Josh Schlisserman ’19 helped raise $2.5 million as a summer intern in Silicon Valley—and after Scooter Braun kicked him out of his office, he’d found his calling as a venture capitalist
If ever a case needed to be made for the value of Twitter—which Elon Musk recently priced at $54.20 a share in his hostile takeover bid—one need only point to its role in the fortunes of Josh Schlisserman ’19. With 2,741 followers compared to Musk’s 82 million, his tweets might not move markets or prompt SEC investigations, but the social media platform has gained him an audience with some of the nation’s most sought-after venture capitalists. That precipitated the launch last year of his first venture capital fund, Behind Genius Ventures, with co-founder Paige Doherty—whom he met on Twitter, naturally.
By definition, venture capital—VC for short—is a form of private equity financing that firms or funds provide to startups, early-stage, and emerging companies. By the time he was old enough to invest, “I studied the business of VC as if it was my major,” says Schlisserman, who was named (with Doherty) to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Venture Capital 2022 list. “Most people get into venture because they think you get to meet great [start-up] founders, and that you’re wheeling and dealing money. I’m not that interested in that. What gets me excited in the morning is, How do I win? How do I create a thesis that differentiates itself and gets me a filter to the best founders? How do I create a portfolio and construct a portfolio that mathematically works out? Those are the things that excite me in the morning. The business of VC is much more interesting to me than actual VC.”
“Josh eats, sleeps, and breathes venture capital,” says his good friend and fellow econ major, Ocra co-founder and CEO Ethan Glass ’19. (Ocra—short for One-Click Rate Adjustment and previously known as Park Place—is an omni-channel management platform for parking operators.) “His passion for the field and perseverance to break into the industry have been phenomenal to witness. There is no limit to what he can achieve.
“Josh and I met through the men’s soccer program and both lived in Braun Hall during our first year,” Glass says. (In fact, he adds, the soccer class of 2019—Glass, Luke Haas, Matthew LaBrie, Austin Lee, Liam Walsh, Ariel Rosso, and Schlisserman—lived together all four years.) “Our closest friends came from the soccer team and Braun.”
Growing up in Scotch Plains, N.J., Schlisserman played soccer at the nearby Wardlaw-Hartridge School. He was on a recruiting trip at Trinity College in Texas when he ran into a childhood soccer buddy who was looking to transfer. “One of the schools he was looking at was Occidental,” Schlisserman recalls. “My parents and I looked at the Oxy website and we started talking about the liberal arts. Trinity had been my No. 1 choice but it switched after that. There was a soccer camp a month later, so I ended up flying out to California. As soon as I walked on the Occidental campus, I knew this is where I needed to be.”
“We did not see Josh live until he came to a camp late in the recruiting process,” says men’s soccer coach Rod Lafaurie. “He had already committed to Oxy prior to that, and he actually got injured during that camp. But he was always so valuable and so smart.” After a second injury his sophomore year basically ended his time on the field, Schlisserman pivoted to the coaching staff, “working with our goalkeepers and helping us break down set pieces,” Lafaurie says. “He endeared himself to a group of his peers that allowed him to be a part of the coaching staff.”
In addition to soccer, Schlisserman and Glass bonded over their mutual interest in business. Each found their calling through Oxypreneurship, the College’s entrepreneurial club, leading a winter boot camp known as J-Term and meeting entrepreneurs and business leaders through weekly Monday- night sessions in Johnson 203. “I wouldn’t have started my company if it weren’t for J-Term,” Glass says. “Josh wouldn’t be the successful VC he is today without it.”
Through J-Term, “I started building up a network, learned a lot about entrepreneurship, and immediately fell in love with it,” says Schlisserman. “I knew this is what I’m going to do with my life.”
Schlisserman’s first big break—there are three in this story—came after his sophomore year, when he did a summer internship at Vicarious VR in San Francisco, which created virtual reality social media for multiple platforms. Shadowing company founder and CEO JM Yujuico ’00, Schlisserman helped raise $2.5 million that summer—“I’d say the biggest name investor that we raised from was Maveron [a VC firm co-founded by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz P’09] and musician will.i.am’s manager.”
The whole experience “was like something out of a movie,” Schlisserman says. “JM and I did a road trip to L.A. to meet with celebrity influencers—part of the business was consumer social—so we met with Zendaya and her dad before she blew up with the first Spider-Man movie. We also got a meeting with Scooter Braun [manager of Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, and Demi Lovato, among others] through a mutual friend and promptly got kicked out of his office 30 minutes later,” he adds with a laugh. “It was a wild ride. I got to pitch alongside the CEO and learned everything about wheeling and dealing. I was 20 years old, not even legal to drink yet, and living the Silicon Valley dream.”
At the end of the internship, Yujuico offered him a full-time job—which would have entailed dropping out of Oxy—but he turned it down to return to school. (“Funny enough, JM is now a limited partner, investing in my fund,” Schlisserman adds.) But the experience affirmed his intention to become an investor.
“I remember thinking at the time, ‘Why were people investing in us?’ VR was super hot—we were building in the metaverse before the metaverse was a thing—but the timing didn’t make any sense. The technology was so far ahead of where the market was.”
Back at Oxy, “Josh took multiple courses with me and we had numerous conversations,” says Jesse Mora, assistant professor economics. “I recall him being very enthusiastic about cryptocurrencies and how these might affect venture capital and individual investors. Given Josh’s intellectual and professional interests, I encouraged him to study venture capital as part of his final project of the senior seminar.”
As part of that project, Schlisserman wrote a research paper on seed accelerators—fixed-term mentorship programs designed to assist promising startups—which he presented to his classmates. “I learned a lot about venture capital that day,” Mora says. “Josh was singularly focused on the VC industry, and it is no surprise to me that he has been very successful. He was ahead of the game then, and he’s ahead of the game now.”
During spring semester of his senior year, Schlisserman took a full-time job working for LvlUp Ventures, a new VC firm created by former Quake Capital co-founder Brandon Maier. After a year and half on the job, he ended up quitting LvlUp. “The pandemic, he says, “was a huge blessing for me,” he says. “It completely reset my career.”
To pay the bills, he started a recruiting firm for startups (“I would basically point talent their way”). At night, he would drive around Los Angeles, pick up broken TVs off the street, fix them, and sell them (a skill he learned from soccer teammate Haas after their first year at Oxy). Whatever leftover money he had at the end of the month, he would invest into startups. “Angel investing just means investing your own money,” he says. “I’d write $1,000 to $5,000 checks toward various startups.”
Big break No. 2 came around June 2020. “I heard Sumeet Gajri, former chief strategy officer of Carta [a San Francisco-based capitalization table management software company with a market valuation of around $10 billion] and currently in the same role at Instabase [a startup aiming to “reimagine business apps from the ground up” with a valuation of about $2 billion]. After listening to Gajri on an episode of The Twenty Minute VC podcast, talking about his portfolio construction, his new firm, and his investment thesis, Schlisserman cold-emailed Gajri with a critique of his thesis. Gajri responded by inviting Schlisserman to meet him in person in San Francisco the following week.
“We met up—masked, socially distanced, the whole nine yards—and spoke for nearly six hours,” Schlisserman recalls. Gajri wasn’t hiring at the moment but encouraged Schlisserman to share some of the deals that he wound up seeing. “A couple weeks later, I introduced him to the first deal that he would invest in that I sent over.” After that, Gajri introduced him to Arjun Sethi, a founding partner of Tribe Capital, a VC firm with more than $1.2 billion in assets under management.
“Meeting Arjun was a huge deal,” Schlisserman says. “Thirty minutes into the conversation, he tells me, ‘I’m in between raising funds. So, I can’t hire you, but send me what you got. Maybe down the line we can do something.’
“In October 2020, my third big break happened,” Schlisserman says—one that would give him the reputation he enjoys today. He became the second investor on the cap table for a company called Arctype—a modern, collaborative database client for developers and their teams. The company was founded by Justin de Guzman, whom Schlisserman met (surprise!) through Twitter. “I had conviction about him early on,” he says. “We built a relationship over six months and Justin did not want to fundraise for Arctype because he was afraid to. I told him, ‘You should fundraise. I’ll put your round together in less than two weeks.’ ” True to his word, he raised $3 million in that time frame.
“Arjun and Sumeet both caught wind of it,” Schlisserman recalls, “and one, they were mad that I didn’t refer it over to them. But two, they called me up and said, ‘Josh, you can come work for us one day. You’re doing deals—Arctype is going to be one of the most competitive series A’s [a company’s first major round of financing] a year from now—but you shouldn’t be working for a fund. You should be working for yourself. We’re gonna give you some money to invest on our behalf.’ ”
With the Arctype deal, Schlisserman had also gained a reputation as the gatekeeper to de Guzman, with whom he became close friends: “He was very thankful for me pushing him to raise.” But by January 2021, his own finances were getting tight. “I’d spent a lot on angel investing and pretty much had $0 in my bank account,” he says.
That’s when de Guzman told him about another founder he should meet—“one of the most in-demand founders in the valley. I can’t tell you his name—he’s going to use a pseudonym—but I know you’re going to want to invest.”
Schlisserman wound up talking to the founder over Zoom—with no camera on—and 30 minutes into the conversation, “I realized: ‘Oh my God, I want to work for you.’ And I thought, ‘Uh-oh,’ because I just emptied $10,000 out of my bank account to start the fund. And I was in a predicament but the founder said to me, ‘You should start the fund. I’m looking to add someone on the team who invests as well. Just bring someone on as a partner or associate to help manage the fund.’ ”
That conversation led to the creation of Behind Genius Ventures, which Schlisserman launched with Doherty, author of a children’s book for adults titled Seed to Harvest: A Simple Explanation of Venture Capital. “Paige and I met three months earlier through Twitter,” Schlisserman says. “We talked every day. I was showing her the ropes of angel investing and we quickly became close friends.”
As destiny had it, Schlisserman wound up being the first company hire for Series founder and self-described “chief anime protagonist” Brexton Pham, “one of the most amazing individuals I’ve ever met,” he says. Growing up homeless with a single mother, Pham took a job at Yik Yak as a software engineer after enrolling at Stanford, where he completed a B.S. in symbolic systems. He subsequently founded a startup, developed (and recovered from) Stage 3 lung cancer, sold his startup to Tinder, and angel invested for two years before launching Series in 2021.
“I’ve learned more in the last year from Brexton than I have in my seven to eight years being involved in the entrepreneurial world,” Schlisserman says. “He’s taught me everything about being an operator-investor. We just raised, and will soon be announcing, a very large round of funding with some of the most recognizable names in the investor ecosystem. Having been employee No. 1 at Series, it gives me a lot of legitimacy as well.
“In terms of Behind Genius Ventures, we ended up raising $5 million [from 120 limited partners] over a nine-month period”—the average fundraise takes from 12 to 18 months—“and we’ve deployed almost 70 percent of that capital,” he adds. “The fund is performing really well.”
Once Behind Genius Ventures finishes deploying its first round of funding, Doherty will be continuing that brand. Schlisserman, meanwhile, is launching a new VC firm this spring named Picks and Shovels VC. The new fund will include limited partnerships with Caffeinated Capital founder and managing director Ray Tonsing (“a legend in the VC ecosystem”), Gajri, Sethi, Zenda Capital founder Esteban Reyes, and a host of others.
Over the last couple of years, he says, “I’ve learned a lot about something called picks and shovel companies—businesses that build tools for a specific customer demographic.” So, he’ll be managing Picks and Shovels while continuing in his role as chief of staff at Series, a crypto-enabled bank for institutional asset managers and corporations. (“Think JPMorgan Chase for crypto,” he says. “The business is a rocket ship.”)
All of this raises the question: When does Schlisserman find time to sleep? “I sleep 10 to 12 hours a day. That’s my secret. I probably work 10 to 12 hours, five days a week. I don’t really touch work on the weekends. And then I sleep another 10 to 12 hours each day.”
Five years from now, he adds, “I hope I’m ringing the bell on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange for Series. I want to ring the bell with our CEO and our COO. And I want to be managing over $100 million in assets through Picks and Shovels VC. That’s where I’ll be in five years, if everything goes right.” Hey, who are we to doubt him?