VCs have long thrown events for portfolio startups to share knowledge, and learn from each other and from previous successful entrepreneurs. Last year’s Kleiner Perkins CEO Summit featured fireside chats with Bill Gates, Colin Powell and Al Gore. Google Ventures CEO Summit last year included Sergey Brin and Ron Conway, among others. And most other firms hold similar CEO and founder summits for their portfolios.
But we’re starting to see a new trend on Sand Hill Road when it comes to events. VC firms are starting to hold curated, topic-based events that include a broader swath of the entrepreneurial community, including non-portfolio companies and founders.
Google Ventures and Greylock recently co-sponsored a Product Manager Meetup at Google’s San Francisco office, hosted by GV partner Ken Norton and Greylock partner Josh Elman. Of the 200 or so product managers who attended, 41 percent were from the Google Ventures portfolio, 38 percent were from the Greylock portfolio, and 20 percent came from outside the portfolio. The event itself was created to help attendees learn from some of the leading product minds in consumer tech including Craig Walker (Firespotter), Johanna Wright (Google), Adam Nash (Wealthfront), and Peter Deng (Instagram/Facebook).
Kleiner Perkins held an event called 12-200 for a number of both portfolio and non-portfolio founders with startup whisperer and Intuit chairman Bill Campbell. The series was started as a way to focus on issues and challenges that entrepreneurs have when their company is at the stage of 12 to 200 people. Additionally, in a few weeks, the firm will be holding a panel addressing technology and engineering needs for portfolio startups and outside founders and entrepreneurs with partner Michael Abbott, Nest founder Matt Rogers, Flipboard CTO Eric Feng and a few others.
Events are a way to expand a firm’s network and meet interesting startups and entrepreneurs at an early stage.
With the launch of its new content site Grove, Sequoia Capital announced its new event series “drinkups,” which features a discussion between a Sequoia partner and portfolio founder. The first one, which was sold out, included Roelof Botha and Evernote’s Phil Libin talking about how to price a product. The events themselves are open to non-portfolio startups and founders, but like the Kleiner, Greylock and GV events, these drinkups are a curated, handpicked group of potential and current entrepreneurs.
This year, First Round Capital is hosting a quarterly event around the power of design for startups and entrepreneurship that included Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia, and others.
In some cases, VCs are curating these open events around specific business sectors. Greylock is hosting its first conference devoted to marketplaces, called Greymarket, which is an invite-only event that is open to companies and entrepreneurs outside the Greylock portfolio. Greylock partner Reid Hoffman is speaking as well as Airbnb CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky and eBay CEO John Donahoe.
So why are VCs ramping up events? Deal flow is an obvious benefit. The good VCs understand that they can no longer sit on Sand Hill Road, and wait for deals to come to them. Hosting well-curated events is a smart way to meet lots of potential investments at once.
But they key benefit to events isn’t building out a new portfolio, but strengthening the existing portfolio of companies (which, in turn, leads to better deal flow). Founders are constantly searching for information and therapy from their peers, and a nicely designed event can be an efficient way to quench both needs at scale. Rather than relying on a VC partner to cross-pollinate the portfolio (“oh, you should totally meet the team at…”), a good event gets the right people in a room, with the right context, and lets the dots connect themselves.
Founders won’t just get access to other founders, but to talent, which is becoming a precious and rare resource for startups. Hosting these events, especially for engineers, product and design talent, is a smart way for VC firms to expand their pool of potential candidates for recruiting for their own portfolios. This year, Sequoia held two events for students from East Coast colleges at Princeton University and in New York City. Students had to apply to attend the conference and were able to see talks from Dropbox’s Drew Houston, Sequoia Partner Bryan Schreier and others. In turn, portfolio startups were able to screen the student attendees during the conference for full-time positions and/or internships.
In some cases, VCs are choosing to host events around topics that are outside Silicon Valley or around subjects that are picking up steam as new areas of innovation. In May, Andreessen Horowitz held an invite-only, curated event in Washington, D.C., that brought together government leaders and Silicon Valley founders to discuss and learn more about the technologies that could change the way government works. In September, A16Z hosted an “academic roundtable” to bring together investors, researchers and entrepreneurs to talk about the best ways to collaborate on new technologies like robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence.
All of the events mentioned above have a common thread — they are all curated. These events aren’t open to anyone, and it’s unlikely that the firms will make these events free for all. The theory is that the value of an event is inversely proportional to the size of the audience. While a large event might lend itself better to more business cards in your pocket, a more intimate context gives the two nodes time and space to draw a deeper connection. As far as the guest list goes, most of these events will be oversubscribed, and the challenge will be to bring together the right people in a way that feels fresh and valuable.
The key to making good wine is selecting the right grapes. The quality of these events will ultimately be judged by the people that attend.