Three Big Lessons Learned from the Upfront Summit 2019

Anthony Stames, High Tech Industry Marketing Lead

February 6, 2019

The annual Upfront Summit in Malibu, Calif. is big on Hollywood and political star power, but above all it is a chance for venture capitalists and emerging companies to share ideas.

Much of the most important work done at Upfront happens in casual conversations among the 1,000 invited guests, but the keynote addresses and fireside chats that make up the Summit’s formal agenda set the tone. Here are three major takeaways from Upfront 2019:

Raising Venture Capital is Hard… Even if You’re a Celebrity

Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Gordon-Levitt were among many of the celebrities attending Upfront, and each had some sobering news about funding their business ventures. Paltrow’s fireside chat with Felix Capital’s founder Frederic Court touched on the ease with which she got potential investors to take her meetings, and her difficulty in turning those meetings into firm commitments. We know the rest of the story—Paltrow’s company Goop is now valued at more than $250 million.

Gordon-Levitt appeared at Upfront fresh off the announcement of a new wave of funding for his collaborative production company, HitRecord(opens in new tab). After eschewing suggestions from potential investors that he leverages his celebrity to promote HitRecord, Gordon-Levitt struck the recent investment deal to help the company establish a branded-content division. It took nearly 10 years to reach that point, and a compelling business reason for investors to trust HitRecord’s prospects.

Venture Capital is About Timing, Not Just Good Ideas

Scott Painter, Founder and CEO of Fair, recalled how difficult it was to get the car-financing company off the ground. Fair is a capital-intensive business, and starting out with a pile of investment cash would have helped, but that’s not the way things work. “The discipline of the entrepreneur," observed Painter, "is to bootstrap their business and recognize the inflection point where venture capital is needed.”

The CEO of Bird, a scooter-rental company, agrees. Bird got a bit ahead of itself at first, remembered Travis VanderZanden, investing in a large fleet of scooters that were so cheaply made that they weren’t worth the money. Bird restructured its approach and now manufactures scooters of its own design. The shift attracted additional rounds of VC that that helped Bird achieve a $2 billion valuation in less than a year. “2018 was about scaling,” said VanderZanden. “2019 is about focusing on the unit economics of the business.”

Diversity is Not an Option

Implicitly and overtly, the 2019 Upfront Summit championed diversity as an essential part of any healthy business model.

Nearly half the speakers were women, reflecting Upfront Ventures’ own role in an entirely women-led $75 million round of funding for The Wing(opens in new tab). Gwynne Shotwell, President and COO of SpaceX described the prospects of using her company’s capabilities to facilitate travel here on Earth, suggesting that we could soon travel—affordably—in one hour from LA to Singapore. Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams discussed the cross-party appeal of her voting-rights organization, Fair Fight(opens in new tab).

In her conversation with Time’s Up CEO Lisa Borders, Abrams noted that, “you can’t tell people to come to the table if you don’t have a seat for them.” Borders herself opened the Summit by describing her organization’s strategic roadmap. Time’s Up co-founder and actress Natalie Portman did not speak, but attended Upfront in advance of delivering the keynote address at the Cayman Alternative Investment Summit.

Mellody Hobson, president of Arial Investments, made the most direct business case for increased diversity. In her address to the Summit, Hobson identified diversity—especially among key decision-makers—as essential to understanding and serving large markets. But “what I go out and see every single day is a lot of corporate suicide.”

It was a trenchant statement of what several speakers echoed and the entire Summit implied: soon, leadership teams composed exclusively of white men are no longer the rule, they’re an aberration. And a dangerous one at that to their companies’ fortunes.

NetSuite will focus on this issue in particular during SuiteWorld, its annual user conference, with a Women in Leadership track. SuiteWorld will be held April 1-4 in Las Vegas. Click here(opens in new tab) to register.

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