30 days at a VC and how I got here
Firstly, a butchered definition of Venture capital (VC):
Venture Capitalists invest money in private companies with high growth opportunity called startups. It’s much higher risk than investing in public markets as the startup failure rate is so high - but the companies which survive can provide a huge return on investment - think Facebook, Google, Paypal, Apple, Microsoft etc.
I joined GGV Capital, a global VC who invested in companies like Hashicorp, Poshmark, Grab, Airbnb, and Slack to help build their Business Development program which helps our portfolio accelerate their growth through our vast industry network and go-to-market program support.
Read on for some of my initial learnings and the journey I took to get here.
3 key learnings from my first 30 days at GGV:
1. VCs have a really long term view of things -
During my interview process, Glenn Solomon said something which really stuck with me - “we see this as a 5-10 year+ role at GGV’. I was pretty taken aback, my stints at Amex and Optimizely were both close to 5 years but I had never heard someone talk in such long timeframes about a role.
Great VCs can be impatient with progress but will be patient with results (return on their investment). The median time for a company to IPO varies between 7 - 9 years depending on the vertical so the bets a VC makes might not see returns for as long or longer.
This is very different from a typical start-up environment where it feels like the house is on fire every few weeks when we miss a quarter, ship a bug, lose a customer etc. VCs understand there are many more hands to play in their poker tournament.
2. Building a personal brand and reputation is HUGE
If you have yet to experience VC Twitter, it’s a real thing and may have kept Twitter alive until Trump made it the go-to White House news source.
Whether it’s Twitter, blogging, podcasts, a newsletter or most likely all of the above most established VCs are very present and engaged online. In other industries, the efforts are on building the brand of the company, but Venture Capital is a people business built on personal relationships.
The #1 decision criteria between founder and investor when choosing the other are personal relationships so VCs with an elevated profile and a great reputation in the industry will have the most opportunities to build those relationships early.
3. ‘Let me know how I can be helpful’
VCs wanting to be helpful is so common there is a great Twitter parody account with that namesake.
Jokes aside, everyone I’ve encountered has been incredibly generous with their time and feedback. ‘Being helpful’ has to be in any successful VC’s DNA for a few reasons:
Deploying capital isn’t the job, it is creating the return on those investments. It behoves any investor to do whatever they can to help make sure the companies they invest in are successful so they see those returns.
Building a great relationship and being genuinely valuable will mean successful founders will want to keep you involved as they raise future funding.
Founders have other founders as friends so being helpful and getting recommended by them to other great founders as a VC is huge.
Finally, money is pretty cheap to borrow since interest rates are so low at the moment so being able to genuinely add value is a big differentiator.
What is my history with VC and how did I get here?
I’ve wanted to peel back the curtain of VC since I started working in startups ~10 years ago. I saw VCs as the Kingmakers of Silicon Valley, they had the macro birds-eye view of industry trends and got to work with, and learn from, the smartest founder entrepreneurs on the planet.
Optimizely - 2012 - 2016
People: 100 - 450 people
Revenue: $10MM - ~$100MM ARR
I began my career in startups at Optimizely. I read the wired magazine article on how A/B Testing helped Barack Obama win the first election while I was working at American Express. I had been there for ~5 years and was in a great job but was so excited by Dan Siroker's vision for improving the user experience with data I jumped ship to take a junior position at Optimizely and moved to Amsterdam on a few weeks notice to help launch their European business.
We were fortunate to have Benchmark, Andreesen Horowitz, and Index Partners as investors over the years - they were the first VC firms I encountered and are some of the most respected in the industry. Each time we went into ‘raising’ mode hushed anxiety would wash across the company and whispers of potential investors and possible valuations would fill corners of the office, even as one of the better-known tech startups of the time the reality was we needed the cash. An all-hands would be called and with a raucous announcement, another top-tier firm would take a bet on us.
Early days at Optimizely 2012
Immediately afterwards there was a lot of back-of-the-napkin math, what did this new valuation mean our shares were worth? Were we getting diluted and by how much? Most of this was a total blind spot for me and I wanted to learn more.
There were regular opportunities at Optimizely to work with our investors while building our Partnerships Program, mainly getting introduced to companies in their network at briefing days, events, or through email introductions. Some investors, notably A16Z, had started to really invest in generating leads for their portfolio as a differentiator. The experience varied significantly between investors, contacts, and how well we were doing at the time. Parts were great, parts could be tweaked and improved. I already knew at this point it was a problem I'd love to dive into more.
The hiring standard at Optimizely was not only very high given the founder's Google backgrounds but placed an unusual, for the time, focus on culture. It meant everyone in the early days seemed to connect immediately, many of the people I worked with had become some of my best friends and as they went on to new exciting challenges created a rich and diverse professional network of founders, executives, inventors, politicians, musicians, writers etc.
My boss, mentor, and friend Matt Althauser had left Optimizely to join a small mobile analytics startup called Amplitude as their Chief Revenue Officer. He had phenomenal business instincts and so the decision to move into an undersized company in an already crowded and competitive space was confusing to me. I gave him a call after a couple of weeks and said "Ok, so what do you know that I don't?". He told me about the early team and the Product Analytics category they were planning to build. As a passing comment, I said something like 'Well it sounds really interesting if there is a BD opening I'd love to meet the team'.
It turned out Amplitude was planning to hire a BD leader to build their partnerships strategy but Matt was under a clause in his Optimizely contract which didn't allow him to proactively recruit former colleagues. That initial call was the jumping-off point for the next chapter of my career at Amplitude.
Amplitude - 2016 - 2019
People: 40 - 300 people
Revenue: $5MM - ~$100MM ARR
Amplitude January kick-off 2017
At Amplitude the attitude towards outside capital was totally different. Amplitude didn’t need the cash as urgently - Spenser, Matt, and the exec team had run the company pretty efficiently. We didn’t spend much on paid acquisition and our costs scaled pretty well with the new customers we were bringing on.
We still needed to fund our growth, but it was clear board members like Eric Vishria and Neeraj Agrawal were considered valued advisors vs deep-pocketed benefactors and it was their visibility of the broader startup ecosystem as well as their historical pattern matching ability which made them valuable partners. We would have them join our company all-hands and share their insights and their view of the ecosystem was enviable. Again I was very lucky to get exposure to some more of the best VC firms in the industry - Benchmark, Battery, Sequoia, and IVP.
Early Amplitude team at Spenser's wedding
We had built a very successful business development strategy at Amplitude and the team which we'd recruited was amazing. One of the more successful strategies was launching our product in Asia through resellers. After some early traction, we hired Julio Bermudez who had also worked at Optimizely and became a good friend. He had moved to Leanplum which was in the same space as Amplitude as GM of APAC and with his guidance and expertise the region took off - especially in Japan and Korea.
A lot of great life moments happened while at Amplitude. I met my future wife Christine, bought my first house, and made many more of my closest friends in the tight-knit team we had created.
In my spare time, I was helping Chris Samila who was on our Partnerships team at Optimizely build a growing online community of Business Development executives called SaaS Partnerships Leaders and companies had started reaching out to me for pointers on their business development strategy. I’d take one pro-bono advisory call a week talking through how we built Amplitude’s successful programs - particularly building the tech ecosystem and launching our product in Asia.
I was doing as much learning as teaching in these conversations but was developing the macro view I'd admired in our VCs and was totally hooked on digging into new problems and being forced to flex skills which I didn’t necessarily require in my day job.
Enter GGV Capital
It was at this point the GGV team reached out to me about an opportunity to help build out their Business Development program to continue the work they had been doing to accelerate the growth of their portfolio companies. Everything was going very well at Amplitude and I wasn't near ready to leave, however, I'd made a habit of taking initial calls with recruiters to keep learning about industry shifts and interesting jobs and would offer to make introductions to other people I knew who would be a good fit. On this call, I was quickly convinced by Bailey Hagen at GGV this was a unique team and very compelling opportunity - she knocked it out of the park.
The interview process at GGV deserves its own post. I was blown away by Glenn Solomon, Jeff Richards, Hans Tung, Tiffany Luck, Jen Holmstrom, Oren Yunger and Chris Barbin through the process. Each in isolation would have been a strong indicator that this was a great opportunity and the combination was super compelling.
Matt, Julio, Chris, and Sarah Downey, also a colleague from Optimizely, were all folks I had stayed in touch with and became references in my interview process with GGV. My former VP of Sales and another close friend, Travis Bryant, had recently taken a role leading the Platform team at Redpoint Ventures and so I was able to talk to him about his experience so far and not only navigate the process but also validate this was the right step for me.
What encouraged me to make the switch was the opportunity to 10x the learning I was doing with my advisory work by working with GGV’s portfolio of founders and their teams. GGV has invested in >250 incredible companies to date including Zendesk, Hashicorp, Alibaba, Peloton, Slack, and Airbnb to name a few and is working with many of the most exciting teams who will become the next generation of superstars.
Reading through this what I take away from the journey so far is:
Build friendships, not 'networks' - I have made so many life friends in the last 10 years who I've later been able to reach back out to for advice, introductions, or provide help etc. Not once did I build a lasting relationship with the intention of 'needing something'.
Be curious - Had it not been for the Wired article I was reading, the call to Matt, or taking the meeting with Bailey none of this would have happened.
Culture is everything - Consistently across this journey, the most compelling thing was not the product, job, or salary etc. It was the opportunity to work with great people the company had hired or, in GGVs case, also invested in.
I'm so excited to join such a spectacular team and can't wait to work with more of our founders over the coming years!