In fall 2020, as a pandemic surged, McKeever Conwell II left a job with little savings and lots of dreams.
A year later, he closed the first $1.3 million of his inaugural venture capital fund. Today, he is behind a respectably sized $10 million fund, with nearly 30 investments and a national reputation.
His story is the classic tale of an overnight success built on years of quiet work. It’s also a signal of how famously white venture capital can feature more Black leaders.
“Most people think VCs are rich,” Conwell told Technical.ly. “Typically you have to have a decent sum of money to do all the fund setup, the legal fees and all that other stuff. I ain’t have none of that.”
Conwell is so interesting a character for many reasons. He is a true repeat founder who had both success and failure; he has told Technical.ly how he lost relationships and friendships over his first web company and closed a second. Along the way, he became known as a generous and thoughtful leader in Baltimore’s fledgling startup community, a frequent speaker and adviser for others, while he developed his own craft. In fall 2016, he took a job at TEDCO, the state-backed investment firm to support their seed-stage investments. His four years there gave him more traditional grounding, while he continued his personal development, as a voracious reader and enthusiastic consumer of startup culture. With this background, he was ready to join the surging ranks of venture capital.
In September 2020, he left TEDCO to start his own venture capital fund, RareBreed Ventures. It was founded with the goal of bridging the gap in funding for minority founders that leave Black and Latinx women founders receiving 0.64% of all VC investment.
And it worked, with hard-won expertise earned along the way. Just this month, Conwell, better known as Mac, was featured on the influential podcast This Week in Tech — which he cited as a source of inspiration years ago, when he was a lonely first-time founder in Baltimore.
Conwell knew he had the ability, but he by no means had a safety net. But he was all in on RareBreed. Following the murder of George Floyd, a surge of institutional money flooded the relatively few Black-founded investment firms that were coming online then — like ones launched by Brian Brackeen in the Midwest and DC’s Nasir Qadree. Conwell was still a relatively unknown quantity nationally, so before he landed many institutional investors, he had to build himself — with the help of Twitter.
Twitter as catalyst
In June 2020, as the world’s attention was drawn to racial justice, Conwell had a tidy following of 2,500 on the social platform of choice for entrepreneurs, journalists and VC. Six months later, he had 20,000. A year later, his following has tripled to more 60,800 followers. Social followings can feel painfully trivial, until that leads directly to capital.
“80% of the money I raised in my fund came through connections on Twitter,” Conwell said. Quick maths: That’s $8 million, including relationships that would later lead to the kinds institutional investments that help funds reach higher totals than individual limited partners. (Conwell said his personal network outside of Twitter also netted $400,000 when he first started RareBreed.)
It got to a point where, from June to September 2020, Conwell had 1,128 meetings — 25 a day at its peak.
June 2020 was the summer of protests and unrest over the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. That summer was hard for Black people across the US. At first, Twitter was a way for Conwell to get stuff off his chest. He made the decision to tweet more consistently.
“My whole ethos is democratizing access and information,” he said.
With the idea for launching his own equity-minded fund in mind, Conwell began tweeting insider knowledge and tips on the VC and entrepreneurship world. Then came the secret sauce to how he grew his VC and LP network: Every time an investor followed him, he DM’d them and set up a meeting. It got to a point where, from June to September 2020, Conwell said he had 1,128 meetings — 25 a day at its peak.
All of that work allowed Conwell in September to soft circle, or get VCs to show conditional interest in investing, $2.5 million for the RareBreed fund. He drew up papers to close these deals.
And then nothing. Nothing for two to three months. He had just quit his job; there wasn’t much in his savings. Were all those meetings lip service? Were all the tweets about what RareBreed could be just pipe dreams?
“December 2020, I’m thinking, ‘Hey if this don’t work, I only got like a few more months, then I might have to get a job,” Conwell said. “That’s wild to consider at this point. I’ll probably never have to work a job a day again in my life but those moments were there and that’s real.”
He got strategic about getting the deals across the finish line, and that culminated in closing $1.3 million on Jan. 3, 2021. He couldn’t pay himself yet, but the dream was alive. It was happening. RareBreed was on the path to becoming a $10 million fund. How did Conwell juggle all these meetings and manage his time? He didn’t. By his own admission, it was an unhealthy and unsustainable way to live. He burnt himself out. But if he didn’t do it, the RareBreed we see today wouldn’t be here.
“During that [Twitter] process is how I met my partner, Johnathan Kroll,” Conwell said. “He was one of my first 50 to 100 meetings I had.”
He often uses the analogy of a jet plane to explain the work he put in on Twitter. When a jet plane takes off, it uses 70% of its fuel to get off the ground. Once it’s off the ground and going, it’s just coasting.
“Eleven hundred meetings, that was that 70%,” Conwell said. “All that initial energy to get up off the ground.”
Conwell classified his fund as 506(c) so he can talk publicly about his deals, as opposed to a 506(b), which would only allow him to advertise the brand. The tradeoff for being able to talk about the deal is that 506(c) funds can only use accredited investors, meaning individuals investing in the fund must earn at least $200,000 a year. (Technical.ly investigated who makes $200K in Baltimore, DC, Philly, Pittsburgh and Delaware this past fall.)
The make-good moment
The fame is all relative. He’s well known in the tech and VC world, but if he leaves his house and goes to the grocery store, no one knows who he is. But 60,000 followers paid real dividends for Conwell.
“I had some confidence I could get it done, I could figure it out, but I figured it would take me 18 to 24 months,” Conwell said, looking back on his initial hopes. “I said I wanted to raise $10 million but I was perfectly comfortable not getting there. If I only got to $3 0r $4 million, that’s just what it was going to be.”
But in going for it, something better than he could have ever imagined happened.
“Now I have a real following on social media. I have this overcommitted fund,” he said. “People that have done amazing funds and done amazing things are telling me, ‘Hey Mac, you’re doing something really cool and amazing, I want to be a part of that.’ You want to be a part of what I’m doing? There’s no way I could have ever imagined that.”
One lesson is that many of those who joined his fund were people he met over a decade of startup life, much of it in pain and obscurity. But also, Conwell now has a venture partner in Kroll, a Silicon Valley vet and former exec at Andreessen Horowitz and Spero Ventures, as well as three fellows, and is planning to hire a full team this year.
The work has only just begun. Private market-business investing has been flooded with new capital in the last decade, and there is considerable questions as to how many VC funds can actually outperform frothy public markets. His thesis is straightforward: Pursue exceptional founders building outside the best-known tech hubs. Conwell’s fund is of relatively modest size, but his ambition is outsized. His ability to run future funds will be determined largely by his ability to deliver results. For now, it’s been one heck of a year.
“You have daydreams about, ‘Yeahhh, I’ll get to the $10 million VC goal, I’m going to invest in these companies and it’s going to be great,” Conwell said. “Did I really believe that? Maybe not as much as I should have.”
Donte Kirby is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation. -30-