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Are Newly Formed Roles In VC Firms Differentiators, Table Stakes Or Total BS?

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Editor’s note: Jay Acunzo is the director of platform at seed-stage VC NextView Ventures and the founder of The Daily Content, a newsletter for marketers.

In the venture capital world, we’re about to experience an explosion of hiring around one very specific function. These people won’t invest in startups, nor will they analyze companies. They won’t help operate the management company, nor will they focus on LPs. They won’t be EIRs or in-house recruiters or PR consultants or pretty much anything you’re accustomed to seeing.

If you’re lost, you’re not alone. The function is called “platform,” and as someone who’s held the job of VC platform director for the last year, I can safely admit that nobody knows what the heck my title means. But if a recent trend continues, you’re about to hear it much more often, because almost overnight, investors are rushing to hire this role.

So what is platform, exactly? Essentially, it’s a collection of business development and educational resources meant to support the portfolio in a scalable way. Rather than consulting services offered one-on-one like Google Ventures’ design sprints or various firms’ in-house recruiters, platform sits across an entire portfolio and/or startup community.

In March 2014, I became Boston’s first-ever director of platform at a VC firm when seed-stage specialist NextView Ventures hired me following my time at Google and HubSpot. Over the past year, I’ve been tasked with identifying needs or pain points that permeate our portfolio or the broader startup communities of Boston and New York, then determining the right way to package and deliver a solution.

To give you an idea, past projects have included launching a blog entirely focused on seed-stage startups, creating templates to help founders build better board decks, building the massive Hitchhiker’s Guide to Boston Tech, and testing new ways of sourcing top talent that could eventually become a proprietary app.

Several other top VCs also offer platforms. Platform pioneer First Round Capital offers a full team behind its many initiatives; True Ventures shifted a VP from sourcing deals to creating various projects, like founder dinners and their undergrad program; Spark Capital staffs one of my favorite platform directors on a full-time basis for their events and other projects; and Bowery Capital has recently asked one of their associates to work on platform part-time. And Founder Collective recently hired a journalist to help with PR, while Atlas Venture brought on a former startup marketer to help them rebrand and create new projects.

Almost instantly, I find myself among a growing group of peers. After months of feeling isolated, my calendar is now dotted with meetings to share notes with newly minted directors of platform across Boston and beyond.

So why is this happening? And more importantly, if the trend continues, how do we ensure this actually helps entrepreneurs? The answers all depend on how much VCs are willing to admit one problem: We all sell the same product.

As a VC, you don’t want your platform to sound like every other competitor firm plus every incubator, accelerator, community group and graduate program in your city.

In my past roles in media and marketing, we relied on the “white space” in an industry to own something outright and ultimately build or market a product more successfully. But in VC, as one founder told me, everyone’s money is just as green. The best way I can describe the challenges facing all platform directors is that we each run a bakery on a street full of bakeries that all sell one thing: plain bagels. There are only so many ways to make a plain bagel sound different from another plain bagel.

Now, if I owned the only bakery on the street, this wouldn’t be a problem. But as I said, I’m steadily surrounded by dozens of competing bakeries all offering the same product. To make things even harder, there are now emerging bakeries operating solely in the cloud (AngelList) or by harnessing the power of the crowd (Kickstarter).

So how do you actually differentiate when everyone sells plain bagels? Sell something else, of course. Sell the partnership’s personal brands, the portfolio’s network effect, the firm’s history of success or maybe a collection of supremely helpful resources, i.e. a platform.

Look across a handful of VC websites and you’ll see the early attempts to differentiate pre-platform. Phrases like “founder-friendly,” “former entrepreneurs” and “value-add” started appearing years ago. But today, they’re so ubiquitous, they’ve lost all meaning. They all might be completely true for a given firm, but my point is that none of it sounds particularly unique. So we’re back to our plain bagels. Platform has a real chance at changing that, if executed correctly.

A firm wishing to do so needs to make one very critical decision either right before or immediately after hiring a director of platform: Pick a focus.

In the last three months, every frustrated director I’ve met with (and there have been multiple) had the same complaint about a lack of focus confusing their work and yielding generic-sounding, ineffective projects. These platforms attempt to sit over the entire notion of “startups” overall. That’s not white space — that’s saturated, crowded space.

As a VC, you don’t want your platform to sound like every other competitor firm plus every incubator, accelerator, community group and graduate program in your city. But things like ego, scope creep, well-intentioned aspirations, and unclear success metrics all prevent many directors from doing their best work.

Firms with broader investment strategies should pick another focus area to ensure platform success, whether by owning a tactic (e.g. workshops, video, etc.), a business function (e.g. recruiting, design) or a sector (B2B SaaS). Even if a firm invests outside that industry, it’s still a better approach to be truly meaningful to one audience than mostly forgettable to many.

Ultimately, if there’s one thing I’ve learned this past year, it’s that platform only works when you’re known for something. So, to VCs and their new platform hires, pick your something and own it outright. If you don’t, then you’d better get some extra sleep. Bakeries open pretty early.

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