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15岁时赚钱就比父母还多,保加利亚美女如何成长为硅谷风投家?

Polina Marinova 2019年10月24日

达菲娜·托切瓦的硅谷之路,注定是条不平凡的路。

U.S. Venture Partners的普通合伙人达菲娜·托切瓦。图片来源:Courtesy of U.S. Venture Parnters
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和笔者一样,托切瓦出生于保加利亚。她的幼年时期,恰逢保加利亚处于苏东剧变后的经济转型期,虽然她的父母都是医生,但他们的月收入只有150美元。

每年夏天,她都是与祖父母在他们的烟草农场里度过的。他们要在那里伺候土地、采摘烟叶。她回忆道:“可以想象,这是一项需要大量动手的、劳动密集型的工作,滋味很不好受。”

不过就是在这个农场里,她的祖母给了她一个建议,令她终身受益。一直到她后来移民到美国,从哈佛大学和斯坦福大学毕业,进入了残酷的投行圈,她也始终记得祖母的这番话:“如果你不想靠双手讨生活,就要投资你的脑袋。”

托切瓦说道:“她的建议最终帮助我成长为一个独立、自立、自强的成年人,而这些也正是我希望在创业者身上看到的品质。”

1998年,拿到哈佛大学全额奖学金的托切瓦从保加利亚来到美国。后来,她成了微软的软件工程师,接着在斯坦福大学读了一个MBA,再后来在Vernock创投获得了投行圈的第一份工作。她也是科技公司Cloudflare的第一个机构投资者。Cloudflare是旧金山的一家网络性能和网络安全公司,最近刚刚上市。

最近7年,托切瓦一直在风投机构U.S. Venture Partners中从事网络安全和企业软件方面的投资。上周,她被公司提升为普通合伙人。最近,笔者对托切瓦进行了专访。

以下是我们的谈话。

《财富》杂志:当你15岁的时候,你做过一次花生生意,据说赚的钱比你父母的收入加起来还要多。能详细说说吗?

托切瓦:我出生在冷战时期的保加利亚。但在我的性格形成期,这个国家正试图重新定义自己,拥抱资本主义,向全世界开放。在1989年的社会、政治和经济剧变后,保加利亚经历了一段十分动荡的时期。

有些具有创业精神的人便试图利用这种变革来创业。我们身边的很多人都开了小型的夫妻店——除了我父母。他们是医生,他们的职业也限制了他们的选择。所以我当时想:“我的父母花了这么多时间学习,对事业这么投入,对工作这么擅长,但仍然只能勉强维持生计,这太不公平了。”我想帮他们的忙,所以我决定尝试自己创业。创业对我来说,意味着勇气、自由、创造力和成长。因此它在我心中有一种非常高尚、非常积极的意义。

所以我开始从当地的农场买花生,将他们烤熟并且包装好,然后通过批发商卖给连锁餐厅。整件事都是我和我弟弟做的。就靠这样一个简单的生意,我赚的钱就比我父母加起来还要多。这就是我追求独立、自立的开始。赚到了钱,固然令人兴奋,但同时我也有一种幻灭感,毕竟我受到的教育和人生经验远远不如父母,却能比他们赚到更多的钱。

你为什么决定移民到美国?

在我童年时期,有一件事对我很有意义,那就是我的父母很重视教育、道德、坚持和个人的成长。我母亲是耳鼻喉科医生,我父亲是神经科医生,然而他们的收入仍然入不敷出。虽然每个人都应该是平等的,但这种平等对我没有意义。我不希望一辈子过这样的生活。

在苏东剧变之后的变革时期,保加利亚的很多年轻人将美国视为资本主义和精英社会取得胜利的象征。作为一个想过上更好生活的青少年,去美国是一个自然而然的理想,但实际上,想去美国是非常困难的。

真正让我产生赴美留学的想法的,是一个年轻的美国志愿者,当时他在我的家乡教英语。通过他,我了解到我可以申请美国的学校,而且这些学校还可以为外国人提供经济补贴,这样我才有了去美国的可能性。申请留学的过程非常漫长,我联系了100多所美国院校,并且请求所有学校免除我的学费,同时提供奖学金。幸运的是,我获得了12所学校的全额奖学金。

于是,我1998年到了美国,开始在哈佛大学学习计算机科学。不过在此之前,我自己连一台电脑也没有,所以学习明显落后于其他同学。不过我认为,科技产业是一个增长中的市场,市场对软件工程师的需求是真实存在的。在哈佛求学期间,我一直在做助教的工作,后来又利用暑期在微软实习,最终于2002年正式成了微软的一名软件工程师。

最近对资本主义的批判越来越多,有批评人士认为,对资本主义应该进行重大改革,以更好地为社会服务。你是否认为资本主义需要改革?

我认为,我们有一些挑战需要克服。

资本主义让很多人产生了幻灭感。贫富差距越来越大,而且已经形成了恶性循环。我有必要说一下,我很欣赏当下正在进行的讨论,尤其是像瑞·达利欧和杰米·戴蒙这样的资本家都谈到了人才向上流动的问题。我认为这是一次很好的讨论,是一种与时俱进发展资本主义的方式。

你是怎么进入风投界的?

我在微软做了四年工程师和产品经理,期间主要从事安全产品方面的工作,后来我决定去读商学院。于是我去了斯坦福大学,由此过渡到风投行业。第二学年快结束时,我被介绍到了Vernock创投,当时我主要负责帮助团队寻找企业软件和网络安全方面的投资机会。

在Vernock做创投期间,你领导了对Cloudflare的第一轮机构投资,最近这家公司刚刚上市。当时,这家公司和其团队在哪些方面给了你这么早就进行投资的信心?

距离我投资Cloudflare已经整整10年了。当时有三件事让我印象深刻。当时他们正在研究一个十分痛苦的问题,那就是,有50%的流量都是不真实的,甚至有可能是恶意的。当时他们在追踪一个完全被忽视的客户群体,也就是网络的“长尾”。他们表示要建立一项服务,从“长尾”开始清理流量——而且他们愿意免费做这件事,然后找其他方式去赚钱。这与大多数网络安全公司的想法大相径庭。大多数安全公司会建立一个产品或者服务,并且试图把它卖给最大的客户——因为他们的钱包最鼓。而他们的做法很反常,但又很有道理。

这个团队非常深思熟虑,而且坚持不懈,对自己想要构建的东西清晰的愿景。我对他们的执行力充满信心,看到他们目前取得的成绩,我感到非常高兴。看到他们上市了,我也很欣慰他们没有辜负我的信任——虽然起初他们一无所有,甚至连一行代码都没有。

所以对我来说,首先我会看他们的创始人,以及他们的愿景是否清晰,对目标是否坚持。这种性格判断确实很难用语言解释,但这也是早期投资的最重要的方面之一。

你怎么知道一个创业者是真的有远见,还是只是在妄想?

这其实很难分辨。同一个人可能二者兼而有之,甚至很多人都是两者兼而有之,所以这两者很难区分。我认为执行力很重要,可能这就是二者的区别所在。成功的创业者都有出色的表现力和执行力。

我也很重视透明、诚实、事实求是和自我认知等品质。另外,现实主义和实用主义也很重要。一个团队没有这些品质,就几乎没有办法与之合作。

现在最让你感到兴奋的领域或者公司是什么?

我在USVP主要关注企业技术的领域,但我最感兴趣的是网络安全问题。我认为,安全问题与安全威胁的发展速度,几乎比任何其他行业的问题发展得都快。安全威胁是具有侵略性的,它们发展得很快,几乎有无限的变异可能。因此,网络安全是一个非常具有挑战性的问题。

技术过时的速度也是很快的,所以企业的创新周期也必须很快。即使是在经济困难时期,其他所有预算都被削减的情况下,网络安全预算仍在以每年10%的速度增长。因此,它是一个非常有吸引力的市场,吸引着我继续投资。

你怎么看比特币和其他虚拟货币等新兴资产?你投资过做区块链的公司吗?

我们没有对比特币或区块链技术进行过任何投资。这是一个我密切关注和研究的领域,但我还没有做好在这方面进行投资的准备。在区块链生态系统的基础架构构建中,肯定会有一些投资的机会。但我认为,作为一个行业,区块链仍然处在“版本1”的状态。未来将有更多的迭代,投资者在这个领域也会有更多的参与机会。

你认为区块链技术会对网络安全有影响吗?

这是一定的。我认为,区块链作为一种技术,一旦应用在网络安全领域,可能会很有意思,反之亦然。安全对于这些资产的存在和增长来说,是一个非常重要的因素。安全问题是一个基础的层面,必须在(虚拟资产)被主流广泛采用前加以解决。

你进入风投行业已经有10多年了。自2008年和2009年以来,行业的生态系统发生了怎样的变化?你认为在这样一个貌似有无限的资本的世界里,资本效率有多重要?

这10年间的变化是惊人的。在我刚进入风投界时,行业里只有少数几家种子基金,而现在则有了几百家。另一方面,大基金变得越来越大。晚期投资的资本极为充裕。因此,一些晚期投资的公司估值趋于膨胀,公司保持私有化的时间也更长了,等到它们上市时,其IPO规模也是相当巨大的。

在资本充裕的时代,资本效率变得更加重要。我认为资本效率最终是自由的。它给了你选择的权利,也给了创业者发挥的自由,使他们不必局限于烧钱率。大基金经常说要不惜一切代价地增长,却很少提及资本效率。我认为,从长远来看,高效率和负责任的增长要重要得多。现在我们发现,有些公司上市后,利润低到了失控的地步。公开市场投资者也不认同“不惜一切代价增长”是决定一家企业是否成功的最重要的因素。

说到上市,Snap公司的首席执行官埃文·斯皮格尔最近表示,上市是一次非常具有挑战性的经历。他说有一点非常重要,那就是要每季度都要发布季度指南,使公司对投资者更透明。现在,一些习惯了低调行事的私营企业,正在适应更加透明的公开市场,对此你怎么看?

每家公司都有自己的董事会,每个董事会都有不同的预期。它不像公开市场那样严格或明确。我注意到,当一家公司表现良好且快速增长时,私人投资者往往有更高的容忍度,他们往往变得不那么警惕。而公开市场投资者则要苛刻得多,远远没有私人投资者那么宽容。

这是两种不同的心态,所以,这实际上取决于公司已经习惯了私有阶段的哪一种董事会风格。有些私营公司的董事会和公开市场投资者一样,要求很严格,而且注重细节。但对一些人来说,上市之后他们会觉得很震撼,首席执行官会突然发现,竟然还有另一种全新的做事情的方法。(财富中文网)

译者:朴成奎

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She grew up in Bulgaria (like me!) during a turbulent time of change when the country was struggling to emerge from communism. Although her parents were doctors, they each earned only $150 a month.

Toncheva spent summers with her grandparents on their tobacco farm where they would pick tobacco leaves and work the land. “As you can imagine, it was just very manual, labor-intensive, and unpleasant work,” she said.

But it was on that farm where her grandmother gave her advice that Toncheva would carry with her as she immigrated to the United States, graduated from both Harvard and Stanford, and entered the cutthroat world of venture investing. Her grandmother said, “If you don’t want to make a living with your hands, you need to invest in your brain.”

“Her advice ultimately help me grow into an independent, self-sufficient, and self-reliant adult,” Toncheva said. “And those are also the qualities I look for in the founders I back.”

Toncheva moved from Bulgaria to the United States in 1998 on a full scholarship to Harvard University. From there, she worked at Microsoft as a software engineer, went on to get an MBA from Stanford, and joined Venrock for her first job in venture capital. She became the first institutional investor in Cloudflare, a San Francisco-based network performance and cybersecurity firm that just went public.

Toncheva has spent the last seven years investing in cybersecurity and enterprise software companies at early-stage investment firm U.S. Venture Partners. Last week, she was promoted to general partner. I recently caught up with Toncheva about all of this and more.

Below is our conversation.

TERM SHEET: When you were 15 years old, you created a peanut business that generated more revenue than the combined income of your parents. Tell me about that.

TONCHEVA: I was born in a communist country, but my formative years were spent in a country that was trying to define itself, embrace capitalism, and open up to the world. It was a very turbulent time after [communism fell in] 1989 socially, politically, and economically.

There were entrepreneurial-minded people who tried to take advantage of the change by starting businesses. Many people around us were opening small mom-and-pop shops — except for my parents. They were doctors and they felt very limited by their careers. So I remember thinking, “It’s kind of unfair that my parents spent so much of their lives studying, investing in their careers, and being good at what they do, yet we’re still barely making ends meet.” I wanted to help, so I decided to try and start something on my own. What entrepreneurship started to mean to me was courage, expression of freedom, creativity, and growth. It had this very noble, very positive connotation in my mind.

So I started buying raw peanuts from local farms, and I began roasting them, packaging them, and selling them through wholesale retailers to restaurant chains. I created a real operation that was powered by me and my younger brother. With that very basic business, I made more money than my parents combined. That was the beginning of my self-sufficiency and independence that my grandmother always talked about. It was both exciting, but also disillusioning in some ways to know that I can make more money than my parents with a lot less education and experience.

Why did you decide to immigrate to the United States?

One of the things that was so defining for me in my childhood was that my parents valued education, ethics, persistence, and commitment to personal growth. My mother was an ENT (ears, nose, and throat) surgeon, and my father was a neurologist, yet they still barely made ends meet as a family. That was the reality of communism — where everyone was supposed to be equal — that made no sense to me. I knew I didn’t want my life to end up like that.

During that time of change in post-communist Bulgaria, many people of my generation saw the U.S. as the symbol of meritocracy and the victory of capitalism. It was a very natural place for me as a teenager who wanted to build a better life to end up, but getting to the U.S. was very difficult.

The person who opened my eyes to studying in the States was a young American volunteer who was teaching English in my hometown. Through him, I learned that I could apply to schools in the States, that they give financial aid to foreigners, and that it’s a real possibility. It was a long process, but I ended up contacting over 100 schools. I asked all of them to waive the application fee, and I applied for financial aid at every single school. I was very lucky to get into 12 schools on full scholarship.

So I moved here in 1998, started at Harvard, and studied computer science even though I had never owned a computer and was very clearly behind all of my classmates. I thought technology was a growing market, and there was a real need for software engineers. I worked the whole time while I was at Harvard as a teaching assistant, later did internships with Microsoft during the summers, and ultimately, ended up working for Microsoft as a software engineer in 2002.

You mentioned capitalism. There’s increasing backlash against capitalism with critics saying it needs a major overhaul to better serve society. Given your experience growing up in a country where you witnessed the effects of communism, do you think capitalism needs to be reformed?

I firmly believe that we live in the best place in the world, and I say that unapologetically. That being said, I also realize that we have some challenges we need to work through.

On the other hand, capitalism has left many people disillusioned. The equality gap is wide and widening, and it’s become a vicious, reinforcing cycle. I have to say I do appreciate the discussions going on especially by capitalists like Ray Dalio and Jamie Dimon who talk about ways to create more upward mobility. I think these are good discussions to be had, and it’s a way to evolve capitalism with the times.

How did you end up in venture capital?

I spent four years at Microsoft as an engineer and a product manager. There, I worked on security products and then decided to go to business school. I attended Stanford, and that’s how I ultimately ended up in venture capital. Toward the end of my second year, I was introduced to Venrock, where I was focused on helping the team source investment opportunities in enterprise software and cybersecurity.

While you were at Venrock, you led the first institutional investment round in Cloudflare, which just went public. What did you see in the company and the team that gave you the confidence to back them so early?

I invested in Cloudflare exactly 10 years ago. There were three things that stood out to me. They were going after a really painful problem, which was that 50% of traffic is not authentic. It could be malicious. They were going after a customer group which was completely ignored, which was the long tail of the web. They said they would build a service that cleans up traffic to web properties from the long tail of the web — and they would do it for free and find other ways to monetize the business. That was very counterintuitive to how most security companies think. Most security companies would build a product or service and try to sell it to the biggest customers — the ones that have the biggest budgets. It was very contrarian what they were trying to do, but at the same time, it made a lot of sense.

The team was thoughtful, persistent, and they had a clear vision around what they wanted to build. I just had a lot of faith in them that they would execute, and I’m really happy with how far they’ve come on this journey. Seeing them go public made me feel validated in my belief in them from Day 1 when they didn’t have anything — they didn’t have a single line of code.

For me, it starts with the founders and how clear and persistent they are in their vision. It really is a character judgment that’s very difficult to explain, but it’s one of the most important aspects of early-stage investing.

How do you tell if an entrepreneur is a true visionary or just completely delusional?

It’s really hard. I think the same person can be both, and probably many of them are both, so it’s very difficult to distinguish between the two. I think the ability to execute is so important, and that’s where the distinction lies. Successful founders stand out in their ability to perform and execute.

I also value transparency, honesty, respect for the facts, and self-awareness. I think a grasp for reality and pragmatism has to be there. If those things aren’t there, it’s almost impossible to work collaboratively with the team.

What sector or company are you most excited about right now?

I work on several areas at USVP focused on the enterprise tech space, but the one I feel most excited about is cybersecurity. I think security problems and security threats evolve faster than issues in almost any other industry. Security threats are aggressive, they evolve really fast, and their mutations are almost infinite. Because of those dynamics, cybersecurity is a very challenging problem to solve.

Technologies become obsolete very quickly, and innovation cycles have to be very rapid. Even in the worst of times when budgets get cut for everything else, cybersecurity budgets continue to grow 10% year over year. That makes it a very attractive market for me to continue investing in.

What do you think about emerging assets like Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies? Have you invested in any blockchain companies?

We have not made any investments in Bitcoin or blockchain technology. It’s an area I’m following closely and studying, but I don’t feel prepared to make investments in it just yet. There are definitely opportunities in the infrastructure building in that ecosystem to make investments. But I also think as an industry, it’s still in Version 1. There will be more iterations and more opportunities for investors to play in that space in the future.

Do you think blockchain technology could have implications for cybersecurity?

For sure. I think blockchain as a technology could be quite interesting when applied to security, and also the other way around: Security is a very important consideration for the existence and acceptance for the growth of those assets. Security is a foundational layer and it has to be figured out before [crypto assets] become broadly adopted by the mainstream.

It’s been a little more than 10 years since you started in venture capital. How has the ecosystem changed since 2008 and 2009, and how important do you think capital efficiency is in a world of seemingly unlimited funding?

It’s incredible how much things have changed in 10 years. When I started, there were only a handful of seed funds, and now, there are hundreds of seed funds on one end of the spectrum. On the other end of the spectrum, the large funds have become even larger. The abundance of capital on the late-stage is just enormous. As a result, we’re seeing inflating late-stage company valuations, companies staying private longer, and massive IPOs by the time they go public.

In a time of abundant capital, capital efficiency has become even more important. I think capital efficiency is ultimately freedom. It gives you choices. It gives you options. It gives entrepreneurs the freedom to operate and not be imprisoned by their burn rate. Bigger funds talk a lot about growth at all costs and very rarely mention capital efficiency. I think efficient and responsible growth is way more important in the long-term. We’re starting to see some of that with companies going public that are wildly unprofitable. Public investors don’t seem to agree that the growth at all costs is the most important factor in determining whether a business is successful.

Speaking of going public, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel recently said that going public was a very challenging experience. One specific thing he said that’s made a big difference is being more transparent with investors by providing quarterly guidance. How do you see some of these private companies that are used to keeping things quiet adapt to the more transparent nature of the public markets?

Different companies have different boards with different expectations. It’s not as strict or clear cut as it is in the public markets. I have noticed that when a company is doing well and growing rapidly, private investors tend to forgive more. They tend to become less vigilant, while public investors are a lot more strict and much less forgiving.

It’s a different mindset, so it really depends on what type of private board a company has been accustomed to. There are private boards that are just as demanding and detail-oriented as public investors. But for some, being public may come as a complete shock when the CEO realizes there’s a whole new way of doing things now.

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