Bruins Built This: Boost VC
By Jack Garland
Sept. 23, 2023 4:03 p.m.
Interested in venture capital? Listen to renowned venture capitalist Adam Draper share his thoughts on smart investing and the attributes of successful entrepreneurs with Podcasts Editor Jack Garland.
Jack Garland: Hello and welcome to Bruins Built This. I’m Jack Garland, the Daily Bruin Podcasts editor. In the spring, I went to the Bruin Tank Startup Pitch Competition on campus to interview the students who were pitching their companies and the judges who were hearing the pitches. We made a special episode of Bruins Built This that covered that competition. And one of the judges I interviewed for that episode was Adam Draper. He graduated from UCLA in 2009, and he’s the founder and the managing director of a venture capital firm called Boost VC, which invests in cutting edge and high tech companies. Keep listening to hear our full interview.
Adam, I’m so glad we could finally get you on the podcast. Welcome to the show.
Adam Draper: Thanks for having me, Jack. This is fun. I’m excited to talk to you.
JG: So Adam, you haven’t just started one company, you’ve actually started two companies. You’re a two-time entrepreneur. So we’re gonna dive into Boost VC later. But first, could you talk to us about your first venture?
AD: Yeah, so my senior year of college at UCLA, I founded a company called Xpert Financial with a good friend named Thomas Foley. Our mission was to make secondary securities, which is just another word for stock, more liquid. So what we were trying to do was make it so that if you wanted to go buy shares of something like Stripe, that is not public, we would facilitate that transaction. So we started basically a secondary stock exchange for private shares, like things that had not listed on the NASDAQ or the NYSE. We learned a lot, it was a long journey of four and a half years and we became a brokered dealer. We got it. So we had a FINRA and SEC. We had to be approved as brokers. So we had to take our series 7 and 63. And that just says you are legitimately allowed to transact securities by law. And we did some transactions, and at the end of the day, we ended up having to close. We weren’t able to in that timeframe. We were all pretty early, there was another company called Second Market and another one called Shares Post. And they all sort of ended up moving outside of exactly what we were doing. But it was an incredible experience. I still have a team that I feel like was family that I got to start that with. And I’m still fantastic friends with everyone who started, and they went on to all do amazing things, starting things, joining things, building things. It was an incubator of our skill sets, of course. And then from there, I realized I had gained an experience, I was able to sort of help new entrepreneurs not make the same mistakes I did, whether that be hiring mistakes, firing mistakes, whatever the mistakes were. And so I started to mentor a few startups, I started to invest in a few startups, a couple of those startups ended up being things like Coinbase, Amplitude, Benchling. That makes it sound like I just hit dingers, there were a lot of other ones. And from that I was able to leverage my experience to be able to start what Boost VC was. And we started as an accelerator, I raised $500,000, actually to build a crowdfunding website. But after we ended up selling off the parts of Xpert Financial, we ended up launching this thing called Boost Funder, and we were the first crowdfunding for equity website. And then I took that money, and I sort of restructured it to be a small fund, have $500,000 to invest in, we ended up investing in 24 companies over the course of like six to ten months. Some of those companies went on to build really great things. And then that was sort of the beginning. I partnered up with my current partner, Brandon Williams, to be able to pursue this journey of building a fund from the ground up. People don’t think about funds as operating like businesses, and I think that they very much are. So that’s one of the things I believe.
JG: So can you tell us about that? How can a fund be built from the ground up and operate like a normal business?
AD: Yeah, a lot of people come up to me who are in school, or after school even, they always say like, what’s the approach to becoming a venture capitalist or an investor? And, first of all, I don’t think any career, if you’re going to be the best in the world at it, has any specific line you should go in. You’re thinking, “Hey, I’m going to try to be the best,” right? You want to go in there and think like, “Hey, I have the skill set, I have the ability to learn and become the best at whatever I’m doing. It might not be for me, but I’m gonna learn, I’m gonna keep going.” A lot of people come up to me and ask that question. And I always say, “Well, the only thing you have to do is invest in a company, and suddenly you’re an investor.” And so go invest in a company. Because I can say a lot of things, but if you haven’t experienced the highs and lows of either starting a company or being along for the ride, to be able to support a founder, it’s very difficult to be able to explain exactly what those things are. So that’s my starting point. If you have 100 bucks, $1,000, $10,000, go invest in a company, see what you learn. And it’s probably the best learning experience you can have. My first investments were completely learning experiences. And I was able to leverage the network I built through that to be able to build Boost VC.
We see on the operating side, at the end of the day, there are three parts of venture capital. There’s deal flow, decisions, and delighting the startup. There’s also limited partners, but I’m sort of ignoring the fact that I have to fundraise. This is just talking about the operations side of a venture capital fund. And so in deal flow, that’s generated from a lot of different things, doing podcasts, writing blog posts, your own private network. You probably have friends who have started things. If you think right now about the most impressive person you know, and they’re starting a company, you should probably invest in that company. You are a good filter. I don’t think I’m necessarily a better filter than the average person. I do think that I have enough experience now that if you and I both looked at 100 different deals, you and I would both pick the top 20 of those deals, but the difference is that I think I would pick the top 10 better. I think that it’s a lot like sports cards. Like you’re just filtering through a box of cars trying to figure out what do other people believe that you don’t believe is going to be the future, or what you do believe that other people don’t believe. So in deal flow, that’s a big part of it, making sure that you get to see the things you want to see. At Boost VC, we’re the pre-seed fund for deep tech. So we ended up really focusing on really big ideas, hard technologies, great teams. I tried to be in the mix of those types, that general group. It could be alumni of different companies, it could be graduates of universities. We love to be the first check in. We love giving people a shot. And we try to help people as much as we can. And so on deal flow, you generate it however you can. Everyone has their own superpower on how to generate deal flow. Some people lean into the network, some people lean into the marketing, it’s all different.
On the decisions, everyone has different gut decisions that I do. I focus on early stage, so the data points of success, as it were, like knowing that something is going to work, don’t exist. Later down the line, you can actually have graphs that show your revenue and whatever metrics people use to measure success. But we have to bet on the person and the market. And those are two things that I feel I’m pretty good at sussing out exactly whether or not the person who’s talking to me is confident in themselves enough to build a business. So there are a lot of very talented people who can build great technology, who cannot build a great business. And they could learn the skill sets, but they ended up being really, really focused on the technology and they don’t think about how to commercialize it. I think everyone is capable of everything. Like that’s sort of my thesis on life. But it is about focus and understanding. And so I think that a lot of people take their past experience and they only lean into that rather than trying to be uncomfortable, and starting a company is all about being uncomfortable every day. Everyone’s ended up with their own sort of algorithm of how to develop trust and confidence in the person that they’re going to be investing in. And at Boost VC, I have a partner who’s incredibly valuable in order to bounce sort of my feelings and my thoughts and my convictions and theses off of. And that’s how we end up making decisions. We challenge each other in order to come to the decision.
And then the third part is delighting the startup. And I think a lot of people do that in different ways. At the end of the day, a startup is trying to partner with a venture capitalist for capital, general experience, and guidance. One of the things that Boost VC has done, I’ve invested in something like 450 early stage companies. And just having the experience of this early stage spot from zero to three years of trying to start at zero and generate capital and knowing how to drive someone to have the epiphanies they’re going to need to have in order to make a big business. That’s sort of one of the things that I think we do very, very well as a VC. We have a startup program that helps the companies so that the companies can get to know us, we get to know them. So that’s how I think about venture capital in general. It’s sort of this flywheel of deal flow, decisions, and delight. And if you do this long enough, you start to see that compound, and become very, very valuable. We’ve now invested in so many companies that those companies end up referring us to more deals. I believe great founders hang out with other great founders. And so we start to be able to create this beacon of doing more deals. We’ve been doing this for about 10 years, 11 years now. 10 and a half years. And so we have some experience under our belt, we’re still working hard just to figure out what we’re doing.
JG: You mentioned how being uncomfortable is a really important part about being an entrepreneur. So what made you decide to take that leap and to make yourself uncomfortable?
AD: You know, one of the reasons I think I was put on this earth was just to reduce the friction of fear to start things that people want to start. I just wrote a book, and the best thing that people have said after reading my book was, “I think I’m gonna write a book.” Being able to inspire others to do the thing that they wanted to do naturally. And understanding that it’s not as hard as you think it is. I started Xpert Financial with Thomas Fuller, who actually came up with the idea. Thomas came up with the idea, and I trusted him. I had known him for a while, he educated me on the market. We ended up just trusting each other. I’m not gonna say I was a great student, I was an okay student, but I never learned through being told what I was supposed to be learning. School is set up in order to teach you a right or a wrong answer. A startup is best answer wins. Best answer on the day. It’s not about right or wrong. It’s about what’s the best answer in the room because this is an unsolvable problem, and we need to figure out how to move forward. We say at Boost VC that we try to invest in founders who are default to movement. They’re constantly moving forward. They might not be doing the right thing every time, but every time we talk to them, they’ve tried a couple of things. No one is right right off the bat. It’s 10 years to an overnight success. I continue to believe that. I continue to see that there are people who have been working in the same industry for like 15 years who are just starting to hit. What I’ve always been pretty good at is when I go in on something I go all in. And when I started the company with Thomas, it was amazing. I was a senior, I was still in school, and these were my best quarters of school ever. I would clear out my homework and finish it in order to work on the startup. And I’d be taking calls in my dorm room, I’d be on the phone all day. I was in charge of business development. So I was calling people and talking about what we did. So if I were to give advice to people who are thinking about starting a company, thinking about getting into investing, whatever the thing is, is just, like, there are a lot of people who are going to tell you that it’s not a good idea or they’ll resist. And some of those people are probably your parents. They’re like, “Oh, no, no, it’s not in the direction of being a doctor or whatever.” I would say if you want to try it and you have enough self confidence to actually take the leap, take the leap. I encourage anyone to do it because you end up having an insane amount of respect for the people who have built amazing businesses. There are a lot of assumptions you make from the outside when you have not started a business. And if you have started a business, you start to really respect the craft and understand how hard it was for Elon Musk to be able to build Tesla and SpaceX, how hard it was for Steve Jobs to be able to build Apple. And in that respect, you start to create empathy, and empathy is better for the world. But I also think that it’s the best experience you can get. There’s nothing like betting on yourself. If you’re going to do one thing in your life, bet on yourself at some point. Jump off the cliff and see if you can build an airplane on the way down.
Looking back, they’re very specific decisions I made, and it was a consistent, persistent amount of hard work. Other than that, it was just taking a shot on myself a couple times and never trying to be something that other people wanted me to be. And that was useful. So just like going after it is sort of the fun thing. And you end up having a lot of fun, you end up with a bunch of people who are sort of all trying to figure it out themselves. I love places where there are no right answers, and I’m able to talk to rocket scientists and say, “What if there were bubbles in space?” And then they give me really great answers on why there aren’t bubbles in space. And so it’s fascinating, my business. At the end of the day, if I were to advertise for venture capital, my entire business is six hours a day of people coming into my office or on my Zoom call, and they’re telling me that there’s a problem in the world, and that they are going to fix it and make the world better. Like think about that. Like my entire job is basically just hearing how much better the world is going to be in the next 10 to 15 years. It’s very inspiring just to be around that energy that you can make a difference. I think a lot of people think that there’s a linear line of a career. And I think that it’s much more, just jump in to something that you think is really interesting. How can you leverage UCLA? One is your student, call who you respect the most and just say “I’m a UCLA student, I would love your insights on X,” and have a conversation with the person you respect and think is awesome the most. You can use the fact that you’re a student everywhere. You’ll get in any room you want. Like that’s the benefit. Other than that, I think choose the classes that you’re most curious about, not the ones that everyone said were the easiest classes. Those are the hardest ones. I remember my friend said, “you have to take astronomy, it’s super easy.” And I was like, “absolutely, I’m sort of interested in stars, sounds interesting.” And it was super difficult. I did not enjoy that. And I did it one other time. I’m slow. I don’t learn things quickly. Someone else recommended air pollution. Air pollution ended up being the hardest science class I’ve ever taken. And I was like, “Okay, I’m only going to do the classes that are interesting, that sound interesting to me from now on.” That’s the other thing, your friends are on a different mission than you, trust that. Trust that you are on your own mission. And you’re on your own autonomous way of life. So that would be my advice.
JG: How do you think UCLA might have affected your journey as an entrepreneur?
AD: You know, life is really about the people that you’re with. You end up at UCLA, you’re thrown into a room or rooms with a ton of very dynamic people who worked really hard to get to where they’re going. And it’s a filter for really, really amazing humans. And I am fortunate enough to call a couple of those humans, really, really great friends today. A lot of those people, I have been able to invest in some, I’ve been able to work with some and that’s been really special. And so I’d say the thing that came out of UCLA was more friendship. The most valuable thing was really the friendships and the experiences I had while I was there. I don’t really remember specific classes. I think that memories are really made when things don’t go according to plan rather than when things do go according to plan. And so like class, the classes are like the baseline. And if you break the baseline, you end up with very memorable moments. I would encourage people to have experiences. That’s probably the best advice I could give in those college years. Go have fun, lean into that fun, that fun is probably very valuable and could build a business, whatever it is, doesn’t matter. I thought my stupid interests, and by stupid I mean, I collect comic books, I collect sports cards. I’ve been doing this my entire life and I’m obsessed, and one of these weird, geeky things I do, that I always thought that like, there wouldn’t be a market, it was something that I enjoyed and like a part of human behaviors, like collecting things, and it turns out, it’s an incredibly great business. You can make a lot of money on those things. That is not my primary source of money, but it’s a business. Like if you actually enjoyed that enough, you could make a career out of, just trading cards. Go into any sports card shop and go talk to the people. I think one of the things, first off, school tries to make you good at a lot of things. I think you just need to go all in on one. That makes you a better person. it gets you out of your shell a little bit. Also do whatever makes you feel good. But just doing things. Do stuff. Your friend asks you to do something silly, like go do this silly thing. I try to encourage people to do things. And I think doing things is where you find where you’re different. Having those experiences with friends is where you find where you’re different. And whether you’re valuable. I didn’t realize that just being authentic was a superpower. But it ended up being very, very useful. Boost VC is a very authentically early stage venture capital fund. I think that what we do and how we do it permeates through the fund very clearly as very authentic. And I think it’s because we’ve always looked at it, as we put one step in front of the other, we never went over our skis. And we just kept having fun with founders wherever we could. And I think every founder who’s ever taken a risk on us the way that we took a risk on them, it’s ended up paying off. It’s a very, it’s a great business to be a part of, it’s a long game. The thing about venture capital, I think that if anyone is listening to this, the thing about venture capital that is very difficult to fathom is how long the game is for payoff. Boost VC had been around for nine years before our first payout. So nine years, think about what you’re doing nine years ago, right? Like that was before our first real big exit. And it’s wonderful and great, but all the work that went into those nine years in order to make that work. Trust your gut and go for it. Like don’t be too directed by your parents. Like I think that’s honestly the thing. It’s like, try to figure out what experiences you want to have that are unique to you, and go have those experiences. I think that ends up defining and making a very interesting life.
JG: So is there anything else, Adam, that you want to share with us before we wrap up?
AD: Yeah, at Boost VC, we invest in about 20 deals a year. If you are interested, feel free to apply on our website, Boost.VC, but also feel free to email me [email protected] if you’re thinking about starting something. I’m also just happy to answer any questions. Any questions about entrepreneurship in general and starting a company or starting a venture fund.
There are a lot of ways to be successful at everything. And so it’s like just talking to people about what you want to do. I think one of the most valuable things you can do is know what you want to do. The great thing about venture capital is that it’s a business of people. It’s all about the people. It’s all about just talking to people, meeting people, understanding that people are the things that make sure the world works and technology is built. And it’s about building conviction around your ideas and making sure that you believe things that other people do not. And it’s a lifestyle. It’s fantastic. It’s what I wake up thinking about and it’s what I go to sleep thinking about. It’s a part of who I am rather than just a job.
JG: Well, Adam, that’s all the time we have today. Thanks so much for coming on the show and making the time in your busy schedule. Thanks a lot. Take care.
Bruins Built This is a Daily Bruin podcast. You can listen to this show and other Daily Bruin podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and SoundCloud and the audio and transcript of this show is available at dailybruin.com Thanks for listening, and I’ll see you next time.