Jul 19, 2021

Jay Drain Jr. of Maven Ventures on Consumer Social and the Importance of ‘Altitude Switching’

Jay Drain Jr., investor at Maven Ventures, is originally from Chicago but moved to New York City after graduating from Amherst College, where he studied Law and Political Science. Post-graduation, he worked for Goldman Sachs for two years and then joined Maven Ventures after finding his passion for consumer technology and working with early-stage entrepreneurs.

In this interview, he explains why he’s so drawn to consumer-social startups, shares insights on why many of the best founders are great at “altitude switching,” and offers his views on audio and vertical social networks as some of the next big social trends to watch.

Why are you so passionate about consumer social startups? What makes them appealing to you?

First of all, Maven is a seed-stage fund that invests in consumer software and that includes a ton of different spaces, but consumer social is one of the spaces that I naturally gravitate towards. I fell in love with consumer social startups after a super brief and unsuccessful trial in building my own. In my hours outside of Goldman back in Winter 2019 and early 2020, I was inclined to build a social platform that connected groups of friends with each other, a la Tinder Social, which seemingly never lived up to its potential. I started working on putting together some rough sketches, going to a ton of virtual tech events, and seeking guidance from operators and friends in VC. When COVID hit, however, it didn’t make a ton of sense to continue working on a platform to connect people in person, so I stopped working on it but that bit of experience got me excited about social.

Aside from that nugget of experience, I think my passion for consumer social is a blend of living in New York, the greatest melting pot in the world, my identity as a Gen Z, and having friends that are building cool startups in social.

Social is so appealing to me because, at Maven, we’re keen on investing in massive consumer trends at the seed stage, especially ones that might seem a little weird or crazy to the average person. So many of the biggest and most influential consumer trends are a result of the way humans socialize and interact with each other. There’s a saying that goes: “the best version of every consumer product is the social one.” It obviously has varying degrees of truth but it’s a phrase that I keep in the back of my mind.

Why is consumer social a focus for you and what excites you the most about investing in customer social?

Socializing is something that most people do every single day; not to be dramatic, but it’s so core to our existence as human beings. Therefore, I think many of the best consumer social startups are built in response to growing behaviors around how we socialize or are creating entirely new social behaviors. It's always really exciting to have a pulse on what's driving the way we communicate, the way we hang out, the way we make plans, and so on. Investing in consumer social is also really dynamic, engaging, and entertaining because so often the founders of these startups are young. I find that consumer social founders always have a vibrant and infectious energy that makes it easy to work with them.

What do you look for in early-stage founders and startups?

So “Invest Like the Best” is one of my top three or four favorite podcasts, and Kanyi Maqubela from Kindred Ventures, who I think is so incredibly poignant, was interviewed on it a few months ago. In his interview, he was explaining this concept called “altitude switching,” which I love to reference because I never knew the concept had an actual name. Altitude switching is the fluidity with which a founder can both outline and paint the vision of their company at the 30,000-foot level AND discuss how the company works and grows at the ground floor level. It’s being able to go from “here is how we operate, how we’re building, and how we’re thinking on the day-to-day, and week-to-week basis” to “this is our plan for how this company will shape the world 5 years from now, here’s how we fit into this particular market, here’s how we fit into our vision of the world 10 years from now.” I’ve met 22-year-old, founders who do this really well and I’ve heard the CEOs of $50 billion companies do it on CNBC. Each time you hear it, though, you just get a unique feeling because you know the person or the vision or the company can be really special. When an early-stage founder does this well, in my head I’m just thinking, “here, take all my money!”

Another big thing that I look for, especially as a consumer investor, is the founder’s understanding of culture. In this context, an understanding of culture to me is knowing the answer to questions like: What is important to whom? And why? And why does this community or demographic behave a certain way and why? There’s this tweet that I love from Nate Jones at Andreessen Horowitz that says, “understanding culture allows you to see the hidden TAM (Total Addressable Market),” which means understanding culture and how demographics play a big part in behavior and is essentially a superpower as a founder.

Here’s an example: The summer before joining Maven, I was working as a Summer Associate and came across this really impressive founder who was pitching a marketplace for hair extensions, largely targeted at women of color. Seeing how great the product and founder were, I quickly realized a ton of VCs were passing up on her startup because they didn’t really understand the pain point it was addressing. As a Black person, I saw through my mother and sister, who went to Black hair salons frequently, how expensive, time-consuming, and complex it could be for women of color to purchase hair extensions and coordinate their installation. So in this particular case, understanding the culture around Black hair care and salons, and the growing trends around hair extensions for people of color allowed the founder to recognize and tap into a market others didn’t realize existed.  

Are there any companies you’ve invested in that you’d like to shout out?

One Maven portfolio company I want to shout out is Glimpse. Glimpse started as a people-first community platform, where users connected via round-robin, one-on-one video chats, and since then has become a large-scale tool for members of different communities and organizations to stay connected and organize events. The cofounders of Glimpse are two dropouts from Duke, Helena Merk, and Brian Li, and they're incredibly sharp, creative, and technical. They went through YC last summer and are building a product for a demographic that they know well.

It’s really fun working with them because they build and iterate so quickly and because I learn so much from the way they approach building products for Gen Z’s. They’ve done a phenomenal job utilizing Zoom’s customizable SDK to build a product that allows Gen Z's to connect and socialize authentically.  

Any consumer social trends our readers should be following?

I think audio is becoming increasingly critical to the consumer social landscape. When Clubhouse launched, it was the talk of the town for over a year. And although things seem to have cooled down, Clubhouse did open the world up to the social audio’s potential. There are a handful of startups that I know are working on contextual audio, audio-first dating, and even social audio Q&A platforms.  My favorite app in the social audio space right now is Next Question, an app oriented around questions & voice-created answers. The Next Question is the work of my friend Midas, who has already built a handful of audio-first social products, is being incredibly thoughtful about how to create an entirely new social experience around existing but severely underrated social behaviors.

I’m interested in opportunities to build vertical social networks. I think there are incredible opportunities around food and fashion, especially which I’ve written and tweeted about a handful of times. With food, there’s no single platform that socializes users around food content. Recipes are curated on NYT, Bon Appetit, and Food52; tutorials and food hacks are all the rage on TikTok, and a lot of folks can’t go anywhere without sharing their meal on their social profiles #PhoneEatsFirst. I think fashion is another vertical that’d be great for a social network to be created around: there are so many large corners of fashion communities across Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, TikTok, and even Substack.

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