Making Life Better for a Billion People
September 03, 2016
Craig Vachon explains his job as an angel investor, mentor/advisor and serial entrepreneur in very plain terms: “The way I earn my stripes is by asking ‘How I can help?’ People tell me, and if I’m able, I attempt to do so.”
That might sound too simple, but Vachon has used that system to raise $1.125 billion for 26 companies in seven countries. For more than 25 years Vachon has been a leader of the global technology business revolution, doing product development (he holds two patents), corporate business development (currently for the world’s leading provider of private / secure internet access), sales and marketing. But helping startups is his passion.
Last year he and his partners were the first to invest in SupplyShift, a software-as-a-service (SaaS) company that helps enterprise businesses manage their supply chains. He did so for two reasons: He is only interested in enterprises that are doing something good, and he is only interested in entrepreneurs who are thinking big.
“I try to focus on things that are going to have a huge impact in the world,” Vashon says, “and I think SupplyShift is one of those companies.”
The key term in that paragraph is “huge.” As in: a billion. In addition to a simple modus operandi, Vachon has developed a very simple rule for choosing companies to invest in.
“When I work with start-ups, I want to see what kind of questions they ask, what they want to learn—and I also need to know if they’re interested in affecting the lives of a billion people‑—if they’re working on how to buy their next Ferrari.”
When Vachon says that thing about “a billion people,” he is being literal. As an investor he is in high demand, so he has a rule. Show me something that can have an impact on a billion people. Then we’ll talk.
Birth of an Industry
Vachon has watched SupplyShift closely from the very beginning—in fact he served as a mentor at a weekend-long Santa Cruz hackathon dubbed TechRaising, during which founders Alex Gershenson and James Barsimantov put together a team and built the first iteration of their game-changing product.
Over the next couple of years, Vachon watched as SupplyShift built out its cloud-based network, developed relationships with customers including multi-national corporations in a variety of fields, and won laurels at conferences including TechCrunch Disrupt and Sustainable Brands.
He was impressed by their rapid growth—and more so by their tenacity.
“That’s the mark of great entrepreneurs,” he says. “You can’t fake it. I need to know that they are not going to be giving up on this thing.”
Gershenson and Barsimantov, both of whom hold PhDs in environmental economics and moonlight as university professors, were experts in the field before they founded SupplyShift. They were and are partners in a consultancy founded in 2008, which helps big companies avoid the profound risks that come with sourcing materials around the globe.
They watched as the field of supply chain management exploded, and wrestled with the inadequate tools available for managing the massive amount of data the discipline required. So they decided to build their own.
From the beginning, Gershenson and Barsimantov aimed to disrupt and dominate the supply data chain management space. Like most VCs and angel investors, Vachon appreciates that kind of ambition.
“I think people get focused on too-small iterations,” he says. “I had the good fortune to deliver to the world some of the first cellular networks. I saw how the world changed because of bringing information to billions of people. You see that kind of impact and you want to do that again.”
Vachon’s primary focus for the past TK years has been Anchor Free, which pioneered a technology that allows users to access the internet anonymously, and made world news when millions of people downloaded it during the Arab Spring. Today the company has hundreds of millions of users around the world and growing rapidly.
“What we really provide is freedom of information and freedom of expression,” says Vachon, who serves as Anchor Free’s VP of Corporate Development. “These are basic human rights, and we are able to bring them to billions of people.”
Vachon believes SupplyShift can do something similarly important by helping rid the global marketplace of goods that are socially or environmantally irresponsible.
“When I first heard their pitch,” he recalls, “I didn’t really have strong feelings—good, bad or indifferent. I was entirely skeptical. This was not something I ever planned to invest in.
“But Alex and James worked their asses off. They truly convinced me that they were out to make the world a better place, and that’s a very worthy thing to do. These guys are the real deal.”
Over the past few months, as SupplyShift has begun to gain traction with industry-leaders in fields as diverse as specialty coffee, industrial materials and household consumer products, Vachon’s enthusiasm has grown. He’s seen this happen before.
September 03, 2016