GRP Partners becomes Upfront Ventures, announces $200 million fourth fund to set the pace among LA VCs
One of the biggest knocks on the LA startup ecosystem has been a dearth of local capital, particularly beyond the Seed stage. It’s not a problem that can be solved overnight, but one VC firm is doing its part to grab the title of biggest checkbook in town. Today, 17-year-old local firm GRP Partners announced the official close of its widely-anticipated fourth fund, which came in at $200 million, a slight uptick from rumors placing it between $150 to $175 million.In conjunction the firm also announced a rebranding and will hereafter be known as Upfront Ventures. Early next year, the firm will take the final step in its transformation, relocating from Century City, a finance and entertainment hub, six miles West to the heart of the Santa Monica startup community. According to managing partner Mark Suster, both changes are designed to further establish Upfront as the seminal venture firm in Los Angeles, and as a firm built for the 2010 decade, not the 1990's.
Over its previous three funds – which were $200 million, $400 million, and $200 million in size respectively – Upfront made winning (and seemingly winning) investments into Overture, CitySearch, LastMinute.com, BillMeLater, CyberSource, MakerStudios, ZestFinance, TrueCar, and RingRevenue, among others.
Historically, Upfront has invested approximately two thirds of each fund in Southern California, according to Suster – with the remainder being invested nationally and internationally – a ratio that he expects to continue in fund four but for which there is no explicit mandate. The firm has been notably pro-LA, as evidenced by it role in forming the Launchpad LA accelerator and the TechLA startup internship program. Despite the size of its current and past funds, Upfront prefers to invest in Seed and Series A deals, and only leads occasional later stage rounds in companies outside its portfolio.
When Upfront was formed in 1996, the firm was initially coined Global Retail Partners (later becoming GRP) and, on the strength of founder Yves Sistero’s background as head of US investments for Carrefour (Europe’s WalMart), invested heavily in the retail sector at first. That is obviously no longer the focus for the firm, and while nearly everyone in LA knows the name GRP, it holds less brand equity on a national scale. All of which led the partners to rebrand.
Nonetheless, the decision to rename wasn’t one taken lightly, nor was the choice of Upfront. I haven’t been privy to many firm naming processes, but the one leading to Upfront was thorough if nothing else. In its marketing materials for the rebranding – an 18 slide PowerPoint deck – the company uses words like authentic, transparent, accessible, informal, and fun to describe itself. The level of care went into the logo development seems equally high, with the firm settling on a transparent overlay of the letters in both its full logo and its short mark to imply the union between VC and entrepreneur the fact that it is transparent.
Upfront has four investment partners, Sisteron, Steven Dietz, Brian McLoughlin, and Suster, as well as a newly added venture partner, Greg Bettinelli. With its new brand and its new cash, Upfront will be moving into a freshly converted industrial space on 7th Street in Santa Monica, near Arizona Avenue, which formerly housed a Verizon switching station. (Move in is scheduled for February 1, 2014.) The space, according to Suster, will offer 8,000 square feet of indoor and 4,000 square feet of outdoor workspace, much of which will be open to (invited) members of the community. Again, the idea is to be a tentpole institution in the local ecosystem.
Upfront will have (friendly) competition in LA from the likes of Greycroft, Rustic Canyon, and MK Capital, among a select few other firms regularly writing Series A checks. Further, based on recent discussions, I expect this competition to intensify with a number of prominent national firms likely to open offices in the LA within the next six to 12 months.
The next major milestone for the LA startup ecosystem will be seeing one of its homegrown startups breakout and establish itself as a tentpole company, hiring, acquiring, and attracting elite talent and capital to the market. There are number of contenders, but the stakes are as high as ever after several high profile flameouts and others on the watch list.
With each additional dollar of additional capital availability and each successful venture, the LA startup ecosystem – don’t call it Silicon Beach – grows a bit more mature and self-sustaining. It’s not long ago that LA was (rightfully) considered a pretender in the startup ecosystem rankings. But the massive growth exhibited across the last two to three years and the continued improvement in the infrastructure that supports startups suggests that the market has turned the corner and is a good bet to play a prominent role in the national startup conversation for years to come. Upfront is making its case for why it will be among the most influential firms in the next phase of the market’s growth.