to the cap table,” Hoang-To says. “And that’s why we’re getting access to amazing deals.”
Hoang-To laid out the firm’s approach in a “manifesto” posted to Medium last month, writing that venture capital is moving into a “new chapter,” one in which money doesn’t matter nearly as much as operational experience and access to engineering talent.
Kin Ventures plans to invest in 18 to 20 deals out of the new fund, writing series A and B checks in the $2 million to $7 million range. The majority of the funds will be allocated in the Pacific Northwest, but its charter does not limit the firm to a specific geographical area. It plans to invest in sectors such as digital health, marketplaces, enterprise software, supply chain, e-commerce and is toying a bit in the much-hyped Web3 space.
The sweet spot between seed and later-stage funding is a unique place for Kin Ventures to play in Seattle’s red-hot startup market, since many entrepreneurs are forced to travel to the Bay Area once the B round approaches.
That’s part of the reason why Seattle’s venture capital community has largely welcomed Kin as one of the family. Even with record amounts of venture capital flowing in Seattle last year, many still believe the market is undercapitalized, especially once companies get beyond the seed stage.
“I’m stoked to see an entrepreneur and growth investor of Tina’s caliber deploying capital in the ecosystem,” said Kirby Winfield, founding general partner of Ascend.vc. “With the relatively small number of local firms writing checks past series A, a new entrant like Kin is great news for Seattle founders.”
Heather Redman of Flying Fish Partners nearly jumped out of her chair when learning that Hoang-To was considering relocating from the Bay Area to Seattle, encouraging her to make the move.
“She hits all the notes for me: experienced investor choosing our region (yes!) and woman of color starting her own fund (yes!),” said Redman in an email to GeekWire.
So far, Hoang-To is pumped about the move.
At a recent coffee meeting with GeekWire, she fires up her iPad with an early pitch deck for Kin Ventures showcasing Seattle area tech giants like Amazon, Microsoft and Expedia, along with logos of more than a dozen Seattle area unicorn startups boasting valuations of $1 billion or more.
That slide is followed by one showing the handful of active Seattle venture capital firms that write series A or B checks.
It’s a funding gap that Hoang-To hopes she can help fill, creating impactful companies along the way with entrepreneurs who enjoy building new things.
“I just think there is a wealth of tech talent here,” she says.
As to Seattle, Hoang-To is fitting in nicely, talking about the fall colors she experienced on an autumn drive near Issaquah and touting some of the region’s hiking.
She’s even accepted the miserable winter weather, including this week’s deluge that set records in Seattle.
“This is fine,” says Hoang-To seated outside a coffee shop in Kirkland as a steady rain fell.
“We’re loving it, and I don’t really see the Seattle Freeze,” said Hoang-To, noting the legendary stereotype of Seattleites’ standoffish personalities. “Everyone here has been so wonderful, everyone’s been so inviting.”