Coffee Chat: How do I start a platform strategy at my VC firm?

About this Series: There’s a list of questions that I get asked a lot about my career and my job, so I’ve decided to turn these into a short series of blog posts that I can use for reference in the future. With each of these, I’m going to pretend like you took me out for a cup of coffee and asked me this question. So I’m going to write for exactly as long as it takes me to finish one cup of coffee. Ready? Here we go.

How do I start a platform strategy at my VC firm?

This is the one of the most common questions that I get asked these days. And to be fair, I love talking about it. But the tricky part is, this is also sort of like asking, “How do I create an investment strategy at my VC firm?” At the end of the day, there are far too many variables and peculiarities to your specific context that I won’t possibly be able to understand in a 30–60 minute meeting. If you’ve ever got me on the phone to talk about this with you, it’s more likely that I turned the tables and instead asked you a bunch of questions. So let’s first try to learn a bit more about your context, starting with the big one: “Why are you interested in building a platform strategy? And what do you think your firm or platform can offer that’s unique?”

Ah, got it. So this is mostly an events role.

I mean…events can certainly be a part of your platform strategy. It’s been a big part of our strategy at USV for years, dating all the way back to 2010. But let’s be honest: The world doesn’t need more events; if anything, we just need better events. The way we define an “event” can be anything from a 25-person all-day summit to 5 people around a table over lunch. The majority of our events have fewer than 30 attendees, which is by design. These aren’t structured as “show up and listen” sessions but as interactive discussion groups. We’ve decided that the best thing we can do for our companies is to connect them with people thinking about similar problems that they may not already have the chance to know. But this takes intentional design and a lot of curation effort to get the right people in the room.

How do I know what our portfolio companies need?

We like to ask. Like, all the time. We send regular surveys after every event and one big annual survey where we capture as much information as possible from the network. We also listen for inbound questions — whether an email over the CEOs list or a DM in Slack asking about a specific problem someone is experiencing at work. Sometimes we’ll turn those questions into portfolio surveys, sometimes they’ll become roundtable events, and sometimes we’ll light up a new email list or group out of it. At the end of the day, a lot of this job is about listening, followed by deliberate facilitation. So make sure you’re giving people the space they need to reach out to you.

I just want to get our founders to talk to each other. Do I use a Google Group or Slack or…?

Great goal! But before we can answer that question, there are a few more I have to ask first, such as, “What do your founders all have in common with each other? And why would they want to talk with each other?” While it is mildly interesting that they are all linked through a shared investor, it’s not an instant “bonding glue” as you might think. In our case, we have companies in USV’s portfolio ranging from blockchain businesses to women’s health apps to educational tools and finance platform. Before we were able to facilitate a dialogue among any of our founders or CEOs, we had to first show that we had a good answer to this: “What can a drone company learn from a flashcard app company?” If that’s not crystal clear, it’ll be hard to get people to “show up” and contribute — whether in-person or virtually.

And for everyone else, I can just invite people to a big Slack channel, yeah?

Well, you might. We certainly did. Today, we have 3,600 people in one massive Slack channel from across our portfolio. The problem is, like any online tool or community, a group like this takes a lot of effective moderation to get right. To be honest, we haven’t sorted out the best way to unlock all of the potential that Slack has to offer for our community yet. We’ve tried a lot: Dozens of topic-specific channels, regular moderation and touchpoints, even custom a custom SlackBot to introduce itself to people in the network. While we’ve seen upticks in engagement here and there, you really have to step back and ask yourself, “What behaviors are we trying to optimize for here? How do we know this is really making a dent for our community?”

So, should we even do this at all?

If you have the right critical mass, commitment, and support, I believe a strong platform strategy can impact many dozens of companies simultaneously. This can be incredibly rewarding for both you and the entrepreneurial community that you serve. But there’s no, “one size fits all” model to platform. Investing in any network or community is a commitment that takes time, consistency, and intentional experimentation to get right. In my opinion, the payoff is pretty great, but I guess that’s up for you to decide?

VP @ BolsterTalent, alum of @USV, @StackOverflow and @NorthwesternU, board member at @CompSci_High and @NUalumni, co-founder of #BeyondCodingNYC