69. Building an Investor Brand, Part 1 (Jay Acunzo & John Gannon)

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Jay Acunzo of NextView Ventures & John Gannon of BEMAVEN join Nick to cover Building an Investor Brand, Part 1. We will address questions including:

  • Jay Acunzo building an investor brandJay, can you start us off by talking about why VCs and in some cases angels are attempting to build an investor brand?
  • John, what are some of the methods that you’ve seen investors use to create a brand?
  • Jay, we’ve heard a lot recently about the “platform” VC approach. Mark Suster recently wrote about Upfront’s plan for a platform strategy and the efforts of firms like Andreesen and First Round are well documented. Can you fill us in on what VC’s are doing w/ this platform approach?
  • John Gannon building an investor brandJohn, who are some of the long-standing players that have done an exceptional job creating an investor brand and why?
  • How about investors that have more recently created brands? Jay, can you talk about some that standout and what they’ve done?
  • John, Is there a way to identify up and coming investors and aligning yourself w/ them?
  • As discussed earlier, for me, my efforts have been a really significant time requirement.  Any thoughts on ways to manage the time committment?

Guest Links:

*Please excuse any errors in the below transcript

 Nick: The Full Ratchet. On today’s episode we’re talking about building authority, a brand, and differentiating as an investor. I’ve asked # Jay Acunzo of # NextView Ventures and # John Gannon of # BEMAVEN to join me. In today’s segment we address why VCs and Angels are attempting to build brands, some of the most common methods used to create a presence, the emergence of the “platform” VC, what it is and why it’s becoming a big thing, who are some of the long standing investors that have created exceptional brands, those that are newer to startup investing that are fast building strong authority, and finally ways to identify investors that are establishing strong brands and how to align or partner with them. And we’ll finish up by talking about the time commitment and challenging requirements of creating content and committing to building an investor brand. All that and more on today’s episode. Here it is on ‘Building an investor Brand’.

Nick: Today we welcome # Jay Acunzo and # John Gannon. # Jay is VP of Platform at # NextView Ventures and creator of # NextView’s excellent podcast, “Traction”. And # John is CEO of # BEMAVEN and maintains a great blog called “Yet Another ex- VC blog”. # Jay and # John, welcome to the program.

Jay: Thanks # Nick

John: Thank you so much for having me

Nick: In light of the topic, Jay, can you start us off by walking through your background and how you became involved in venture?

Jay: Yeah, absolutely. So I’ve been in the Boston Tech Community for my whole career. I started in digital media sales at # Google, and transitioned to a Series A startup from there. And most recently, before joining # NextView, I was head of content marketing at # HubSpot. So my entire career is mainly in sales and marketing. And # NextView hired me to do the lead Platform, which means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. At # NextView, since we’re a dedicated seed fund, it’s basically an extension of what our capital is for, which is obviously not for going public, it’s for gaining initial traction. So we offer a lot of resources, a lot of content. You mentioned the podcast, and a lot of internal initiatives for our portfolio. Most of our initiatives are publicly available on our website, but the ideal platform for us is basically how do we help startups gain initial traction.

Nick: So you moved straight from # HubSpot to # NextView?

Jay: Yeah, that’s right.

Nick: And how long ago was that? How long have you been at # NextView now?

Jay: It’s coming up on 2 years this spring.

Nick: Got it. And # John how did you first get involved in venture?

John: Sure. So after I graduated business school, which was in a way, I went into a venture firm here in New York City. And what happened next was nuclear winter, right. So the markets crashed and it was a really interesting time to, you know, start my career in the venture ecosystem. I definitely became very familiar with what a full ratchet was. But since then I’ve stayed in the venture community, like you mentioned I’m the founder of a seed stage startup called # BEMAVEN. And a lot of the work that I’m doing there is really informed by the blog, email list, etc, that I started while I was in venture that you had mentioned earlier.

Nick: Yeah. Everyone seems to have a reaction to this sensational title that I chose. So you worked in venture for what firm, # John?

John: It was a firm called # L Capital Partners, which like many firms of the day, didn’t quite make it through the end of that winter. So $150M fund, we did tech as well as health care and I was focused on tech.

Nick: Got it. So guys, today we’re talking authority and creating an investor brand. Jay, can you start us off by talking about why VCs, and in some cases angels, are attempting to build an investor brand?

Jay: Yeah. So I think brand is a funny term. It could be translated into a lot of different things, a lot of which might be a little fluffy to some people. But I think if you couch it as just somebody’s emotional reaction to your entity, that’s an important feature of being successful. So if you think about all the choice that entrepreneurs have today, more than ever, and, you know, they can raise, specially in the early stage like # NextView where NextView sets, you can raise through friends and family, angels, the cloud. You have a lot more micro VCs and seed VCs. There’s just more choice facing the entrepreneur more than ever. And I think this is something that’s happening to other sectors as well like software, where the customer has more control, more power than ever. And in this case, customer is the entrepreneur. Now all of a sudden you need to be differentiated, you can’t just exist if you’re a company. And so, in the investor world, all of a sudden you have VCs that are used to marketing just LPs having to better serve entrepreneurs. And unfortunately all the product is equally green, right. It’s money. So if you think about what VCs have started to do and did for decades, it was sell the partnership. Who are they, what’s their expertise, what’s their background, how can they add value and advice, etc. And I think the logical extension of that is to actually think about a brand holistically. And then all the pillars of that can be things like the partnership and what they care about and what they’re good at. Like a platform and the initiatives that you offer. So a brand to me is something that investors should have always been cultivating a little bit more strategically. A lot of time I think it just happened because of who they were. But now it’s actually a key differentiator in a lot of cases if you are in a competitive deal or you’re in a competitive market. And again, the whole trend of having more choice to fund your business and needing less capital to get out of the gate. I think this suscitates investors to build a brand that’s very focused on helping entrepreneurs.

Nick: I’m curious, I assume you could have gone in a lot of directions from # HubSpot. Why the venture industry? Why did you choose to execute the strategy on creating a brand and platform within VC?

Jay: Yes. So when # NextView had approached me, so I was looking for early stage startups. So i was like hitting my network trying to get back into the early stage world because # HubSpot, as great as the company is, was anything but at the time that I left. And so I was just networking around the Boston Tech world, a little bit New York. And a friend of mine that had founded a company that I worked for a while ago had mentioned # NextView was looking for this role. And what was appealing to me was there wasn’t much of a playbook that had been established across the venture industry to build a VC brand. And defining it as not just like the thought leadership idea but out helping the competition through any initiatives that we could concoct. And so when I talked to the # NextView guys, you know, to their credit they’d been building a successful seed fund in Boston and New York for about 5 years. They were entering their second fund when I joined. And they kind of handed me what was the partners baby at the time and said hey we have this brand, what do you make of it. And the chance to do that from scratch, I think to me as someone who’s been in content marketing for my whole career, was too good to pass up. Obviously there is the education that I’m getting and the network and all of that, but the idea that like there isn’t really like an industry playbook to do this kind of brand building was really exciting. Whereas if I’m a SaaS business, there is a lot more methodology and a lot more process behind it and you can kind of like plug and play a lot of different tactics across SaaS businesses. In VC you have a couple of early movers in this idea of platform and this idea of brand building with a, you know, an eye to helping entrepreneurs, but it’s pretty open. And that was, you know, it was almost 2 years ago, and I had a couple conversations with peers, and that was it. That’s all the, the kind of peer set that I had. Fast forward to today and it seems like every single week I have a conversation with somebody who’s a VP of insert marketing title here who just joined a VC firm. So it’s definitely becoming a trend. And for me it’s fun, it’s like not only have I built it from scratch at # NextView but like now I continue to try to stay ahead of this trend.

Nick: Yeah. I’ve seen quite a bit of it myself. So # John, what are some of the methods that you’ve seen investors use to create a brand?

John: Yeah. I wanted to fall on to one of # Jay’s points, which is that you know, even thought there’s this trend that is now happening where firms are sort of building a brand, it’s still I think day one for this stuff. And the reason I think that is because, you know, a lot of people when they think about VC brand traditionally, and there’s a change in it, but they’ve thought about that blog in VC, right, like # Fred Wilson or # Mark Suster. But there’s some more recent examples of folks who haven’t really done blogging in the traditional sense or haven’t blogged at all and they’ve been able to carve out a really nice niche and brand for themselves. So examples are guys like # Jonathan Lehr. He started the # New York Enterprise Tech Meetup from scratch, ran it for a couple of years when he was working at # Morgan Stanley, and now he’s venture investing in later stage deals at # Work-Bench here in the city. And he’s really kind of become known as one of the main enterprise investors in NYC because he started that Meetup and has run it for the last 2+ years. There is # David Skok at # Matrix. I think he doesn’t get as much sort of press as some of the more famous VC bloggers, the Jason Lemkins or Fred Wilsons. But he took a different approach in that he built just this exhaustive set of resources about SaaS, Go-to-market, and some of the metrics around SaaS. Recently did another whole playbook around hiring, so not blogging every day but really building a resource that would stand on its own and be helpful to entrepreneurs in many years down the road. And then, you know, the third person I mentioned, there’s a guy named # Patrick Mathieson at # Toba Capital, San Francisco. He basically went on # Quora for the last year and change and has just started answering a ton of VC related questions. And you’ll see now # Quora has flagged him as one of the top venture capital question answerers, right. And if you’re a member or if you know # Jason Lemkin, you know, that’s kind of how he got his start. He went on # Quora and just started answering every SaaS question he could find. And, you know, we all know where that went.

Nick: So # Jay, you just recently touched on this, but we’ve heard a lot recently about this platform VC approach. And # Mark Suster recently wrote about this as well with upfronts planned for a platform strategy. We’ve also heard the efforts of firms like # Andreesson, # First Round, they’ve been executing these platform strategies, some in the public way and some in a more private fashion for a number of years. Can you fill us in on what VCs are doing with this platform approach?

Jay: Sure. I think it actually falls into you could size it too as, you could size it in terms of the tactics that they use to execute. And then you could size it in terms of like the authenticity. And so let me start with the latter. So the authenticity is unless you have your head in the sand, if you work in the startup world you kind of understand that VCs are fast followers, right. And I’ve had VCs in the ——- 10:58 it’s not too surprising for people to hear. Like VC are fast followers. Entrepreneurs move downtown in Boston, VCs follow. The other VCs that are leading in the industry start to blog, other VCs follow. So unfortunately you have these like early adopters and they were doing it out of an authentic desire to differentiate and help entrepreneurs. Now you have people, and I’ve heard people literally say this from different partnerships, that they’re hiring VPs of Marketing or Platform and they don’t really know what to do with them. And that’s just going to make more noise and confuse entrepreneurs and like that is no way to build a brand. So the authentic way to do it is to have a unique stance or find some white space to own, I mean this is marketing 101 but it’s a new gene, a new muscle, for a lot of VCs. And just own it outright. So if you think of # Andreesson, they’re going to be the best at software services, right. And I mean that by like service teams for software companies. If you think of # First Round, they’re going to have this like great community with a brand that feels very start-up-ey. Hopefully if you think of # NextView you think of Traction and that zero to one problem set both in customer acquisition and every other topic. And that’s what our # NorthStar is. # OpenView Ventures with no relation to # NextView, but they’re also in Boston. You know, they are a really great at B2B SaaS growth stage. So it’s about like finding this white space that you can own, have a unique view point on, add unique value to and then just out help the competition. That’s the way to do it I think. Unfortunately, I think you have a lot of people that see the great work of # Fred Wilson and # Mark Suster, you know, or # Brad Feld, and they want to blog like them. Those three already exist, right. So do something different that’s unique. # John just mentioned all these great partners who have some sort of unique stance, you know, # Jason Lemkin with SaaS for example. And so, I think the best thing that VCs can do with this platform approach, forgetting the tactics, forgetting what they do to actually execute, think about why they exist. And that is a new question for a lot of VCs to ask, what do we exist? Because forever it was I’m a successful entrepreneur, I want to go raise a fund, I want to become a VC because I like the lifestyle, I like this industry, I want to help entrepreneurs. But not every VC can own the idea of entrepreneurship or startups very generally. So it’s about like finding that definitional tilt to what you’re trying to offer to how you’re trying to add value to the community, that’s the best place to start. The tactics can follow, right. Whether it’s events or blogging or just ad hoc advice or services team, all of that comes a lot more easily if you can just define why the hell do we exist in the minds of the people that we serve.

Nick: Right. A lot of folks will ask me why I host the podcast on this, and even beyond the fact that I want to connect with subject matter experts in every specific topic and have more of a conversational information source. You know, the podcasting medium was completely green. Audio was completely green. There was over 550 VC bloggers out there that were writing but nobody was doing audio. So I figured, you know, I could be the only game in town and if I was providing value then I could carve out something unique.

Jay: Yeah, exactly, right. And I think that the best approach to see if the VC is doing it in an authentic way is kind of white label whatever you’re consuming or interacting with from that firm. This is true of any brand. White label what you’re interacting with and you still tell it to them. So if you were to like white label, for example, the # First Round review or the # NextView ventures blog, you could probably still tell that it’s either of those firms, right. # First Round’s going to have a very essay long form piece from an individual from a reputable startup that’s later stage. You know, our blog is going to be very tactical, very helpful, very focused on again that zero to one idea or traction. And with you, for example, you can you know just understand hey it’s audio and it’s a certain tilt on audio. So when we started our podcast, it wasn’t white space, you know, there were a lot of VC podcasts. So we had to take a firm angle, it’s going to be called Traction, we’re going to do a narrative style show, we’re going to do a lot of post production and we’re going to focus it like a story instead of a talking head show. And to me that felt like unique white space to own outright. And I think that’s how an entrepreneur kind of like, the noise is you know is the unique value. If you line up all the steps that it takes for me to overcome a challenge as an entrepreneur. Is that VC going to help me move through those steps quicker or actually remove the step through whatever initiative it is? Because again, the danger in all this is it’s just creating more noise in the world if done as like a follower approach instead of an innovator approach.

Nick: Yep. Couldn’t agree more. For the audience, the Traction podcast that # Jay hosts is incredibly professional and innovative. I’ve learned quite a bit from listening to that show. So if you haven’t checked it out yet then I’d encourage you to do so.

Jay: Thank you so much

Nick: Yeah, absolutely, well thanks for doing that. I can’t imagine the amount of work you put in because I know I put a ton of work into mine. I sort of append a blog post on the end of each show that I call it Tip of the week. And that alone takes a lot of work. But the editing is a big workload too. So I could expect that yours is probably 10x of what I am doing.

Jay: Yeah, yeah , it’s a lot of work but that’s what makes it worth it, right. It’s like doing the hard thing is what makes it worth doing.

Nick: Right. So moving back to # John. # John you touched on some of the long standing players before. Are there any other people in the VC investor brand space that you think are doing an exceptional job with creating a brand? And who are those and why do you think they’re exceptional?

John: Yeah. I think the long standing folks are the obvious ones which I mentioned a couple and he mentioned a few as well, right. So you know, # Fred Wilson, # Brad Feld, # Mark Suster, # Jason Calacanis, right, more from an angel perspective has done a great job. And I think what you’re seeing like in terms of how this is evolving is not # Fred or # Brad, but if you look at # Mark and # Jason Calacanis and # Jason Lemkin, they’re kind of becoming media companies, right. So they’ve all got their own podcast, you know, they’re doing events. # Jason Lemkin obviously has turned SaaS to into basically a media company, right, which ultimately is going to drive him the best SaaS deal flow. So I think that’s the, that’s the trend that sort of when you get to the pro level. But, you know, I think there’s still a lot of opportunity for other investors to build brands that matter, even if they’re not at that scale.

Nick: Yeah. If we transition to the up and comers. Let’s talk about some investors that have recently created some brands. Jay can you talk about some that stand out and what they’ve done?

Jay: Sure. I mean, the first one that comes to mind is, actually there’s two of them that are kind of right in my back yard here in Boston. Now they’re not necessarily newcomers to the venture world. They are longer standing firms. But this idea of platform and consensus strategic brand building I think is relatively new in the long arc of, of the venture world. And the two are # Accomplice, which actually used to be known as # Atlas, and they actually broke into their biotech arm and their consumer B2B tech arm. So the latter is now called # Accomplice. The Director of Community there is a woman named # Sarah Downy. And she’s an excellent former operator. They are really great at building a brand through these large community groups. You know there’s one they have, it’s actually a co-working space here in Boston, and they do a lot with # AngelList and using local entrepreneurs to, you know, harness kind of the power of both the cloud and the crowd. So they have these like big meeting communities or initiatives that they can like put together and call it their platform. So # Accomplice is really great. # OpenView is a later stage fund, that I mentioned already, here in Boston. They’ve always done a lot with content and blogging. And I think now you’re seeing them kind of smooth out the edges and actually be very strategic and very focused, which I think is going to help them win. So they’re focused on B2B SaaS in the growth stages. And so their content is starting to reflect that. They brought on # Kyle Lacy, who was the VP of Marketing over at # ExactTarget, # Salesforce, and recently promoted # Devon McDonald to a Partner and she runs # OpenView labs. So they’re doing a lot with like team, content, and they do a lot of like one-to-one services. And, you know, I think that they’re two that stand out because they’re right in our back yard. Down in New York and actually split across New York, Boston and the Valley, would be # Spark Capital. I love the work that # Danya Cheskis-Gold is doing. Again, she’s really strong, they’re really strong with community building, with helping you understand service providers, all sorts of things like that. And again, I just mentioned three very different flavors, and I think they can all co-exist with each other, you know, with # NextView because the four of us were all carving out these like little areas to own that are different and differentiated. And I think that’s again a sign that hopefully we’re in that crowd with # NextView but certainly the three I mentioned are doing this platform idea are doing this brand building idea well.

Nick: Yeah. We just recently had # Andrew Parker of # Spark n the program. And one of my favorite things about his blog is he publishes his thesis on every investment. Despite all the bloggers out there, there are very few that are so transparent.

Jay: That’s great, yeah.

Nick: So, going back to # John, is there a way to identify up and coming investors and aligning yourself with them?

John: Yeah, definitely. So, and just to, to put a final point on it to, you know, there’s a big opportunity for up and coming investors to identify. It could be other VC bloggers, it could be other VCs who are running events, but folks who are trying to create something and build something new. And then basically try to either help them directly or add to the conversation. So a really specific example would be when I was in venture, this is back in 08-09, # Mark Suster had just started blogging, right. And I read his stuff, I saw he was publishing almost every day, it was good stuff. And, you know, now he posts something you could share it thousands of times and it get 200 comments, right. But back then, # Mark was maybe getting a couple of comments, if that, on his posts because he was brand new to the game. So there’s definitely an opportunity there to contribute to that conversation with some of these up and coming folks who are starting to build those brands and clearly are putting in the effort and time but aren’t necessarily to be, you know, # Fred Wilson, # Brad Feld, etc level. So I think there’s definitely an element there if you do it authentically and the people you are trying to contribute to the conversation with are people that you would want to work with or believe in their investment thesis, things like this.

Nick: Yeah. As discussed earlier, for me my efforts have been a really significant time commitment. Do you have any thoughts on ways to better manage the time commitment?

John: Yeah. I think that, and this is one of the things that I do for my, my ex-VC blog that you mentioned where I aggregate all the venture capital job postings that I can find, I run an email list that’s focused on venture capital job seekers if you associate at an analyst level. You know, initially when I started that, that was back in 08-09 when I was working in venture and I’ve continued ever since. And once I established that or resource of kind of being known as the place to find out about the latest associate and analyst jobs, I’ve been able to actually automate the upkeep of those job postings. In my case through using a combination of Evernote and a virtual system to keep those postings up to date and fresh, and you know really being very much hands off for me in terms of getting that new content out there. So there’s kind of a steam around productization. You know # Jay’s done it at # NextView with their pitch decks. You know, there’s a lot of examples of folks who were really productizing that expertise to help them build a brand as an investor. So once you have the one of the product and you see it gets traction, then that upkeep can actually be done in a very lightweight way through virtual assistants or you could delegate it to an intern or things like this. People think this stuff is a lot of work and it is, but as you get some scale and you get some experience under your belt to layer on additional things, it’s not as much work as you would think.

Jay: There’s also I want to just add to that, # John, because I think it’s a good point. There is this like mythology around the early movers and platform or whatever you want to call this idea of adding value in a systematic way from a VC that like you need a team, you need a staff, you know, — 23:17 the management structure and fees etc. I’m a one band band at # NextView and, you know, I just love the work I do. And they were able to play into that when we talked about it, you know, by kind of giving me a fair share of the autonomy at the firm, the credibility that, you know, I could actually have a fine line, it doesn’t have to be all for the partnership. So I think a lot of firms that are hesitant to move on this where they’re trying to hire, where I see them trip up. And when I talk to my peer set, a lot of times it’s because the partnership is too involved. And that’s tricky to step back because you really have to trust the person you’re bringing on and do some on boarding and, you know, make sure they’re getting immersed in the firms ethos and the thesis and all that. But where I see brands or firms that are trying to build a brand waste a lot of time and spend unnecessary effort on this stuff, it’s because they just can’t get out of their own way. You know, the partners are very smart, they’re very driven, and so they end up like putting their hands all over everything that the person they’ve brought on to do that stuff is trying to get done. That’s one very like problematic vein 24:21 that I’ve seen where people spend a lot of undue time on this brand building stuff. It’s because they’re just like re-grabbing their wheels unnecessarily. And the second problem I see a lot is people will build something whether it’s the pitch deck template that you mentioned # John or something else, and they’ll count it as a win because of the reaction it gets. And then they’ll do something completely unrelated next. I like to say in content marketing for any kind of company, whether it’s a VC firm or another type, if something works, don’t do more like it, do more with it, right. You can get a lot of mileage out of one idea that sticks by putting it on other channels. You know, we do a lot with Slide Share, that’s an outcropping of our blog. If something works on our blog, I want to turn it into a slideshare, and it actually lands up like 5x the views. And I have a template that I use to do that. So there’s all these ways to like take an idea that works and lean into it and actually get more mileage out of it. And I think in doing so, it’s not automation but it definitely helps you get more mileage out of a single idea that the entrepreneurial community is basically signaling that they like and want more of.

John: And there’s also a double dip element too, so you know, not only is the, the # NextView set of pitch decks, right, you know, a great resource, I personally use them. But because they’ve been so successful, Jay could then follow up with another piece of content or another series that’s focused on how that thing was built, right. And there is a certain element of content marketing where if you get some kind of a big success or a big failure, to actually unbox that and talk about that, talk about how you built it, what you did right, what you did wrong, what you’d do differently next time. That’s another way to get even more mileage out of a theme that you already know is resonating with your target audience.

Jay: Right. And it’s such an unfair advantage that a lot of firms have when they can access an expert that a lot of people want to hear from, because they can. But they tend to do one initiative with that person and then let it die. But I think, you know, one example is we did an initiative around hiring technical talent and how to hire like and/or understand and/or beat # Google. And we had a # Google engineer come in and present the entire hiring process to a small group of people that was like kind of invite only. But I also did an interview with this person that turned into an essay on our blog. Longer term, you know, I could create a bigger resource which could look like a template that you carry with you in your interview process. I could blog about the same idea of interviewing for technical talent and just talk to various different people or do a reflection on what I learned from this one engineer. There’s a lot of ways, you know, like you’re saying, I can kind of like dig into that idea in a number of ways. Whether telling you how I did it or just actually taking tangents off of it or literally taking the same information and putting it through a new medium. And I think that’s something I don’t see as much in the venture world, when people are building their brands, as I see in say, you know, the software world or a product or service driven business where they’re getting really good at that because of how hyperactive and cross channel everybody is now. They’re really good at playing into that. And VCs can save a lot of time and be more effective if they did as well.

Nick: Yeah. Couldn’t agree more. If I could add myself, you can take analogous things that people are doing in other industries and try and apply them with what you’re doing. If there is an approach to blogging that people are doing in a different industry that’s unique, you could apply it to whatever industry you’re in if it’s a good fit, and if you can provide unique value in that context.

Jay: Yeah. Absolutely. And harnessing like the network that VCs have which is such an unfair advantage compared to other industries, right, because it’s so important that a VC have a great network, either locally or in a given sector. So, you know, # NextView built The Hitchhikers Guide To Boston Tech, which was this front door micro site to anything you need, whether you’re new or a veteran in Boston Tech. And we had all this knowledge and we just used a lot of networks connections to understand like what community group should we list and, you know, what events were happening and things like that. And so we were able to shortcut some of the hard work there by relying on our network. And then obviously that network would then in turn help us promote the initiative. So there’s all these things that VCs can be thinking about in a new way that’s just so unfair compared to what I saw, you know, marketing software for example.