In our second installment of “Between Two FinTechs,” an interview series with leaders in financial technology, we have Hunter Walk, co-founder and partner of seed stage venture fund Homebrew. Previously at YouTube and Google, Hunter uses his startup and scaling expertise to help founders articulate their product/market fit, recruit stellar teams and build well-defined cultures. In this conversation with our CEO Ohad Samet, Hunter shares how he started his venture fund, his thoughts on major developments in fintech and his investment philosophy.
This transcript was edited and condensed for clarity. You can see all the interviews here.
Ohad Samet: Hunter Walk is one of the early believers in our company and one of the most outspoken leaders in the venture capital community, so we’re really excited to have you, Hunter. Can you start us off by telling us about the beginnings of Homebrew?
Hunter Walk: Thanks so much for having me!
Homebrew came out of a partnership with my co-founder. Satya Patel and I had worked together at Google and always wanted to work together again. At the end of 2012, I was thinking about leaving Google after almost a decade, most recently having run the Product team at YouTube. Satya had recently left Twitter where he had been running Product, so we finally started to talk about what we wanted to do together.
“We didn’t assume we were relevant just because we’d been around the Valley for awhile and had the ability to write checks.”
We didn’t assume we were relevant just because we’d been around the Valley for awhile and had the ability to write checks. We wanted to make sure we were committing to a relatively small number of companies that we would get up every morning and put sweat and reputation behind them, not just capital. My objective is to be able to look back and think about the impact the people we backed made.
We think about who we’re going to be proud to be associated with—and TrueAccord checks off those boxes.
OS: You recently tweeted that your team is “big on banking as a service.” Can you tell us more about how you’re thinking about that sector?
HW: When we started Homebrew in 2013, we believed industries would experience innovation from how data that used to be siloed can now be pooled. Data analysis that used to be impossible or expensive had become more open and available for companies of all sizes.
Despite having no specific background in financial services, we were fascinated by the potential there as a tremendously large industry where its consumers didn’t feel empowered by them. We realized there were people taking a very low net promoter score industry to create something that was thought of more positively by its customers. We knew there would be very tough challenges. It’s hard as a startup to navigate around regulations. The incumbents have spent a ton of lobbying dollars. Old technology platforms are difficult to work with, and you essentially have to figure out how to partner with them or route around them. But the people who could do it successfully would build incredibly durable, important, and valuable businesses.
We’ve invested in and continue to invest in that sector. It’s an industry where depth of knowledge will really help you in a lot of areas. We’re always happy to bet on first time entrepreneurs, but no entrepreneur should underestimate the complexity that you encounter in this sector. That type of knowledge, mentality and accrued experience, makes a competitive moat as well.
“[Fintech] is an industry where depth of knowledge will really help you in a lot of areas. We’re always happy to bet on first time entrepreneurs, but no entrepreneur should underestimate the complexity that you encounter in this sector. That type of knowledge, mentality and accrued experience, makes a competitive moat as well.”
We also look for that little crazy gleam in the founder’s eye that says “Oh, if we can do this, then we can do that.” I call those iceberg startups. The 10% that’s above the water looks impressive, but then you realize there’s another 90% below the surface. Maybe the metaphor is that the ship is the incumbent, and the startup is the iceberg. And that’s utterly horrifying if you’re a ship. I don’t know what makes the investor. Maybe like a happy penguin on the iceberg!
OS: That’s a really interesting point. How do you feel about companies expanding into new businesses? How do you think about balancing the legacy business, expanding that, doubling down, and then working on value-added services as a way to expand the product?
HW: Sometimes people assume that as companies grow, they’re de-risking themselves. And I actually don’t think that’s true of the best startups. I think the best startups choose to re-risk their business at various milestones because they know that they have the opportunity to expand the set of services or products they offer against a consistent mission.
During my decade at Google, I saw that if you are a successful company, in the near term it is always worth putting more resources on your core business and not in new opportunities because you already know that the ROI will be positive. But the reality is that that’s actually the right time to start placing those next bets because you have the stability of something that’s working. And so you say, “Well, what does that put us in a position to do next?” Is expanding into this new service aligned with the mission? Is it consistent with the capabilities and brand of the company? And is it a big enough problem worth solving?
OS: What’s your take on “lending as a service” type companies?
HW: It’s a very interesting and obviously a tremendous area. There are definitely challenges for companies trying to break into that. I think some of those horizontal plays and those essential infrastructure plays are interesting, but you have to figure out how to run a very lean, tight ship because it’s only going to make sense if you can get to a certain scale. You need to decide what sort of risk you’re taking on, what sort of value you add, and if that value actually catalyzes the underlying business of your partners. But looking at the Affirm’s and so forth of the world, it’s clear that there are very smart people in this space who can get and preserve some margin because they’re doing something their partners probably can’t do for themselves, and increase revenue by taking on some of that processing risk. We think it’s one of those businesses where value is going to accrue to a very small number of players.
We’ve seen some other areas that we think are less competitive that are more emerging in the infrastructure space of banking, insurance pricing, and reinsurance. When it’s an area like this, I get really excited when I hear somebody with a contrarian take. If that person is right, they are going to potentially have an outsized result versus a bunch of people who are like, “Oh, I’m going to do Square credit for influencers, or I’m going to do credit for Patreon.” I don’t think those are, by themselves, interesting, discernible big businesses. They don’t have the same vision mission objective that, for example, TrueAccord does. Sometimes if you build the right platform, what other people are calling companies, you can call features and products.
“Sometimes if you build the right platform, what other people are calling companies, you can call features and products.”
OS: Can you tell us more about your investment philosophy and what’s next for Homebrew: How do you balance pattern recognition and Diversity & Inclusion when making early stage investments?
HW: We believe it really starts by being accessible—we respond to every cold email, work to meet new people and communities that weren’t just based on our own work histories, and bring a ‘pay it forward’ attitude to working with underrepresented segments in tech. That said, there’s still plenty of work to be done—while we’ve historically invested in female-founded companies at a rate 4-5x the industry average, I don’t believe our portfolio is yet representative of our ambitions when it comes to other underrepresented segments such as Black founders. Hopefully I’ll update this a year from now and we’ll have more to say there!