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Forum is 10 Years Old!

Mike Cardamone
May 21, 2024
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Sunday was ten years since I started Forum Ventures. It isn’t often that I stop to appreciate what we have built, as I’m usually heads down and focused on building brick by brick. With that said, it has far surpassed what I initially set out to accomplish and I now believe we can build an enduring firm and business that lasts for decades beyond my own career. We’ve gone from a $3.5M first fund and a one-person team (me) to $100M+ in AUM, 33 full-time employees, close to 500 portfolio companies (and adding 100+ more per year), and 3 cohesive strategies with our Venture Studio, our flagship Accelerator, and our Pre-Seed funds. And we’ve now built the team, platform, infrastructure, and track record to really scale from here. All while also building my family from 0 to 4 kids over that same time, which has created its own set of challenges but has also been incredibly rewarding. 

A brief history of Forum Ventures (fka Acceleprise): 

After two operating roles at high-growth companies, Box and AcademixDirect, I  began socializing the idea of starting a B2B SaaS-focused accelerator in San Francisco. There were only a few in the country at the time but the model was starting to be proven out by some of the brand-name accelerators that are still thriving today. The first wave of SaaS companies in the Bay Area had reached massive scale and it was clear to me that all software was moving in that direction. After unsuccessfully landing a role at various VC firms I interviewed at, I was determined to start my own fund, despite many people telling me the world didn’t need another accelerator. I come from an entrepreneurial family and grew up around my parents' business, and I had adopted that overly optimistic founder mindset––believing strongly in the potential for success despite the odds. I thought if I could keep the cohort sizes small and truly feel like we were an extension of their founding team, helping with go-to-market and fundraising especially, we could meaningfully impact the trajectory of the companies. 

I was able to get early buy-in from amazing SaaS execs and leaders like Nick Mehta, Karen Page, and Rowan Trollope, which gave me the confidence to leave my job in January 2014 and go for it. Acceleprise was one of the few B2B-focused accelerators that existed and they were based in DC. I didn’t know the Partners, but cold reached out to let them know I was planning to launch something similar in SF and to see if they had any advice. They were each running their own successful businesses at the time and were not planning to raise another fund, but they offered to support me. We ended up agreeing that I would license their brand with an exclusive license but launch as a completely separate management company, GP and fund. One of their Partners, Sean Glass, came in as an early investor and he and Allen Gannett were especially helpful advisors as I got started.  Dave Lambert at Right Side Capital and Larry Bernstein at EV Private Investments were also both early investors in our first fund and are now anchor LP’s for our accelerator funds and have been mentors for me as we have built the business. Both have been incredible partners for us over the last 10 years.

I consulted with a few startups to pay the bills in the first half of 2014 while I set out to fundraise. I told myself if I get to $1M in commitments I would form the management company and Fund I, and announce it to my network in order to create accountability. It took a lot of meetings, and with a little bit of luck, I was able to get to that number by May of 2014 and officially kicked things off. I looked at 100 companies for that first cohort and selected 7 of them. I created enough buzz and the companies showed enough early progress that I was able to pull together another $2.5M in commitments over the next 12 months and did a final close at $3.5M in Q2 2015. 

It has certainly not been up and to the right since then. There were several points where it was not clear how it was going to work. As I moved to NYC to expand the accelerator there, I was able to bring on Whitney Sales as an early partner and MD to run the SF location while I focused on launching it in a new market. During that time, I took on a part time consulting/Venture Partner role with the SaaStr Fund to help with my personal cash flow and to learn from Jason Lemkin, who has proven to be a world class SaaS investor. Once that engagement ended, I didn’t have enough revenue to pay the team in SF, the one hire I made in NYC, and myself. So I went to one of my larger LP’s and told him I had to get another part time job to help support my new mortgage and second kid. He asked me how much I needed to avoid part-time work because he was certain this was going to be successful and didn’t want me distracted. I gave him a number and he offered to buy some of my carried interest in my first fund at a mutually agreed upon value and told me I could buy it back some day at a slight premium if it worked. He may have believed in it more than I did at the time. I’ve since bought it back and he is still an anchor LP in our core Accelerator funds to this day, and I consider him a friend. I also raised money for our management company along the way ahead of where fees and revenue were in order to grow the team and lean into growing the business. 

About 5-6 years ago, it was working so well that my ambition and goals for the business got a lot larger than they had been the previous 4-5 years. I brought on James Murphy and Jonah Midanik initially as Managing Directors for the accelerator program so that I could focus on building the business and raising capital. Around that same time, Olivia O’Sullivan joined as well, and about 2 years ago Bocar Dia joined. In all four cases, it very quickly became clear that they were going to be game-changing for our business and I am lucky to call them all partners today. We’ve come a long way since Jonah, James and Olivia joined, including a major rebrand from Acceleprise to Forum Ventures, launching in Toronto, starting two new strategies and building the team from about 6 to 32. 

What I learned along the way: 

  1. Be patient. Venture is a long game and can be an emotional roller coaster. We’ve invested in close to 500 companies over the last 10 years. We’ve seen hot companies cool off, slow-to-get-going companies all of a sudden take off, and everything in between. It takes a long time to know if you are any good or if your strategy can create persistent results vs. getting lucky with one early investment. My wife always asked me where the mythical carry checks were that I kept telling her would come some day. It took 7 years into starting the fund to get my first carry check! 
  2. Find your true believers and go all-in on building genuine relationships with them. I’ve been fortunate to have folks like Nick, Karen and Rowan support and invest with us for a decade. I also have two anchor LP’s for our accelerator funds that have been incredible partners and advisors for a decade now and I anticipate will continue to be for a long time. 
  3. It sounds cliche, but surround yourself with people smarter than you. It took me a long time to relinquish the feeling of having to be involved in everything and to truly become self aware about my own weaknesses. I’m really proud of the team and culture we have built here at Forum; and it’s what has allowed us to build the platform we have today. 
  4. Figure out your right to win and lean into that. Venture, at a simplistic level, is about sourcing, picking and winning deals. Sourcing is often driven by network, brand and past success as an investor. Claiming to win by being the best picker often takes a really long time to prove out, so it’s hard to differentiate on as a new fund. Winning deals usually comes down to paying the highest price, speed of decision, brand/reputation and/or relationship. The key is finding something that is repeatable and sustainable, and hopefully gets stronger the longer you are in the market executing. 
  5. Build a business, not just a fund. Early on, I made the decision to build a business vs just a fund. It wasn’t just about the GPs leveraging their network to source deals and be great at picking. I obviously aspire to be a great investor but I also wanted to create a platform and well-oiled machine that would give us a sustainable advantage for decades. That requires a lot of people, so we had to really think through processes, compensation, and creative structures to drive more revenue than our AUM would otherwise allow, and more recently, automate some of our operations leveraging AI. A profitable business can endure and be more nimble as the market moves up and down. 
  6. Lean into building the brand early. We didn’t invest in brand for a long time. It’s not my strength, nor my personality. I took the approach of being maniacally focused on founder experience, figuring the more founders we work with who say great things about Forum, the more the brand will grow organically over time. That is certainly starting to happen but it took a lot longer than I anticipated it would. We had to be relentless about building a network and an outbound engine to find great companies until more recently when we doubled down on brand building. Inbound has now caught up as a very meaningful sourcing channel for us. The stronger the brand, the easier it is to win deals as well. 
  7. Stay true to your mission. My top priority from the very beginning was to over-index on founder experience. 10 years later and the founder experience is still the heartbeat of our organization and culture; and is a big part of our strategy. 

So what’s next for Forum Ventures:

Our aspiration is to build a platform and community that provides unparalleled support for early stage B2B SaaS founders from 0 to 1; and provides a sustainable and repeatable strategy that consistently drives outsized returns for our LP’s. We think we are well on our way to building that platform and plan to spend the next 10 years doubling down on our existing three strategies to scale the number of companies we start and invest in, and be able to bring more capital and resources to each of them. I couldn’t be more excited about what the next decade will bring. Here’s to another 10 years building Forum. Onwards and Upwards! 

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