The traditionally secretive culture of old-school venture capital may be changing. These investing firms have increasingly been hiring community managers to help foster a network within their portfolios. And what started with a few spreadsheets is now evolving into new technological platforms and tools to connect these companies. What’s more, VCs are starting to share information with each other in order to provide their portfolio networks with aggregated data on what other startups are doing to succeed.
Though the VC community manager position is relatively new, the concept of portfolio networks has been around a long time. Many VCs embraced the idea of “keiretsu” in the ’90s, during the first dot-com era. Keiretsu is a Japanese business practice that’s been around since the 17th century. It refers to the cultivation of a strategic network of businesses that work symbiotically. During the first dot-com wave, a number of VC firms, including big players like Kleiner Perkins, cultivated these sorts of relationships among their portfolio companies. Some even called them “families” of companies.
A lot of the ideology surrounding keiretsu practices faded with the dot-com crash, but some elements stuck around. Boundary-pushing VCs with tons of capital, like First Round Capital and Andreessen Horowitz, are champions of internal networking, matching their companies to needed resources, and to each other, for support. That’s helped these firms differentiate themselves from older VC firms that have a less aggressive approach to portfolio networking.
Community managers and tools
But in the last few years, an increasing number of firms have hired community managers to oversee portfolio company needs and relationships. “Before, it was way more partner-centric,” says Danya Cheskis-Gold director of community at Spark Capital. She explains how Spark used to do a CEO summit, which brought together all of the chief execs within the portfolio plus the VC partners. Now, it’s her job to be heart of things, connecting Spark’s portfolio companies and creating opportunities for them.
In the last year Cheskis-Gold has covered a lot of ground. To leverage big data and help get the largely early-stage companies that comprise her portfolio up and running, she’s opted Spark’s companies into a GlassDoor-like database — as yet unnamed — that collects information about startups. It gives them access to insights on how other startups are handling their business — for example, what kind of salaries they’re offering.
New York-based Union Square Ventures participates also in the database. “If there’s a gap in our data, we can connect [our companies] to other firms that consult or provide the resources that they need,” says Brittany Laughlin, the general manager at USV. Laughlin’s firm has developed tools in-house, including a system that companies can use to shares vendor reviews. They also use Yammer, though not in the traditional manner. USV has morphed the Microsoft-owned corporate social networking tool into a medium for topical group conversations among its portfolio companies. So, for example, all the IT departments from USV’s companies can ask questions and otherwise share knowledge with each other.
But it’s the firm’s participation in the national database that signals the new trend. A growing number of VCs seem to be more open about information they used to guard very tightly. Traditionally, VCs keep a lid on details about their companies. They don’t want to divulge proprietary information, and they want to maintain any competitive advantage when it comes to information about new startups. This means data anonymization is an important component of information sharing between VCs. “Collective knowledge is really powerful, but we’re trying to make sure that information is providing value for our companies and that no one feels like they’re giving up trade secrets,” says Laughlin.
Sharing and caring? Maybe … maybe not
The added value of participating in this kind of database may seem obvious, as being able to answer portfolio companies’ questions may be the difference between signing a deal and not. But individual company information must be private. So for VCs the ratio of risk to benefit has to be favorable if they’re going to contribute to a crowdsourced data pool.
“No one is going to participate in a community if it’s not of value,” says David Spinks, CEO of CMX, which hosts the CMX Summit. Spinks recently did a study on the rise of community managers at VCs. It notes that big firms with lots of resources, like Y Combinator and First Round Capital, tend to hire their own developers to build internal networking platforms. YC has an email list, for example, that connects its current companies with 1,400 alums. With that many sources of data on an internal network, there’s no real benefit to joining a national database.
But small VCs are already making do with technology hacks and the few available internal networking platforms like GroupTie and Dashboard. For this reason, they may be more inclined to participate in a national database. “There’s definitely been a shift towards sharing,” Spinks notes. “They’ve all seen a lot of value in the collaborative aspect.” When I spoke to community and platform managers at FirstMark Capital, RRE, and Lerer Hippeau Ventures, they echoed the importance of providing startups with broad sets of data. At the very least, community managers and the networks they preside over are forcing venture capital firms to reconsider what constitutes value — and how they can best deliver that to startups.