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Lo Toney has some ideas about how to (really) bring VC into the 21st century

Last week, we suggested that for a truly diverse venture industry, the limited partners who provide investing capital to VCs — institutions like universities and hospital systems — need to start incorporating diversity mandates into their work. Say a venture firm wanted to secure a commitment from the University of Texas System; it would first need to agree, in writing, to pour a certain percentage of its capital into startups founded by underrepresented groups.

Given how fragmented the world of institutional investing is, the idea might sound impracticable. But Lo Toney, one of a small but growing number of black VCs in Silicon Valley, suggests it might actually be inevitable. He points, for example, to pension funds like the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, which manages the assets of 1.6 million employees, many of whom “look like me,” says Toney. Imagine what might happen if they started asking more questions about who is managing their money.

Not that Toney is waiting on this development. He doesn’t need to. As a former partner at Comcast Ventures, then GV, Toney was able to secure Alphabet as the anchor investor in his own investment firm, Plexo Capital, whose debut vehicle has been funding venture outfits, as well as making direct startup investments.

Now, with renewed attention being paid to the lack of people of color throughout the startup industry, Plexo has LPs knocking on its door again, and Toney’s plans for that second fund involve not just helping his current fund managers but helping more investors of color form venture firms of their own.

It’s an extension of work that’s already in progress. Plexo, which closed its debut fund last year with $42.5 million — including from the Ford Foundation, Intel, Cisco Systems, the Royal Bank of Canada, and Hampton University — already has stakes in 20 funds, including Precursor Ventures, Ingressive Capital, Kindred Ventures, Equal Ventures, Boldstart Ventures, and Work-Bench.

Most are run exclusively or in part by people of color. “We have enough reports from the Harvard’s and the McKinsey’s of the world to show us that diversity at all levels matters,” says Toney. “We see better performance from companies with diverse boards, public companies with diverse management teams; when there are diverse managers, we see better performance.”

With his second fund, he’s hoping to turn the dial even further. More specifically, he says, Plexo aims to “develop a Y Combinator of sorts” that enables “a great investor” to transition into “a great fund manager.”

Part of the idea is to institutionalize the work that Plexo already does in an ad-hoc way around helping managers to prepare marketing materials, pitch their strategy to both high-net-worth individuals and institutions, and manage LP communications after that base of investors has been established. And those are just three aspects of the many elements of fund management with which Plexo can help, he says.

Plexo is also exploring “putting a strategy in place [to] help a lot of these younger GPs with working capital, to be able to incur the expenses that it takes to start a fund, [given that] it can take, on average, a million dollars.” (That’s taking into account no salary during the fundraising process, travel expenses, service providers, and the money that a general partner typically has to kick in to the fund.)

It’s a model that Plexo thinks it can use to move things along faster than were it solely investing in individual companies. Still, Plexo can’t do it alone. Neither can its friends and allies, including Elliott Robinson of Bessemer Venture Partners, Frederik Groce of Storm Ventures and Sydney Sykes of the retail startup Dolls Kill, all of whom separately steer a young organization called BLCK VC that works to connect and advance black venture investors.

Toney remains especially concerned over the few people of color at bigger and later-stage venture firms — investors who might otherwise have the networks and know-how to support black entrepreneurs as their startups mature.

It’s a valid worry. According to a 2018 report in The Information, there were just seven black decision-makers at the 102 venture firms with more than $250 million under management, and those numbers are relatively unchanged today. The dearth is particularly glaring for black investors who are women.

The industry could, slowly, over time, grow more inclusive of underrepresented groups. But it would happen faster if institutions that accept federal funding or else manage the money of public employees decided to focus more on the issue. In fact, it’s conceivable that the constituents of these institutions — including donors and employees through their pension fund contributions — might eventually insist on it.

“There’s often not really a collective realization of the power and influence that one can have within our asset class to actually affect change,” says Toney. “I suspect — and I don’t know this, and I’m not part of any initiatives — that we’ll see more of these [pension] funds take a stance, and that [this shift] will come from the bottom up, from their employee base.”

It might not take much to get the ball rolling. “They could put the pressure on our industry even simply asking questions [including]: ‘How many black partners do you have?’ ‘How many women do you have?’ ‘What does the composition of your portfolio look like?’”

“Even just asking those questions as a first step — that in and of itself would affect change,” he says, “because who wants to look bad when answering those questions?”

A rare glimpse into the sweeping — and potentially troubling — cloud kitchens trend

Independent restaurant owners may be doomed, and perhaps grocery stores, too.

Such is the conclusion of a growing chorus of observers who’ve been closely watching a new and powerful trend gain strength: that of cloud kitchens, or fully equipped shared spaces for restaurant owners, most of them quick-serve operations.

While viewed peripherally as an interesting and, for some companies, lucrative development, the movement may well transform our lives in ways that enrich a small set of companies while zapping jobs and otherwise taking a toll on our neighborhoods. Renowned VC Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital seemed to warn about this very thing in a Financial Times column that appeared last month, titled “The cloud kitchen brews a storm for local restaurants.”

Moritz begins by pointing to the runaway success of Deliveroo, the London-based delivery service that relies on low-paid, self-employed delivery riders who delivery local restaurant food to customers — including from shared kitchens that Deliveroo itself operates, including in London and Paris.

He believes that Amazon’s recent investment in the company “might just foreshadow the day when the company, once just known as the world’s largest bookseller, also becomes the world’s largest restaurant company.”

That’s bad news for people who run restaurants, he adds, writing, “For now the investment looks like a simple endorsement of Deliveroo. But proprietors of small, independent restaurants should tighten their apron strings. Amazon is now one step away from becoming a multi-brand restaurant company — and that could mean doomsday for many dining haunts.”

The good news . . . and the bad

He’s not exaggerating. While shared kitchens have so far been optimistically received as a potential pathway for food entrepreneurs to launch and grow their businesses — particularly as more people turn to take out —  there are many downsides  that may well outweigh the good, or certainly counteract it. Last year, for example, UBS wrote a note to its clients titled “Is the kitchen dead?” wherein it suggested the rise of food delivery apps like Deliveroo and Uber Eats could well prove ruinous for home cooks and as well as fresh food providers, including restaurants and supermarkets.

The economics are just too alluring, suggested the bank. Food is already inexpensive to have delivered because of cheap labor, and that will cost center will disappear entirely if delivery drones every take off. Meanwhile, food is becoming cheaper to make because of central kitchens, the kind that Deliveroo is opening and Uber is reportedly beginning move into, as well. (In March, Bloomberg reported that Uber is testing out a program in Paris where it’s renting out fully equipped, commercial-grade kitchens to serve businesses that selling food on delivery apps like Uber Eats.)

The favorable case for cloud kitchens argues that businesses using the spaces are paying less than they would for traditional restaurant real estate, but the reality is also that most of the businesses moving into them right now aren’t small restaurateurs but quick service brands that already have a following and aren’t particular known for emphasis on food quality but instead for churning out affordable food, fast.

As Eric Greenspan, an L.A.-based chef who has appeared on many Food Network shows and has opened and closed numerous restaurants over the course of his career, explains in a new, independent documentary about cloud kitchens: “Delivery is the fastest growing market in restaurants. What started out as 10 percent of your sales is now 30 percent of your sales, and [the industry predicts] it will be 50 to 60 percent of a quick-serve restaurant’s sales within the next three to five years. So you take that, plus the fact that quick-serve brands are kind of the key to getting a fat payout at the end of the day . . .”

During an age when fewer people frequent them traditional restaurants —  with their overhead and turnover and razor-thin margins — running one simply makes less and less sense, Greenspan continues. “[Opening] up a brick-and-mortar restaurant these days is just like giving yourself a job. Now [with centralized kitchens], as long as the product is coming out strong, I don’t need to be there as a presence. I can quality control remotely now. I can go online and [sign out of a marketplace like Postmates or UberEats or Deliveroo] and not piss off any customers, because if I just decided to close the restaurant one day, and you drove over and it was closed, you’d be pissed. But if you’re looking for [one of my restaurants] in Uber Eats and you can’t find it because I turned it off, well, you’re not pissed. You just order something else.”

Big players only need apply . . .

The model works for now for Greenspan, who is running numerous restaurant “concepts” from one cloud kitchen in L.A. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that facility belongs in part to Uber cofounder Travis Kalanick, who was quicker than some to grok the opportunity that shared kitchens present. In fact, it was early last year that he announced he was investing $150 million in a startup called City Storage Systems that focused on repurposing distressed real estate assets and turning them into spaces for new industries, like food delivery.

That company owns CloudKitchens, which invites chains, as well as independent restaurant and food truck owners, to lease space in one of their facilities for a monthly fee, along with additional fees for data analytics meant to help the entrepreneurs boost their sales.

The pitch to restaurateurs is that CloudKitchens can reduce their overhead, but of course, the company is also amassing all kinds of data about its tenants and their customer preferences in the process that one could them seeing using over time. Little wonder that Amazon wants in, or that these outfits have at least one serious competitor in China — Panda Selected — that is doing exactly the same thing and which raised $50 million led by Tiger Global Management earlier this year.

No one can fault these savvy entrepreneurs for seizing on what looks like a gigantic business opportunity. Still, the kitchens, which make all the sense in the world from an investment standpoint, should not be embraced so readily as a panacea, either.

Most obviously, they rely on the same people who drive Ubers and handle food deliveries — people who aren’t afforded health benefits and whose financial picture is forever precarious as a result. As with Uber drivers, Deliveroo employees tried to gain status as “workers” last year with better pay and paid but they were denied these rights because they have the option of asking other riders to take their deliveries. The EU Parliament more recently passed new rules to protect so-called gig economy workers, though the measures don’t go far. (Meanwhile, in the U.S, Uber and Lyft continue to fight legislation that would give employee status to contract workers.)

Ripple effects . . .

Matt Newberg, a founder and foodie from New York, says he could see the writing on the wall when he recently toured CloudKitchen’s two L.A. facilities, along with the shared kitchens of two other companies: Kitchen United which last fall raised $10 million from GV, and and Fulton Kitchens, which offers commercial kitchens for rent on an annual basis.

Newberg is responsible for the aforementioned documentary (which you can also watch below), and he suggests that he most taken aback by the conditions of the first facility that CloudKitchens opened and operates on West Washington Boulevard in South L.A. Though most restaurant kitchens are chaotic scenes, Newberg said that as “someone who loves food and sustainability” the easy-to-miss warehouse didn’t feel “very humane” to him when he walked through it. It’s windowless for one thing (it’s a warehouse). Newberg says that he also counted 27 kitchens packed into what are “maybe 250-square-feet to 300 square-foot spaces,” and a lot of people who appeared to be in panic mode. “Imagine lots of screaming, lots of sirens triggered when an order gets backed up, tablets everywhere.”

Adds Newberg, “When i walked in, I was like, holy shit, no one even knows this exists in L.A. It felt like Ground Zero. It felt like a military base. I mean, it seemed genius, but also crazy.”

Newberg says CloudKitchen’s second, newer location is far nicer, as are the facilities of Kitchen United and Fulton Kitchens. “That [second CloudKitchen warehouse] felt like a WeWork for kitchens. Super sleek. It was as quiet as a server farm. There were still no windows, but the kitchens are nicer and bigger.”

Growing pains . . .

Every startup has growing pains, naturally, and presumably, shared kitchen companies are not immune to these. Still, Moritz, the venture capitalist, warns that they will benefit some far more than others. Writing in the FT, he says that in the early 2000s, his firm, Sequoia, invested in a chain of kebab restaurants called Faasos that planned to delivery meals to customers’ homes but was getting crushed by high rents and turnover among other things, so opened a centralized kitchen to sell kebobs. Now, he says, Fassos produces a wide variety of foods, including other Indian specialities but also Chinese and Italian dishes under separate brand names.

It’s the same playbook that Eric Greenspan is using, telling Food & WIne magazine last year that his goal was ultimately to have six delivery-only concepts running simultaneously, with two menus each for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Greenberg, who is obviously media savvy, can probably pull it off, too, as has Fassos. But for restaurants that are not known franchises or have the star appeal of celebrity chef, the future might not look so bright.

Writes Moritz: “In some markets there is still an opportunity for hardened restaurant and kitchen operators — particularly if they are gifted in the use of social media to build a following and refashion themselves. But they need to move quickly before it becomes too expensive to compete with the larger, faster-moving companies. The mere prospect of Amazon using cloud kitchens to provide cuisine catering to every taste — and delivering these meals through services such as Deliveroo — should be enough to give any restaurateur heartburn.”

It should also worry people who care about their neighborhoods. Cloud kitchens may make it easier and cheaper than ever to order take-out, but there will be consequences, some of which most of us have yet to imagine.

Bad PR ideas, esports, and the Valley’s talent poaching war

Sending severed heads, and even more PR DON’Ts

I wrote a “master list” of PR DON’Ts earlier this week, and now that list has nearly doubled as my fellow TechCrunch writers continued to experience even more bad behavior around pitches. So, here are another 12 things of what not to do when pitching a startup:

DON’T send severed heads of the writer you want to cover your story

Heads up! It’s weird to send someone’s cranium to them.

This is an odd one, but believe it or not, severed heads seem to roll into our office every couple of months thanks to the advent of 3D printing. Several of us in the New York TechCrunch office received these “gifts” in the past few days (see gifts next), and apparently, I now have a severed head resting on my desk that I get to dispose of on Monday.

Let’s think linearly on this one. Most journalists are writers and presumably understand metaphors. Heads were placed on pikes in the Middle Ages (and sadly, sometimes recently) as a warning to other group members about the risk of challenging whoever did the decapitation. Yes, it might get the attention of the person you are sending their head to, in the same way that burning them in effigy right in front of them can attract eyeballs.

Now, I get it — it’s a demo of something, and maybe it might even be funny for some. But, why take the risk that the recipient is going to see the reasonably obvious metaphorical connection? Use your noggin — no severed heads.

Why your CSO — not your CMO — should pitch your security startup

Tina Sharkey has something to sell you (300 things, actually)

 Brandless is an usual company. A direct-to-consumer purveyor of food, beauty, and personal care products, it says that every item it makes is non-genetically modified, kosher, fair-trade, gluten-free, often organic and, in the case of cleaning supplies, EPA “Safer Choice” certified. They are also priced at $3 across the board. The idea, says cofounder and CEO Tina Sharkey, is… Read More