The Tricks to Building and Engaging Your VC Firm’s Community
This article is part of a series of posts for venture capital platform leaders and investors introducing strategic frameworks to more effectively design a VC firm’s platform strategy.
In previous posts, I have discussed the role of community for venture firms, and how funds can focus and prioritize their community based on their unique attributes. While those are vital building blocks to a great VC community strategy, without an intentionally designed and integrated plan for community engagement, most firms will fail to realize the true power of community as it relates to long-term fund objectives.
Generally, there are four components required to building and engaging a fund’s community. This includes the underlying systems and tools to track, monitor, and manage the community, as well as more bespoke areas of synchronous and asynchronous community activation. Focusing on all four of these components together is vital to ensuring a comprehensive and effective community strategy.
The Four Components of Community Engagement
- Systems and tools: To effectively build, manage, and track your community, firms will typically utilize a comprehensive CRM to track and query their knowledge on community members (notes, engagement history) with integrated tools to automate engagements and monitor the health of relationships.
- Content and communication: Strong content and regular communication with a firm’s community is a critical way to keep the community engaged. Content provides a scalable way to reach out to the community and keep them informed and connected with the firm’s activities.
- One-on-one engagements: While a firm cannot realistically meet individually with each member of their community regularly, they can use tools to monitor relationship health. This can help them track and prioritize engagements with the most valuable members of the firm’s community to sustain strong relationships.
- Events: Events tend to be the most memorable and scalable ways to engage a firm’s community in unique and intimate ways, providing opportunities to strengthen relationships with community members. Events can range from small dinners, peer roundtables, and cocktail parties to large scale conferences, webinars, and retreats.
Integrated Approach to Community Building
While each of these four areas of community building and community engagement are important independently, without an operational approach that integrates them together, a firm faces the risk of running a lot of different activities that do not ultimately result in an active and thriving community. For example, if a fund hosts a monthly happy hour that dozens of great people attend, that is a great example of a community event. However, if the firm does not have the tools to track, monitor, and record information about each attendee, an active strategy around ongoing communication and content for attendees, and a plan to strategically identify specific individuals for further one-on-one engagements, then the fund is not going to be able to activate the full potential of the budding community that their happy hours could ignite.
With this paradigm of thinking, firms need to acknowledge that they cannot solely focus on publishing a single blog post or hosting a one-off event with the hope of seeing those efforts contribute to an active community. Instead, VC firms must look at each community building initiative as part of a broader and integrated strategy, where an actual event, meeting, blog post, or newsletter is just a small part of a comprehensive plan.
Oftentimes, firms will build these integrated engagement strategies around a specific investment thesis that they want to focus on, or around a specific talent category such as a functional executive role that is critical for their portfolio companies. Establishing a focus like this will help guide a more holistic, and often more purposeful and strategic community strategy.
To illustrate, let us say a firm wants to develop a community focused around their investment interest in enterprise security technology. The firm will be able to set their goals upfront, such as building stronger relationships with industry experts that the firm could get involved with deal diligence, entrepreneurs that the firm could want to invest in, go-to-market executives in the industry that could be recruited into a portfolio company, and decision makers at Fortune 500s that could use or buy these solutions.
Now, building a community like this, especially with members representing a handful of different sub-communities, is not done overnight. It takes time to identify and eventually build the right relationships with the ideal community members in a way that is genuine. It will usually take dozens of different touchpoints and engagements with a specific individual before they will be a core and contributing member of a specific firm’s community. This is why it is so important to realize that no community-focused engagement is a one-off, but rather these are the building blocks of long-term relationships. Each engagement must be intentionally designed to encourage community members to become more closely affiliated with the firm, ultimately with the goal of getting each person to matriculate from being a part of a firm’s ecosystem to a core member of the firm’s community (a concept I talk about here).
In other words, someone is not a member of a firm’s community simply because they attend a firm’s quarterly dinner or introduce an investment to the firm every so often. To have a truly healthy and engaged community, you need the activities and systems in place to ensure that each community member regularly knows that they are a critical part of the community.
While the strategies to accomplish this vary, some examples of this are: sending your community members monthly personalized emails on new firm investments, targeted one-off invitations to help diligence a deal, annual happy birthday email, handwritten Christmas cards in the mail, the occasional swag package, periodic coffees with the investment team, and (of course) the regular firm event or dinner invitation. As you see, these examples intentionally span across each of the four components of community engagement.
One further strategy that some firms prioritize in building their communities is finding opportunities and tools that foster connectivity between community members directly, removing the firm as the centralized facilitator of community. While this can often happen organically at events, many firms have found other tactics to enable this serendipity and inter-community connectivity to enable outsized community growth and impact. For example, Foundry Group has made the concept of developing a mesh network foundational to their community building strategy in order to enable exponential-like growth of their network.
Whatever specific strategies a firm ultimately focuses on, the process of strengthening relationships and growing a firm’s community is ultimately enabled through having a comprehensive set of technology tools and systems to track and support the growth of the community.
The question of what the best tools for building, tracking, and managing a community is always of interest; in fact it’s one of the most common topics brought up in the VC Platform Community forum. There really is no perfect set of tools, as every firm should select the platforms that work best to enable their unique community strategy. At a high-level, I find that most firms will want a set of tools that includes: a robust CRM (Affinity, Salesforce, Pipedrive, and homemade solutions on Airtable are all popular), easy-to-use communication tools (such as YAMM for mass email, Mailchimp for newsletter, and TextMagic for SMS), a customizable event management platform (Splash, Tame, Tito and Eventbrite are all widely used), and an automation tool to connect everything together (I recommend Zapier).
If you’re interested in going deeper on the hundreds of tools out there, take a look at this recently article with 250+ tools within the “VC Tech Stack” by Francesco Corea (Balderton) and this article which highlights nearly 200 “Community Tools” by Mac Reddin (Commsor).
Obviously, these tools just scratch the surface, with bespoke tools that help firms with everything from managing their talent network to automating contact enrichment and so much more. Whatever tools a firm ultimately selects, what is important is that they are all integrated to provide a real-time picture of the firm’s community, all feeding into a comprehensive and well maintained CRM that the firm can use to monitor and track their community holistically.
With this data, one strategy firms can use is a metric I call a Community Member Health Score to provide a “grade” (say A, B, C, D) for each member based on their level of community engagement. This score is calculated based on the events a community member has attended, what investment opportunities they have introduced to the firm, what deals they have been involved in diligence for, what portfolio companies they have advised, and so on. With a grading system like this, firms not only know who their most engaged and valuable community members are, but they can also automatically have community members flagged if they are not as actively engaged as they would like them to be.
What this results in is building deep and genuine relationships across a community at scale. It provides firms with the ability to know who each member of their community is, how they have engaged with the firm historically, and what the right future points of engagement are. As specific opportunities for portfolio-level engagement come up, such as an open executive role at a company, or a need for help diligencing a deal, the firm can use the data they have captured while building their community to find the right people to engage in these bespoke ways. With the right level of customization, most of this can even be automated and integrated with the existing infrastructure and tools that a firm’s investment team uses.
This integrated approach expands the scope of how a venture firm can build and engage a community. It ensures that community building is not only focused on developing genuine relationships with community members, but also on ensuring that these relationships are built in meaningful and strategic ways. Furthermore, by having an integrated approach, and the underlying tools and monitoring in place, a firm’s community relationships are no longer siloed based on individual context. Instead, firms can more effectively build relationships with their community across the entire firm, with a much broader set of engagement methods.
Ultimately, this enables firms to build stronger and more engaged communities. The potential results of these efforts are far reaching, and ultimately will support firms long term as they make new investments and work with their portfolio by having a deeply engaged and tightly affiliated community of people excited to engage and support the firm’s activities.