Melody Koh - Venture Partner @ NextView Ventures
"I look for tenacity, ability to execute and intellectual horsepower. I look for signals for these characteristics and some marker of founder-market fit."
Melody Koh's career has spanned both operations and investing. She previously led Product Management, Product Design, and Analytics/Data Science at Blue Apron and now invests as a Venture Partner at NextView Ventures. Melody shares how she made this transition, the lessons she learned from both experiences and thoughts on how to get a seat at the table.
Tell us about yourself.
I grew up in Taiwan and lived there through high school. I was encouraged to look at colleges in the United States, which led me to UVA. After college, I moved to NYC and got a job in investment banking covering the Tech, Media and Telecom space. That experience sparked my interest in VC. After banking, I joined Time Warner Inc's strategic venture group investing in early stage companies. While I was there I met a lot of people in the NYC tech ecosystem which at the time was small and nascent.
After two years in venture, I decided to go to business school at Harvard. Two weeks into school, I started to dive into an idea that I'd had for a long time - a personalized wine delivery service. I spent my first year and that summer working on the concept and we raised a little bit of seed money from an accelerator. We ultimately decided to fold the business but that experience helped me decide that I wanted to be a Product Manager and learn how to build software and digital experiences. After school, I joined Fab.com as a PM, and then seven months later, I had the chance to join Blue Apron as the first product hire. Blue Apron was 18 months old with 20 people. In my 3.5 years at Blue Apron, I had the fortunate opportunity to scale with the company, building and leading a team that grew to 35 across Product, Design and Analytics.
Now, I'm back to VC at NextView Ventures focused on what we call "The Everyday Economy." We work with founders who leverage technologies to redesign aspects of everyday life in a mass market fashion.
Can you talk about the process of getting into product – how did you position yourself for your first product role?
Getting a product job without a CS or product background is definitely a Catch-22: you can't get a job without product experience, but in order to get product experience you need a job. So how do you break this cycle? For me, it was utilizing my founder experience. At my startup, I was doing mainly product work - I built our MVP with the engineering team, and ran digital acquisition. This helped immensely in the interview process.
I think people use CS backgrounds as a proxy for being technical and it can be a bit of a misnomer that CS helps you be a better product manager. There is not necessarily a direct correlation to performance- your job as a PM is not to write code and there are a lot of ways to be a student of technology without knowing how to code.
What advice would you give junior product managers?
Learn the business quickly. Figure out the fundamentals and true operating levers - customers, business model, and key areas that drive growth and profitability of the business. This is important because then you have a view on how to prioritize different initiatives.
After that, I would focus on building a strong rapport with the engineering team. As a PM, you're not producing in a way that is visible and direct. You have to rely on the engineers and designers to build the thing that you want them to build. I would also build strong relationships with stakeholders across the company because then you establish trust and allies so you can actually get things done.
You can learn the tactical and technical parts of the role on the job but it requires intellectual curiosity and some technical fluency.
Pivoting to your next phase, can you talk about how you made your way from product back into the venture world?
I got to know the NextView team when I was in business school and working on my company as a student entrepreneur. My now partner, Rob Go, and I grabbed coffee a few months prior to Blue Apron’s IPO. One conversation led to another, and next thing I knew I was joining NextView. It was never part of the master plan to make my way back to venture, but I felt that I got to see most “chapters of the movie” from an operating perspective during my time at Blue Apron. I was able to see the many facets of the company's growth. My job at Blue Apron felt finished and I started to feel like the learning curve was plateauing.
The reason I decided to come back to venture was because, compared to operating, venture gives you breadth versus depth. I missed the breadth of being able to touch and see many different types of innovation.
Reflecting back on my Blue Apron days, the time I enjoyed the most was when the company was small. That made me realize that I missed the early stage entrepreneurial energy. As an investor, you get to be close to entrepreneurs in the early days and feel that energy at the building phase.
How did your product experience impact your investment style?
I had the opportunity to help scale a company through a very fast growth trajectory from the inside. I have a ton of empathy around how hard it is to build a company and build an institution. I also understand what it takes, that is, what types of activities does a company have to pursue in order to scale. I think that is a helpful perspective to have when working with companies.
What do you look for in a founding team?
Being an entrepreneur is very difficult - it is extreme and takes years of hard work, especially if you want to raise money - you have to commit five years, maybe more to work on one thing. That requires a certain kind of obsession with the problem.
I look for tenacity, ability to execute and intellectual horsepower. I look for signals for these characteristics and some reasonable marker of founder-market fit. Why is this entrepreneur the right person for this problem? Why are you as the entrepreneur the person who is uniquely positioned to solve it?
The other thing I would call out is the founder needs to have a certain level of self-awareness. Enough to know- this is what I am good at, this is what I am not good at, these are my blind spots. This becomes very important as the company scales.
In your career, how have you made sure that you get a seat at the table?
I've been fortunate enough that I have not experienced any discrimination or gender-associated hurdles.
The first thing is to be good at what you are doing. Put out good work. Step two is being smart about making sure your contribution is known. That you get fair compensation, voice, and treatment. Thirdly, don't be shy about speaking up.
This is a tough one because it is very style driven. For me, I happen to have a style that is outspoken and that has worked for me. That does not necessarily work for everyone - it could be more challenging and it takes a little more work. Lastly, it is helpful to build relationships and find allies whether they are male or female because a lot of the time you need to have allies who support your point of view. If you get to know someone better, they get to know your thought process. On a merit basis, they are more likely to support your voice and be a supportive partner versus if they do not know you very well.
What is a trend that you are excited about?
As a seed investor, I care less about industry trends and care more about backing great people. If I had to pick one, I would say I am curious to see how retail and commerce will evolve in the next 10-20 years. Whether it is in branding, how brands talk to customers, or how they build retail infrastructure.
What is the most interesting article you've read recently?
Bob Lutz wrote a piece about the future of mobility and cars. Bob is a senior auto exec and he talked about the world 20 years from now and what self-driving will look like and the consequences for infrastructure.
Who is a female entrepreneur or investor you'd like to meet and chat with?
Kirsten Green from Forerunner.
What is your spirit animal?
Lion - I am Leo, I don't know if I have a true spirit animal but that is what I would point to as being representative of my personality.
What is the best piece of advice you've ever received?
Don't quit before you have to quit.