Kirsten Green is founder and Managing Partner at Forerunner Ventures, a San Francisco-based venture capital firm that was among the earliest investors in Faire, the fast-growing scaleup with Waterloo Region roots. Faire recently gained unicorn status – a private company with a valuation of US$1 billion – in the wake of a US$150-million Series D fundraising round last November. The company, which curates inventory purchases for small retailers, got its start just three years ago and is headquartered in San Francisco, with an engineering office in Kitchener.
On Wednesday night, Faire cut the ribbon on its new Kitchener office, in the renovated former Budds department store at 165 King St. W., and Green, who sits on Faire’s board, was on hand for the event.
Faire achieved its remarkable growth – it is now affiliated with 60,000 retail stores and 8,000 makers – by helping brick-and-mortar retailers buck the online trend, leveraging technology to help those retailers target the right products at the right customers. It did so even as Amazon was disrupting the shopping experience, threatening big-box retail.
Green has experience backing successful companies in the retail space – Dollar Shave Club and Jet.com, to name two – and has been one of Faire’s advisors and mentors.
Faire CTO Marcelo Cortes says that Faire had the luxury of choosing who it would take on as an investor and chose Green particularly because of her retail experience.
“[Kirsten’s] experience in retail is very rare,” says Cortes.
Green is also the founding member of San Francisco-based All Raise, an all-female mentorship collective that helps promote and grow female-led companies and VCs.
Green sat down with Communitech News Wednesday and talked about Faire, about diversity, and her first impressions of the Waterloo Region technology ecosystem.
Q – You were one of the earliest investors in Faire. What did you see in the company?
Investor Kirsten Green, along with Faire CTO Marcelo Cortes,
at the grand opening of Faire’s downtown Kitchener office.
(Communitech News photo: Sara Jalali)
A – I’ve spent a long time investing in and around retail and consumer products, and I’ve always done it with an eye towards the consumer and thinking about what they’re drawn to, how they think about spending their time and their money.
As we saw retail move from an offline experience and we saw online experiences emerge, there were a lot of conversations that everything was going to move online. Deep down inside, after watching consumer behaviour for so long, I really didn’t believe that that was true. Online was fascinating, and an important and exciting new channel. But I just think I’d seen too many people engaging with retail as part of their entertainment, as part of a touchstone to community, as part of a social experience. And so, in my mind, I thought retail might need to look different with the advent of technology and introducing new means for discovering products or having services offered, but that it wouldn’t go away.
So, when I met the Faire team, it kind of clicked right away. It was an easy decision at that point because in some ways I had been waiting for them.
Q – Amazon had already grown powerful as Faire was becoming established. Was there any fear it would continue to gobble the retail space?
A – There’s always fear like that. It’s one of the most uncomfortable yet exciting parts about being an early-stage investor – that we’re trying to align or work with businesses that are reimagining the future of business, and thinking about reshaping ecosystems and introducing new ways and better ways of doing things. Amazon is an incredible company. They’re a formidable competitor on so many levels. But at the same time I don’t think that’s an excuse to just give up and not try things that have a more pointed focus or a deeper understanding of a particular marketplace. There’s a lot of nuances that [Faire] takes particular care to try to understand and to build product for. It really requires that kind of granular focus.”
Faire’s Kitchener office is located in the renovated former
Budds department store space. (Communitech photo: Sara Jalali)
Q – You said something earlier that rang a bell – that small retail is part of a community and its street life and that if you lose it, the community is weaker …
A – [Small retail] is almost like a centre of gravity [for a community]. It has a uniqueness. I love to go to a new place and see what they uniquely have. When I go down the street and all there is is chain retail, I feel kind of sad because I’m thinking, I could experience this anywhere. But when you find that neighbourhood street that has those special things – the best bakery or the best little added-accessory shop, or home furnishing store – that's a treat. And if you think about everybody and how they travel, when you go places you’re interested in, you ask yourself, what are the art and historical things I need to know, what are the natural sites I need to know, and what are the cool local stores and restaurants. [Retail] is part of culture.
Q – Did you invest in Faire aiming to preserve small retail culture, or was that a happy byproduct?
A – Well, I really believe in the importance of local retail, because one, I think customers want it and two, I think that it is part of providing flavour to the community, both for tourists and for people that live there. And I think it’s a really important part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. There’s a lot of people for a long time who have supported themselves on small businesses. And a lot of small businesses are local service and retail companies. I think it’s important to talk about the various definitions of being an entrepreneur. It's not always trying to, you know, overtake an industry or conquer the world or raise a bunch of VC capital. Helping those [small retailers] come into the modern age and having efficiencies in their businesses just like all other businesses are looking for and helping them flourish as an entrepreneur is important.
Q – Faire has grown incredibly fast. What did they get right?
A – Every company's entrepreneurial journey is different. And even in the companies that look like they’re flawless and everything’s going right, it’s hard. That said, this has been an extraordinary couple of years [for Faire]. The team is very complementary. They had experience working together, which I think was a benefit. This is a business about details. A lot of components need to operate in tandem, and it really needed a team that was detail oriented. They’ve just done an outstanding job. I think that they’ve also struck a chord in the market.
Faire CTO Marcelo Cortes. “[Kirsten’s] experience in retail is very rare.”
(Communitech photo: Sara Jalali)
Q – Faire has an office in San Francisco and one here in Kitchener, and Marcelo has laid out the case for why that arrangement works. Did you have reservations?
A – [That arrangement] can be scary to investors, and I’m not saying it wasn’t, in part, scary to me too, because my experiences up until then had not been positive. But Marcelo was from here, he loves this place, he knows this place. He was like, ‘There’s incredible people there. It’s my home, I know the ecosystem, I can get great people.’ He made us see that [being in Kitchener] was going to be the company’s advantage.
Even if you haven’t been here before, you know of this area because of the academics and because of the extraordinary talent pool. So when you’re going to have a tech-heavy, engineering-focused company, and you have somebody who has a home-field affinity for Waterloo [Region,] that seems like something you should make your advantage.
Q – Canada has been deliberate about making immigration policy a tool for recruiting tech talent. Does that give you comfort where Faire goes?
A – I think that’s a real strength, if not a secret weapon, for this company. I don’t think it needs to stay a secret. I think it’s just smart. It is really inspiring to see what Canada is doing to support the ecosystem. We have invested in one other Canadian company and they also reaped a lot of benefits from [immigration] programs here. And it was a real meaningful advantage.
Q – Let’s shift gears a bit and talk about All Raise and the help you provide for women investors and founders. Was All Raise a response to Silicon Valley’s “bro culture”? How did it form?
A – As I was moving into the venture space, nationally and globally the conversation around diversity and inclusivity started to percolate. It was pretty obvious that we were way underbalanced in the venture ecosystem. We had a group of friends that got together and we happen to all be women and we happen to all be in venture, and we realized there were literally 34 people who were in cheque-writing positions. This was the spring and summer of 2017. And we thought, that's not right. This is a collaborative industry. We love this industry, we value our friendships, there’s not enough of us and we’ve got to change things. It doesn’t fit with society. We’re with companies that are trying to reshape society, so it’s almost more important than anywhere else that we have a good picture of diversity. I was really fortunate that our group collectively was more motivated about change than they were about complaining, and so we kind of just got together and thought, what can we do about it? We decided that we needed to have more female founders, and we needed to have more female investors. It was the right thing at the right time, people were excited about it, you know, and it’s been really energizing.
Things are changing. I think this team at Faire is being very deliberate and thoughtful about [diversity]. I think founders are getting the message. I think investors are getting that message, too. I’m having more conversations around my table about how we build a team that looks like the world we live in than I was 18 months ago, or even 12 months ago.
Interview edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.