Please enjoy this transcript of my conversation with Ken Nguyen, Co-Founder/CEO of Republic, a private investing platform for those seeking high-growth potential. We discuss the retail revolution & bringing private investing to the masses. Transcripts for other episodes can be found here.
“I think in tech, and in Silicon Valley in particular, people overvalue ingenuity, brilliance and innovation, and undervalue timing, luck and resilience.” – Ken Nguyen
Ken Nguyen is Co-Founder and CEO of Republic, a private investing platform for investors seeking high-growth potential. Ken studied at Berkeley, BU, and Oxford before starting his career in securities litigation with Goodwin Procter. He served as a Fellow at Stanford and as General Counsel at AngelList before founding Republic, which has facilitated over $350M in investments from over one million global community members. Ken is passionate about providing more access to investment opportunities in startups, real estate, crypto, and even video games.
Daniel Scrivner (00:00:00):
Ken, it is a huge honor to have you on Outliers. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Ken Nguyen (00:00:04):
Daniel, thank you so much for having me.
Daniel Scrivner (00:00:06):
So I'm excited for this conversation for so many reasons. I mean, one, this will dovetail in really nicely to a few conversations we've had on the podcast recently that are exploring different platforms that are taking off that are allowing people to become an investor, become an owner in a lot of different assets than they've been able to previously, and Republic, which you've been building is a huge part of that. But before we get too far into the Republic story, I'd love to just set up your background because your background dovetails really nicely into how Republic came to be and how operationally it even exists and works. So for everyone listening, can you just set up a little bit of your trajectory in just a quick little thumbnail sketch to founding Republic?
Ken Nguyen (00:00:46):
Absolutely. When investing in a company, people would typically look at the domain expertise and experiences of the founder. In my case, I started out as a securities attorney, worked at Google and Proctor and then went into investment on Wall Street, worked for a pretty large hedge fund fund of funds. Then went back into academia at Stanford for a couple of years and joined AngelList as their General Counsel when he first launched a syndication product. This is around 2013, 2014. And just around that time under the Obama administration, there was an evolution in the laws, i.e, for 80 years, since the great depression, you got to be a millionaire in order to invest in private companies. The Obama administration changed that with the JOBS Act. And 2016 was when the first term, again, decades that anyone can invest privately, you got to comply with a few things. We're going to go into that later on. And that's when we launched Republic in May, 2016.
Daniel Scrivner (00:01:50):
That's incredible. And for people listening, can you just share, so you launched 2016, can you share a little of just a couple of stats to help people understand the scale, number of employees or amount of capital that you guys have helped people raise?
Ken Nguyen (00:02:05):
With today, we are a global community of over a million members. We've deployed over $350 million in nearly 500 startups. Now, much of that came in the past 12 to 18 months. To give you an example, in the first year, we total deploy in one year a million dollars. Now there's certain days that we deploy 5X that amount. So it's definitely the early stage of a fast growing industry. And I firmly believe that in this decade, this is going to be a multi-trillion dollar industry.
Daniel Scrivner (00:02:42):
It's incredible. I mean, the scale you guys have ever reached, I mean, that's also the power of compounding, a lot of things starts out really slowly, almost painfully slowly, and then it happens all at once. What has it been like for you? I guess, take people listening just inside your head so that first year, I imagine you guys worked really hard to get that first million. What has it been like to over the last 12 to 18 months feel the floodgates open and just the number of projects and amount of companies that have been funded, what's that been like?
Ken Nguyen (00:03:10):
Well, it's a complicated question in that we went into it with almost like a conviction that was irrational because there was no market to even talk about total addressable market, which is a lens that a lot of investors would be looking at an investment opportunities. And unlike Uber or Amazon, when they launched, everyone already knew what taking a taxi meant or buying a product. It's just a new way of doing it. We're talking about doing something that 99 or 90 plus percent of Americans do not actually know what it means, private investing, what is a convertible note or a SAFE. So it took a while.
Ken Nguyen (00:04:02):
And in the first four years, there were times that I don't know, I didn't know that we would last for two more months. And a lot of blood and a lot of believers in us that gave us the actual lifeline, but it is incredible to see the industry turning a new page in the past 12 to 18 months, clearly signaling a retail revolution. And it goes well beyond just what we do on the private investing space, Reddit, GameStop, one example. Robinhood and the frenzy around that is another example, similar with the crypto craze. I definitely think that the retail revolution is here to last and it will grow. And what we do at Republic is how to pioneer the next chapter of that retail revolution by putting the investing power in individual's hands to shape the world around them in the future that we all going to be sharing.
Daniel Scrivner (00:04:58):
And in the hands of everyone, not just the accredited investors or qualified purchasers, the kind of elite. And I don't even know, maybe you know this stat, do you have any clue what percentage of Americans actually meet those two criteria? In other words, what percentage has been excluded from investing in private companies to date?
Ken Nguyen (00:05:17):
So we know for sure that the percentage is well below 10%. It varies depending on the years, but even within a credited investor, most lawyers, most doctors have never invested privately because venture capital has been such an inside game that you can own a $20 million public stock portfolio as a surgeon and had never been invited or had the opportunity to back a startup. So the access and inclusion model here really applies to almost the entire spectrum of income bracket all the way to the top and not just for non-accredited investors.
Daniel Scrivner (00:06:00):
It's incredible just to, I guess, underscore it, but you basically just said is 90% of Americans and more than that, because those 10% that have been qualified, you don't haven't even known about the asset class, haven't been comfortable investing in it, haven't really had a way to invest in it. One clever little phrase that I like is venture capital isn't an asset class, it's an access class. And I feel like that in such few words says so much about how the space actually works, which is so fascinating.
Ken Nguyen (00:06:29):
I love that saying, and I'm going to borrow it with attribution aggressively.
Daniel Scrivner (00:06:34):
So I want to go back just a little bit into your background because number one, I don't have a great idea for what a securities attorney is. So I'd love it if you could maybe flesh that out a little bit, what does that mean? And then piggybacking off on that, something I'd love to explore a little bit is, you mentioned you were at AngelList when AngelList was getting ready to launch the Syndicate product, which was at the time an enormous boon to the industry and was very innovative. So I'd love it if you could share any stories, any anecdotes about what it took for AngelList to be able to launch that platform in the first place way back in 2013.
Ken Nguyen (00:07:09):
And that actually ties right back into securities regulations. To answer your first question, I think the simplest way of describing securities law is, if anything involves investing or an investment of capital, that is going to be heavily regulated by the SEC and a number of agencies, very different than selling a product or buying a product. Crowdfunding itself means many things. Donation crowdfunding, pre-purchase crowdfunding, which is Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Donation-based crowdfunding is a GoFundMe, non-regulated at all, because they're not about investing money for potential gain.
Daniel Scrivner (00:07:50):
There's no promise of return. Sure. There's no investor protections, making sure there's not fraud happening, all of that stuff.
Ken Nguyen (00:07:58):
Exactly. And the law, the body of law and regulations that govern the offering of investment products pretty much prohibit anyone to sell these products to non-accredited or to the general public without expending many millions of dollars through the IPO, a public offering process. That was 2012 and 2016 and before. Now, what AngelList did or going back one step back. So securities lawyers basically are just well-versed with the many legal rules and regulation framework govern the offering of investment products.
Ken Nguyen (00:08:40):
So I used to think in the first couple of years at a law firm that these things are fixed in stone and you couldn't change them. And that the SEC was this aloof and arms length and cold and non-collaborative organization. It's not the case. So when I joined AngelList, what they did was that for the very first term, they created a platform that millionaires without access, the doctors, the lawyers, could come together and invest alongside those with access to deals for syndicate leads. That involves securities offering and it involved a creative structuring so that it would be cost efficient for a company, a tech company to do so. My short summary around all of these things is that financial products and FinTech is half technology and half regulatory. So any company that aims to build in this space probably best to have internal regulatory expertise as some level.
Daniel Scrivner (00:09:50):
Yeah. No, it's super interesting. And I mean, I wanted to, just to underscore for people listening, if anyone listening is not familiar with the syndicate, just to try to flesh it out a little bit more. I mean, the idea is you've got someone who's acting as a GP. Well, maybe there are parallels, just to make a quick parallel, think about a traditional venture capital firm. There's typically one or two GPs, which stands for general partner, which are the people that are basically sourcing the deals, ideally, doing due diligence on those deals and then bringing them forward if they feel like they actually meet the criteria and they are an interesting investment.
Daniel Scrivner (00:10:21):
And then in a venture capital fund, you have LPs, limited partners. And those are the people who that traditionally, the way it works in venture capital spaces, LPs are committing, I'm going to invest this amount in this fund and then that money gets called over a number of years. But basically, you make that commitment upfront. You don't actually know what you're investing in, maybe you know directionally what's there, but you're basically saying, I trust you, I trust your process, take some of my money and help me get access to this.
Daniel Scrivner (00:10:45):
A syndicate is a little different, a syndicate works on a deal-by-deal basis. Similar structure, you have someone that's out sourcing this deal, that's out doing the due diligence on it. And then on AngelList that GP can then go have a number of different LPs, hundreds of LPs. I think the largest syndicates probably rival thousands of LPs. And then they can go and pitch that deal and say, hey, do you want to invest with me in this? Did I do an okay job describing that? Anything to add on to that?
Ken Nguyen (00:11:12):
You did a fantastic job. The only thing that I have to add is that thousands of the investor would invest through one entity. So that for the company, it shows that it's just a single shareholder and other 1000 disparate shareholders.
Daniel Scrivner (00:11:25):
Which is a great clarification. And what I want to do now is just transition and talk a little bit about, I mean, when you and I were talking through what we might discuss today, one thing that's super interesting to me because it literally was required for public to exist is what's called Reg CF passing under the Obama administration in 2016. And I'm guessing, the CF of that stands for crowdfunding. Can you talk about what that is and how, I guess, significant is that you? You gave a little bit of a precedent, just that for the 80 years previously, no one could invest and this is now opening up that asset class, but I guess just for anyone listening that obviously doesn't follow anything regulatory, what did that mean? How significant was it and what did it unlock for you?
Ken Nguyen (00:12:07):
Daniel, the law evolves and moves, but it evolves fast, slower than society, technology, business. And so this body of law made sense probably in the '30s and the '40s and '50s, but as technology and society evolve over time, it made no sense that you put in place this arbitrary accreditation line, which is net worth and you assume that a teacher in her 80s saving a million dollars over a lifetime would be more sophisticated and can tolerate a risk of loss. Then MBA grad with $300,000 in debt from Harvard HBS working as a Goldman analyst, but the law would consider the former case to be not as sophisticated.
Ken Nguyen (00:12:58):
And so that didn't make sense, but it took decades in order for Washington to change that regulatory framework. When it became reality in 2016, I think it was a fairness and access issue that got a lot of attention, a lot of enthusiasm, but people had a lot of questions, is this real? Are you going to be able to convince millions of people to partway with money when they may not get something back right away? But I think that that was opening a gateway, almost like a dam that's been holding back retail capital. And on the other side of the dam, only very few entrepreneurs in business that access to institutional capital.
Ken Nguyen (00:13:43):
And so did dam in 2016, it was the first gate. And then the cracks started to appear. And most recently, they amended and upgraded that body of law to make it even easier. So I think that the potential for it cannot be understated. I think it's a multi-trillion dollar industry and the impact of that down the road for society in the US and globally literally cannot be understated. I don't know of an industry that has more potential and global impact.
Daniel Scrivner (00:14:17):
And just to clarify for anyone to what accredited means, and I think hopefully, I'll get this right, is you either have to prove that you have a net worth over a million dollars, or you have to prove that you meet some sort of income limit. And that income limit depends on whether you're single, if you're married, file jointly or not jointly, and there's a bunch of different criteria there.
Daniel Scrivner (00:14:35):
But one interesting thing that I heard, I don't remember the set off the top of my mind, but is that the number of people, and you alluded to this earlier, but the number of people that qualify under each of those actually changes every single year, just as your income may fluctuate, your net worth may fluctuate, especially if you're invested in the public markets. And so you may be an accredited investor one year, not be an accredited investor another, but obviously, the point that you made is you can have very sophisticated people that just don't meet either of these somewhat silly bars. And so what Republic allows anyone to do is they don't have to prove anything. If I'm understanding this correctly, they just have to obviously understand what they're investing in, agree to some terms. Is that accurate? I guess, anything to add or clarify there?
Ken Nguyen (00:15:16):
Absolutely. So on Republic, on the retail side, republic.co, anyone can invest up to $2,000, no question asked. If you're going to invest in more than $2,000, then there's a limit based on your income or net worth, just so that people don't put a $100,000 on a credit card, betting into a single sort of thing that you're going to be very wealthy from one deal. Diversification is the number one rule for private investing, but that concept of making it affordable and small enough, so that itself can be educational, you learn how to invest by putting your real money in, but $50, a $100 at a time, I think that's not only opening up access to entrepreneurs, but really what enhances financial sophistication across the board for society in the long run.
Daniel Scrivner (00:16:10):
One thing that Republic is clearly doing, there's a piece of it that's just democratizing access. And a stat I don't have, maybe you do is the size of the market of public companies in comparison to the size of the market of, sorry, private companies as compared to the size of the market of public companies. Do you have any sense for that split?
Ken Nguyen (00:16:31):
So I know that by now, the private markets are already larger than the public market, but almost exclusively, the purview of the ultra high net worth, we're not talking about people with a few millions of dollars that is institutional and ultra high net worth. And that's where people built wealth. The high asset families of today built wealth from the private markets by and large, not from the public markets. Like you said at the outset, venture capital and private capital isn't access class and not so much of an asset class, it is truly how do you get in? And right now, we're presenting deals that used to be completely not accessible to anyone except for like a dozen of people in Silicon Valley. Now, even a middle-class stay-at-home mom in Paris can invest $20 with a credit card on Republic.
Daniel Scrivner (00:17:31):
So there's that democratization component. But the other component too, which I think is really powerful and I want to spend some time discussing is the fact that it is truly leveling the playing field and it gives people the opportunity to have financial equality, where at least there's obviously, we've got ways to go until can have access to all of the best investment opportunities. And that'll likely never happen in totality, but it's wonderful to see us making progress towards that.
Daniel Scrivner (00:17:58):
And that's important for a bunch of reasons, but I'd love to talk a little bit about how important that is culturally and how significant that is, because obviously, there's a whole bunch of people that have been excluded from these opportunities traditionally, and that can be, we've talked about the net worth and income barriers, but there's also access barriers. And a lot of that goes to people of color, minorities. Even in venture capital, a huge issue is the number of women that are either investors in venture capital or are GPs in venture capital firms. So talk a little bit about, help us understand the broader picture of how this fits into this larger cultural revolution that's happening. And it's just opening up this asset class to people that have been excluded for very, very long periods of time.
Ken Nguyen (00:18:44):
I think fairness is something that is a core part of any stable society. And I think that looking at the US, the country that we both are living in, and I still think with all of this problem is the most amazing country in the world. My story could not have possibly happened anywhere. Now, the recent chaos and the division, I think most can agree that because people feel that they're not being treated fairly in all different subsets and demographics and concerns that they may have.
Ken Nguyen (00:19:20):
So when you look at society at large, and when you're an early user in a company, say, Uber or Coinbase, which did its IPO recently, and then a couple years later, tends to yours and other early adopters' effort now is raising more and more money and go IPO. And you got to wonder, a lot of people do, hey, I was that first Uber user and passenger and driver, how come I don't get anything out of the multi-billion dollar IPO that comes to line the pocket of early institutional investors who probably weren't as helpful? So at the core of it, it is still a fairness question.
Ken Nguyen (00:20:07):
Now over time, technology, financial technology and regulatory evolutions now grant people everywhere with that power, that ability to at least demand that, hey, we want access, and displays provide a framework for your company to do that. So I think that is the merger of technological and legal possibility, comparing it and combining that with a sense of fairness that people have always wanted, and people want to have a vested interest in the world around them. But I think only now that it makes it possible for people to know that it's not just about wishing it, they actually can and should have a stake. Our thesis is that anything that has stakeholders, stakeholders mean customers, advisers, evangelizer, all stakeholders should have the ability to become shareholders. Not all of them will or would, but they should have the ability to.
Daniel Scrivner (00:21:12):
And another piece of this, which we've touched on in a couple of previous interviews is there's a big, fundamental shift happening, where it feels like people's identities more and more are around their values. And part of that is that they're able to express that in more ways. And something big that's happening now, we talked about this a little bit previously is, rather than people really identifying and their identity being defined by what they do with their leisure time or what they do at home, or the kind of entertainment they like, or the team that they like, which none of that stuff's going away. But it seems like there's a piece that's been long neglected that's starting to become strengthened, which is the things that you own. And those can be digital collectibles, those can be NFT, that can be crypto, but that can also be, hey, I'm an investor in these companies. Talk a little bit about how you view that and how that fits into Republic story?
Ken Nguyen (00:22:00):
When I graduated from law school over a decade ago, investing or saving was this boring thing that you got to do, you should do, is kind of like going to the dentist. And then the rest of it is like having fun and pursuing your passion and spending money. I think that has changed for many, many of us and for the next generation in that people want to combine passion and interest with making a profit rather than just buying things. And I think the difference between buying and investing is this, both activities involve the person wanting to be more, wanting to pursue something, having a stake in the world. But if you buy something like a phone, that's all that it would ever be. If you make an investment, there's this excitement about that piece can grow in size over time. In fact, it can be a legacy. Even long before you have gone, this company can exist and you the early backer, without which it wouldn't have happened. So I think that alignment of passion and interest with profit is the trend that's driving this so-called retail revolution that we see.
Daniel Scrivner (00:23:17):
I want to clarify for people too. I mean, something that I was really impressed by is I think when people hear crowdfunding, they might think cynically, oh, well, I can get access to some companies there, but maybe they're not the companies I want to invest in, but you have on your platform, both the public platform and the private side of the platform, which I think would be great to talk about those really quickly, but you have facilitated investments in incredible companies. Can you talk a little bit about the caliber of companies and the public, private side of the platform?
Ken Nguyen (00:23:46):
And there's a misconception about the so-called adverse selection issue, and there wasn't truth to it in the earlier years in that, because the law requires a company to go through a bit more to raise from the general public, then if they were just to raise an institutional fund, that the narrative is that if you can raise from a VC, why would you go and raise on Republic? Now that ignores the biggest value proposition of retail investing, which is turning, incentivizing your own customer, your own community. And through that, it's going to be so amplifying to your business.
Ken Nguyen (00:24:30):
Right before I touch on a couple of examples on Republic, I want to share that Uber and Airbnb before they went IPO, actually wanted to give equity to their community so that they feel more equitable and that they'll be more engaged. So even the latest stage, pre-IPO companies, they still see the value behind retail investing, because of that, I think something like 45% of the companies that are currently listing or in recent months on Republic have already raised from venture capital firms, have already generated seven-figure if not more in revenue, but they're doing this because they want to share their journey with their community and also open the door for the users and new community members to join. So we very much believe that retail capital is synergistic and will come to be a necessary component of any company's strategy, independent and separate from venture capital. So the two are not at all competitive in that sense.
Daniel Scrivner (00:25:39):
Well, I also think, I mean, I was just talking with the CEO of a company that I advised for a little bit a handful of years ago and then I invested in. And they've been working in an incredibly difficult space and they've outlasted a lot of their competitors. And anyways, they're now, they've gone, similar to your story, which we'll talk about a little bit more later, but the TLDR is being an entrepreneur is a multi chapter journey and some of those chapters are difficult, but if every chapter you survive, you get to go and play the game a little bit longer and hopefully, end up building something really big out of it. But so this business has been going through a really pivotal transition and it has a ton of traction recently.
Daniel Scrivner (00:26:17):
And anyways, it's just one parallel just to speak to what you just said. One thing that he told me about is, they're raising around right now. And he said, we've had a couple of customers that have actually asked to invest in the company. And obviously, those are the best investors we can have. And I mean, what more bullish signal could you get as a company than your own customers saying, please, please, please, I love your business, I'd love to be able to invest in it. And so much of the conversation in venture capital world is around strategic capital or trying to find strategic investors. And in a lot of ways, yes, I will not. I'm not going to say that top tier venture capital firms can't be helpful. They can be helpful in a lot of very important ways, but you would be ignoring a huge amount of strategic capital if you didn't take capital from customers.
Ken Nguyen (00:27:04):
Absolutely, Daniel. And the people forget that venture capital has been in existence for nearly about 50 or 60 years. In the grand scheme of thing of human, of Western society civilization, that's like a brief moment, in essence, is a better product. Of course, it is going to evolve. Of course, new form of capital and financings will come into place. I have no doubt there will be development and iteration of retail and institutional in the years and decades to come. So anyone who believes that status quo or what was working in the past is what should be, obviously, has a very different worldview than many of us.
Daniel Scrivner (00:27:44):
I'd love to just flesh out a little bit more. So obviously, so far, we've talked about that on Republic, people can invest in private companies, but they can also invest in real estate and crypto. Talk a little bit about, one, I guess, are those things new or have those always been on the platform? And then two, what are some of the opportunities in those spaces that you think have just been really incredible that have been on the platform?
Ken Nguyen (00:28:06):
Our thesis or our goal, our mission, our objective is to empower people to invest in whatever it is around them in their world that they're passionate about that they want to see more in the future. So it necessarily means a lot more than just early stage tech financing. For many people, the binary return of venture capital just is not appealing. They would rather not lose all of their money and not make 10X, but consistently 8%, 10% return like real estate revenue sharing.
Ken Nguyen (00:28:40):
So even though we started out with early stage tech financing, because that's our early team's background, we have seen added residential real estate, commercial real estate, virtual real estate, crypto, small businesses. And soon, you're going to see music financing, art financing, theater and Broadway financing. I think that almost everything around us can potentially be an investible asset. So depending on our expertise and opportunities to partner with others, we will continue to add on new verticals so that we in the sense of like becoming an Amazon for private investing in that people come to us as a default option to invest in new things. And I'm sure it is going to be niche platforms sprouting out that focus on one particular thing, but we are focusing on being a one-stop shop, multi asset investment platform.
Daniel Scrivner (00:29:42):
I wanted to bring up two things that caught my attention recently, that I've known about Republic for a long time, but these are both things recently that came up that I just thought were really incredible, and it feeds into what we were talking about earlier, where it really feels like things have shifted over the last 12 to 18 months. And two of those that I've seen directly in my network that have just been really interesting is Gumroad as a bootstrap company to date has taken very little venture capital, raise capital and made a huge deal. In fact, focused their whole raise on raising through Republic. And the whole idea there was, one, it was kind of a, we're bucking the traditional venture capital model, but it was also at the end of the day, it's a business that lives to give to creators what better way than to open up this investment round so that their community, people that have used Gumroad, people that rely on it, people that just buy products off it can invest in it.
Daniel Scrivner (00:30:34):
And then the other one was Backstage Capital, which is a, the founder made the cover of Fortune Magazine and used Republic to raise $5 million for venture capital fund, all to invest in minority entrepreneurs, as well as women minority business owners. And it's a fantastic [inaudible 00:30:52]. So that's an example where a VC fund literally raised $5 million, which is incredible raise, as well as a company. Any other anecdotes, I guess, to share there or any other stories that you've just been blown away by?
Ken Nguyen (00:31:04):
You mentioned earlier about a few examples of quality deal. In the case of Gumroad, they are already generating more than $10 million per year in revenue. And he did a Series C 6 million, one was backed and invested by very well known VCs, the other five went on Republic and closed in one day. So, and he raised from over nearly 10,000 of his existing community members. We're very grateful for Sahil who is an influencer in the Valley himself. And Backstage is the opposite of the narrative in that the business model of a venture capital firm is traditionally so elite that you didn't think that it would be suitable for the crowd, but she raised five millions to finance the operation in one week.
Ken Nguyen (00:31:56):
Again, another example that quite frankly, at Republic, we provided infrastructure, but we didn't have to do much if at all marketing or we didn't even contribute meaningfully to the amount raised because the existing communities of these respective companies were already so robust and it was so interested in backing it. So at the end of the day, it still goes back to it's a business model that people believe in, it doesn't matter what it is, it can be a fruit truck down the street, that is suitable for eventually for a retail financing on Republic, on other platforms.
Daniel Scrivner (00:32:37):
And one thing too, for anyone listening that's interested in either of those deals, I highly encourage you to go to republic.co and you can link to both of those. And you can't invest in it any longer, both of those opportunities are closed, but what I was blown away by is, I've seen a lot of pitches, both for venture capital funds, as well as for individual companies, and Arlan's pitch for Backstage Capital was world-class. I mean, she did an incredible job of laying out for people investing, here's the structure of how deals work, here's what you're investing in and how returns are actually going to come back to you, here's stats around the lack of funding for the businesses that we want to give funding to. So, if you're skeptical about the space, I would highly encourage you to go and look at some of these deals, because in my experience, the level of disclosure, the level of thoughtfulness, the level of alignment is far and above what I typically see in this space.
Ken Nguyen (00:33:26):
Daniel, may I touch on a value proposition that we haven't had a chance to dive in?
Daniel Scrivner (00:33:31):
Ken Nguyen (00:33:32):
The social validation, the coolness of it. So plenty of Backstage investors invested between $200 and $500. And they absolutely loved it. And just like you said, they went through, they understood for the very first time how carry works, what's a GP and a VC, and to be able to add brunch, talk to your friends that, hey, did you know that I'm now a venture investor, not investing in a startup, but investing in a venture firm? And it makes for such a fun conversation. So there's a social validation and social value behind investing, but more importantly, what would be the cost of taking a class about venture capital? Certainly more than a few $100. By making an investment small enough, the person is now likely equipped with more sophisticated and practical information than many people who have taken a class or two at a business school.
Daniel Scrivner (00:34:32):
That's an incredible point. And that's what blows me away about the platform, because I think for me, it starts to just piece together a bunch of different dots. And I think we've already talked about that. So only in 2016 did this start to become possible, and this has now been clarified and amended and approved with new legislation. So it's only been around for five years period. Two, it's taken a bunch of time, obviously, for one, investors to get comfortable and aware of it, but also founders and people raising capital to understand the value of the platform and what it allows them to do.
Daniel Scrivner (00:35:04):
And so you're starting to see this shift happen, but what's fascinating about both of those examples is it's, when I think about them, I just get really excited because it allows for things that have never been possible. And I think that is really the promise that you're building towards is a fundamentally new and different platform that can be an on-ramp for investors that have never been able to invest before. And I might, this is a little bit of a leading question, but when we had our initial call, I mean, you gave me a story that I'd love it if you could share with everybody listening about the origins of crowdfunding and that it's been around for a very time. Can you share that story? That gets really interesting.
Ken Nguyen (00:35:40):
Absolutely. When people think about crowdfunding, particularly investment crowdfunding or equity crowdfunding, people think it's very new. And it's new only in the sense that this current version is different, but crowdfunding or co-investing has been around for a few 100 years. The Statue of Liberty in New York was a byproduct of a crowdfunding effort. And it went up in the New York Times to finance the base of the Statue of Liberty, but even more relevant, when I first heard of crowdfunding or the business model was probably at a weekend dinner table when my parents, immigrants from Vietnam, were trying to buy a small business. And as it turned out, the business been around by the prior owner for generations. And when that first iteration, I think it was like a laundromat in the outskirts of San Francisco, banks didn't lend to the first waves of immigrants from Asia and other places. So they didn't have any place to do financing.
Ken Nguyen (00:36:44):
So in the 1900s, after church on Sunday, the whole neighborhood would come together, put $500 or $200 in a jar, and everyone put their names in a different hat. And then you pick money out of that hat. And whoever picked the name would get that money to finance the business and you own the obligation to the community, and therefore, you're going to pay them back. But that's what built many small businesses, and in fact, communities around America. And then it went away. I think now is coming back just better and with global potential, because you no longer got to know and see people face to face at church in order to get financing. So I think that we are going to, or retail capital is going to be building communities and businesses in across the US and around the world.
Ken Nguyen (00:37:37):
But Daniel, in the US alone, Republic is unusual in that not only that we invest in diverse founders in terms of background, we also are very equitable in terms of geographic representations. So we have many founders and companies based out of Texas, Chicago, even Alaska and West Virginia. And I think that's what the future of an inclusive ecosystem can and should be.
Daniel Scrivner (00:38:03):
Yeah. Just to underscore that, I mean, leveling the playing field on two sides. And the side we've been talking about the most is obviously the investor side. You want to allow everyone from every background, every income bracket to be able to invest. But the other thing too is founders. And there's been a lot of talk that even five years ago, it felt like a very notable shift where all of a sudden, VCs were starting to even think about investing in the middle of America and in companies in the Midwest. And now there's a lot of venture capital that actually goes into Colorado, where I am, Texas.
Daniel Scrivner (00:38:32):
And so just the other side is just as important, which is now entrepreneurs, which fits right into, we've gone through this massive shift in 2020 and 2021, where so many people have moved from New York and from the Coast and to the places that they actually want to live, which traditionally aren't California and New York a lot of times. And one thought there is like, oh, well, is that going to come with a loss of opportunity? And what's fascinating about stuff like Republic is it's making it so that that's not the case and it's making it so you can found a business, you can grow a business from anywhere and still have access to capital, which has not always been the case.
Ken Nguyen (00:39:06):
Technology, and in this case, blockchain in particular, I think is going to go a long way in blurring the boundaries between, not just cities and communities, but countries as well. And investing in finance has always been very jurisdictionally separated. I think you're going to see that barrier breaking down increasingly so around the world.
Daniel Scrivner (00:39:29):
So I want to shift in a moment to talk a little bit about your story and what lessons that you learned that you might want to pass on to other entrepreneurs that are at the start of their journey or at the middle of their journey. But one thing I want to talk about a little bit is, and I want to be super thoughtful here, because obviously, I don't want to make any promises or make any claims, but I mean, one thing that I just wanted to underscore is I think a fascinating part about Republic is when you think about the average investor is, if you just look at the return profile, and the data is somewhat tricky here, because one thing that people will tell you about venture capital is, you need to be invested in the top tier deals, and you made the point earlier about diversification.
Daniel Scrivner (00:40:08):
The way that I've always thought about it is there are some spaces where you can be really selective and you can invest in a couple of things. A good example of that might be investing in an index fund, which is one, you can make one investment, but it's broadly diversified. In the venture capital space, there's this concept of a fat tail, which really means that you want to ideally bill, and there's whole papers written about this, about how you want to get to some level of diversification. And so people talk about that on a deal basis, you want to be invested in 50 deals or a 100 deals.
Daniel Scrivner (00:40:36):
And part of that is just what the fat tail idea involves is this notion that there are going to be some results, some outcomes that are 10X, a 100X, some of these massive returns. And then there's a bunch that, so on some, you're going to lose your money, on some, you might make one or two or three or four or 5X, might be a somewhat smaller return. But the point I wanted to make is the return profile of venture capital is very, very, very different. And what's fascinating about that is it may sound small for someone to invest $250 into a deal, but once that ultimately gets 10X, it becomes a very meaningful outcome. I guess, talk a little bit about that, and if you have any stories to share there, any anecdotes there from customers and investors on the platform.
Ken Nguyen (00:41:18):
Daniel, you touched on a key point that we focus on getting through to first-time visitors and first-time users and investor on Republic that is highly risky. If you invest in just one early stage deal, tap deal that is-
Daniel Scrivner (00:41:36):
Highly risky. Period, but yes.
Ken Nguyen (00:41:38):
You may lose all of your money if you just invest in one deal. So, if you have a $1000, put it in 20 deals, $50 each, deals that you like, products you would use, things that you understand, or backing by following people that you trust, influencers, experienced investors like yourself. Now, the narrative, though, around what's top tier is bound to also change with term. I was chatting with our advisor Randi Zuckerberg last night, and she was sharing how about 10 years ago, startups that built product focused mainly on female products, in this one case, a breast pumps, because the VC investors, that's not our personal experience was not as relatable. So it was characterized as too niche, probably not a big enough of a market.
Ken Nguyen (00:42:37):
It ended up according to Randy being her biggest exit when she made the investment to back a deal that almost every single top VC had passed on and she yielded more than 200X return on a single investment. So I think the lens on top tier or not, it is relevant, but at the end of the day, an experienced investors invest based on his and her lens, based on his and her experience as to whether this product, this company may or may not be that future unicorn or $500 million business.
Daniel Scrivner (00:43:17):
Just the other point. And this has been confirmed in my own experience. It's also come up in multiple interviews I've done with other investors, but I was, just a couple of weeks ago, I sat down with Scott Belsky, who's made a bunch of fascinating investments. He's at Adobe now. He's also a venture partner at Benchmark and he's invested in Uber and Pinterest and Sweetgreen and a bunch of other incredible businesses.
Daniel Scrivner (00:43:37):
But something that I feel like every time I hear it, it's just, I don't know, branding it more into my brain, because it's a point you need to hear many, many, many times is just that every one of those deals, so he gave the example of Pinterest. And when he first invested, and he invested in very early, he had no clue if he was going to lose all of his money, if he was going to make a great return on it, even what it would become, or if it would be in business or be relevant three or five years later. Same thing with Uber. And he made the point, which is just great opportunities never have the subject line, great opportunity, in them.
Daniel Scrivner (00:44:08):
And I've had that experience so many times where I think part of being a venture capital investor is it helps if you're optimistic because by the very nature of how it works is you need to be able to see the potential of what something can become. And if you can look at it, be excited about it, have a sense of that this could be a big, interesting, impactful thing over the longterm, then it's generally worth making a bet on, because at the end of the day, there's no certainty when you invest in it and you have no idea how that's going to play out.
Daniel Scrivner (00:44:37):
And I mean, the number of investments I've made, where, as I was giving that example earlier, you invest in a company you think has a lot of promise and they go through a really difficult multi-year period trying to figure it out, or you invest in something that you think seems silly and it turns into a big, massive business. And so the point there is just to, I think, one, it's a lens of how to think about this, but two, it's just this notion that you really do have to invest in stuff that you believe in, because at the end of the day, you're never going to have certainty. You need to be able to think about how it can play out.
Ken Nguyen (00:45:07):
I agree. And that's why it's so important to be backing people that you like and that you feel that they have integrity and that you want to support them. Because at the end of the day, if you back people, even if the business doesn't pan out, at least you feel good about the people that you've supported, but when it comes to private investing, you're going to win some and you're going to lose some and you cannot get too worked up about the investment opportunities that you had missed, or a few hopefully, not too many more than just a few that become a big fat zero.
Daniel Scrivner (00:45:43):
So I want to transition now and talk a little bit about your story and how it might relate to people that are on their own entrepreneurial journey now, or getting started in founding a business, or it's even an ambition they have in the future. And I think something that you alluded to earlier, something you nodded that really quickly that I'd love to go back to is, as you started in 2016 and that first year only ended up raising a million dollars. And then obviously, that's changed dramatically over the last four or five years, but there were periods where you felt like you weren't sure if the business was going to exist over the next two months.
Daniel Scrivner (00:46:16):
So what I'd love to explore a little bit is how do you, because I think this is such an important lesson for people, why is it so important to just persevere and be patient and just continue to execute on something over time and allow that to play out? And then number two, when you're in those really difficult moments, what gets you through those difficult moments and what makes it possible for you to just keep moving forward?
Ken Nguyen (00:46:38):
Daniel, I think in tech and in Silicon Valley in particular, people overvalue, overrate ingenuity and brilliance and innovation and undervalue just timing and luck and resilience. So most businesses that become household brand weren't the first to do what they do. Uber definitely wasn't the first to have that model. Facebook, before that, it was Myspace and early iteration. So the value of perseverance is this, is highly unlikely, highly rare for someone to launch a product, a new product, and that happens to coincide perfectly with the market's appetite for that product. See, most likely, they're like a little too early, hopefully not too, too early, and definitely not too late. You know right away if you're too late. And if you too, too early, then you may run out of money. So somewhere in between, which is trying to stretch your dollars and keep going forward, but be sensible about it. That optimizes the probability of success.
Ken Nguyen (00:47:52):
In the last five years, there were a number of times when I and the team were offered a very significant and obvious business opportunities to shift our model to something else that's not about retail investing. And we just had like this come to Jesus moment and ask ourselves, why do we do what we do? And I think it's because it's meaningful. And why is it meaningful? Because it empowers other people, which is in this case, we care very much about the retail public, maybe entrepreneurs or investors. We weren't keen to just becoming another private equity firm or a hedge fund.
Ken Nguyen (00:48:30):
And so because of the conviction for the overall mission, and it feels good, that's what motivates people and I and the rest of the team probably more than financial success. I think that alone enabled us to keep riding it through. So I think any company that has a mission beyond just making a quick buck or becoming a millionaire in a few years, naturally is going to be more resilient and is probably the number one lens when I look, when I assess a deal, is that just the founding team? Are they driven by something more than just, I want to be cool and I want to make a lot of money? Because if those are the motivation, big red flag.
Daniel Scrivner (00:49:19):
Yeah. I think that starts the countdown clock and see how long that will last because it does. Maybe another way to say it is that perseverance, I know this is true for myself, but I know it's true from talking with a bunch of other entrepreneurs, perseverance isn't just like, you don't want to do it and you do it. It's like you, you need a superhuman level of commitment to what you're doing.
Daniel Scrivner (00:49:40):
And something I'd be curious to explore with you if you're comfortable with it is I've had a few moments in my life where that perseverance feels like it's being tested, where you're, because obviously, I think there's this natural false, but very alluring part of our brain that says, well, if it's difficult, then maybe you just shouldn't do it, or maybe you should quit. And it links effort with, should you say, no, maybe this isn't what I should be doing, things should just be falling into line. And I know I've grappled with in those moments, how do I make the decision to keep moving forward? And how do I make the decision to fold? Do you have any thoughts there you can share, any part of your story that you can share there for anyone listening?
Ken Nguyen (00:50:19):
Absolutely, Daniel. I actually have a recipe, which is if I ever go through a two-week period of grinding things out or not, even not grinding things out, but I'm just like bored and disinterested, much less feeling negative, then I'm probably on the wrong path. Now, even having gone through weeks where I put three or four all nighters in a single week at Republic, physically can be tired, mentally can be tired, but I think the underlying reason why we do it, and in fact, it's like the validation from the investors, every single user that comes through Republic have been such a boost at the energy level, it's been so uplifting that enable me and the team to ride through. There's a huge benefit that only now that I've come to appreciate in the past five years of growing up, again, with immigrant parents and learning and hearing stories about people in third world countries. So a lot of people grind day in and day out doing jobs they would not last a single day and still with a smile on their face because they're working to provide for their family. So everything is a choice.
Ken Nguyen (00:51:37):
And so through some of the darkest moments or like the steepest valleys, so to speak, just take a moment to pause and say like, hey, listen, I live in the United States of America, I have a job and a team that believe in me and also tens of thousands of partners and advisors and people who believe in what we do. So buckle up, put on a different perspective and keep looking for work and keep going. So I think that probably has been the most helpful tool that I've had at my disposal in the past five years to keep on riding.
Daniel Scrivner (00:52:14):
Yeah. I think that's super helpful. And I mean, it is, just to underscore that, I think it's something that we all don't talk about enough, but engaging that gratitude muscle too. And when you're going through a difficult period, taking a moment to remember that, yeah, so many of those things that I've struggled with or other people have struggled with, it is a massive privilege to even be in a position to struggle on some of these challenges, to be able to build a super impactful business, that's empowering. People like Arlan, Backstage Capital, Sahil at Gumroad, it's just an incredible thing.
Daniel Scrivner (00:52:45):
For anyone listening too, I mean, so much of my journey as an entrepreneur and investor is, it's come from having great conversations like this, but also just reading books and absorbing as much as possible to be able to learn from people that have been in similar situations, to people that have built something that I find really inspiring. Do you have any books or films, just anything that you have really drawn a lot of inspiration from or that have really been helpful in your journey that might be helpful for others?
Ken Nguyen (00:53:13):
I find Fred Wilson's blog at Union Square Venture very, very helpful for founders and also for investor. Naval Ravikant, my former boss and the founder of AngelList, I think has a lot of good life experience. And he has obviously a very experienced perspective in investing and building company as well. But I really look to that as like live experience and wisdom overall, which at the end of the day, I think everyone got to decide for themselves what works for them and for the business, there is rarely ever a recipe served on a dish, on a plate, that works to solve your own problem, whether you're an investor or a startup founder. So absorb the information, then just clear your mind, meditate, or what have you do to unblock and go with your gut instinct would be my recommendation.
Daniel Scrivner (00:54:10):
Yeah, Naval has a great quote around that, that I found a lot of truth in, which is that there is no such thing as studying business, because at the end of the day, literally, every business is different from how it works financially to how it works strategically to the team members that are in it to the approach you're taking. And I think that's a really great point.
Daniel Scrivner (00:54:28):
I'd love to transition to a few closing questions. And I mean, one of those that I was really keen to ask you is, something on the show that we try to focus on is just kind of uncoding habits, routines, things that people do to be able to either show up as their best self each day, because I know that, even just from myself, there's a whole host of things that I noticed that if I do, I'm showing up in a better way and in my fullest sense to be able to be present in a day or that help you to be more productive. Do you have any habits, routines that you really rely on that either help you show up as your best self or just help you do your best work each day?
Ken Nguyen (00:55:04):
Clearing my mind even just 10 minutes in an Uber ride, close my eyes, stop thinking about whatever Slack messages that I just read that I annoy me, and just look internally, just even focusing on breathing, I find that to be incredibly helpful to be present. I think the second one, and is a recently acquired habit or something that I'm trying to work myself into doing it, before every single meeting, remind myself that I'm going to come into this with positive intention, assume it for myself and other people, positive expression and positive reaction. If you do that, you can agree to disagree. But even if you disagree, you commit and not let get things flare up. At the end of the day, if you're more positive, you're just your better self. So it's just probably those two things, the two that I keep trying to be more methodical and work that into a daily habit.
Daniel Scrivner (00:55:59):
It's fascinating that second example, because every time I've interacted with you, I've just been like, wow, Ken is so happy and excited and on fire. And I do, that's a practice that I've heard before is, yeah, taking a moment before you go into a meeting to be really intentional about how you want to show up in that meeting.
Ken Nguyen (00:56:15):
That's how I feel when I talk to you, Daniel, I wonder if you don't mind sharing some of your hack around these things.
Daniel Scrivner (00:56:22):
Yeah, I'm. But happy to flip the script a little bit. I mean, that second one you brought up, that's been really impactful for me. And to be super honest, I've fallen down in that habit recently. But I think the two things that I try to be really mindful about doing each day is not only to be as present as possible whenever I'm in a meeting with someone or even, I think so much stuff in life, even responding to an email, it makes a big difference if you can just be in a mental space where you can really listen and take the time to read what the people on the thread are discussing or what someone sent you. I feel like so many times in life, I get a note or a message where I'm like, "Wow, did you even read that last email? There's four questions that you didn't answer any of those questions."
Daniel Scrivner (00:57:04):
And so I just find that there's so much that gets improved when you just try to be really intentional about being thoughtful in each interaction. And I think the things that helped me there is taking time to meditate and clear my mind, doing a good job of not being, I mean, for me, I think a big thing is, don't be seated all day, be moving, take calls outside if you can, go get some sunlight, go. I think this balance of doing stuff that feels really selfish, which can be as small as going out and taking a walk when you're like, oh, I should bang out these five more emails for 30 more minutes. No, everyone's going to be better off if you go take that walk for 15, 20 minutes.
Ken Nguyen (00:57:41):
Or eat that cupcake that you've been denying yourself. Eat it-
Daniel Scrivner (00:57:47):
No, don't it. I know. Well, because I think it's just counter to the wisdom. And then the other one that I would say is that intentionality piece. And I mean, one thing that I do, which maybe sounds a little bit cheesy is close my eyes and think about really intentionally how I want people to perceive me, how I want to show up, the level of excitement that I want to bring or positivity that I want to bring. And I think the notion there is, I mean, when I first heard that advice, I think it's really easy to be like, oh, well, you're just trying to show up more positive than you are, or it's like, it feels maybe a little bit disingenuous, but that's not it at all.
Daniel Scrivner (00:58:19):
I think what it really is, is rather than just showing up however you're feeling, because one thing that someone said to me awhile ago that's so true is, it was coach I was working with and he's like, "We all don't understand, that really, we're just carrying the emotions from the last interaction we have into the next one." And you just do that all day long. And so really, oftentimes, in meetings, you're not showing up, really, you're not being intentional with it at all. It's just based off how you're feeling, did you eat? Are you hungry? Are you hungry? Are you beating yourself up today? Are you being nice with yourself today? And so just that practice of being intentional, I think, is super helpful.
Ken Nguyen (00:58:55):
And people can hear things they don't, most of the time, we don't even listen to what the other people have to say, but I agree completely. And I find that highly aspirational, certainly aim to be more so.
Daniel Scrivner (00:59:06):
Well, I agree. And that would be the last note is compassion. And it goes to that indulgence piece. But I think a big thing that's played a big role over the last few years is tamping down the voice in my head that's always the negative coach, that's telling you all the things you're not doing and all the things that you should have done and all the things that you aren't able to get done today. And instead, understanding that if you can be a little bit gentler on yourself, understand and be compassionate that if you're, I think, a high achiever, you are always going to be in a position where there's things to improve, you feel like you're behind and you might get more out of yourself if you're compassionate, instead of just beating yourself up mercilessly.
Ken Nguyen (00:59:45):
And Daniel, I think I definitely relate to that so much as a goal. I think people would tend to forget that they have full agency over how they feel. And if you can separate what happens outside, including what people say, the events that happen and put a layer between your ability to control how you perceive it and how you feel. And if you are aware of it, if you want to feel angry, by all means do it, but if you're angry unintentionally, then less optimal in my opinion.
Daniel Scrivner (01:00:20):
Yeah. And it's probably best that you acknowledge that and spend a little bit of time thinking about why that's the case and is it because, I think you're right, it's just, it's taking responsibility how you're showing up in all those situations and understanding that you can control it. Okay. Thank you so much for that. That was very nice of you. Thank you so much for flipping the script on me and asking me that question. I have one last closing question, which is, I mean, there's a lot of stuff we've covered in this interview, there are people listening that are going to be taking away stuff from that investing perspective we've talked about, they're going to be entrepreneurs listening, they're going to take away some things from your journey and how you've built this business one step at a time over five plus years now. For people listening, is there one message that you want them to take away? And what would that be?
Ken Nguyen (01:01:04):
I have one message for investors, aspiring investors, and one message for founders, if that's okay.
Daniel Scrivner (01:01:08):
Awesome. Yeah, please.
Ken Nguyen (01:01:09):
For investors is learning by getting started, starting small, starting with amount that you're ready to lose, but don't read books about how to invest, just make some investment and learn from it. And I think for founders, it's the reverse, which is before you go out there to fundraise, read a lot, get all the information that you can before embarking on that pursuit, because it can be so time-consuming, it will be time-consuming regardless. And if you walked out just slightly off route is going to be so wasteful and wasted opportunities. So it's the reverse for founders and investors.
Daniel Scrivner (01:01:49):
But I love that. It's like a mirrored message. But just to add onto that, I couldn't agree more. I think the way that I would maybe reframe that slightly is like for investors, the best way to learn is to get skin in the game, you're going to pay attention to everything more, you're going to have a heightened sense of awareness, you're going to have that sense of ownership. And so fastest way to learn is to start investing and get some skin in the game. Ken, this has been an amazing interview. Thank you so much for coming on. And I'd love to do a round two of this at some point in the future.
Ken Nguyen (01:02:17):
Daniel, thank you so much for having me. I've learned a great deal and always excited to come back and continue the conversation.
Daniel Scrivner (01:02:24):
And for people listening, you can find out about Republic at republic.co. Is there anywhere else you would send them where people can follow you or follow Republic on Twitter?
Ken Nguyen (01:02:33):
Yes. If you could just google me, Kendrick Nguyen, either on Twitter or LinkedIn, send me a message. I promise I will get back. May not be that exact day, but eventually, I'll get back and happy to do a call if you have any questions over time as well.
Daniel Scrivner (01:02:46):
Thank you so much, Ken.
Ken Nguyen (01:02:47):
Thanks for having me.
On Outliers, Daniel Scrivner explores the tactics, routines, and habits of world-class performers working at the edge—in business, investing, entertainment, and more. In each episode, he decodes what they've mastered and what they've learned along the way. Start learning from the world’s best today.