Colin Tobias is a Partner at SemperVirens Venture Capital, an early-stage investment fund focused on the future of work, finance, and health. Colin is not someone who takes the commonly trodden path. After college, he started his career at a large finance and accounting firm in San Francisco, where he learned the fundamentals of corporate tax, audit, and valuation. Many of his clients were tech startups, and Colin found the whole experience of working with such fast-growing, nimble companies enthralling. Unlike many of his peers who had gone into fields like investment banking with the specific intent of entering private equity, Colin up until that point had only heard of venture capital as an asset class. Working in the geographic heart of the global tech ecosystem, however, was infectious, and Colin began entertaining joining the ranks of the venture capitalists. He subsequently joined the growth-equity firm Tenaya Capital. He stayed at Tenaya for four years before joining the early-stage firm SemperVirens Venture Capital.
While Colin started his career in San Francisco, today he lives and works out of Seattle. When we chatted, he was at his in-law’s house, in a room with large pane windows that opened to a stunning view of a lake. Living amid the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest, he exudes a tranquility and self-contentedness that is sometimes hard to find in the fast-paced world of venture capital. In talking with Colin, you get the feeling that he is exactly who he appears to be--a no-frills, honest guy with a strong sense of self. In his spare time, he relishes in the natural pleasures of Seattle, including hiking with his wife and dog and boating in the summers. He counts himself as a sports fan and takes advantage of the centrality of many professional sports teams in Seattle to watch his favorite baseball, soccer, and football teams compete for professional glory. Looking back at his career, Colin does not mention any regrets, even as he recognizes that his path was not always a linear one. Instead, he is only filled with gratitude. In a decade or so from now, he hopes to be exactly where is today, investing in and working alongside the next generation of founders disrupting the future of work, health, and finance.
Sam: What was your path into venture capital?
Colin: I started my career in finance and accounting. I went to college down in San Diego and ultimately wanted to live up in San Francisco to be part of the tech ecosystem though from a finance lens. As such, after college, my first job was at a large finance and accounting firm in San Francisco. I was there for three years, during which I spent time across their tax, audit, and valuation groups. That experience provided me a valuable lens into the startup scene, since our clients were almost exclusively startups.
As I started working more with startup clients, I became interested in working at a venture capital fund. Up until that point, I had known about venture capital as an asset class, but I certainly hadn’t explored it as a career opportunity. I was lucky enough to find a role at a growth-stage fund called Tenaya Capital, as they were looking for someone to come in as an analyst and help folks on the investing side. During my time there, I had the opportunity to learn under some great investors and operators about how to build and scale a venture fund.
I loved my time at Tenaya, though, at the tail end of that experience, I began thinking about what was next for me. I was introduced to SemperViren’s co-founder, Robby Peters, and I ended up falling in love with the firm’s investment model. SemperVirens has a very focused, thesis-driven investment strategy, with a core strength in helping founders accelerate their go-to-market. Our core investment areas include work, finance, and health. I liked the idea of a venture fund being able to deliver real tangible value outside of just capital. I joined SemperVirens about three years ago to help kick off and build what we hope will be a very long and enduring venture fund.
Sam: You moved from growth equity to early-stage investing when you made the career move from Tenaya Capital to SemperVirens Venture Capital. How did you manage that adjustment?
Colin: It’s definitely been a bit of a learning experience. As you know, at the growth stage, the tech and product are relatively de-risked, so your evaluation of a company is much more a function of evaluating the business model and the company’s growth metrics. Of course, analyzing an early-stage company is a much different experience. You need to make sure that the company has the right value proposition, go-to-market strategy, and product-market fit, among other factors. From an evaluation standpoint, I today use a lot of the same skills I used while at Tenaya, and, at SemperVirens, we do have a small Growth Fund as well. All that being said, it’s definitely been a learning experience shifting to early-stage investing. However, across my career, I’ve sought to make my continued learning and growth a core competency of mine, so I view moving to the early-stage as merely a function of broadening my tools and skillset.
Sam: Looking back at your career, what advice would you share with the next generation of venture capitalists?
Colin: The biggest piece of advice that I would share is that regardless of where you seek to end up, the path isn’t always linear. Even for me, as someone who started in accounting and finance, there were many nonlinear ways for me to end up at the same path of where I am today. So my advice would be not to overly focus on where you should end up but rather to focus on the necessary steps and checkpoints you need to hit to reach that point. In many ways, you need to keep your head down and just keep trudging along. As the old adage goes, luck is opportunity meets preparation. So, as long as you’re on a path and work hard on it, you can make it to the same destination as others who might be taking an alternative path than you.
Sam: What’s your favorite part of your job as a VC?
Colin: My favorite part of VC is working alongside incredible founders and entrepreneurs, and, at least in our case at SemperVirens, making a broader impact across our core investment markets of work, finance, and health. At our fund, we have a network of over 85 current or former CHRO’s at public-stage companies, and we also work a lot with different healthcare providers and insurance carriers. I love being at the center of these types of ecosystems as an investor, since I have the ability to move along industries through investments, as well as learn and watch them develop. Each day I feel really lucky to be part of this broader shared ecosystem that is eye-opening in terms of the activity and innovation that goes on.
Sam: What is your least favorite part of the role?
Colin: I think the hardest part of a career in VC is the long feedback loops it takes to see if you’re a good investor. It’s hard to know whether you’re making the right decisions, whether it’s in building the firm and culture internally or, more obviously, in making the right investments. The feedback loops in venture capital are years long, so it’s difficult to gauge your performance along the way. In many respects, you have to trust your gut, which I realize is difficult given the analytical nature of the role. However, that’s the reality of venture capital. It’s not like public market investing where you are mark-to-market by the second and you have an understanding of whether you made the right decision. Venture capital is at least a ten-year game and companies in that time frame can undergo a number of pivots. Waiting out these feedback loops in venture capital is one of the most difficult parts of the role.
Sam: Where do you see yourself in a decade or two decades from now?
Colin: I joined the fund where I’m at today with the expectation that I was in it for the long haul--meaning something like a twenty-year commitment to building the firm. As a fund, we’re still quite new, but given the fundamental market shifts across our core investment areas of work, health, and finance, we expect to keep investing in these areas well into the future. In a decade or two decades, I hope to still be in the same place where I am now. I feel very lucky to say that.