QA with Cynthia Ringo and Ann Zeichner

Earlier this month, Cynthia Ringo and Ann Zeichner joined San Francisco-based Blueprint Ventures as general partner and venture partner, respectively. Ringo was most recently CEO of CopperCom, where she will remain chairman of the board. Zeichner was most recently a co-founder of NorthPoint Communications, where she served as vice president of sales and marketing. Combined, the two have more than three decades of operating experience.

Neither of you had ever been partners in a venture capital firm prior to joining Blueprint. Why make the switch from operating executive to investor?

CR: About five years ago, I was looking to leave the company I was with at the time and I began talking with some venture capitalists. While they were recruiting me to come into their firms as a partner, I was also being recruited for some CEO positions. What I finally concluded after agonizing over it for several months was that I wanted to do both, but that I had to do them in a particular order. I had to be a CEO first, and then I could go into venture capital.

As for why I moved out of an operating role at all, I wanted to take the experiences and network I have and move from the player role into the coach role. As a CEO, many of my investors had operating backgrounds and were so incredibly helpful to me. In fact, I often wondered how anybody was able to do the job without having that type of mentor.

AZ: I had been at a number of venture-backed companies over the past 20-plus years and had finally decided I wanted to do something different. Like Cynthia, I wanted to leverage my contacts and what I had learned – both the things I had done right and the things I had done wrong – so as to look at investments from a different perspective from someone who hasn’t had an operating background.

Do you have any concerns that you may have too much affinity for entrepreneurs at the expense of your firm?

AZ: I think I have invested enough sweat, and in some cases my own money, at this point in my life that I can look at my investments as investments. I’d actually already done a bit of work for Blueprint in advance of joining, where I had to make some tough decisions.

Maybe it would have been harder earlier in my career, but I don’t foresee having a problem now. I understand when it’s time to stop funding, or to not invest in the first place.

CR: As Ann was mentioning, when you’ve done this thing as long as we have, you’ve made so many mistakes that it’s incredible. If you can take that knowledge base and keep someone else from making those same mistakes, it’s a wonderful thing. And because you have had the experience of being an entrepreneur, you probably have more sway with entrepreneurs even if you’re telling them something very difficult for them to take in. We’ve both been on boards and been advisors to companies where we’ve had to tell people things they didn’t want to hear.

Did you shop around before settling on Blueprint?

CR: I was actively in discussions with seven different firms. I knew Blueprint well and there was some personal pulling toward them, but I felt I needed to do the diligence to be able to be absolutely certain that this was where I wanted to spend the rest of my working career.

That’s really how I looked at the decision; was I certain that this was where I wanted to work for the rest of my life? This is very different from a job decision, which is more about where I’m going to work for the next three or four or five years.

AZ: I had been thinking about doing venture for about two years. When I felt it was time for me to make a decision, I didn’t know whether I wanted to be a solo, or an angel investor or join a firm. So I did research over a period of almost a year and decided after talking to lots of people about advisory and actual positions that Blueprint was where I wanted to go.

My connection to the firm comes from the fact that I already knew [Blueprint GP] Bart Schachter, because he was an investor with Intel Capital before founding Blueprint and, with Intel, he had invested in NorthPoint Communications, where I worked previously. He sat on the board there and was one of the most useful and contributory board members in NorthPoint’s early days.

Why did you choose Blueprint?

AZ: This is a new firm with a new platform on which to build. On the one hand, going to a more established firm might give you more experienced folks and a different type of mentoring, but you wouldn’t get the same type of opportunity to build something from the bottom up because the culture is already there.

CR: I agree. Being an entrepreneur and start-up person myself, I was excited to help build a new venture firm.

Did you feel gender was an issue when you were being interviewed by the various firms?

CR: I never felt gender was an issue with any of the firms I talked to. It was very clear, at least in my case, that they were looking for operating experience. More specifically, they were looking for someone who already had extensive contacts in the venture community, so that if you made a phone call to a VC, they’d return the call.

Blueprint now has an equal partnership in terms of gender, but the venture industry is still dominated by men. Why have more women not jumped into the ring?

AZ: I think it’s been changing in the past 24 months. It’s followed the evolution of women moving up the corporate ladder, both in start-ups and in larger companies. You need that first in order to get the knowledge base, contacts and, in some cases, financial resources needed to participate. I think there is also a growing acceptance of women as senior contributors.

Are there any advantages to being a female VC?

AZ: To some degree it’s not an issue; either you’re good at what you do or you’re not, gender independent.

To a certain degree, though, it’s like it was when I first got into business in that there weren’t many women doing what I was doing so I was a bit of a novelty. And there’s still some novelty to what I’m doing now and maybe there is something to leverage from that, but I think it’s very small in relation to how important it is just to perform.

CR: I think that once you get into an investment, there may be certain circumstances where being a woman may make it either easier or harder to be the deliverer of a message.

Blueprint launched its second fund-raising drive last year, which is still active. How’s the process going and are you, as new partners, involved in the marketing itself?

CR: The fund has so far held a first close. One of the things I think we both looked at when deciding to join was what state the second fund was in. We were both very happy and encouraged with where the fund was at that point in time, in terms of both what had already been closed and what was in the pipeline.

We do both play a role in the fund raising at this point because we’re partners, but the lead on that is definitely Bart Schachter.

The fund was launched with a $250 million target, and has been lowered a bit since then. Was hiring new partners, in part, an attempt to make the firm more attractive to potential LPs?

AZ: It’s like building any business in that it’s that chicken and egg thing. You need a strong team to raise money, but first you still have to raise some money just to hire the partners. And if you raise more, you need more. In general, Blueprint got a lot of input from LPs as to what type of profile they wanted in the partners.

Which is harder right now: Being an entrepreneur looking for venture funding, or being a venture fund looking for cash of its own?

AZ: I think both are challenging now. I’ve been through several economic cycles and this is the toughest I’ve seen. So I think it’s equal.

People are being careful of what they invest in, so LPs and venture funds are being appropriately judicious. The really good deals and VCs, though, are still getting money and will weather this storm.

Daniel Primack can be contacted

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