Every founder knows the heart-pounding pressure of pitching to investors — and it's an experience that entrepreneur Eric Bahn believes could be improved. “As a founder, I’d walk into a room on Sand Hill Road to pitch, and I’d see a bunch of men in Patagonia vests who weren’t even looking at me,” he explains. “It felt like I was pitching to 12 Caesars.”
Bahn had another vision for fundraising in Silicon Valley; one that was more inclusive, transparent and collaborative for founders. And he teamed up with college friends Elizabeth Yin and Shiyan Koh to make it a reality.
Together, they launched Hustle Fund, a pre-seed venture fund that invests in “hilariously early startups,” in 2017.
Today, Hustle Fund has grown to over $130 million in assets, allocated across three funds and several Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs), and invests in 70 to 80 founders annually. It has also amassed a squad of over 900 angel investors who have invested more than $17 million in capital. Most importantly, Hustle Fund is upending founder-investor dynamics in Silicon Valley to cultivate a healthier environment for founders.
First Republic sat down with Bahn to discuss Hustle Fund’s fresh approach to investing, the role that "hustle factor" plays in success and how allyship can reshape founder-investor relations for a more inclusive future.
What’s your mission at Hustle Fund?
Eric: We’re a capital-driven type of fund with our own version of allyship and a unique view on what makes a good investment.
With early-stage investing you’re deciding to give entrepreneurs money with no evidence or data, just a dream. Traditionally, a lot of implicit biases are at play, based on what the last 30 years of investment has looked like. But our view is that this perspective ignores an enormous population of people capable of building great companies.
Our version of allyship is built around this thesis that, for early-stage investors, the best leading indicator of success is hustle, which we define as “great execution meeting high velocity.” This belief informs our mantra: great hustlers look like anyone and come from anywhere.
What does the hustle factor look like in practice?
Eric: For us, hustle factor is all about resourcefulness and working smart. We specifically look at teams oriented toward measurement and that seem to have the capability of putting in more experimental cycles than other teams.
Importantly, hustle factor is not about working 80 hours a week. I think the best founders are those who still have very whole lives. But when they put in the work, they can be 10 times more productive than anyone else.
Hustle Fund connects with founders in an unconventional way. Tell us about it.
Eric: We start with a wide funnel. We write a lot of small $50,000 checks into a lot of teams based on one or two phone calls — in August 2022, we reviewed 700 deals and wrote checks to seven companies.
Then, we work with founders for six to eight weeks on a growth project. We want to have a period of collaborating with the team so we can get a sense of their operational efficiency, learn about their hustle, and learn about their market. About 20% of the time, we find we’re really excited about the team’s hustle, and we invest up to $500,000 and make them a core position within our fund.
Our process works, in part, because we reduce bias along the way. We first meet with entrepreneurs over the phone, so we can focus on ideas instead of appearances, and take time to collaborate with each team so we can base our funding decisions on performance. If you have a strong process to highlight good hustlers, you’re going to practice natural inclusivity.
How is an inclusive approach beneficial to investors?
Eric: This isn't just something we're doing to feel good about ourselves. If there's a founder who's building a unicorn business but they’re being overlooked, and we have a process to work with them and reward their hustle, then we'll all make a ton of money.
Our view is that if we make more money, then other VCs will also look to adopt inclusivity as a true capital lever. Then the environment starts to become better for the next generation.
How does allyship factor into Hustle Fund’s mission?
Eric: Capital has become more commoditized and founders now have thousands of funds to choose from. There’s more competition, and founders can find people who are willing to build a much more meaningful partnership and allow for balance.
This has become revolutionary for our fund. If you take founder allyship seriously, you're open to sharing your knowledge or opening up your network. We’re always looking for ways to deliver value, which we define as providing capital, knowledge and networks. We have to be held accountable to be good human beings, or else we're not going to continue to do this business.
Which projects are you most excited about?
Eric: We invest in missionaries, not mercenaries. We’re looking for entrepreneurs who believe this world has to change and have a plan to make things better.
One of our founders, Tara Viswanathan, founded Rupa Health to create an infrastructure that allows alternative health clinics to order lab results. Hospitals and Western medical clinics have that infrastructure already, but alternative health providers don’t. Tara knows that alternative medicine will be a big part of the future of healthcare, and she’s building this incredible company to help.
Another founder, Justin Intal, is building Forage, a third-party platform for Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) transactions, for people buying groceries with government assistance. My wife grew up food insecure, and we know how buying food with EBT (also known as "food stamps") can be a complicated process, often with a negative user experience. Justin has brokered all these exclusive partnerships, so users can order Instacart or UberEats and pay with EBT. He measures his success by his impact on humans, like the number of people who received meals each week. There’s something much larger than capitalism happening here.
What’s next for Hustle Fund?
Eric: Within the next few years, our goal is to become as much of an education company as we are a VC fund, so we’re focused on growing our audience. We want to become a canonical library for founders to learn how to create their pitch, how to work with VCs and how VCs measure their growth trajectory and create a brand that lasts 50 to 100 years.
We’re also focused on educating investors. We already run Angel Squad to teach people how to become angel investors, and Camp Hustle to offer in-person networking opportunities. We’ll continue to build a diverse network of angel investors from all walks of life, and create opportunities for symbiosis by connecting founders to our network to share advice and expertise.
Personally, I'm in a stage of my career in which I'm just trying to solve for joy, and joy for me is loving the people I work with: my teammates, our investors, our founders. Above all, I’m looking to connect with people who share my vision for allyship; content and media is a great mechanism to do that.