(Updated January 2021)
We started Unshackled Ventures in 2014 with a single mission: help immigrant founders succeed faster. Over these years, while our mission remains the same, our strategy has evolved, our portfolio and fund size have grown, and we have learned a lot. The goal of this post is to layout our latest thinking of what we are most likely to invest in and help entrepreneurs qualify if we are the right partners for them
We invest in people. It sounds cliché, but it is the truth. At the time of most of our investments, the only thing that exists is a team determined to solve a need and build their vision. It’s normal that at the time of our investment there is no product, metrics, or even an incorporated business entity. We work hard to identify the foundational elements of a startup — extraordinary people with a bold vision, unrelenting desire to make positive change, potential unique insights, and upside.
We look for the upside — your ‘superpower.’
It’s easy for investors to worry about what entrepreneurs can’t do, instead of focusing on the upside of what they can do. This is even more likely when investing in first-time entrepreneurs, who don’t have the benefit of pointing to past entrepreneurial successes. That’s why we focus on understanding what makes the entrepreneur exceptional.
Often, the best starting point for us is to understand the entrepreneur’s journey and motivations. This requires earning the founders’ trust and prioritizing the people over the business model, sector or market opportunity.
This approach enables us to avoid stereotypes, pattern matching, and being ‘lazy’ in the evaluation of an investment opportunity.
We welcome first-time entrepreneurs.
We look for “what you can do” and are proud to partner with undiscovered, first-time entrepreneurs. We care less about what you have done before and a lot more about what you want to do, how and why.
We invest in teams with one or more immigrant (i.e., not born in the U.S.) founders or children of immigrant parents. In many cases, the immigrant founders are on a visa or seek one; and in some cases, are already permanent residents or citizens.
If any of the founding team members are on a visa (or needs one), we take over the immigration process for them, so they can focus 100% of their time on building the company, instead of dealing with or worrying about immigration. We are able to provide this support by having immigration attorneys as partners in the firm. Our track record of successful immigration work on 150+ filings for portfolio founders means we understand the nuances involved with each founder.
We can help cut through the wrong/misleading information floating around and support entrepreneurs journey while being fully compliant with the law. To be clear, we are not doing something entrepreneurs can’t do themselves (since the law is the same); we assist in making it faster, and easier to understand. “I loved working on my immigration petitions” — said no entrepreneur ever.
Note: We do not provide immigration services for a cash fee. Immigration support is a way for us to make our portfolio more valuable and support great entrepreneurs, by solving for a major time-sink in the early days of a company.
Entrepreneurs study the domains and develop insights on the next big wave of change. Instead of building our theses, we like to learn from the entrepreneurs on where they see the most significant opportunities. In other words, we are sector agnostic. Like most VCs, we look to invest in companies that can grow at a “venture scale” in large market opportunities. This includes tech (software and hardware), life sciences, and materials.
Great entrepreneurs are capable of breaking into sectors that have been notoriously tough to build venture-backed companies in. We tend to ignore business model generalizations if we believe in the entrepreneur’s capabilities, insights, and market needs.
“Too early for us” — it’s not in our vocabulary
We want to invest as close to company formation if not earlier. We like to make our initial investment as soon as the founders have the conviction to invest 100% of their energy into the company — “day 0”. Often, founders incorporate their company alongside our investment (and we guide on matters that affect founders who are in the US on a visa).
We love investing on day 0 for a variety of reasons.
- First, this is the stage when immigrant entrepreneurs spend the most time on immigration work, e.g., leaving their full-time jobs to focus on their startup. Our immigration solution is most valuable at this point of company journey when founders have the most questions.
- Second, very few investors are willing to take the risk at this stage, leaving the field wide open for us. Some of our portfolio founders got a “too early” from up to 80 investors before they met us. We saw the upside, invested with conviction, and now the same companies have oversubscribed rounds from top-tier VCs.
- Third, we believe in our capability to identify the highest upside entrepreneurs at this stage and surround them with great people to maximize on that upside. While building a company, entrepreneurs are doing a lot of things for the first time. A little help can save meaningful time, which often is the difference between hitting a tipping point before running out of cash, or not. More than 400 VCs and angels have invested in our portfolio companies after our investment, further validating our selection.
- Lastly, it’s amazingly fun to partner with entrepreneurs who are just starting. The trust relationships formed at this stage last a lifetime.
We prefer meeting entrepreneurs as early in their journey as possible and encourage them to reach out sooner rather than later. The odds of our initial investment reduce as the company/product progresses. Since most of the investment conviction comes from the founding team, we don’t need to see a product. Most often, the product starts taking shape after our investment as the teams get 100% focused on customers, their needs, and the solution.
We lead rounds
We are conviction driven investors who are comfortable taking on a similar risk as the entrepreneurs. We prefer leading, make our own decisions, and don’t wait for anyone else. Many entrepreneurs call us their sustainable “friends & family” round. We work with the founders on terms that make the most sense. We are selective in our investments with check sizes of $200k to $400k at the earliest stages of the idea (pre-revenue, pre-product, and yes, pre-incorporation).
In summary, don’t be shy in reaching out to us. We are just as likely to invest in entrepreneurs referred to us by someone we know as we are investing in entrepreneurs we meet directly. We respond to 100% of the pitches we receive directly through our website. Referrals from shared connections can make the process a little faster but won’t affect our decision. A well-articulated cold email / LI message is just as good!