Investing in Emerging Markets, Startup and Corporate Innovation & Market Dynamics with Courtney Powell, COO and Managing Partner at 500 Global

On this week's episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Courtney Powell, COO and Managing Partner at 500 Global. Courtney and I talk about investing in emerging markets, the differences between startup and corporate innovation, and the current market dynamics that startups and corporate should be paying attention to.

Inside Outside Innovation is the podcast to help the new innovators navigate what's next. Each week, we'll give you a front row seat into what it takes to learn, grow, and thrive in today's world of accelerating change and uncertainty. Join us as we explore, engage, and experiment with the best and the brightest innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneering businesses. It's time to get started.

Interview Transcript with Courtney Powell, COO and Managing Partner at 500 Global

Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I'm your host, Brian Ardinger. And as always, we have another amazing guest. Today we have Courtney Powell. She is COO and Managing Partner of 500 Global. Welcome to the show. 

Courtney Powell: Thank you so much for having me. Excited to be here Brian. 

Brian Ardinger: In a certain way, it's coming back to our original roots of the Inside Outside podcast. Where the original podcast episodes were an inside look at startups outside the valley. And we thought, hey, what better way to have a conversation around that then inviting you to talk about what's going on at 500 Global. 

Because for those who may not be familiar with 500 Global's $2.7 billion under assets and management. You've invested in probably 2,000 to 3,000 startups around the world. And 45 Unicorns have come out of that, in nine different countries. So, you've definitely been on the forefront of looking at what entrepreneurship is outside the valley. Can you talk about your journey into this innovation space from entrepreneur to corporate innovator to venture capital? 

Courtney Powell: You kind of mentioned a little bit about 500's history in terms of starting in the Valley, but then pretty quickly deciding to invest worldwide. So, I actually came to know 500 pretty early into my own entrepreneurial journey.

So, in 2010, I was based in Austin, Texas. And I had already actually been a part of a really early startup that had done well. But I joined when I was 19. So, one of the first employees with the two other gentlemen who started it. I kind of watched firsthand as that company went from literally being, I remember it so clearly in my mind, it was like a yellow legal pad that they were describing the technology on that they wanted to do. 

The company was called Boundless Network and they were trying to create automated group buying software for corporations who wanted to buy pens and koozies. And drive down the cost by having this kind of group buy system. So I saw really up close what it was like to go from this legal pad to raise what I think amounted to, you know, more than $50 million ultimately.

And the company then got acquired down the road by Zazzle's. I saw this journey and right away knew that this was my calling. I wanted to start companies. And so about five years after I started working at Boundless in 2010, I launched my own company, which at the time was really early in marketing automation consulting.

So, I was doing Salesforce implementation, also marketing automation consulting. That taught me a lot about what it was like to run my own company and particular consulting firm, which you know, has a lot of challenges. 

A few years into that, I was struck with an idea for my first tech startup. And that was around helping consumers when they had problems with big companies like Time Warner Cable, or Airlines, or, you know, Telecoms or all these other companies.

So long story short, I started the company in Austin. And in Austin, the venture network at that time was very small. It's still relatively small, but very, very small then. And I remember feeling like, okay, I don't really know how to get plugged in to the network here. I am a female, a young mother trying to raise capital. I'm the only woman in the room and, you know, in 99% of the cases. 

And somebody told me about 500. So, 500 had just started, you know, they were a year, I guess, into existence. And I made my way to the Valley. Applied to the accelerator. Got into one of their early accelerators. And that was really my first introduction to the world of Silicon Valley. And having received investment from 500. After that, I then ran that company for a few years before shutting it down. And then got into building consumer real estate tech.

And I eventually became CEO of another company called Agent Pronto. Which is still up and running. Ultimately it got acquired by Fidelity. And then after my time at Agent Pronto, I joined Keller Williams. And I joined Keller Williams, not as a real estate agent or at the brokerage level, but at the parent company level. Where I focused not just on building out consumer tech initially, but eventually got into corporate dev.

And began helping them to diligence companies, look at investment opportunities, and long story short decided that, you know, I wanted to move it to venture someday and see the other side of the table and eventually made my way to 500. 

Brian Ardinger: Excellent. I want to dive into 500 and what you're doing now. And can you talk a little bit about the strategy that 500 has employed to uncover high value opportunities in under-invested markets?

Courtney Powell: Yeah. So, you know, as I mentioned, it was really two things that 500, I like to say, got right. One was this idea of diversification. You know, especially when 500 started in 2010, the idea of investing in a 100, 200, 300, 400 companies a year was very, very new and controversial. Diversification was really important.

And then as I mentioned, also investing outside of the Valley. Even when 500 was looking for example, to move the office from Mountain View to San Francisco in 2013, that was still odd. Let alone the idea of, you know, investing today in over 80 countries. 

That really just came from the belief that we knew that there was talent everywhere. And really, it was just a matter of being able to pair that talent and those opportunities with capital. And I would also say the practices that maybe were commonplace in Silicon Valley, that in other countries and other regions, weren't yet as mature as what we were used to in the Valley. 

So that combination of both the investment practices. The friendliness toward founders. The standardized terms. You know, the combination of really wanting to not just provide capital, but also make sure that we were bringing founder friendliness, standardized terms, to these other regions and just trying to, you know, meet these founders who were creating incredible ideas and definitely had the skillset to be able to take things forward. That was really the spark and the ethos that has built 500 into what it is today. 

Brian Ardinger: It's interesting. You talked about some of the positive benefits that the Valley brings as far as when it comes to venture, and that. Can you talk to maybe some of the bad habits that venture capital in Silicon Valley, you try to avoid when going into different markets?

I think about some of the things of over-indexing, for example, as you have to be a Stanford grad or things along those lines that you typically hear about. How do you avoid some of the habits or bad habits or traps that venture capital in the valley is known for? 

Courtney Powell: I mean, I think it's definitely well-known that venture capital as a whole has a diversity problem. I think of that problem, not just in terms of the demographic diversity, but also the geographic diversity as well. So, I think with 500, in particular from the beginning, there was a focus on a couple of different things. 

Number one, having been built by operators and people who didn't have the Stanford background necessarily. I think made the firm keenly aware that there were many other people out there who maybe had a non-traditional path who wasn't the 20-year-old Stanford male.

And so right away was really actively looking to not only invest in founders who were diverse, but hire teams, investment decision makers who were diverse. So today, I mean, I know there are very few funds and firms led by females. I think we have been really open with our own diversity stats and our own commitment with regard to investing in underrepresented founders.

And as I said, also, geographically. I think this is a huge opportunity, as well. So, I do think that you see today is still only just a few percentage points of VC actually being invested into women. I think that's such an interesting stat because around the world, even in the Middle East, for example, where people often think that, of course there couldn't be like a huge amount of deal flow of female founders, almost 30% of our portfolio is female founded. In the Middle East. 30%. 

So, this isn't a pipeline problem. It's not a pipeline problem in the U S. It's not a pipeline problem anywhere else in the world. It is really the intent, and I think the makeup of the teams who are making investment decisions. 

Brian Ardinger: So how do you go about identifying talent and how is it different across cultures, across languages and that? Are there things that specifically you look for? 

Courtney Powell: That's an interesting question. And I think it varies a lot. It has varied over time, as our firm has evolved from starting as an accelerator to today investing multiple stages. All the way from pre-seed to pre-IPO. You look for very different skillsets. But at the end of the day, what has been really critical for 500, is a commitment to, you know, the original ethos backing these founders all around the world. All around the various underrepresented communities. 

And I think also, you know, the belief that we have that's core, is we say that our mission statement is uplifting people and economies around the world through entrepreneurship. And what we mean by that is we want people who believe that investing is actually the best way to advance societies. To advance individuals as well. 

So, you know, we want to make sure that we're doing that in a way that is contributing to the development of these ecosystems. And it's done in a sustainable way. And I don't mean sustainable in this sense. You know, more of like the ESG mindset. But more like we want to be contributing to communities where we're hiring people who are going to be long-term in a community. Who are going to bring skillsets back to that community, that they are local to? We really try to avoid the fly in fly out model.

And in these ecosystems, we say that we are both hyper-local and global. And that's really true. We're building, you know, long-term teams on the ground. And of course, keeping connected back to our kind of home base in Silicon Valley. But we really believe that we can contribute to an ecosystem in that way. 

Brian Ardinger: You talk a lot about the diversity in the companies and the people that you invest in. What are some of the opportunities that you're seeing in emerging markets, whether it's region specific or sector specific? What are you seeing out there?

Courtney Powell: This year in particular, I've spent a lot of time in the, in the middle east and Africa and Pakistan, which has been really fascinating. And the key lesson that I've learned at my time at 500 is that founders are the same every where.

Like the energy, the creativity, this need to kind of bring to life some value or some product, you know, that is inside of you. That energy is the same whether you're talking to somebody in Cairo or, you know, in Iowa, or in Silicon Valley, it doesn't matter. 

I think some of the trends that we're seeing definitely a huge boom in FinTech. But I'll qualify that and say that the types of FinTech plays that are exciting in emerging markets are very different in some sense than what you might see today coming from the Valley. So, a huge emphasis on financial inclusion. 

So, if we just take Pakistan for a moment. 230 million people in Pakistan. Less than 300,000 people have ever made an investment in the stock market. So that tells you, you know, the gap that exists. Or I was in Senegal recently. And Senegal, the population size is escaping me. I think it's about 30 million. But less than 30,000 people have salaried jobs. 

So, the ability to create really infrastructure level products for financial inclusion, to bring people out from the shadow banking world and into a more traditional and hopefully better system, I think is really incredible.

Brian Ardinger: We talked earlier about you had a chance to spend some time in the corporate innovation space as well. I'd love to get your insights on how corporate innovation compares to some of the things that you're seeing in startup innovation. What's similar what's different? 

Courtney Powell: It's very interesting to me now to reflect back on my time in corporate development and corporate innovation, because today I'm often asked to do that at the government level. Where we'll come in and work, you know, with these governments around the world who are trying to take on actually a very similar mandate, right? How do we incorporate this innovation into our own workforce? But at the same time, you know, there's also some startups that we're looking to back. 

And, you know, I think what I took away from my time in corporate innovation, there's a lot of room to create misaligned incentives. What I hear and have seen is oftentimes we have corporations who are trying to either buy an innovation and become innovative by osmosis. Or by innovation and quell it immediately and create an exclusive product for themselves. Right. 

And both of those things I think are very, very difficult to do. But I've also seen it work well where both parties are very upfront about what they can bring to the table. And the guardrails are really set up front. In order to either A: Allow innovation to continue to flourish or B: Know exactly where in the value chain they're expected to build into. You know when they're acquiring these companies. 

We get asked a lot of time as 500 to help corporations create these programs for themselves, run accelerators, this type of thing. And I've seen some of that be successful as well. But again, it really has to be about understanding what those incentives need to be and, you know, making sure all parties are really aware of what the opportunities are. 

So, I think it's tricky and I see it now much differently, you know, as the other side of the table, I think. I still think, you know, you've got great examples of companies out there who get it right. And build teams and let them run. And give them the mandate and the support needed to really, you know, find some innovative ways to bring themselves into the digital world. 

Brian Ardinger: Absolutely. I don't know if it's similar type of dynamics in a startup realm around how difficult it is to create a billion-dollar company from scratch. I think it's probably similar odds for corporations oftentimes to think and become an innovative company. 

Courtney Powell: I think that's a great way to put it. And you know, I actually think one of the best examples of corporate innovation that we've ever seen is probably not one that we think of as corporate innovation, which is Amazon.

Amazon building their core business of course their online retailers and platforms but having given teams within Amazon the freedom to experiment with something on like AWS who today is driving like the biggest profit center of the company. 

But again, that's less of an initiative and more, just a result of a culture that it's okay to fail. That's really, I think the innovative characteristic that a lot of the programs that, you know, I think have evolved maybe could use more of. 

Brian Ardinger: Absolutely. Obviously, we're living in very uncertain times. Current market dynamics are changing, especially in the United States where you're hearing a lot of venture capital firms saying, you know, buckle up for downturns and recessions and everything around that. What is your take on the current market dynamics? What are you seeing both inside or outside the Valley? 

Courtney Powell: You know, I've been asked this question a lot in emerging markets, because I think people are really looking to understand the U S position right now. I think generally speaking from my vantage point, it will be difficult to curb the volatility unless inflation is dealt with much more aggressively than what it has been in recent months and even years. 

Now, I think in terms of how it's affecting the startup ecosystems around the world I am definitely seeing a slowdown at the later stage and that's across markets. You know, whether it's the US or the Middle East, or I'm hearing less about East Asia, but certainly already in Europe as well. Those later stage rounds, I mean, you had the market, you had Tiger, SoftBank, people kind of flooding these big, late-stage rounds who now are suffering in the public markets. And therefore, they don't have as much cash to cross over with. I think that's a real consideration for later stage investors.

We're seeing less of it in the seed stages. However, I think that people are pretty spooked. Founders are spooked. So, I think so many people are telling their own portfolios to really just kind of buckle down. And we're starting to see founders just try and close these rounds as quickly as possible.

And you know, it's a great opportunity to focus on, you know, on one side of the table, on your unit economics. And if you have the war chest right now, then it's a great time to deploy it. So, I think there will be people who come out ahead of this downturn. Certainly, it's a great time to deploy capital. 

And I think we all hope that whatever this is over quickly. But in any case, the arc of history is still heading toward technology just leveling every single industry. So, I think there's still a lot of upside to be had.

For More Information

Brian Ardinger: We are definitely living in interesting times, and I really do appreciate you coming on Inside Outside Innovation to tell us a little bit about what you're seeing out there. Courtney, if people want to find out more about yourself or about 500, what's the best way to do that? 

Courtney Powell: For myself, you can follow me on Twitter @CourtneyPowell and same on LinkedIn. And with 500, you can check us out at fivehundred.co or follow us @500globalVC on Twitter. 

Brian Ardinger: Excellent. Well, Courtney, thanks again for being on the show. Really appreciate it. And looking forward to continuing the conversation. 

Courtney Powell: Thanks so much Brian. Take care.

Brian Ardinger: That's it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.

FREE INNOVATION NEWSLETTER & TOOLS

Get the latest episodes of the Inside Outside Innovation podcast, in addition to thought leadership in the form of blogs, innovation resources, videos, and invitations to exclusive events. SUBSCRIBE HERE

You can also search every Inside Outside Innovation Podcast by Topic and Company. 

For more innovations resources, check out IO's Innovation Article Database, Innovation Tools Database, Innovation Book Database, and Innovation Video Database

Also don't miss IO2022 - Innovation Accelerated in Sept, 2022.