How Blackbird built its $10 billion portfolio, and what comes next

Sam-Wong-Blackbird

Blackbird partner Samantha Wong. Source: Supplied

This week, Aussie VC Blackbird dropped a bombshell, revealing it has turned $1.3 billion in funding into a portfolio worth $10 billion.

That success has come from a focus on investment at the early stages, and even as the fund grows that strategy is still front and centre.

As of September 30, 2021, Blackbird has invested in almost 90 companies. A quarter of those companies are now valued at more than $100 million. Six of them are worth over $1 billion.

It’s a positive story for Blackbird, of course. But partner Samantha Wong tells SmartCompany it’s a positive story for the Aussie startup ecosystem as a whole, too.

Just five to seven years ago, it was almost unthinkable that the whole ecosystem would reach values like this, she says, let alone one fund.

“I don’t think anyone would have believed that.”

And Blackbird is not done yet. The team is fundraising again, targeting a $1 billion fund.

That’s a big number, but the emphasis for Blackbird has always been — and will continue to be — on early-stage startups.

Blackbird was an early investor in the likes of Canva, Safety Culture and Culture Amp.

In 2012, it invested US$250,000 ($351,000) into Canva, at a US$8 million ($11.2 million) valuation. At the time, the fledgling business had just three employees: Melanie Perkins, Cliff Obrecht and Cameron Adams.

Blackbird’s investment in the business has since reached US$270 million ($379 million) and counting. The business has more than 2000 employees and a valuation of US$40 billion ($56 billion).

Blackbird still owns 15% of Canva — more than triple the shareholding of the next largest external investor. We’ll let you do the maths.

“You don’t get to be a very valuable owner of a company unless you build your relationship with the founders right at the very beginning,” Wong says.

The next $10 billion

The challenge now, as the fund gets bigger, is to stay nimble and keep investing in the most promising companies at the beginning of their journeys.

Blackbird is doing that through a range of programs, such as the Wild Futures program, set up to help researchers and university students with big ideas nurture those ideas into businesses.

Of course it also continues to run its wildly successful Startmate accelerator.

The fund has also recently hired six new associates “to double our firepower”, Wong adds.

That means the team can have boots on the ground at pitch events and demo days, meeting and catching up with as many founders as possible.

In an ecosystem growing fast, that firepower is necessary. Not only is new talent emerging, employees at existing startups are increasingly starting their own ventures.

Dovetail, for example, which reportedly raised $86 million this week, was founded by a team of former Atlassian employees.

Being in an environment of ambition breeds ambition. And new founders have a more experienced talent pool to hire from.

“You now have people who are not doing all their learning on the job in the first couple of years of a startup’s life,” Wong notes.

When it comes to the kinds of tech emerging in Australia, Wong stresses that Blackbird is not a “buzzword investor”.

The team is not following any specific tech trends. They’re looking for startups that are original, bold and ambitious.

“Will it matter in 10 years’ time?” she asks.

“If it will matter in 10 years, there’s a good chance that we will care about it.”

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