The Many Flavors of Venture Partners: From the Platform Braintrust
In August, I put out a call to the Global VC Platform network with the subject line “Venture Partner Framework,” asking:
What followed was a chain of 79 emails, most along the lines of “we’re trying to figure this out too – would love to learn more!”. The Platform braintrust is a collaborative group, and we decided to host a call to share our experiences, perspectives and questions. While the Venture Partner role has been written about before, from Brad Feld, Fred Wilson and others, we wanted to crowdsource, in a trusted environment, how specific funds recruit and work with Venture Partners, how the role varies, and how the Venture Partner is held accountable.
As Fred Wilson defines it, “A Venture Partner is a person who a VC firm brings on board to help them do investments and manage them, but is not a full and permanent member of the partnership.” Like Platform professionals, it’s a role that’s defined and executed in lots of different ways and will likely be shaped depending on the needs and personality of the firm. Unless it’s meticulously defined from the beginning (which we’ll get to) it could prove a tough role for someone who’s uncomfortable with ambiguity.
An assumption when thinking about a Venture Partner is that the role is primarily about sourcing deals – but as our group discussed, there are a few more models with potentially blurry lines between what might otherwise be considered an Operating Partner.
Before we dive in, it’s worth noting that the words “generally” and “likely” are overused throughout this post. With no hard and fast rules and so much variation in type of fund and how funds operate, it’s difficult to make a blanket statement about who a Venture Partner is and what their responsibilities should be. This piece is not definitive or comprehensive, and is meant to provide a menu of options that should be assembled in the way that makes the most sense for an individual firm.
Venture Partners are brought on for a few reasons: deal access via their network; technical expertise and operational assistance; and/or fundraising. Sometimes a Venture Partner sticks explicitly in one of these swim lanes, and sometimes they bounce between the three (or maybe even others). They likely already have a years-long relationship with the venture firm, possibly as a GP stepping away from full-time, or as an entrepreneur with some degree of success. They’ll unlock an area that the firm hasn’t had access to (ie access to a network in a new geography) or double down in an area the firm has already invested in (ie technical expertise in the healthcare space). Timeframe for sitting in a VP role varies, but it’s generally 2-3 years when they may be in a transitory period in their career.
If the VP is focused on deal access, they’re likely brought on board to access a network of entrepreneurs that the firm might not otherwise have access to. The firm, for instance, may have identified a trend they want to follow but don’t have the bandwidth to go deep into, so will bring in a Venture Partner to be their lead in that area. If and when they source a deal that gets done, they may work operationally with that company as well. (As noted in the following point.) They may aim to bring in 1-2 new investments per year and may take board seats. In this instance, it’s important that the firm build other touchpoints with the portfolio company since they will likely have a longer engagement with the company than the VP will.
If the VP is focused on technical expertise or operational assistance, they’re likely helping with diligence and portfolio company operational help in a specific industry based on their past experience. If they’re sourcing deals too, it makes sense that they’ll spend the most time operationally with the deals that they source. This option may closely overlap with a traditional Operating Partner role.
If the VP is focused on fundraising, they’re likely helping the firm access LPs in a new market, essentially helping with lead generation and making introductions. Once an introduction is made, the GP will take over the relationship.
And while it may seem obvious, it’s important to note that setting a Venture Partner up for success is critical. This structure should start with a GP, who is likely the person the VP will “report” to. Many firms who engage VPs will admit that the VPs are underutilized. Because they don’t sit in the office as a full-time member of the staff, they may feel disconnected from the team. Regular and up-front communication, like including VPs in Slack teams and general communication to firm employees, laying out expected deliverables from the start, and annual performance reviews should take place. Both sides should also structure the first year as a test year, making sure to revisit expectations after that year is over.
I’m not surprised that the overall takeaway from our call was “it depends.” If a firm is thinking about bringing on a Venture Partner, our Platform group’s feedback confirms that it’s important to: be intentional about bringing someone on who will fill specific gaps that the firm can’t fill with its full-time staff; set expectations upfront and conduct formal reviews; and keep lines of communication open and frequent.
This is meant to be a living post, so if there are other models or we got something wrong, feel free to comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
October 10, 2018