“Director of Platform…what does that mean?”

When I joined Chicago Ventures in 2014, the title “Director of Platform” didn’t exist in the Chicago venture community. Taking a page out of the books of some coastal funds, who’d had the role in place for years, our GPs Stuart and Kevin knew they wanted to bring someone onto the team (at the time, made up of two GPs and two associates) who could operationalize, formalize, and execute on their philosophy as former operators and early-stage investors: to work closely with the companies Chicago Ventures invests in to help them be successful.

“Help them be successful”… that’s admittedly a broad statement. We knew the role would include some event management, some communication strategy, and some brand building as a new-ish fund. I, along with the team, was motivated by an opportunity to execute on those initial initiatives, and then figure out what came next.

DoP in Chicago

Now, nearly four years later, there’s a growing community of those formally managing Platform/Network/Community at early-stage VCs in Chicago, with peers in Alida at HPA, Kristi at Pritzker, and Devon at Origin, along with a handful of others focused more specifically on marketing/communications (like Maggie at Impact Engine, Jackson at HPVP, or Emily at Clean Energy Trust), or talent (like Brandon at Jump). The concept of “VC value-add” has absolutely existed in variations at local firms well before the “Director of Platform” role was instituted: from Lightbank, which once launched a PR agency, and had recruiters on hand to help their companies hire; to Roniin, originally founded as a studio model before relaunching as Builders.

As a group, Platform professionals globally have blogged about definitions and roles, emailed about best practices, and pontificated on the future of the role — even Mark Suster has explored whether VC platforms make sense (he includes some of the history and theories in his post); and Kim Pham, a former Director of Platform herself, is running a State of Platform report. Nearly 100 people with platform roles from around the world have now gathered twice in New York for our Platform Summit, where year one focused on “what is this role?,” and year two’s conversation evolved to “what’s the career path for this role?”.

Despite all of the conversations within and about our community, “Platform” is still a role that, especially in Chicago, continues to require describing to those outside of the VC bubble. While many startup CEOs “get it,” I’ve had to develop different ways to explain what “Platform” means to their employees, to big corporates, to my friends, to my grandma…

So, what does it mean?

A Director of Platform will have different priorities depending on the philosophy, priorities, and size of their fund and the needs of their portfolio. Some are strong on content, some on talent. Some rule the event space, and some focus solely on community building. Some wear lots of hats and are spread across a half dozen different areas, acting as a swiss army knife for fund operations and portfolio company network management.

At Chicago Ventures, “Platform” can be boiled down to this: how do we connect the companies we invest in to our network, or to a network we can access? We keep two end goals in mind: help our companies be successful, and enhance deal flow. Like venture itself, it’s a long-term play with a lot of little wins along the way. Tactically, Platform here manifests in five ways:

  • Business Development (by making strategic connections to customers, partners, and acquirers)
  • Talent (we’ve strategically sourced hundreds of people for our portfolio companies, dozens of which have been hired)
  • Communications (assisting with strategic messaging and PR)
  • Events (like a CEO Summit; quarterly workshops for all CTOs, product, marketing, people ops, and ops teams; curated events with Fortune 500s, and one-off portfolio-wide events like a celebration of International Women’s Day)
  • Portfolio Company Community (a network to share talent, best practices, and resources – with a curated resource database, along with a hundreds-strong Slack team open to any employee at any company)

Many investors do these things on a one-off basis. The Director of Platform is often the one who formalizes these processes, making them repeatable and reliable; who has a broad overview of the portfolio; and who builds tools, resources and networks to scale and track the success of these activities.

How’d we do it?

In order to build out my role at Chicago Ventures, I spent the first six months on the job talking to each of our portfolio company CEOs (about 25 at the time; 64 now), understanding their businesses, their needs, and exploring what else we could be doing to actually help them in a way that was ideally repeatable but also hands-on. (Yes, that’s a hard balance to strike.)

Early on we expanded these “value-add” activities to be accessible by any employee, at any portfolio company (we have direct relationships with our People Ops leaders, for instance, to help them with things like talent and D&I initiatives). Chicago Ventures’ geographic focus has certainly made building these hundreds of relationships a bit more feasible. Over half of our portfolio companies are based in Chicago, so it’s relatively easy to spend valuable face time with our portfolio company teams, and it’s certain we’ll run into them at any startup event in town.

Now nearly four years later, Director of Platform is a role that’s constantly evolving based on size, stage and maturity of the companies across our two funds. A CEO of a 200-person company that’s raised $50M, for instance, will need help with different initiatives than a CEO of a 10-person company that’s raised $1M. At 64 companies strong, there’s enough critical mass among our portfolio company marketers, technical teams, people ops professionals, product managers, and others to easily find an answer to a question, or to be pointed in the right direction. We’re lucky that our portfolio company Founders, senior management, and their entire teams feel comfortable providing constructive feedback on the Platform work we’re doing. They can pick and choose how they’d like to engage – and of course, some do more than others. I think the ones who do engage with these networks would tell you that it’s worthwhile.

I’ve learned from those who set the early Platform groundwork at coastal funds (a special thanks to Dan at FirstMark and Shari, formerly at DFJ, who walked me through the ropes just a couple of weeks into the job back in 2014), and feel lucky to have a small but mighty, hustling group of Platform professionals here in Chicago. I’m excited about constructing and reconstructing the role as CV matures: the network effects of 100 portfolio companies vs. our 64 vs. 25 when I joined have the potential to be exponential. Though they do say the the hardest thing to do is scale, right?

Lindsay Knight

Posted On

December 4, 2017


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