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About RecruiterNet

RecruiterNet offers Projectix applicant tracking & staffing workflow software

Headquarters Location

129 Middle Street

Portland, Maine, 04101,

United States


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Q&A with John Burns, Maine Venture Fund’s outgoing director

Apr 16, 2021

John Burns, managing director of Maine Venture Fund John Burns has led Maine Venture Fund for 20 years, growing it from a small, unknown quasi-governmental organization mandated with investing in early-stage Maine companies to a cornerstone of the state’s innovation ecosystem. To date, it has invested in about 81 companies and experienced several successful exits. Burns announced earlier this year that he’ll be leaving his position at the head of the VC fund ( here’s the job post if you’re interested in the position ). Maine Startups Insider took the opportunity to sit down with him to hear about his experience leading the organization and his observations of Maine’s startup ecosystem. The interview has been edited for clarity and length. Maine Startups Insider: You joined what was then known as the Small Enterprise Growth Fund in 2000. What was Maine’s innovation ecosystem or startup community like back then? John Burns: Much less robust than it is today I guess is the short answer. The Maine Technology Institute was brand new; it had just been created in 1999. Janet Yancey-Wrona was the first director and she and I became fast friends. She was actually the DECD commissioner’s appointee to our board, and so Janet and I got to be good friends and worked to create what continues to this day to be a really strong relationship and connection between Maine Venture Fund and Maine Technology Institute. Both of these initiatives came out of the King administration. When they compared R&D funding in other states against the paltry amount of R&D funding that was happening in Maine, they created a number of initiatives, including the Small Enterprise Growth Fund and the Maine Technology Institute, and some other things that didn’t really stand the test of time. But MVF and MTI have obviously stood the test of time and been around and continue to get state support. You joined just as the dotcom bubble was bursting. What kind of investments was the Small Enterprise Growth Fund doing at that time? The Legislature created the fund in ’96-’97 and got its first capital at the end of 1997. For the first three years of the fund there was no manager. The fund had its board of directors, and they contracted with the Finance Authority of Maine for one of the commercial loan officers to basically work part time to support the board. And because it was not staffed, attorneys created a cookie-cutter security, which was an interesting security. It was a six-year loan that had three years of accrual and three years of amortization. At any point in time, I think, after the third year, the board could convert to equity for 10% of the company. So, basically, you could have any any color car you wanted, as long as it was black. And this is during, as you just said, the sort of the dotcom bubble when valuations were going crazy, right, and venture capital firms were creating 2x and 3x liquidation preferences and all kinds of crazy stuff. But the board had this black Model T, right. And that’s what they needed to do to keep it simple and straightforward. But they got half a dozen or more, maybe eight investments, under their belt and realized that this was not a sustainable model, that each company had different needs, that didn’t really fit the securities market well. It wasn’t really company friendly, the conversion valuation was not flexible. So they set up to hire a manager. And Unum had just moved south, and I was looking for a new opportunity. And I thought, well, this would be fun to do for a couple of years. And so I jumped on board. We set to work to create more company friendly, but investor-return-friendly types of securities for these companies. So that was sort of the beginnings of it in 2000. And by that point, the bubble was bursting and things were coming apart. The fund really didn’t get caught up in that, but certainly the amount of venture activity in the country, and companies that were raising capital and growing and the states touting their high-growth companies, probably had something to do with Governor King and his team looking closely at what we had here in Maine, and realizing that we needed some state initiatives because we were a flyover state for most venture capital firms at that time. What was the first investment that you you led at MVF? I don’t even remember. I’d have to look back. It probably tanked. Haha, okay, what’s the first company you remember investing in? Well, one of the early ones was Recruiternet, which was Bob Neveu’s first company, as you know. And I did that with my dear friend now and former colleague, Mark Kaplan, who was at Coastal Ventures at the time. We invested in Recruiternet and, as you know, about three or four years after our investment, they were sold to a small publicly held company, and it was a great exit for everybody. So that was one of the early ones that was great. How many investments has MVF made in Maine companies during its existence? There were eight companies in the portfolio when I joined. We’ve invested in 81 Maine companies to date and probably done two or three investments in each company. So, I’ve probably been involved in 150 investments or so, and I’ve led half of them. I’ve written a lot of term sheets. What was your background up to that point? What had you been doing at Unum before you took the reins at MVF? So, let’s see, I went to high school and undergrad in Maine and went away to Penn State for a master’s degree. After that, I worked at Louisiana State University for a couple of years and then went back to Babson College and got my MBA, and then found my way home to Portland to work at what was then Union Mutual. At that time, they had their own investment division, which managed the $9 billion or $10 billion of assets that it had under management that time. So I joined the investment division and rose through the ranks. And for the last five to seven years there, I was a portfolio manager doing mostly bond portfolios. My job as a portfolio manager was to work with the product lines that my investments supported, to make sure that we were building the right kind of risk-reward profile for the portfolio, so that they would have liquidity when they need it and get the kind of returns that they needed to sell insurance products that they were selling. So very different than investing in entrepreneurs and living through the daily heartaches of trying to start up an early-stage company. So I had a learning curve for sure, and as I was learning the trade of being a venture capitalist and an early-stage equity investor, Kip Moore was probably my most meaningful mentor along with other people on the Small Enterprise Growth Fund board at the time—Clayton, Kyle, Steve Smith of Masthead Ventures, Tim Agnew. I really learned a lot about doing this work from those people. What was the investment thesis back then? And has it changed? Yeah, good question. So this is in 2000-2001. This is pre Focus Maine, this is pre Launchpad, this is pre Maine Center for Entrepreneurs and Top Gun and all those programs. It’s pre pretty much anything you can think of. So, you know, it wasn’t really an ecosystem per se. I don’t know that I would call it that. The Maine Technology Institute was brand new and trying to figure out what they were doing. And, you know, Janet was very quick to say, we’re going to do seed grants and we’re going to do development loans. So they developed that model very quickly and stuck with it for many, many years. They’ve obviously since sort of morphed the development loans into more commercial type loans, but minus the personal guarantees and collateral and that kind of thing that a commercial bank would require. But yeah, it was sort of early days. And so Janet and I and the two organizations were trying to figure out how can we help companies. At the time, we were tiny and just starting out, and especially when we were doing those black Model T Ford kind of loans, the fund wasn’t really taken all that seriously as an investor. In fact, I will share—maybe I shouldn’t say this—we had one borrower that predated me. And when I started managing the fund, he sent us his financial statements, and on the balance sheet for Small Enterprise Growth Fund’s investment, he had it named as “government cheese.” Not everyone had that mindset, but I think at the outset, it was, well, this is a nice way to get some money thrown my way kind of thing. I think once we once we began to really provide some meaningful, not only capital, but support and advice to early stage companies, we were seen as more than just government cheese, we were seen as more than just a pot of money that somebody might be able to tap more easily than they could a more traditional VC or whatever else. One of the things I told Joe when I was hiring him, was “Look, this is unlike a traditional VC firm, we try to return every call. We get a call from an early stage company in Maine trying to figure out how to go about raising capital, we call them back, and we talk to them about it.” If I was doing a competitive fund, where I just really needed to focus on my 10 to 12 portfolio companies, I’m just going to focus on those companies, I need to make my fund profitable and successful, right? But we take our social mission seriously. And I think people appreciate that. We’re trying our hardest to help them be successful in whatever way we can. And if that means backing off a little bit here or there, or sort of giving them advice that helps them negotiate against us and others that might have a position that we hold, then that’s okay. We might push back, but we’re just trying to help early-stage Maine companies understand this competitive arena and how to successfully raise capital. So, over time, I think our understanding of how to do this business and our underwriting and our diligence work has gotten better and better. And I think we’re making higher quality investments and writing more appropriate term sheets and networking better outside of Maine. We’ve stayed pretty true to the original intent, I think, which is … the statute says something about “invest in Maine company with the potential for high growth and public benefit.” So, we’ve tried to stay pretty true to that phrase. Maine Venture Fund leads on a lot of these fundraisings, which means you’re actively recruiting other investors to join the round. What have you noticed about out-of-state investors’ interest in Maine companies? I’ve noticed just in the last few years that a lot more out-of-state VC funds are getting involved and investing in Maine companies, from Chris Sacca’s Lowercarbon Capital to Yes VC out of San Francisco and York IE in New Hampshire. I remember conversations the first couple of years and Boston VCs at the time just weren’t interested in Maine. They were just, “we have to drive two hours? Forget it.” You know? And what’s in Maine anyway? And there was plenty of deal flow in Boston, so it was hard to get anybody’s attention. And then it was, as you know, over the oughts and teens, venture funds just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. So that just compounded Maine’s problem, right? Because these VCs needed to write a $5-10 million dollar check in the first round, and there were hardly any of those opportunities in Maine. One of the things that’s helped over the past four or five years is that … trends always create a new opportunity, right? Most VC funds got really, really big, so there was an opportunity, I think, for what I call micro VCs. So over the past four or five years have been more and more VCs created in the Boston area that have funds that are, you know, $50 million to $150 million in size. And those funds are willing to write a million dollar check, or a million and a half. So you know, now all sudden, there’s this possibility that we could get them in a Maine deal. Joe really accelerated this with me, when he came on board, pre-pandemic, we had a couple of trips down to Boston, and we got really great reception and a number of these micro VCs and make really good contacts and relationships. And they were really good about staying in touch with us. And we with them, and and so we’re trying to keep that going and expand that as well. The growth of Portland itself, and the attractiveness of Portland as a city over the past few years hasn’t hurt either. All of a sudden, Portland is much more doable now for these VCs, their eyes are wide open to it. And of course, in the past year, the Roux Institute has also exploded interest in Portland. So I think, Maine in general is more on the map, and that’s great. And we’ve also had a number of companies that are—knock wood—being more and more successful and growing pretty well. Like you saw Hyperlite was able to attract a VC out of southern Connecticut. VETRO is out raising capital now, and is got some great interest from VCs all over the place. Pika was able to attract Generac when they were just out looking for capital. So I think the quality of the companies has improved over time. One change that I’ve seen a lot from the oughts till now, is the quality of managerial and technical talent in Maine. For good or bad, it’s concentrated in Cumberland or York county. I think there are more and more people who are mid career who have for whatever reason chosen to come to Maine. So there’s more people now that know how to grow a company and run a company, experience management managers, and more and more people with technical technical skills. This continues to be part of Maine’s problem statewide is having the right skill sets and the right talent to really have growing successful companies. What are you most proud of during your time at Maine Venture Fund? I’m most proud of what I and the team that I’ve worked with over the years—Jayme, Des, Joe, Terry, contractors that we work with, and the many different configurations of the board of directors—have built over time. I’m proud of having developed this small, unknown, unrecognizable-named program into a successful—in terms of its mission and charge— and hopefully well-respected, sophisticated venture capital fund. What’s been the most successful investment the fund has made during your time Well, I guess the biggest percentage return—and, you know, time is money, right, so if it takes you a long time to get your capital back, then your IRR is not going to be so great. But the largest percentage return was Recruiternet, frankly. I guess we can put that out there; that’s long enough ago. You know, Certify was gratifying; everybody has questions about, “what do you mean, you’re doubling down on the same entrepreneur? Do you think lightning will strike twice?” And it was a brother team, and everybody says be careful of sibling teams. But that was gratifying because when we went to Certify, it was Bob and Alan and like four other people with an idea. And I remember after Recruiternet, I’d stay in touch with Bob and I’d see him on the street, he says, I’m working on something, I’m working on something. And then you know, one day he called me and said, “Okay, I’m ready. We’re raising this much and we’d like to have you be part of this first investment.” And we did the diligence and went forward. He and Alan were great to work with, and they hired great people. Bluetarp was also interesting. That was also a brother team early on that got some early investment not too long after the bubble burst, actually, from some big name VCs who restructured things. It went through a number of structural changes, and then ultimately really hit its stride and, as you know, ended up with 160 or so employees in Portland and sold to Capital One. So it was a big employment growth and great job story in Southern Maine. From your point of view, where does Maine’s innovation ecosystem still face challenges, whether access to capital, talent, etc.? And what should we be seeking to improve as a community? That’s a great line of inquiry. In terms of access to capital, we’re talking about the valley of death, right? If you look at a company’s stages, from ideation all the way to a profitable, large company, there are several chasms you need to cross and there are lots of help needed at the early stage before you have really launched your product. This is why I’m such a big fan of MTI and I think it was brilliant of the state to create MTI and to dedicate X amount of dollars each and every year to put into research and development that leads to commercialization. I tell Brian [Brian Whitney is president of MTI] all the time: “Don’t lose sight of that important early stage because it’s an investment in our future. And if all that goes down the tubes because none of it worked out, that’s okay. In my view, it’s a small percentage of state budget every year. But a lot of it doesn’t go down the tubes—many of these small bets ultimately prove out to be great products that turn into companies that produce jobs and, ultimately, you get economic development income for the state and tax revenue. So, that continuing drip of early-stage grant capital for market studies is important. And this is an important change MTI made very early on. The money used to have to be for developing a product or service, but in the early days they added things like doing market studies, doing market research, trying to figure out that elusive product-market fit. And I think that’s brilliant because that’s a big piece of it. Many of the companies in our portfolio that have not done well failed because they didn’t really understand the use case for their product, they didn’t really understand how to make the product sticky and desperately needed by the customer. So, helping companies in that early stage is important. That’s often too early for equity money—I mean, VCs will sometimes invest at pre-revenue stage for huge ideas, but that’s rare unless you’re in Silicon Valley. So, continuing to support entrepreneurs and small companies at that early stage is important. So, to summarize, I guess a couple of buckets would be to support innovation and entrepreneurship, get early-stage, non-dilutive capital to well-diligenced opportunities that are early in the pipeline that could be strong contributors. And support companies that are proving product-market fit and need support to get to that next level. And, for companies that have really proven the model, get them the capital they need to scale. That’s on the capital front. And then doing what we can to attract, train, and connect talent to our companies is a big thing. We’ve got some great initiatives going on there now, Live + Work in Maine, the Roux Institute is doing a lot of work around talent attraction and connection. So I think we really need to figure out how to double down on those efforts, because it’s all about the right people. So capital wisely deployed and talent acquisition, training, recruitment are super important. Can you tell us anything about your plans? I am going to take a little bit of time with my family and check out some different parts of the country. I am going to stay employed by the fund quarter time next fiscal year, so I’m not going too far. And then when I come back, I’m definitely looking to get engaged in something, although I’m not sure what that’ll be yet. I don’t think it’ll be [Maine Venture Fund]. I’d like to do something new and different and fun and challenging. We’ll see what that is. Anything else you want to add? I’m excited about the current portfolio. I think despite the five or six successful exits we had over the past three or four years, there’s still some great companies still in the portfolio that are doing great. So I’m pretty excited about the opportunity for the fund to have some great exits in the next couple of years. So I feel good about where the fund is at and that makes it a whole lot easier to step away. Share this:

RecruiterNet Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

  • When was RecruiterNet founded?

    RecruiterNet was founded in 1999.

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    RecruiterNet's headquarters is located at 129 Middle Street, Portland.

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    RecruiterNet's latest funding round is Acquired.

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    Investors of RecruiterNet include First Advantage and CEI Ventures.

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