VC Platform @ Connect Ventures…3 years In

Just over three years ago, I joined Connect to build out our Platform strategy and figure out how best to connect (pun intended!) our growing portfolio.

In that time, the questions I’ve faced most, both from others and myself, are:

  • What is a VC Platform?
  • How is Connect’s Platform a value-add?
  • How do we measure a Platform’s success?

To help answer these, I thought I’d share how we’ve approached our Platform strategy at Connect.

Much has been written about the rise of VC Platforms. The ever-growing community of professionals in this role is a testament to the fact that what was once a “nice to have” function is fast becoming table stakes. The U.S. VC Platform community has grown approximately 120% in the 3 years since I’ve been a member. Similarly, its European counterpart, the EU VC Platform, has tripled in the same period.

More than ever, the words of Maria Palmer (RRE), who was among the first Platform builders in the U.S., still ring true:

“You can’t pick a platform strategy that’s unique, but you can pick a platform strategy that your firm can uniquely execute.”

This statement is right as every fund Platform offering comprises the same ingredients to varying degrees.

VC Platform — The Core Ingredients

The role of a VC Platform has been defined by those who first developed them as “the services and activities that venture firms offer outside of capital and partner time, to support portfolio companies.” In practice, the services and activities in question typically fall into one of six buckets:

  • Business / Corporate Development — for instance facilitating strategic introductions to partners, customers or even acquirers
  • Events — including periodic topical workshops, annual summits, socials and one-off events
  • Expert Networks — of operators and subject matter experts to connect our community in times of need
  • Marketing / PR — helping portfolio companies craft their message, press releases, etc.
  • Resources — such as access to preferential rates from specific service providers and repeatable content
  • Talent — helping portfolio companies source new people to join their teams, typically senior / C-suite talent

The list above isn’t exhaustive, but it represents the range of activities typically done in an ad-hoc capacity by a firm’s partners or other members before the Platform itself is officially established. When the portfolio is large enough to warrant having a dedicated full-time person or team, this person works on formalising and building out these activities and the process around them.

Devising a Platform strategy that you can uniquely execute starts by having clarity on who your primary customers are. This, coupled with the strengths and interests of whoever owns the Platform role, helps determine which select ingredients will form the strategy’s overall foundation. Ideally, your Platform strategy seamlessly aligns with your firm’s values and thesis. The VC Platform Field Guide offers more guidance on this.

Executing Connect’s Strategy In A Unique Way

Step one for Connect was thinking of and referring to our Platform as the Founders Network. This is because our first priority was connecting our founders to each other. At its core, the Founders Network is a community of all the founders of the companies we’ve invested in since our inception in 2012 — 54 so far. As a seed stage fund, we back ambitious founders and companies at an early stage in their journey and typically pre-product/market fit.

We deliberately designed the network to reflect and complement our “low volume, high conviction, (and high support)” investment approach. Our network activities aim to:

  1. Accelerate our founders’ learning curve and help them make better decisions by fostering shared knowledge between themselves and industry experts; and
  2. Curate the right environments for our founders to build meaningful connections with one another.

This mission informs our execution and ensures that we continue to build an offering that’s “made with love and loved by many.

Our Mission Execution

In building our Platform, or Network, we started with its structure. We designed four distinct pillars, all interlinked and focused on the core functions of Talent, Growth, and Leadership. Underpinning each pillar is our commitment to founder wellbeing (mental and emotional), reflected by a mixture of relevant offerings. We previously shared some thoughts on this here.

The four pillars are:

On-boarding

This is the first and most important pillar because it’s the founders’ first touch point with the Network. It’s when we set the tone and explain what the Network is all about. From how welcome they feel to how smooth their sign-up experience is, we’ve worked tirelessly to ensure new members are engaged from the outset. Our thinking is that the earlier we engage at this stage, the more (and sooner), we can help them!

Having now on-boarded 20+ companies since I joined Connect, I’ve noticed recurring themes echoed in conversations with the founders. The main focus of companies at this stage is usually finding product/market fit, building out their teams, and identifying repeatable growth channels. Oftentimes, function heads have yet to be hired, which results in gaps in knowledge. To help plug these gaps in the interim, we offer 1:1 office hours with subject matter experts in the wider network. We encourage founders to pick 2–3 areas they plan to focus on during the first three to six months post-investment, then make the relevant connections to ensure that these sessions are set up. The goal is to give our founders access to the exact information they need to help them make the best decisions they can, at the right time.

Some of the caricatures from our founder wall

Business

This is the Network’s second pillar and focuses on knowledge transfer around key business functions. Many of our founders are first- or second-time founders, or founders who’ve never built a venture-backed company.

To accelerate their learning, we run topical workshops covering various core business functions. All sessions focus on the fundamentals of each topic so that founders swiftly gain best practice knowledge. Topics we’ve covered in the past include “Unpacking the fundamentals of growth marketing,” “How to build out your sales playbook to match the stage of the company,” “How to think about Minimum Viable Category Design,” “Design sprint fundamentals and how to test quick ideas,” and “How/when to hire your first head of talent.”

We use different formats including workshops, discussions, and dinners — all with common sizes and style: we limit session sizes and ensure each one is fully interactive. Founders are encouraged to share lessons they’ve learned and challenges they’re facing. Through this, they can build genuine connections and meaningful relationships with one another.

To tie these business sessions together, we host an annual Founders Summit themed around “F**k-ups & Fix-ups.” The format allows founders to share some of their recent failures and what they’ve learned from them. We tried this format for the first time last year and will be keeping it going forward. Why? Because we wanted to highlight how common and normal failure is. By sharing their stories, founders gain valuable context and perspective from their peers.

From our 2019 Founders’ Summit

Leadership & Founder Wellbeing

Our Kaizen program is the Network’s third pillar and is centred around the continuous development of our founders as leaders.

“Kaizen /kʌɪˈzɛn/…a Japanese business philosophy of continuous improvement of working practices, personal efficiency, etc.”

We recognise that great leadership is the cornerstone of great companies. As such, we felt it was important to dedicate specific resources to that effect. This pillar’s foundation is Executive Coaching. We know this to be a great way to help leaders increase their self-awareness. It assists founders with decision-making and stress management, which ultimately improves their ability to lead effectively.

We run sessions around specific topics that are integral to building and inspiring fast-growing teams. Recent topics include managing low performers and managing high performers.

We’ll be developing this pillar in coming months and will be sharing more updates on our activities on this front. In the meantime, we’ll soon be hosting the third edition of our Founders Retreat, which focuses on leadership development and mental wellbeing. It’s the lightning strike event of the year that ties all our leadership development sessions together, and gives founders an opportunity to reset and reflect.

From our Founders’ Retreat — (dis)Connect2018

Socials

VC is a people-centric business, and all-work-no-play is no fun. So for us, it’s essential to weave in periodic social events into our roster of activities. This pillar’s goal is to offer our founders an informal space to bond with each other, connect with other founders and investors from the wider ecosystem, and engage with some of our other fun(d) friends. We love to bring curious and interesting people together, be it over an intimate dinner or beers and pizza around our kitchen bar.

Thanksgiving 2017 @ Connect HQ

The Founders Network is a product, and like any (great) product, we’re constantly iterating and improving it based on the feedback we get from the founders, our customers. We measure success in different ways — big and small — but much like our peer funds, this is something that’s still a work-in-progress. Keep an eye out for a follow up piece with some of our findings and further thoughts on how we’re measuring the success of our platform initiatives.

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Head of Network, Brand & Culture Ops @ Connect Ventures #whereproductfoundersfit. Lover of start-ups, appreciator of culture, food & travel...