Periodically, we feature a member from our Team to provide a behind the scenes look at the people that make it all happen at the firm.
Featured This Month:
Mark Fernandes – Managing Partner
What is your focus at Sierra Ventures?
I am a Managing Partner on the Investment Team. I split my time between looking at what’s “down the road” in infrastructure software like security, data, cloud, and what’s “around the corner” in sectors like healthtech, edtech, and fintech.
How did you get into Venture Capital?
After getting my MS in Robotics from Cal, I started out as an engineer at a startup followed by product management stints at Seagate and Cisco. I went to get my MBA at Harvard which then took me to Wall Street where I was a sell-side research analyst (one of those talking heads on CNN and CNBC) for Merrill Lynch. I covered the fastest-growing software companies that had just gone public. One of them happened to be a Sierra Ventures portfolio company and I met my future partners at the Merrill software conference where I was presenting. I tell folks interested in joining VC that there are many paths to get here. As the saying goes, “Three left turns make a right turn”. The first ten years of my career included 2 Masters degrees and 4 jobs; I have now been at Sierra for ~20 years!
What sectors and trends are you excited about right now?
- Healthtech: The tremendous opportunity created by the decentralization of healthcare is generating a new breed of exciting startups. We have only just begun to explore this area over the past few years with investments in companies in the clinical trials enrollment space, the patient care journey, telehealth, and more.
- Software Supply Chain: The pandemic made us aware of the challenges and risks in the physical supply chain. I believe the same issues exist in the software industry and there are opportunities for startups in developer tools, cybersecurity, data, and AI given the increasing connectivity of the entire infrastructure. Within the security domain, we have invested in pieces of the application stack, data lifecycle, and third-party cyber-risk.
- Democratization of Industry Verticals: This theme is pervading most industries and technologies. We are actively investing in them across fintech, edtech, and ESG. For example, within edtech, we have investments that span ML/AI for writing, the college application process, and XR for STEM content.
What are the top three things you think about when looking at a potential investment?
At our stage of investing (Seeds and Series A), it’s obvious that the bet is on the founder(s).
- I’m looking at their ability to attract a rockstar team, investors, and customers.
- I’m evaluating their thoughtfulness about the market size, their GTM, unit economics, etc.
- I’m curious about their unique insights into the space, the competition, and their approach to it.
What are the top three pieces of advice you have for entrepreneurs?
I have been strongly influenced by Andy Jassy, who was a classmate in business school and is now CEO of Amazon. Amazon has many excellent leadership principles but the three learnings that I have found most useful for my entrepreneurs have been:
- Focus on inputs, not outputs - Too often we spend valuable time at board meetings or management reviews focused on the results instead of the decisions that were made weeks, months, or years ago which influenced them.
- One-way vs. Two-way doors - When taking risks or making important decisions, think about the implications. The size of the bet you make should be influenced by your ability to recover if it does not work out. Don’t deliberate much over easily reversible decisions.
- Power of the written memo - Summarizing a complex business plan or update in a few paragraphs is hard work but it forces the team to do thorough analysis. An even harder task these days is taking the time to read your colleague’s report. But it’s worth the effort.
If you had to recommend one book to an entrepreneur what would it be?
Start with Why by Simon Sinek. Starting out my career as an engineer, I was so focused on the “How” and just did what my managers told me to do. As a product manager, I graduated to the “What” and focused on building the right mousetrap without much context. It was only after business school when I spent time as a Wall Street Research analyst that the importance of “Why” dawned on me. Why do some companies succeed? Why do the best founders hire like they do? Why do certain business models work best? For entrepreneurs, it’s critical to do your customer discovery, research the competitive landscape, and have a child-like curiosity about the reasons for tackling your market / problem.
What is your best "life-hack"?
Pack healthy snacks / lunch to work or on business trips. They might add a few years to your life.
Anything else you want to share?
I try to cook the cover recipe of every Bon Appetit magazine going back a few years. I have found cooking to be very therapeutic and a great way to connect with my family and friends.