This month is the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, one of the most remarkable theories in the history of science. Einstein’s methods of discovering new ideas is surprisingly similar to discovering early-stage consumer startups. I’m often asked how Maven knows which early-stage consumer companies to “bet on”.  Last week, in reviewing the success of our two previous funds, a potential new investor in Maven asked us how we’re able to “pick so many winners” when many investors struggle with early-stage consumer investing. Marc Andreessen offers his thoughts on that in this New Yorker story: Andreessen Horowitz and most other VCs bet early with enterprise but wait on consumer — they’d rather pay up for certainty.

One big reason is that we’re not in the lottery business. We don’t just pick or bet on winners.

Strong filters: We have a filtering process that helps us develop the right investment thesis and identify the right team. And, after our investment we work diligently with the founding team to guide that company on the best path to success.

Focus: That might make it sound easy, but it really is hard to do. We help our success rate by maintaining an industry-specific focus (consumer software) and building a strong reputation in the business.

Recognizing trends: We will see 2,500 companies each year for our 10 investments. We get to see many of the best consumer ideas before most people, and more importantly, we’re able to spot trends before most investors. It’s always interesting to me when I see 2 or 3 great founding teams attacking a similar problem for millions of people around the same time. That can mean there’s a massive unmet consumer need. When we recognize that, we start digging in to see if we can help build a company that will solve that problem and create a large, sustainable business along the way.

A little help from Einstein: This is all critical to our success in helping to identify and invest early in the “winners.” Yet, there’s one more key ingredient that I knew intuitively, but wasn’t able to articulate until I recently read an opinion piece by Walter Isaacson on the 100th Anniversary of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

“Einstein did more than just notice what the blind beetle couldn’t see. He was able to imagine it by conjuring up thought experiments. That ability to visualize the unseen has always been the key to creative genius. As Einstein later put it, “imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Einstein came up with his ground-breaking theories because he was able to “imagine a new reality”. He was able to “visualize the unseen”. And that’s exactly what an early-stage consumer founder and investor need to do. He or she needs to be able to imagine what a world would look like if their new product vision succeeded. It’s what we call ‘The Vision Worth Fighting For.’

The next time someone asks me how we’re able to pick the winners, I’ll continue to explain our process and filters, and then I can share that we come up with thought experiments, like Einstein, to help us visualize the unseen and unmet consumer demands and look for talented founder teams that have the same vision. Then, we write the first check, roll up our sleeves, and get to work.

Thanks to my talented Maven teammates, Sara Thomas and Robert Ravanshenas, for reviewing and editing drafts of this post. Follow us on Twitter @mavenvc. 

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