An Interview with Marlon Nichols of Cross Culture Ventures
Marlon Nichols is a co-founder and managing partner at Cross Culture Ventures, an early stage venture capital firm with a focus on cultural investing. Before founding Cross Culture Ventures, Marlon was an investment director at Intel Capital. Prior to his time in venture capital, Marlon led successful careers in software and strategy consulting in the technology, private equity, media and entertainment sectors. Some of Marlon’s investments include Blavity, Fair, Gimlet Media, LISNR, Mayvenn, and more.
In this interview produced by OF10podcast, Will Lucas (OF10podcast host) and Marlon Nichols discuss his path into venture capital and investing in the future of black & brown popular culture.
This interview has been edited for length.
Will: What initially drew you to pursue a career in venture capital?
Marlon: Right out of undergraduate I got into an enterprise software startup and was an early employee with them. Ultimately that company was sold to SAP. I had a chance to see the early stages of a startup through to the end. And what I learned about myself was that I didn’t want to sit inside a company, say, for four or five years working on the same kind of products. I wanted to work with a variety of products and interact with a variety of executive level or management team folks at various companies. So, that told me I needed to try something else. I can imagine that at some time in the future, I’m enjoying venture right now, but in the future, I could definitely see myself back inside a company – but it would have to be the right company.
But after leaving that company, I decided I was going to go into consulting because I thought that would give me kind of the breadth and variety that I was looking for. So, I first jumped into post M&A (Mergers and Acquisitions) integration consulting work. Blackstone Group was my primary client. It was a lot of technology integration and operations for the procedures and things they were putting in place. Then I got tapped to focus on strategy for media and entertainment companies. That initially was a lot of fun just because of the types of companies that I was working with, but even then I learned something new about myself and it was, I know I don’t want to be in the company, but I also know that it doesn’t feel right to just come in to do a quick consulting gig and then walk away before any implementation of strategy that I put forward was carried out and move on and kind of rinse and repeat with the next customer.
There was something missing thereso I started looking around, thinking what else could I do? Talked to a few mentors and stumbled upon this business of venture capital. And it seemed like it was a good fit because as a VC essentially, you’re making financial investments into companies which tie you to them for 7 to 10 years. If you make a substantial investment in them, then you’re probably working with them on the board of directors or as an advisor, which gives you the opportunity to participate in strategic conversations which could potentially guide the company, but you don’t have the responsibility of operating the company – that sits with the principals, CEO and his or her executive team. I’m exposed to different technology every day, as well as interacting with executive level folks every day, whether it’s the executive team of the companies that are pitching to us or that we have invested in or executives at Fortune 100 companies that we’re brokering relationships with for our portfolio companies. It felt like the profession I needed to go into. So, I went back to business school at Cornell and I was fortunate that Cornell had an MBA lead pre-seed fund which I was given the keys to manage for a couple of years while I was there and that put me on a track to get into Intel Capital after graduating, and the rest is what it is.
Will: What particular skills does a person need to have to be good at investing in startups? What did you wish you knew earlier in your venture capital career that you’re glad you know now?
Marlon: Uh, everything. Literally everything. Coming out of Cornell having run a little pre-seed fund, I thought I was kind of a big deal. And then I got to Intel Capital and I figured out that there was so much that I did not know about the industry and it just takes time, right? I think every investor needs to develop their own lens through which they see the world,companies and opportunities. You also need some time to work with companies and see them have successes and failures and make mistakes and all that stuff because it informs your perspective. So all those things just came with time. There’s all the technical stuff, but anyone can learn that, right? As long as you can do division, essentially cap tables are division, you can do it. But the part that I guess separates the good investors from lesser investors, if you would, is how you see the world. Can you identify opportunities that others may not see right away? And then, how are you at building relationships and working with entrepreneurs? Are you someone that they want to work with and that they’ll seek out for specific things? Are you that definitive stop on their roadshow? But aside from that, understanding business models and understanding how businesses work is critical. You can’t really help someone build and grow a company if you don’t understand what makes it all go or what could make it fail.
Will: I’ve heard you talk about Cross Culture Ventures in this way before, you invest along the culturally relevant spectrum, right? So, startups that move the culture. I know that that doesn’t necessarily imply startups founded by black people, but I was having a conversation with Jason Mayden of Super Heroic in another discussion where I mentioned that it feels like we’re in this moment in time where it’s hot and there’s a lot of opportunity for authentic young black voices. You have people like Rodney Williams who’s doing an incredible job with LISNR, and Rashad Drakeford over at Beats on the executive side. Jessica Matthews at Uncharted Power, and Morgan Debaun from Blavity and AfroTech. So many more, Diishan Imira at Mayvenn even. Does it feel to you that we’re in a moment for authentic, particularly minority black voices, to shine?
Marlon: Just for clarity sake, Cross Culture’s thesis is cultural investing. The way that we define that is we study popular culture as a way to understand consumer behavior. And we do that as a way to predict what’s going to happen in the future. So if you’ve got a crystal ball and you can see where consumers are going to spend some capital in the future, you’d obviously invest in companies that that makes sense for that type of spend. So that’s essentially what we do. And then from the diversity or underserved perspective, those groups are growing in numbers and the spending power has always been ridiculous. I think black millennials account for something like 1.5 billion is spend in the US. So, it’s a powerful group and it’s a growing group. So it’s kind of idiotic to ignore that group. What we believe too is that the founders of companies, the ones that are truly successful, there is something unique about them. Something that uniquely ties them to whatever it is that they’re building. So for example, a few companies that I’m very close with and worked very close with – look at Rodney (Williams of LISNR). Rodney was born deaf. So when it comes to creating a technology based on sound that you cannot hear and imagining what possibilities can come from that. I can’t think of someone that’s going to be more passionate about solving those types of challenges than someone that was born deaf and overcame that. And, that’s Rodney. I mean there are other things that make him incredible, and the right founder for that company, but it starts with that level of passion, right? My business partner Troy (Carter) always says we want an entrepreneur that is willing to drive a Mac truck through a cul-de-sac. And if you don’t have a level of passion for the thing that you’re building and things get tough, you’re not going to drive that truck, right? You might park it on the side and walk away.
Diishan over at Mayvenn is another one that you mentioned. He grew up in a family of hairstylists. He also spent time abroad learning the import & export business and connecting with manufacturers and wholesalers of hair. So he has a firm understanding of the business of hairstylists and particularly black hair stylists in underserved communities, and then learning the other side of the platform. Nobody is better suited to build and grow and run that business than Diishan. Morgan Debaun from Blavity. I mean, they are building what essentially will be the market winner and leader in terms of if you want to understand something about black millennial culture, that’s where it is. That’s where you go, and obviously her and her team live and breathe it.
But the essence of it is we’re studying culture, popular culture, and what we can’t ignore is what’s happening in terms of demographics in the US and around the world, a lot of it is what’s happening in black and brown communities. So it is a unique time in our country’s history in a lot of positive and a lot of negative ways. But, you know, I go back to the positive and there are a lot of positive things coming out of our community.