Work with hands-on VCs who can add real operational value

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Most of my work at OpenView consists of talking to entrepreneurs and assessing if our involvement would be helpful. As mentioned in the Wall St. Journal this week (see article here), we look to add operational value above and beyond the financial investment.

Part of why we do this is because we’re an extremely operational group. Sure, maintaining the overhead of a full-service team carries a financial cost, but we feel that, ultimately, this approach becomes very helpful in building great companies (and not ‘just’ investing money in them).

Being very operational helps in two ways: it helps us analyze investment opportunities more effectively and it also helps us empathize with what entrepreneurs are experiencing. For this month’s blog post, I wanted to share an operational experience from my college days:

In college, I was President of the European Student Association, an organization with over 600 members. During that time, it became clear that there needed to be a campus wide conference on European business. So, I set about to organize one. In short, this relatively ‘small’ undertaking ended up consuming my junior year.

First, I needed to put together a team. This was a bit of a challenge, as the European community was small and it was hard to find energetic, motivated people. By the time we finished recruiting, we had a team of about 12 — only half of whom were European! We established a great culture but we continually battled motivational issues… it’s hard to motivate busy students to work for free while taking precious time away from their studies.

The next thing we needed to build was the actual product. This was also not easy, as we didn’t have any previous experience, but we were able to leverage the University of Michigan brand and got a good cast of speakers.

After recruiting and product development, our next challenge was sales & marketing. We wanted to target both Europeans and non-Europeans. Frankly, this was an area that we could’ve used a lot of help in — we had no concept of market segmentation, positioning, a sales methodology, etc.

We spent a lot of time trying various approaches (handing out flyers, printing banners, etc.) without really understanding our customers or why they would want to attend our event. We had tons of fun but, admittedly, this was an area where we could’ve had more impact (I wish I could’ve called the OpenView team!).

The last part of the conference happened after the event itself. We wanted to build something that lasted and set about formalizing the organization and developing succession plans. After our second conference, I became a Chairman and Advisor and let someone else take the CEO reigns.

Looking back, the conference series was one of the most meaningful work experiences I’ve ever enjoyed. It did carry a cost: it knocked almost an entire grade-point off my GPA. But the experiences were extremely valuable, and I see many of these patterns repeating with entrepreneurs that I talk to.

So if you’re building a great technology company and could use some help, drop me a note! We can provide you some sales and marketing support and help take your company to the next level.