Pando

Here’s what happens when you let the public name your VC firm

By Dennis Keohane , written on June 29, 2015

From The Venture Capital Desk

By the time you read this, a bunch of Boston-area companies, shared work spaces, and startup programs have already received strange packages, along with gifts of coffee, breakfast, booze, martinis, and various pieces of swag, mysteriously delivered with the markings of a strange entity calling itself Accomplice.

This, my friends, is how Accomplice -- the early stage venture firm formerly known as both FKA and the tech arm of the now-split Atlas Venture -- announced its rebranding.

The early stage VC group changed its name as part of the split, announced last fall, between the tech-focused and life science-centered side of the firm. The former kept its Cambridge  office--and called itself FKA (Formerly Known As) in the interim -- and the latter kept the name Atlas Venture.

The new name was selected from more than 16,000 entries as part of a $50,000 rebranding contest. The winner, iHeartMedia design guy Zaqary Whitnack of Sacramento, gets a $25,000 investment in the new Accomplice I fund and chose to give the other $25K -- as part of the deal -- to Tech Underwriting Greater Good nonprofit Youth CITIES, an organization that introduces entrepreneurship to youth.

According to the firm’s director of community Sarah Downey, Accomplice was chosen because it suggests the relationship that the firm has with its entrepreneurs.

“The companies are doing the big things, we are just kind of in the background helping them,” Downey said.

I asked Downey if there were concerns about the negative connotations associated with the word “accomplice” being tied to a venture capital firm -- which, as a financial firm has to be wary of breaking various laws and regulations.

“We are handling money,” she said. “We are sensitive to the fact that we have LPs who give us money and that we are stewards of their money.” She said that all the branding and promotion for Accomplice focused on the VC and founder relationship, which is more indicative of what the firm represents than any allusions to criminality.

Downey also added that most venture firms have pretty boring names, so Accomplice wanted to go a different route.

“Anyone who meets us knows that we aren’t typical VCs,” she added, referring to the strong personalities of partners Jeff Fagnan, Ryan Moore, Jon Karlan, and, in particular Chris Lynch.

The selection process, which required Downey and fellow Accomplice team member Zoe Anetakis to sift through each of the 16,000 entries has been underway since the contest was launched in mid-March. Many a night was spent narrowing down the names to a group of finalists and the eventual winner. Often, the tedious sifting and sorting got so mind-numbing that the operation had to be moved to the lounge at the W Hotel, which lightened the repetitive nature of the process but added the extra degree of difficulty of having to swat away sleazy pickup artists, according to Downey. While, for some reason, a large number of entrants posed the name Atlas for the new name of the firm which was already called Atlas, there were also quite a few libertarians who assumed that the only thing to logically follow Atlas would be Shrugged.

Two of the more, let’s say, “outside-the-box” suggestions that will be forever etched in Downey’s mind are “Galaxy of Suck a Camel’s Dick” and “Tokyo Ghetto Pussy,” which I must say are actually pretty good names for VC firms -- don’t be surprised if they both pop up in a TechCrunch funding announcement in the near future. Some other brutal entries include Atlas Ventures Data Scientist Technology Investment Group, or something like that; Profit, Inc.; and my personal favorite, Chamber of Disruptive Synergy.

In addition to announcing the new name, Accomplice also revealed some new details on its first fund.

The new Accomplice I follows the nine previous funds the firm raised as part of the combined technology and biotech early stage VC institution Atlas Venture. The $200 million fund has already been used to back eight companies, many which are camped in the Accomplice office incubation space, a place where companies like Veracode and Dropbox got their start. From the early details I’ve uncovered, all eight are interesting in their own right and will be revealed in several announcements coming in the next several weeks.

When it was known as Atlas, the firm was not only prolific, but quite successful in terms of getting returns for their LPs through acquisitions and exits with the likes of GrabCAD, Spindle, DocTrackr, Zoopla, and CloudSwitch. The Atlas funds still have quite a few horses in the metaphorical stable that look like they could end up as big wins down the road, including Earnest, AngelList, Flashnotes, DraftKings, FreshBooks, and companies expected to IPO like Bit9, DataXu, and VeraCode.

AngelList’s Naval Ravikant, who knew Accomplice when it was Atlas -- the firm was one of the earliest backers of AngelList -- said that the rebranding may help the firm shake some of its established East Coast roots.

“They have an East Coast brand and reputation of being purely Boston based,” Ravikant said. “I think they need to break out of that, and the separation from the life sciences side was one part of that, this rebranding is another.”

"What I like about Accomplice as a brand is that it gives off the sense that they are here to help you,” Ravikant added. “They are the sidekick, not the main focus, not trying to steal anyone’s thunder. But at the same time, it’s a little cheeky, the criminal nature to it. It’s anti-establishment. It’s also pretty clever.”

As for the elaborate unveiling today, Downey said that the firm wanted to do something organic yet mysterious. The Accomplice-branded packages that it is delivering all day throughout the city, many to companies and organizations that have no affiliation with the firm, are a way, Downey said, for the Accomplice team to say thank you and to show appreciation for what others are doing to make Boston a first class tech ecosystem.

Maybe that’s what Accomplice is doing with all the hoopla, or maybe they are re-planting a stake as the city’s dominant early-stage venture firm, a distinction it would be hard to argue the firm built under the Atlas moniker.