Free Ventures is a student-run pre-seed startup accelerator. Each semester, they accept a small cohort of Cal student founders and help them grow to the next level by providing them access to funding, mentorship, and other resources. Their portfolio companies have secured over $140 million in follow-up funding from industry-leading investors like Kleiner Perkins, Greylock and YCombinator.
This time, we were joined by Varun Nair ‘24, an EECS major and managing director of Free Ventures. We asked him questions about his journey, what Free Ventures looks for in their batch companies, how Free Ventures differentiates itself from other accelerators, and his thoughts on the Berkeley ecosystem.
Free Ventures at Berkeley
What is Free Ventures’ mission?
Varun: Free Ventures is Cal’s leading pre-seed startup accelerator. Our mission is to empower student founders by providing access to funding, mentorship, and resources to scale as well as help support the broader entrepreneurial community at Berkeley.
Alumni founders consistently recommend Free Ventures because the internal team goes “above and beyond” for them. What sets the Free Ventures Method apart?
Varun: I definitely believe, it is our personal and hands-on approach to give each team the time, energy, and resources that make us stand out to our batch founders. We have had instances where the FreeV internal team has helped build a company’s product, led customer acquisition by generating and capturing sales leads, and even helped with creating marketing strategies and executing them. I often say that we act as their advisor, intern, employee, and everything in between, which really allows us to have a personal stake in their start-up.
What does the batch selection process look like?
Varun: The batch selection process is quite intensive and we have a strict procedure we follow to bias check ourselves and choose the best fit start-ups given our strengths. The process is rigorous for both the applicants and the internal team. You can imagine start-ups being scrutinized for multiple reasons through an interview process. Even the internal team is put on over-drive during batch recruiting, where on the day of the final interview, all of us spend 8 hours straight on a Saturday interviewing start-ups. This just goes to show, that we like being thorough with our processes and our final selection.
Since Free Ventures announced its first batch in Spring 2014, you’ve hosted a total of 18 batches with 90+ companies. What are the common traits of the most successful founders in your portfolio?
Varun: Our core thesis is to support Berkeley founders and start-ups. We really look for a multitude of factors when considering the founding team’s success. Some of the factors include:
- Passion for the start-up and/or the industry
- Skillset for the relevant field/past experience in the industry
- Founding team dynamics and story
These aren’t hard and fast rules that make or break a team’s selection but are important to consider when evaluating the founding team. I personally believe there are no certain traits that make you a better founder or that certain people are innately better founders. It really depends on the context, ideas, and execution that allow certain founders to differentiate their start-ups from others.
Here we cover the Internal Team at Free Ventures, which is a small group of Cal undergraduates responsible for everything from advising batch companies to organizing their events.
What is the job description of an Internal Team member?
Varun: An internal member is trained and then placed into a department based on their preference and skills, which includes mentorship, curriculum, sponsorship, or marketing. They help develop the programs around their department and provide support to other departments. Beyond this two internal members are assigned to one start-up and they are responsible for supporting them through the semester. This includes getting updates from them, handling their needs might include product iterations, customer acquisition, marketing strategies and execution, support in operations, and some miscellaneous needs. Moreover, they also prepare these start-ups to pitch well to finally secure funding. This really allows them to take ownership of the work they do while allowing them to advise, support, and learn from start-ups.
What is it that you look for in prospective members?
Varun: That is really subjective and depends on the needs for that semester. But we definitely prioritize clear interest and passion for entrepreneurship as well as Free Ventures. We really want to understand why prospective members want to join Free Ventures and understand how we can help them based on it. It is always a bonus if prospective members have high experience working with start-ups and can understand the needs of start-ups to help address any issues they might be facing.
How do you invest in the team members’ talents?
Varun: Outside of our general training program for new members, we really encourage everyone to contribute their ideas and take initiative in it. We have a special program that allows new members to launch their own summer projects that more often than not become part of the Free Ventures program. Many of which are going to be integral moving forward in the new academic year. Beyond this, a lot of member development happens organically during the program as they develop relations with our start-ups, industry mentors, and a wide network of entrepreneurial people affiliated with Free Ventures.
The Berkeley Ecosystem
What do you think about the startup culture at Berkeley?
Varun: The start-up culture at Cal is quite strong with students really taking the leap to building something from scratch. Even the resources provided through the university, campus-affiliated organizations, and competitions are really impressive. However, one critique of mine would be that there isn’t strong communication between all undergraduate VC and entrepreneurial organizations. This really hinders the overall support we could potentially provide to the entire ecosystem.
What’s one thing you wish your organization was doing right now in the Berkeley ecosystem?
Varun: We wish we were doing more to support entrepreneurial students and not just those that have already become founders. There is a great scope for improvement that can be achieved and Free Ventures will strive to fulfill that gap in the upcoming years.
We plan on launching newer and more relevant initiatives, including our Free Ventures Fellowship targeted toward supporting folks passionate about exploring VC or entrepreneurship but who do not have prior experience with it. We are also planning on hosting Berkeley’s first-ever start-up recruiting fair that is not exclusively affiliated with any particular accelerator. This means it will have the best start-ups across the country coming to hire Berkeley talent!
Where do you think the future of the Berkeley ecosystem is headed?
Varun: I do feel with more and more people building their ideas into start-ups and the support infrastructure growing around it, the future looks bright. But like any ecosystem, it needs to be well-maintained and we must strive to innovate the supporting infrastructure by encouraging future founders with resources and opportunities.
Varun’s Journey at Cal
What has your journey at Cal looked like so far?
Varun: Berkeley has really been a life-changing experience for me, through the community of people around me I was able to experience Cal fully and immerse myself in an ecosystem of smart, driven, and caring individuals. Everyone knows Berkeley can help us grow tremendously when it comes to the professional aspect. It did help me grow professionally, but I owe thanks to the environment at Berkeley for also helping me develop in a personal capacity.
How has your Free Ventures journey made a difference in your life?
Varun: I was a clueless but ambitious freshman and I am only able to scratch the surface of my potential because of the development I had at Free Ventures. When you are working with a small team supporting early-stage start-ups, you really start understanding how integral everyone is to the team. It is always all hands on deck and wartime mentality. This can sound stressful and it is, but it really allowed me to get out of my comfort zone and do what is needed.
Aside from my personal growth, the exposure to the variety and quality of people really allowed me to grow my professional network while also understanding the struggles of founders and investors. As a future founder myself, I think Free Ventures has greatly equipped me to navigate how I eventually build my own start-up.
Do you have any advice for someone making their foray into the Berkeley ecosystem?
Varun: Do what you enjoy! Seriously, Cal is filled with opportunities in every aspect. Try something new, or immerse yourself in something you have explored deeply, either way, find certain threads that you cannot live without in the tapestry that is Cal. It can seem daunting, and sometimes it may not work out but it is just 4 years, give everything a shot, don’t be afraid, and always remember Carpe Diem!