Dafina Toncheva’s journey to Silicon Valley has been something
She grew up in Bulgaria (like me!) throughout a turbulent time
of change when the nation was struggling to emerge from communism. Though
her mother and father have been medical doctors, they every earned solely $150 a month.
Toncheva spent summers together with her grandparents on their
tobacco farm the place they might decide tobacco leaves and work the land. “As you
can think about, it was simply very guide, labor-intensive, and ugly work,”
Nevertheless it was on that farm the place her grandmother gave her
recommendation that Toncheva would carry together with her as she immigrated to the United
States, graduated from each Harvard and Stanford, and entered the cutthroat
world of enterprise investing. Her grandmother mentioned, “In case you don’t need to make a
dwelling together with your palms, it’s essential to put money into your mind.”
“Her recommendation in the end assist me develop into an unbiased,
self-sufficient, and self-reliant grownup,” Toncheva mentioned. “And people are additionally
the qualities I search for within the founders I again.”
Toncheva moved from Bulgaria to the US in 1998 on a full scholarship to Harvard College. From there, she labored at Microsoft as a software program engineer, went on to get an MBA from Stanford, and joined Venrock for her first job in enterprise capital. She turned the primary institutional investor in Cloudflare, a San Francisco-based community efficiency and cybersecurity agency that simply went public.
Toncheva has spent the final seven years investing in
cybersecurity and enterprise software program firms at early-stage funding agency U.S. Enterprise Companions. Final week, she was
promoted to basic associate. I not too long ago caught up with Toncheva about all of
this and extra.
Under is our dialog.
TERM SHEET: Whenever you have been 15 years outdated, you created a
peanut enterprise that generated extra income than the mixed revenue of your
mother and father. Inform me about that.
TONCHEVA: I used to be born in a communist nation, however my
childhood have been spent in a rustic that was attempting to outline itself,
embrace capitalism, and speak in confidence to the world. It was a really turbulent time
after [communism fell in] 1989 socially, politically, and economically.
There have been entrepreneurial-minded individuals who tried to take
benefit of the change by beginning companies. Many individuals round us have been
opening small mom-and-pop retailers — aside from my mother and father. They have been medical doctors
and so they felt very restricted by their careers. So I keep in mind considering, “It’s form
of unfair that my mother and father spent a lot of their lives learning, investing in
their careers, and being good at what they do, but we’re nonetheless barely making
ends meet.” I needed to assist, so I made a decision to try to begin one thing on my
personal. What entrepreneurship began to imply to me was braveness, expression of
freedom, creativity, and development. It had this very noble, very constructive
connotation in my thoughts.
So I began shopping for uncooked peanuts from native farms, and I
started roasting them, packaging them, and promoting them by means of wholesale
retailers to restaurant chains. I created an actual operation that was powered by
me and my youthful brother. With that very fundamental enterprise, I made extra money
than my mother and father mixed. That was the start of my self-sufficiency and
independence that my grandmother all the time talked about. It was each thrilling, however
additionally disillusioning in some methods to know that I can earn more money than my
mother and father with so much much less schooling and expertise.
Why did you resolve to immigrate to the United
One of many issues that was so defining for me in my
childhood was that my mother and father valued schooling, ethics, persistence, and
dedication to private development. My mom was an ENT (ears, nostril, and throat)
surgeon, and my father was a neurologist, but they nonetheless barely made ends meet
as a household. That was the truth of communism — the place everybody was alleged to
be equal — that made no sense to me. I knew I didn’t need my life to finish up
Throughout that point of change in post-communist Bulgaria, many
individuals of my technology noticed the U.S. because the image of meritocracy and the
victory of capitalism. It was a really pure place for me as a young person who
needed to construct a greater life to finish up, however attending to the U.S. was very
The one who opened my eyes to learning within the States was
a younger American volunteer who was educating English in my hometown. By
him, I discovered that I may apply to varsities within the States, that they provide
monetary assist to foreigners, and that it’s an actual risk. It was a protracted
course of, however I ended up contacting over 100 colleges. I requested all of them to
waive the appliance charge, and I utilized for monetary assist at each single
faculty. I used to be very fortunate to get into 12 colleges on full scholarship.
So I moved right here in 1998, began at Harvard, and studied
laptop science regardless that I had by no means owned a pc and was very clearly
behind all of my classmates. I assumed know-how was a rising market, and
there was an actual want for software program engineers. I labored the entire time whereas I
was at Harvard as a educating assistant, later did internships with Microsoft
in the course of the summers, and in the end, ended up working for Microsoft as a
software program engineer in 2002.
You talked about capitalism. There’s growing backlash
towards capitalism with critics saying it wants a significant overhaul to
higher serve society. Given your expertise rising up in a rustic the place you
witnessed the consequences of communism, do you suppose capitalism must be
I firmly imagine that we dwell in the most effective place within the
world, and I say that unapologetically. That being mentioned, I additionally notice that we
have some challenges we have to work by means of.
I like capitalism. It may not be good, but it surely’s the
finest on the market. Having lived by means of communism and a few types of post-communist
socialism, I simply can’t think about that system being an incredible different. Simply the
considered communism and socialism depresses me. I envision it as this bleak
world devoid of creativity and self-expression with no pursuit of
self-improvement. It’s a useless finish, it truly is. I get scared listening to about
individuals’s fascination with socialism as a result of these are sometimes individuals who have
by no means skilled it first-hand. It’s very theoretical for them.
It’s only a totally different feeling for individuals who have lived
by means of it and skilled it first-hand. I’m certain your mother and father even have some
sturdy opinions about communism.
My dad, particularly. He not too long ago instructed me a narrative about
getting in bother in school as a result of he wrote “USA” on his bookbag when
Bulgaria was nonetheless underneath communism.
I’m not stunned in any respect. In Bulgaria, “USA” stood as a
image for capitalism and a greater life for a lot of, a few years.
Then again, capitalism has left many individuals
disillusioned. The equality hole is extensive and widening, and it’s grow to be a
vicious, reinforcing cycle. I’ve to say I do admire the discussions going
on particularly by capitalists like Ray Dalio and Jamie Dimon who discuss methods
to create extra upward mobility. I feel these are good discussions available,
and it’s a method to evolve capitalism with the instances.
How did you find yourself in enterprise capital?
I spent 4 years at Microsoft as an engineer and a product
supervisor. There, I labored on safety merchandise after which determined to go to
enterprise faculty. I attended Stanford, and that’s how I in the end ended up in
enterprise capital. Towards the top of my second yr, I used to be launched to Venrock,
the place I used to be targeted on serving to the group supply funding alternatives in
enterprise software program and cybersecurity.
Whilst you have been at Venrock, you led the primary
institutional funding spherical in Cloudflare, which
simply went public. What did you see within the firm and the group that
gave you the arrogance to again them so early?
I invested in Cloudflare precisely 10 years in the past. There have been three issues that stood out to me. They have been going after a extremely painful drawback, which was that 50% of visitors is just not genuine. It might be malicious. They have been going after a buyer group which was fully ignored, which was the lengthy tail of the online. They mentioned they might construct a service that cleans up visitors to internet properties from the lengthy tail of the online — and they’d do it free of charge and discover different methods to monetize the enterprise. That was very counterintuitive to how most safety firms suppose. Most safety firms would construct a services or products and attempt to promote it to the most important clients — those which have the most important budgets. It was very contrarian what they have been attempting to do, however on the identical time, it made a whole lot of sense.
The group was considerate, persistent, and so they had a transparent
imaginative and prescient round what they needed to construct. I simply had a whole lot of religion in them that
they might execute, and I’m actually proud of how far they’ve come on this
journey. Seeing them go public made me really feel validated in my perception in them from
Day 1 once they didn’t have something — they didn’t have a single line of
For me, it begins with the founders and the way clear and
persistent they’re of their imaginative and prescient. It truly is a personality judgment that’s
very tough to elucidate, but it surely’s one of the crucial necessary features of
How do you inform if an entrepreneur is a real visionary or
simply fully delusional?
It’s actually onerous. I feel the identical individual could be each, and
in all probability a lot of them are each, so it’s very tough to differentiate
between the 2. I feel the flexibility to execute is so necessary, and that’s
the place the excellence lies. Profitable founders stand out of their skill to
carry out and execute.
I additionally worth transparency, honesty, respect for the info,
and self-awareness. I feel a grasp for actuality and pragmatism needs to be there.
If these issues aren’t there, it’s virtually inconceivable to work collaboratively
with the group.
What sector or firm are you most enthusiastic about proper
I work on a number of areas at USVP targeted on the enterprise
tech area, however the one I really feel most enthusiastic about is cybersecurity. I feel
safety issues and safety threats evolve sooner than points in virtually any
different trade. Safety threats are aggressive, they evolve actually quick, and
their mutations are virtually infinite. Due to these dynamics, cybersecurity
is a really difficult drawback to resolve.
Applied sciences grow to be out of date in a short time, and innovation
cycles must be very speedy. Even within the worst of instances when budgets get lower
for every part else, cybersecurity budgets proceed to develop 10% yr over yr.
That makes it a really engaging marketplace for me to proceed investing in.
What do you concentrate on rising property like Bitcoin and
different cryptocurrencies? Have you ever invested in any blockchain firms?
We’ve got not made any investments in Bitcoin or blockchain
know-how. It’s an space I’m following carefully and learning, however I don’t really feel
ready to make investments in it simply but. There are positively alternatives
within the infrastructure constructing in that ecosystem to make investments. However I additionally
suppose as an trade, it’s nonetheless in Model 1. There will likely be extra iterations
and extra alternatives for traders to play in that area sooner or later.
Do you suppose blockchain know-how may have
implications for cybersecurity?
For certain. I feel blockchain as a know-how might be fairly
attention-grabbing when utilized to safety, and in addition the opposite means round: Safety
is an important consideration for the existence and acceptance for the
development of these property. Safety is a foundational layer and it needs to be
found out earlier than [crypto assets] grow to be broadly adopted by the
It’s been a bit of greater than 10 years because you began
in enterprise capital. How has the ecosystem modified since 2008 and 2009, and the way
necessary do you suppose capital effectivity is in a world of seemingly limitless
It’s unimaginable how a lot issues have modified in 10 years.
After I began, there have been solely a handful of seed funds, and now, there are
a whole bunch of seed funds on one finish of the spectrum. On the opposite finish of the
spectrum, the massive funds have grow to be even bigger. The abundance of capital on
the late-stage is simply huge. In consequence, we’re seeing inflating late-stage
firm valuations, firms staying personal longer, and large IPOs by the
time they go public.
In a time of plentiful capital, capital effectivity has grow to be
much more necessary. I feel capital effectivity is in the end freedom. It offers
you selections. It offers you choices. It offers entrepreneurs the liberty to
function and never be imprisoned by their burn charge. Greater funds discuss so much about
development in any respect prices and really hardly ever point out capital effectivity. I feel
environment friendly and accountable development is far more necessary within the long-term. We’re
beginning to see a few of that with firms going public which might be wildly
unprofitable. Public traders don’t appear to agree that the expansion in any respect prices
is crucial consider figuring out whether or not a enterprise is
Talking of going public, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel not too long ago
mentioned that going public was a really difficult expertise. One particular factor he
mentioned that’s made a giant distinction is being extra clear with traders by
offering quarterly steering. How do you see a few of these personal firms
which might be used to retaining issues quiet adapt to the extra clear nature of
the general public markets?
Completely different firms have totally different boards with totally different expectations. It’s not as strict or clear lower as it’s within the public markets. I’ve seen that when an organization is doing nicely and rising quickly, personal traders are inclined to forgive extra. They have a tendency to grow to be much less vigilant, whereas public traders are much more strict and far much less forgiving.
It’s a special mindset, so it actually is dependent upon what kind of personal board an organization has been accustomed to. There are personal boards which might be simply as demanding and detail-oriented as public traders. However for some, being public could come as a whole shock when the CEO realizes there’s an entire new means of doing issues now.