On VentureBeat earlier this month, a European venture capitalist took some U.S. VCs to task for hyping “portfolio-support platforms” and other value-added services, presumably to the exclusion of old-fashioned company building. He derided investors who push a “bouquet of generic operational support resources” and warned entrepreneurs to be skeptical of these offerings — implying that young companies don’t need such services to bloom.
It’s the latest salvo in the ongoing debate over “VC services.” Witness the New Yorker’s lengthy profile this month of Marc Andreessen, which highlights his firm’s staunchly pro-services model of offering loads of human-resources, marketing, and other extra help to its companies. On the flip side, there’s this year’s Forbes Midas List examination of the boutique-y Benchmark Capital. The firm doesn’t employ any biz-dev specialists or offer a speck of content on its website. (Andreessen Horowitz’s home page is a blog.)
But after nearly two years running marketing at a large, global venture-capital firm, it’s clear to me that many VC firms, including mine, fall somewhere in the middle. Most firms that have been around a while are not, in fact, blowing themselves up to become talent or customer-acquisition agencies. Yet many of them are finding that a smart, customized mix of services — delivered thoughtfully with backing and involvement from the firm’s partners — can indeed help entrepreneurs build better companies, without requiring them to outsource core business functions.
After I joined my firm in 2013, we commissioned a survey of our CEOs. (As a former journalist, I figured I’d better do my reporting before figuring out what the story was.) Our goal was to learn what our portfolio executives thought about our firm, brand-wise. But we also wanted to probe what specific services, if any, they might want from us.
The responses to the second issue were striking. There was a distinct preference by the CEOs interviewed for more services. The ones highest on the executives’ wishlist? Recruiting and introductions to customers. Significant percentages of the respondents also wanted more help with execution strategy; organizational strategy; CEO coaching; and networking within our large portfolio.
Our firm, like many VC outfits that have been around for decades, historically left many of these functions to our investment team. But there’s always room to improve and address specific portfolio needs. So my firm has also long maintained an in-house recruiter for our portfolio companies, for instance. We’ve also leveraged a smattering of other service providers, like a marketing executive who now consults with a handful our companies. We cultivate a small stable of seasoned “executives in residence” with experience at tech-manufacturing and industrial-technology companies, and we sometimes tap these EIRs to run new companies in those areas.
Separately, about six months after I arrived, we hired a global cloud-computing expert from Netflix to serve as a “technology fellow” and consultant for our companies scaling their IT infrastructure. We made the hire because of a personal connection from one of our team members and a distinct need we saw in our portfolio at the time.
My point is that we already offered, and still do offer, services that are relevant for our particular portfolio and investment style. We’re not trying to be all things to all people; we’re trying to double down on activities that can deliver real value to our portfolio.
In keeping with that, after conducting the CEO survey two years ago, we didn’t rush out to hire 10 new tech recruiters and an army of biz-dev hotshots. Instead, we wound up leveraging many of the staff we already had to launch a significant number of new events and programs. They included a high-level, day-long sales summit for our CEOs and VPs of sales. In April, our newest general partner put together a panel of data scientists to share insights with the data experts in our own portfolio. We sponsored a dinner for the “customer success” execs at our companies, and separately set up an online networking site for our private-equity CEOs. And our entire investment staff, with the help of a new marketing staffer, organized more meetings and events to introduce potential CIO, CTO and CMO buyers to our portfolio companies.
And yes, we also hired a PR firm and launched a new blog, though the PR firm is mainly tasked with helping our early-stage companies, not us.
One thread running through all these activities is a deep connection to our core investing team. General partners attend nearly all of these events, help shape them and participate in follow-up. Though we’re doing more these days with services, we don’t feel we’re straying from our core mission, as some services critics charge.
We’re still assessing the exact ROI for our efforts, which could be lumped under the term “marketing”. But the anecdotal feedback we’ve received has been gratifying. Our CEOs seem genuinely excited to get access to a high-octane sales consultant at a group event that many of them could not afford themselves. Others can trace new sales back to introductions made at our match-making events, or investment-bank conferences we’ve helped them access. Sometimes they just enjoy having dinner with colleagues working in the same job at another company. To us, this is just doing our job.
Rebecca Buckman is the vice president of communications and content at Battery Ventures, a global investment firm with offices in Silicon Valley, Boston, and Israel. She was previously a reporter and editor with the Wall Street Journal and Forbes.