#23 Delian Asparauhov

Co-Founder of Varda Space Industries (space factories, $51M inv by Founders Fund, Khosla Ventures & Lux Capital) & Principal at Founders Fund (tier 1 global VC early inv in cos like SpaceX & Stripe)

We are Pol Fañanás and Gerard Garcíatwo friends passionate and curious about tech, startups and VC sharing high-value views from people creating the future. Thanks for reading!


Delian Asparauhov is Co-Founder of Varda Space Industries, company building the world’s first space - factories for Earth - bound products, bringing a gravity off - switch to manufacturing through commercial zero - gravity industrial park at scale. The 10 months old company has raised $51M from tier 1 investors such as Founders Fund, Khosla Ventures (VC by tech legend Vinod Khosla, with $5B+ AUM and portfolio companies like Elon Musk’s AI powerhouse OpenAI) and Lux Capital (VC with a unique deep tech angle, $4B+ AUM and portfolio companies like $4.6B defense startup Anduril).

Delian currently balances his job at Varda with an investment role as Principal at Founders Fund, one of the global venture capital references founded by some of the most well known individuals in the startup and VC ecosystem such as Peter Thiel, accounting with more than $6B AUM and portfolio companies like Palantir (data analytics, $45.33B market cap), SpaceX (aerospace, $74B+ valuation) or Stripe (fintech payments processing, $95B valuation).

Previously Delian was a Principal at Khosla Ventures, VP of Growth at Teespring (YC - backed social commerce platform) and Co-Founder & CEO of Nightingale (YC - backed health tech startup focused on improving treatment for people diagnosed with autism).

Originally, he studied Computer Science at MIT and dropped out when he was awarded the 2013 Thiel Fellowship, a program created by technology entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel based on giving $100,000 to young people who want to build new things instead of sitting in a classroom and which included notable recipients such as Vitalik Buterin, Co-Founder of Ethereum.


Summary


What is your story?

I was born in Bulgaria and I had really hard-working parents, both studied mathematics and then decided to escape the communist bloc so applied and got into Caltech, arriving in the US in their early 20s with me still in a stroller and not much money at all.

I stayed in Pasadena for a while going through different school systems but never clicked with anything in particular until we moved to Utah for middle school and high school because my mom got a new job as a professor. There I got hooked on mathematics thanks to being introduced to MathCounts, a middle-school mathematics program where they would spend almost every day walking us through problems, training us and coaching us to be part of maths competitions.

Long story short after that I got more into physics and robotics thanks to some great teachers I am grateful to have had, ended getting more into the world of technology and started studying Computer Science at MIT.

The summer between my freshman and sophomore year worked as Android Developer at Square, loved Silicon Valley and wanted to make it there as soon as possible, so I ended up applying to the Thiel Fellowship and I was awarded with it in 2013.

As a result I dropped out of MIT and founded Nightingale, a health care company based on ensuring that service providers for individuals with autism and related disorders are equipped to administer high quality, personalized treatment that can end up abating the symptoms via evidence - based interventions like applied behaviour analysis, speech - language pathology and occupational therapy. I worked in that for over 3.5 years, went through YC and raised a small seed round. It went okay, not amazing. We had our path to profitability and we had clients but never grew enough to get to Series A and ultimately ended up selling the company to one of our clients. After that I joined Teespring, a social commerce YC - backed platform, and stayed there for about a year as VP of Growth.

And now for over 4 years I’ve been in the world of venture, first half at Khosla Ventures and second half at Founder Fund. At both firms focused in Seed and Series A investing, mostly at what I call engineering based investing - from satellites to construction, industrial automation, robotics, etc.

More recently at Founders Fund, I incubated a company called Varda Space Industries where we are building the world’s first space based factories. So I actually spend my time investing at Founders Fund and working at Varda.

What is the biggest win in your life?

A personal win will be without a doubt that I recently got engaged with my fiancée, you catch me 1 month in !

On the professional side, I’d say Varda and being able to finally make real this idea that I had in my head for almost a decade now. Seeing this passion come to life is super exciting - putting together the team, crafting the story, completing a successful fundraising and starting to build is amazing.

I think if we had not committed ourselves to do it, it would not have happened otherwise. This makes it even more worthy.

What is biggest failure and lesson?

My biggest failure is probably spending almost 4 years with the company I founded and at the end not really having accomplished all that we wanted, not feeling like we had anything big to show.

The mistakes we made were mainly around how to scale product market fit. We were MIT engineers and I believe we built a really good product which I think was the best in the market, but we didn’t do a very good job of figuring out the market.

Basically early on we had a handful of very solid clientele, health business customers that liked us, used us often and were happy. But rather than taking that spark and blowing it up into a flame and eventually a bonfire we just got distracted trying to get a huge number of new customers without understanding that their needs were different. We started going to a completely different direction with the software without fully realizing it. Finally we ended up spinning around kind of in between two worlds - we churned out early clients and couldn’t close big enterprise clients as a 19 year old dropout.

The biggest thing I will tell my younger self will be “dude stop going to those conferences, flying out and trying to meet really big CEOs and huge customers, just spend a couple of thousand bucks on google and facebook ads targeting smaller clinics and start getting them in, following a repeatable process and stop pure cold outbound which does not work really well in this case”.

What is your ideal founder profile?

I don’t think there exists the same answer for all types of companies. Let’s take Facebook and SpaceX for instance, two absolutely incredible companies.

Now imaging putting Elon Musk at the head of Facebook.

He will be tweeting random shit and will end up in front of the Senate and the Congress, immediately having anti trust litigations and fucking anything could happen.

And you put Zuckerberg in front of SpaceX and he will have no fucking idea of how to do it, engineer will go super soft and will start to demand smoothies and will forgot how to make rocket launches.

They both will be completely ineffective at each other jobs.

The answer is that there is no one single ideal founder profile, it really depends on the company. The question for me is more about “Why are you the Elon for this particular company? What is the problem that obsesses you in a differential way? Do you have the appropriate skills to tackle it? Can you navigate the major risks?”

That being said, for sure there are common characteristics of great founders: resiliency, fortitude, creativity, having a special spark, etc but if you look at top founders they all look wildly different there is not an ideal founder profile.

As an investor what I am looking for is the secret that this person is discovering and nobody believes, almost a conspiracy theory that he obsessively wants to prove true. If it is something that everybody agrees with then I think it is less interesting because there is already a lot of people already working on it and less likely that you will be unique and the best one.

What is your ideal investor profile?

Same as before, not so much about ideal profile but more about shared attributes to stay at the top of your class for a period of time.

Investing is such a long term job and there are so much changing dynamics that you basically have to reinvent yourself every 5 to 7 years. An Investor in 2002 was investing in early internet companies, in 2009 needed to shift to mobile, in 2015 needed to go to large scale enterprise SaaS and in 2021 need to shift into a space investor.

You need to be constantly evolving and have intellectual flexibility and great curiosity, always willing to learn about new things. I’d say it is sort of a need for being obsessive with something while at the same time being comfortable with hoping to different things and switching context. Me doing the combination of Varda and Founders Fund is an example of that.

But then also we have to keep in mind that VC investing itself is going through a wild range of changes like the solo capitalist, the rolling funds, the fact that you have hedge funds coming to venture capital - so many things going on. It is everyday more difficult to stay top of class and innovate. Everett Randle, one of my colleagues at Founders Fund, wrote a good post about how Tiger Global was entering the game and how they were fundamentally changing the paradigm, resulting in other investors being forced to either become sort of a Wallmart doing massive spray and pray with very fast processes or needing to become a Tiffanys, a high-end boutique focused on doing things for which you are very well known. With the worst place being ending up as a premium mediocre.

There are definitely a lot of firms in the premium mediocre realm and they need to figure out how to make themselves a boutique, otherwise they will have a tough time trying to survive.

What markets are you most interested in?

Aerospace is a significant focus area of mine, then decentralization of tech (with companies being built everywhere, etc) and the AWS-like stratification of hardware (metal 3d printing and other stuff that makes the physical world easier to change).

3 startups you like and why?

I’ll stick with a couple:

Hadrian. Flexport for aerospace and defense machine shops. Basically if you need high quality aluminium to be used for instance in a satellite, before you would have had to go through a really slow and inefficient old school supply chain and with Hadrian you can get it easier and faster. All can get done via software with this AWS type of angle. I enjoy the companies which represent in some way the trends that I like and this is one of them without a doubt.

Trade Republic. Also in Founders Fund portfolio and a great example of massive innovation coming from Germany. Based in Berlin, stock brokerage market, top company competing at a very high level with very smart people from all over the world.

3 investors you like and why?

I’ll stick with 2 as well:

Josh Wolfe (Lux Capital). I am huge fan of the incredible job he is doing, new great brand and bold investments in deep technology that actually changes the world, not just boring SaaS.

Keith Rabois (Founders Fund). Incredible operator and extremely first principles based with precise thinking process.

3 books you feel everyone should read and why?

“Seveneves” by Niel Stephenson. One of the best sci fi books of all time, incredible job showing how communities come together facing very difficult challenges leveraging technology.

“Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” by David Epstein. I really like this one. Classical Silicon Valley book talking about how diversity of experiences early on in life can be fundamental and lead you to discovering the things were you are naturally better at. My career is sort of an example of that and it explains why I’m good at VC after a bunch of years doing a variety of different things.

“The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership” by Bill Walsh. Great book by the old 49ers coach that walks you through the management philosophy of focusing on inputs rather than outputs. So for instance instead of thinking too much on winning the super bowl, target how to perform better the details that will eventually get you there.

WILDCARD QUESTION

As a VC, what are the key lessons from Founders Fund experience? As a founder, how does the future of space look like?

A couple of things that I learned from my VC experience that can be applied to both, VC and founders will be:

  1. Story telling matters a lot. If you are good in technology but can’t put together a cohesive story you will not be able to do a fundraising and build a top team.

  2. Team, team, team. Super clear. If somebody does not have the best technology right now but has the best team, they will eventually figure it out.

  3. Target the most important things first. As a VC you need to understand if they are targeting the biggest risk first or are they pushing it back. You don’t want to get it too far down the line before you figure out whether something is going to work or not. And as a founder you don’t want to spend years of your life in something before knowing if it will actually work.

About future of space the biggest thing is exponential growth, lowering launch costs, lowering costs of satellites, lowering costs of all hardware as a whole. Improving ease of access and reducing barriers of entry are key factors for the next generation. Stuff like Varda with space manufacturing and Hadrian with space logistics is what I believe the future in space looks like.


Big thanks Delian for sharing your views with us !

Big thanks to you, reader, for your time and interest !

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